Category Archives: Travel

The Crescent City Diaries #12

My first stop in City Park was the New Orleans Museum of Art. The temperature in NOLA had been steadily increasing since my arrival, and at this moment I felt like I was getting a taste of Louisiana’s tropical climate for the first time. I had barely been in City Park five minutes and already I could feel myself longing for the air con of the museum ahead.

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Like most of the museums in New Orleans, the Museum of Art is big enough without being too big. It’s not one of those labyrinthine monstrosities like the Louvre or the Victoria & Albert, where you have to prioritize what exhibits you like best. How long you spend here more or less depends on your interest in the pieces themselves. I decided to take my time and try to think about the pieces I found most striking. My interest in art has massively increased this year. I’m Pinteresting the shit out of my favorite Renoir paintings, I’m watching Youtube videos on the meaning of Edward Hopper’s work, and my appreciation for modern art forms has grown exponentially. My favorite exhibit in the museum was that devoted to the Storyville Photographs, a haunting series of portraits taken by John Bellocq in the 1910s of the city’s famous red light district. In many of the Storyville Photographs, the faces of the nude prostitutes have been scraped out, and in others, the women are wearing masks. It remains a mystery why exactly the faces were obscured, and whether it was Bellocq himself or someone else.

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Upon leaving the museum, I walked the short distance across the canal bridge to my next stop: the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. I liked the sculptures on show here; there was something twisted and macabre about them that made me think that each one revealed some kind of repressed trauma on the part of its creator. The giant spiders looked like Castlevania bosses before the textures had been added in. There was one statue of a man smiling as birds pecked away at his skin, eating him alive. I saw what looked like a torii gate with a Japanese guy hanging upside down which disturbed me to no end. And the horse skeleton fashioned out of gnarled branches was suitably reminiscent of the zombified horse the Night King rides upon. Even though I’m more interested in paintings than sculptures, I couldn’t help but feel that the latter was the more powerful medium. If I wanted to convey something that would ignite a discussion, I think I would hire a sculptor before a painter. I think the way sculptures are right there in front of us, existing among us, instead of hanging on a wall, makes them really striking and expressive. It seems less passive and more demanding of one’s attention.

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I left the garden and went south, feeling now quite parched. I ended up at the Morning Call coffeehouse where I got myself a Powerade and some shaved ice. I then continued south, going past the bandstand and over another canal bridge to the Historic Oak Grove. There I walked in solitude beneath a canopy of Spanish Moss, admiring the dramatic, spiderlike growths of the live oaks. I stopped briefly at Goldfish Island before crossing the canal and going north again.

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My next destination was the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. The gardens here are lovely, with sections that reflect both the English desire to illuminate the wild beauty of nature and the French philosophy of ordering it into geometric symmetry. There were fountains, statues of lovers fondling each other in bushes, bamboo groves, and a greenhouse full of cacti. The garden was awesome, and as I stood before the range of bright flower-heads, I thought to myself that even the most beautiful painting would fall short of the splendor of nature. Gardens are an interesting form of art, for the reason that they are neither wholly natural nor wholly man-made. A garden is the intersection between the floral world and the human mind. They represent the unique ego of our species, which attempts to remake the world according to our desires. Even the English gardening style, which celebrates the randomness of nature, is built around framing certain aspects of it according to the vision of the gardener.

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At this point I had grown tired. I wanted to see more of City Park but I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was very hungry and couldn’t see any restaurants in the vicinity. I knew that the park continued northwards, stretching all the way from Mid-Town to Lake Pontchartrain, but I didn’t see anyone heading that way, nor any clear path there. The green fields and live oaks just seemed to go on forever. Unsure, I walked north, abandoning the sidewalk and continuing across the grass. The ground beneath my foot was hard and dusty and I got stones in my sandals. I reached an empty, quiet road through the park that went past a deserted stadium. I kept going, hoping to stumble across another attraction, but there was nothing in sight. I was moving away from the touristy areas. Eventually I said screw it and headed back to the museum, where I stumbled upon the Zemurray Trail that loops around Big Lake toward the streetcar stop. It was at that moment I thought to myself: Big Lake? City Park? Who named these places, an accounting intern dying of boredom?

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While on the streetcar I identified a spot for lunch on Canal Street. The Palace Café is a famous restaurant in a three-story, high-ceilinged building. I went up to the second floor and got my lunch at the bar. The service was impeccable and the Shrimp Tchefuncte I ordered was delicious- but a little pricey. Whenever I enter an upscale place like this I feel both curious and uneasy. The bar specializes in rum and the shelves of rum go all the way around the wall. It’s amazing. As I ate my bread pudding for dessert, a middle-aged man that seemed a little tipsy came over and sat down a few stools adjacent to me. He asked the bartender for his recommendation. The bartender served him a glass of highly expensive rum. The man said he was a “scotch guy”, and never really drank rum, but that this rum was the best he ever had. They then had a lively conversation about how rum was making a huge comeback in the world of spirits. The man then told the bartender that he was from Baltimore, and asked if he had seen The Wire. He said that the city was undergoing some redevelopment, and that he was involved in buying up cheap real estate in the ghetto which was in the process of skyrocketing in value. I listened with keen interest, before finally paying my bill and leaving the opulence of the Palace Café behind.

