In April of 2006, David and I made our first trip back to New Orleans post-Katrina. I well remember the mix of emotions as our plane touched down at the Louis Armstrong airport. I was so happy to be returning to the city of my soul, especially since I had wondered if that would ever happen as I watched the city drown on national television several months prior. But there was also an undercurrent of trepidation. Would the city I love still feel the same? I knew there would be massive damage to property but that can be repaired. I was more concerned about the potential damage to the culture and soul of a city unlike any other. What if the spirit of New Orleans had been washed away in the flood waters? Yes, I was scared.
My first experience in New Orleans was our honeymoon in the summer of 1981. We were young, didn’t have much money and needed to go somewhere within driving distance. I looked at a map and for some unknown reason picked New Orleans. I think I had this vague notion that those years of high school French would come in handy. The first thing we did when we arrived late at night was to get lost in a not-so-safe area of the city. Somehow we managed to find our way to the hotel, left the car with the valet and either walked or used public transportation for the rest of the week. Those busy, narrow, one-way streets were just a bit overwhelming for my barely 20 year old husband driving my parents’ Lincoln. Besides, you really don’t need a car in the French Quarter.
It’s been 29 years since our honeymoon and I must admit a lot of the memories have faded. But one still stands out as clear as day. We were staying at the lovely Royal Orleans hotel (now the Omni Orleans) right in the heart of the French Quarter. There is a nice pool on the rooftop as well as an observation deck. I remember standing on the deck and looking out over the Quarter. The St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square, all of the charming old buildings, and the Mississippi River just beyond. I was enchanted, captivated, enthralled, mesmerized and bewitched. I tell people that is when I fell in love with the city and where it stole my heart. For some unknown reason I instantly felt a connection with this old city on the river.
Following that first trip, I was ever on the lookout for books set in New Orleans. I had never been one to read romance novels but I willingly lowered my standards if I ran across one with a New Orleans setting. Most of these were historical romances and while not all were historically accurate, over time I did manage to learn a lot of history of the area. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had an interest in Southern literature so this new passion for New Orleans fit right in with that.
David and I didn’t get the opportunity to return to New Orleans until our 10th wedding anniversary. It was the first time we’d left the kids for longer than a weekend. I think that was the time we rented a Mustang convertible for a couple of days so we could drive out to one of the plantations. We chose the Nottoway Plantation. At 53,000 square feet, it’s the largest of the remaining River Road plantation houses. I loved touring this impressive house and grounds while imagining what it must have been like to live there. We also enjoyed the drive with the top down on the convertible. It rained briefly a couple of times and each time, we’d pull over and put the top up, then as soon as it stopped, we put it back down again.
One of David’s favorite stories about me involves that car. When we first arrived in New Orleans, someone (either a cab driver or concierge – can’t recall for sure) told us that crime in the city had increased since our last visit and to be very careful. As we were driving back to our hotel, we were at a stop light in a somewhat questionable area. I reached over and locked the car doors. David found this hilarious since we were driving a convertible with the top down but my theory was that it would be much harder for someone to pull me out over the door. Okay, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense. You can laugh if you want to.
We returned to the city several more times over the years, including a couple of times with the kids. With each visit my passion for New Orleans intensified, almost approaching obsession status. David enjoyed our visits and played along with me in what became a running joke. I’d say, “Guess what that reminds me of?” and he’d reply, “New Orleans”. It wasn’t, however, until the trip we took a couple of months after our daughter married that he was bitten by the NOLA bug.
As a new, empty nest-er mom, I felt as thought I’d been set adrift with no real direction. David and I both felt it best for me not to return to my former (short-lived) career as a nurse. I had some volunteer activities in addition to caring for our home, animals, yard, etc. It wasn’t that I was bored or anything like that. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been bored in my whole life. If anything, I always have way more interests than I have time for. Still, I just wasn’t sure what the second half of my life would hold.
