At this point in my life, I’m incredibly well traveled. Inevitably, I will often be asked “what is your favorite place in the world?” I haven’t been to everywhere in the world, but I’ve been to 25 countries in counting and dozens upon dozens of cities. While most travelers say, “Ugh, I hate the question of my favorite place” I’m not afraid of it. My favorite place in the world, is New Orleans. Hand’s down and no contest. This Thanksgiving, will be my fifth time in the Big Easy (also my good friend’s college nickname.) I’ve been scanning through my photos from 2014 to now, and it’s so interesting to see my love affair of New Orleans through the years.
There is nothing pretentious about New Orleans. Even at its most exclusive and upscale of institutions it is welcoming and inclusive. New Orleans is admirable in the lengths it takes to preserve its culture and the uniqueness of its identity. While many cities are chameleons, trying to be like Paris, or New York, or Rome, New Orleans knows it is not those places and does not try to be, because it’s better than those places.
I’m amazed at the taxi cab drivers. Every single one has mastered the art of conversation and for 15 minutes to an hour, I get a no holds barred look into the life of a complete stranger. On my most recent trip I met a refugee and former attorney from Venezuela who indulged in all of the ways that he was pursued by the Venezuelan government for his speaking out against them. I had another cab driver pass me her phone where I watched videos of the dancing she does in her free time. Yeah, try striking up a conversation with a New York cabbie about dance moves, see how that goes.
I love the way the intricate and unique architecture and bold colors of creole cottages mixes with the undeniably palpable feeling of residual other wordly energy lingering from the Yellow Fever days. It feels as though the people who once lived in the city have never really left. You are never alone in New Orleans, even when you’re the only person on a block. The city turns even the biggest skeptics of ghosts into believers. The magnitude of their stories lingers heavily. There is an air of mysticism in the city; one sees it as he passes the tarot card readers, wanders into Boutique du Vampire for some herbs, and examines a dizzying array of voodoo dolls in VooDoo Authentica.
The city is so damn eccentric. Let’s start with the fact that the first inhabitants, Native Peoples aside, were convicts and prostitutes who traded prison sentences for freedom if they built up the city. Once you understand that, everything else falls into place. There is something not disturbing, but poignant about the tales of The Big Easy’s history of Storyville prostitutes, coffin girls, madams, psychics, druggies, writers, and Bohemians.
As much as New Orleans is a tale of wantonness, it is also, as Tennesee Williams once said, “an easy intermingling of the races.” In this city there are cultures of people simply not found within the United States. There are Creole people of mixed descent, people of Native, African, and Spanish heritage. There are French Cajuns and a true Francophonie society where French culture and language is preserved; French immersion schools exist here.
Nowhere in the world has better food than New Orleans. Yes, you can find your share of gumbo and jambalaya. But, the city also procures the best hummus I’ve ever had. It also churns out exceptional bahn mi and pho thanks to its Vietnamese population. A large part of acclimating to the New Orleans culture, is holding tight to your mother culture and sharing it with the city. What is more beautiful than that? Just as delicious, savory, and fulfilling is the music of the city. As essential as water and oxygen, music is present at all vital passages of life, New Orleans is the city of Second Lines and jazz funerals. Everything, everything, is celebrated and expressed with music.
I’d like to take a look back on some grainy photographs, and at some points even grainier recollections of my time in New Orleans through the years!
My first trip was in February of 2016. My husband and I drove down from Brooklyn after severe winter weather grounded all flights out of New York City. After 13 hours in total on the road, none we reached the Crescent City. From the very first night time looks from the car it was gritty, it was gray, it was raucous. It was a city made for me as far as I was concerned.
