The thing I remember most from that first visit are the houses. They were all so magnificent and Southern. Houses with wrap-around porches and grand columns. Houses laden with balconies of the most intricate wrought-iron railings. Colorful houses. Houses in danger of being swallowed alive by looming oak tree branches. And plantation houses. Compromising my admiration for these gorgeous estates rich with history and my knowledge of the tragedy of that history was challenging. In fact, there is no possible way to compromise; I was simply deeply fascinated by them. When I travel, I traverse not only distance, but time. I start by blurring my modern surroundings. At the plantations, I would block out the sounds of cars in the distance, the evident signs of electricity and indoor plumbing, my friend Ali texting beside me and just imagine. Imagine how this place functioned in its prime. Imagine the sound of horse hooves on dirt paths, the rustle of ladies’ dresses and the smell of smoke from men’s pipes. Call it ignorantly romantic, but imagining the past is how and why I travel.
And its past was exactly what drew me to New Orleans. That summer I had been swept away by Gone with the Wind. I wanted to don a bonnet and whisk off to Georgia, as if there I would find Southern gentlemen willing to fetch me food at a charming outdoor barbeque. Ali and her family had moved to New Orleans earlier that year, so when she invited me to visit, I thought, how perfect: that’s where Rhett and Scarlett honeymooned.
We got to the houses eventually, but they were not my first impression of the Big Easy (a fine and accurate nickname for the city, without a doubt). Our first stop was Bourbon Street and I can’t say it was something I was entirely looking forward to. And for good reason, I thought, the instant we got off the street car – not trolley, street car – and turned onto Bourbon. I swear it was the worst thing I had ever smelled. It was trash day, I hoped; it couldn’t possibly smell like this all the time. I looked to my left and saw the sign for a club called Hustler. “Relax, it’s just sex,” it read; welcome to Bourbon, I thought.
As I quickly discovered, there was so much more to New Orleans than its houses from a different era and its infamous party scene. I forced Ali to take me to jazz clubs, where we snickered after illegally ordering margaritas. I ate everything – gumbo, jambalaya, oysters, beignets, coffee with chicory. The Southern accents of the locals captivated me. Everyone was so friendly and relaxed and I tried not to act like a Puritan from up North because I wanted them to like me as much as I liked them. I decided I wanted to be buried in a crypt, they were just so beautiful. I thought that New Orleans was to be one of my favorite places and for reasons beyond it being a mere setting for a fictional tale and a fascinating history.
I knew my return to New Orleans would be drastically different. Many times, I find that returning somewhere can be better than visiting it for the first time. The anticipation is richer. I was bouncing in my seat on the plane, playing jazz licks in my head, counting down the hours to good ol’ Southern comfort. Yet, there is also the fear of disrupting your idyllic image of the place. My return to New Orleans was centered around my friend’s bachelorette weekend during the peak of Mardi Gras season. I was thrilled to celebrate with my friends and to experience that grand festival. But I knew I would be walking on the Bourbon side of things this time around.
As it turns out, Mardi Gras is contagious. Its devil-may-care revelry infects everyone. We saw it in all walks of life. Like a family friend of Ali’s, a downright Southern Gatsby with monogrammed drink stirrers and traditional New Orleans blues bouncing off the rich blues and greens that painted his walls. The little ones who sit high above the parades on ladders, unaware of the pleasure they possess of growing up with such tradition. A solo traveler we befriended who was in town to experience the city in its prime, but mostly just to dance. There was another family friend, a socialite born and raised in this place which resembles European cities more than its American counterparts. “Happy Mardi Gras!” she greeted us from the porch of her house right on the parade route. “Please, come in, drink all of the wine and eat all of the king cake.” She told us New Orleans was the kind of place that if you loved it, it would love you back.
I found that love of all places on Bourbon Street. It thrived with an energy I had never before experienced. Beads of purple, green and gold were everywhere, thrown from the balconies above and covering the street below. I don’t recall any awful smells and I looked on the Hustler sign with fondness. It was all New Orleans.