It’s not that the story of my tipsy eating marathon in New Orleans wasn’t interesting, but it offers an incomplete picture of the fantastic things that this city has to offer. That’s why I thought it would only be fair to share some more sober impressions and explain what makes the atmosphere there so unique.
Do you speak creole? …or cajun?
New Orleans has a strong, singular personality. The product of this cultural mélange is greater than the sum of its parts (French, Spanish, African and Caribbean) and gives the city its dazzling and vibrant creole identity — whether it’s in the food, the music, the architecture or the language. Not to be confused with Cajun French, derived from the Acadian French as it was spoken in the colony of Acadia. It makes for a rich and diverse linguistic landscape. And as a French person, I always enjoy finding French influences in the colorful creole and cajun wordings, even though the relation may be sometimes far fetched. My favorite? Fais deaux deaux or fais do-do, the name of a Cajun dance party derived from the French children’s lullaby fais dodo — dodo is a shortening of dormir, the word for sleeping. New Orleans is the city of fusions!
Don’t stick to the Quarter!
As easy and tempting as it might be to wander endlessly the streets of the French Quarter, there is much more to see without even having to go far. Like most people, I happen to enjoy the Quarter craze, but only for a while. If you get tired of the hordes of tourists staggering from bar to bar on Bourbon Street but don’t want to escape the party scene altogether, abandon the noise of the Quarter and cross Esplanade to get to the Faubourg Marigny. You can start breathing again… Some of the city’s best bars and music venues are waiting for you, notably on Frenchmen Street.
And if you’re a little bit more adventurous, push it slightly further downriver, until you arrive in the Bywater, a rakish and gritty waterside neighborhood that’s more recently acquired an artsy and bohemian vibe.
I first discovered Bywater a year ago, the day after my wedding, on a hot afternoon, when I was looking for a way to escape the ambient craze, and I immediately fell in love with the washed-out look of the creole cottages, the sleepy streets and the nostalgia that lingers in the air, making it so present and unreal at the same time.
What struck me while we were walking through Bywater is the sentiment of complete abandonment. The place was practically empty. It was nap time but I would not have been surprised if people were in fact watching us, the intruders, through their blinds.
Fading colors, bright colors. Everywhere you’re reminded of how beautiful and tragic, cheerful and fatalistic, the city is. Doomed by the elements but always rebuilt, The City That Care Forgot is a unique jewel.
Lose track of time
The pace is different in New Orleans, more laid-back, to the point that waiting has become a religion, whether it’s for food, the bus or the tram. It will get there when it gets there! The inner neighborhoods are human-scale, and the air smells like honeysuckle and jasmine (except in the French Quarter where it smells like fried food and alcohol). I love that this city is so full of contradictions.
Cats. Lots of cats. It made me think of the Town of Cats featured in Murakami’s novel 1Q84. New Orleans is the city of cats, and you don’t know what sort of tricks they’re planning behind their sleepy eyes. Beware of the cats!
For a ride through New Orleans history, hop on the iconic St. Charles streetcar. It provides a unique and cheap way to admire the beautiful oaks that line the avenue and enjoy the endless architectural variety of the city — from colonial houses with wrought-iron plantation balconies in the Garden District to Greek revival mansions and typical Victorian houses further uptown.
Jazz it up at Snug Harbor
In New Orleans, live music pulsates everywhere. Inside, outside, in the streets and restaurants, whether you want it or not. But mostly you want it!
Looking for the essential jazz club? Snug Harbor is your place. Don’t expect anything but the best musicians in the city. Ellis Marsalis, the legendary pianist, usually plays on Fridays. I’m not a jazz specialist, but I sincerely enjoyed his show.
Grab a drink, grab a seat and enjoy the music that softly washes over that dim and cozy place.
Cruise the Mississippi River on the Natchez
The Mississippi River is a key element in the history and legend of New Orleans, so if you visit the city don’t forget to pay your tribute to it. And what better way than by taking a cruise on the last real steamboat still navigating the Mississippi, with calliope music, live Dixieland jazz and tasty southern food?
My husband and I got married on the Natchez and decided to celebrate our first anniversary by taking the cruise once again. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much from the first one. It’s true that I had many other things in mind. (Did I talk to everybody? Where did my plate go? And my glass? WHERE IS MY GLASS?) But this year I was able to relax completely and enjoy the scenery.
What I mostly like about New Orleans is that although it’s an American city, it looks like no other place in the U.S. It feels foreign, almost European, which makes it difficult to understand but fascinating to observe. It’s a place where getting lost is almost obligatory, and if you’re like me, you’ll be glad you did.