I was in my early twenties and completely content with doing the Bourbon Street thing, and that is exactly what we did starting early the next morning. We waited in line for Jimmy J’s Cafe, and I’ll never forget my first New Orleans meal: crispy bacon and bananas foster french toast. The restaurant was jam packed, but the streets were even more packed. I remember leaving Jimmy J’s just in time to catch a glimpse of a parade passing by, one krewe member looked right out from the float and threw a frisbee. I was all the way in the back of the crowd with at least a hundred people in front of me, and yet, the frisbee floated over the heads of the masses and directly toward me, and landed right into my non athletic hands. It was in that moment, clutching the bright yellow frisbee, my jaw hitting the floor, that I knew New Orleans was magical. I still have that frisbee.
I get a brain freeze just thinking about all of the slushee drinks, the hurricane after hurricane that I pounded down. That is what I really remember about that day, and that’s what got me into a lot of misadventures. I remember after already slamming something like 5 or 6 of them, a woman from Slidell stopped us and said, “I’d slow down with those. Remember, it’s a marathon not a sprint. I made the same mistake you’re making now my first time down here.” I scoffed in her face and pounded the drink as I walked away. This was no mistake, this was NAWLINS. I spent a lot of that evening with my head in my hotel toilet. I hope she’s reading this now and laughing at me.
I promised random adventures, there were quite a few. None that really make sense now as a sober person several years later. I remember taking photographs with a topless older woman with an exquisite Mardi Gras mural painted across her chest. I remember a random llama roaming the streets and taking photographs with it and thinking, “is Mardi Gras really this crazy? We got llamas up in here now?!” I remember women flashing for beads, but being really disturbed by the amount of photographs being taken of these revelers. I think more women would have had fun and bared it all if there weren’t perverts encircling them with cameras. Mostly, I remember how disgusted I was with a group of protestors who marched in with their anti gay nonsense. I got in the faces of one of the protestors, and my husband was pepper sprayed by the police as a consequence.
I had way too much fun, and got into way too much trouble. I slept off the day hangover, and was treated to the New Orleanean dinner of my dreams later that night. Enter, my first shrimp and grits in the city, and samplings of crawfish etouffee and jambalaya. I still remember the creaminess of the grits and the rich, smokey dark brown roux.
That first trip was mostly drinks, but it wasn’t entirely drinks. After hearing about bayous in so many rock and country songs, I finally saw one. We did a cruise through ominous waterways full of twisting, turning, bare trees and all sorts of wildlife. I saw a gator, our tour guide straight up grabbed him out of the water by the snout, petting him like the family dog. Louisianians are crazy. CRAZY. (In the best way.)
I was introduced to Marie Lauveau for the first time, and she has captivated my attention and heart ever since. Marie Lauveau is known as the voodoo priestess, but she is actually and literally one miracle short of being a saint. Her major life’s sacraments are recorded history in the Catholic church. She exuded the manifesto of “love thy neighbor” by allowing those with no place to be buried to rest forever in her family crypt. She was an entrepreneur who used the gossip she often overheard as a hair-dresser, as well as word from enslaved people, to put on the appearance that she had powers that were beyond worldly. She would hear a piece of gossip about a person in the city, and confront the person about the new fact leaving the person stupefied as to how she could possibly know such an intimate secret. Once she built faith in her clientele, she was able to sell them potions and charge money for readings.
After just three days it was time to move on with our road trip and leave New Orleans. I knew I’d be back soon. I returned several more times.
I returned for a bachelorette party where we carried an inflatable man and his giant penis into every bar on Bourbon street, his name was Bad Boy Brad. At one point, someone stole him and he crowd surfed all the way up to the main stage at a live music event, it was really difficult getting him back, but we did it!
That same weekend I had drank two giant hurricanes and a dozen jello shots and danced in the same bar on Bourbon Street for FIVE HOURS. Five solid hours dancing with no breaks. I don’t know how many middle aged random women that we pulled onto the dance floor and forced them to be friends with us, but it was probably at least fifteen.
I rode the streetcar.
I visited Mardi Gras world and saw how the parade floats are made and learned about the history of the holiday. I had no idea that designing and decorating the floats are full time careers for some artists, and the opportunity to work on these floats attracts real artists from all over the country!
