Sunday, May 31, 2009

Can you ever have too many friends?

I made a great new friend today, a Parisian who has a house in Louisiana and shops at my store (I work in the French Quarter on Sundays). When I told him I was taking a trip to France in ten days he immediately offered to make me a list of places I absolutely MUST visit while I'm in Paris. He even gave me the name of a restaurant run by a friend and gave me a little note to give him instructing him to "take care of his friends from New Orleans". I love the people I meet at this job. I've never worked in a store in such a prime spot, we get people from EVERYWHERE! It's so much fun to hear their stories and find out how they like the city.

So we are getting ready for our upcoming trip, trying to decide how much we need to cram into the carry on in case of lost luggage (we have two separate connections, I worry!). I'm hoping to photo document the whole trip and post it here along with any fun stories we have by that point but who knows if I'll actually manage it. Sometimes I get so excited about seeing something that the thought of whipping out my camera and snapping a photo is light years from my mind. Still, I'll do my best.

A couple New Orleans blogs I've discovered that are worth checking out:

New Orleans Murder Blog - this is a just a straightforward case by case account of incidents of violence in New Orleans each day. It's pretty shocking when you see it laid out like that.

Overheard in New Orleans
- Hi-LAR-ious. The tag line of this blog is "The beauty, humor and stupidity that are classically New Orleans, posted for everyone to see". They let anyone post to the blog with overheard snippets of strange and humorous conversations. A lot of redneck humour for those of you who enjoy a little of that :)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A little rant on a slow Thursday

Just a short post in honour of the big news: New Orleans is going to host the 2013 Superbowl! I actually can't stand football in any shape or form but anything to get people visiting the city while it rebuilds.

RJ, while a football fan generally, is upset that it stole the cover on the newspaper from the discovery of the missing link fossil-- personally I think he's too hard on the on our only major paper, the Times-Picayune. What is a 'picayune' you ask? I have no idea and no one will tell me. When I first moved down here I kind of freaked out whenever I read the paper because it was so damn CONSERVATIVE, but a year or so later and it's begun to grow on me. Granted, there was a bit of a left-ward adjustment to the content and tone of the paper once it became obvious who would be elected president, but so many of the letters-to-the-editor and editorial still get me riled up... and I think I kind of like it. I've never been driven to write so many letters to a newspaper as I have to the Times-Picayune; there is nothing like pure, unadulterated outrage for getting the creative juices flowing. My favourite items of note this month: (1) Big debate about whether the law should be changed to allow students to carry concealed weapons on school campuses for their protection against other students possibly carrying concealed weapons on campuses, and (2) whether the French Quarter will continue to have it's trash collected three times a day with nary a city recycling program in sight...


So obviously this blog will be a fine balance between selling the city as a travel destination and banging my head against a wall in my attempt to figure out how to live here.

Stick with me!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One lazy Saturday

The first big news of the day: Both my Social Security card and my Green Card came in the mail yesterday so I can officially leave the country whenever I want to. I can't wait for a visit home... I feel like it's been forever since I was on Canadian soil.

Anyway, not much has been going on with us this week but we did take some pics around town last Saturday and I thought I might as well post them. It was a pretty typical weekend for us in New Orleans, as in it was very hot and very humid, but we managed to spend a large portion of it just hanging out in City Park, one of my favourite places in the city.

The park has over 1,300 acres just above Mid-City, about a mile from where we live. Its grounds are home to a botanical garden, golf course, amusement park, stables and a sculpture garden, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art and a very good restaurant called Ralph's On the Park.

RJ and I mainly go to the park to play tennis at their big outdoor complex, or, like we did this past Saturday, we go with dog and just wander the many paths and fields that make up the main part of the park. One thing that amazes me whenever we go is that the park, especially the walking paths, are never very crowded. Not many people in the city seem to go to City Park when you compare it to other urban parks in major cities. It's too bad, it really is a highlight in my slice of the city.

We're in the middle of stinging caterpillar season and the park was full of them that day so we had to watch where we stepped. They have small stingers all over and they leave them embedded in your skin if you touch them at all. It's actually quite hard to avoid them as they are literally EVERYWHERE in April in May and they like to climb up trees and then fall on you from above. It hurts like anything.