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The Crescent City Diaries #11

Day Three. I’m eating breakfast in a little café across from my hotel on Royal Street. The waitress brings me a cup of joe and a hard bagel filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese. I eat ravenously. I’m still riding high from the excitement of the day before. At this point, I’ve fallen wholeheartedly in love with the French Quarter. I’ve shed any doubts I had about whether I ought to be here, whether I could fit in, whether I could be happy here. I’m moving with more purpose. In short- I’m enjoying myself in New Orleans.

I had planned on getting the Greyhound to Biloxi, Mississippi for a shrimping expedition, and then another one to Mobile, Alabama, where I’d spend the night and come home late the following day. I decided against this course of action at the last minute. Instead, I would double-down on the Big Easy. I booked a couple more tours and chose to spend the intervening time getting to know this beautiful city as best as I could.

My third day in NOLA was going to be at a slower pace. I savored my breakfast and walked at a leisurely pace down to Canal Street. It was time to discover the city’s famous streetcars. I took a red streetcar north toward City Park- the final stop. The seats can be a little uncomfortable, but on the plus side it’s nice and cool once you’re onboard. The streetcars here are a lot different to the ones I encountered in Budapest. They function much in the same way as a bus; you get on at the front, pay the driver, and when you want to get off you pull a cord. In Budapest however, you just hop on and hop off with no questions asked.

I watched the driver do his thing. No pedals, just a lever. You push the lever forward and the streetcar goes forward. Pull it back and it stops. It struck me as an extremely interesting profession, because it’s not one you can take with you anywhere. You’re tied to the city. The streetcars and their drivers are as much a part of New Orleans as the Spanish Moss and the abandoned warehouses. I began to see them in a romantic light; the city was alive, and these streetcar operators were its spirit guardians. They depended on the magic of the Big Easy, and as such they were its anthropomorphic incarnations.

The passengers were a mix of tourists and locals. The tourists on the streetcar were going to the same place I was- City Park, and stayed onboard the length of the journey. The locals got on and off at various points along the way. We went up a long boulevard lined with palm trees. A man got on and I saw that he was moving very gingerly, as though he were in a constant state of pain and agony. I figured he must be really old, but when I looked closer I saw that he was middle-aged. He was wearing these thin, brightly-colored pants not unlike pajamas, and when he turned around to pay the driver I saw that there was a circular hole cut into them by the anus. I could feel some of the tourists near me tense up. The man seemed to be in a dispute with the driver about his ticket, but not an angry one. The man seemed confused and the driver, while being very firm with him, nonetheless seemed like he had encountered this situation before. The man eventually found the right amount of quarters and took his seat near the front of the streetcar, sitting down very slowly. He appeared to be spaced out, or in a trance-like state, and kept mumbling to himself. Everyone kept an eye on him. After a few blocks he got off near a building called Veterans Affairs Mental Health Clinic, somewhere in Midtown.

I thought about the man limping off towards the clinic and our streetcar continuing north without him. Sonder is defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness” and I think that’s what I experienced in that moment. Sometimes I do this thing where I think about how every memory in my life doesn’t exist anymore, like I’m walking in a constant linear path across a rope bridge and the planks behind me fall away one after the other with every step I take. I think about how nothing exists except the moment I’m in- the present- and how this moment is the latest point in my life so far. I don’t know why I do it, but I’ve done it ever since I was in school, when I thought about how far away adult life was. So far away that it seemed like it would never come. But now here I am, at the age of 25, and I’m starting to look back at the past instead of dreaming of the future.

I wondered about all the little moments that brought that man to limping across the street. I probably ought to have been worrying about his future, given that he was obviously injured and heading towards a clinic. But I couldn’t resist dwelling on his past. The past doesn’t exist, and yet the present is the total culmination of it; every moment we’re in is everything that came before it. The anxiousness of the people around me faded and the tourists started talking cheerfully again. The man was forgotten, an extra in each of our lives, as each of us were in his own story. The streetcar approached the vast green expanses of City Park and we got off, maps in hand, excited for a day of exploring. A few girls took selfies with the streetcar in the background. A couple of women asked me if I had any idea where we were. I pointed them in the right direction and looked at the immensity of the park in front of me. The sheer vastness of the place separated us quickly, and we each continued forward, on our own respective pathways.

The Crescent City Diaries #10

As I sit down to write the tenth entry into my New Orleans travel diary, I find myself following some rather amusing associative thought-processes. It’s all a complete accident, isn’t it? A coincidence? For a week now I’ve been listening to the Chopin Nocturnes as I go about trying to make sense of my impressions of the Big Easy and refine them into something ordered, coherent, and written. The complete nocturnes run about 2 hours, which is about how long it takes me to write a post. It was a decision I made, to have this piece of music accompany my thoughts of New Orleans- but why? Some part of me decided that it was appropriate, that it would “get me in the mood”, that it related specifically to the subject. I like the idea that this piece of music can help me understand my subject and facilitate the process by which I draw out something that is muddled, conceptual, imagistic, and weave it into a structure of sentences and paragraphs. The only thing is, Chopin and his Nocturnes have absolutely cock-all to do with the subject of my writing. For one, Chopin was Polish, and to my knowledge never stepped foot on Bourbon Street. And what’s more, the nocturnes couldn’t be further from the musical identity of the Big Easy.