I ventured into the Treme and had the best friend chicken in all of the United States.
I visited Muriel’s and had no idea it was haunted. But, we also lived our best life ordering champagne and the best food ever. The savory gorgonzola cheesecake makes its way into my dreams at least once a week.
I went in the winter, during January, and found more things to fall in love with.
I tasted crawfish for the first time and while I still freak the fuck out that they look like mini cockroaches, and I feel like they’re going to re-animate and come back to life every time I pick them up, they’re damn delicious. My favorite place for them is the Original French Market restaurant and bar on Decatur. In fact, they offer my definition of comfort food and one of my death row meals. Crawfish plate, crab legs, their creamy and generous portion of mac and cheese, and a tap beer.
I returned to the bayou, and came face to face with my long lost twin, seen below.
I found Frenchmen street, and my tastes are now such that I really prefer it to the madness of Bourbon Street. I heard a second line for the first time on Frenchmen, and it brought me to tears. The diversity of crowd it attracted, the hard work of the performers, people from all walks of life coming together to enjoy the music, these are the most magical moments of travel.
However, I was 25, and so a rendevouz down Bourbon Street seemed appropriate. We said we were just going to take a quick stroll and then…
I met the love of my life…the Central Grocery Muffaletta. Being Italian, this was always bound to happen. A huge delicious loaf of bread stuffed with all the meats and cheeses and olive tapenade…yes please.
I met a random restaurant owner on the street who knew my name without ever having met me and told me that angels told him to tell me that I have a blessed and protected life.
I ate approximately 9,234 beignets during both my January and July trip.
I whole heartedly enjoyed every second of jazz brunch at Antoine’s. Once of the oldest restaurants in the city.
After a few year hiatus, I took a trip last month with my cousin, Nina (who you remember from my Wales escapade.) This was my first girls trip after having a baby, and you could say I really let loose.
We got wigs, spread a gaudy amount of glitter on our bodies, caked on purple eye shadow, and became new people. Fifi Mahony’s on Royal Street is THE best place for wigs. They charge a five dollar capping fee, but it goes toward the purchase of a wig. We must have tried on a dozen, and the women who work there were incredibly patient and helpful.
We had a bougie French meal at Justine’s complete with champagne, a cheese plate,duck and oysters.
I had possibly the best meal of my life at Shaya, an incredible Israeli restaurant which if you follow what’s hot in the gastronomic world, tops the charts of New Orleans constantly. Shaya made cauliflower taste good. I couldn’t stop eating it. This is the kind of magic that this place creates, guys. The hummus had to have been made by gods. I can see no other way to understand the perfection of their hummus. Seriously…get on a plane and go there.
I tried the Cafe DuMonde in City Park and I risk my life by saying…the cafe mocha is so much better than the cafe au lait.
We visited New Orleans’ Arcadian book store where books are sold in both French and English. The works are piled high and you’re bound to find something (or someone) interesting. I’ve never been in a bilingual bookstore, but I think we need more of them.
In New Orleans through the years, I’ve always been content to just do the tourist thing each time I visit. But, locals keep saying that the best way to experience the city is through the many festivals that the Big Easy offers. Enter…mac and cheese fest! Live music and a multitude of different types of variations on the classic. Not to mention, a mac and cheese eating contest!
I’m a huge fan of AirBnB experiences. Here are some that I did during my trip in October:
Champagne Destiny Reading: I’ll be doing a separate write up for this entirely because it was so great, and linking it to this article once I get it done. Briefly, the experience starts with a bottle of bubbly (as every morning should) which was appropriate because the organizer, Mika, is so much fun and so full of life! She was down to earth and easy to talk to, she shared about her own background and how she became involved in the mystical practice of card reading and astrology. I will say, my reading was eerily accurate. The entire practice is based on birth dates. I’m now a believer!
