One post is not enough to tell you about New Orleans. Of the many places I visited, it’s probably in the top three, if not the top, destination. For an old soul, the city is magical, intriguing and just flat-out fun. Whenever I’m in New Orleans, I don’t feel like I’m in the United States because it has a distinctive, multicultural flair. There are old traces of France, Africa, the Caribbean, and a touch of Italy (the muffuletta was invented there).
Having previously visited on a quick holiday, I vowed to return for a longer period. And when I left a long-term job, I spent three months there. It was a place I knew could feed my soul. And as I write this blog post after having reviewed my travel bucket list, I realized I’ll probably never cross out New Orleans. It resets after every visit.
There are so many blog posts that talk about what to do in New Orleans, and let me tell you, even though I was there for an extended period of time, I didn’t get a chance to cover most of what I wanted. Quite a few restaurants were not visited, smaller museums weren’t crossed off the list and some neighbourhoods went unexplored.
New Orleans was where I decided to call myself creative for the first time in my life. In my mid-thirties. It was there I realized my creativity had been buried for so long. Not in a sense that I didn’t practice it. But I never considered it part of my identity.
It happened during my stay in a shotgun house when I woke up one morning and had my first true creative day since I was a pre-teen. I made myself an espresso with milk and sugar, wrote in my diary, painted a small image of curious eyes peering through shuttered windows, and started a short story, all while listening to tantalizing Jazz. It was like coming home after years of drudging office work, business meetings and strategy sessions–all of which steered me away for decades.
One day around the middle of my three-month stint, I took a trip to Faulkner’s books–a small bookshop in the French Quarter. There, I saw a sign from the universe. The book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was staring at me from a tabletop. A few days earlier, my advisor told me to find and buy a copy. Sometimes you just gotta let the wave of serendipity guide you to your desires. The toughest part is giving it permission to do its’ thing, especially if you’re resistant to change like me.
After reading the book and doing the exercises, I mourned for a brief period. Mourned because I felt I wasted many years of my life denying my creativity, being a shadow artist. The lost time catering to the “shoulds” of my life, instead of the wants. We all have obligations, but they cannot dictate the direction of our lives; that’s what our hearts are for.
As I bit into a freshly fried beignet, words appeared in my brain. That’s when my real discovery list started. I built one before my trip but when I referred to it, it was one made of manufactured dreams i.e. places that external sources exposed me to. For example, I wanted to see Paris because I saw it depicted in the movies and TV shows, but when I listened inward, Seville and my curiosity about the Flamenco was stronger. New York and Los Angeles were popular hubs, but New Orleans was where my heart tugged to.
I did most of the tourist activities, but I also discovered things about New Orleans that could only be found if you travelled slowly. These experiences stood out because they put me in touch with myself; it’s a form of travel I think everyone must do at least once in their lives. There’s gold in soaking a new place and making it your temporary home.
Here are some memorable observations of my time in New Orleans…
Mardi Gras is More than Debauchery
I planned my arrival around Mardi Gras. In addition to the explosive festivities on the actual day, a lot of Mardi Gras events are actually leading up to it. The parades start two weeks prior with countless floats that line the streets in every part of the city. These parades are organized and executed by groups called Krewes. Crazy amounts of money are spent to put on a fabulous show.
I stayed at a hostel on St. Charles Avenue–The Quisby– where a bunch of parades were scheduled to promenade. This made it really convenient because it was literally in front of my hostel. I made a local friend and we got serious swag from Krewe of Nyx!
It’s easy to assume that Mardi Gras is full of debaucherous activity. We think of overflowing alcohol, people falling on the streets, loud music, racy costumes and beads all over the place. While this may be true for some parades, I discovered that the majority of events are actually family-centred. My friend and I ventured to one of the parades in a residential area. When we got there, we noticed families camped with folding chairs, food they brought from home, and young children running around.
Mardi Gras wasn’t the picture I initially had in my head of a rambunctious New Orleans party. It was a refreshing, family-friendly affair. Sure, there was a grandma wearing a tutu grinding on a young, stunned twenty-something man, but it was harmless and I construed it as more funny than lewd.
Untouristy Tourist Areas of New Orleans
Although extremely touristy, I visited the French Quarter at least once a week. There were the tacky souvenir stores, endless drinking on large plastic bong-shaped containers, and generic bars on Bourbon Street. But the old-world architecture made me keep coming back even after I moved to a quieter part of the city.
I felt like I was in a different time. Something inside me awakened as I stepped into the classic feel of the Monteleone hotel and sat in the carousel bar, soaking in its’ glitzy, yet soft-glow lights. It’s an unforgettable experience having a gin fizz on a moving carousel. Original, NOLA-stamped.
