After rambling down Royal Street and absorbing its stylish art galleries and museums, I veered east and made for Jackson Square. This, to me, was the touristic heart of the city. Bourbon Street might be the most famous location, and the number one draw for out-of-town visitors, but Jackson Square is easily the most iconic image of New Orleans as a place to be discovered. The white façade and lofty spires of the St Louis Cathedral overlooking the equestrian sculpting of Andrew Jackson- the Hero of New Orleans- is a picture many folks will be familiar with prior to arrival. Much in the same way no one walks down the Champ de Mars and remarks “Holy shit, I didn’t see that coming!” when faced with the Eiffel Tower. Jackson Square is a distinctly Parisian space, the park cushioned on two sides by the symmetrical 19th century Pontalba Buildings- known for their iconic wrought iron balconies and red bricks.
I knew straight away that I wanted to take my time here. I had five days in this city and I wanted to give each place the necessary time to soak into my heart and reveal itself to me. I wanted to savor every moment. That’s why I spent my first morning walking leisurely down Royal, chatting as much as possible with the museum curators and entering as many art galleries as I could. I didn’t want the city’s eclectic features to become a checklist.
I walked down one side and then back up again. I gazed in the windows of the square’s boutiques and bakeries. I watched the street performers, palm-readers, impromptu jazz bands, buskers, and caricaturists ply their respective trades. The square has a longstanding tradition for being an open air artist colony, the local painters hanging their works on the iron fence that surrounds the park itself. I approached the cathedral and watched the people who crossed its shadow as much as the building itself. I entered the park and walked around, enjoying the relative quietness its wide paths offered. Andrew Jackson looked very impressive atop his horse. I decided it was time to cross something off of my world-travel bucket list and exited the park on Decatur Street, heading for the Café Du Monde. I knew that getting a beignet and a café au lait at this historic coffeehouse was a rite of passage for anyone hoping to gain access to the culture of the Big Easy. It’s actually something I blogged about wanting to do in a dreamy bucket list post at the beginning of the year, having no idea that I would get the chance to do so in just a few months. The café has actually been in continuous operation since 1862- the heart of the Civil War. It’s something that every tourist does upon reaching the French Quarter; as such it’s as busy as the midnight release of a new Harry Potter book.
I took one look at the line that wrapped around the exterior of the café and down the sidewalk and left. Perhaps I could return at a later date. That later date turned out to be about an hour or two hence. After returning from the riverfront and its famous aquarium I found that the line had only gotten larger. This time however, I asked an employee if the line was for orders to go or eating-in. He informed me that there was a different line on the other side of the building for takeout options, so I went there. The wait wasn’t too bad and when I arrived at the window I asked for a bag of beignets and an iced café au lait. I pronounced the pastries “bay-nets” because my French sucks ass, and became aware of my folly as I walked away and the sassy mom behind me hollered for some “bean-yay”. What a div I must have seemed.
I decided to return to Jackson Square and eat my lunch on one of the park benches. Adjacent to me on the next bench was a couple that looked like they had lived pretty rough. They were skinny with tattered clothes and whose red, craggy skin was covered in faded tattoos. They weren’t old at all, but I suspected they were drug addicts. They got into a loud argument and I noticed there wasn’t anyone else around me. They reminded me of that junkie couple from Breaking Bad, and I wondered if I should leave before someone got crushed by an ATM. I tried to block out the sounds of their increasingly violent tones and focus on these French pastries. I think I liked the coffee more than the beignets. I only managed to eat one, since they’re quite filling. As is the custom when eating one, I got powdered sugar everywhere. The powdered sugar mess is sorta like the Guinness foam moustache. That’s when you know you’ve passed the test.
“FUCK YOU!” the woman screamed at her partner, marching off in front of me and going to the other side of the park. The guy screamed something at her in redneck and she flipped him the bird without turning around. After just a few short minutes she came back and they resumed talking in a civilized manner. Feeling full, I got up and left. I felt a little bad for being on edge around them, because they had obviously had some bad luck in life. But when you travel solo you can’t take any chances.