We went there on our anniversary, a little over a month ago. I usually write up something about a trip immediately after getting back from one, but I've had a difficult time finding the right words.
The short version? It was fun. The food was great, the music was fantastic. And it's one of the friendliest cities we've ever visited. I can honestly say we didn't run into one sourpuss or grouch the entire time we were there.
So, why the problem writing about it? I'm not quite sure. There was just something about the trip that made it seem to add up to less than the sum of the individual parts. And I can't completely put my finger on what that something was.
Here's a possibility: We like art museums and theater. There's little-to-no theater in that town (unless you count the people on Bourbon Street, most of whom are middle-aged fratboys who should be permanently confined there for the safety of the nation) and the art museums we visited weren't anything special. Nothing outstandingly wrong with them; just no "Wow!" moments.
Another possible? MY WIFE wasn't as enamored of the food as I was. I like spicy; she doesn't. New Orleans food, in general, is spicy. So, maybe I was worrying about her food, and she might have been worrying that I was worrying about her.
A third possibility is that the guide books kept harping on how crime-ridden the city is, so maybe we were always on edge about where we were and apprehensive that we were about to cross some ill-defined border into a zone where tourists were advised not to go.
Other possibilities? We're old fuddy-duddies, and New Orleans is a city that prides itself on being young at heart, a party town. We planned the trip for only four nights, so maybe we just plain didn't give ourselves enough time to relax between post-9/11 airport hideousnesses. Maybe our trip into the neighborhoods devastated by the floods made us think too much. Or maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves to have some sort of impossibly superb experience because it was our once-every-four-years anniversary.
I truly don't know.
The hotel was fine. It wasn't a palace, by any means, but it was good enough. We had a jacuzzi in the bathroom. That was fun.
We very much liked riding the streetcars. Very pleasant, and the drivers were, without exception, patient with our touristy selves. The passes we purchased were a great bargain, too.
We went on one of the most enjoyable tours we've ever had the pleasure to experience. Our guide was a native who had lost most everything in Hurricane Katrina, so the personal experience she brought to the tour, especially when she brought us over to the Lower Ninth Ward, was inestimably touching. We learned things from her, that's for sure, and she was relentlessly upbeat for someone who had been through so much. Would that we could have such guides everywhere.
We found the clubs on Frenchman Street exhilarating. The number of talented musicians in New Orleans is stunning, seemingly as numerous as catfish in the Mississippi.
So, like I said, we had an enjoyable time, overall, but I think it's not likely we'll plan a return to New Orleans anytime soon. It feels as though we pretty much did everything we would want to do there. Maybe that's all it is. Maybe we were completely satisfied and we don't know how to handle that.
There were two true highlights I wish to share.
We went out to a nightclub (Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse) to enjoy a leisurely evening of drink and music. It's a close space, crowded with tables, and I wanted to watch the musicians work, up close, so I grabbed a table next to the drummer (he was set up on the right side of the small stage.) I got to see him work pretty much from behind his kit, which is what I wanted. Just before the band went on, he said "Hi" to us and asked something about us sitting so close to him; I forget the specific question. Whatever it was, my reply spurred him to say, "Well, then, you won't mind if I cut loose!", to which I gave him a big thumbs up. And watching him work was a revelation. His name is Geoff Clapp and he's the best drummer I've ever heard.
(I later found out he's been recorded, and been on tour, with Wynton Marsalis and other very big names. He's also been awarded "Best Drummer In New Orleans" in a magazine poll, among other accolades. Pretty impressive credits at GeoffClapp.com...)
During the first set, I helped him position his music stand once or twice (it was a crowded floor, as I said, and he had to set it next to my chair.) We became decent buddies during the break between sets. I told him how much I admired his playing (I complimented him on a couple of things he did, stylistically, that a non-musician might not have noticed), and he was kind enough to let me tap out a couple of rhythms on the arm of my chair after I inquired about what brand of sticks he used. We told him we were on our anniversary trip, and he congratulated us by buying us a round from the bar.
After the second set, he had his wife (who was in the audience) come over and snap a photo of us with him. Then he invited MY WIFE and me to a CD release party he and another band were having two nights later. He put us on the guest list (saving us a $25 cover, as I recall) and all in all he was a swell guy to meet, a true gentleman and a great artist at his instrument. I told him to definitely get in touch, should he be touring Boston, and we'd treat him and his wife to a great meal.
Here's the photo...
The other highlight was our actual anniversary, at The Commander's Palace.