New Orleans is debauched and bluesy, a carnival of bombastic trumpets and ever-so-sultry saxophones. The nocturnes are a series of 21 piano solos, using gentle, harmonious notes that seem to “tumble” over each other, rising and falling like the belly of a sleeper, to evoke something deeply introspective, contemplative, and personal. Now that I think about it, it’s a very introverted piece of music. New Orleans, by all accounts, is the exact opposite. It’s not one sound, nor one voice- it’s many. It’s energy. It’s every color at once. It’s inclusive, extroverted, rambunctious. Multicultural, interwoven, blended. It’s the antithesis of the old world and the classics. It’s not brooding, it’s playful.

I realized then, that the only possible connection that Chopin had to New Orleans was his surname, which he shares with the writer Kate Chopin, of no relation. Alas, there was nothing complex and interesting about his work that drew me to associate it with my subject, but merely the coincidence that he had the same surname as the author of the great novel The Awakening. And now that I think about it, Kate Chopin established a lot of my preconceptions about New Orleans and its culture. I had been assigned the book in 2012 during my time at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. It tells the story of Edna Pontellier and her slow abandonment of the orthodox notions of femininity and family. I was too lazy then to actually read the novel, but I was inspired and intrigued by my professor’s lectures on it. So it might be that my perception of New Orleans is a little warped, but my memories of those lectures provided a kind of framework through which I constructed my own image of the city and its famous French Quarter. When I arrived there, I too would be on a voyage of discovery like Edna.

At this point I want to come back to the idea that music can reveal in a very affecting and unique way a place’s temperament. It may not have been true of the Chopin Nocturnes, but by investigating that random thought-thread, I’ve considered more what makes New Orleans the place it is- and how Jazz might just be the best way to understand it.

The Big Easy. That name alone is indicative of a place that celebrates the quirky and free-spirited. As I’ve written in previous posts, there is perhaps no trait that’s endeared this city to me more so than its commitment to art. And hand-in-hand with that is the rejoicing of decadence. New Orleans is a decadent place, from its music to its food. The ingredients, seasonings, and recipes of the city have their roots in the colorful cultures of France, Spain, and the Caribbean. The dishes I had were hot and spicy, to the point that I worried the mild tastes I had grown up with as a resident of the U.K would prevent me from properly enjoying it. I had deep-fried jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon, alligator sausage po’boys, crawfish étouffée, chicken & seafood gumbo, and the city’s famous blackened redfish. For dessert I had pecan pie and bread pudding. I realized that a lot of these dishes were what I had considered Cajun food. A little research told me that the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine was not the dishes themselves, but the people making them. Creole food was the food of the city, and Cajun the food of the country. That also explained why all the restaurants in New Orleans referred to themselves as Creole restaurants, and not Cajun.

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I also noticed that the French Quarter has a huge smoking culture. It’s the first American city I’ve been in where I’ve noticed people smoking. It’s something that’s commonplace in Europe, as evidenced by the shock Americans have when seeing London and Paris for the first time. Tobacco is something the Americans have done a much better job of eradicating than we Europeans. But in New Orleans, it’s being kept alive. The French Quarter is full of cigar shops, tobacco and snuff-box specialty stores, and hookah bars, and down the street you see plenty of people holding cigarettes, roll-ups, vaporizers, cigarillos, et cetera. Smoking has always freaked me out, but I couldn’t deny it seemed at home in the Quarter.

Throughout The Awakening, Edna has to ask herself if she can be brave enough to let go of her inhibitions and embrace a playful and passionate lifestyle where she is free to pursue her desires. The French Quarter seemed to be asking me the same question. I looked at the painters and the drunkards and the buskers and the smokers and I wanted to be brave like them. The Quarter is an environment that encourages indulgence- for whatever sin, vice, or pastime you please- and as such it’s an environment that challenges you. Like Edna, I viewed the free-spirited existence of these people as an invitation. And to accept it would require overcoming my shyness or self-consciousness. The Quarter is a place that wants to hear your voice.

It’s also a place where artists feed off of each other for creativity and inspiration. Rather than feeling competitive or intimidated by another’s talent, one is made stronger by it. Seeing someone honing their craft and demonstrating their skill encourages one to join in and put him or herself out there. I learned quickly that a lot of the artists in the Quarter knew each other. On Instagram, I discovered local painter Lauren Breaux through the cabaret singer Angie Z I admired so much from the night before. I contacted Lauren to tell her how much I liked her paintings. She replied that she too found Angie Z especially ravishing, and that she was one of her favorite muses, having painted her several times. I then asked Lauren if she could create a digital portrait of me to use for my blog. I was eager not just to support the local art scene, but to be inducted into the community in some small way. Here’s what Lauren came up with:

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If you want to find out more about Lauren’s work, check out her Etsy page here!

The Crescent City Diaries #9 – Blues, Booze, & Burlesque

Somehow- quite inexplicably- I had fallen drunk in the short window of time between paying my bill at Pere Antonie’s and exiting the restaurant onto Royal Street. Perhaps the boozy, anything-goes atmosphere of the French Quarter had loosened whatever valve was keeping me from embarrassing myself inside Antoine’s. Since my first night in the Big Easy, I’d grown quite fond of its famous Hurricanes. I’m referring, of course, to the drink- a sweet cocktail of passionfruit juice and rum. I spent many an evening staggering down the middle of the road with a Hurricane in hand, which now that I think about it might be the quintessential French Quarter experience. Like I said, anything goes here, and the roads are used less for passing cars and more for drunkards to make asses of themselves.

