New Orleans, Louisiana
A proper guide to New Orleans should begin with a proper pronunciation of the name. If you want to be on a good footing with the locals, do NOT say “New Orleens”. If you’re writing a song, it is generally accepted (“House of the Rising Sun”, “Dancing in the Streets”, “Proud Mary”, etc.); otherwise it should be “Nawlins.” It is not the largest city in the country, that would be New York. It is not the most beautiful city either, that could very well be San Francisco. It is by no means the cleanest (Salt Lake City maybe) or the safest (probably Honolulu) of places. If you want relaxing beaches, then Florida, California, or Hawaii should be your choice of destination. The star-gazer should head for Los Angeles. The “24-hour-non-stop-mainstream-activities” fan could go to Las Vegas or Orlando. The outdoor enthusiast would probably be better off in the northern parts of the country. If your desired profession is not exotic dancing, the city is no place for fortune seekers. However, these “deficiencies” contribute to give New Orleans its uniqueness and charm. This little story is designed to kill or confirm the myths about “The Big Easy,” and of course, make the reader want to go there.
The relentless heat and humidity hits you the second you step out of the nicely air-conditioned airport. “How can people live here?” the newcomer might ask. With temperatures peaking 110°F (45°C), and a humidity of 100 percent, outdoor activities are reserved for the insane. Minutes later in the air-conditioned car one might think of what life must have been like a century ago. Even the wealthy masters sitting in their designer clothes in their grand mansions watching the slaves working the cotton fields must have suffered. Maybe they had someone waving one of those silly fans in front of them?
Pulling out from the airport, a huge sign greets the visitor with the words “The Big Easy Welcomes You!”. Even though the city lives up to the name with its laid-back style and enjoyable atmosphere, it is not an easy task to understand what is going on behind the scenes.
Its history goes long back in time. Before European explorers settled down the area was inhabited by Native Americans. In 1718, French explorers established a settlement in the territory of Louisiana, and named it Nouvelle-Orléans. Following the partition of Louisiana between England and Spain in 1763, New Orleans became the capital of Spanish Louisiana. A rebellion (1768-1769) against Spanish rule was quickly suppressed. In 1800 New Orleans was secretly ceded to France; in 1803 it was formally ceded to France and then, by the terms of the Louisiana Purchase, to the United States.
Today the city with surroundings is the home of roughly one million people, of which some 60% are African-American, 35% are white, while the rest constitute a wide variety of people, including Hispanic, Asian, etc. One of the largest industries is obviously tourism, but also has the leading port in the United States, being the heart of the Mississippi traffic. The temporary visitor will have too short of a time and be too intoxicated by the atmosphere to dig deeper into the lives of the inhabitants. Make no mistake however; tradition is strong in the South. Without going too deeply into its sad history of ethnic conflicts, the fact that there is a diverse population and that integration is by no means complete must be mentioned. The people who live in the mansions will never associate with the people living in the housing projects only a few blocks away.
Is it very French? Yes and no. With some imagination the architecture with the lace balconies and pillars could be deemed French. Many names are French; Friloux, Prodeaux, Devoroux are common last names, while names of sites could be Lake Pontchartrain, Napoleon St., Café du Monde, etc. The French Quarters are for some reason referred to as Vieux Carré, meaning “The Old Square.” However, you are more likely to get by speaking French in East Los Angeles. Walking in to the nearest McDonald’s restaurant, the random gas station, or taking a tour on the bayou, makes one realize that these people were never ever close to deliberately speaking a word of French. French was never there, they learned English, and took it to a whole new level of incomprehensible gibberish. The Southern-ghetto-street-whatever tongue could make getting by in standard English a serious challenge. Considering the demographics of the population and the fact that the standard of public education in Louisiana is well below national average in the United States, it is no wonder that keeping the French language alive has had a very low priority. In fact, this is the true America. This is America fifty years ago – or 100 hundred years ago. The city is living its own life. It doesn’t care what happens in Washington DC, or what is going on in California, or in Europe, or anywhere outside the city limits for that matter. It sucks you in, and never lets you go.
