Thursday, February 19, 2015

Just don't call it NOLA - a midwinter escape to the Big Easy

Jackson Square
Not two weeks after returning from Israel I was boarding a plane once again, but this time to a destination much closer to home: the Big Easy. Yes, New Orleans, Louisiana, so unlike Israel in every possible way but one: I had been here before. Many years ago, on a Spring Break trip with my then-fellow coffee slinger and good friend Kirstin, I engaged in copious amounts of underage drinking, and dealt with all the associated consequences of such onerous behavior.

The year was 2002, pre-Katrina New Orleans was a debaucherous, boisterous, and carefree party town to the young and stupid version of me that landed there, an embodiment of the phrase "laissez les bons temps rouler", and not much more. Sadly, aside from a peek inside the voodoo museum, we had nary a cultural program to our visit. So when, fed up with relentless snow of Boston winter, my mom expressed a desire to meet up there and explore the city, I jumped on the chance to correct my mistake.

under the sprawling shade trees, a walkway leads from Decatur street to the Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi.

Mom and I took a bunch of walking tours through historic neighborhoods, and learned the fascinating history of one of America's most unusual and beguiling cities. We heard a myriad sordid stories about its most colorful residents, and countless juicy tidbits about architecture, governance, plagues and forced religious conversions. One thing I remember being imparted on us with particular emphasis: "don't call it NOLA." Apparently they hate that. Almost as much as "N'awlins".

Fair enough. New Orleans it is.

rows of "shotgun" homes in the French quarter
courtyard of the famous cafe Amelie
New Orleans really is unique among the country's great heritage cities. Its blend of French, Spanish, English and African cultures, its seedy, disease riddled and snake infested beginnings, and the unusual way that classes and races clotted together here, have shaped a profoundly different American identity.

Balconyscaping. It's a New Orleans thing.

Historic above ground cemeteries. Most are still-functioning family tombs. 
Canal Street with its iconic street cars.

We did not miss a chance to stand in line for beignets and coffee, though we did not brave Cafe du Monde - the line there was downright apocalyptic. Not like you can really mess up fried dough in a bag of powdered sugar anywhere.

sweet, sugary goodness.
 Nor did we skimp on the jazz.

...Or a bit of revelry on Bourbon Street, for old times sake.

We even saw that most incredible undertaking - a Jazz Funeral!
We dined in style in the grand dames of New Orleans heyday, Antoine's and Galatoire's, both much maligned on Yelp, but both actually quite good, and more importantly, historically relevant establishments full of ambiance and old world charm. You can eat at a trendy gastropub anywhere in the world, n'est-ce pas? But it's not every day you can straight up tour a restaurant after the meal, and swear you are walking through a museum.

 <--  Antoine's  *  Galatoire's -->
At Antoine's a birthday party for an 80 year old lady sent an entire cauldron of some delicious hot cherry and whiskey concoction over to our table, so we got nice and tipsy on their dime (and mom made some new friends)
New Orleans is tied to the Mississippi thoroughly and inexorably, like a heart to an artery. The swift, muddy river has been the epicenter of everything involving New Orleans since its inception. New Orleans is the largest commercial port in the US, and a fifth of all imported goods still enter the country on its currents. For this reason, the Mississippi is immensely important - strategically, historically, culturally, and emotionally - to all New Orleans' residents.

A visit here would be incomplete without a ride along the mighty river, and we dedicated one afternoon to do exactly that - we took the Creole Queen to the Chalmette Battleground park.

our beautiful ship

Chalmette battleground, the site of the Battle of New Orleans that took place on January 8th, 1815 between American and British troops, in which Americans resoundingly defeated the British army.
The commanding officer of the American battalion in that battle was Jean Lafitte, a notorious pirate and smuggler and an all-around nefarious personage of questionable character. Somehow a criminal working with the government and leading American troops to victory makes sense in New Orleans, whose story, replete with such colorful nuance, is anything but black and white. 

Mom taking advantage of the weather to get a much needed Vitamin D boost.
the cemetery at Chalmette
a pretty view of the skyline on our way back.

Hungry for something a bit more contemporary after all that messy and bloody history, we took the famous red streetcars to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where we wandered through the immaculate sculpture garden on a perfect quiet and sunny day.

New Orleans is an amazing, resilient city. And one whose importance is often underestimated and underlooked, buried under a reputation for excess, carousal, and Mardi Gras. But, there's so much more to it than meets the eye at first glance. I hope to come back for more in-depth exploring.

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