Friday, June 24, 2016

Merci beaucoup à la Louisiane

“Oh yes, this place is like the Energiser bunny,” drawled the guide. “It just keeps on going.” So it was a great shame we had only 15 minutes for the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum at Monroe, where the guided tour is normally 40 minutes, followed by browsing. The rooms are full of glass cases full of intriguing items (a Red Cross dagger; Nazi eagle-with-swastika train engine plaque; original aviator sunglasses), the walls and ceilings hung with fascinating stuff. Claire Chennault, despite his girly name, set up the Flying Tigers to save the Chinese from the Japanese and was afterwards presented with a fabulous embroidered Emperor’s gown (which, by a creepy sort of coincidence, includes a tiny swastika in its pre-Nazi incarnation).
The Selman Field navigation school was the biggest in the US, turning out over 15,000 smart guys (the less smart became pilots), one of whom guided the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. Aerial bombing is a bit of a theme: the museum also covers the establishment of Delta Airlines, which began as a crop-dusting company bent on eradicating the boll weevil from Louisiana’s cotton fields, about which we’ve learned so much over the last few days.
We had lots of ground to cover today, literally, so we trooped reluctantly back on the bus to swoop past Bossier city, which our driver told us was where Dubya flew to on 9/11 to hunker down in the bunker; and then was stuck for anything else to say about the place.
Nearby is Shreveport, a much artier and more interesting city, “Louisiana’s cultural Mecca” where Elvis hung out a lot. All we had time for, though, was Artspace, in a lovely Art Deco building, where we had a quick overview of the Moonbot studios exhibition. They are very successful at animation. How successful? Two Oscars and four Emmys successful. Impressive.
And then it was back on the bus again, a boxed lunch, a stream of Twitter-news about Brexit, and goodbye to Louisiana as we swooped into Texas, skirting around Dallas with a glimpse of the Book Depository, before arriving at the airport to flit to LAX for the long trip home again on American Airlines' almost brand-new Dreamliner.

So, Louisiana. Worth a visit? Most definitely: for the food, the music, the variety, the accent, the history, the people. I enjoyed myself enormously. So would you.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

History lives...

We were mostly focused on history today, so it was appropriate to begin it at the Sentry Grill in Alexandria, where the 1950s still reign in all their chrome and Formica glory. Cheesy grits and an egg sunnyside up felt like a suitable order (though the fried hashbrowns looked more sinfully delicious); and then we walked through the town’s quiet streets to the Arna Bontemps House to learn more stuff.

We heard all about the mechanisation of the cotton industry yesterday, which resulted in a mass migration of labourers to the cities where, by happy coincidence, machine-filled new factories required workers. Proper wages and regular hours gave them the leisure to develop their culture and so began the Harlem Renaissance where Alexandria-born Arna, writer and poet, was a star. There was a summer school class of kids studying his ‘Lonesome Boy’ story, the teacher trying to help them learn from Bubber’s trumpet-playing experiences. Ah, classroom literature – good times!

There was more art at the River Oaks Centre, where local artists can rent studios (most of them remarkably tidy) – paintings, prints, glass, pottery. Most stunning though was the Biedenharn House. Back in 1894, Joe was the first to think of bottling Coca Cola ready to drink: previously you had to go to a drugstore to have syrup mixed with water by the infelicitously-titled soda jerk if you wanted to inflict the evil brown drink on yourself. Naturally, he made plenty of money from the business, which still funds the family.

The museum is small but well done; for me, though, it’s the house decorated by Joe’s daughter Emy-Lou that’s of more interest. It’s full of space, colour and beautiful things, stylish and feminine, and elegantly luxurious. Who knew there were dishwashers in the 1940s? She was an opera singer in Europe for 10 years, so it’s sophisticated and arty too – there’s a mirror with a Salvador Dali frame, for example, and gold Japanese wallpaper even on the ceiling. She also collected ancient Bibles, including a page of Gutenberg’s first effort, and a poster of Jesus made from the whole of the New Testament, amongst other painstaking creations.

