Philadelphia Reflected

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 9 – part II.

239

Philadelphia, though the closest city to my home out of the three, is also the one I’ve experienced the least. Unfortunately, it landed at the end of the first leg of my trip, so I was pretty tired by the time I arrived and probably didn’t give it as much energy and attention as I did New York and Boston. I also didn’t spend too much time downtown, since most of the museums I visited where at the fringes of the city limits. So perhaps my view is biased a bit. With that acknowledged, I will say that it was not as interesting a city as the previous two. It seemed to lack that distinct personality that I think makes for a great city.

It does have some very nice qualities. The art museum was wonderful, for example, certainly more impressive than that of Boston, and could rival any art institution in the nation. There was ample support for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, which was competing for the Stanley Cup; every city bus flashed “Go Flyers” across its electronic screen. That sort of unified spirit was nice to encounter. The historical value of the Independence Mall sites is incalculable, and the visitor’s center is impressive. The Chestnut Hill area was, of course, stunning. I would move there in a heartbeat if I had the opportunity.  And I certainly ate well!

But as a whole, Philly struck me as pretty ordinary. It’s not really fair to compare this way, but it had neither the class of Boston nor the flash or New York, which made it rather underwhelming. This may seem like a lame consolation, but with all of its good snippets there is definitely a lot of potential to make the city a true destination. Karen told me that for a long time Philadelphians had an inferiority complex; I am rooting for them to step up their game!

221

Relax. It’s Just New Orleans.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 16.

060

Left my house ungodly early this morning to fly to N E W   O R L E A N S!!! 

I was up too late packing to be awake during my 7 am flight, but I was pretty alert by the time we stopped in Birmingham for about half an hour to let more passengers on board.  Two steel magnolias sat next to me and were excited to hear I was going to the Big Easy for the first time; one of them tried to recommend bars for me but was admonished by the other: “Now, she is too young!”  “Oh, but Gary would take good care of her!”… and then they dissolved into laughter.

I was crazy excited to start the “frontier” leg of my summer journey, and had no idea what to expect from New Orleans.  But with my trusty travel buddy Andy I knew for sure that it would be a blast, and these blonde ladies only stirred my anticipation. 

We landed and I hurried off the plane to find Bigger Pink, a suitcase even larger and pinker than my other one, which I had checked because, with Southwest, Bags Fly Free!  I tried not to die of excitement while I waited for Andy’s plane from St. Louis to land, and then he ARRIVED and it was a grand reunion!!!

If I thought it was hot walking out of the hotel in Boston, I was wrong.  That was like warm, soothing bath water.  Walking out into New Orleans was like entering Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace with no hope that faith would save us.  The humidity was at 90%.  It was bad. 

We took a cab to the hotel, which was located right in the heart of the French Quarter.  It was really nice, even if the lobby was trying a little too hard to be lounge-tastic, and our floor was dedicated to jazz legend and clarinet god Benny Goodman. 

Andy and I dove right into the city by walking down infamous Bourbon Street.  We were silent for a bit, taking in the fact that our surroundings looked and felt like nowhere else either of us had ever been.  It was sun-drenched and quiet, with dulled neon signs advertising liquor and ladies below wrought iron balconies.  Every few steps we’d pass a bar with music blaring, though no one was inside.  There was a cluster of sex shops with very busty mannequins lined up in the windows. 

Andy turned to me.

“It’s like a hangover out here.”

That was it, precisely.  There were hints of the previous evening’s debauchery, but the street looked feeble in the bright afternoon.  Bourbon Street is meant to be seen at night; like one of its heavily made-up stripers, it’s much less enticing up-close in the daylight. 

255

It still managed to intimidate, however.  The blatancy of the establishments was breath-taking: This is where tourists get very drunk, this is where they watch people take their clothes off, this is where they buy very small souvenir underwear.  Bourbon Street’s attitude was best expressed by one of its own neon signs, which read, not especially reassuringly, “Relax.  It’s Just Sex.”

Simultaneously under- and overwhelmed, we ducked into an alley leading to a guidebook-recommended restaurant, The Gumbo Shop.  The heat led us to pass on the lovely outdoor seating, and we slid into a corner table in the high-ceilinged dining room.  The place felt lushly tropical, with plant-frond fans turning lazily overhead as waiters refilled water glasses beaded with sweat.  It felt like Havana.  I started to relax.