Frenchmen Street Pub Crawl: I’ve been on Frenchmen Street, but never knew which clubs and music spots to dive into. Quay changed all of that for me. He was our guide on our big night out in the Marigny, a respected musician, and his mother used to sing back up for Aretha Franklin! He took us to several music spots throughout the night and timed everything perfectly so that we would always be listening to the best live music. We saw jazz, classic rock, blues, and even danced to Zydeco thanks to a lot of liquid courage. He led us to places I would never have known to visit, and we always had the best seats in the house! We even stopped at the Art Market to pick up some souvenirs. He really opened up my eyes, heart, and what’s left of my soul to the huge range of diversity in New Orleans music which makes the city so unique. I feel way too old to be partying on Bourbon street anymore, but there’s a new life for me and my antics, and that life is on Frenchmen Street with world class music!
Drag Queen Tour: It’s difficult to pick a favorite experience of my October trip to New Orleans, they were all outstanding. However, I might have to go with my drag queen tour! I try to pick the wackiest, most fun, most unique activities when I visit the city, I love all things drag, so this seemed like a great option. As a humanities teacher, I welcomed the opportunity to learn about the history of marginalized people. This tour was packed full of the history of people of color, the LGBTQ community, sex workers, and WOMEN! Quinn was our guide and she was so full of knowledge and humor, I was captivated from the get go. Quinn exudes a style of teaching which makes it impossible to forget the stories she tells. However, please don’t think this experience was anything like a boring history class! We learned about women who danced seductively with oysters on their bodies, the sex workers of Storyville and its history, violence, and all the raunchiness! I’m a proud ally of the LGBTQ community and so I loved learning about the struggles of the community, but also its history and how members of the community have overcome bigotry. I enjoyed learning about how women used their limited opportunities in the city to become entrepreneurs. It was inspiring, educational, and SO much damn fun!
Drunk and Haunted tour: New Orleans just does everything in such an incredible fashion, and this was no exception. The city is full of unbelievable story tellers and we were lucky enough to have one as our guide. I learned so much and after hearing about all of the stories truly felt the spirits of those who passed walking among us. Not in an eerie way, but a matter of fact way. In every location we went to, Nina was able to see green orbs on her phone! If you’re not a ghost nerd, orbs are said to be spirits floating around. I learned the real story of Marie Lauveu, and the heinous story of Madame LaLaurie, even visiting her old mansion. There is said to be so much residual energy there that people actually faint when visiting. I ran this past our tour guide, and she thinks they faint from drinking too much. I REALLY appreciated that she herself is a historian and only shared what was factual and did not fabricate for the sake of the tour. There were two stops on the tour which were opportunities to get drinks and the Pimm’s Cup I chose was a pretty boss move. The sky was a midnight blue, the white moon shone bright, the air had a crisp chill and rustled the leaves on the streets. Other tour groups walked excitedly from place to place like adult trick or treaters. Autumn was a perfect time to take this tour! I’ll be sharing more in a separate post!
I also got MY FIRST TATTOO! Shout out to Downtown Tattoos and Piercings who did such a phenomenal job. I came in with an embarrassingly gaudy and hideous idea for a tattoo, and they gave me suggestions and ideas which saved my foot from pretty much looking like a giant king cake. For their creativity, for their professionalism, for their great humor and conversation, I’m so thankful! In an ode to the city I love the most, I got a fleur dis lis.
New Orleans through the years has certainly changed. When I first visited, it was still legal to smoke in bars! That’s mostly a thing of the past. When I first visited, I was mainly interested in the drinking and partying scene, as any proper 23 year old should be. Nowadays, I try to visit at least once a year for different reasons. The cocktails will always be an integral part of my experience, but I also love the history, music, and culture. It will be interesting to see what experiences I have in November going with my husband, parents, and 6 month old baby. Talk about a change! Any ideas on what to do when I visit for Thanksgiving? Let me know in the comments!