At some point I ended up on Decatur Street, where I was lured by a siren’s promise of free fudge samples. Everyone in this city lets flourish their inner artist. The girl handing out samples outside the creamery was an exceedingly talented singer.

“I got what chu want, I got what chu need, I got free fudge!” she belted out.

Inside, her coworkers were placing bets on how many hugs the girl would receive from the many admirers of her voice. I got a large dish of orange sherbet ice cream, and left. I walked in circles around Jackson Square as I ate, swaying from side to side, feeling oppressively light-headed, and now and then giggling at nothing in particular.

A short time later, I approached the will-call booth at The House of Blues. The burlesque show didn’t start for two hours. Once again I found myself with time to kill. I decided to hit up one of the bars on Decatur Street. To me, the bar I chose was every bar in America. Wood paneling; a narrow but long room; the bar runs down the left-hand side, booths down the right; at the back are small tables; above us ceiling fans. A couple middle-aged women are singing a jaunty number evocative of a decade long before I was born. The place was classy but not pretentious. But moreover, it was American, and that’s what appealed to me.

I sat at the bar and asked for a rum and coke. I felt like I was in an Edward Hopper painting. I liked the place because it had an atmosphere that was lively but not so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think. I hate any place where I have to yell at the bartender to give my order.

Around 8pm I left and headed back to the House of Blues. It was still an hour before the show began, but doors were opening and there was the promise of more rum inside. I was shocked to find that at this early stage, the line for the show extended all the way around the block. At the same time, I was excited, because it meant the show was popular.

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One thing I love to do when solo-traveling is book a show of some kind. In London, it was The Book of Mormon with my friend Elizabeth. In Paris it was a night of whimsy and wonder at the Moulin Rouge with Aaron and Anne-Marie. And in Budapest last April I treated myself to a concert of classical music and folk dancing. In New Orleans I chose an authentic, 1950s-inspired burlesque. When looking into things to do prior to my arrival in the Big Easy, I was informed by my guidebook that one of the city’s famous burlesque shows would be a much more worthwhile cultural experience than taking in one of Bourbon Street’s strip clubs, or indeed that swinger’s playhouse that kept catching my eye. To me, burlesque was a niche art form that evoked a very specific era; when I think of burlesque I think of bootleggers, brass bands, Gatsbys, and Capones. I think of coiling cigar smoke rising from cabaret tables. I think of Interwar angst and alienation- the showgirl takes it all on her shoulders, tends to their wants and needs and insecurities with a maternal strength; the rowdy sailors are sitting at the front, and off to the side, leaning against a wall, the shy and impoverished Bohemian poet, who wants to immortalize her in his work. She’s not like anyone they’ve ever seen or dreamed of before- she’s an angel- and while she’s on stage everyone in that room wants her for himself. The bartender looks like Humphrey Bogart, and he knows all their little secrets. He tends to their weaknesses in a much more quiet- but no less significant- way. That’s what I had in mind as I waited outside The House of Blues on Decatur Street that night.

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But I also thought of burlesque as a clandestine thing, something insulated from the street by a series of hidden doors and secret passwords. And this wasn’t that- this was a celebration of a bygone era. Perhaps everyone in line wanted the image I had. There were no sailors or pinstriped gangsters in sight; I was joined on the sidewalk mostly by groups of young people and middle-aged couples. An entirely wholesome demographic, and so I figured that taking in a burlesque was no different than catching a West End musical was for the people of London.

Inside, the theater was very intimate. It reminded me a little of The Globe Theatre, only smaller. The proximity of the audience to the performers encouraged participation. Most people had to stand- but luckily I had paid for VIP seating. A guy that looked like a bouncer for a Magic the Gathering convention escorted me to a small table in the front row- right next to the stage. I shared the table with an old couple, and I was delighted to find out that we were allowed to take photographs and videos, so long as we didn’t use our flash. I didn’t bring my camera with me, so the only photos I have are from my phone, and most of those I can’t upload because of the nudity.

The theater began to fill up, and I could feel myself cushioned by a wall of noise behind me. The crowd were extremely rowdy, and as it got closer to 9pm they started whistling and hooting. This led me to conclude that they were, by and large, locals rather than tourists. The curtains opened to reveal a jazz band, playing a rambunctious number that set the tone for an evening of playful decadence. I felt like Nucky Thompson sitting at that table. When the band finished, a stand-up comedian entered the stage wearing a top hat. He was the quintessential 20th century American comic- a slick, sharp-tongued jokester one step ahead of everyone else.

He needed a volunteer to help with a magic trick. He pointed to the guy next to me and asked if he had a dollar. The guy said no. The comedian then looked squarely at me.

“How about you, sir?”

I rummaged through my Abe Lincoln wallet and stood up to hand him a dollar. Before I sat back down, he quipped “Say, you haven’t got a fifty in there by any chance, do ya?”

Behind the curtain we heard a ba-dum-tss sting from the drummer. The comic turned around and thanked him. Then he focused his attention on me again and asked me my name. I told him.