The one thing that is dearest to the true Orleanians is the food. You don’t mess with their food. Telling Orleanians that they can’t have their food would have the same effect as telling an Englishman he can’t have his tea, a Canadian he can’t play hockey, or a Swede he can’t complain about the weather. Food is so much more than just nutrition. It’s a serious topic for discussion. “So you went for lunch, huh? Where did you go and what did you have?” “So you went to the movie theater. What did you eat?” “So you watched the ball game. What did you have to go with that?” Locals don’t watch news on TV. They watch cooking shows. Emeril has his own restaurants in town. Emeril has his own cooking show on TV. Emeril has his own sit-com on national television. Emeril rules. However, there is a reason that food is such a dominant issue. The food is good, probably as good as it gets. Creole, Cajun, and French cooking, any combination thereof, mixed with other cultural influences, means world-class culinary experiences. From the street Po-Boy stand to impossible-to-get-a-reservation-and-once-you-do-we-know-how-to-charge-you Commander’s Palace, whatever is on the menu is likely to satisfy the choosiest soul.
Just as characteristic to New Orleans as the food is the music. At any given time of the day and the year, anyone wandering around the French Quarters will be exposed to music. Be it the little boys stepping on the sidewalks, the same old man playing his trumpet outside Café de Monde, the jazz joint with the local jazz legend, or world-class superstars performing at the House of Blues, they all contribute to liven up the city. The city is very proud of being the claimed birthtown of jazz music, which brings a close association to the son of the city. Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo, was raised in the city before heading on to bigger things. The city seems to have set its mind to never being silent. There seems to be a live music bar on every street corner of the city, the biggest names possible are taking turns visiting New Orleans Arena or the Superdome, there are more music festivals than public holidays, and if there for any unthinkable reason should be a complete lack of live music, karaoke is a well-known concept here.
Laissez le bon temps roulez! – Let the good times roll! The phrase may or may not be used in the French language, but it’s most significant for the city. So far the main reason why people visit and love the city hasn’t been covered. People come to have fun. And people do have fun. Basically everywhere in the United States it is unthinkable, and strictly illegal, to drink beer on the streets. In New Orleans it’s not only accepted, it’s strongly encouraged to do so. Drive-through daiquiris – where else could you pull up your car to the window and order a drink? Most tourists don’t drive though, they end up on Bourbon Street. Rue Bourbon is not a place for the prude, the claustrophobic, the prejudiced, or the bore. It’s a place where souvenir shops fight for the space with bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, restaurants, and at the one end, maybe the most colorful block with all the rainbow flags hanging out the windows. The most famous place is Pat O’Brien’s pub, with its infamous Hurricane drinks. One of these dispels your lightweight date’s doubts about your near future together. Two would make Mr. Shy Guy sing along to the “Cheers theme” in the piano bar. Three could make a grown man cry. You are likely to run into any kind of freaks and geeks on Bourbon Street. You are, however, more likely to run into a polar bear than a local individual. With a “been there, done that” attitude, locals go to fancier and quieter uptown, preferably to St. Charles Avenue.
So what about this Mardi Gras thing then? Take a rather small street, say Bourbon Street, about one mile long, 30 feet wide. Add dirt, garbage, and water and other fluids up over your ankles, mixed with the smell of urine, alcohol, sweat, pot, and miscellaneous unknown substances. Throw in two million people during four days. Give them alcoholic beverages, lots of it. Lure them with the fact that they can exchange cheap plastic beads for a sneak peak of body parts not usually exposed, where the quality of the exposure is directly proportional to the quality of the bead. You have Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, start of the lent, leading up to Easter. That’s it? Not quite, there are also the parades, with elegantly ornamented floats with people throwing cheap gifts to the foot people, accompanied by high school bands marching more or less enthusiastically. The nobility amuse themselves at balls, while the peasants on the streets dance and sing. Comparing Mardi Gras with, say, an above average student nation party would have the same effect as comparing the same student party with a tea party at a retirement home near you. If you’re only going to one party in your life, this should be it.
So, even if I am not a food-loving jazz-digging drunk, is there a chance that the city would appeal to me? Absolutely. This is one side of it. There are millions more, in fact, one for each individual. He who travels has a story to tell. The story of New Orleans is one you want to tell, and one people want to hear.