North America / Travel Piece

Thanksgiving

After almost two weeks in New York, I flew south to see the South, to warm my chilly bones, and to find out the difference between Creole and Cajun cookin’.

I arrived in New Orleans airport after dark, but even so, my smiles couldn’t be contained as I first smelt, and then felt the subtropical moisture in the air. Every time this has happened – getting off the plane in Japan this year, or going to Brisbane, or that time Chris and I got off the plane in Kuala Lumpur after below freezing temperatures in Beijing – the heat really does cradle my cockles – and maybe it’s more important in a place than a thriving creative culture? Perhaps not, but I’m still reluctant to sacrifice scorching days and short shorts for the chance to hang with more hipsters.

The only way into the city from the airport besides private taxis is a $20 minibus that takes travellers right to their hotel door. It was amusing to watch everyone else get off the bus at their respective hotels – the Hilton, the Sheraton, the Marriott. Outside each, clusters of tourists waited to explore the bars down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, dressed in flowing Summer dresses and hanging, loose shirts. When there were only two passengers left, the other, an attractive blonde woman, turned to me and said, “I think you’re going to be the last stop. Where are you staying?” I replied, confidently, “On Magazine Street in the Garden District.”

“Yes, you’re definitely last,” she said. “This is my house here.” And she got out. Then the driver turned his head and raised his voice.

“The reason why you’re last,” he said in his delightful black Southern accent, “is ‘coz you’re on the other side of the world.”

About five minutes later we pulled up outside the hostel – St. Vincent’s Guesthouse – a converted old orphanage, with a haunted wing and a brilliant view of the city from its third storey balcony. I dragged my bags to reception, rejoicing the balmy night as I went, and checked in. The English woman who ran the guesthouse was very welcoming, and assured me that I wasn’t on the other side of the world. In fact it only took about 15 minutes to walk downtown, and I was staying on a street full of thrift shops, cafes, and restaurants. Furthermore, I was away from the throngs of tourists, so when I ventured out, I was surrounded by locals.

The next day, after turning my back on a Saturday night (which seems to be a recurring theme – I think I’m developing a phobia of it), I ventured out to explore the Big Easy, famous for its jazz, French colonial history, and Nawlins pronunciation. I’ve always wanted to see it – in fact, it intrigued me more than anywhere else in the States before I started being interested in New York or California. Perhaps because even in the States it’s thought of as “unique”. Or, more accurately, my interest stemmed from that Sesame Street short I watched as a kid about this white girl being invited over to a black girl’s house for some deep South Cajun food: Jambalaya, Gumbo and Boudin. Trust even little me to sit up and watch the TV when food was involved.

*

Once I found my way to Canal St and the French Quarter by the mighty Mississippi (I can spell that without thinking, thanks to Alvin & The Chipmunks) I was amused to have stumbled upon redneck and obese America (and not always mutually exclusive). The Americans in New York were disappointing, to be honest – and I like to find my pre-imagined stereotypes. I think I’m fascinated with the excess and grotesque nature of Middle America. In New Orleans, I saw it all: fanny packs; the slow waddle into a Wendy’s, the slow waddle out; the two-piece attire of everyone, with trainers never used for their designed purpose; and a carefully chosen, simple communication style, that sounded eerily calming in its banality. Of course there were the average Joe and Jill American, too.  They met my expectations by talking about things in that curious way of Americans – airing their personal problems, but sounding like the earnest dialogue from TV shows. I wonder which imitates which?

After a day wondering around, basking in the sun, and poking my head in and out of shops and marketplaces, I started making my way back to the Guesthouse down the (in)famous Bourbon Street. New Orleans is unique for many things, but one of the most adored reasons for tourists is that it has a 24/7 liquor licence. Yesiree Bob, you can get shitfaced anytime of the day. While drinking culture isn’t my favourite scene, I strolled down the bar-lined street and couldn’t stop laughing-out-loud when, at one in the afternoon, I heard Wild Cherry’s ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy’ blasting out of one bar – the DJ stopping the track at the title lyric to let a substantial crowd sing their hearts out. The very next song I heard – at a similar decibel – was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. I’ve never seen a street so sleazy and so unhip at that time of the day before… I chalked it up as another reason to love crazy ole New Orleans.

The next day I spent writing a blog post in the Guesthouse’s common room. American Guesthouses attract vagrants and some of them drifted in and out while I typed, but on the whole they left me alone. As I was wrapping up the post, a young woman sat opposite me on the big, old desk I’d adopted as my office, and worked on her laptop too. When I finally took off my headphones she asked me for a pen and after a brief exchange of words she asked: “Are you Australian?”

Now, nobody ever asks me that.

“Yes: where are you from?” (Thinking to myself, bet it’s Adelaide.)

“Adelaide,” she said. “What’s your name? Let’s see how many friends in common we have on Facebook.”

We had eleven. Ah, Adelaide.

Josephine then leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “So what about this place, eh?”

“Yeah, it’s really cool,” I said, smiling.

“Don’t you think it’s…” she looked around the room, “I don’t want to say too loudly…”

I started to think she was a bit paranoid.

