Tuesday 21 June 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!

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