Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

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Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

The following day was the day that had specifically influenced my travel plans and my intention to be in New Orleans: Halloween. I was excited to be in the US for Halloween in general, because if Hollywood movies were anything to go by (and in this rare circumstance, they were) then Americans take the holiday very seriously, but it was particularly exciting to be in New Orleans due to the towns penchant for the quirky and mysterious. Everyone puts a lot of effort into their costumes and the dressing up side of things, but a lot of people also celebrate the day and the night in a more religious or spiritual sense. Basically, the lore dictates that Halloween – or All Hallows Eve – is a night where the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is slightly weaker, allowing better communication with the supernatural forces from the other side, or something along that train of thought. I won’t pretend to be an expert on pagan religions or voodoo practices, but you get the idea. It’s a special day.

Vincenzo had to work for most of the day, but he told me that his neighbour was having a party that evening and that I was welcome to join him and his friend when they went. It wasn’t until I was actually invited to a Halloween party that I was struck with the horrific realisation that I didn’t have a costume, and if you didn’t have a costume at Halloween then you simply weren’t doing it right – or so those Hollywood movies had led me to believe. So while Vincenzo was at work that day, I made it my mission to find a costume. It was on short notice and would have to be on a short budget, but I figured if there was any city in the US that would have adequate appropriate costume supplies, it would be New Orleans. I walked down the streets of the French Quarter as the afternoon rolled around, ducking into all kinds of novelty stores and and bargain bins that sold mainly joke costumes, as well as one or two more legitimate places that sold magical trinkets of a more serious manner. In the end I settled for something pretty basic – a pair of black feather wings and a fancy-looking black eye mask. It was the kind of thing that, if you were going to some huge gay circuit party, you would wear with a pair of hot pants and nothing else, but since I was forgoing the Mean Girls rule (“Halloween is the one night of the year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”) I figured I could just throw on some black clothing and make some abstract horror idea out of it.

“But what is it? What’s your costume?” Vincenzo asked me as he was attaching his very realistic looking vampire fangs to his top canine teeth. I had spent the remainder or the afternoon wandering through the French Quarter, watching candlelit processions making their way through the street, with drums and chanting and brass bands playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Eventually I met Vincenzo at his house when he finished work, where he and his friend Faith were readying themselves for the party we were set to attend.
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. “Angel of Death?” Vincenzo turned to look at me a little closer this time, examining the outfit as I tied up the ribbons of the mask behind my head.
“Angel of Death…” he said slowly, with an air of contemplation. “I like it.” He smiled, flashing me his fangs. Both him and Faith were dressed as vampires, and when they were ready we made our way to the party next-door.

The neighbours house was a similar style to Vincenzo’s flat, except considerably bigger. It was set on the street corner and had a huge balcony that snaked around the buildings exterior and offered a great view of the streets below. Vincenzo pointed out a tree that was covered in colourful strings of beads, necklaces that had been flung into the branches and gathered like tiny shiny fruits. “Mardi Gras beads. I’m pretty sure I threw some of them there myself,” he said with what was almost a hint of pride.
“Wait… didn’t you say… I thought Mardi Gras was in February?”
“Uh-huh.”
“And… they’re still there?” I mean, it was October. Surely someone would have taken the beads down by now.
“Mardi Gras is a huge part of the culture of New Orleans. They’re just a little reminder of that – I guess no one ever feels the need to rush over and take them all down.” I liked the idea of that, thinking back to parades and events in Sydney that were inevitably followed by a huge and meticulous government clean up that usually removed all and any traces of there even being an event there in the first place. New Orleans not only took pride in it’s cultural events, but wore the aftermath and remnants of them like a badge or medal for the remainder of the year.

I was introduced to Vincenzo’s neighbour, a classic Southern belle who could have stepped out of A Streetcar Named Desire, and I mingled with the guests as we ate and drank. The party was only more a social call, however, and after a few hours of drinking and mingling, Vincenzo, Faith and I headed out and off to Frenchman Street, where there was a lot more partying going on. It was more of a street party though, and the three of us slowly wandered down the street through the crowds, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at some of the impressive costumes that would have taken quite a while to put together. The streets were crowded and full of drunken Halloween revellers, but the overall mood wasn’t overly outrageous or obnoxious – I was told that that kind of atmosphere was reserved for Bourbon Street, and that Frenchman Street was more popular among the locals to who had a little more respect for the local area. We didn’t do much partying ourselves, but instead continued our wandering through the streets and back into the heart of French Quarter. There weren’t many trick-or-treating children at that hour, but the rest of the city was out in full force to celebrate the holiday in more adult ways.

