Tag Archives: adventure

“Dreams do come true in New Orleans”

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“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place.  Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short.  It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of South Louisiana in words and try to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.  It is home.”  –Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

There is a magic to New Orleans that cannot be put down in words–it must be lived.  On Saturday, R and I woke up a little later than planned and got dressed to go see the mythic French Quarter.  As we walked down the street to catch the Street Car, the sun was warm and a cool breeze sifted through our hair.  We climbed onto the full car and rattled down St. Charles.  As my curls tangled through the open window, whipped in the sun, I drank in more of the beautiful architecture.  R, being the girl she is, struck up a conversation with a lost couple next to us.  They asked where to get off for Lafayette Square and she directed them, asking what they were up to.  They told us there was a festival, so we decided to get off with them and see what was out there.  We wandered through booths and heard a little music.  R told me “I love a good festival!” and that summarizes New Orleans well.  We got breakfast–a beer for R and the best pina colada on earth for me–and walked on.  (One of the strangest, and most enjoyable aspects of New Orleans was the ability to drink on the streets.  It never felt normal to get a drink to go, but it was wonderful!)

R wanted me to see a Second Line, so we walked to City Hall for the Occupy NOLA protest, listening for the band.  As we sipped and watched, R saw some of her friends from school, who stopped to chat for a moment.  They told us that the band could not be booked, and no Second Line was coming, but they were heading our direction, so we joined them.  We were accidental protestors.  “This is what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants!” she said with a wide grin.  Walking with the protestors was surreal and we were glad to have alcohol on our side.  A young girl rode on her parent’s shoulders on the outskirts, taking in the scene.  Signs were everywhere, all angry about something different.  A woman marched in front of us with a sign on her backpack reading, “3 degrees, 2 jobs, and I can’t sell my house.  I’m tired and angry.”  A drummer walked next to us for a block, flanked by a saxophone player, as people shouted “This is what democracy looks like.”  As we entered the Quarter, we broke free and left behind the shouts of unrest.

We stopped in a stately hotel, cool behind its white pillars, and glimpsed the slowly turning Carousel that made up the bar.  After the pit stop, we strolled the streets, passing galleries and shops and a cat in a window.  We wandered the historic streets, older than the stars and stripes.  The corners bore tiled signs, proclaiming the names the streets were known as under Spanish rule.  Stone and brick sidewalks turn into cobbled alleys, old shuttered doors bright and warm.  We wound down to Jackson Square, arriving just as horns began to echo.  We were surprised by a Second Line!  We stopped to watch, as the band approached, and clapped as the bride and groom followed.  We walked past the artists, work strewn on tables and pinned on fence bars, and the fortune tellers, browning in the autumn sun.  Skinny streets with beautifully old names crisscrossed through history and we wound up next to the mule-drawn carriages.  Promised a cheap ride if we joined strangers, we toured the Quarter by carriage, listening to tidbits of history and lore, seeing the oldest bar in America (Jean Lafittes Black Smith Shop), the only business open during Katrina (Johnny White’s), and an elementary school just off Bourbon Street.  Back at Jackson Square, we admired Saint Louis Cathedral, popping in for a look around and a homily about economic justice.  We walked back past the art vendors, enamored with a collection of bird paintings, and then headed for lunch.

We entered an almost empty dining room at the Gumbo Shop, which I would have walked right past if R hadn’t stopped me.  We entered the cool restaurant, seated next to the window where we watched a large woman, dressed all in red, clean up her keyboard and seat for the day.  R ordered gumbo and I enjoyed my first po’ boy after we shared an order of alligator sausage.  It was all new, steps away from all that I know and have ever experienced, and it was delicious–just like the city itself.  Full, hydrated, and content, we left our first real meal of the day for more walking.  Our feet had grown tired and we had not drunk nearly enough for a day in the Quarter, so we made our way down Bourbon in and into Pat O’Brien’s, where we would stay for much longer than we intended.

In the dark, smoky piano bar, we found an empty table near the stage and sat down with my first hurricane.  Sipping and singing, we watched tables fill and empty and fill again.  We heard some songs three or four times, and grew excited when a new one was requested.  We were mesmerized by their fingers, pounding and flying, effortlessly creating every song we threw at them.  The players cycled through, as did our drinks, and we sang on.  Finally R’s roommate joined us, which called for another round of drinks, and shouted our day’s journey to her over the music.  Eventually we tottered our way out, squeezing between crowded tables, and found that it had grown dark outside as well.  We walked to the car, taking Bourbon just to say that I did, and slowly drove away from the Quarter, just beginning to pick up for the night.  We listened to her roommate’s day, filled in details of ours, and decided some food was in order.  We drove through Rally’s, another new taste, though much more familiar than alligator.  We limped home, tired and hungry, and snuggled in for a little television before sleep.

