New Orleans: Mused
All photos in this post are shot and edited by Caroline Olesen.
Joan Didion wrote of New Orleans that "when I think now about New Orleans I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style." Nola is a city where you can't simply exist. Its epicenter is the French Quarters but whole city vibrates at a different frequency than any metropolitan city I've ever visited. Didion continues: "In New Orleans they also talk about parties, and about food, their voices rising and falling, never still, as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay. In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilisation and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect." I only spent four days in New Orleans but its atmosphere stays with you long after you leave. Like meeting an interesting persona on a night out, their presence shifts yours just enough to feel it in your soul. The city's hauntedness lingers in your mind, the memories following you around as if you brought home your own personal ghost.
"What I saw that night was a world so rich and complex and I was almost disoriented, a world complete unto itself, a world of smooth surfaces broken occasionally by a flash of eccentricity so deep that it numbed any attempt at interpretation."
― Joan Didion
Out of the taxi and a melody envelops us. Tones of jazz welcome us, a local serenade that makes it impossible not to open yourself up to the city. If you're a music lover, especially a jazz lover, your Mecca awaits. Live music is the oxygen that fuels the historic city, although there's so much more to explore than simply auditory pleasures.
New Orleans, originally founded by the French in 1718, is a city of distinct culture. The Creole cuisine, the music, the dialect, and of course, Mardis Gras; all signifiers of a colorful lifestyle. Old trees draped with Spanish moss, beads dangling between the green curtains spread over large branches, graveyards sprinkled across the city; the haunted feel of the past being ever present resides in the city. "The air is heavy with sex and death," Joan Didion writes. It pinpoints the mixture of the extreme ends of life that coexist in the space. Added to this is the history of New Orleans Voodoo, which is comprised of folklores and traditions, developed from the African diaspora. New Orleans Voodoo is its own form and one of many incarnations of the West African Dahomeyan Vodun religion. Whilst it has often been portrayed in Hollywood movies as a thing of magic and wickedness, with the stereotype depiction of spells or curses and 'the Voodoo doll,' Voodoo is a spiritual belief system that uses song to connect with the deities. You can visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, and of course there are quite a few shops in the French Quarters that have commercialized the religion.
The French Quarter is the tourist hub and well worth its reputation, however there's more to the city. New Orleans is a collection of wards, famous amongst them is the Ninth Ward which was hit catastrophically by flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When I visited, 10 years later in 2015, the area still hadn't fully recovered. The community and culture of Nola is what shines through, but it's hard not to draw attention to the class divide between the nobility of the French Quarter and the devastation in the poorer neighbourhoods. So I would encourage any visitor to not mistake the French Quarter for New Orleans, because, although it provides a playground for adults with Bourbon Street as the main amusement, the community is far boarder and more diverse than this singular arena.
“In the spring of 1988, I returned to New Orleans, and as soon as I smelled the air, I knew I was home. It was rich, almost sweet, like the scent of jasmine and roses around our old courtyard. I walked the streets, savoring that long lost perfume.” ― Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire
New Orleans sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the final passage before it joins the Gulf. For centuries, the area was colonized by the French and the Spanish. These combined with the Haitian and/or African born men and women created Creole culture, which they used to distinguish themselves as native compared to the new arrivals from France and Spain. The culture has its own language and food and is distinctive to the region. The city is steeped in it, although it felt commercialized at times. I guess this is a side effect of tourism; the authentic culture either adapts to new conditions to make money or is forced to retreat as big businesses move in.
The history of the area is much like the rest of the United States, violent and complicated, frought with racial and classist conflicts. The country's coming-of-age story is not separate from the city's, more like a parallel plot line. A five minute internet search and you'll be deeply immersed in a mix of Antebellum aristocrat drama and civil war politic.
With its geographic placement at the mouth of the Mississippi, New Orleans became a merchant city. However, before economic forces drove the city to its current size, it achieved its nickname "Crescent City" by shaping itself along the shore of the Mississippi. While advantageous for growing the city, there's also great risk involved in this proximity to the water.
