Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Orleans (Part One)

I could do the usual song and dance about how crazy busy I've been (new job, new semester, blah blah, redundant cakes) and how ridiculous it is that I've gone more than a month without posting, but I'll just skip all that, skip the full and detailed recap of the last 6 weeks and just jump right in to recapping last weekend's wonderful trip to New Orleans, the craziest, most ridiculous, funnest, most delicious, hands down most singularly unique city I've ever experienced within this nation's borders.

The boyfriend and I arrived Friday on about three hours of sleep (I had worked until 11:30 the night before + early flight). We could have gone straight to sleep at the hotel but obviously the first thing we did was head into the French Quarter, propelled solely by adrenaline and the hunt for Bloody Mary's. As I quickly realized only steps from our gorgeous hotel (seriously, coolest hotel ever, Frank Sinatra stayed there, Elvis stayed there) New Orleans is not a city you ease your way into. New Orleans is a city you jump head first into. It's Oz. You arrive in black and white and suddenly wham bam, you're in technicolor. The saturation is cranked up, and you find yourself slightly dazed, looking around at a crazy, beautiful, drunken, slightly absurd new world.

We were on the "American" side of the city, but right next to Canal Street, which divides the American side from the French side, or French Quarter. We walked into the French Quarter and there were a million sights and sounds. People strolling down the street with drinks at 11am. Businesses hosing down the sidewalks in front of their shops (they do this in Paris, and as I found out throughout the weekend New Orleans is in some ways a bizarro version of Paris, only Americanized and southern, Paris' lewd, Creole, jazzy cousin). We walked down Bourbon for a little ways and it was everything you'd think Bourbon Street to be, strip clubs out and proud in broad daylight, bars with dance music already pumping before it was even noon, drunks stumbling around with their beers unhidden (no need for paper bags in this city). Stores filled with beads and masks. Signs advertising such exotic wonders as wine smoothies and jumbo beers (honestly the size of a small child)

But here's the thing about New Orleans. I was well primed for the drunkeness and the seediness of Bourbon Street. You hear about that. People talk about that. But in the French Quarter you turn off Bourbon Street, walk half a block, and all of that feels miles away (well maybe not the drunkenness, God bless it, that's available everywhere in the city). Suddenly this mix of Paris and Savannah and a hundred other undefinable bits and pieces of cities and cultures, Africa and Haiti and Spain. There are hundred plus year old restaurants everywhere. There is music everywhere. As in literally every block, starting in the morning and going all night. Street performers who are as good or better than most of the bands you hear on the radio, creative and open and practically vibrating with passion.

If I had to describe New Orleans in one word it would be passionate. The city crackles with it. I am so jealous of people from New Orleans, because they just seem to have that in their blood, passion for food and art and music, for everything. That's so in line with how I always aim to live my life. I know some people thing it's silly to get so excited about a meal or a drink or a song. But my opinion, which it seems like the city of New Orleans shares, is what's the point of life if you don't get ridiculously excited and passionate about a po' boy or the way a band sings a song or the way a Bloody Mary tastes right off a plane. Those things are life. And speaking of Bloody Mary's.

I got this one at Pere Antoine's, along with my first New Orleans po'boy. This one had shrimp and catfish, because really how could you choose just one delicious, fried water dwelling creature?

So, so good. I may have passed out a few times while eating it. It's all kind of a blur. After we ate we took a quick nap at our lovely hotel, and then headed back out for more. Even though the city is starting to gear up for Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl in February (it's going to be such gorgeous chaos), I was still surprised how many tourists were there in the middle of January. After a classy cocktail at our hotel's Sazerac bar (where the drinks the Sazerac and the Gin Fizz were invented, again this hotel could not have been cooler or have more history), we headed out and the streets were full of happy, tipsy people.

There was always such a nice mix wherever we went of people. Of course there were the usual college kids out to get as close to alcohol poisoning as possible without dying. But there were also groups of women on ladies' weekends, older couples, families, some locals perhaps stuck in there. All of the bars and restaurants we went to had this mix of people and it lent the whole place an air of genial, "we're all here to have a good time and eat enough Cajun/Creole food to gain several pounds" conviviality. For dinner Friday night we ate at K'Paul's. The chef is Paul Prudhomme (gotta love all the French surnames), who is apparently one of the first "celebrity" chefs. I wish I had pictures to show of the food I ate, but the time it would have taken to snap a photo would have meant at least five seconds of not stuffing my face, so unfortunately I couldn't make that sacrifice.

I got salmon with jambalaya and I've had "jambalaya" before, but this was no "jambalaya." This was jamba-freaking-laya. Jambalaya from the place jambalaya was born. Jambalaya in the wild if you will. So, so good. I almost wept when I was too full to finish it. Because we were trying to be good that first night and not put ourselves in the position of feeling like poo the next day, we took it relatively easy. I got my first to-go drink of the weekend, this delicious strawberry flavored beer from a local brewery, Covington (so many local breweries around New Orleans, apparently Blue Moon is from the region, again, most awesome things in life seem to originate in Louisiana).

really thrilled about this to-go drink culture (and WINE smoothies)

Then we walked to stand in line at Preservation Hall, a historic venue in New Orleans (although what in New Orleans isn't super historic is beyond me) that was founded to preserve jazz and features nightly jazz concerts.

(not my picture, stolen from Wikipedia)

There was a long line, but I had a to-go beer so I was happy as a clam. Honestly if to-go drinking were legal everywhere, people would be so much more relaxed about lines. Just think about how much more pleasurable the DMV would be. We got in luckily and were ushered into a tiny, no frills room.

if you couldn't tell, again not my picture, it was against the rules to take pictures inside, this is from the NY Times, those notorious rule breakers

We were at the very back and for the first half of the concert I could only see the tops of people's heads and occasionally shiny objects which I assumed were horns and trombones and the like (I am not a jazz expert). But I didn't care that I couldn't see. I could hear. Now like I said I am not a jazz expert. Up until this weekend I would not have even called myself a jazz fan. I associated jazz with a lot of discordant sounds and bleeps and bloops. But I don't think I had ever really heard jazz. Not like this. Not in a city like New Orleans. This is where jazz was born. An entire genre of music was born in this city. And to hear it there, in this little cramped room, in the middle of the French Quarter, surrounded by people who weren't talking or singing along or playing with cell phones, but just listening, quietly listening, nearly holding their breaths with listening. To hear it there made me instantly a jazz fan, instantly awed and surprised and knocked on my feet by how good it can be, how fun and silly and simultaneously soulful and honest jazz is. I can't describe the music. I can't talk about the instruments at any length. I can just say, if you're like me and think jazz is just a bunch of made up notes and funny sounds, go to New Orleans, go to Preservation Hall or any of the other number of venues with nightly live jazz, and just listen. Listen and more importantly hear. Because you'll hear it. Whatever jazz is, whatever it's meant to be. You'll hear it. I did.

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