The first pictures I formed of New Orleans came from Anne Rice. Like thousands of other teenagers, I devoured Interview with the Vampire in both its novel and film variations. In my imaginings, the images of New Orleans came through vampire eyes – a place dark and romantic, full of strange and slightly threatening beauty.
And like Rice’s vampire protagonists, I came to New Orleans hungry. I feasted on cafe au lait, boudine hash, scrambled eggs, and biscuits topped with cane syrup. An inconvenient headcold prevented me from sampling any of New Orlean’s alcohol or legendary nightlife, but I did indulge on the pleasures of food. Gumbo file. Chunks of alligator meat seasoned with Cajun spices. Shrimp (of course). Red beans and rice (of course). Obligatory beignets from Cafe du Monde. I ate like a tourist. And I ate well.
But I came to New Orleans for more than food. In this I was not disappointed. I visited the bayous and watched as our guide lured alligators from the brown swampwater with a few tossed marshmallows. I toured stunning plantations, included the fabled Oak Alley (used in the film Interview with the Vampire, and set cinematically alight by Brad Pitt), and listened as guides spoke of both the Creole families who lived in those mansions and the slave families that built them.
I sloshed through Bourbon Street one night in the rain, the refuse of a thousand indiscretions detectable on the breeze, and in the water rising around my ankles.
I spent nearly a full day at the World War II museum, lost in time and feeling shaken from my vantage point of having been born well after its conclusion. Certainty, I learned, is a gift that comes only in hindsight.
Perhaps inevitably for a city that has built its recent reputation on hedonistic pleasures, much of New Orleans is predictably tacky. Hordes of intoxicated tourists roam the thoroughfares, some of them pushing strollers. Shops sell T-shirts with lewd slogans, and beads and bottles of hot sauce are everywhere.
Still, there is something mysterious under the surface. Despite modernity, the city is still defined by its geography. The river. The levees. The heat. Nature cannot be escaped, and must be tolerated.
Even in October, vines and blossoms flourished, and trees grew thick with Spanish moss. I caught glimpses of the pastel mansions in the Garden District as the streetcar rolled past. The sides were open, allowing in a rush of humid air. I stepped off and soon reached the gates of one of the Lafayette Cemeteries. A black crow fluttered in one of the treetops. It would have been ominous were it not so perfectly times. I walked among the grounds, weeds and grass poking through the crumbling pathways. The mausoleums are overrun with plants as if even stone and concrete can decay.
In the 300th year since its founding, New Orleans was a reminder that America was not always American. The land was a battlefield for European empires, and home to millions of native inhabitants. New Orleans, after all, had been French. And before that, Spanish. And before that, the Chitimacha tribe farmed, fished, and hunted along the waters leading to Lake Pontchartrain.
On my first night in the city, music and shouts from the street brought me to my hotel room window. Looking down, I saw what first appeared to be a parade. But on second glance, the figures were recognizable as a wedding party. The bride and groom led the way, followed by their guests and a second line that created a joyful procession through the street. And during my last meal, I heard music again – horns and drums that grew louder and louder until they literally passed by the window I was sitting beneath, and established themselves in the restaurant’s back room. It was a funeral, and in true New Orleans style, it sounded like a hell of a party.
Where I ate:
- Trenasse, Hotel Intercontinental, 444 St. Charles Avenue
- Mother’s Restaurant, 401 Poydras Street
- Broussard’s, 819 Conti Street
- Buffa’s Bar, 1001 Esplanade Avenue
Where I stayed:
Hotel St. Pierre, 911 Burgundy Street, New Orleans