After we had dropped the dog off at home, we decided to take a drive down through the Marigny and then over to the French Quarter. The Marigny is a trendy, young neighbourhood - sort of like the Quarter before the tourists got to it, and populated with many artists, writers and musicians. The nightlife in the Marigny happens mainly on four blocks on Frenchman St., with plenty of bars and tons of live music venues. I've also heard that during Mardi Gras, this is where the locals have their own party, away from the obnoxious frat-boy types. The area is mainly residential with rows of tightly packed shotgun houses and creole cottages in painted in an array of very bright colours.

The picture to the right here I just had to take. We came across this family touring the Marigny via people movers - is that what you call them? Anyway, you can only see three of them in this picture but there was about six of them just zooming around. Hilarious.It was getting too late in the day to be able to drive easily around the French Quarter and we were getting hungry, so we stopped at the edge of the Quarter to wait in line for seats at our favourite burger place, Port of Call. This was the first place I ever ate at in New Orleans, on my first trip down here and it blew my mind even back then. I remember that at first glance inside I was completely weirded out by the whole place which is decorated in a nautical theme with every corny prop imaginable, complete with a rope net covering the entire restaurant ceiling. The fact that we had to wait for half an hour before getting a seat at a very minimal wooden picnic table had me thinking that RJ was crazy for bringing me there. Then the food arrived and I was completely converted. At Port of Call they really only cook up steaks, potatoes and burgers, and the burgers are what everyone goes nuts for. I would crawl over broken glass for one of these - seriously, that good. It has spoiled me for any other burger. A very satisfying end to a great day.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A tipsy town

Louisiana has some of the most permissive alcohol laws in the country - a big adjustment for a girl from Ontario, where alcohol is somewhat-strictly controlled by the government. In New Orleans, it's true, the party never ends and many bars (especially in the Quarter) are open 24 hours a day.

Alcohol of any strength can be sold in drugstores, convenience stores, gas stations and supermarkets without restriction which forces a competition in prices that I admit to occasionally enjoying. Nothing like buying three bottles of wine for ten dollars from the grocery bargain bin of odds and ends.

My biggest shock came when I discovered that many of the local daiquiri shops offered drive up windows for the convenience of their customers. The official rule is that the driver is supposed to wait until they get to where they are going to put the straw in the drink but this isn't a common practice from what I can tell.

One things I will definitely miss when I leave New Orleans is the good old to-go cup. Every bar in this city has a stack of plastic cups by the door that you can pour your drink into should you like to try a different bar down the way or if you just want to hang out on the street - which is where the real party is at on Bourbon. This to-go rule is the same for every place, from the dive to the fine dining establishment. If you so choose, at the fanciest joints in town you can drink a sip from your bottle of the best and then take the rest with you to enjoy in the surroundings of your choice.

Now I should say at this point, that while I, like anybody, enjoy the perks of these kind of alcohol laws, they definitely have their consequences. You can't jam that many people into an area as small as Bourbon street and give them unrestricted access to a continuous stream of alcohol without things imploding somewhat. New Orleans is now officially the crime capital of America: a population of 250,000 with 209 murders last year, and I personally believe that alcohol is a factor in many problems in the city. Addiction is a common theme in almost every story I hear down here and alcoholism is a disease that's awfully hard to recover from in a place like the Big Easy, where any occasion is celebrated with a clinking of glasses.

I don't want to end this post on a negative note. New Orleans is a fun and vibrant place and its leniency towards the booze is just another thing that makes it like no place on earth. RJ would like to add here that he's not sure if he can live in a place where it's not socially acceptable to drink by the roadside at 9 am. Ah... good times.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mardi Gras in all it's glory

So my timing of this blog wasn't the greatest as we are already weeks past that beloved New Orleans tradition, Mardi Gras. So I thought I'd back up a bit and explain the festival season. Just a warning, I forsee that this will be a long post, so if Mardi Gras isn't something you're interested in, skip to the next one.

For those who have never attended Carnival season in New Orleans, the celebration officially begins twelve days before Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) with festivities reaching a frenzied peak the weekend before the main event.