We stopped at Cafe Du Monde, the most iconic coffeehouse in New Orleans, where both Vincenzo and Faith insisted that I had to try a café au lait and some beignets. Café au lait is just coffee with milk, except the milk added is hot or scalded rather than simply cold, and the New Orleanian variety has chicory added to it to give it a bitter taste. Beignets are deep-fried pastries served with powdered sugar, a sweet touch to offset the bitterness of the café au lait. I was assured that it would be most improper to leave New Orleans without sampling these treats, so what better time to do so than on my authentic New Orleans Halloween evening? Faith admitted that she was beginning to get tired, so after we finished at Cafe Du Monde we flagged a petty-cab down for her and sent her off home. Vincenzo and I continued on our walking tour of the city, and we eventually agreed to show me some of the gay bars of New Orleans. The majority of the gay bars were on a square of blocks that had become fittingly known as the ‘Fruit Loop’, so we began our walk along that route, stopping into each of them for a short time. I’ve heard some crazy things about partying in New Orleans, so I can’t imagine my experience is an accurate representation of the scene, but a lot of the bars were well decorated but very sparsely populated. Maybe we were just there before most of the other partiers, who were still out on the streets, or maybe there were other specific Halloween parties or events that were drawing most of the crowds, but somehow the subdued moods of the patrons didn’t really seem to match the party environments the venues were trying to create, so we didn’t end up staying anywhere for too long. Vincenzo ran into a few people he knew at a couple of the places, but other than that our tour of the Fruit Loop was interesting, but not all that exciting.

It was when Vincenzo was escorting me back to my hotel that I talked more about my impressions of Halloween, and what I had been expecting compared to what we had actually seen. “I dunno… I mean, I’ve got out partying and drinking in literally every other city I have been to,” I said with a little chuckle. “But I knew New Orleans was supposed to be this hotbed of… well, things that were different. Mysterious, a little magical, I don’t know.”
“Well, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in New Orleans, you’re certainly not limited to Halloween,” Vincenzo said with a knowing smile. “Tomorrow is All Saints Day, which is a pretty important date on the voodoo calendar. I know of a few things that might be happening – if you like, I can see if I can take you to one?” The idea of being at a real life voodoo ceremony was simultaneously exciting and terrifying, but I was instantly intrigued. It was my last night in the hotel, so after assuring him I was very interesting in seeing more of the mystical side of New Orleans, I gave Vincenzo a goodnight kiss and told him I would see him again at his place the following morning after check out.

***

The first thing I discovered the following morning was that Vincenzo was not a morning person. I had to call him a few times while I was standing down at the outside gate, and when he finally stirred from within and got up to let me in, he assured me he’d need at least another hour and a strong coffee before he was ready to face the world. So while he slowly morphed into a functioning human being, Faith took me out for a little stroll and some breakfast at her favourite nearby bakery, where we sipped on café au laits and she told me more about both New Orleans and Vincenzo.
“Vince has always loved this city.” Apparently she was also the only one who could getting away with calling him ‘Vince’. “I mean, we both have, ever since we first visited it when we were just teenagers.” They’d both grown up in New York – her just upstate and him in the Bronx – but had shared a passion for Anne Rice novels and all her vampire stories that call New Orleans home. “But Vince really loved it, enough to move here.” She went on to tell me more about some of his Couchsurfing experiences, and how he’d shown dozens of people around New Orleans during his time there. When we finished up at the bakery we went for a walk through the streets of the French Quarter, which looked surprisingly different in the bright daylight, although they were still full of gutter punks and street musicians and buskers. You would never need headphones or an iPod if you were walking around there – almost everywhere you go there’s a musician playing some decent tunes.

When we finally arrived home it was almost afternoon, but Vincenzo was not longer near comatose, so the three of us took a trip out to New Orleans City Park. There was quite a few art installations around the parks, and Vincenzo and I sat along the banks of one of the swamps while Faith wandered off into the greenery.

New Orleans City Park

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

After the relaxing afternoon, it finally came time to attend the All Saints Day ceremony in the evening. There was a rather large turn out, and it made me realise that once you know where to look, there is a strong voodoo presence in the city because of these close communities of people who practice it. Out of respect for the worshippers and the practice of voodoo itself, I’m not going to go into the details of the ceremony – partly because I don’t want to wrongly explain any of the various rituals, but also because there’s a certain value in the mystery, and I wouldn’t want to destroy that. I was, however, allowed to take a few photos of the shrines and alters that were set up before the ceremony took place.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The last part of the ceremony was something remarkable that I think is worth noting. The final ritual simply involved a slow procession through the streets from the meeting place to the nearby cemetery, a moving candlelight vigil with the intention of paying respects and leaving offerings for the spirits of the dead at the cemetery gates. It was only a short walk, but at one point of the journey someone quietly pointed out that we were being followed at a distance by the police. I was under the impression that the police might have been a little suspicious about what we were doing, and might have ordered us to move along. However, someone went to consort with them and came back to report that they were simply there to keep an eye on things, and be on the lookout for any hecklers that might have otherwise given us grief.
“Only in New Orleans,” I heard Vincenzo whisper with a relieved sigh, as people placed their offerings and candles on and around the gates. I think that was the most remarkable thing of all – that the voodoo procession had an unrequested police escort. The culture surround the practice was so strong here that even the law enforcement recognised and respected it.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

The whole ceremony lasted well into the night, and was followed by a feast of sorts – essentially a backyard barbecue for everyone to socialise and debrief. It was very late by the time Vincenzo and I left – Faith had already retired much earlier in the evening, having to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get to the airport and fly home. The night air was cooling off as we sat down by the side of the road and waited for our taxi, and I noticed Vincenzo shiver a little.
“Guess this is cold for New Orleans, hey?” I said with a chuckle as I put an arm around him. He laughed, but didn’t protest as he snuggled into the half-hug. “Well, thanks for another magical evening – in a much more literal sense, this time,” I said, placing a gentle kiss on the side of his head, and shooting him a wink that he probably never saw in the darkness.