Hurricane Katrina proved this when it flooded more than 80% of the city and surrounding area. And it was poor neighbourhoods which were affected the worst, and as it often is with American and southern issues, it affected racial minorities worse than affluent white people. It would be remiss not mention the racial element, because we often choose to overlook how deeply institutional racism goes and how many situations it affects. Even as tourists, as visitors to a place we have a responsibility to not look the other way, to have the tough conversations and listen to the hard facts. We enjoy these beautiful cities, but shy away from the ugliness of the systems that often built them. Holding up a mirror to my privilege is part of traveling's essential elements and although I feel uncomfortable hearing and witnessing some of these facts and stories, it pales in comparison to those who have to live these facts and stories.
“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” ― Mark Twain
Beignets. Oysters. Po-boys. Gumbo. Crawfish. New Orleans food is an array of flavor for your tastebuds. You can find anything your heart desires, but it would be a shame not to dig into the Creole cuisine and seafood while you're there.
A café around the corner from the hotel had its windows open and the light October air joined us for morning coffee. It was one of the first Fall winds, its chill distinctly different from the warm summer breezes that haunt the humid South from June through August. Across the table sat my dad and his wife, each with their coffee and croissant. The sunlight streamed through one of the intricate ironwrought balconies on the building opposite the cafe and the air in the French Quarter looked glowing as the dew settled.
One evening we stopped on the street to listen as a musician played Miles Davis on his jazz saxophone. We'd been wandering around experiencing the light of NoLa when the dark falls, and hungry we were now looking for a dinner spot. As we stood listening, I eyed a cozy looking place called "Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar and Bistro." We were shown through the little restaurant and out into a small courtyard, with small lights strung around between parasols. The food was great, but it was the atmosphere that stayed with me. So close to Bourbon Street, was a quiet intimate establishment. We came back again during our stay, because as they say 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
Now the Louisiana Creole cuisine is often known by dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya, and it is characterized by 'the holy trinity': onions, celery, and green peppers. The cuisine can be traced back to the early 1700s and spiced up European dishes such as 'bouillabaisse' which became gumbo and 'paella' which became jambalaya. You won't want to miss the opportunity to try it, much like a beignet, it is central to your culinary NoLa education.
“The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds - the cemeteries - and they're a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay - ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who've died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn't pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time” ― Bob Dylan
Whilst you must of course see and experience the French Quarter with its balcony clad houses and passionate music scene, I would also encourage taking a tour of the city's cemeteries. We climbed onboard the hot tour bus one afternoon, and little did we know that not only facts and stories about the city were awaiting, but also live action drama.
I cannot recall the tour company name, but the inside of the bus was white both in its interior color and its passengers. We sat on green upholstered seats, as we waited for the last group to join us. There was wide variety of ages; a family with young children sat across the isle from my father, stepmom, and I, and behind us a group of retirees chatted happily. Others were seated, spread out across the rest of the bus. The final tourists climbed on board; two suburb mothers and their teenage daughters. College life must have colored my perspective, because I remember thinking the four of them looked like the classic sorority story - "our mothers met at Ole Miss because they were both at Kappa Gamma Kappa, and we're both gonna rush when we start next year." There was not many open seats, so the four had to split up in an award formation and were therefore treated to less than stellar views during the first part of the tour.
The guide entertained us in classic tour fashion with 'fun facts' and 'true stories,' before we got off to visit a cemetery. Here we learned where the phrase "wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole" comes from and about just why the funeral and burial traditions in New Orleans are so different from most other states. When it was time to reload the bus, the mothers-daughters group stepped on first and took seats together at the very front where my dad, stepmom, and I had been seated, which left us to fund new seating. We then proceeded to sit on the other side of the isle, taking the seats of the family, who then took the seats of the chatting retirees, and so on and so forth. As the new seating arrangement became clear, people started to mumbled and a mumbled turned into chatter and chatter turned into just-loud-enough comments very clearly directed at the manicured women in the front. After a couple of minutes one of the mothers had had enough and turned around to confront the snide comments. Within seconds this escolated to a minor scream match; one side claiming that "first come, first served" principal standard, while other argued that they shouldn't have to give up their good seats because others came too late to get good ones themselves.
Three Danes quietly watched as hand gestures swirled the air and the noise level grew steadily. It wasn't until the guide came back on the bus that tempers cooled. Disapproving comments were whispered in the wonderful passive aggressive humor that you only appreciate when it isn't directed at you.
A true tourist experience boils down to a dinner cruise on a steamboat which will kick you off with drinks and jazz as you sail up the Mississippi during sunset. It's cheesy and the food won't be extraordinary, but the views are great and you'll finally feel like you understand the lyrics to 'Proud Mary'. There's a timeless quality to watching the sunset over the river as a saxophone whispers in your ear.