Outside is gorgeous, too: a formal garden of Louisiana lushness, with fountains, statues, tall trees and fine grass, full of palms, trimmed hedges and neat paths. All funded by Coke, which you can buy for a nickel from a vending machine – and by Delta Airlines, since her brother Bernard was the largest shareholder when it was founded in nearby Monroe in 1924.

There was most history though at Poverty Point, a World Heritage site where archaeologists are still washing dirt to extract artifacts from the site, dating back 3,500 years. Here is where a settlement of hunter-gatherers mysteriously busied themselves for centuries, moving mind-boggling amounts of soil in baskets to build a complex of ridges and mounds, the biggest 21 metres high. The labour that went into it all is almost unimaginable – it was hard enough work just walking up the long slope in oppressive 30-degree heat – and all for why? No-one knows.

It’s also puzzling why a people who got around Louisiana’s absence of rocks by making pottery lumps to use for cooking in a hangi-scenario, who designed spear-throwing holders like those the Aboriginals used, who carved jasper owls for decoration, who traded over half the area of the US, never thought to plant a seed.


But humankind specialises in these mysteries, which still dominate the news: for example, the success of the Brexit supporters today; and the seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump. The more history you learn, the more you realise nothing is impossible.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Grandeur, ghosts, Steinway, slaves...

You’re heading out of New Orleans, going north, there’s a big lake in the way, what do you do? At home, we’d go round it. In the US? You build the country’s longest bridge, all 24 miles (38km) of it, sweeping smooth and concrete across Lake Pontchartrain right the way across past lines of power pylons taking their own route through the lake, above their mirror images in the glossy silver water.

We were on our way to Dallas, via a three-day detour through some of Louisiana’s points of interest. One that we didn’t see is the Angola Penitentiary, where there are apparently several inmate rodeos a year, a nine-hole golf course (for visitors) and a crop and cattle farm worked by the prisoners. It’s not all enlightened rehabilitation though: most of them are lifers, and there is a Death Row.
Our focus today was on accommodation of a much more congenial sort: ante-bellum plantation houses. Big, two-storey plus, pillars, porches, surrounding oak trees hung with Spanish moss, cool (thanks to modern AC) dim interiors furnished with antiques, the tester beds fitted with mosquito-net rails, dining tables set with Limoges china, music rooms with Steinway grands… Yes, grand is the word.
First was the Rosedown Plantation, built in 1835 for three generations of the Turnbull family and restored over 10 years at a cost of $8 million by an Exxon-rich obsessive, for our delectation. Hand-stamped linen wallpaper, portraits, imported antiques 90% original to the family, curved staircase of treacherously steep stairs, especially for the women handicapped by the hoop skirts on display upstairs in the bedrooms… we’re talking rich here. That’s 3,500 acres of cotton fields, 450 slaves rich. All of that was destroyed by a beetle, of course: the boll weevil arrived in 1909 and wasn’t eliminated till the 1970s, so today the house and gardens are a stage on the tourist trail.
Next stop for us was The Myrtles near St Francisville, where we were shown around the 1796 mansion by the gorgeous Miss Connie in her shawl and maroon silk gown: in her previous (real) life employed in the oil industry but now finding her born-to-it place in life as pretend mistress of a plantation house. Here they had 550 slaves, the house is furnished with French antiques gilded with 24ct gold and dominated by an angel theme, to keep away the evil spirits. 
They might have looked in the mirror for those, since they bought a five-piece sofa suite upholstered in fabric embroidered in super-fine petit point by the small fingers of children using magnifying glasses and wrecking their eyesight.
Except, the mirrors are haunted – or, at least, the one in the entrance hall is, with its persistent blurry outline of a woman’s face and children’s handprints. Could of course just be degradation of the silver backing, but only a party-pooper would suggest that…
Miss Connie painted a vivid picture of the high days of The Myrtles, the furniture cleared away for dancing, the Baccarat crystal candelabras lit, the doors open onto the wide porch, fireflies flickering out in the dark, the ladies’ gowns swirling and swishing. Of course, all this grandeur came to the inevitable end with the decline of the cotton industry and again depends on tourists to keep it ticking over.
At Frogmore (yes, named after the estate in Berkshire) they know all about cotton. Owner Lynette and her husband still farm it and, also (initially, till the heat got too much for her) dressed in period costume, she told us all about the boom and the bust, as well as the practical details, with no holds barred about the slavery that underpinned the whole industry: 250lbs a day was standard here. In a dimly-lit wooden building, they have an original cotton processing engine – a gin – which is a marvel of ingenuity and fine-grained magnolia wood. 
Outside, we sat in the welcome breeze blowing through the shady dog-trot passageway of the overseer’s house as bats chittered invisibly in the rafters and Lynette talked about shareholders, how the Chinese don’t play by the rules, and how high thread-count is ‘propaganda’ and actually makes the fabric weaker.