David and I decided to go to New Orleans for a week in August of 2005. It would be our first long trip together since having children and it changed our lives. The first night we ate dinner at Margaritaville. We were seated upstairs overlooking the stage below. It turned out that there was a song writers event that night so after our meal we took seats at the edge of the balcony and watched the show. The music was enjoyable but the more entertaining show was the group of Parrot Heads seated below us. Middle-aged and older, they became more amusing as the night wore on and intoxication levels rose. Basically, the women became amorous and men thought they could dance.
After the show we did something we’d never done on previous trips. We headed to Bourbon Street. As I recall, we sort of drifted along behind a group of Parrot Heads and ended up at the Tropical Isle. Little did we know what an impact that choice would have on us. We ended up spending several nights of our trip there listening to Debi and the Deacons and since that time have become good friends with Bryan and Debi. In the years since, they’ve introduced us to their friends, and those friends introduced us to their friends, and on and on it goes. I think that’s one of the things that has impressed us most about the people of New Orleans. Every time we visit we are reminded once again that New Orleanians are the friendliest and most fun people you can imagine. They embrace life with a gusto unimaginable in most parts of the country, especially the Bible Belt where I live.
This is an excellent explanation of what I’m referring to:
“The longer I spent there, the clearer it became that what makes New Orleanians so different from other Americans is that they are experts at the lost art of living in the moment. They’re less deadline-driven and less money-obsessed than the rest of us. Their identities are more rooted in their neighborhoods, second line clubs, and Mardi Gras krewes and Indian tribes than in their personal achievements. They don’t squeeze friends and family into busy lives; they build their lives around them. Sharing a beer on the porch is not something a New Orleanian must schedule two weeks in advance.”
We have been invited to people’s homes for dinner, including a crawfish boil, and a crab boil. We’ve spent an anniversary at a dive bar watching friends shoot pool. We’ve met up with groups for impromptu bar crawls through the French Quarter. And of course, there have been numerous activities with our pirate friends. Every time we go we meet new people and quickly consider them friends. That’s simply the way it is there and it’s one of the things I admire most about the people of New Orleans.
This has been a difficult post for me to write. On the one hand, I don’t want people to forget about Hurricane Katrina and what it did to the city and people I love. I’m still angry about the causes of the disaster (no, it wasn’t a *natural* disaster) and the way our government mishandled the aftermath. What we witnessed changed us in some pretty major ways. But on the other hand, I don’t want to dwell on the negatives, either. I’m amazed that there are people who believe that New Orleans is still totally devastated and inhospitable to travel. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The typical tourist isn’t likely to notice much of anything amiss and I strongly encourage people to visit – NOLA needs the tourist dollars.
After thinking about it for the past few weeks, I finally decided to just share some of our memories of and feelings for New Orleans. I’ll leave it to the countless others who have been publishing articles and blog posts about the five year anniversary of Katrina to rehash what happened five years ago. I know that many of my New Orleans friends are weary of the topic. Yes, we need to remember and mourn and grieve when something catastrophic like this happens. And we need to continue to hold those responsible accountable and demand that wetlands are restored and levees strengthened and people are helped to rebuild their lives. But there’s a difference between remembering and wallowing. The people in New Orleans remember – how could they forget? But they aren’t the type to wallow in self-pity. The most important lesson I’ve learned from our friends in New Orleans is that life is to be lived with enthusiasm, joy and love. It’s a lesson I’m reminded of with each visit.
I’m convinced that one of these days we will live in New Orleans. In the meantime I will cherish each trip we take to what I think of as “the city of my soul” and do my best to live according to the example of my NOLA friends. I think that prescription for good living can be summed up as: Eat, drink, dance, love and don’t take any sh*t. The last part is the hardest for me but I’m learning.
Note: You can read my previous posts about New Orleans, including the ones I’ve written on each Katrina anniversary, by clicking on “New Orleans” under the header.