Just those words – what do they make you think of?
Is it Bourbon Street and women flashing their breasts and beads? Is it Mardi Gras and Carnival? Is it Katrina? Or is it crime and a high murder rate? A ‘chocolate city’ as its mayor Ray Nagin called it perhaps?
Well sure it’s all those things but they are such a small part of it just like in any city in the world. Everyone has their crime and everyone has their parties. Don’t point a finger at New Orleans and call it a city full of sin because it isn’t. It’s just a city. A city perched on the edge of being washed away. A city that is considered a ‘bowl’ because of the levees that keep the waters out (mostly – let’s not talk about Katrina just yet). It is a city that made the list of ‘things you should see before they are gone’ because there’s a chance that one day the water will take over and that will be it for New Orleans.
Anyway – I digress.
New Orleans. Many have tried to put words to what this city is – what attracts people – what keeps them there. I have no illusions that I’ll be able to best Tennyson or anyone else. But I’m going to try to say what I love about it.
It has an ambience and mystery all of its own. Its myriad architectures strewn about the city are so diverse they take your breath away. There’s the river – The Mighty Mississippi that flows constantly through the city and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Then there are the swamps and the canals and the bayous - the alligator sausage and the Cajun cooking. The cypress trees covered in Spanish moss and let’s not forget the people. The people who have endured and fought the hurricanes and floods and come back and survived. The people who love New Orleans with every breath they take.
How I long to be one of them. How I long to live there.
But more on that later.
Let’s talk about the French Quarter. A place that is so unique in its visage as well as in its history. Built on the highest point as instructed by the Indians, the French Quarter has endured hurricanes and floods. Burned to the ground a couple of times but rebuilt over and again by people who refused to walk away – who couldn’t walk away because they loved it so much. A place where the buildings are famous for more than just their beautiful lacy iron balconies and galleries. The place where every building is haunted - so we are told. How could you not love it? How could you not be drawn to it like a magnet?
When we visited New Orleans in 2006 – a little more than a year after Katrina ripped through the city – we tried to pack as much into 4 days that we could. We walked Bourbon Street and marveled at the bars and the antics of the people on the street and up on the balconies. Not being big drinkers we didn’t perch on a stool and swill back a Hurricane and stagger out into the street to embarrass ourselves. However we did goggle at what was to be found in the Voodoo shops and in the sex shops as well. Some things are just a must see…. and Bourbon Street is a must-see – once.
For us it was the art galleries and antique shops that drew our admiration and attention. We walked as many streets as we could gazing into windows and fingering displays. In 2006 the people of New Orleans were grateful for business – happy to have tourists back in their city supporting them – bringing in revenue. Because of the wonderful people who live in this city we promised we would return.
Many things stood out in my memory of that trip in 2006. When we drove in from Florida we drove through the devastation that remained from Katrina. To me it looked like someone had taken a huge hammer and bashed away at the city. We recognized buildings for what they once were and were never more to be. Huge piles of broken buildings sat in the middle of streets and buildings sat askew on top of cars. All this we could see from the interstate as we made our way into the city. It was the eastern part that took the worst hit from the hurricane and we had noted with despair the destruction as we drove along. I don’t have pictures of what we saw because we refused to be rubberneckers on someone else’s misery. We refused to take the ‘Katrina Tour’ that was being offered but we were happy to hand over donations for the cause.
There were many scenes that made me cry as I thought of what these people had been through. Yet their efforts to rebuild and renew their beloved city brought smiles to our faces and enveloped us. We took a tour of Oak Alley Plantation where they filmed Interview with a Vampire. The huge oak trees and the reflections of days gone by made my romantic soul ache. My only complaint was that our guides were reciting a script and didn’t have a single answer for any questions.
We also took a Cemetery Tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1 that is found on the edge of the French Quarter. We marveled at the aboveground tombs with their white crypts – so different from our graveyards. It was a walking tour that took us through the French Quarter and into the cemetery. We spent some time at the famous gravesite of Marie Laveau the famous Voodoo queen. Here was evidence of a different religion.
From the cemetery we went to the VooDoo Spiritual Temple where we were ushered into the presence of Priestess Miriam. This woman made me nervous. Out of the four of us in the tour she seemed to stare at me and I thought she could see inside my brain. I had a hard time understanding her dialect and found myself nodding and smiling – then wondering if it was safe for me to be doing so at that part of her dialogue. The Temple was full of masks and idols stuffed with money and – well – just a lot of junk as far as I could see. I understood that people came for spells and wishes and left money and gifts for services rendered. But I found myself wondering who ever dusted the place. That and I couldn’t stop myself from looking for the snake.
There were many pictures of the Priestess with a snake wrapped around her head and I was beside myself that I would suddenly come upon it and end up shrieking as I dashed for the street. It was an unnerving experience that The Man and I talked about for a long time. Shortly after we got back to Alberta we saw Priestess Miriam on TV dancing with the snake and performing a ritual. I almost swooned right then and there!