And we ended the day in Alexandria, in the Baroque opulence of the Hotel Bentley with its marble, wrought iron and stained glass, eating across the road at the Diamond Grill, itself an architecturally splendid former jewellery shop with high ceilings, grand staircase and, inevitably, a ghost. But also excellent food!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

New Orleans - the good and the horrendous

Ian Martin put it (naturally) so well: "Jazz is just what capitalism plays when it's trying to be sophisticated. Ignore it. [But] how can you 'ignore' jazz? It's like someone else's sugar-coked toddler in the corner, showing off, shitting herself, dribbling everywhere, noisily demanding everyone's attention and approval. Hey, I am jazz! I have come to fill your holiday space with my wabbeda wabbeda tish tish ga-blap bap tiddly piddly drivelly meaningless squeaky shrieky pish pish drr-bap bollocks."

I've never been a jazz fan. Loathe the saxophone with a passion. Not keen on most brass instruments. Like music to have a discernable tune. So I was a bit apprehensive about coming to New Orleans. With good reason, it turned out: jazz is everywhere, from people organising their own private mini parades along the middle of the street complete with cop on motorbike and uniformed brass band, to live performances in every bar in town and all around the streets, night and day, to the musak in every lift. For people like me, it's a real burden - so it's just as well that the city has so much else to enjoy.
For a start, there's the pretty, pretty French/Greek/Victorian/Italian/Spanish/Georgian-flavoured architecture, with so much colour and decoration, whether grand or modest. One good way to enjoy it is to take an open-top bus tour of the city (of any city, actually: such an effective and effortless way to get a - literal - overview of a place). The Ho-Ho one in New Orleans includes free walking tours, so I followed Jamie on a 45-minute stroll around the treacherously broken pavements of the Garden District. 
John Goodman lives here, and Nick Cage and Sandra Bullock have houses that we saw too, but most of the interest is in the lovely Historic Register mansions in their neat gardens, and the random facts dropped into the commentary - Nola has 80 official parades a year and in the two busiest weeks of the Mardi Gras season there are twelve a day. No wonder there are shiny beads hanging from so many trees.
Another tour was a self-guided one of the Lafayette Cemetery #1, which reminded me of both Buenos Aires and Paris with its walled city of tombs overhung by trees (no below-ground burial with a water-table this high). Here I was seized upon by a prowling reflexologist, who had my sandal off in seconds to knead my clammy foot as he listed all the connected organs. Unexpected, but not unpleasant, and he was easily shaken off.
I wandered the French Quarter tour by myself, and it was just delightful. That's the beauty of a grid system, of course, especially with an unchallenging 11 blocks to the mile; plus, totally flat. Let's not overlook the temperature, however, hovering around 33 degrees; or the humidity, in the upper 80s. There was sweat involved, certainly. But it was easy to explore, and there was lots to discover.
Like the Napoleon House, for instance: reputedly built as a refuge for the Emperor, whose small foot, sadly, never crossed its threshold. He's nevertheless a presence inside, however, his bust perched above the bar (of course it's a bar now) and portraits hung all over the walls (including a print of David's famous Crossing the Alps painting, an original of which *cough* I saw recently at Chateau Malmaison in Normandy).
Other Nola must-dos I knocked off included the French market and Café du Monde, where tired-looking waitresses hauled trays of café au lait and beignets to the crowded tables for fat tourists to scoff down to the last wet fingerful of scooped-up icing sugar (which lay in white drifts under the tables). 
At the Presbytère museum in Jackson Square I was fascinated and impressed by the Katrina exhibition, which pulled no punches - actually, it clearly expressed the city's resentment at FEMA's totally inadequate response to the disaster - and was very well presented, including lots of personal testimony and video.
And I ventured out at night to explore the live music at the bars in Frenchman's Street, hoping for variety but, on this night at least, finding just jazz, jazz and more jazz. Damn that Adolphe Sax!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Transport(ed)