At the end of the day, it felt like we had live a week.  It felt forever ago that we climbed onto the Street Car, and we crammed as much into a day in the French Quarter as possible.  I got to see and taste the city, breathe in the pounding heart of New Orleans.  It is a place of history, rich in humanity.  The streets ring, sing right along with the brass bands marching.  People come to perform, to dance and play, to paint and predict.  People come to where the life is.  For one day, I was one of the people who came to the Quarter, one of the pulses creating the beat of the street.

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands.  Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”  –John Updike

Shakespeare, the city and me

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”  –Mark Twain

On my first full day in New Orleans, I was left alone for most of my day.  R had to work, so I woke early (even earlier when I remembered the two-hour time difference) and tried to plan for my time alone in the city.  I spent my first hour catching up with my online obligations for my new job and then debated where to wander.  I checked (and double checked…or triple checked) that I had the spare keys in my pocket (and that they worked…some things never change) and headed out into the streets.  I packed a camera and went to see just what there was to see.

I started out searching for St. Charles to see the historic homes.  I stopped at the corner to watch the street car pass and dodged through some traffic.  I had big plans.  I was going to find a coffee shop, get breakfast, and take in the neighborhood.  I walked and gave myself whiplash looking at all the houses.  Everything is old and wonderful.  Houses are wrapped in cozy porches and balconies.  They hide behind twisting wrought iron.  Bricks are everywhere and broad, white columns stand tall watch.  I could look at those buildings forever.  I fell in love with the old, full trees shielding me from the sun and the bright colors splashing relief against the russet bricks.  I kept watch for my destination and kept walking.  And walking.  And walking.  I passed schools, towering and stately, and more of the delicious homes.  And more.

After a half hour of walking, my feet were sore and the sun left few places to hide from its rays, so I turned to go home.  I walked and savored the homes, the beauty of the old neighborhood.  I stopped suddenly, overtaken with a sweet aroma: floral notes, melted with a fruity scent.  I searched for what the smell could have come from, but could not determine its source.  It smelled like a summer day in the South should.  I lingered over water meter covers, the quiet beauty of something so mundane.  Every street name, tiled into the cement from bygone decades, broadened my smile.  Sweating and aching, I came to my final street crossing and looked at what I had missed before: St. Charles was the first intersection I had come to.  Frustrated that I had missed the mark by so far, and reaffirming that Charlie Brown in me, I went inside to rest.  My feet were blistered and face pink with the midday sun.  So I showered, turned on a movie, and relaxed in the beautiful apartment, tiptoeing over the dark, hardwood floors and lounging under the ceiling fan.

R came home late, so we hurried to get cleaned up and head out for the night.  We started by meeting two of her friends from school for dinner.  I continued to step into a limbo of familiar-new with cajun-mexican food at Juan’s Flying Burrito: jerk chicken nachos.  They were delicious and her friends were wonderful.  They were funny and sweet and instantly treated me like one of the girls.

After laughter and dinner, we set off for the New Orleans Museum of Art for a night of Shakespeare under the stars.  We wandered in, taking our program/fan from the children at the entrance, and got a drink.  We spread our blanket on the grass and settled in as R pointed out acquaintances and professors.  As A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened, I was more enamored with the experience than the play.  We watched the beginning on a grass slope and then moved further into the garden for the bulk of the play.  Trees spread overhead, dripping with moss and fairy trinkets, as the action unfolded in the hollow below.  As I bored of the story, never one of my favorites, I noticed the moon beginning to rise.  It was massive, yellow, magical.  R noticed it too and we were transfixed.  As the play closed, we followed the fairies around to a pond, where the cast rowed out onto the water to close.  It was such a wonderful experience, unique and tactile–theater as it should be.  We loaded up the blanket and left for a bar.

My single gripe about New Orleans is that smoking is still allowed in bars.  Gross.  But we entered and R warned me that it is a “pet-friendly” bar.  We found stools and ordered drinks as a small wiener dog ventured across the floor, looking exactly like my own.  He scampered off into the dark back room and we met more of her friends from school.  They were beautiful, smart, outgoing girls and I felt a benevolent jealousy of her world.  They are passionate and driven to make the world a better place, and have more fun than anyone I know.  We drank and talked until late and then headed home.  Smelly and blistered, my eyes were heavy and ready for some rest.

