Here’s one for the bucket list: sitting at the bar, on your own; and ordering dessert.
To be fair, it’s not the strangest thing you’ll see in the French Quarter on a Friday night. It’s probably not even the strangest thing you’ll see in this bar. To my left, there’s a guy sampling local beers and talking to strangers about his dead wife (he too ordered the jambalaya, requesting it “extra spicy” before I had the chance to point out that it’s pretty much a given here); to my right, a raucous, double-headed birthday party. The live music is an older couple, and he’s reading the lyrics from his phone.
I walk back to the hotel, past a guy who’s accompanying an improvised song about the passers-by on the upturned plastic tubs he’s made into makeshift kettle drums (my “pretty dress with the flowers” makes it into the lyrics). And I am so, so happy.
It’s funny because, after 20 hours on planes, I didn’t think New Orleans and I were going to get along. Our taxi (charged by the passenger, and fitted with a sign warning you against murdering the driver because it’s punishable by death in the state of Louisiana) took the less-than-scenic route, past the same grey buildings that typify so many American cities and these huge motorway billboards advertising strip clubs and no-win, no-fee lawyers. But that first impression was ultimately not a New Orleans (I won’t say N’awlins, because I am from Scotland and so white I practically glow in the dark, but I’ve at least graduated from New Or-LEENZ) I would come to recognise – apart from those three hours I wasted in a shopping mall.
I love the French Quarter the most. Not Bourbon Street, which is interesting enough in the daytime but which by night becomes this garish neon parody – like Sauchiehall Street if you could get your beer or daiquiri to go in a luminous plastic container – but the rest of it. Royal Street, with its art and antiques. Decatur, all sweets and street theatre and bars that feel safe enough for a woman to sit in on her own. It also gets bonus points for the moment that I figured out it was literally the one in the Twilight Singers song, because by my third day of earworming Beyoncé’s “Formation” even I was starting to feel a bit awkward.
Despite its name, the French Quarter spent as much time in Spanish ownership as in French – as can be seen clearly from the architectural influences. It was also the original New Orleans, built on the highest land by the Mississippi, and so was the only part to escape unscathed during Hurricane Katrina. We saw this to dramatic effect on the interactive light-up map in Basin St Station.
It’s actually really easy to forget Katrina ever happened here, which is a weird sensation when you are both a tourist who wants to explore and have a good time but also like to think of yourself as a person with a conscience. You remember, sometimes, when you see how high the front doors are set on people’s houses; or when you make a joke about the alcoholic drink and it catches in your throat. The water table, our cemetery tour guide Ernie tells us, is the reason that Louisiana burials involve vaults rather than traditional graves – you don’t want your loved ones to end up floating in the Mississippi, after all – and is also the reason that New Orleans is truly the melting pot of America. There just wasn’t the space for segregation – unless you’re talking about Protestants, anyway.[Sidebar: the Haunted History cemetery tour was one of the highlights of the trip; and I have so many photos that I will hopefully be able to put together a full post about it at some point next week.]
The Garden District, with its 19th century architecture, was built by the Americans who flooded into New Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and it’s a beautiful place to spend some time even if it doesn’t have my heart like the French Quarter does. I took the bus uptown along Magazine Street, past the national World War II museum, and spent an hour wandering around the independent shops in the rain. It’s hard to resent the weather when it’s so hot that your skin seems to dry in the gaps between the droplets, and the ground turns to quicksilver from all the tiny lizards darting to escape your crashing feet.
Where all the old Woolworths sites back home turned into Poundlands, on Magazine Street the Woolworths is now a record store. Peaches Records has kept many of the old fittings, right down to the lunch counter; even though it’s been there itself now for so long that its own fittings look pretty vintage. You’ll struggle to find chains on Magazine: the old houses are now boutiques and art galleries, and every one of them feels like a discovery. I loved Tooth & Nail Trading Co. in particular, as it had a shop dog and just about everything was made by somebody local. But with the exchange rate still in the gutter post-Brexit, I had to restrict myself to a scented candle and a pair of earrings shaped like trombones.
My legs are killing me, pretty much constantly, from the walking; they hurt in new and strange ways, but I don’t really mind. I take the St Charles streetcar back to the hotel though: both because I’m not a complete idiot, and also because it’s the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world. And yet, somehow, still cheaper than the bus (the same length along Magazine Street).
Staying right by the French Quarter meant a tonne of great food within stumbling distance. It was pretty much the consensus of everyone at the convention that there’s no such thing as bad food in New Orleans – which held true right until the end, since the airport is technically in Kenner. I mean, I tried harder than most with some region-specific Raising Canes fast food chicken fingers at the mall … and it was still delicious. But there’s good food and there’s exceptional food, and I still can’t quite find the words to describe the super-sized blackened pork chop from Mr B’s Bistro I could cut through like butter. I tried to recreate the same thing back home the other night, and it wasn’t even close (although there were no complaints from Stringer).
I’m hoping that paella is enough of a transferrable skill that I’ll be able to put together a decent jambalaya – but beignets are probably beyond me. Oh sweet, fluffy clouds – our time together was all too fleeting.