“Where are ya from, Michael?”

“The U.K,” I answered.

“Sorry?” he said.

I repeated myself, louder.

“No, I heard you…that’s why I said sorry,” he said.

Ba-dum-tss.

He then made a joke about my having to learn English or something now that I was here. I was already used to these sorts of barbs from my years of living in the USA, and I was surprised how calm I felt being the butt of his jokes. It’s always been one of my worst fears to get targeted by a stand-up comedian, since I am a frequent consumer of Frankie Boyle’s work. But this was okay. I was rolling with it as well as I could hope. It’s funny how well we adapt to a situation when it’s thrust upon us without warning. I think that helped- the suddenness of it. The comic ended up referring to me several times throughout the show, and I couldn’t help but realize that everyone in the theater had been looking at me and knew my name.

As he folded my dollar bill in front of me, he winked and said “Cheers.”

I snapped my fingers at him in approval and he said “See, I can speak English!”

It reminded me of the guy I met at Faulkner House Books. It was the chosen way for Americans to try and ingratiate themselves into British company.

“Don’t worry, Michael. Today we’re all here to laugh and have fun…at your expense.”

Ba-dum-tss.

He ripped up the note into quarters, fiddled with it, and presented it to us good as new. Then he turned it around to reveal the secret: tape. Somehow he’d glued it back together without us noticing. Then he handed it back to me. Right now I’m keeping it for my scrapbook.

He then introduced the first performer: a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who flaunted her hourglass hips to screams of delight from the crowd. The vast majority of the audience were women. The performer then started the striptease, removing layer after layer of clothing until she wore only a G-string and a couple of tasseled pasties over her nipples. She then started doing circus tricks with her breasts, the tassel spinning around like the bowtie of a clown. The whole thing was not unlike what I had seen at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The only difference was that the Féerie show had its emphasis on the extravagant costumes of the performers more than anything else. The dancers were topless, but they weren’t performing a striptease. This, however, was much more erotically-charged- but not to the point that it could be considered seedy.

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It’s elevated from mere voyeurism by the fact that it’s very much a show- something with an artistic vision. It combines the bawdy dancing with jazz music and interesting fashion design. We also got some more stand-up comedy, a pair of acrobats, and even a snake-charmer. In a strip club, there isn’t the same sense of vision. Don’t get me wrong, the pole-dancers are very skilled gymnasts, but they aren’t performing in the context of a show. They are more or less trotted out on stage to go through the same motions they go through every day, and their bored expressions are unsettlingly reminiscent of the dead end desk jobs we’re presumably trying to get away from on a Friday night. There’s just no energy or excitement in a strip club- no passion. By contrast, the showgirls of the Bustout Burlesque were allowed to flourish, to spread their wings as artists. Each routine had an intensity to it; the showgirls had agency, they had power, they had artistry; something close to their heart that they let loose on stage for the world to see. That’s why I liked the show so much. I had no doubt that these performers’ first loyalty was to the art they had dedicated their lives to, and it was amazing to witness their talent firsthand.

The comic returned for a little skit between each dance.

“This next performer has a voice that makes my knees sweat. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Fairy of the French Quarter: Miss Angie Z!”

A slim Flapper with a big bob-wig came onto the stage. She gave a sultry rendition of Dean Martin’s “Sway”, and the entire theater gave her their unblinking attention- and undying affection. I realized, before the song was over, that I had fallen hopelessly in love with this woman. It was the biggest cliché in the book: wannabe writer goes head over heels for cabaret singer.

The comedian came back- known professionally as Dante the Magician- to give us a Chaplinesque vaudeville act. It’s a silent routine where the comedian performs tricks to the accompaniment of upbeat jazz. He kept pulling cigarettes out of his mouth and out of his nose, and there were always more bananas up his sleeve. It was great fun.

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The show ended, and I hurried back to my hotel to hydrate myself and catch some sleep. In retrospect I wish I had hung about and gotten to meet the performers- although I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to approach them. It had been a fantastic day however- seeing wild alligators in the afternoon and catching some authentic Big Easy entertainment in the evening.

The Crescent City Diaries #8 – Cruising into El Wapo’s Man-Cave

El Wapo is an old, 13-feet-long Louisiana alligator with a fondness for eating other alligators. It’s precisely this habit- and his talent for crushing skulls- that’s cost him approximately 3000 teeth during his lifetime. When he smiled at me, I noticed half his teeth were missing. Don’t worry though- he’s managing just fine with those he has left. I got to meet him on August 4th, the second day of my trip to the Big Easy.

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I was ecstatic to get the chance to see some real Louisiana swamps during my stay. I also felt like this was a chance for me to see Louisiana- the state- since neither it nor New Orleans are reflective of the other. The culture of this brilliant, slowly-sinking city, this bluesy, French-inflected, occultic Atlantis is far too distinctive to expand beyond its leveed borders. I wanted to see Lafayette- the municipal heart of Cajun culture, as well as Baton Rouge- the rowdy college town, home of the Tigers- in order to experience what I figured was the real Louisiana (the same way I wouldn’t expect a visit to NYC to teach me anything about life in Syracuse or Ithaca). My mouth watered at the idea of seeing even smaller cities like Grand Isle and Natchitoches. But an American road trip is difficult without a car, especially when you’ve got a wedding to attend at the end of it. So all that would have to be put on hold, for the purposes of maintaining both my financial security and my sanity. What wasn’t denied to me however was the very thing I coveted most about the Pelican State- the majesty of its famous wetlands.

