My Christmas present to myself this year was a 3 week trip to New Orleans, living in an historic apartment building in the French Quarter. I thought I was running away from my life, but in retrospect what I think I was really doing was running into my new life. The time had come to close the door on the last year and I needed to find a way to put a box around it, to draw a line and say “this was once important to me, but it’s not any more”. And to spend time thinking, really thinking, about what my future might look like. I needed contemplation space.
The other thing I learned, with nothing but time on my hands and no particular plans every day, was to live totally and completely in the present. Not to regret the past, not to wish for the future, but just to immerse yourself in every day and completely enjoy the here and now. After living for the last year wishing for a future that often never happened, then a couple of months of wallowing in the past, learning all over again how to just be present, right then and there, enjoying every minute of every day was a gift.
My first night in town my landlord said to me, “well cher, some people are born in New Orleans and some of us are just New Orleaneans in our heart”. That’s me, I found the home of my heart. Note to self – always live places where people call you”cher”. I’ve heard some people say New Orleans is dirty, they don’t like the food, service is slow and nothing works quite right. I guess . . . but I never really noticed. I was too busy falling in love with gas lit cobblestone streets, French Caribbean architecture, lace work iron railings, amazing music and food. I can remember so clearly walking home at night on the cobbled streets with the gas lights and the old houses and the music, it was just magical. A place with a decadent sense of history, where time hasn’t so much slowed down, because there is too damn much going on 24/7, but where it seems to stretch to encompass so much in every single day. Where music, good food, strong drinks and the company of friends is not just fun, but a sacred trust. Where laissez le bon temps roullez is embraced as a truly worthwhile way to live. The home of my heart.
I spent Christmas alone and I wondered if I would be lonely. But once I got away from the commercial in-your-face-ness of Christmas in the cold and frosty northlands, I stopped feeling overwhelmed by the the need to have a “perfect life” for that one day. It’s a day, just like lots of others, and spending it lying on the couch watching old movies was great. I might also have drank an entire bottle of champagne myself, but heck, it was Christmas. New Orleans has some interesting local traditions like the Cajun bonfires and Mr. Bingles. I’m going back next year and doing a whole blog just on those.
It was the most relaxing Christmas I can remember. I did take myself out for a really, really excellent dinner on Christmas Eve – I like the dressing up part, and it was so much fun to see everyone out and about in all their finery. I went to Restaurant R’evolution, the hottest new place in NOLA with chefs Rick Tramonto from Chicago bringing his big city sensibilities and style to partner with John Folse, a celebrated southern chef. It’s a marriage made in heaven! A wallet buster, but worth every dime.
The weather warmed up Boxing Day, so I went out to explore Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square. The park became one of my favourite places to just hang out in the sun and read a book. I loved sitting there, surrounded by the history of music on the bench by Satchmo’s statue.
And Congo Square itself was . . .overwhelming. The area where the square is located has been used for celebrations since the time of the Houmas Indians and is considered sacred ground. During the city’s Spanish and French colonial periods it was a public market and a place where slaves would gather on Sundays to drum, dance and celebrate one afternoon of joy. These African traditions gradually became incorporated into the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, Second Lines and eventually what became jazz, rhythm and blues – the birthplace of the music I love. In a haunted city, I didn’t come across a more haunting and moving place, you never wanted to speak above a whisper there.
I loved exploring the cemeteries of New Orleans, with their above-ground crypts because the water table is too high. I went on the day after the world didn’t end (December 22nd) to give thanks at the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. The 1st St Louis Cemetery is only a block out of the Quarter, but you have to make sure you go at the right time, because it closes early. I left a Canadian toonie and it worked out pretty well because I got what I asked for.
But no matter how enjoyable it is having lots of time to yourself, sooner or later it’s great to have company as well, not to mention an opportunity to show off your mad new tour guide skills. My friend E came back to NOLA for the New Years Eve weekend and it could not have been more fun. There were a few twists – I had to give up my apartment in the Quarter and we moved out to what could best be described as a “bohemian” inn in the Fauberg Marigny. On the upside, it was only a 5 minute walk to Frenchman’s Street and we did get to see a whole other part of the city, a part where real people live and there are no line ups for breakfast. The best coffee shop was the Who Dat Cafe, a super casual locals spot to hang out and recover from last night. Sitting in rainy Vancouver on a Sunday morning I miss the Who Dat!
