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. 

Another quick update on my situation

Yesterday I started working at a German library. The library belongs to the Dank-Haus - a German association just a bit North of where I live, in the German part of town. So far, it's more a room full of books than a library. And that's why they need us - a group of German speakers. We are there to re-organize the library, sort out all the doubles, eventually sell them, find out which books are valuables (we have a lot of books that are more than 100 years old - some of them with beautiful Art Nouveau illustrations). It's all non-profit, low-budget so I am not getting any salary out of it but they do give us free take-out lunch and beer. And the guy who is organizing it will be one of my references for my job search AND I can put librarian on my CV AND I think it is a big plus to have a job in America on my CV. On top of all that awesomeness I get to work with really nice people - so far I have met the organizer who is a movie maker, American but with a German wife, a German woman who has a masters degree as a German teacher and apparently a few other masters degrees plus 20 years of experience as a teacher but can't find a job here and an Austrian guy who it turns out went to the same school I went to in Austria, which is such a coincidence, I can't even comprehend it. Oh and he has a masters degree in economics and also can't find a job in Chicago. This made me feel so much better. First of all to meet some really nice, open, fun people to hang out with and second to see that I am not the only person who seems qualified but can't find a job. I have been feeling like a doofus for so long. I lowered my standards so much (I mean, I was team leader for a team of seven people at a prestigious company in Holland and I applied for data entry jobs here) and didn't even get an interview for any of those jobs - it's relieving to see that people with even higher education have troubles finding a job.

My outlook has changed though. I am using this time to collect as much experience as possible. I am talking to a few different people about different stuff concerning photography - everything unpaid but hey, the more experience I get the more employable as a photographer I will be eventually. 

A good friend sent me a long email telling me to not apply for jobs I don't really want since it will suck the life out of me and keep me from doing what I really want to do. Another friend told me to be persistent about writing and Photography because often persistence is the most important thing, more important than talent or experience or education. I took both of these advices to heart and that's what I will be doing. 

From meeting these other German speakers I now see how incredibly lucky I am to not really have to worry about money. We might not be able to go to Europe this year but the people I met (who are also married to Americans) are struggling from pay check to pay check. One of them lives in a neighborhood in which it is advised not to leave the house at night.

I have the luxury of pursuing my dream and it would be a crime not to use this opportunity.

This afternoon I will cycle down to my favorite coffee place and give you that blog post about New Orleans and hopefully get some studying done too.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What's going on

Sorry for being absent for a while again. I still owe you guys at least one post about my time in New Orleans and Florida and I promise - it will come!

But I thought I give you a quick update on my life - for those of you who actually read this blog because they want to know how I am doing. By the way - sorry - I know I owe some of you emails! And I will get to it! I am not angry at anybody, that's not why I have been bad with writing!

The biggest news I have by far is that I sort of witnessed a crime.
We have a little under-walk that goes between the street and our back yard. It's very dark and kind of creepy down there (but then I am also kind of afraid of going to the basement by myself). This place belongs to our house and when you walk through there you can see our basement. In the winter we noticed foot steps in the snow leading up and away from this under-walk. That was creepy and for a while our landlord closed one of the doors (the other door could not be locked). 
I guess we forgot about it. Well, last week E and I woke up at 4.30am. We heard a male voice yelling. It sounded very much like a drunk so we just went back to sleep. Well, turns out it wasn't a drunk. A 72 year old man who was walking around, distributing leaflets (that seems to have been his job) had been pulled down in our under-walk, robbed and beaten up. By talking to neighbors I later found out that this man was at the hospital in a life-threatening situation. And apparently the cops are expecting the criminal who did this to come back to our street.
This scares me for several reasons: First - I haven't really witnessed a crime like this. Especially such a violent crime - I really believe you don't have to beat a 72 year old guy to a pulp just to get his wallet. I believe this was done because the criminal had a desire to be violent and this is very scary.
Second - the police did not investigate a whole lot. Our landlord noticed police in front of our house and went outside asking what is going on - only THEN did they tell him what had happened. I mean this happened in HIS HOUSE and they didn't even bother telling him? They didn't interview anyone. E and I are the only people who actually heard the screams (this is what I found out by talking to people in our street) and they didn't bother to ask us or anybody else about it. Our next door neighbor has a freakin' camera on his doorway which could have very well recorded some of what happened - he told me that they did NOT ask him for a tape (the camera it turns out - was not on - but they didn't know that).
I wonder if the lack of interest in this crime is due to the fact that it's some old dude who probably doesn't have much family or anybody at home who really cares - if you are still working a crappy, underpaid job at 72 then obviously you don't have anybody to take care of you. And this just makes me mad. 
It reminds me of the story our friend told us in New Orleans. Just around the corner from where he lives in New Orleans a Columbine like massacre happened. A guy walked in and shot four students. It was a school with mostly black students. The thing got next to no media coverage.

And this PISSES ME OFF. It pisses me off that the police doesn't do their job. It pisses me off that you get different treatment because of your social status. Peoples lives are not worth less because of social status!

