Tag Archives: History

The Crescent City Diaries #3

As I dipped in and out of Royal Street’s art galleries on my first morning, I came across a little place called The Historic New Orleans Collection, a large, 18th century house converted into a museum. I slicked back my hair- already wet with the city’s famous rain- and smiled at the lady on the front desk. This museum is free, and you get a discount to several other French Quarter museums and historic buildings by going in there. On top of that, the people here are super-nice. They seemed to match my energy- sometimes, when solo-traveling, I can get really chatty- and dare I say, confident– with the people I meet. I work well in that dynamic- where the other person is in a professional capacity, and so my presence has less chance of being received with disgust. One thing I’ve found out on this trip is that the other person’s body language and eye contact is so important to my self-confidence. My ability to assert my personality and spread my social wings goes up in direct proportion to the other person’s physical signs of approachability. All I need is to be looked in the eye and smiled at, and that reassurance that yes- I am welcome here erases all doubt, allowing me to trust my own words.

I ended up having conversations in almost every exhibit, and the curators here were excellent company. In most museums I go to, the curators just watch me suspiciously. But these curators respond to your level of interest in the exhibit. They smile and say hi when you enter the room, then wait for you to show signs of intrigue before approaching you. I was shown some of the original bureaucratic documents from the Louisiana Purchase which was pretty cool. Basically an invoice sent by Napoleon to the US government…

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What’s also amazing about this place is that they are totally chill about taking photos, so long as you don’t use flash. I ventured into a room with some gorgeous oil paintings of antebellum scenes- and it was so interesting discussing with the curator what we could learn from them about plantation life. We spent a long time discussing a painting of a slave burial somewhere in the south Louisiana woods. The dog without a leash. Who looked after the dog? It probably belonged to the slaves themselves, the curator said. The masters could be seen at the edge of the painting, watching from the trees. It was custom, she said, for the slave owners to maintain a respectful distance during the ceremony. I asked how many of the slaves in the painting were related. They were most likely a mixed bag, she answered, as many slaves were separated from their families at the markets. However, she added, if the masters were kind-hearted folks, they may have tried to keep slave families together.

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We went around the room together. She started telling me about some recent controversy in Louisiana about Confederate monuments. It was interesting to get a local take on it. The curator said that a lot of the monuments were erected in reaction to Northern oppression after the war. Carpetbaggers, they were called. I asked her what Creole meant, and if Creoles were white. The woman said that Creole didn’t refer to a person’s color at all. It was simply a word to refer to first generation Americans in New Orleans- that is to say, those whose parents were born elsewhere (be it Haiti or Calabria) and then immigrated to the Big Easy. So a Creole person could be white or black. I thanked her for the info and decided to move on.

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I spilled out onto the street and saw that the rain had stopped. The rain came and went that day in short, violent bursts. The Big Easy rain was tantamount to the temperament of a true artist. Nothing is smooth and steady in this city, even on my dearest Royal Street. Driving a car through the French Quarter feels like riding a horse through a European trench. That was how one lady put it to me anyway. Every street was fixed with a dilapidated kind of beauty that comes with bearing the weight of past tragedies. A block over, on Bourbon, is where you’ll find little brass bands whose bombastic trumpets let you know that you’re in the hub of wild adventures. Conversely, Royal has individual buskers. Local singers that find a street corner, and whose melodies let you know you’re in the hub of artistic contemplation. There’s the one guy that stands across from the Cornstalk Hotel, starts clapping his hands, and begins “Don’t know much about his-tory…” right on cue as the low light of the setting sun comes to welcome tourists heading out to dinner.

One night, on the corner of St Peter and Royal, I saw a small crowd gathered around a young woman belting out soul music. She had a voice as rich and sweet as the slow-pouring of molasses. There was something about her talent for reaching- and more impressively, maintaining- ambitious notes that made me think of water and curved edges. Across the street I saw two middle-aged women utterly enraptured by this local soulstress, standing with their hands clutched to their breastbones and their mouths slightly agape. I honestly thought they might start crying. If anything, I found myself more struck by their reactions to the song than the song itself.

New Orleans- the French Quarter in particular- is not just a place where artists thrive- it’s a place where art itself is cherished and adored, like perhaps nowhere else I’ve been.