As most know, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and especially the Ninth Ward suffered. While you're in the city, it might be worth looking into volunteering or donating to local charities - when a city gives you so much, it's worth considering giving back a little.
I bought a candle from a stand in the French Market. Home-made and scented with essential oils, it's label fuzzy to me now. My father bought me a ring made from a woman who measured my finger, then asked me to choose a stone and a kind of metal wire. I saw a perfect pearl, spherical and milky, and paired it with rose-gold plated wire. The contradiction of an industrial wire ring with a delicate pearl encapsulates New Orleans, its personality full of equally odd yet complimentary opposites.
“He's got that New Orleans thing crawling all over him, that good stuff, that We Are the Champions, to hell with the rest and I'll just start over kind of attitude.” ― Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic: Post-Katrina Stories
We are everywhere in New Orleans - tourists. We're loud and drunk on Bourbon Street. We're curious, poking around Voodoo and antique shops. We're the obvious odd one out in the street picture. Just as any big city, there are many kinds of people in Nola. The busy business men and women in their suits and briefcases who walk 15% faster than the rest of us, and talk 15% louder on the phone about Q3's poor turnout. The families where parents juggle three kids under the age of twelve as they dart around to explore the city. The eclectics who wear colorful and colorless clothes with their colorful or colorless hair. The teenagers
If you look at the people of New Orleans from afar, they look like everyone else. But New Orleans isn't like everywhere else so why would its people be? A city is its people, without them it is simply buildings gathered in formation. New Orleans' personality, how it has more soul, more music, more death, and more spirit is a reflection of the people who inhabit the city. There's a depth to The Big Easy that I can't put my finger on, but I believe it's the people. They're live the life of New Orleans and carry on its legacy. Didion wrote that "the atmosphere absorbs its own light [in New Orleans], never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence." I think the people glow too, with a morbid luminescence.
"Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life."
- Art Blakey
It is impossible to talk about New Orleans and not talk about music. It quite literally inhabits the streets of the French Quarter, a sax or guitar on every corner moving you through the balcony lined avenues. Each becoming part of the soundtrack that is essential to the New Orleans experience. People look up more in this city because of it. There's a different attention to your location when the auditory sense is activated, not to be alert, but to enjoy the pleasure of ever-flowing musical notes. This kind of passion brings present the minds of those who wander around on the old bricks.
We circle the performers, enchanted, captivated as if it was a magic flute being played. It's a couple. Their eyes are shut and their lips glued to the brass instruments casting the spell. I shut my eyes too. No distractions and a chill runs down the length of my back as they hit a rising harmony together. It makes music tactile; it makes me want to feel the ocean around my legs and the wind in my face. The music makes me want to dance barefoot in the forrest, moss tickling the arches of my feet. It makes me want to sit on a sidewalk and sway as the old cobblestones imprint on the back of my legs. They're both wearing green, green which goes well with the golden instruments. I'm hypnotized. I don't know how long I've been starring at the couple. My father's finger pokes my shoulder. He's hungry, but I want to stay. Under the thin blue sky between strangers on old streets, a couple had pinned me with their souls pouring out of the brass between their hands.
Jazz is as much a part of New Orleans as humid weather. It's a century old, give or take a decade or three. The Big Easy, as Nola is also known, brims with musical talent the way the sky brims with stars, you might not always be able to see them at a glance, but they are everywhere if you turn off the lights and let them shine. I'm not sure if they can make a living from their street performances or even if that's their main source of income. I should have asked, but oh, hindsight is 20/20. I realize I know nothing about any of the people who touched my soul on that trip. I don't know where they come from, if they have siblings, if they have a favorite musician, or if they feel loved. Strangers, whose names I never even asked for, stand with clarity in my mind as the biggest part of my trip to New Orleans.
Mused is the product of my love for traveling and my passion for writing. It’s not a series of travel blogs nor is it something meant for guidance for the places to which they pertain. The pieces are meant to be dives into these cities, towns, locales. A kaleidoscope of perceptions mixed with history and experiences. The series will have original photos and stories, facts and details with the purpose of sharing the feel and atmosphere of the subject.
All photos in this post are shot and edited by Caroline Olesen.