My mother had heard that people from New Orleans were fairly laid back and mellow, a combination of southern hospitality and eccentric flare (all fueled by a fair amount of alcohol).
We could tell by the houses in the Mid-City neighborhood that our Airbnb was located in: Brightly painted shot-gun houses often with quirky lawn art and well-used front porches. People walked in T-shirts and flip-flops along the root-cracked sidewalks, waving hello to everyone they passed. It was a beautiful sight to see as we strolled to a local breakfast joint that morning. After filling our bellies with chorizo and grits, we headed back to the Airbnb.
Our hosts’ friend had mentioned that the backyard gate opened up to the cemetery immediately behind the house.
“Our neighbors are pretty quiet,” he explained.
It seemed like as good of place as any to start the day. After wandering amongst the family tombs of St. Patrick and Greenwood Cemeteries and stopping for a silent moment at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial, we took the trolley downtown to check things off our tourist bucket list.
We strolled into the French Quarter from the urban bustle of Canal Street. The famous and colorful buildings with their wrought iron clad porches stretched before us. We stopped in to look into a couple boutiques and galleries, of which there were many. There was the photography gallery full of signed prints from many giants of the photography world (including Man Ray and Ansel Adams). There was the gallery full of local artists and tended by a couple and their sons, one of which eagerly showed us around. And then there was the Historic New Orleans Collection, which looked out on the street with a windowless face and one small sign.
Eventually, we hit an explosion of tourists, artists, performers and jazz musicians: Jackson Square. A woman with a cardboard sign labeling her a cunt walked passed a woman dressed up in miss-matched period costume and street magicians. Horn players recited the classics as tourists took selfies in front of the St. Louis Cathedral.
Upon the gates surrounding the part in the middle of the square were dozens of artists proudly selling their wares to the gapping visitors. But unlike some of the art I’ve seen in other touristy hubs, the art that hung upon those gates was eclectic, striking, and inviting. Yes, there were still the cliché images of the landmarks and icons of the city, but the originality far outnumbered the mundane.
After stopping to gap at the enormous line at the Café Du Monde, we walked along the Mississippi River and watched the occasional boat pass before heading back to the streets. We briefly popped into an artist Co-op (fully of more eccentric and unique art) and then moved on to the French Market.
Like Jackson Square, the place was bursting with activity, only this time the oddities were gone and replaced with more tourists. It being lunch time, we settled down with a smoothie and some fresh BBQ-ed shrimp.
Suddenly, a man with a can came up to our table and asked if he could sit with us. We of course said yes. He introduced himself as Bob and then when on to explain, in detail, his motorcycle accident and recovery that had led to his hobbling condition. He was a veteran and former New Orleans resident who had come back to get some beignets and coffee. He went on to recount a big chunk of his most recent history and memories of his time in the force, yammering on as his wife came and left with a tired and exasperated gaze. While speechifying, he gave us a restaurant recommendation, explaining in detail their garden, architecture, and even the softness of their bread. Fortunately, another couple sat down, diverting Bob’s attention so we could safely leave without committing an abrupt and rude good-bye.
Once we successfully extracted ourselves from the table, we walked around the market some more, casually glancing at the touristy souvenirs and lingering over the art and ethnic imports. We bought a couple T-shirts and then headed back over to the food. My mom had heard many good things about Loretta’s sweet potato cookies, only when we got there they were all sold out. We settled of praline filled beignets instead.
The sugar comfortably making a home in our stomach, we walked around the neighborhood some more, escaping to the side streets to get away from the crowds and admire the colors and iron work. The thing about New Orleans that we noticed is that the city is not afraid to show its age. It doesn’t try to cover its wrinkles for the tourists, refuses to display a photoshopped image for the camera. Yes, of course there are buildings that are all dolled up and ready for attention, but they live right next to places with cracks in the sidewalk and sideboards faded from the sun. It made the place seem real, not hiding behind a mask of false glamour.
During our wanderings, we stumbled into the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park/Louis Armstrong Park. The soft green hills, murmuring fountains, and colorful statues of the jazz greats were crowded with relatively few people, so we enjoyed the quiet, soaking our feet in the water and soothing our sore muscles.
We eventually took a trolley back to the Airbnb and washed the sweat of the day off before heading back out for dinner. We decided to try the place Bob had suggested: Ye Old College Inn. It was fancier than expected, the kind of place city council members would dine, but that only meant that the food was exquisitely prepared and mouth-wateringly fresh. We filled our bellies and mom emptied her wallet and then returned to Bernadotte Street for an early night.