The play was delightful.  It was a remarkable experience, sitting huddled with the crowd, rapt beneath the moon.  We shared a magical night, sitting among the statues in the shadow of the museum.  The bar was fun, seeing R in her world, her life at its most silly and joyful.  I have felt recently, and my stroll through the neighborhood confirmed, that I was born at the wrong time.  The cracked sidewalks and bumpy bricks tell a story.  The houses are old, have endured and seen, adapted and withstood.  I find comfort and peace in the beauty of the old, something that new, state-of-the-art can never bring.  The steadfast trees and porch swings beckon me and welcome my soul home.  For an hour, those streets were mine, and we both loved it.

“Over hill, over dale,/ Thorough bush, thorough brier,/ Over park, over pale,/ Thorough flood, thorough fire,/ I do wander everywhere.” –William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Big Small-Town City

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“Got nothing against a big town/ Still hayseed enough to say/ Look who’s in the big town/ but my bed is in a small town/ Oh, that’s good enough for me…”  –John Mellencamp, “Small Town”

I’m a homebody.  I’m boring.  I like routine and familiar.  I like comfortable.  I grew up in a small town and, while I have enjoyed some of the luxuries of the big city, I miss it.  I don’t fly by the seat of my pants.  I don’t do adventure.  I don’t try new things and most of the time I regret it, and then do not try something new the next time I have the opportunity.  I’m predictable and small.  Sometimes, though, I dream about being big and having stories to tell.  I think about what it would be like to be different, to be interesting, to be alive.  So, when one of my closest friend, R, left for graduate school at Tulane and continually invited me to come visit her at Tulane, I planned a trip with every doubt and reservation in the world.

Nervous and unsure of what to really expect, I left home last Thursday and took flight to the Big Easy.  I was off to see how R lives, so far from everything I know.  Sitting on the plane, I worried about so much.  Would it be too hot?  Would it be filthy?  Would I find new food that I liked?  Would it be scary to walk around in such a violent place?  Would I be boring and disappointing as a guest and friend?  Would I overstay my welcome?  What in the world would I find?  Would it be a miserable weekend?  I was calmer flying than I expected, but the nerves came as I stepped into the airport.

I am not an adventurer.  I stepped into a new place, not sure of where to go.  I felt embarrassed, lost among the people who knew these walkways.  I made my way out the doors and found R waiting for me.  I hopped in the car and drank in the dark sights along the highway on the way home.  We wound through tight streets and sped through the gaps in the neutral ground, which I never got used to during my visit.  The sun had set, but I could still make out the neighborhoods that we drove through.  I fell immediately in love with the houses, the porches, the wrought iron railings, the old trees sweeping over head.  I could not drink in enough of the streets.

Feeling a little less nervous, we climbed the stairs in her quaint, beautiful building and dropped my bags off.  Lingering a little on the crystal door knob, I pulled the door closed and headed out for my first real steps into New Orleans.  We crept down the street, past a pale cemetery bathed in moonlight, and turned down Magazine Street.  I felt a funny recognition, the shops looking like our beach areas here.  We passed bars and boutiques, yoga centers and apartments.  We stopped for pizza–familiar and safe for my first venture into the unknown.  We sat on the sidewalk and watched people walk, and stumble, by.  We saw a couple of her friends from school and watched a man’s car get towed.  We chatted and it really didn’t feel like I was anywhere but home.

After dinner, we went to a small bar, favored by locals, and had my first drink in the city.  In a number of the bars we went to, mojitos were prominently advertised.  It was strange to see something other than margaritas being pushed, and exciting.  I had a blueberry mojito, boasted as the best in the city, and quickly decided that it would be my last.  But I was brave and fought every instinct that pushed me toward the familiar.  We sat on the patio, bathed in smoke (also VERY different from California) and talked about family and boys and work–the familiar in the new.  After our drinks we went home to settle in and watch a movie.  She had to work the next day and I was getting my sea-legs, easing into the big outside world.

That first night, I was comforted by how underwhelming some aspects of New Orleans are.  I expected a sensory overload, people everywhere and no escape from the party.  On the contrary, her neighborhood is quiet and calming.  Life is simple and casual, slow and easy.  I expected big city grandeur, the anxiety that comes with drowning in traffic, sky scrapers, people and rush.  Instead I found a city that reminded so much of home, of life in a town too small for a Costco.  The city is cozy, comfortable with its smallness.  I admire that.  I revel in it.

There is much more that I saw and loved about New Orleans.  That first night, I was surprised to be drawn in and embraced by the city, not swallowed alive.  As I leapt from my comfort zone and dove into travel, I found that I landed somewhere comforting and wonderful.

“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city/ Linger on the sidewalk/ Where the neon lights are pretty/ How can you lose?/ The lights are much brighter there/ You can forget all your troubles/ Forget all your cares…” –Petula Clark, “Downtown”