And of course - most of all - I am scared. We live in one of the safest neighborhoods in Chicago. There are nothing but families living here. I wouldn't be surprised if we were the only childless couple in the street from what I see. And still something like this happens. I wouldn't care as much if this would have happened on the street in FRONT of our house. But the fact that the criminal pulled the victim down our under-walk makes me believe that this was planned for a while, that this guy had been investigating. 
So obviously there is nothing I can do about it but be more careful, make sure that all the doors are always locked, lock the windows and right now - I'll be honest with you - I am sleeping with a knife on my bedside table. I want to find a different solution for that though. I want to get a pepper spray. I am very much against having weapons in the house but I don't feel save walking home here alone at night (not that I do a whole lot of this since my social life is still not very happening). I also want to take a self-defense class. I have been wanting to do this for 15 years or though anyway just because I want to feel strong and confident. Our landlord also put a big pad lock on the door and nobody is going to be able to use our under-way for criminal activity anymore (except our landlord).
But anyway, I know things like that could really happen anywhere, they are just more likely to happen around here.

Alright, what else has been happening.

Well it's finally spring here in Chicago. The weather has been a bit crazy. Last Monday it was about 4 C - by Friday it had warmed up to 28 C.  We had a lot of sunshine last week and I went cycling pretty much every day during the week. I even got a tan! I also cycled to the lake every day, just to see it. When the sun is shining the lake turns a beautiful turquoise shade. I love the water and could just sit there and look at it for hours. It makes me really happy.
The trees in our street finally got leaves which improves my mood immensely. I missed the green. 
Saturday E and I went to our first farmers market this year. Since they only sell stuff that is in season they didn't have a whole lot yet but I did end up buying an heirloom tomato plant. This year I am planting four different kinds of tomatoes. I am a really bad gardener but I hope my love for home grown tomatoes will overcome this. Now I just have to wait till August and then I should have lots and lots of tomatoes. If you want some - come visit me in August!

Last week was a good one for me - even though I was more home-sick to Holland than I have been before. I made a to-do list and for once I actually followed it. I got a move on in my Photography studies, I upholstered a chair, I painted another chair, I applied to some jobs, ... it feels good to get your life back on track. I already made a list for this week. I am also expanding my job searches. I decided in this economic situation I should also be looking into other kind of jobs. So I have been looking at local food places if they are looking for help. I don't want to work for a chain like McDonalds but I wouldn't mind working at the cute cupcake place or at the Italian ice cream store - at least until I finish my studies. I don't want to end up working full-time unless it is a really great job though because I really, really want to finish my studies in the next eight month or so. 

Last Friday we went out with one of E's coworkers - who is a year younger than me (I feel so old)! His wife had her 25th birthday and her and all her BFFs were all cute and dressed up (I didn't know it was her birthday so I showed up in flip flops and a tank top). I ended up having a really good conversation with one of her girlfriends ... until she excused herself and never came back. But I totally get it. I have been there. I have been the girl who had so many friends that I felt uncomfortable when new people tried to befriend me - even when we got along really well. I also now understand that the reason why I didn't have many Dutch friends was not because the Dutch don't like to befriend foreigners but that they already HAD their group of friends and weren't particularly interested in making new friends. It works the same way here in Chicago as it worked in Holland.

Since arriving here I have signed up for about 10 different meet-up groups (for example "The knitters meet-up group, the beer lovers meet up group ...) and I have been to only two meet-ups. And both I went to with E. The reason why I didn't go to more meet ups is because I am shy and because I am not used to this situation. Meeting people in Holland was so damn easy. You always had one thing in common - you are a foreigner. It wasn't a big deal that you were from a different culture - because everybody was. 

Here I have to give the whole background - I am Austrian, I lived in Holland for 7 years, am married to an American, yes I like Chicago, yes it is different to Europe, no I don't know more about the Fritzl case, yes I do realize that Hitler was Austrian, no I am not a racist, yes I do speak English and yes I CAN understand everything you say - no need to speak so slowly, yes I have absolutely heard of Jay Leno and I know Wholefoods too, ... 

What I really wish is that I would have a female friend going to those kind of meet-ups with me. The week before we went to New Orleans my friend D visited me. She is Austrian like me and she is living in Florida right now. We had such a good time. We can relate to so many things because we are in such a similar situation. It's also very comforting to have somebody around who has known me for 14 years. I am trying to get her to move to Chicago for the summer. Unfortunately the weather was disgusting when she was here. It even snowed - in April. For somebody who moved to Florida because she loves hot and humid weather - this was not a very good time to come. I hope she still considers it because we could have the best summer ever together. You know how people apparently see their life passing in front of them in pictures before they die? I saw pictures of how our summer together would look like - us cycling down the lakefront, us eating Italian gelato and shopping in Roscoe village, us sitting outside in the sun, having lunch at the Meindl Cafe on Southport, us going to the gym together, us sitting in our back yard, late in the evening, us sitting in the park, the sun on our faces, gossiping about the people we met at one of the meet-ups that I finally am not afraid to go to anymore, ... 
I still have a little hope that it might happen but well, not so much. 

