This isn’t a story about being scared to love. This is quite the opposite.
On a bit of a whim last summer my husband and I decided to join a couple of friends on a trip to New Orleans. I made Will, the planner, promise that the hotel would be nice and clean, and everything else I couldn’t give a damn about. I had decided to visit my folks alone for few days before the trip and flew into to NOLA after my husband and friends had been there for a couple of days. It was raining when I arrived and, as Austin was experiencing a record drought, it was the first time I had seen a drizzle in months.
As I moved through the airport I smiled at the gas lamps and live musicians. I was used to stray guitarists and full bands within airports from living in Austin, but the internal gas lamps had the exact romantic affect on me that they were supposed to incur. I was tired from traveling, but ready to be out and about in a new place.
Will and I are not people who waste time; we dropped off my things at the airport and immediately went right back out to explore. I find the best way to become intimate with a strange city is to walk it’s streets. We wandered through rich areas and poor areas, as well as the French Quarter. Our hotel was a single block from Du Monde’s and I’d stay there again in a heartbeat, even knowing the amount of children that died within its walls.
We walked down cobblestone, by 200 year old homes and areas that had been ravaged by Katrina. Eventually, we found ourselves in a cemetery, all white marble and above the earth. If it’s one thing New Orleans knows well, it’s that buried bodies float. Many of the tombs were beautiful, a handful ornate, a few were vandalized, and some forgotten. I’m not particularly melancholy, but the cemeteries of Louisiana embody a sullen beauty that New England doesn’t quite get to. Spanish moss and bright stone rather than dark earth and old rock.
We passed through Bourbon Street without incident; I appreciate the architecture and I love a good drink, but I can do without wading through puddles of vomit at 10am. We went to the aquarium and even the zoo. There were hat shops, and usual tourist crap vendors, flowers for sale, and plenty of sidewalk performers and artists. Most of all, though, you could smell how old the city was. I felt her past through each cell of my body and the more I explored the more she sunk into my bones. She had been beaten, diseased, dishonored, and raped, and still New Orleans holds her head high, unembarrassed and rather proud by what has made her.
After a couple of days, we decided to take an evening historical tour of New Orleans’ alleys within the French Quarter. The second stop on our night adventure was our own hotel, where we were informed that dozens of school children burned to death in the areas that were now the rooms we had been sleeping in. We learned about paying a man to duel for you on church grounds and of nuns who smothered hundreds of babies to keep their orphanages from becoming overrun with the unwanted. We listened to tales of Civil War atrocities, of slaves burning themselves rather than being torn from their families. We already knew about Delphine DeLaurie and her bizarre bloodlust, but we were surprised to hear that Nicolas Cage eventually purchased her home…and then had to sell fast when his own money ran out. Needless to say, we went back to our hotel in the evening with a shiver down out spines.
But as I leaned on the hotel balcony late that night, I wasn’t bothered by the remnants of the man who hung himself in the floor below me or the children who had burned around me. I felt the cool air, smelled the river, and tried to stare into the apartment across the way, loved so much by it’s residents that they didn’t bother with window dressings. I thought of what it would be to live in such a place. A city flooded and reflooded, burned and buried. Diseased and destroyed. And so very, very beautiful and beloved. It was a city who made those who cared for it even stronger.
For the first time in my life my body and mind ached to be apart of a place I barely knew.
We weren’t in New Orleans long, and we left feeling incomplete. We drove the trip from Nola to Austin, weaving in and out of plantation areas and stark highway. I’ve enjoyed previous vacations, missed the romance or a pretty sunset, remembered an incredible restaurant or a neat day trip. New Orleans was different. We left New Orleans feeling different.
And I’ve been unable to stop thinking about her since.