I had the invitation to attend one of my professional conference in New Orleans early this month (February 2015) and my sole objective was not only to escape bitter-cold weather in New Jersey, but, also, I use any opportunity to visit New Orleans to recalibrate and rejuvenate my mental compass, being a food connoisseur and jazz lover. Admittedly, myself being a bad tourist, I have visited numerous cities and countries all over the world for business purpose, but, I don’t explore in deep most of the places. New Orleans is one of the very few places that I could not escape the strange beauty in French Quarter listening to Jazz music, watching Mardi Gras and eating Cajun Craw fish. Eclectic characters and authentic local experience of New Orleans always amaze me and truly touch my soul. Being a world traveler, New Orleans is definitely placed first in my mind and heart. Paris comes next, and of course, Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) is my beautiful, beloved homeland. There are a few things in my personality and life that I love very much: Music, Culture, Art & Painting, Food & Wine, Classic architecture and Authentic People to chat. New Orleans has all of that. New Orleans people are not just simply authentic and easy-going; they are the most friendly people I have seen unlike other parts of the world. Mark Twain rightly commented that “An American has not seen the United States of America until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans”. Here’s my fervent attempt to scribble down some impression and expression about my experience in New Orleans.
The most important part of New Orleans is the French Quarter (known as Vieux Carré in French language) located in the mouth of Mississippi River in New Orleans. This is the most fascinating and famous cultural melting pot in the whole city where even residents welcome visitors on the streets. Intensely intimate and uniquely intoxicated, New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood has exerted a spell over writers and artists starting with Mark Twain. Hollywood celebrities and business tycoons have joined the residential mix, but, it is the year-round local residents who keep the neighborhood vibrantly unique. French Quarter is the largest and best-preserved district. It is an unique treasure that millions of people all over the world flock to see, while they experience the city’s musical excitement and its world-class cuisine. I always wander roughly about 100 blocks from Canal Street to Bourbon Street back and forth to see some beautiful architectures, art galleries, museums, restaurants, and bars, and still, yet, so much to be seen. It is always a true, unique and exciting experience around every corner for me. So much culture, history and of course remarkable vivid entertainment built-in within 100 blocks parameter of French quarter of New Orleans.
French Quarter architecture is a mix of Spanish, French and American styles. Cast iron balconies were added to many masonry buildings for people to watch people on the sidewalks of the Quarter. I did visit Gallier House depicting 19th century architecture. This Gallier House is designed and built by James Gallier-one of the most famous architects in New Orleans History, is one of the best examples of the fusion between culture and architecture in the city.
This historic French Quarter street has a lively reputation due to the jazz clubs and bars and all-night partying ever extending on the street and the presence of different types of intoxicatingly dressed girls. Also known as “Rue Bourbon,” this historic street sits at the heart of the French Quarter extending about 15 blocks from Canal St. to Esplanade Avenue. Bourbon Street never sleeps.
This time, I went to the Old Absinthe House, a historic bar originally built in 1800. Famous Absinthe House Frappe has been created by French mixologist. Now, Absinthe became illegal, but I did experience an alternative drink Herbsaint. The decorative marble fountains that were used to create original Absinthe are still present in this historic bar.
I had lunch in oldest and popular Galatoire’s Restaurant, founded by Jean Galatoire in 1900; Galatoire’s continues to run by his descendants. Specializing in French Creole cuisine, I had Gumbo soup (milder version of liquid Bicci Bele Bhat or Khicchdi) and Jumbalaya (similar to Pulao in India).
Interestingly, I feel like I am inside the grid whenever I am in Bourbon Street. It’s a labyrinth full of surprises in the most artistic form, I can best describe. Beautiful, unique, mind-blowing fascinating experience. Even the girls standing with the face masked and willing to give you companionship appear to be gorgeous looking, as if; God has just sculpted all their parts beautifully. A fine line immediately appears in apparition between the body and art. Treme, darkness of mood and light resonates in my mind in the same breadth. You must visit Bourbon Street to experience history and colorful ancient lifestyle.
Mardi Gras’ roots originated from France. The celebration of Mardi Gras came to North America from Paris, where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages. French people migrated to America explored the Mississippi River near New Orleans. They celebrated it here as a major holiday, they christened the site “Point du Mardi Gras”. Many see a relationship to the ancient tribal rituals of fertility that welcomed the arrival of spring. A possible ancestor of the celebration was the Lupercalia, a circus-like orgy held in mid-February in Rome.
