Easy Now, Easy!

Jul 19th 2010: Travel

When the hybrid car market began to take off and Toyota really started pushing their Prius, they had this ad campaign: The car that you just can’t stop talking about. They were right on the money: I had driven my first Prius in 2002 through Zip Car and I was impressed and … geekily smitten. And I would tell anyone about how cool that car was until their ears build a gooey wax barricade blocking out my voice frequencies. That didn’t stop me. Anyway, that’s how I feel now about New Orleans, so hold on to your wax.

After a great time in San Antonio, Austin, and Houston (yes, Houston!), New Orleans was my half way highlight. I had spent five of ten weeks on the road. Half the distance to New York had been driven. 7,500 miles. 2,500 photos had been taken on film and 3,000 snapshots digitally. The car was overdue for another oil change. There was some definite man-this-country-is-big fatigue going on. To recuperate I adjusted my plans to stay a full week in New Orleans, longer than any other place on this trip, with plan B being an escape back to Texas or to check out  Mississippi.

First of all I have to say that, unlike any other state I have been driving through, Louisiana had no surprises in store for me. Let me explain. Leaving the forest that is Houston and entering the Pelican State I found myself immediately driving a concerning ten feet above a swamp for many, many miles. And through painfully humid heat. I think I should mention that my car’s A/C had decided to torture me through suicide, making all further drives in the South a predictable hell. So there I was, in a swamp, hot and sweaty, going 70mph, windows so wide open as to make any monologue with myself impossible, cheap speakers squealing music on top of their electronic lungs, under constant machine gun fire from mosquitoes and other bugs hitting the windshield, all the while sipping bottled water that lost its cool a long time ago… and I was happy! *This* was what I had signed up for. This was what I had imagined Louisiana to be like in my hot and humid fantasies. It totally delivered! And it was only the beginning.

Spending the next seven days in the Freedom Quarter, the Art Warehouse district, the Garden District, and on Frenchman Street, I started to really engage with this city. My visit coincided with some of the hottest summer days and with the hurricane based off-season. It made for very few tourists. Seriously, who in their right mind would go to New Orleans at this worst time of the year when you had to spend the muggy afternoons inside, either because it was simply too hot to live or because of thunderstorm downpours?

Staying even just for a week a few daily routines quickly established themselves. Thanks to its friendly, down-to-earth, hole-in-the-wall atmosphere the little cafe called Surrey’s, located in the Garden District and a recommendation of a local, became the daily joint for breakfast. Afterwards, different aspects of the city and its surroundings were explored until the heat or the rain became completely unbearable, requiring the second shower and the consequent retirement to the hotel room for a few hours. After dusk the second half of the day began with dinner at one of the many comfort food places. The famous Mother’s restaurant really stood out as a great place to go, both for the unusual atmosphere as well as the delicious, artery clogging, coma inducing comfort food. The night ended by spending hours on Frenchman Street, just outside the French Quarter, where no tourist, undoubtedly distracted by the blinding neon lights and the plentiful nude bars on Bourbon Street, bothers to go. I got this recommendation from a New Orleanian in Austin and it is truly a great hang-out place.

Among the must-see sites, the French Quarter lived fully up to its hype, if you ignore the Bourbon Street tourist pits. The architecture captures you with the it’s-all-good style of living they convey.  The overcrowded Cafe Du Monde, with its horrible waiters, cheap coffee, and in powdered sugar draining Beignets is a must, ideally late at night when things have calmed down. The cemeteries are, just like the ones in Buenos Aires, all above ground and, in their quiet decay, are just as appealing. There are many more attractions I did not have the chance to explore, including the aquarium, the WW2 museum, and the contemporary art center with art exhibits that, according to my guide book, range from “puzzling to cryptic.”

In the evening, the tiny jazz bar The Spotted Cat was always the first, and often also the last, stop of the night. Every night a different jazz band played, locals came to listen, dance, and hang out. It delivered without fail another one of these promises New Orleans and I made to each other in my expecting mind before I started the trip: A real Jazz bar. With real Jazz musicians. With real people coming to have a good time. With cheap beer. A real experience. And even though The Spotted Cat was my clear favorite, there were plenty of similar places next to it and across the street. Alternating between these jazz bars and pubs where you can sit outside and enjoy the residual heat of the day with good conversation and a cool beer in your hand, rounded off the day perfectly.

In the end, the true jazz bars on Frenchman street, the low-key comfort food at Mother’s, the enduring atmosphere of the French Quarter and the Garden District all reflect what impressed me most, made me love this city: the true, unique, often stereotyped spirit of New Orleans is still alive and kicking in the community, away from the shiny tourist traps. And this spirit sustains everything. It’s truly the Big Easy. It’s the kind of place where surprise yourself by thinking “yes, i can totally see myself spending a few months here, hanging out, maybe even a year.” I’m glad I took the time experience this wonderful city and not just shoot in and out, Japanese style. Loved it.

More photos here: French Quarter, live music, food, and cemetery.

Posted in Travel by Ernst Bruening on July 19th, 2010 at 6:26 pm.

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