We went creole authentic with our orders, with a catfish po’boy for me and gumbo for Andy.  Our food was preceded by a crusty baguette wrapped in wax paper and simply laid on the table, which, paired with the décor, made me feel like a French colonial on a Caribbean plantation.  It was a great meal, and it was with some reluctance that I stepped back into surreality.

Andy and I threaded through the Quarter, down to Jackson Square.  The park was a lovely arrangement of big-leafed plants and benches surrounding a statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.  The gleaming white St. Louis Cathedral across the street looked a little like Cinderella’s Castle.  Outside the park, artists were selling their paintings next to donkey-drawn carriages awaiting passengers.  There were lots of tourists milling about, sweating, and nearly as many street musicians seeking their spare change.  Outside the Café du Monde there was a man strutting with a tuba, which he was playing badly.  It was all very charming, and I began to feel more comfortable.

We toured the Pontalba apartment museum, the 1850 House.  Afterward, we walked along the Mississippi River; it was wide and brown and beautiful.  We stood on the dock and dipped toes in the famous waterway, looking upriver toward Andy’s home in St. Louis.  A very affectionate couple cuddled nearby.  Andy successfully fended off a man seeking to shine his shoes, and we headed back to the air conditioned hotel, passing the bright red paddle wheel boats.

There’s a free ferry that crosses the river from the base of Canal Street, and I had wanted to ride it during the sunset.  I mistimed it, though, and poor Andy ended up following me at a break-neck speed down the road only to discover that the boat had already left.  I pouted, sweating, for a few minutes, until Andy rightly convinced me that the ride would be just as nice as the light was fading.  (He’s very patient with me.)  The view of the skyline was beautiful as we pulled away, and I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a breeze so much. 

The city was waking up during the return trip, one pinprick of light at a time. We disembarked, passed Harrah’s casino, and headed to the source of the neon glow: Bourbon Street.

It was a different world.  Throngs of people illuminated by bar signs streamed up and down the road, which was closed to car traffic.  Overhead, people leaned over balcony railings, catcalling to passersby and rewarding some – the lucky? the unlucky? – by flinging plastic beaded necklaces at their feet.  One balcony, above a strip club, was outfitted with a disco-ball and bra-clad dancers. 

058

The bars and “nude girls” establishments that were sad and empty in the day had turned into frenetic hives of activity, their promoters aggressively trying to draw in customers.  One of the more baffling techniques they used was to simply stare down a passing tourist and gesture with to him or her with an index finger to come inside; it seemed to have a hypnotic effect.  Live bands were trying to drown each other out from their respective bars.  We passed blasts of country music, jazz, and zydeco, and stood outside of each for a few minutes to listen.  [wpvideo 8gCYFvUr]

Despite the loose atmosphere, most places required customers to be 21 years old to enter, and bouncers were carding.  I felt bad that I was holding us back and that we couldn’t pop inside to hear any of the music.  But the real experience, I think, is just walking along the street and soaking in the fun madness.         [wpvideo ZgTd2DbX]

Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the city’s liberal open-container policy, which permits alcohol consumption on the streets as long as it’s not out of glass bottles.  Nearly every bar advertised drinks “To-Go,” each one promoting its own specialty.  One New Orleans specialty is called the Hurricane.  It’s a bright pink frozen slushy drink full of unidentified alcohol; Andy picked one up for $5 from a dimly-lit stand in the wall.  It was sickly sweet and alcohol-bitter at the same time, and probably pretty strong!

028

[wpvideo Q6XPFNjF]

I was infuriated when we passed a group of young children in church t-shirts handing out evangelical literature; a group of them was standing in the center of the street, supporting a large wooden cross.  Their adult handlers were standing a little ways off.  The kids called out asking about the state of our souls, and it took all my self control not to go over there and point out the incongruity of manipulating children while exposing them to the stripers parading the streets.  *Sigh.*

Andy and I ducked into Remoulade, a casual little brother restaurant to Arnaud’s, one of the oldest and fanciest restaurants in the Quarter.  It was so cold and peaceful inside compared to the sweaty ruckus on the street; it was WONDERFUL.  It 10 pm and fairly empty, unlike the rowdier bars, but it was so nice to just sit in the air conditioning and survey the creole menu.  Andy ordered these DELICIOUS crawfish pies, and I ate really good stuffed crabs.  Great place!