In the early 19th Century, the public celebration of Mardi Gras consisted mainly of maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback and was somewhat crude orgy type. Then later in 1950, a few men beautified the celebration and proved that it could be enjoyed in a safe and festive manner. Street masking was legalized and several Mardi Gras traditions were established by forming a secret Carnival society, choosing a mythological namesake, presenting a themed parade with floats and costumed maskers, and staging a tableau ball.
Perhaps the greatest change in Mardi Gras was in the 1980s, when It really took the city of New Orleans to transform the centuries-old celebration of Mardi Gras into America’s Greatest Party. Global media attention was focused on Mardi Gras in the late 1980s followed by the tremendous increase in tourism during the Carnival season and thus resulted in robust economic impact while providing us exciting and unique entertainment.
I can’t help must mention voodoo, as, I feel, voodoo, ghost-hunting, vampire places are significant and integral part of New Orleans culture since 1700s. I went to see New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum to explore the mysteries, legends, traditions of voodoo, and the influence voodoo has throughout the city’s history. It is located in the heart of the French Quarter near Bourbon Street, I was invited further to explore and participate in haunted cemetery walking and ghost hunting and I did listen to Miriam’s voice. This is something that you need to put lots of time to explore further. Perhaps, at a future date, I may try to know it better.
Nola is the pet name for New Orleans. Listening to music in New Orleans to me is like dreaming in NOLA. Whenever, I listen to pure jazz, or violin, or trombone, my mind flies deep in the universe, my body becomes stuck like a deer in the headlamp. Dreaming in Nola is the best experience for me. It is like Mecca pilgrimage to me. So ecstatic, so eclectically addictive.
The trumpet, the trombone, brass instruments are the basic instruments in New Orleans. These instruments are the essential and integral part of marching band. They permeate and resonate throughout the whole city. I can see it and I can feel it even from my hotel room. When I saw the marching bands at Mardi Gras first, it reminded me of a fashion show in New York. Except, the fashion show in New York seemed boring and silly and then suddenly, it became an art, what I see at Mardi Gras. The runway in Mardi Gras blended with the deep music goes on for miles and miles and there is a real cultural resonance and blissful joy. I silently dreamed in to the past while seeing the future. It’s an unbelievable experience I will never forget. I must mention, New Orleans perfected the music instrument tuba in the marching band. Traditional New Orleans jazz is one of my favorite music. I can spend hours and still I want to hear more.
Most New Orleans restaurants feature an eclectic, globalized chef menu in unique Cajun flavor: fresh tortilla chips and guacamole, Thai shrimp, lobster and pizza from a cedar wood-burning oven, deviled eggs and of course, New Orleans specialties like craw fish, gumbo soup and jambalaya. They even proudly offer crocodile meat which I did not taste, as, I did not have the guts to cross my own mental barometer. They have invented exotically hot and fierce sauce and christened them in a funny way, such as, “Butt Burner”, “Fire in the Hole”. Each restaurant has its own signature pride and displaying a fierce perfection in cuisine. A crawfish is a strange-looking creature. The easiest way to describe it might be to say it’s a tiny lobster, and learning how to eat one, it turns out, is one of the subtle markers to acquired taste, while on the path to understand and enjoy food in New Orleans. How lovely, these exotic foods are in New orleans. It is like I can, at ease, equate on the same breath with smoked Hilsa and tandoor boti kabob in Kolkata or tiger prawn in Goa or stuffed Bombay duck in Mumbai. I had the opportunity to check out dozens of popular reastaurants including “Nola’s” and “K’Paul’s kitchen”. Some of them require advanced booking, sometime weeks in advance.
Even the ordinary looking small café looks innocuous enough, cluttered with artifacts and photographs, paintings on the walls. Inside, you will invariably find a piano or saxophone around some corner and an unknown musician will always play or sing anything but modern, even opera, or, some other song that you might not recognize. I can’t claim these Café has the best music and signature cuisine. The cuisine is rudimentarily simple breakfast and lunch, a good omelets, decent gumbo or plain jambalaya. But it has a certain something, a sense of improvised grace and antique touch which will make you feel like you are back in the past. It’s a great spot to recover from a hangover, even if you don’t have one. Or, a great spot, if you need to calibrate or recalibrate your mental compass for music and culture.