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There are a number of swamp tours that will pick you up from your hotel in New Orleans, especially if you are staying in the French Quarter. Most are about 2 hours long, and when you factor in travel time, the entire experience usually amounts to about 4 hours, which allows you to spend the rest of the day doing other stuff. The tour that popped up the most in my research was the Honey Island Swamp Tour, which operates out of a bayou east of New Orleans, in a town called Slidell. During the ride there in the air-conditioned shuttle bus, the driver told us stories and trivia about the things we passed by. Charity Hospital is a landmark one doesn’t soon forget. After we exited the Quarter, crossing Canal St and entering Downtown, we fell under the shadow of a gargantuan abandoned hospital. The driver told us that Charity had been devastated during Katrina, and with the power gone, the sweltering patients tried to escape to the roof of the building in the hope of helicopter rescue. She said that there were reports of gunfire aimed at some of the helicopters, which I thought was particularly bizarre. The only word to describe the place is haunting; it looks like something from The Walking Dead. It’s strange that after all these years Charity still hasn’t been rebuilt, but then that could be said of many of the city’s post-Katrina ruins.

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We drove east, past the famous St Louis graveyards and into Tremé. The driver said that when she was a girl, her father always said that an axe had to be kept in the attic. She said she only understood why when Katrina hit, and many of the district’s residents had to axe through the attic and escape onto the roof so that they didn’t drown. We left Tremé and passed through New Orleans East, which supposedly suffered the worst of the hurricane’s assault. Many of the residents simply didn’t return after evacuating, and those that did didn’t stay long. Today the town is a shell of its former self; we drove past miles of swampland which the driver told us used to be rows of houses. Nature has reclaimed a lot of the eastern part of the city, and those few who remained found themselves without many of the amenities once available to them. Businesses moved elsewhere and construction projects were abandoned. A lot of the children living in New Orleans East today have to get the bus to other towns for school. We passed an abandoned amusement park that never opened, the roller coaster tracks towering over the swamp like a ruinous Mayan temple.

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“They were gonna build a Disneyworld or something out here,” the driver told us, but gave up on the project. However, a lot of Hollywood movies use the abandoned amusement park- including Jurassic World, who shot scenes there for the sequence with the pterosaurs in the domed aviary. I thought that was pretty cool.

Eventually we reached the town of Slidell, which, we were told, had boomed in the wake of Katrina. What was once a small country town was now a thriving urban metropolis, with many of the residents of New Orleans East having relocated there. As we drove through the streets we got to see a real Daiquiri Drive-Thru (a Louisiana staple) as well as a dozen personalized Pelican statues outside of businesses that donated to local charities. We left the town along the quiet backroads, passing several country shacks proudly displaying the Confederate flag on their lawns and in their windows- as though daring someone to take issue with it, it seemed- and entered the bayou.

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By the time the tour started it had stopped raining. I wondered if a swamp tour would be like whale watching, where you’d be lucky if your hard-earneds got you half an inch of dorsal fin. I guess I assumed that all animals are naturally cautious of loud motorized vehicles, and have better things to do with their Saturday afternoons than perform tricks for boats of screaming primates armed with selfie-sticks, but I was wrong. We were barely ten minutes into the tour when the gators started emerging from their bald cypress grottoes like haughty divas along a catwalk. In total we saw 14 gators that day, although two of them were the capsized victims of cannibalism. The tour guide attracted the gators with marshmallows, and it was incredible to see the wild creatures up close. Like the residents of the Big Easy, these animals aren’t shy whatsoever. If anything they came across as desperate, attention-seeking whores. So I encourage anyone who ever finds themselves in Louisiana to book a swamp tour, because you very reliably get your money’s worth.

The tour guide was hilarious as well. When the little girl from Mississippi asked him if the gators ate humans, he responded “Only little girls that don’t clean their bedroom.”

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Once we reached the deepest, darkest part of the bayou, the guide announced that we had entered El Wapo’s Man-Cave. El Wapo is the undisputed king of this particular bayou- nothing happens without his consent, and not a creature draws breath unless he allows it. The tour guide lovingly petted him on the snout, before we bid the Caesar farewell. A young female alligator came along, attracted by the scent of the marshmallows we had humbly offered as tribute to the king, and the guide said “Yeah…he’s probably gonna eat her later…”

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We also saw some raccoons, a bunch of wild rice, and a blue heron- which the guide informed us was the “most vicious predator” in the whole swamp. Before the tour ended we passed by several Cajun houseboats and fishing shacks- people whose houses were inaccessible by any means other than water. They had to get a boat to a dock just to get their mail. It was fascinating. Their entire livelihoods were reliant on the swamp and the creatures they shared it with. A few of these “swamp-folks” waved at us from their front porches. Closer to where the tour started we saw some richer houses on the banks of the swamp, whose trimmed lawns were outfitted with covered swimming pools to keep out the gators that wandered freely over their land from time to time.

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“And here,” the guide said, as we approached the dock of such a property, “we have the most foul and contemptable beast in the entire swamp…the Bama fan.”

