“Topophilia — our innate love of place, often shaped by sense and by memories.” Rebecca Solnit
When it comes to travel, I love good surprises. One of the best is falling in love with a place you didn’t expect.
I had visited New Orleans in the 1980s. We were on a college choir festival trip to Tulane and had the quintessential Bourbon St. experience. The next morning, several of us rose early, covered ourselves in powdered sugar from beneits at Cafe du Monde, and then performed an informal liturgical concert on the dias at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. The clergy and crowd were transfixed, as were we, singing music that might have been heard in churches on this site since the 1720s. I should have known then.
A few years ago, I was back for a conference in the middle of summer right on Bourbon Street. I had low expectations — too many tourists, too much humidity, too hot, too sticky. All reasons I planned to stick near the pool and avoid leaving the building if at all possible. But I was drawn out. The magic is strong in the French Quarter. Each morning, I was up with my camera, stopping for cafe au lait and a good croissant, writing in my journal, and transfixed by people living their lives. New Orleans in general — and the French Quarter in particular — is not simply a tourist mecca but a village with a truly unique flavor. As I walked, I found myself peeking into courtyards, reading real estate signs (“Not Haunted”), and losing myself, transformed like so many writers and dreamers by the atmosphere. I lost myself little by little. It was like falling in love.
From my journal:
“I love the look of this district. Very French but also very international. Even with the heavy emphasis on bars and tourists, the residential, French character of this village (there’s really nothing else to call it) shows through. I can easily see where writers, poets and others come here and end up staying. They get lost. It’s a kind of magic. Behind every door is a courtyard. Behind every gate is a new friend waiting to be met with new stories. This morning, I did what I often do in a new French village, I get up and take 100 photos to get a sense of the place, a feel for it.
The French Quarter reminds me of North Beach in San Francisco in that we see the commercial enterprise, but don’t see the sheer density of people who live wedged over and under and in between. Once you get off Bourbon and Rue Royale, there are apartments and townhouses galore along with art galleries and antique shops. The balconies of apartments have doors and shutters open. You can see beds and chairs, signs of a life. A few dogs yap on balconies declaring ownership of all they survey. (One seems to have a particular affront about having a veterinarian in the storefront across the street.) There are the funky bohemian balconies with faded flags and permanent Mardi Gras decorations and those with perfectly manicured ferns and flowers. A few are overcome by bougainvillea climbing through the cast iron as trellises. It rains here, so one can see the benefit of having a ‘top’ on your balcony. Especially since, as in Europe, the outdoor space is livable space. Sometimes you see a perfectly kept balcony and then one over, something that doesn’t quite belong like a string to Tibetan prayer flags or an beer mug drinking banner.
In the early morning, even thought it’s dripping rain, the bar owners, shop owners, and hotel bellmen are all out hosing down their sidewalks. In the less trafficked areas, gas flames flicker in the building lights. A block away, you hear the ‘clop clop’ of a horse and carriage — and just for a moment — you are transported. It’s as if the magic here opens portals to other times This was the area of slaves and slave markets, quadroon balls, and apartments for mistresses, madams and highly sought after hostesses. You feel the past very close. Here you learn the important things like the difference between wrought iron and cast iron, a Southern drawl versus the unique New Orleans accent, and most importantly, to not get in a hurry.”
It’s hard to know why I haven’t been back. I suppose, like that truly interesting person you might meet while traveling, it’s nice to have a fond memory, but hard to reach out once you return home. So, I’m excited to return in April share this place with friends I love. This time, perhaps I won’t forget the lessons of New Orleans. It surprises you and so totally exceeds your expectations that it transports you. This is why so many of us journal when we travel. It’s to remind us that the magic is everywhere in New Orleans and that you will fall in love.