Last autumn, or fall, I spent three whirlwind months living with one of my best friends in New Orleans. Prior to my arrival, my only knowledge of New Orleans was a loose familiarity with it’s musical legacy. I had no conscious memory of the American South and I had only loosely been paying attention to the longer-term developments following Hurricane Katrina. A while back my dear friend Liz had suggested in an offhand way, ‘come live with me in New Orleans!’ and with my boyfriend going back to his native Ecuador because his EU visa was up and needing to earn a few $$ before joining him, I decided to seize the opportunity to see what this infamous city is all about.
I have to say, arriving somewhere new with no expectations is sometimes one of the best ways to arrive.
New Orleans, N’awlins or Nola is a riot. It is a city that feels like a town. It is a city built on shells. It is a city that breeds and feeds on music. It is loud, it is colourful, it bristling with energy on a Tuesday night, not to mention Mardi Gras. It is unabashed, uncensored, unapologetic. It is welcoming and hostile. It is rich and it is poor. It is misrepresented, romanticized and aesthetically beautiful. It is not what it was before hurricane Katrina. It grapples with violence and now first wave gentrification. It is one of the most inspiring and vibrant places I’ve been; that could also be because I’m white and didn’t grow up there. New Orleans is a liberal haven. Louisiana is one of the poorest and most unequal states in the US.
In more factual terms, New Orleans is the wonderfully eclectic place it is today thanks to it’s multi-cultural history. First settled by the French in the 1690’s, New Orleans was established as an important colony on the Mississippi river as a gateway for trading with the New World. The French influence still permeates every inch of New Orleans culture from the architecture, with it’s iconic Creole cottages, to the city layout, to the landmark St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Many of the streets are named after catholic saints and royal French houses (Bourbon Street), the cuisine, is an delicious blend of French, Spanish and West African influences and of course there's the city’s famous tagline: “laissez les bons temps rouler” (let the good times roll). In 1762, Spain acquired the colony from France, who bought tiled roofs and brick walls to the city in order to better resist the sub-tropical climate and sporadic fires. Walking around the French Quarter (Le Vieux Carré) today, you will find that the majority of the buildings there are of Spanish origin. Later in the 18th century, a revolution in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), bought an influx of refugees and immigrants to Louisiana and New Orleans. Both these Haitian ‘free people of colour’ and the West African slaves introduced their indigenous practices to the cultural fabric, some of which would form the basis of what we now know as Louisiana voodoo. Spain eventually ceded Louisiana back to France but in 1803, Napoleon sold New Orleans and the Louisiana territory to the Americans in the Louisiana Purchase, after which point, Americans began flocking to the city en masse. Together, these French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures sculpted the central characteristics of this vibrant city, all of which can still be seen, heard, smelt and tasted today.
I also arrived with no job but my bank balance demanded one. Despite a range qualifications and service experience, it was a struggle to get a job as a barrister. I ended up working for a staffing company, so no contract, no security but luckily a great boss. And that worked just fine for me given that I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I also learnt two valuable things. Firstly, my English accent has significant cultural capital in the South, regularly being received with ‘that is so adorable!’ Secondly, not everyone thinks New Orleans is such an amazing place. I was asked numerous times “why would you wanna come to New Orleans?...I wish I could go to England”, because being working class in Louisiana is tough. Tipped workers in particular, are more than twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty line and three times as likely to rely on food stamps.
A week or so after I arrived and had started to develop a mutual recognition for the various different families and faces in my neighborhood, I no longer felt like such a spurious outsider. The ‘hey babys’ that put me on edge on those first few days now made me feel welcome and I would respond with, ‘hey, it’s a beautiful day!’ because it almost always was. Familiarity started to settle in and what seemed fairly alien to me before, now appeared charming: the shotgun wooden houses, the families on the stoop, the uneven sidewalks. Long, colourful, story short, I ended up developing a deep affection for New Orleans, just like they all said I would. I still don’t know if these feelings are authentic as my time there was fleeting and fleeting moments are always romantic, like holidays, there’s no time for the dust to settle, for the hardships bound to that place to sink in.
Still, It’s hard not to be seduced by the allure of this city. There are many unique moments and surreal experiences that I could talk about, but for the sake of time and words, I’ll keep it short. One memorable experience was a spontaneous late-night trip to the bayous. After a friend’s art exhibition was winding down, a recent acquaintance proposed I join in a frog-hunting mission. As I still hadn’t been to the bayous: the marshy rivers that make up a distinctive part of the Louisiana landscape, particularly the area surrounding New Orleans, I jumped at the opportunity. It turned out that frog season had ended quite some time ago, but I wasn’t too irked about the lack of frogs given the scenery. Luckily we timed it with a full moon so the black bayous were lit with white and the tall grass cast eerie silhouettes. Also lit up were the eyes of the Alligators that, unlike the frogs, there was no shortage of. They would slide silently in and out of the water, sometimes surfacing a little too close for comfort. We ended up canoeing silently along the bayous for about two hours, during which time we were also treated to an appearance by some owls and a beaver.
Another lasting memory is the night of El Dia de Los Muertos. As is tradition, an extravagant procession, dressed up and carrying an assortment of different floats, gathered in the Bywater neighbourhood. Although I immediately got lost in the crowd, it didn’t concern me because it was clear that we were all moving as one group. Following a brass band, we second-lined all the way to the appropriately named, 'End of the World': a levee on the Mississippi river past the railroad tracks that feels completely cut off from the rest of civilization. At one point we stopped and gathered in a circle, the band stopped playing, and a choir came together to sing some spirituals. During this time, the crowd silenced, which was a fairly humbling moment given the number of people. After this, the procession resumed until we reached the ‘End of the World’ where a momentous bonfire was lit and we enjoyed more music from the band. Some people went down to lay in the river, other people danced around the fire. As people started to taper off we joined in singing songs and sprituals such as ‘I’ll Fly Away’ by Albert Brumley, a song made famous by the Cohen brother’s ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’.
And as for the city: cycle around the French Quarter or Frenchman Street any day and you’ll encounter all sorts of live street music. Maybe you’ll hear some vaudeville or a country and blues band, chances are you’ll stroll upon some traditional thigh slappin’ Cajun music, or maybe you’ll discover some sexy solo sax. Soak it up, because that’s the driving force behind this place. That’s the heartbeat. That’s what brings people here. That’s why it has produced some of the greatest American musicians of all time and why it continues to foster some of the best up and coming acts you’ll see. That’s why every Sunday there is a different brass band marching through the streets, diverting traffic. That’s why hundreds of people follow behind it in the second line, dancing as they go.
But the best part is that for all the exciting, magical and seemingly unique things I experienced during my time there, these all just make up part of another very regular day in colorful NOLA.
the food and diabetes bit
The American south is renown for its food and hospitality and with good reason: the food is undeniably delicious and New Orleans is no exception. The down side is, it’s not particularly diabetic-friendly being either carb heavy or quite rich and therefore high in saturated fats. My advice is to try some of the local cuisine but maybe consider splitting portions, as they are normally pretty generous. There are also plenty of healthy restaurants and cafés to be found and lots of lovely independent food establishments which you'll discover as you wonder around the city.