062

Back on Bourbon, and we really started to enjoy the scene.  Basically, you just have to take the crazy and run with it.  We noticed that it seemed to be mostly 30 and 40-year-olds milling about; where do the younger people hang out?  I saw a middle-aged woman flash a balcony, much to everyone’s delight. 

We turned back toward the hotel, but not before picking up another New Orleans favorite, the Hand Grenade.  Sold in a green plastic glass with a little knobby end shaped to look like a bomb attached to a long funny tube with a straw, it was another sweet, liquor-y frozen mess.  Perfect way to end our first day in the chaos that is the Crescent City.

030

Recommended Eating: Gumbo Shop, Remoulade

Recommended Walking: Jackson Square, Mississippi River front, Bourbon Street at night

Recommended Activities: Canal Street-Algiers Ferry

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Now, Baby

THURSDAY, JUNE 17.

037

This morning we used the bus system to venture out to Midtown and St. John’s Bayou, where one of the NOLA house museums is located.  To Andy’s chagrin, I hadn’t come up with a breakfast plan, and there wasn’t enough time before the bus arrived to find a real meal, so we had to make do with a hotel fruit-bowl apple and a McDonald’s snack wrap. 

Bus systems in general get a lot of guff, but I have ridden several this summer and have never had a bad experience.  This ride was no exception.  Sure, you encounter characters, but that sort of local flavor is what makes a trip memorable.  So when your high horse gets tired, people, get on the bus. 

It was a sweltering walk from the bus stop to the Pitot House Museum.  We followed the curve of the bayou – a real bayou!  heavily manicured and tamed, but still! – around a quiet neighborhood, then saw the bright green and yellow home with a big garden out front.  The tour was very nice, and it was really interesting to learn about a French colonial house, which I’d never seen before.  Ask me and I’ll tell you the difference between a balcony and a gallery!

031

The docent recommended we take the streetcar instead of the bus back to the French Quarter (snob!), so we crossed the bayou and waited in by the track in the median of the street.  The sun was beating down mercilessly.  We were at the end of the line, and after several miserable minutes Andy looked down and spotted something heart-sinking: a little sign that read “out of service.”  We had already missed the bus and now apparently were doomed to spend an eternity melting in the middle of the road.  A few calls to the city’s transportation department later, however, reassured us that the street car was actually still running – but I’ll admit we didn’t quite believe it until we were sitting on that miraculous air conditioned trolley.

Back in the Quarter.  It was high time for lunch, and we sought out a famous New Orleans sandwich at its original source: the Muffuletta at Central Grocery.  I had looked it up before coming to New Orleans, and was not sure what to think about the description of a giant Italian meat and cheese sandwich on flat bread covered in olive salad and olive oil.  But there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to eat something with that name.   

036

Central Grocery turned out to be a charming Italian grocery store, so cluttered with stacks of imported pasta and oils and preserves that it was difficult to find the line for the counter.  The wooden behemoth was waist-high and stretched the entire length of the store; behind it were shelves upon shelves of Mediterranean goods. 

035
034

Only one sandwich was advertised on the sackcloth banner overhead: the Muffuletta, sold by the half or whole.  My guide book had this to say about what size to order: “Beware!  The Muffulettas are HUGE!”  Besides being possibly the funniest sentence ever printed, this was a direct challenge, and besides, we hadn’t had breakfast!  We ordered the whole.  I was grateful for the giant counter when we finally made it to the front of the line: it served as a barrier between us and the surly balding butcher, whose knuckles bore swastika tattoos. 

The sandwich was extreme by every measurement; it had the same diameter as a medium pizza, it was three inches in height, and it was DELICIOUS.  The olive spread was great-tasting; I’d never had anything like it so I don’t know what to compare it to.  It was olive-oil greasy and savory and had carrots and herbs and got all over the place.  The bread was rich with oil and the unidentified meats and cheese were fantastic.  Friends, you have not lived until you have gorged on a muffuletta. 