We saw then that the deck chairs were painted with the logo of the Crimson Tide. The guide muttered something about them destroying the ecosystem and we all had a good laugh.

The Crescent City Diaries #7

As I stated in my previous post, I was anxious not to waste any time in this city overflowing with creative inspiration. When traveling solo- especially staying in a city for five days- you have to make your own fun. Even in a place as rich and exciting as New Orleans- you have to investigate what’s on offer and do a little research about how best to spend your time there.

I woke on my second day in the Big Easy from a peaceful sleep undisturbed by Bourbon Street belchers, Halloweeny pranksters, or glass-shattering Creole orgasms. Saturday, August 4th. The only day of my trip I had anything booked. A swamp tour in the afternoon and some raunchy nightlife entertainment in the evening. However, the spaces in between these engagements grew suddenly large in my mind.

I had time to fill, and I sure as heck wasn’t gonna spend it in my hotel room chipping away at the “Sith Triumvirate Raid” on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. My tour didn’t start until noon, and with three hours to kill I decided to go for a walk. I had heard that the 19th century Creole mansions of Esplanade Avenue were a hidden treasure. I set off with my camera, relishing the opportunity to photograph this scenic, quiet part of the city.

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I’d barely walked three blocks however, when it started raining. And when it rains in the Big Easy, oh boy does it pour. I placed my camera back in my bag and continued walking. I reached Esplanade and caught a glimpse of the colorful mansions through the steel threads that poured from the sky. It wasn’t what I had planned. I love rain for its ambience and its poetry, but this time I was bummed out. What a lousy morning, I said to myself. I kept going down the deserted street, maintaining a watchful eye on the truck that had slowly driven past me twice, my mind recalling all sorts of sinister things from my days binge-watching Crime Investigation Australia.

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I turned right on Decatur Street and headed back into the Quarter. I was looking for a place called Crescent Park, and at the time I wasn’t sure where I was in relation to the Mississippi River. Hopefully when I reached this green place the rain will have stopped and I could have some photographs to show for my excursion. The rain didn’t let up, however. If anything, it only got more furious. I stood for a while on a street corner, under shelter, reviewing my map. The edges of the roads were beginning to flood, and the rain was so violent that every pedestrian stopped walking and took shelter. It was like Antony Hopkins had told us to “freeze all motor functions” while he tried to fix this rain glitch in our simulation. The proprietors of the stores we stood outside- a mix of souvenir shopkeepers and Italian bakers- came out to join us, standing with hands on hips.

My eye caught sight of a café across the road and I made a snap decision to sit down and have a drink while I waited for the rain to die down. I think it was called The Market Café. It had an outdoor patio that was covered. People sat eating brunch at bistro tables while a live Jazz band attempted to drown out the thumping of the rain. A waiter smiled at me as I approached. He sat me down at one of the tables and asked what I wanted.

This is one of those situations where I ought to be less self-conscious and more assertive. I’ve been told I care too much what people think, and that I should stop apologizing for myself everywhere I go. I asked the waiter if I could just sit here and have a drink. His expression instantly became hostile and he stared at me. I asked if that was okay.

“Can I just get a drink and sit here?” I said.

“It’s a restaurant,” he said, like I was stupid. He frowned at me as if I had insulted him.

“I mean, I can go if you don’t do that,” I said, half-rising from my chair.

“It’s raining,” he said. And then, through gritted teeth, “What do you want to drink?”

I got a Coke. When he brought it to me, I smiled at him and said thanks- a peace offering to make up for my awkwardness. Still wearing his angry expression, he ignored me and placed the cola on my table without a word. I got out my map and checked how far I was from the park. City parks are good for solo travelers. City parks, botanical gardens, museums, and art galleries are the solo traveler’s best friends; they offer a sanctuary free from social pressure and expectation. They are places of contemplation and self-reflection, which is what traveling solo is all about. They are the opposite of amusement parks, which I think would be kind of depressing to attend unaccompanied. After paying for my thankless business, I braved the deluge again and set off north.

Eventually, I found the perfect solution to my current situation and the thing that made this whole walk not feel like such a waste of fucking time- a covered flea market. I’d heard about this place before. French Market. It spans six blocks, and it’s the oldest market of its kind in the United States. In fact, it predates even the arrival of the European settlers, the site having been used as a Native American trading post centuries ago.

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I love flea markets. I passed several vendors selling traditional Cajun dishes- if you’re hankering for a hushpuppy, a basket of gator bites, or perhaps some fresh crawfish, this is the spot for you. I took a seat on one of the stools and asked for some fried green tomatoes. I wasn’t hungry enough yet for lunch, and I had always wanted to try this Alabaman specialty. I figured it was a rite of passage for my journey into American regional foods.

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To be honest, I didn’t really care for them. They’re just deep fried tomatoes with none of the sweetness that comes with the red variety I’m more familiar with. I made an effort to finish them, saying to myself: for the blog, Michael. For the blog.