The main focus of Mardi Gras isn't the French Quarter (although each evening the party does continue on Bourbon St.) but the parades that roll along St. Charles Ave. or Canal St. Each parade is organized by a Krewe, a club or society, some of which are still very exclusive, and many of which have existed pretty much since Mardi Gras began.

Thousands of people gather to see the parades and to catch "throws", which for some (including my husband) is pretty much the point. Typical throws are beads (of course), cups, coins etc. but every spectator is hoping to catch a rarer throw - could be anything, ANYTHING, and each Krewe has their own special throws. For example, this past Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Muses (the all-woman parade) made shoes their theme, in honour of good old Bush almost getting beaned by one, and threw an assortment of shoe-themed objects: bracelets, bottle openers, dolls, and even a real pair of gold shoes. Throws are marked with the crest of the Krewe and many people I know keep their really good throws long after the beads have been disposed of.

Although the season officially starts two weeks before Mardi Gras, the pre-season begins three weeks before with the Krewe du Vieux parade, so-named because it is the only float parade to be allowed to pass through the French Quarter (the Vieux Carre). In the old days, all parades traveled through the Quarter's narrow streets while people watched from their balconies. Most of the other pre-season parades are smaller neighbourhood events, but I definitely need to make mention of one of my favourite lesser-known walking parades, the Krewe of Barkus - the all dog parade! It's hilarious and attended by a crowd of animal-lovers who all bring their pets in carnival costume.

Nowadays the crowds and floats have grown exponentially and the parades have all been moved to wider streets as the city has grown. The two main routes wind through Uptown, along St. Charles Avenue (and pass one block from our old apartment) and from Downtown to Mid-city, along Canal Street (and pass one block from our new apartment!).

The final weekend leading up to Mardi Gras sees the big-hitters and the so-called 'super-krewes': Hermes, Krewe d'Etat (satirical), Muses (all-women) etc. Saturday night is home to the King of Parades, Endymion, with 2000 riders on over 30 colossal floats. Endymion attracts by far the largest crowds and always has celebrity riders.

Lundi Gras (Monday) has several large parades and culminates with Orpheus, a parade started by Harry Connick Jr. several years ago. He rides in it every year and invites a few friends along.

The big day itself starts early with Zulu, a parade that definitely stands out in look and feel. This Krewe is traditionally African-American and their rare throw, a Zulu hand-painted coconut, is probably the most sought after prize of the whole season. New Orleans even presented President Obama with a personalized Zulu coconut as a gift.

Zulu is followed immediately by Rex, the last of the float parades and a biggie - the whole city always seems to be at Rex. It finishes around noon and from then on the only thing to see is un-ending truck parades: basically, people go-go dancing on barely-decorated flat bed trucks - great for throws but boring as hell.

Around this time many people start heading down to Bourbon Street for one last hurrah before the spell ends at midnight. And it literally does end at midnight. On Mardi Gras Day all fun stops at 12:00am and most everyone goes home. It sometimes feels like a bit of an abrupt ending to out-of-towners, that everyone suddenly packs it in early on that final day. It may seem a contradiction, but New Orleans, debauched as it can get, is at it's heart a deeply Catholic city and Mardi Gras is rooted in the idea of a festival of excess before the season of Lent which highlights self-denial. So this midnight rule of ending Fat Tuesday at midnight is taken quite seriously by all.

There are other activities besides parades of course. Mardi Gras is also a season of balls for members of high society (which thrives in the rather old-fashioned south). Each Krewe chooses a King or Queen, generally amongst that season's debutantes, who are presented at these balls and then lead the Krewe's parade. Those attending the balls are always required to dress in costume.

Bourbon is still the place to be after the parades have ended each evening. We were lucky enough to be included in a private party at a hotel overlooking Bourbon this year and I discovered that throwing the beads to the drunken revelers was much more fun for me than being crushed down below. It's amazing what people will do for a string of cheap plastic beads.

So, there you have it. As succinctly as I can put it (and it's a damn long blog post). Mardi Gras is a fascinating festival in this city and definitely one that I feel everyone should see at least once in their life time (preferably while young enough to do stupid things without much guilt). So start saving for next year!