New Orleans


Free refills on Bloody Marys. Seriously.

I have a long tradition of blogging during my travels, and I travel a lot.  I made a conscious decision some years ago to take fewer photos and to write more.  Let me tell you, it was one of the wisest moves of my life.

When we travel, we spend so much time, energy and attention on photographing or filming a particularly interesting scene that we often fail to fully appreciate the moment.  The irony is that we rarely ever revisit that photo or video that we painstakingly made.

When I re-read my old blog posts from various nooks about the world, however, I am instantly reminded of the tone, cadence and smell of a place, in a way that mere images fail to convey.

But writing is harder than snapping a photo.  It can be a chore, especially when you’re sleepy, drunk, tired, hungry or hungover.  Pressing a button is so much easier.

Last year, I flirted briefly with recording audio podcasts from various stops in Turkey, in lieu of blogging.  I have yet to do anything with those recordings, but I will soon.  Yet I still found time to blog about Turkey, and I’m grateful that I did so.

This past week I went to New Orleans, Louisiana, with my regular travelling buddy Adam.  I’m a very busy man.  I don’t even have time anymore to think about my vacation destination.  Wait, did I say vacation?  I don’t even take vacations.  I was still working while away in “The Big Easy”.  I knew nothing of the place, of its history, geography or even its attractions, except for some vague idea about Mardi Gras and seafood.

Seriously, all I could think about were those glorious hours on the plane when no email or phone call could reach me, and I would be allowed some uninterrupted time to read.  (Kids, if you are angry when you have to read a novel for school, please line line up so that I can kick each and every one of you right in the ass.  Reading is one of the world’s finest pleasures; and opportunity to indulge in it is slowly stripped from you as you age.)

So this past trip was a rare opportunity to discover a place in real time, as it were, with no expectations or foreknowledge.

Yes, I took some photos.  If you want to see them, they’re publicly available on my Flickr site.  And the videos I took are available on Youtube.

I don’t have any specific observation to make about New Orleans, mostly because I’m exhausted and overwhelmed.  So here are a few random points:

  • At one point, I was wandering the streets with pepto-bismol.  Seriously. A homeless guy asked me to pour some into his beer, because he had stomach pains.  So I did.
  • On a diner menu, it said, “Free refills on coffees and bloody marys.”  And yes, you could get the last bloody mary to go.
  • At one early point in its history, New Orleans was populated by incarcerated criminals and prostitutes from France.  That’s right: pros and cons.
  • I can honestly say that of all my many Earthly travels, New Orleans is among my favourite places (probably top 5), and easily my number one favourite place in the USA.
  • I met so many extremely nice and extremely intelligent people.  We tend to have a stereotype of linking Southern accents with less education.  But I found people with the thickest accents to be those with extraordinary knowledge and insight.  Of course, I’m not surprised by this, but it’s an important thing to point out.
  • I live in a francophone city, work in a bilingual francophone-anglophone job, yet was not surprised by the degree of French iconography in New Orleans, so distantly removed from any actual use of the French language.
  • The lingering presence of Napoleon was a tad surprising.  There’s a building in the French quarter that once was offered as a refuge for Bonaparte.  The presumed death mask of the Emperor is displayed in the Cabildo museum. I was thrilled to see it, even though I was too cheap to pay to see Napoleon’s actual tomb the last time I was in Paris.
  • After seeing a dude walking around dressed as a giant turkey, and another guy playing the fiddle while dressed as a werewolf… and neither asking for money or advertising a store… I found the following quote from a tour guide to be most apropos: “In New Orleans, we don’t hide crazy away.  We put it on the front porch and offer it a cocktail.”
  • A lover of word etymologies, I was happy to discover the origins of the following terms:
    • Bag of bones: in the “oven tombs” of New Orleans, bodies naturally cremate due to the heat within the structures, making room for the next body to be stored in the same tomb.  Sometimes the tomb is opened before complete cremation, and what is found is a “bag of bones”.
  • I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole: the aforementioned oven tombs are 11 feet deep.  A 10 foot pole was used to push the remnants of an old corpse to the back of the tomb.
  • Dead ringer: Much like “saved by the bell”, this has reference to an old practice of attaching a bell to the inside of a tomb, just in case the person had been buried alive and wished to alert the living.  This might not be the true origin of the term, as per this explanation.
  • Don’t let the bed bugs bite: the spidery moss collected from the Louisiana swamp used to be collected as stuffing for pillows.  But inside of them live all sorts of nasties, including chiggers and other nocturnal bloodsuckers.
  • A friend on Facebook accurately pointed out that New Orleans stands alone against the pressing homogenization of America.
  • The history of the place fills me with such great joy, especially its multiracial and multicultural histories, its well documented role of women, and its genuine celebration and tolerance of the weirdness of the individual.  As someone who feel strongly about the right of the individual to espouse his or her own beliefs and personal lifestyle, I rarely see that belief truly respected, despite much rhetoric about “freedom”; New Orleans strikes me as a place whose reality more closely matches its rhetoric.

It’s an endlessly fascinating city.  I often complain that I can’t find easily accessible historical sites in a given city.  Not New Orleans.  So if you haven’t visited it yet, go for it.