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I continued to wander north throughout the market. There were all kinds of handcrafted trinkets and goods. And a lot of interesting jewelry and other crafts. I don’t wear jewelry myself, but I’m fascinated by gemstones. There’s just something so incomparably wondrous about the rapture of staring into a sapphire, ruby, or emerald. I stopped to admire a collection of bracelets and necklaces. I decided to get one as a graduation present for the woman I call my sister- Anne-Marie- who had just recently gotten her Masters in Behavior Analysis. Not only had she graduated from the top school in the nation for that field, but she was also now a published author, having submitted an article to one of the most prestigious academic journals in said field. Anne-Marie conducts groundbreaking research into human behavior (with a specific focus on children with autism) and teachers and parents travel to watch her speak and learn from her breakthroughs. It’s very exciting stuff, and I figured she might like something nice to accessorize with during the many speeches and conferences that surely await her in the future. The bracelet I picked out was lined with rich blue gemstones, and it’s one of the colors she wears well. It’s a color I associate with her; it’s kind and warm but there’s also an oceanic depth to it that connotes knowledge and wisdom.

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I continued through the market and crossed the road, finding myself at a set of train tracks. The park ought to be right here, I thought to myself. But there were no trees or gazeboes in sight. Just boxcars and warehouses. I kept going north, staying as close to the Mississippi as I could, but walled off from its familiar splendor by the railyard. I came to a long stretch of grass lined with pylons. There was no one around whatsoever. A sign told me I was in Crescent Park. But all I could see was a lawn, a few bushes, and industrial buildings all around. Warehouses, factories, power substations. So I turned around and made back for the hotel. It wasn’t the start I hoped for on this action-packed Saturday I had in mind- but that was okay, because the best was yet to come…

The Crescent City Diaries #6

My visit to New Orleans was very unstructured from the offset. It was completely unlike my trip to Budapest. Budapest was a project, something I was passionate about, and traveled to purely to satisfy that passion. It was something I planned months advance, and by the time I arrived in Hungary I was so high off of half a year’s reading of its history and culture that I had accumulated enough things to do that it was easy to order them into itineraries for each day. It was all about seeing those things I’d read about for real.

However, my trip to New Orleans was different. It had always been a longstanding dream of mine to go there, but I didn’t think I’d get to go so soon. The city was still a myth to me, an idea to be toyed with by novelists and poets and movie directors and songwriters. A place that could only be interpreted by art. It never really occurred to me that I could go there, even though I’ve lived on and off in Houston, TX for the past few years. It would have seemed a strange, fanciful idea- a “one day I’ll make it” kinda thing.

So New Orleans was never a project or a plan. I didn’t read up on it and make a bucket list. New Orleans was an opportunity, one that just kind of emerged out of the blue during the process of planning my upcoming visit to my friends in Houston. I’m going to America anyway- why not go earlier? Why not see the Gulf Coast and make the myth a reality? That’s what traveling in the USA really is, going from state to state and peeling off the layers of myth to see the far more interesting truths waiting for us underneath.

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I had 5 days and only a couple things booked, both of them on the same day. So I learned a lot about solo travel and how to take city breaks in particular. 5 days is good because it allows me to move at my own pace, take my time, and discover opportunities while I’m there through word of mouth. However, it also meant that I was more responsible for creating my own fun. Sitting in a hotel room too long feels like a waste, and you don’t have to worry about that with a two day visit. That’s where an itinerary is needed, so you can fit everything in.

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As I’ve stated in the previous entries of this series, I set out on my first day with no clear goal in mind except to see Faulkner House Books and the Café du Monde. But I took the long way to these stops, zigzagging through the French Quarter and enjoying the ambience. I stopped at Aunt Sally’s to engorge myself on free samples of freshly-made pralines and watch them being made in-house. I went to the city’s famous Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and paid a dollar to pet the stingrays. I found a beautiful little walled courtyard where I stopped to take some photos. I browsed antique shops, I tried on a straw boater at the Key West Hat Company, and I fell strangely in love with an abandoned brick building with smashed-in windows. I ate alligator for the first time and loved it. When I got back to Jackson Square I wondered what else I ought to do. Museums. The Cabildo was closed, unfortunately, but The Presbytère wasn’t. The former focuses on Louisiana history & culture, whereas the latter is devoted to Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. I was eager to see some authentic Mardi Gras costumes and they truly are the stuff of nightmares. I can’t imagine being a kid and going to one of the parades. I’d never sleep again. After staring into the hollow eyes of a mannequin with a pointed cone for a nose, oversized lips, and garments unsettlingly reminiscent of striped pajamas, I checked my phone. It was only 3pm! There were still so many precious hours left. Things were going slow, but not as slow as I’d have liked. I became afraid of running out of things to do.

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After leaving the museum I marched northwest on my aching feet and left the Quarter for the first time. My destination? A little spot called Congo Square. A city park was just what I needed. Somewhere quiet, away from the inundation of stimuli that came with crowded tourist hotspots, where I could take some photos and enjoy the scenery. The square is located inside Louis Armstrong Park- which is no coincidence. Congo Square served as a place for slaves and free African Americans to gather in the 19th century for meetings and open markets. They also used the space for traditional African dancing and drum-playing, leading in no small part to the early development of Jazz. After taking pictures of the flowers, the live oaks, and the statues, I wandered over to another massive abandoned building with broken windows. They’re all over New Orleans, and there’s just something about the crude, industrial design, 19th century vibes, and overall dilapidation that fascinates me. I walked around the lake and my feet began to complain some more. It was time at last, I decided, to head back and recharge before heading out again in the evening. I’d done a lot on my first day- and my next was set to be a big one.