Downside, well, you know if you can’t laugh at being in one of the worst motels ever, then you need to get a sense of humour. I thought that the claw foot tubs with showers would be romantic and bohemian. Actually they are just short, low pressure and really, really hard to get in and out of without falling over! And all those damn curtains. Give me a glass front walk in with rain shower any time! And no-one needs a guy out in the courtyard playing Reveille early on New Years Day morning – but I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard.
We spent a lot of time playing the “Walk Around and Stop in the Bar Where the Live Music Sounds Good” game, which is a fantastic pastime in a city where the music is always great, street drinking is legal and go cups are a way of life. If you get bored, or don’t like the music (like that ever happens) well you just grab your go cup and move on. We well and truly finished the 15 Most Iconic Dive Bars in New Orleans list, then added a few of our own. Loved Auntie Tiki’s and The Abbey was just plain nasty.
The Erin Rose was not on the official dive list, but it made the grade solely on account of the bathrooms. Spent a Sunday there watching the last Saints game of the season and spinning the wheel of no fortune – every time the Saints scored a touchdown (a lot that day) we had to spin the wheel for drink specials. Who knew shots of Jameson went so well with Bloody Mary’s? And in one of those days where time just keep stretching to encompass more and more fun, we got a call from friends who said they “had a good day at the track” and we should meet them for a late, hilarious Spanish tapas dinner at Lolas. The cab ride out there was an adventure (see note above about Bloody s and Jameson shots) and we had to wait a while for our table (all the better to order more wine) but it was worth the wait for the incredible paella.
Somewhere around the end of dinner we got around to the story of E being back in NOLA for New Years and his long, and so far unsuccessful, wait for a real New Orleans beignet. As all locals will attest, beignets are only good hot and fresh at one of two places in the city and nowhere else in the entire world. We hadn’t managed to get into Cafe du Monde in the Quarter, it was lined up around the block with everyone in town for NYE. The only solution, declared our local heroes, was to head to the Morning Call Coffee Stand, a New Orleans’ tradition for over 140 years and way, way off the tourist route. We piled 6 adults into the back of a pick up truck (seemed like a good idea at the time – but don’t they all!) and were soon throwing down chicory cafe au lait and hot beignets smothered in powdered sugar. Ten minutes before we were stuffed with paella, but we hit those doughnuts like we hadn’t eaten in a week.
And then it was New Years Eve, a night with a dubious reputation at best. I’ve spent NYE in a few party cities around the world, and this was, without a doubt, the best NYE ever. Hands down. Although we had avoided Bourbon Street all weekend, it just didn’t seem right to not at least take a walk there and witness the debauchery. We started at Bourbon and Canal and made our way through the Quarter. Along the way met a couple from Bavaria who had been to Tombstone 14 times to see the gunfights (crazy about cowboys, I guess?) and a guy made up as a cat who wanted to bite people. Hmmm . . .And there were all the balcony parties and beads. Just to set the record straight – I didn’t come home with beads!
It was time to get out of the Quarter and back over to the Marigny, with a refuelling stop at the Balcony Music Club. BMC with tt’s tiny back bar, awesome beer selection and hidden courtyard where Chef Larry serves everything from Boudin balls to the best Jambalaya in town had become a favourite and there was no fancy sit-down hotel event that could have been better.
The only place to be at midnight was street partying on Frenchman’s, which was so epic we almost missed midnight! Caught it with 2 minutes to spare and brought in 2013 with style, and a huge fireworks display shimmering over the Mississippi River. It was magic, maybe my favourite New Years Eve ever and I can’t imagine spending it any other way. Sorry, no pictures except the ones in my head, I was too busy having the best night ever!!
The one singer I managed to miss, twice, was John Boutte (always leave something undone so you have to go back), so here he is serving beignets and killing Sam Cooke in the first season of Treme.
And although he’s gone, Coco Robicheaux was a legend in New Orleans and he loved to play at our favourite dive, the Apple Barrel. His other favourite place to play was Eddie’s Attic in ATL.