But life is not bad right now. It gets better with every ray of sunshine hitting my face and every new leave on the tree outside my window.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Walking in Memphis

Hello my friends! I am back from my holiday! 

Obviously I didn't manage to blog from New Orleans or any of the other places I went to. It was mostly due to a lack of time, we had a pretty tight schedule.

I am going to divide the trip in three posts for the three stops we made - Memphis, New Orleans and Pensacola/Florida.

The trip was pretty great even though I had some health issues. I will try to explain in a short paragraph what happened:

About a week before we left I got really sick. I hadn't been sick like this since I was a child and I am putting it down to having no anti-bodies for American flu viruses. I had a fever, I couldn't even move for a few days and I had a really bad cough that hurt. I couldn't smell or taste but I wasn't hungry anyway. We left for our road trip to Memphis  on day 6 of this flu. The fever was gone but I was still coughing. I awoke from our first night of the road trip at 4am in our hotel in Memphis, coughing up blood. I did what I always do and googled it. A google search for "Coughing up blood" told me to go to the emergency room immediately which we did. Let me tell you - if you want to see the true state of a city - go to their emergency room at 5am on a Saturday. Let's just say there are a lot of poor people in Memphis and the hospital I went to was in a bad state. Anyway, turns out I have a bronchitis but at least not pneumonia. I got some antibiotics and an inhaler spray. A week later, I feel better but still cough a lot. But the meds were good enough to make me able to enjoy my holidays.

Alright - let's move on. So as I said we first drove down to Memphis/Tennessee. Memphis is actually a really beautiful city. I found that I really like the South. First of all of course the weather was great. We did have a few cooler days but it was in the mid 20s (Celsius) during most of the trip. I even got sunburned in New Orleans.
The landscape is great. It is so green! I expected the South to be all dried out. Maybe that's just because it's spring, I don't know but it was very green, everywhere we went.

To get to Memphis we drove down through Illinois and Missouri. The landscape of southern Illinois and Missouri was a bit of a surprise. You drive through the middle of Illinois and it's actually pretty - hilly and green and then all of a sudden you are in this bare country full of black, broken trees, run down looking houses and depressed land. We had to fill our gas tank and the first town we went to we decided we wouldn't stop because it looked like right out of one of those movies were the natives of the town kill and eat every stranger that passes through. I am serious. It's not pretty. We also didn't stop in the next town. What we saw of Missouri wasn't any better. I really can't imagine how it must be like growing up there. I was briefly imagining my husband back in 2004 bringing me home for to introduce me to his family to Cairo/Illinois instead of Akron/Ohio. I don't know if I would have ever agreed to move to the US.

The landscape got much better once we entered Tennessee. One thing that Memphis is famous for are their ribs. They are prepared differently than in the rest of the US and they are GOOD. They fall of the bone, they melt in your mouth. It's pretty incredible. The most famous ribs place is "Rendezvous Ribs" but it was closed when we were there so we drove down to another place called "Central BBQ" which was great too. It is in the middle of a residential street and you can sit outside, they have a little beer garden right there and they had some live country music playing. It was really cute and felt very local. And of course the ribs were heaven. And trust me - I am normally not a fan of ribs but these won me over.

The other thing Memphis is famous for is Graceland - Elvis Presley's mansion. Graceland is full of tourists and a very organized operation. You arrive at a house which is actually on the other side of the street from Graceland. On that side of the street you can see Elvis' planes. He had two of them. The "Lisa-Marie" is the most luxurious plane I have ever seen (we got to go inside). There is also a museum with all of Elvis' cars. If you want to see Graceland you have to wait in line to get on a bus which then brings you to the other side of the street. Graceland itself looks like a cute, little colonial style house but wait until you get inside - it is one of the weirdest and over the top places I have ever seen. Here are some pictures:

The mirror ceilinged basement with the creepy, white monkey

The lavish living room

The pool room

The jungle room 

The center of Memphis is old and beautiful and incredibly clean. Memphis is right on the Mississippi river and the river banks are green park areas. They have some really hip bars downtown too. Girls dress up when they go out (which they don't do in Chicago a whole lot unless you consider wearing a really low cut top dressing up) - it feels like you are in Sex and the City - girls in high heels, with perfect hair and make up and cute dresses. And then of course you have famous Beal street. Beal street is the Blues/Jazz street of Memphis. They have live music on the street, little, cute shops, lot's of neon signs ... 

When we drove to Central BBQ we got to see a really pretty part of Memphis. Big, colonial mansions in cute, little streets with lots of green and trees which were blooming in red, white and pink. This is what I imagined a southern City to look like. 

To sum it up - I really liked Memphis. Unfortunately due to my health situation I couldn't really experience Beal street the way I wanted to but I will probably be back sometime.