032

We struggled to eat the whole thing at the counters in back of the store, where every other customer was face-deep in the same kind of sandwich.  It was a community of indulgence. 

After digesting for a while, we headed back into the heat and explored the area’s art and gift shops and the Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans statue.  Then we found seats inside the blissfully cold Jazz National Historical Park, an outpost of the National Park Service offering free afternoon programs.  We attended a lecture-performance about the musical genres indigenous to Louisiana, presented by two park ranger musicians and their drummer friend.  I had thought it would be a good way to experience the culture of the city, since jazz is so tied to its identity, and it did provide a nice overview, even if it was a little bizarre.  One of the rangers, Bruce, was a big black guy with the sweetest bass voice; he played the piano and African drums and spoke to us in different dialects of creole.  The other ranger played the guitar.  Together, they covered Mardi Gras Indian history and music, zydeco, funeral jazz, among other styles.  The small audience was less than enthusiastic about clapping when instructed, but more than happy to inundate the performers with pesky questions.  When someone dared to ask Bruce if New Orleans was really where jazz originated, I thought the gentle giant was gonna step off the stage and start something!

It had rained during the show, but the humidity did not diminish.  On our way back to the hotel, we stopped into the St. Louis Cathedral, whose interior was bright white with gild-outlined murals.  Our route took us along Royal Street, a quaint strip of antiques shops and art galleries, easily the classiest part of the French Quarter.

049

We returned outside after a long air conditioned retreat, hoping that the setting of the sun would have cooled the air.  No such luck.  Tonight’s jaunt down Bourbon Street offered some new delights, including a cluster of mounted police.  (As in, they were on horses.  We are talking about Bourbon Street, but please, people!)  Perhaps they were actually interested in maintaining order, but they didn’t seem to mind when women came up to stroke their beasts.  (The HORSES.)

057

We walked all the way down the road, past the crowds, past the gay clubs, past the lights, until it was just shadowed buildings half-hidden in the gloom.  It was spooky, and each passing person made me jump a little.  We were searching for a highly-recommended restaurant down this side of the Quarter, but hadn’t counted on the dark silence.

Bourbon Street ended and we turned left, passing crooked houses and homeless men.  Just as we were considering turning back, we spotted it: the hanging wooden sign for Port of Call. 

Andy did the “walk-by” to check it out, but there was no way to see in.  So we pulled open the door and stepped into the COOLEST PLACE on earth.

And I’m not just talking air conditioning.  It was almost darker inside than it was out, but my eyes adjusted and I made out a huge U-shaped bar that took up the whole of the right-side room. Every seat was taken by a happy-looking lady or gent.  Next to me stood a glowing jukebox, whose selections were fantastic: rather than with 1950s nonsense it was stocked with the gods of classic rock.  The ceiling was draped with thick swaths of fishing net and the floors and walls were made of wide planks of wood.  It felt like the hole of a pirate ship.

We were seated and squinted in the darkness to the make out the menu that was pinned to the wall.  The only food options were steaks and burgers, and the drinks all had tropical names.  Andy ordered a local Louisiana beer, Abita, which I gotta say was good-tasting! 

Soon two HUGE cheeseburgers were sitting before us.  They were accompanied by equally large baked potatoes.  As I took a bite of the incredible monster, a Janis Joplin screamer came on the juke box and filled the bar.  Had to sing along as Andy laughed. 

The night was delicious, glorious, magnificent –

You know you got it if it makes you feel good  

063

Recommended Eating: Muffuletta from Central Grocery, Burger from Port of Call.  You MUST eat at both of these places.  MUST.

Recommended Visting: St. Louis Cathedral

Museum Alternatives

FRIDAY, JUNE 18.

This morning, Becky had made a special appointment with an individual at the Hermann-Grima House, a historic structure that sat on the portentously named Saint Louis street smack dab in the center of the French Quarter.  We nabbed a quick breakfast of lightly heated almond croissants at the nearby Antoine’s Annex, and before I knew it, I was on my own and in desperate need of something to do, especially since my constant source of amusement was no longer walking next to me.