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Wandering in the Island of Rabbits

I was sat in the shade of these giant, leafless hardwoods with bone-white, chipped and peeling facades when I opened my journal for the first time under Hungary’s sun. I hadn’t expected Budapest in April would be so darn hot. My leather jacket I’d bought years ago in the Wisconsin Dells- such an integral part of my identity- ended up doing nothing all week except take up needless space in my unforgiving RyanAir carry-on baggage allotment. It was nice that the weather was so sunny for my visit, but I did feel a little disarmed without my favorite jacket. I take this thing everywhere. However the rest of my look was still intact- I had the cowboy belt I got in Texas around my waist and my trusty Jordans on my feet. I drew strength from these things. The kind of strength I figured I would need to travel alone, but which I later realized, wasn’t even necessary. I was surprised how comfortable I was in my own company. During a video call with my roommate Aaron back at the boat, he told me “I don’t want you slipping into the meek persona. No apologizing, no bumbling, no worrying what people will think about you. I want zero fucks given. You wear a goddam cowboy belt and a pair of Jordans for Chrissake. How many people there are gonna be wearing that? Think about what makes you unique and let it empower you. If you’re gonna wear those fancy sneakers, you need to live up to the spirit of Michael Jordan. Can you do that?”

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It was time to do what I’d come here to do and swallow as much of the city as I could, for all its colors and ambient vibrations to be stored somewhere deep inside of me. So I brought this fresh journal- whose scrambled notes I am now translating into a coherent blog post. The journal seemed just right. It was a gift from my mom. She’s quite the traveler herself, and picked this journal up at a famous bookstore in Porto, Portugal called Livraria Lello, that was supposedly a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. The paper isn’t lined, so I was free to splurge my pen directionless over that inviting, unspoiled white. I included pictures and diagrams where necessary, and within minutes the thing was covered in a hasty series of mind-maps.

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The breeze that touched my skin under that beautifully barren canopy, I realized, was the same that had touched the cheeks of those Dominican nuns almost nine centuries ago. It was a religious air that carried through the trees, and landed now on the cheeks of little schoolchildren. The island had always been a place of tranquility and contemplation for the Hungarians. I decided it would be the best choice for me to start my week in Budapest with- especially since Margitsziget is so close to my hotel. I’d walk around, collect all that precious ambience I craved, before taking a dip in the island’s spa- the Palatinus Strand. The meditative culture of the island goes back to its settlement by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century. After the Mongols ravaged Hungary and returned east for the funeral of the Great Khan, King Béla IV gave his daughter Margaret to the Dominican convent on the island, believing that a child dedicated to religion would be reason enough for God not to ask the Mongols to come back. They didn’t, and the island was renamed to Margitsziget (Margaret Island). Before that, it had been known as Nyulak Szigete, which translates as Rabbit Island, or Island of Rabbits.

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The first thing I noticed was that there were dog walkers everywhere. Budapest loves dogs! I saw two sausage dogs excitedly investigating a big, fluffy gentle giant that looked like a husky mix. Alongside the dog walkers were runners and cyclists. There were no cars. I could hear the birds singing, a sound that escapes the ears when in the rest of the city. I felt soothed by the sound of the bike rental woman as she swept the empty road with a wide broom. Old folks sat on benches while groups of teenagers rented bikes and scooters. The far off din of playing children. Couples strolled through the trees hand in hand. Some of the trees had bright colors, others were barren. The grass was dotted with dandelions. There were a few homeless people sleeping on the grass. On a nearby tree trunk two lovers had carved “Pau + Heni” inside a crude heart.

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I walked up the east side of the island and found a miniature zoo. I let the donkey kiss my palm and moved on, going north to the ruins of a Franciscan church and the old Dominican convent where Saint Margaret had lived her entire life. I imagined her admiring the birds as she collected water from a well, looking across the Danube and gazing in wonder at the outside world. I bought a little dish of ice cream and set off for the Japanese garden at the north end of the island. I sat on a bench and made notes in the journal again as a young Hungarian couple had their engagement photos taken by the pond. After finishing my ice cream I went up a narrow path, only to find another young couple deep in love. They stood facing each other and holding both of their hands between them, talking very intimately. I wondered if the guy was about to propose so I doubled back and took an alternate route. I don’t think he did though- I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Magyar people are naturally very passionate.

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I left and headed south down the western side of the island. I looked at a group of English girls peddling one of those rental buggies, giggling and screaming. For a moment I thought that I was limiting myself by traveling alone, and couldn’t help but imagine doing something like that with my friends. I messaged these thoughts to Elizabeth, and she texted back “I really think there is something special about seeing a place by yourself. Going with others limits your independence and closes your eyes to certain things. I honestly think this trip is going to be something you remember for the rest of your life as the best decision you ever made.”