I’ve never eaten oysters for breakfast before, or shrimp Arnaud. Sheltered life, I guess. And call me unadventurous, but I passed over the rabbit (it was the curiously still-liquid five-hour egg broken over it that put me off). I was starting the day at an IPW function in the beautifully-restored Orpheum Theatre where a variety of local restaurants were showing off their specialties, while a selection of performers, including an a cappella Gospel Choir (it is Sunday, after all) did the same.
Then I turned it real, following along behind Jeff on his Confederacy of Cruisers bike tour of the Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater. Three hours, six miles, totally flat terrain, a comfortable no-gears back-pedal brake bike, and Jeff a knowledgeable guide with an amusing turn of phrase: I thoroughly recommend it. He started with Louisiana history, of course (I liked the idea that the Spanish “regifted” the Territory to the French) – 300+ years in about 10 minutes; and then we were off along the quiet, bumpy streets, past neat, pretty little wooden ‘shotgun’ houses painted bright colours and all set off by the crepe myrtles and other bright flowers.
We stopped often for more stories and explanations, and ended up at Marie’s Bar for refreshment before finishing with grander buildings decorated with pillars and cast iron lace. The whole look of the place was Ponsonby with a touch of Sydney’s Paddington, all done with casual Nola style.

The city is small and on a grid, so it was a simple walk via Armstrong Park where a Cajun and Zydeco music festival was in progress (always something happening here) and I had my first crawfish pie – actually a deep-fried pasty, which was pretty tasty although not as sinfully delicious as the loaded fries my daughter had indulged in at Dat Dog: really crispy chips and bacon bits liberally drizzled with mayo and melted cheese. Yup, my mouth is watering right now.

The next thing was the World War II museum where the docent who greeted us started his spiel with, “Well, since you’ve only got two hours before closing…” And he was right – this is a half-day museum. Typically thoroughly done, the idea is that you’re assigned a serviceman and follow him through his war, whether in the Pacific or in Europe, by swiping your dogtag at the various exhibits. Good idea – except that of course we didn’t have time for that and flitted through, museum guilt raging as usual.

Even so, we learned a lot, and were frequently horrified by the facts, figures and defiantly un-pixellated film clips. Of course, the focus was entirely American, and for most of the way round, there was little acknowledgement that anyone else was involved in fighting the Germans and Japanese. Hard not to bristle at least a little bit. But it was well done, otherwise, as it should be – it is the National WWII Museum, after all (a development of the D-Day Museum established here because the local Higgins Industries built all the amphibious landing craft that operation depended on). There’s a very good movie, too, ‘Beyond All Boundaries’, narrated by Tom Hanks (who is second only to Morgan Freeman in the authoritative delivery of US history).

And then, because it was such a lovely evening, and I had the time, I rode the St Charles streetcar (the oldest continuously-operating streetcar in the world!) to the end of the line and back again, getting a taste of the Garden District’s more elegant houses back behind their live oaks, with their pillars and porches and neat and tidy gardens. The tram broke down for a while underneath the Robert E Lee statue on its column, but Jeff taught me this morning that that’s a New Orleans thing – and it had already happened during the movie at the museum. It’s just an opportunity to, as they say here, visit with the person next to you (at the museum, it was an old man whose sister, moving to Okinawa in the ‘50s, gave up on starting a garden because every time she dug the soil, she turned up human bones).

And, finally, the conference had its rowdy official opening in the immense and soaring Superdome, with more food stalls, dancers, a mini Mardi Gras parade complete with floats, marching bands and stilt performers, plus musical acts, and surprisingly big indoor fireworks. Long day.

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