Magnificent restaurant, superb service. Emiril rose to fame from there, as did Paul Prudhomme. Anyway, I had mentioned, while making the reservation, that it would be our anniversary dinner. When we arrived, every damn person we met - maitre d', waitress, sommelier, busboys, I mean EVERYONE - wished us a Happy Anniversary. They gave us extra-attentive service (and the service is magnificent to begin with) and gave us a souvenir photo of the restaurant and staff, as well as a menu autographed by the chef (which is a big damn deal in New Orleans, as chefs there are like rock stars.) We had the tasting menu (right side, on the menu below), which was 7 courses, all with wine pairing, and I gave the biggest tip of my life. I recall it was $120, about 30% of the bill, and afterward I seriously wondered if I hadn't UNDERtipped, the meal and the service was that good.
And Geoff Clapp time again! His wonderful wife, Szylvie (I hope I'm not mangling the spelling too badly - she is of Eastern European descent, and charming...) had made sure that our evening would be special, beyond what the restaurant staff did. She had an envelope sent to our table. We were quite surprised to find that it contained a lovely framed black & white shot of us from the evening before, when we had first met them at the club!
Truly, they are two of the nicest people on earth. God bless them!
Here are the restaurant mementos...
So, yeah, we had a hell of a good time. I still can't quite put my finger on why it seems like less than it was. I've certainly painted a picture here of a fine vacation, right? Heck, I even won some money on my one visit to the casino.
Maybe we're just insane to be analyzing it so much.
(MY WIFE called, just as I was about to publish this, and she suggested that maybe I shouldn't publish it. Her reasoning - bless her heart - was that she felt it wasn't quite up to my usual standards in some ways. She suggested that perhaps I had written this only because I somehow felt pressured to do so. There may be some validity in that. My brother-in-law, a wonderful writer, is currently working on a project detailing the many ways that Carnival is celebrated in various locales, and I don't think I'm overstating it to say that he loves New Orleans. He asked me my impressions of the city, and I pretty much told him what I've told you here. I do feel, to a certain extent, that he and others have been expecting me to write about it. Notwithstanding all of that, I [obviously] decided to publish it, anyway. I think doing so has helped to clarify my thoughts a bit more than if I didn't. And, after re-reading this a few times, I've come to the conclusion that the best explanation I can come up with for not classifying this trip as a great one is solely because of the inability to get at the reason for feeling that way. By all objective standards, it was a fine time we had.
Perhaps it is only because New Orleans is a conundrum unto itself that it seems one to me. I am beginning to think that it is a complex city disguised as a simple one. It is full to the brim with both happy and melancholy. It is both catholic and Catholic. It is among the most phony and cardboard tourist-trap places in America, but it is also a deeply spiritual home for those who actually live there; people who were as badly abused by their city as some of the residents were during the catastrophic events in the recent past would not hold the same desire to return, or to stay, had it happened to them in some other city. It is opulent; it is decaying. It welcomes with open arms, but also threatens somehow. It is the pinnacle for some, the final resting place for others. It has the most noble street population of anywhere on earth.
[While waiting for MY WIFE to come out of a shop in the French Quarter, I saw a man sleeping in a doorway. He was dressed in tatters and rags, had lengthy white hair and beard stained yellow in some places by unknown substances, and a dog was laying there with him. He could have been anywhere from 50 to 70 years of age. As I stood there, smoking a cigarette, a well-dressed tourist came by. This person had on a three-piece suit, hair slicked back, what looked like Gucci shoes on his feet and possibly a Rolex on his wrist. He pulled out a camera and, while smiling what can only be termed an oily smile, snapped a photo of the man and the dog. He then went on his way. My overriding thought was that the bastard should have at least left a buck or two in the bum's hat for the privilege of getting such a good photo.
The man awoke, saw me smoking, and called me over. I expected to hear some sad story and get a plea for a handout. Instead, he reached into his dufflebag, pulled out a cigarette, and offered it to me. He asked if I smoked menthol cigarettes, explaining that he didn't and he hated to see it go to waste. Lucky guess on his part, I suppose, since I do smoke menthols. I accepted it and, still having the distasteful thought of the fellow who snapped his photo in mind, I then offered to buy him a pack of non-menthol cigarettes. He absolutely refused.
Someone else, another street-looking person, walked by. He asked that person if they had any smokes they could lend him. The answer was no. I again offered to buy him a pack. He again refused.
He wanted a cigarette. I offered to buy him some, but he would have none of it. And that, in a nutshell, is what New Orleans seems like to me. Friendly, generous, wanting, not wishing to take too much from strangers, though, and basically able to find some sort of happiness in whatever situation God lays in its lap.]
And even this bit of writing is overblown and pretentious, but also true. I think maybe I can't put my finger on it because the city won't allow it. Does that make sense? In any case, I had to publish this.)
Soon, with more better stuff.