Sunday, May 22, 2011

ROAD TRIP NEW ORLEANS, Part One: - This City Will Never Drown, This City Will Never Die...

An Exhibit was running at the Presbytere by
Jackson Square, this was a garage door
from the post-Katrina disaster.  The markings
indicate how many bodies, surivors, etc
were found by the crews. 
As I listen to the talking heads on the news rattle on about the flooding in Louisiana, my thoughts return to that magical state. I savor my memories of this bastion of rich foods and southern charm like delectable morsels, tidbits of flavor that cling to my consciousness. Everything about the place lingers pleasantly, like the warmth of the sun on the floorboards of a well worn front porch stoop. Yet the voices on the television seem concerned only with shocking me sufficiently to keep me from changing the channel. I hear nothing in their stories about the people. Their resilience. Their inspirational spine. Their unstoppable heart.

Susan Cowsill @ French Quarterfest River Stage

I am only recently returned from my annual pilgrimage to New Orleans, and it seems that every year when my Better Half and I leave this welcoming haven of the Deep South, we leave those who reside there facing yet another monumental challenge to their very survival. Last April it was British Petroleum’s carelessness and greed that left the fishing industry of the Gulf dealing with another type of flood: the 100,000,000 gallons or more of crude oil that came gushing into their water from a broken well cap deep on the sea floor. This year we are not yet back a month before the swollen Mississippi begins to threaten homes and habitats along its course south to the Delta. Floods, storms, and man-made disasters in apocalyptic proportion rain down on these people as frequently as the change of seasons. They are a people who have been relentlessly assaulted and yet, like Job, they rise again and again to meet these challenges. Every year they greet us with smiles on their faces, despite the odds.

Mardi Gras Indian
 I often ask myself how the people of Louisiana find the resilience to face the obstacles continually presented them with such magnificent composure. Perhaps the answer is that they are too proud a people to simply lay down and cry “Uncle!” Maybe it is their uniquely Southern ability to extend a helping hand to one another in times of trouble, or maybe the answer is simply that they got the necessary Hoodoo. Whatever the reason, the people of New Orleans are an example to the rest of us of what it means to be tried mightily and to survive with grace.

Selfishly, I give thanks every day that they did survive. They survived Katrina and began promptly rebuilding New Orleans. They survived BP and are still serving the best barbequed shrimp known to man. They survive and they make music. Every day.

Street Singer at Quarter Fest

The Crescent City is a place of legend. It possesses a history rich with tradition. It is unique, its culture a derivative result of perhaps the most unusual combination of cultures to be seen anywhere on this planet. French aristocrats, freed slaves, Spanish conquerors and Canadian peasants each brought their unique perspective to the cultural mix. Mingling and uniting over centuries to produce a plethora of ethnological traditions that combine seamlessly to create the marvelous atmosphere of great food, music and artistic expression we have all come to associate with New Orleans. Religious beliefs incorporating the practices of Catholicism, Voodoo, and slave-spiritualism eventually produced wonderful festivals like Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day. A place where music is legend, the origins of that music are yet another remarkable lesson in evolution. Traditional Gaelic folk songs and fiddle work were re-interpreted by French Creole settlers, morphing into the resultant Zydeco. The West African rhythms heard in the soulful drums and jubilant dancing of freed slaves in Congo Square mingled with the mournful clarinet of the classic European musicians in an Uptown quartet and American Jazz was born, changing the face of American music forever. Another example of the never-ending lagniappe that N’awlins offers up to the world at large.

Mississippi Steam Boats
still cruise the mighty river

A city of mythical proportions, yet it retains a natural, earthy charm. Enriched by so many vivid cultures, New Orleans seems to recognize the part of each of us that belongs to her, our differences, our individuality. Her parties are not about indulging in excess so much as to put us in touch with the abandon with which we are all born and spend a lifetime forgetting is within us. She is protective and welcoming, and she clings to her heritage tenaciously, like a mother holds her baby to her breast defying any threat to approach. It may be the certainty of those traditions, and the foundation that certainty provides her populace, that keeps her citizens on an even keel in times of turbulence. This is a city that recognizes her role in American heritage, and her people sense somehow that they are her guardians. When Katrina and Rita left her almost deserted and seemingly destroyed, many outsiders said New Orleans must be relegated to history. She should be allowed to fade to a place in our collective memories, to be cherished only in photographs and stories. They said she was on her knees, not worth the effort to rebuild her. The locals were unwilling to accept this pronouncement, so they began to rebuild. They did not accept that their incomparable city of infamy, mystery and magic was done for. So, the people began to return.

Street Performers are
 My husband and I were among those who doubted in those first few shaky post-Katrina years, but we hadn’t yet been introduced. When we were, she was still reeling from the after-effects of hurricanes and government neglect, yet she welcomed us with open arms and a smile on her well-worn face, like a loving grandmother gesturing for one to sit beside her. My husband and I hoped, somewhat naively, that traveling to New Orleans might enlighten us, and in some small way we could stimulate the City’s recovery.

Pat O'Brien's Courtyard
 So it was that in April of 2008, we made our first pilgrimage to New Orleans. It was love at first sight, a stirringly transformative experience. We had traveled to this depressed area to give something to New Orleans, and instead came away enriched by the gifts she gave to us. It is difficult to explain the way the spirit of this place and her people infects the heart. Though blighted, beaten and ignored by a government that should have been there for them in their time of need, her people had smiles on their faces and music in their hearts. Children tap-danced along the Riverwalk for spare change, old men kept rhythm on buckets in Jackson Square. Everywhere life’s story was reflected with a palpable authenticity, and an abundance of talent. As the musicians played, they filled the streets with the harmonic and genuine emotion that is the sound of New Orleans. Its heartbeat was resonant, carried along on the air in a kind of understood tandem, picked up at first by a clarinet on one corner, then as that sound faded, continued by an a capella group on another, and so on. There is no place one can stand without hearing the music. This city’s beating heart is audible... everywhere. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell “the one man band by the oyster stand he was playing real good for free.”

Jazz Trio at Court of Two Sisters
 It has become a ritual custom for the Better Half and I to travel to the Crescent City every April. We return each spring, as though on religious pilgrimage, drawn back to the music and the magic (and of course, the food) that abounds in this Mecca standing tall and proud on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. I know we are fortunate that events unfolded as they did, because our lives would certainly be the poorer were it not for our relationship with the Crescent City. She even has a name for us. The ones who come, and while leaving, remain behind in spirit, pieces of our hearts and souls indelibly inked with the sights and sounds of this City. New Orleans calls us the “never lefts,” as she waits patiently for our return.

Coming soon PART TWO - the Food

Jackson Square