Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I left my heart in New Orleans

After we left Memphis we went on a six hour long road-trip to New Orleans. The drive itself was pretty nice - it was all green and pretty in Mississippi. The last 20 minutes or so on the highway before you arrive in New Orleans the highway goes over swamp land.

I had never seen swamps before, not big ones like this at least. It's pretty much lots of water with trees growing out of it and of course the water is alligator infested (I didn't see any on our drive though). And then to my surprise there were houses in the swamps - even little villages of swamp houses on stilts. It was quite fascinating really. Next time I go get to Louisiana want to take a boat tour around the swamps. It must be really creepy growing up in a swamp house. Google swamp house and you'll know what I mean.

I saw one house in the middle of a swamp, far, far away from any other kind of civilization, which had clearly been destroyed by Katrina. It made me wonder - who lives in the middle of a swamp, all by themselves? I doubt this person even got electricity or running water. You could only reach this house by boat.

We were very lucky and got to stay in the French Quarter. E's uncle owns a house there, with adjoint "Slave Quarters". See - a lot of the houses in the French Quarter had a separate house for the slaves to live in. It is the South after all. We learned however that the slaves were treated much better in New Orleans than anywhere else in the South - their "owners" were not allowed to abuse them physically, the slaves had the right to buy their freedom by paying their original price, they were allowed to own property, they had to be provided with an acceptable living space, they had to be trained in the three main languages of the city - French, Spanish and English and they had to learn how to read and write. People of African blood were not allowed to marry white people but they were allowed to make babies together and those babies inherited part of whatever the white daddy left. According to what we learned pretty much every rich, white man had a black or mixed race lover.

On the night we arrived we took a ghost walk tour. This means we walked around the French Quarter and were told stories of what had happened in the different houses which are now haunted. This is also where we received our New Orleans history lesson. It was pretty interesting but I didn't see any ghosts. I did however get to see the LaLaurie house which is pretty creepy. I took a million pictures hoping to capture something but the ghosts were not very social that night. Still - it got me scared enough to have us sleep with the bathroom light on for the next five days. Some of the ghost activity that our guide was talking about happened just a few houses down. I also kept on hearing noises at night. And in general - I was just creeped out by the place. I know I am a wuss. The city is very mysterious at night - maybe it's all the voodoo shops around town. I am not sure.

Apart from the ghost activity the place we stayed at was really nice though. It even had a beautiful pool in the yard. 

The weather was great except the first day when it was sunny but really cold. The rest of the week it was in the mid 20s and I got a sunburn. I am embarrassed to say that after spending seven years in Holland I have become a bit of a sun worshipper. I don't really care so much about getting a tan, I just want to feel the sun on my face, I want to soak up every little ray of sunshine. 

My in-laws are originally from New Orleans and we had a big family meet-up with them and all the aunts and uncles and my sister-in-law, her husband and my nephew. It was very nice to see them and I could see part of myself in my in-laws - that sparkle in their eyes when they devoured the foods they had grown up with and walking down memory lane seeing places they were once so used to. This is where they first met each others, started dating, ... before they moved to Ohio and started their little family. In a way they are expats just like me and no matter how much you love the place you are living now, no matter how long you have been living there, you always have a connection to the place where you grew up. And I saw the connection they had to New Orleans - which is in so many ways different to the rest of the US. It made me feel really close to them. 

One thing I could not agree on with them was the food though. They LOVE the food. Typical New Orleans cuisine consists of seafood, different kinds of sandwiches made with white bread and brown stews (Gumbo, Jambalaya). I don't eat seafood, so I was left with the white bread sandwiches. In retrospect I should have eaten more Gumbos and Jambalayas but a lot of them are made with seafood too. At the end of the week I was so incredibly sick of white bread, ... 

My mother-in-law kept on going on about how great the bread is in New Orleans - to me it tasted like stale french bread. And I am also not a big fan of white bread. You should know that Austrians and Germans will never be happy with bread which is not German or Austrian (we can live with Polish bread though). We are by definition bread snobs. 
So I just politely nodded. 

However I have a new found love for sour-pickle flavored potato chips which are - thank god - only made and sold in the South. Otherwise this would be part of my daily diet and that would not be healthy.

Of course people tried to make me eat seafood and I gave in one night - eating a fried oyster and some lobster risotto. I threw up all night. And this confirmed my theory that often people are disgusted by foods they are allergic to. No more seafood for me.

The French Quarter in New Orleans is amazing. It is by far the nicest architecture I have seen in the US (although whenever I say that people tell me I should go to San Francisco). The houses are old and very colorful with iron balconies much like you see in Barcelona. New Orleans was both French and Spanish in the past so it shows influences of both cultures.

Do you remember how a few blog posts ago I posted about the self-sufficient, alternative feminist movement which started in Portland? Well, New Orleans is full of those kinds of people. These kind of girls often wear 50s style clothing, have Betty Page-style bangs and lot's of colorful tattoos - oh and retro-bikes. I think it looks beautiful and even though I don't have any tattoos, I do have a lot of 50s style dresses. So I am not sure if New Orleans had always been such a hipster city but it is now. A lot of people, hipsters or not, cycle in New Orleans which is another reason for me to love this city. Maybe they cycle because it is quite flat there, maybe because there is no place to park in the French Quarter.

Alternative hipster girl

Hipster bike (well, in this case - tricycle):

The French Quarter has been almost untouched by Katrina. The areas around unfortunately not so much. E's aunts house had to be completely rebuilt - they had to live in a trailer outside their house for a long time. You still see a lot of trailers in front of empty houses but there is a feeling of upturn in the city. The people of New Orleans are fighters. They go about what happened to them with humor and they just - well - they just move on. I have no doubt that if something like Katrina was to happen again, most of them would just come back and rebuild - again. 

You might know that a lot of people DIDN'T come back last time. The poorer, mostly african-american citizens of New Orleans couldn't afford to rebuild. A lot of them moved to Memphis or Houston. Most of them found better jobs there, better lives. 

To me the city of New Orleans is almost magical. The spirit, the history, the people, there is just something about the place that I really love. 

We are definitely going to be back there. We are invited to Es cousins bat mitzvah in October so we might be back then already. And if not then maybe for Mardi Gras in February which E's aunt described as "You stand in a big crowd and people throw stuff at you! It's great!".

I think New Orleans is one of the most underrated cities of the US. If you have any chance of going there - go. 


contrarybear said...

That alternative hipster girl in the picture was the singer for a street band called "The Little Big Horns". They were really good and I regret that they were out of CDs to sell.

Anonymous said...

I to left my heart in old orleans! I was there for Mardi Gras of 2010 the Saints won the Super and i lost my mind. The architecture blew me away i had lotto dreams of owning long porches with palms in the breeze it was the time of my life! Since returning to Missouri ihave gone threw a withdrawl type depression but one things for certain old orleans i will be back!