Friday, August 29, 2008

New Orleans is Beckoning

New Orleans is beckoning.  I fell in love with the Big Easy on my first trip 7 years ago.

An amazing friend took me along with her on a business trip and while she was trapped in conferences all day, I explored the French Quarter.  I have been in the Business District, the Warehouse District and the Garden District.  All of them interesting in their own right, but none can hold a candle to the majesty of the French Quarter.

Many who have never been there, or who have been but failed to see its beauty, have asked me what it is that I love so much.  They tend to think that it is the nighttime atmosphere of free flowing alcohol and zero inhibitions, but that is only a small part of the appeal.

The French Quarter is saturated with history and culture all of which appeals to and captivates the senses.

I discovered this the first day I ventured out on my own.  I walked from the Riverwalk to Decatur down to the French Market and I could feel the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes seep through my pores and the magic enter through the soles of my shoes taking hold of my heart and my soul.

Immediately my eyes were enraptured by the sight of the Mississippi River, the amazing architecture in the wrought iron balconies, the Mediterranean inspired houses, the sculptures and statues every few feet, the artists wrapped around Jackson Square, the people buzzing about, the street entertainers, brick lined streets and shops filled with a variety of treats.

My ears were delighted by the sounds of the zydeco music pouring out of the souvenir shops and from the street performers near Jackson Square, Jazz music carrying me away near the French Market, the whistle of the ships on the River, people laughing and forgetting the cares of the world.

The scent of the French Quarter tantalized me with its unique mixture of mud from the river, Creole sauces and Cajun spices, gardenias and jasmine hanging from the balconies, beignets and pralines mulling around me.

The taste is compiled of as many flavors as compile the culture of the city consisting of the expected flavors of Cajun spices, but goes beyond this to incorporate Spanish, French, Caribbean, Italian, Southern, traditional American cuisine and many other influences.  You’ll find burgers and fried chicken, fresh fish and a variety of crawfish dishes, gumbo and jambalaya, pasta and your fancier fair, poboys and muffulettas.  Do not forget the sweet delights of the beignets, pralines, cakes, pastries and bananas foster, which melts on your tongue.

The people of New Orleans, whether natives, transplants or tourists, are warm and friendly.  Everyone there seems to ingest the motto of “laissez les bons temps rouler” which means “let the good times roll.”  Day or night the good times roll and strangers become your friends.

There is a different feeling in New Orleans than there is in Chicago or any other city I have visited.  It is definitely a city of “anything goes” and “live and let live.”  The shy come out of their shell, the wild can let go without judgment, the uptight cut loose and the spirit becomes free.

This is sometimes helped along by a fruity, yet dangerous, little drink called the Hurricane.  The bars serve anything you like, but if you are in New Orleans, you ought to try the drink for which they are known.  It is fruit punch with a blast of bourbon that will slowly sneak up on you.  If you are not aware prior to your arrival, you will most likely be thrown by the walk up windows where you may order a drink with which you can walk around.  Just be careful not to enter a bar with a drink from another establishment, they will quickly let you know this is not acceptable.

The nightlife is evident throughout the French Quarter, but no street is more famous or more frequented than Bourbon Street.  You’ll find souvenir shops, bars, karaoke, live bands, dance clubs and strip clubs.  But don’t limit yourself to Bourbon Street.  Decatur has some great clubs and bars.  If you veer off these two main strips, you’ll find yourself at historic treasures like Preservation Hall, which you will recognize by the plain facade and the line of people waiting to enter filing down the street.

I have been to New Orleans three times and have experienced the French Quarter off-season and during Halloween but, regardless, there is always a crowd.  I have seen the beauty and history of the Garden District and the plantation homes and have witnessed the glory of the swamps and its wildlife.  New Orleans has so much to offer and I cannot get enough of it.  I hear it whisper to me periodically calling me to come back.  I smell it, I hear it, I taste it and I feel it.  New Orleans is in me, it took hold that very first day.

When the Gulf Coast was battered and bruised three years ago, my heart ached with sadness and fear for the people and the city that welcomed me so kindly.  I know she is being rebuilt and will be back once more.  I hope to be back in the arms of New Orleans soon; it will be two years this Halloween since my last visit, but in the mean time I can only reminisce and share with all of you what I love about New Orleans.

Let us not forget those living in the area affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Keep them in your thoughts and prayers and, if you can, offer them whatever support you are able.  Pray, meditate, send love and light or however you offer good intentions that Hurricane Gustav spares them and the others in the Gulf from any further devastation.

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