Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Let's See the City!

So on our very first night in town, FryDaddy and I wander the streets of the French Quarter, simultaneously taking in the local sights and sounds while trying to find a place to eat.  We'd already laid in supplies for the room fridge and attacked I mean "gently examined" the cheese plate in the lobby (yes, it was the kind of hotel that has a wine and cheese reception in the lobby on Wednesdays).  During our walkabout, we were entranced by an energetic Cuban man hawking for a hole-in-the-wall called "Country Flame" on Iberville that offers Spanish, Mexican, and Cuban food for rock-bottom prices - an academic's dream!  We weren't the only ones who thought so - we ran into three of our "conference buddies" and chatted briefly (like many of us, they wanted to fine-tune their presentations before giving them "live" during the conference).  Back at the hotel, FryDaddy settled in to the room and I took an exploratory turn around the pool - no one was there, so I had a lovely quiet moment sitting in the gathering dusk and listening to street jazz while looking at the garish neon beckoning me to come back to the tawdrier sections of the Quarter.

Thursday was the first day of the actual conference - let me tell you now that you won't be hearing much about specific panels and papers (a little bit, sure).  I decided to do this as more of a travel review/journal, but don't worry - comments on the conference and the people are woven in.  I must say, there were some oddities this time - individual papers were often quite good, but the panels lacked an overall through-line, which made for some challenging scheduling.  "Well, I want to see Paper A here, but Paper B in this panel at the same time looks interesting, and Paper C here seems good . . ." so there was a certain amount of discreet ducking and slipping in to panels late.  It's a good problem at a conference like this one - popular culture/American culture is such a broad field (c'mon, there are panels on film, teaching Shakespeare, Cajun culture, and the use of technology in the classroom all at the same time!) that you can't see everything you'd like to see.  Therefore, you use the list of e-mails at the back of the program a lot to connect with those you missed.

Since the first panel wasn't until mid-morning, we struck out for some early sightseeing.  FryDaddy and I had decided that we'd rather spend our time in the Quarter and amble a bit rather than doing a rushed tour of a larger area.  We need to go back, definitely!  We walked down to the world-famous Cafe du Monde for beignets and chicory-laced coffee.  Now a beignet is not a pastry to be taken lightly.  A French cousin to the doughnut, a proper beignet is a square of fried dough that is smothered in powdered sugar.  As our tour guide Jim would tell us later, "There's no neat way to eat a beignet.  You're going to look like you had breakfast with Charlie Sheen."  He's right!  The sweetness of the sugar cuts the slight bitterness of the chicory (I had mine as cafe au lait, so the bitterness was already cut.)  The Cafe is one of those "you just have to go" places - it's crowded and noisy and I wonder what it's like at 3 a.m. (it's open 24 hours a day) but I didn't find out.

We explored Jackson Square to work off the sugar.  Tow mounted cops were taking pictures of themselves in front of the statue of Andrew Jackson ("The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved" on the plinth was added after the 1864 Battle of New Orleans).  By the way, it's the first statue to portray a hero astride a rearing horse.  Beyond the statue is the St. Louis Cathedral, which has been designated as a "minor basilica" (the major ones are in Rome).  The interior of the cathedral was somber, as the late Archbishop (who had been a paratrooper in WW2, thus earning the nickname of the "Jumping Padre") was laying in state.  I'm all for taking unobtrusive photos in stunning churches, but I personally found walking up the nave to snap a pic of the Archbishop in his open casket tacky beyond the telling of it.  But maybe that's just me.

Deciding that we needed assistance to cover the Quarter, we hired Jim and Crawdad (that's Crawdad at the top of the post) from the line of mule-drawn carriages.  We paid extra, but we had Jim (who bore a disturbing resemblance to Sam Elliott) and Crawdad to ourselves, which turned out to be a wise choice.  Jim was an excellent, excellent tour guide.  Among the things we learned:

  • New Orleans was originally a city built of wood.  Two major fires changed that.  Only three buildings in the Quarter are now built of wood - most everything else is "brick and beam," a style that provides more stability in high winds and also doesn't burn easily.
  • "Romeo & Juliet" spikes - think huge barbed wire wrapped around balcony supports to discourage visitors to teenage daughters.  You might go up a Romeo, but you're coming down a Juliet!
  • The country's first apartment buildings (still rented, going rate about $2800 a month) are at the edge of Jackson Square.
  • Those beautiful wrought iron balconies and fripperies were added much, much later.  New Orleans is an old city and it began as a port city.  The iron came later, say around 1830 or so.
  • Celebs have discovered the Quarter - Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and their brood have a house there, Sandra Bullock is having one gutted, and Nic Cage owned (but did not live in) the Quarter's most haunted house, which was the scene of gruesome human experiments done on slaves.  The horrors were discovered when a kitchen slave who was literally chained to the stove set herself on fire to summon the fire brigade during a dinner party.
  • New Orleans had slavery, but due to the French/Spanish ownership, the "peculiar institution" was different.  (By the way, France owned New Orleans for six weeks in 1803 before they sold it to the USA as part of the Louisiana Purchase!)  Slaves had the weekend off and were permitted to gather and sell their own goods (baked goods, leatherwork, etc.) and keep the money.  Many slaves bought their freedom in this way.  Slaves had legal standing to sue for mistreatment and, if they won their case, they were freed and a fine was paid to them by the master.  It was also customary for a slave to be freed after a long period of service (very long, like 20 - 25 years).
  • Then there were the "Quadroon Balls."  Prepare to be grossed out.  These mockery of debutante balls were held so that young free women of color could meet wealthy planters in search of mistresses.  Girls were trained from childhood for these parties.  If a pretty young thing caught the eye of a rich man, negotiations began between the man and the girl's mother.  (Pimp your daughter!)  These were binding contracts that covered housing, allowance, the raising of the children, etc.  While not legal marriages, these were common-law arrangements that gave the young "quadroon" a degree of autonomy and power, despite it being based on sexual attraction.  Desperate times, desperate measures.  The fact that it was considered genteel and legitimate just makes me shudder.

This is so long already . . . let me just add the first souvenirs we bought were high-end pet snacks for the critters, I had quite possibly the best creme brulee EVER that night at Irene's (our "big" night out) and street bands are everywhere!

Next:  Conference report and more from our attempts to eat our way across the Quarter!

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