Becky and I had thought it might be a good idea for me to investigate the Harrah’s casino, a big ‘ol gambling complex at the end of Canal Street.  I started walking in that direction from within the Quarter, and as I thought about how much that Hand Grenade cost me the night before, my pace quickened — it was time to make that money back!  I had never been inside of a casino before, but really, how hard could it be?

As I neared the casino, I passed a gaggle of grade schoolers heading into the nearby Audubon Insectarium and snickered.  Sorry kids, it was time for some adult entertainment.
_mg_2452_mg_2455_mg_2457_mg_2461_mg_2463_mg_2466
I strolled into the Harrah’s and flashed my 21+ card at the woman in the front, who let me in, and I barely made it ten steps before my footfalls slowed to a stop.  This was one big place (115,000 square feet, to be exact).  Hundreds upon hundreds of slot machines (2,100, to be exact) lined the walls and dotted the floor, and dozens upon dozens of gaming tables (100, to be exact) drew all sorts of crowds.  A Fuddrucker’s wedged into a corner reminded me of home, an an elaborate pirate ship a few feet down housed an entire bar.  What a spectacle!

I must have awkwardly walked around for ten or fifteen minutes before I had pieced together how to play the slots.  I exchanged a $20.00 bill for four fives, then found a machine that looked like it’d pay a pretty penny (medieval-themed, a good sign).  In went five dollars.  A few dozen button presses later, another five followed suit.  I got some lucky spins, but still no dice — gambling was hard!

I put in my third $5.00 bill and sure enough, a few spins through my money, the machine started to buzz and sing and hum and red gemstones and golden coins spewed forth on the digital display.  As my earnings for the spin shot upwards, I thought they would never stop — but stop they did, at just under $40.00.  Not bad at all!
_mg_2460
Remembering that age-old adage of “Quit while you’re ahead,” I selected the CASH OUT button and got my pay slip, which I quickly exchanged for cold hard cash.  I breathed a sigh of relief: There’s no way I would have faced up to Becky later on if I left in the hole!  After all, I’m trying to establish myself as a responsible adult that makes wise financial choices, here.  Something tells me being out $15.00 wouldn’t have made much of an impression on her.

Grinning, I trotted back out of the casino and back towards the Hermann-Grima and Becky.  The whole excursion probably took no more than 45 minutes, and I found myself back in the Quarter much sooner than I expected.  As I started walking laps around the block in the sweltering heat, the cool darkness of the casino I had just left came to mind more than just once or twice.  Maybe I could have made even more if I had spent that last $5.00 bill, some primal and poor decision-making fragment of me mused.

I shook my head free of the thought, smiled, and dropped down to sit on the curb across from the museum that Becky would be coming out of fifteen hot and sweaty minutes later.

Thwarted! and Rewarded

FRIDAY, JUNE 18.

Today, there was breakfast. 

Before my morning museum appointment, we slid into Antoine’s Annex, the chic black-and-white patisserie little sister to that New Orleans’ institution, Antoine’s.  I got to relive my Philadelphia-with-Karen experience by eating a crown-shaped almond croissant, which was just as good as that very first one. 

Andy and I parted ways, he toward the bottom of Canal Street and Harrah’s Casino (see his post, Museum Alternatives) and I toward the Hermann-Grima House.  It had a private courtyard and iron-barred windows, and since I thought I was a little early, I stood in line behind an elderly woman who I assumed was also waiting for the doors to open.  Turns out, she was waiting for the restroom and the building was already unlocked.  So I popped inside, where a reed of a girl told me she would give me the tour and drop me off at my interviewee’s office afterward.

The house was HUGE and gorgeous; both families who lived in it must have been ludicrously wealthy.  To my surprise and gratification, there was a huge freestanding three-story outbuilding in the back courtyard, which housed the kitchen, the laundry room, and the slave quarters.  The girl led me to the museum director’s office, and we talked for a bit before she set before me the slavery research reports and docent tour guidelines.  I perused and photographed them, then went back outside to find my big spender. 