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She was right. My trip wasn’t lesser; it was just different. My experience of the city would have been completely different if I had gone with friends or family. Now I can go back and discover Budapest all over again through the lens of a roommate, a friend, a brother, or a girlfriend. And I would definitely take my future travel companion to Margitsziget so that I might observe their fresh reactions to the same spiritual breeze that so affected me.

Why I Went To Hungary

I started planning my trip to Hungary in December of last year. Even as I sit here now- sorting through various photos of the Danube- I’m still not entirely sure where the idea came from. At the time I had just started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea. It was my first or second shift in the kitchen, and one of the waitresses was showing me how to drain the dishwasher. We got to talking, and before I knew what was happening I blurted out “I’m going to Hungary.”

At that point I hadn’t booked anything. I hadn’t even told my friends. And yet here I was, saying with absolute authority to someone, who- at that time- was a total stranger, that I was bound for the Pearl of the Danube. I was saying it as much to myself I think. I knew that I would definitely go, that for some reason, this journey was of paramount importance. But why?

Hungary is landlocked. Let’s start there. Something about landlocked countries intrigues me. When I was a little kid, I wanted to know what was going on in places like Paraguay and Mongolia, and why no one seemed to be talking about them. There’s a sense of adventure intrinsic to the road less traveled, and it wasn’t until December of 2017 that my mind wandered to Eastern Europe. I looked at Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania. I settled on Hungary. I wanted to know what was going on there. I wanted to know how the people spoke, how they laughed, how they dressed, what they did with their hands, what they thought in their heads- everything. I wanted to breathe in the air of the Carpathian Basin and feel everything that they feel for myself. Out of all the countries I looked at, this one stood out. The land where the great steppes of Asia finishes in Europe. A nation descended from a “horse and bow” tribe of the Ural Mountains, that despite centuries of occupation, annexation, and bloody upheaval, has retained its cultural and linguistic identity. It fascinates me that a history so wrought with conflict and tragedy has done little to the Hungarian sense of nationhood. There is a clear sense of continuity from the Magyar tribe that emigrated from Asia over a thousand years ago to the Hungary that exists today. I had to meet these Magyars, these members of a tribe that has existed for so long, and which flourishes today.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why I needed to go. Everyone has a bucket list. It’s natural to become suddenly obsessed with a foreign country and to dream of one day going there. The decision to go was made very quickly. All of a sudden I had this new priority in my life. And the first order of business was justifying it. How could I explain my need to see old Magyarország? I had just spent 4 years in the USA, doing odd jobs in between to fund my travels. Was that not inspiration enough? Surely I ought to be planting down roots, saving up for a car, finally trying to secure a career? It seemed like the absolute last time to think about traveling again. All these thoughts came at me like so many Tatar arrows, but in my heart I knew that my mind was made up. The only thing left to do now was to justify my itchy feet.

I knew that it wasn’t just about Hungary. The Magyars would still be there in 10 years, and assuming there’s no nuclear war on the horizon, so too would Budapest be waiting for my discovery- and just as beautiful. I wanted to go so that I could test myself. It wasn’t just about the physical journey, but the inward one. The primary motivation behind my trips to America was the need to see my friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. If they lived in Chad, I would have still visited them for four consecutive years. My energy was focused entirely on soaking up as much of them as I could. When I was in the UK I felt their absence as a very literal, very painful ache. I couldn’t stand to be apart from them, and I felt that the only time I could flourish was when I was in their presence. Around them, I was my best self.

My trip to Hungary was a solo affair. I wanted to do something purely for myself, to engage my passions on my own terms. My trip to Hungary was in many ways about self-reliance, to test my wits and my inner resources, to use them to go somewhere exotic and engage with it as thoroughly as I could. I wanted to form connections and relationships independent of a third party. I wanted to generate my own sense of happiness and fulfillment, without relying on the Americans who have done so much for me over the years. I had to do this, and I had to do it myself. The urgency, I think, is the same urgency that has compelled me to write more and do more since my 25th birthday. I want to do as much as I can and I want to do it now. I don’t want to wait for anything. I’ve already wasted so much time in my life already, and now I have a craving for vivid experiences that grows ever more insatiable.

Now that I think about it, the whole thing really is pretty darn morbid. I can feel the ticking of an unseen clock in my heart, and I shudder every time its black hand strikes twelve.