New Orleans was exactly the same as the United States that I had come to know, and yet somehow markedly different. It was familiar and yet other.
We travelled there from Fort Lauderdale over the Christmas holiday, taking advantage of the how cheap petrol is in this country and hoping to be able to see a little more of the nation. We arrived the day before Christmas after a few notable stops along the way. Sushi (surprisingly enough) at Masa in Tallahassee, an unforgettable southern barbecue at Hot Spot Barbecue in Pensacola, and cocktails at the Haberdasher in Mobile, Alabama. As usual, when exploring new areas food and drink came first.
Having read and loved novels such as A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, and of course Tennessee Williams's classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, I couldn’t wait to get out exploring the city that had been so often and memorably portrayed in American fiction. Which is what, I think, made the French Quarter, and especially Bourbon Street, a little disappointing. I suppose I wanted a little of that old run down flavour, the coming together of cultures as well as cuisines that I had read about and imagined. Instead, the city itself seemed at first just like any other - drunk tourists slowly stalking the streets with their phones out and the tacky traps designed to part them with their money. I felt we could have been anywhere in the world and not in this iconic and historic city.
We went to Café Du Monde and waited in line for half an hour for no other reason than that we were in New Orleans and so had to, and we came away clasping our warm, flowery beignets and chicory coffees. It was only afterwards, when we sat on the bank of the Mississippi slowly munching these treats, spilling dustings of sugar onto our jeans, that I truly felt what it was I was searching for. Below our feet the turgid expanse of water flowed slowly by as the fog rolled in and out, so that at times we could see the far bank and the steamboats on either side and at others we could not see the water at all. It was in seeing that fog that I understood how easy it is to believe in ghosts in New Orleans. Only then, with the warmth of the coffee in my hands, did I feel content; I felt like I was in a truly unique place.
Over the next few days we saw the brass bands playing on Chartres Street, ducked into small dive bars to see virtuosos of the jazz piano on Frenchmen Street, visited the plantation houses that mark that part of the world, and rode the iconic streetcars. We saw small hints of the literary culture: a man selling poetry on the cobbled street, a half-dozen beautiful second-hand bookstores, a bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly. Most of all, though, we ate and drank. We found a modern cocktail bar called The Kingfish that infused old-world chic with hints of the bayou and sat and ate and drank and read as the afternoon wore on.
When travelling I’ve always found that the best way to do it is through food and drink. Only then can you really stop and relax and enjoy yourself. Too often the rest is just for the tourists, no real reflection of the history and the place.
So yes, in the end I did find the New Orleans I was searching for; it lives in the food and the music and in the literature, and it’ll be there when you you’re ready to find it.
P.S. On the way back we stopped off in Pensacola again for the BBQ - it really was delicious.