I had high and low expectations of New Orleans before arriving here. High because, whether they intended it or not, the stories my parents tell about their visit to the Big Easy about 15 years ago always struck me as the highlight of their trip and somewhat magical. And low because I really had no idea what to expect of this town except jazz.
But it has delivered.
As we got off the plane one of the teenage musicians from Mississippi said, “There’s the humidity. We’re definitely home.” They were right. The hot, thick, sticky air strikes you whenever you open an external door. It’s kind of odd for both of us, coming from wintery Canberra, because the sky has been overcast most of the time and it’s quite cool in all the airconditioned buildings. So we look at the clouds and feel the cool air we’re in and add cardigans to the day bag. Then step outside and remember there’s no need.
The buildings are beautiful in the French Quarter and the Garden District, where we’ve spent much of the time. But on the tour bus yesterday heading out of town you could see lots of houses falling down or with repairs still needed, presumably from Katrina or one of the hurricanes that’s come through since. New Orleans seems to be a city that takes things to heart and Hurricane Katrina is still (understandably) prominent in most minds. But there are other causes front and centre now, like the Times-Picayune newspaper’s imminent demise and the fate of New Orleans Saints football team coach Sean Payton who was suspended for a year after apparently masterminding a scheme where players got bonuses for injuring their opponents. You can buy “Free Sean Payton” t-shirts in shops all over town.
The history is palpable but also indistinct in some ways. From the French to the Spanish then the Americans, everyone seems to have just forced their mark on top of whatever was here before. It gives a real mix of cultures which keeps things interesting. Even in the French Quarter, most of the famous architecture is actually Spanish, because large swathes of the old city, French-built wooden houses, burnt down in one of the many fires.
I’ve certainly found it all much more fascinating than just “the jazz” of my expectations – makes sense for somewhere that’s several centuries old I guess. Don’t get me wrong, the jazz and the cocktails and the fun are all amazing. It’s just that there’s so much more here as well.
Oh also, we went to a swamp and saw alligators. They had a pretty snappy culture…