He won!  Andy was melting on a stoop.  So we walked through the Quarter to the residential Fauberg-Marigny neighborhood to the Praline Connection, a restaurant that had been recommended for its namesake confections.  The wait staff was dressed like my high school’s jazz band, in black suspenders and fedoras, which seemed a little out of place in the casual dining room, but it was cute.  The menu offered Southern home cooking, which we enjoyed.  I bought a few pralines from the adjoining bakery, and Andy’s puzzled expression upon biting into his mirrored how I felt: the city is famous for this?  They were kind of sweet and weirdly chewy and just kind of made me thirsty.

We toured the Gallier House with a young docent in a newsboy cap, who was incredibly knowledgeable but seemed to lack entirely a sense of humor. 

Guide: “On your right is the Isolation Chamber-”

Me: “Hahahaha-”

Guide:  [Stares.]

He was also rather curt in replying to Andy’s very legitimate questions.  The house was in its state of “summer dress,” meaning that all the mirrors and furniture were covered in white gauze.  The effect was that of a haunted house in the daylight.   

Like every other, the day was hot.  I thought a nice afternoon activity would be to ride the historic St. Charles Streetcar to the Garden District to see the big pretty Victorian Mansions, since it would be scenic and cool and we would be seated.  To our vexation, there was a huge crowd waiting to pick up the streetcar, which took about half an hour to arrive.  When it did, there were so many people that we ended up having to stand.  To make things worse, “historic” streetcar apparently means “not air conditioned.”  So it was not the pleasant experience I had envisioned.

We got off the car in the Garden District and oriented ourselves in the big Borders that occupies what used to be a giant Victorian funeral parlor.  Andy kindly indulged my desire to follow the guidebook’s walk through the neighborhood, despite the heat.  We passed one Victorian beauty after another, whose manicured gardens would make Colonial Williamsburg jealous.  The huge front porches were empty, however; what a waste, to have a great porch and lovely view in the relentless New Orleans summer heat!

We saw one of the city’s famous, eerie above-ground cemeteries, in which the dead are entombed in giant marble mausoleum boxes because the water level in New Orleans is so high.  (This is also why there can be no subway system here.  Natch.) 

Poor boy was wilting.  We caught the St. Charles streetcar heading back into the Quarter, this time with a seat by the window.

Happily, we were able to catch the ferry again tonight, this time during the sunset.  It was worth it – what magic…

Last night’s flavor fest at Port of Call had us itching to return, but we felt it would be cheating the travel experience to go someplace twice.  So we walked along Bourbon Street toward a different burger place.  Friday night on Bourbon, the decadence had reached its acme.  The police-on-horseback were back, joined this time by squadron of firemen perched on the back of their fire truck, not even pretending to ignore the delighted women flocking to them. 

The burger place had a bouncer out front, and to our frustration it turned out that patrons have to be 21 years old to enter.  The reason?  There was an exposed slot machine inside, and one must be 21 years old to gamble in the state of Louisiana.  I shook my fist at the sky – I just want a damn hamburger! 

Crestfallen and hungry, we debated our options.  Port of Call was getting extremely tempting.  But we held to our principles (the only two people doing so on the whole street) and sought sustenance elsewhere.  Andy’s handy iPhone suggested Clover Leaf, a tiny 24-hour diner in the rainbow-flag-bedecked stretch of the road known for its sassy gay waiters.  Each of the no-more-than-twenty seats was full when we peeked in the window, and a nearby drunk guy offered his unsolicited opinion that the food wasn’t worth the wait, but we took our chances and rushed inside as soon as two seats at the counter were free.

The waiters were more surly than sassy (though the guy sitting on the other side of me certainly was), and it took about half an hour for our order to be taken, but it was a really fun little place and we passed the time reading the delightfully rude quips hidden throughout the menu.  The burgers were not quite as good as those at Port of Call, but they were still excellent, as was the strawberry milkshake that eventually found its way to my patch of counter.

We finished our last evening in the Big Easy in Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a pitch-black bar inside a falling-down 18th century building.  The sign out front informed us that it was “the oldest building in America used as a bar,” and I did not doubt it: the floors, walls, and ceilings were made of beautiful hardwoods and the place was lit only by candles. 

