The Big Easy

The more time that passes since you've been somewhere, the more it becomes clouded by nostalgia and romanticism, and that is only exacerbated when you're working full-time with no new adventures on the horizon.  For me, though, New Orleans already had an aura of mystery and excitement before I visited which was only amplified by being there.  Conjuring an image of the city, I pictured a liminal place, equal parts vibrantly alive and ethereally undead, tasting like spices and brown liquor, with the sound of jazz music filling the streets.  It was all of this and more.

The first thing that hits you like a brick wall in New Orleans is the humidity.  During my visit it was 40°C and sticky which unfortunately became too prohibitive for us in the end, but I guess that's why you don't visit in July.  However, the wet heat of the city is incredibly evocative, creating an atmosphere that is almost dangerously sensual.  You slow your pace, start craving a dimly lit bar when you can listen to languid sax and sip on something strong.  There is no shortage of talented musicians in New Orleans.  Unable to get into the iconic Preservation Hall, we saw a bluegrass trio at the Blue Nile complete with washboard player instead, and of course jazz is everywhere.  My friend and I, struggling to handle the heat, spent our time discovering why they call it The Big Easy - but in reality, the city is bubbling over with raucous energy.  Weddings and funerals both feature brass bands and dancing in the street.  Bourbon Street epitomises that glorious Southern dichotomy of zealotry and lasciviousness, with strip clubs lining streets that mix drunken revellers with charismatic street preachers.  The food is decadent, rich and spicy and not remotely healthy.  The French concept of joie de vivre here is still so strong it continues on as joie de mort.

If you enjoy architecture, New Orleans is famously a feast for the eyes.  The French Quarter is just as photogenic as you expect, and still has a scent of danger at night, like a mysterious fog might come rolling round the corner and engulf you (unfortunately it would probably be a much more corporeal threat - be vigilant at night here ladies).  My friend and I were couchsurfing in the sumptuous Garden District, where our late afternoon wanders took us to several bewitching bars and antique shops, as well as one of the best finds of our whole trip.  While posing next to a Victorian hitching post, we attracted the attention of a homeowner who ended up recommending us to a restaurant called Parasols.  It's a nondescript-looking eatery that boasts some of the best po'boys in the city (baguette sandwiches) and still one of the highlights of my time there.  What can I say, it was a damn good sammy.

The gothic history of the city is still traded on by tourist attractions such as the house of Delphine LaLaurie, where she infamously tortured slaves in the nineteenth century, or the haunted Cornstalk Fence Hotel.  Ghost tours and voodoo shops are aplenty, though unfortunately lacking in authenticity.  It's not necessary though - once the ungodly heat starts to make you woozy everything starts to seem a little strange anyway, and if you know a little bit about American history you can feel the city's bloody past.  It is macabre, possibly, to think so graphically about the hardships that African-Americans have endured here but that is what gives the city its soul: the voodoo, a hybrid born from West African spirituality and colonial Christianity; the 18-19th century architecture, built on riches from the slave trade; the jazz music, ever restless and rebellious.  Some things were never meant to be wholesome, and are much better appreciated when considered uncensored.

At best, I can only say I dipped a toe into New Orleans.  I had the kind of trip that I can report in full uncensored detail to older family members, and I was quite satisfied with that - there is plenty to offer in terms of PG-rated activities, the food itself is worth a trip.  But if there's any place I could picture myself succumbing to a fugue of debauchery it is NOLA - somebody just needs to buy me a ticket.

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