New Orleans, a southern charmer

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My husband and I celebrated out 25th wedding anniversary this past August. We wanted to go somewhere fun and interesting. Visiting New Orleans has long been on my travel ‘to do’ list, so when an exchange was available with our timeshare, I jumped on it. Narrow streets with French names, old Spanish architecture, Creole and French restaurants, shops full of old French antiques, art galleries and music…this fascinating city is often described as a ‘foreign county within the United States’.

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Having both taken a ‘history of jazz’ course in university, we were eager to take in as much music as we could over the week. The local paper, the Times Picayune, lists the numerous musical venues open every night… soul and R and B and funk and rock and jazz and many more. Music is everywhere… in clubs on Bourbon St and Frenchman St and elsewhere in the city, on street corners during the day and especially at night. Some of our favourite venues were Snug Harbour and D.B A on Frenchman St, and for that New York cabaret vibe…Irvin Mayfield’s Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon St. But whether it was old time jazz at Preservation Hall, a tight trio of piano, drums, clarinet and saxophone, R and B vocals, a full on jazz orchestra, some trumpet pyrotechnics and amazing jazz vocals, a Sunday brunch trio or a little country Cajun music at Tipitina’s… we loved it all. We didn’t have time to take in the famous House of Blues, hey, next time. The atmosphere was friendly and intimate with enthusiastic appreciative audiences. Older musicians mentored younger musicians. Many impromptu performances happened on street corners featuring small groups , teen jazz bands and solo artists.

The premier US city for Mardi Gras, this city likes to dress up and have a party. The Presbytere beside St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, has a colourful exhibition about the history of Mardi Gras both in New Orleans and in the outlying Cajun country. Another very informative exhibition explains the events of Hurricane Katrina and some of the reasons the levees failed. An intimate photographic exhibit by Thomas Neff entitled ‘Holding Out and Hanging On’ depicts some of the people of New Orleans and their personal experiences of Katrina. The party atmosphere out on the street is tinged with reminders of the suffering the people of New Orleans experienced and the ongoing struggle to rebuild their city. One taxi driver told us that half of the residents have never come back…no homes to return to, no jobs and no longer willing to risk another disaster. We didn’t visit any of the areas hard hit by the hurricane.  Post Katrina, a musicians village was built to encourage the musicians to stay in New Orleans.

…conceived by New Orleans natives Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, Musicians’ Village will provide a home for both the artists who have defined the city’s culture and the sounds that have shaped the musical vernacular of the world.

Without it’s music, New Orleans is a city without it’s soul.

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Much admired for it’s colourful pastel architecture with ornate iron balconies often covered with a profusion of flowers and vines, New Orleans is also renowned for its colourful inhabitants both past and present…pirates, voodoo priestesses, gamblers and fancy women, playwrights and American literary giants, tarot card readers, palm readers with crystal balls, world class musicians, street performers and artists. Where voodoo is both a tourist attraction and a living religion with its own temple, this blending of cultures and religions…Spanish, French, American, Caribbean and African…creates a lively brew of the formal and elegant, the relaxed and raw. With a central square for walking and meeting others, the warm climate and old European vibe encourages people to come out at night to eat, dance and listen to great music.

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Wandering the cobbled streets during the day provides a myriad of eating and shopping opportunities. Two favourites were the Antieau Gallery with its wonderfully clever and humorous textile pieces, and Cafe Baby with images created using the artist’s own unique set of symbols, a twist on the usual interpretation. A Gallery for Fine Photography had an amazing collection of old and new celebrated photographers…Ansell Adams, Cartier-Bresson and Sebastian Salgado…a real treat. One afternoon we escaped from the heat into the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in the Business district. This handsome modern building showcases painters, photographers, glass artists and ‘outsider’ art from the south. I particularly enjoyed the ‘colourful creatures’ of artist O.L Samuels.

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New Orleans is also a mecca for food lovers. Sunday brunch at Arnaud’s, breakfast at the Camellia Grill, beignets at Cafe du Monde, dinner at K-Paul’s and Sylvain’s were among our many delicious dining experiences. Po’boys, shrimp remoulade, oysters, alligator sausage and some mighty fine cocktails were consumed throughout the week. New Orleans is after all famous for it’s cocktails. We sampled the Sazerac and Pimm’s Cup…but left the Hurricane and Hand Grenade for the Bourbon St. crowd.

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Now you can’t visit the south without hearing that ubiquitous southern phrase ‘y’all’.  There is a nice definition of ‘y’all’ in the Economist comparing this phrase particular to the American south to the New York phrase  ‘youse guys’ and the more English phrase  ‘you lot’. I think y’all has a softer gentler tone to it. It is inclusive and welcoming like the southern hospitality we enjoyed, a metaphor for southern charm and grace. Another local phrase we heard many times over the week was ‘lagniappe’. According to Wikipedia:

…from the old Spanish phrase… la ñapa ‘something that is added’…a lagniappe is a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase such as a baker’s dozen or 13th bun, or more broadly… "something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure." The word is chiefly used in the Gulf Coast of the US, especially Louisiana.

Like the old world manners and charming formality in the restaurants,  this old custom has become a gracious gesture…a little something extra such as the very much appreciated hand fan we received at one shop. Experiencing an August heat wave, the temperature soared to 97F with high humidity… we were dripping most of the time. The locals carried a small cloth with them to mop the sweat from their brow. It felt very much like Tennessee Williams’… ‘A Streetcar named Desire’.

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Time slows down in warm climates…waiters don’t push you to order quickly… people take the time to chew the fat. There are many stories to tell …both imagined and real…in an old city like New Orleans. When you slow down to appreciate the diversity of life and the amazing and unique people around you… ‘y’all get a little something extra’. Perhaps that is part of the charm of New Orleans.

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