The place was packed with happy twenty-somethings – we’d found where the youth of New Orleans come out to play!  There was a woman playing a baby grand piano in the back, which people were using as a counter, an adjacent outdoor courtyard, and a big bar hidden behind clusters of customers.  Every door and window was thrown open, letting in the breeze.  We soaked it all in for a little while, the heat, the candlelight, the energy, the Abita, the life – then rejoined the night, two hand-in-hand travelers together in the crowd.

BEIGNETS

SATURDAY, JUNE 19, Part I.

There is one experience you cannot miss if you are visiting New Orleans.  Friends, family, guidebooks, random people on the street, they will all tell you that there is one absolute essential: beignets and café au lait at the original Café du Monde.

This morning was our last in town, and we had yet to savor those little French doughnuts down by the Mississippi.  Silly Andy was starting to question if he would ever get to try one.  As if I would pass up a required trip to a bakery and cultural institution – puh-lease!  So it was with great anticipation that we walked down through the Quarter, past Jackson Square, to the beckoning green-and-white awning. 

There was a big line for outside seating, which had the added negative of being open to the heat.  I sneaked around to the front and realized that there were plenty of free tables inside in the cool air, so Andy and I snagged one and were waited upon in seconds by a poor young waitress who already looked exhausted.  We got two orders of the beignets and one frozen, one hot café au lait, and awaited them eagerly.

They came out all on one little plate, a glorious heap of fried dough hidden under snow banks of powdered sugar.  We both took hold of one, gingerly so as not to disturb the sugar, and toasted our successful New Orleans adventure.  Then it was just facefulls of steaming dough for ten straight minutes.  There was the occasional purr.  The plush beignets tore apart with a little knowing, the effort of which sent the top coat of sugar flying.  I knew from my mother’s advice not to breathe out while eating one, since that would disperse the sugar to the wind, but even holding my breath it was hard to keep it under control.  The rest of the sugar clumped upon contact with the hot inside of the dough.  The whole affair was delectable, especially when paired with the incredible sweet frozen café au lait.  Tradition fulfilled, with pleasure.

249
250

Andy went back to the hotel to pack up, while I tried and failed to find one last museum.  It was closed, so instead I just meandered back through the French Quarter, seeing what was left to see.  It’s a crazy place, but wonderful.  We bid Benny Goodman farewell, checked out of our hotel, and advanced to the Amtrak station for our next adventure.             

251

Required Eating: Cafe du Monde

New Orleans: Reflected

First thought I had: what COUNTRY is this?  Walking through the French Quarter, it’s not quite clear.  One part Caribbean, one part French, one part insanity, there is no place else in America that can compare with the Crescent City. 

In the day, it can honestly be a little bit miserable.  It’s so hot and humid that sightseeing becomes a mere race from one air conditioned building to the next.  The touristy areas verge on depressingly tacky in the daylight, and no one likes to look a bar full in the face in the light of day.  Attempts to keep the streets clean result in huge puddles on every street and sticky dripping balconies overhead.

There are endearing aspects.  It is the city that birthed jazz, and the majority of the street musicians were highly impressive.  (The man playing the clarinet in front of the cathedral gave me SUCH talent-envy – the Philharmonic should hire that guy!)  The restaurants we tried for lunch were great, if a little expensive.  I image a riverboat ride would be lovely, and the museums we visited were some of the nicest I’ve seen.  The wrought-iron architecture is splendid and unique, as are the hanging balcony gardens.  And there is nothing better in the world than a beignet breakfast, lunch, or snack at Café du Monde.

But the night!  That’s where New Orleans shines.  I have limited experience with such things, but I suspect that, for those to whom it appeals, the New Orleans nightlife cannot be beat.  Once darkness falls, there are casinos, dance clubs, live music joints, and bars as far as the eye can see.  Certainly no other city embraces public drinking with as much zeal! 

You have to be open to a little craziness to enjoy a visit here.  And it would help to be 21; whether or not you are interested in alcohol, your dining and entertainment options will be limited otherwise.  Thank you for looking out for my safety and legality, New Orleans, but come on!  This is not a place to hang out with your family or your religious group, that’s for sure.

No matter what your evening style, you should definitely come down here, and come while you’re young.  It would be a great shame to miss out on this culture and live vicariously through this excitement.

Despite the heat and initial trepidation, I really enjoyed New Orleans!  And besides, you just couldn’t beat the company <3