“But it’s crazy here.”

“Oh? Why?” I asked, genuinely. My whole experience to that point had been friendly and helpful, and I was blissfully alone in a private room upstairs.

“When I arrived, they handed me a phone and told me to call an ambulance because a guy was having a ‘heart attack’,” Josephine said. “Then they left me with this guy dribbling shit from his mouth. It was so scary.”

“They left you?!”

“Yeah… and all the guys who walk around the halls – there’s one who won’t leave me alone… Keeps knocking on my dorm door. And you gotta be friendly here or they get suspicious.”

Ah, the old Jan Morris digression. Of course travel stories are bound to be different between the sexes. I was a tall, white man – no one in the ‘West’ ever gave me grief. In fact sometimes I disappear into a new place so much, that it almost defeats the experience of being out of my comfort zone.

The entire day of writing had made me feel quite disconnected from my surroundings, so it was nice Josephine popped up opposite me, and we exchanged travel stories while out for a pizza, and promised to catch up back home.

*

The next day I felt depressed. I was having one of those, “what is this all for?” moments of naval-gazing, but I was also digesting some tragic news from back home, worrying about finances, and kicking myself for not having the desire to talk to new people. I thought about how I’d navigate the next few days, quite possibly alone, and even though it’s not an Australian holiday, I worried that I’d spend Thanksgiving shopping for food in a supermarket wistfully daydreaming of an oven for roasting stuff.

***

And so that’s pretty much what happened. I didn’t have the gumption to talk to anyone, and hid away in my sorrowful cocoon. I ventured out of the Guesthouse, ducking quickly past the reception desk, lest they asked me why I was still alone and recommended a bar that played ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. I didn’t dare go into restaurants by myself – I was scared of the pitying look when they asked if it was going to be a table just for one. I turned into a recluse: going out and returning only with photos on my camera, not of people, but of derelict places – not brave enough to ask anyone if they were damaged by Katrina or not. My whole experience of New Orleans became a slave to my doldrums – which I was defiant in defending.

By the end of my stay in New Orleans, I hadn’t spoken to one local more than the pleasantries. I started resenting it for being a party destination. That wasn’t ‘me’ – what was the point of me being somewhere lauded for the consumption of alcohol? I was certain there wouldn’t be anybody in the city worth talking to anyhow. I was glad to move on, but I secretly hated myself for feeling this way – for being this way.

***

Instead of embracing the negative feeling, I decided I felt sad. And even though I didn’t feel like going out into the throng of a new city, I told myself that it would be better than staying cooped up in my room – and if it got overwhelming, I could always come back. So I left the Guesthouse and made my way back to the city centre. On the way in, I bought an apple, and it was crisp and fresh, and just that made my heart feel lighter. A bad apple can ruin my day – how sad.

I forced myself into a bar, at an odd hour (for me, though in New Orleans, it didn’t matter) and met another person from Adelaide. A very strange double coincidence, if ever there was one. We got chatting and went out for dinner, then to a jazz bar on Frenchmen Street, and made our way back to the first bar to give each other moral support to chat to the locals. By this time it was getting to normal drinking hours, and soon enough we were surrounded by a group of people, chatting over the din of other party-goers and the big screen TVs playing cheesy pop music and – something I loved – episodes of South Park and youtube funnies.

I spent most of the night chatting to a Brazilian, Diogo, who teaches dancing-on-film at one of the city’s universities (among other projects) and his partner from Las Vegas, Robert, who plays French horn for the Marines band. After another bar, we went back to Diogo’s place. And what a place! He lived in an old plantation mansion uptown (renting with others, of course). Most of the furnishings were antique, and weddings are held there every other weekend. He gave me the guestroom to sleep in, and I woke the next day – Thanksgiving – wondering vaguely where I was. I found the two of them in the kitchen scraping the remains of a recipe gone wrong into the bin, assuring me that they would take me to one of their friend’s houses for Thanksgiving lunch.

Later that day I found myself laughing, chatting and eating true home-cooked seafood Gumbo with starches and roasted vegies at a famous New Orleans jazz singer’s house. And after an afternoon nap, Diogo and Robert took me to another friend of theirs’, John, a lawyer and Louisiana local for a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers.

For the next few days (I extended my stay, and changed my other travel plans), I spent time with my new friends, getting an insight into the city; its history, its character, its celebrated cuisine (Creole flavours: frogs legs! turtle soup!), and the aftermath of the most recent disaster Hurricane Katrina. I walked in and out of my accommodation with a spring in my step – I’d met locals, I’d seen the city in a completely new light, and most importantly, I’d saved myself from the depressing hypothetical situation I know well could have been my fate.

*

My friend Miki wrote this in an email to me recently: “What’s hard about moving around so much is that you only experience a place as an outsider. There’s no love in a way. My incessant need to relate travelling to places to a personal relationship; you are currently having exciting one night stands with these places. It’s never going to compare to the intimacy and monotony of really knowing a place.”

Turns out my one night stand with an old French prostitute wearing lace trim was worth it. She’s not called the Big Easy for nothing. I’ll miss it.

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