I am sounding and writing like a travel writer, but my intellect level is putting New Orleans as an integral part of my life. I feel like home here and who knows whether I was born here in my past life. Every time I visit this city reminds me of my homeland Kolkata, reminiscent of city of joy in spite of several tragedies and trauma. How faithful it is to the reality of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina hurricane and then after the gulf oil spill. The anger, despair, sadness, and yet, the accompanying use of music as salvation, pretending genuine smiles, showing a great level of tenacity and hospitality, the wild bursts of joy. How unreal it all feels at times, and yet, how real it is that they recover and bounce back to greet visitors.
One local resident told “New Orleans politicians treat New Orleans like it’s an average American city”. “We’ve had average politicians running an extraordinary place they don’t understand.” This is clearly understandable to me as the politicians do not have the intellect level to appreciate art, music and beauty. This is absolutely true in Kolkata as well. I have seen graffiti on the wall in Kolkata “Oh Bengalis, please wake up” and then in small font “Please do not disturb our deep sleep”. Sounds familiar!! I see a good similarity and comparison. The only exception, I feel, in Bengal, we do not have any big brother coming forward for futuristic philanthropy.
“Boom” and “Topkill” are common but new antonym words and are morbidly comic in New Orleans. It’s a sort of pattern in New Orleans. Just before 9/11 things were going great, but then, tourism slowed down. It took New Orleans few years to build back up. They were going great again, but, then Katrina came over them. And they again came back clawing and scratching. And then, again, boom, Gulf oil disaster. “It’s a pattern dude”, one local resident summed it up in three words.
I think, there’s a fine line between stability and stagnation, New Orleans had already crossed it. I have been most impressed over my lifetime with the resistance of New Orleans to change. It has a remarkable ability to stay what it is in spite of overwhelming incentives not to. Sounds familiar? Kolkata is another example. New Orleans have definitely illustrated that their oysters have pearls.
New Orleans art is booming and attracting international recognition. I have noticed more and more art galleries. More and more artists, writers are flocking to New Orleans instead of Paris. Beauty, inspiration is abundant and automatic throughout the year and living cost is pretty reasonable in New Orleans. New Orleans is definitely unique and affordable. I see Café and Bacchanal Wine are booming and proliferating with writers and artists aspiring for fame. Seeing the ever increasing prosperity, I felt so good and happy to mingle with them. This is where Norah Jones rose to stardom. And then the word spread out in lightning speed that she is the daughter of Ravishankar. I had the rare opportunity to meet Ravishankar along with Norah Jones and Anushka a few years back in Kolkata.
New Orleans keeps surprising me, every time I visit, with never-ending exquisite detail, in the form of saxophone note, and with overwhelming beauty continuously uncorking for blocks and blocks. The architectural flow itself expresses its own kind of music, in an ensemble piece. The handsome landscape sublimed me in to a long confusion of strange optical illusion: imperfect but gorgeous, really, an exquisite dilapidation. “New Orleans does not evolve, it accretes,” one writer had told “Just Layers and layers of patina.” Here you get Paris, Venice and Savannah all combined. Incidentally, the same writer visited these three cities to write books about architectural treasure under water. This reminds me how German Nobel laureate, Gunter Grass created his writing on Tin Drum staying in Kolkata which eventually won him the Nobel prize. This clearly demonstrate whether you create literature or art, language prowess or artistic skill are not enough, you must feel it and must do it with your heart and mind, where the aura of your passion will blossom in your creation.
One night, I was walking on the Bourbon street and went inside one of my favorite jazz bar to hear piano duet imploded with tubas, trumpets, trombones in the dim light. Suddenly they have asked me to see whether I have any request to play any song. I got nervous and they told me to write the lyrics. I did it on the spot. It was an astonishing sight like a dream, unreal, felt a mysterious impediment. People cheered and applauded and I came out on the street thinking that I am still dreaming. They repeated again the same song and as I was walking past the bar, Mardi Gras parade was marching past me. I was stunned at the sight of a few girls dancing on the street topless masking their faces to stay anonymous. At that moment, I realized, I did not dream, everything was real.
Ideally, I feel like a free man with endless euphoria, being happily lost in the overwhelming New Orleans crowd. I wandered like a sparrow in the rain, but merrily. I felt like a deer stuck in the headlamp, but gleefully. I really felt spiritually connected here. I got immense inspiration and creative energy that made me feel like a budding writer to create some lyrics. I met one local American who was originally from North but lived in New Orleans for a few years before moving to London and Paris. Now he moved back to New Orleans, just because, he felt spiritually connected too, even though Katrina, Gulf oil disaster hit New Orleans. This is the real beauty of New Orleans where future is lurking but the past is nearby.
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