Magazine Street was where I felt a more local way of life, despite it also being a popular destination for tourists. Most of the strip’s businesses were small and independently owned, and because New Orleanians are just so darn personable, I felt welcome. I met a wonderful business owner at a French bakery–who was genuine and wise. She asked me the most simple questions about my life that generated the most profound realizations.
“Sure, it ain’t easy”, she said to me when I told her I wanted to be a digital nomad. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not simple”. Huh…
Some of my most memorable snippets of time in New Orleans were probably my evening walks on Magazine street when everything was closed. Crazy busy during the days, the window displays felt like they were just for my viewing. Spotlights on the products were mini-exhibits as I passed each shop, and allowed me to enjoy window displays, appreciating their artistic lure. I found a luminescent pair of golden earrings and a display of packaged French confectionary calling to me.
New Orleans Cuisine. Food Glorious Food
New Orleans is probably one of the best places to diversify your culinary tastes. If you’re North American, the foods are familiar enough in that you recognize most of the ingredients, but they’re prepared with unique spices or various cooking methods that make you think a bit harder about what you just bit into. Alligator sausage and shrimp cheesecake anyone? Crawfish popcorn? A place called Tee Eva’s sold one of the best praline pies I’d ever had.
If you’re ever in the mood for a burger, go to Port of Call, a steakhouse/hamburger joint on the border of Vieux Carre (where the French Quarter is) and the Marigny, where the famous Frenchmen street is located. The feel of the establishment resembles a ship where pirates reside; the energy is festive in a dark-lit space, and even though burgers are their top sellers, steaks are just as delicious. It’s a hybrid place where you can go on a romantic, quasi-formal date but still feel at ease due to the exuberant, unpretentious energy.
I devoured King Cake, a traditional delicacy eaten by New Orleanians during Mardi Gras season. It usually has purple, green and yellow icing, which I considered wacky yet well-matched colours. It was a clear vision of weird familiarity.
People, Plays, Fashion
Food, art and parties aside, what is it about New Orleans that I love? Ultimately it’s the culture that the people themselves foster. For example, I love that the city’s creators are accessible. The ability to see a world-renowned band like the Rebirth Brass Band play every week in a local bar charging only twenty dollars to enter. It’s experiencing creativity without the corporate sharks lurking. Sure, the Jazz festival is popular and there are many higher-profile artists sponsored by the big leagues, but true excellence isn’t difficult to find. There’s a reason New Orleans is called The Big Easy–coz it’s easy to get a gig if you are a musician.
Preservation Hall’s small, intimate space in the French Quarter allows you to get upfront and personal with the musicians on stage. They are grassroots, humanist artists first, performers second. Their tone was welcoming, yet unbelievably connected to the real goings-on of what makes New Orleans tick. Every musician on stage displayed wisdom not just in their words, ease and comfort of playing their instruments, but in their eyes, the knowing of the city’s history of joy, struggle, melancholy, and tradition.
I love fashion in New Orleans. As a former burlesque performer, the city’s affinity for colour rejuvenated the deep hibernation I felt after living in a city full of mostly neutral-toned dressers. It was where I remembered that colours had huge power over moods.
I had the most fortunate timing when I saw that A Streetcar Named Desire was playing at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, a small theatre in the French Quarter. I got a pricey ticket with a good view. It’s encompassing to experience a play while you’re in the same city it’s set in. Leaving the theatre, I felt like the characters were around me in the streets while I trotted down Royal Street. As early evening set in, I kept expecting a voice from the top floor of the French Quarter apartments to call out to me and ask me how I was doing, just like Stella was greeted by her neighbours.
To be transparent, I find most museums boring and outdated. I’d come across a few interesting ones in Italy, specifically Turin, but most are focused more on displaying information as opposed to imparting engaging knowledge. The World War II Museum in New Orleans on the other hand is an exception. Competed in 2000, the team did a splendid job of getting people to enjoy museums. The exhibits were structured properly, like a narrative, a long-standing static movie showing a humanized version of the war. I allocated about five hours to see it but hadn’t even completed half by the time closing announcements were made. So my tip: go early, because the curation is so good you won’t want to skip anything.
I had a lot of fun at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. If you like food, go there. It’s small but shows curious tidbits about food and its’ role in Southern cooking.
Until Next Time
New Orleans was where I learned to truly love the South, with its’ openness, ability to speak from the heart and down-to-earth demeanour. We could argue that New Orleans isn’t an exact, typical representation of the region, but it certainly accentuates its’ strengths and affinities.
The beautiful thing about slow travel is because you spend an extended period of time in one place, memories hidden in the depth of your mind can surface after a long time. And you can learn something new about yourself, or reflect on an experience from a different angle after time has passed. Sometimes I think about how differently I would have spent those months in New Orleans if I was in my headspace now–a little more mature, healed and clear-headed. But experiences can be layered, and you learn to see things differently as you grow.