I’ve been struggling since getting back from New Orleans with how to write about the few days I was lucky enough to spend there. This unusual for me and, frankly, a little frustrating. When you’re used to leaving places with a lot of enthusiasm and an eagerness to tell everyone about what you’ve seen, what you’ve done, what you’ve eaten, a delay can make you feel blocked up, stunted, and yet you can’t move on until you’ve let it all out. That’s why, weeks after leaving New Orleans, I’m still wrestling with the subject.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time there immensely. It isn’t that my enthusiasm for the place is any less than it has been for any other city. Instead, it’s more a discomfort with tackling a subject that feels so foreign and familiar at the same time; it’s a question of how you approach a city whose overall spirit and outlook you can’t even begin to grasp, even though the evening news and the guidebooks would like to try to sum it up neatly for you.
So that’s why I’ve been putting off writing about anything more than the food in New Orleans – or, more accurately, why I’ve been writing and rewriting thousands of words on New Orleans without publishing any of them until now. Everything’s felt clumsy and under-informed; nothing has felt right.
But it occurred to me recently that the way to approach a city like New Orleans on the page is the same way I like to approach any new city on the ground: by neighborhood.
See, if there’s one thing all those years living in New York taught me, it’s this: any great city is just a larger-than-average collection of vibrant neighborhoods, all in such tight proximity to each other that change, diversity, exchange, happen by osmosis. Neighborhoods are not only what make cities great, they’re also incredibly convenient for newcomers: they break teeming metropolises down to human scale; they make heaving concrete jungles approachable to strangers. And even, I eventually remembered, to writers.
Which is why I’ve decided the only way for me to write about New Orleans is to break the city down to a neighborhood scale.
For the choice of neighborhood, I must thank HostelWorld (it should come as no surprise that I use this Web site obsessively in planning any travel I do). Searching for an inexpensive place to stay after my friends left town, I knew I wanted to leave the spring break vibe (and the high-rise hotel we’d booked for the bachelorette party) of the French Quarter behind. I scrolled down to the bottom of my HostelWorld results page and found a room at a small guesthouse for a steal, read a few reviews lauding its “neighborhoody” feel, and booked without knowing much more than the neighborhood’s name: the Faubourg Marigny.
This, somehow, felt perfect. Answering “I’m not sure, exactly,” when people asked me where I’d be staying once I was on my own in New Orleans. The prospect of having a new neighborhood of unclear size, un-researched amenities, and unanticipated sights to explore. This felt like the adventures I’d come to miss, like waking up on a bus in a Vietnamese parking lot and not being quite sure where I’d next close my eyes.
And so I arrived in the Marigny on a stormy Sunday afternoon with little more than the address of my guesthouse and a few suggestions from a former Marigny resident and friend of my cousin’s. “Oh, the Mare-ih-nee,” she’d eventually replied after I’d told her the name of the neighborhood in the only way I knew how: in a carefully slurred French accent. “Hi-ho beans & bluegrass,” she’d written on a scrap of paper. “Cake Cafe. Satsuma – Bywater.”
I’d wondered what that last part meant, and so I looked at a map and saw the word Bywater pressed up against the word Marigny. So the Bywater would be the Bushwick to the Marigny’s Williamsburg, I decided, and I’d have twice the ground to cover.
As soon as I arrived, I realized I’d left the “this is all just for show” mentality of the French Quarter behind. The Marigny was a neighborhood of bicycles, smiles, and casually offered hellos. I’d swapped inhibition-less tourists for neighbors walking their dogs, telling each other, “I’ll see you later this week.” I’d left the pervasive beats and and screeching of dance music on Bourbon street for church bells and birdsong. In the Bywater, the gleaming beads found tossed into the street from all-night bars in the French Quarter were now weather-beaten, indigenous, draped in trees on the sidewalk like Christmas garlands and woven through the railings of front porches.
At breakfast, I deconstructed sticky pastries next to people looking at the Times Picayune instead of their smart phones, or gobbled pancakes sitting under paintings from neighborhood artists. I spent afternoons wandering aimlessly, listening to passing strangers describe their location into cell phones and storing the unfamiliar pronunciation of street names away for future use: Burgundy was Bur-GUN-dee, Dauphine was daw-FEEN. (I love French so much, I even love it when it’s confoundingly useless).
The houses I passed weren’t grand or architecturally stunning, weren’t trimmed in wrought iron or kitted out with columns, but they were colorful and low-slung, cheerful in a way that reminded me of the Caribbean. And most of all they looked inhabited, welcoming. They looked as if they were subletted by artists or mortgaged by young parents or inhabited by generation after generation of the same families. If the French Quarter felt like it reset itself sometime each morning between last call and first light, the Marigny and the Bywater felt like they’d actually been going about the business of living each day.
And maybe that’s why it was so exciting hearing the waitress at a little cafe in the Bywater talking to customers about subletting her two-bedroom house for the summer. Or waiting for ten minutes, on foot alongside half a dozen unhurried cars, while a train pulled through, thought better of it, backed up, and let us pass after all. The mundane, the forgettable, even the frustrating, feel like tiny gifts from the travel gods when you realize you’ve inadvertently stumbled into something real.
A few days later, when the taxi driver picked me up at my guest house to take me to the airport, he gave me a wide grin and a running commentary as we passed coffee shops, panhandlers, old men out for walks, women with strollers. And then he said the one thing that really nailed it, that summed up what I hadn’t felt entitled or authoritative enough to say myself.
“It’s good that you stayed over here,” he told me. “This is New Orleans. When you’re over here, you really feel like you’re part of it.”
And even if it was only for a little while, he was right.