So the day after all our family left, Jon had to leave for a business trip. We had some miles socked away, and he said “You should come with me!” and I thought about it for half a second. A girl from church came and stayed with the kids, and I hopped a flight and met him in New Orleans.
I fell in love with the literary New Orleans when I was about Abby’s age. I read historical novels a lot, and NOLA is a place writers love to romanticize. As I got older and became something of a student and lover of architecture, New Orleans again rose in prominence. Like so many others, Anne Rice further introduced me to details of Lafayette #1, the Garden District, and the French Quarter. I had always wanted to go there. But nothing can quite prepare you…
Writers much better than I have been seduced into trying to describe and pin down the elusive, ephemeral swirl of verdant, swimming life, juxtaposed with the constant companion of decay and death. I have never seen anything quite like it. When an entire city and the culture it contains is built in the cradling elbow of one of the world’s mightiest rivers, when sea level is above the ground, when the soul of a place is older than the country in which it currently sits, it effects everything. I’m not even going to try and go beyond that- three days of wandering does not qualify me for anything except appreciating the experience.
New Orleans in beautiful and complicated in a way I have never experienced, and I am grateful to have been in her embrace for a short time.
During the day while Jon worked, I was free to walk and wander. Walking kept me in a fairly small area of the historic areas, and I am aware New Orleans is a bigger place than I was able to see in three days. I did a historic walking tour of the The Garden District, where a mishmash of Italianate, Greek-revival, Colonial, and some of the finest double-gallery architecture is preserved. None of this escapes the shadow of New Orleans being the largest city in the Confederacy, built predominantly on the backs of enslaved people, and that history is ever-present. Since it fell early in the Civil War to the Union, it escaped extended siege and the architecture was saved. But as I said, it’s complicated.
There are very few original buildings in the French Quarter- most were refurbished after the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 to be more Greek Revival. It’s funny to think of 1804 as being a modern revision of the face of the city, but that’s how old New Orleans is. As you wander around, the buildings, hugging the curbs with their ornate cast-iron porches and galleries, are more than 200 years old- but they are remodels. Of course, most people wandering Chartres Street aren’t looking for markers of original Creole architecture. Jon just smiles and rolls his eyes at his weird wife.
So setting aside my predilection for history and architecture (I didn’t mean to wander so far down there, really…) we did take the requisite walk down Bourbon Street. I can say I have done it, and that’s good. It’s really kind of crazy, touristy, and commercial- because of course it is. People flood there, but it’s not all just tourists. Every bar is open, with greeters in the narrow sidewalks inviting you inside. Live music pours from every doorway, and the swirling lights, warm air and crush of people is intoxicating. If you wander off Bourbon and down the side streets, you can find lovely supper clubs, tiny charming restaurants with magnificent food, and some of the best live jazz you could imagine.
Walking back to our hotel after dinner, we were stopped at corner by a parade of bicycles. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of bicycles. They were all decked out, with lights on their wheels and spokes, some riders had colorful lights on their bodies, a bike or two had DJ equipment with loud music, there was even a tuba on a bike- and they rode on, ringing their bells, singing, a colorful swirl of laughter and kinetic energy. We stood, amazed, until the last person pedaled through the intersection. I looked perplexed at the man standing at the corner with us, and he shrugged “Don’t look at me, I don’t live here!”
When we got back to our hotel, we asked the concierge, “So, what’s up with the lit-up musical bike parade?” He laughed. “Oh, that’s because it’s Tuesday. They do that every Tuesday.” And that pretty much sums it up.