van nasty

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

in remembrance of the place i call home

new orleans has always been home to me. always. when i moved there for college at 18, sight unseen, it was like breathing for the first time. there are no words to explain how i felt about the city, except to say, i finally found where i knew i belonged.

my father was military and moved alot; sometimes we went with him, but, more often we didnt. my family settled in virginia when i was about 8 years old, and stayed there for the next 10 years. at the time, i loved high school, but it wasnt until i went to college that i realized i had never found what i was looking for, namely, because i didnt realize how desperately i was searching. i was like most teenagers, i imagine: awkward and insecure but full of bravado and naive assumptions about the world and my place in it. college, but more importantly, new orleans, was where i had my limits tested; my assumptions (about myself and others) challenged; and where i finally became comfortable enough in my own skin to grow into the person i have become. i sincerely believe that had i gone anywhere else (namely UVA where my mother desperately wanted me to go so i would be close to home), i would not be the same person i am today. in fact, there is no question in my mind, that new orleans changed me in ways both subtle and dynamic that forever changed the path i was on -- and, i couldn’t be happier about it.

new orleans has a seduction that's all its own and has nothing to do with the "n'awlins" that the tourism board pitches to you, or the macabre image of ghosts and vampires believed to haunt the french quarter. new orleans’ appeal is in its ability to make a life for itself in the face of unbelievable racism, poverty, disease, and destitution. ive lived in cities similar to new orleans: places built around a service and tourism economy with a population split between the very wealthy, and the very poor where their own school system is so ill-equipped and inadequate that everyone (no matter how poor) sends their children to private schools while the city place host to an elite, private university. the difference is, new orleans doesn’t succumb; the people who live there breathe new life into the city each day cultivating an atmosphere of beauty, music and art, and a feeling of community and interdependence. the city is not about perseverance, its about living life to its loudest, fullest extreme and laughing in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

immediately after katrina, i read a brilliant article in the washington post by Ken Ringle called “Star-Crossed Times For the Crescent City” which captured exactly how i felt, and still feel, about the place i call home:

"Climate, Catholicism and voodoo shaped the city, along with Latin fatalism, languorous hedonism and an atmosphere of poignant and elegant decay. It's no accident that Anne Rice lived there to pen her vampire tales.

And yet, inseparable though they may be, New Orleans has always been more about the dance than about the death. Somewhere in the shade of its majestic live oaks and the shadows of its lacework balconies, among the saxophone riffs in its echoing alleys and the soft magenta glow of its crape myrtles at twilight, the flickering ghosts that haunt New Orleans whisper huskily of sweaty, sensual love and the promise of enduring memory. Even the street names whisper promises: Desire, Amour, Abundance; Pleasure, Treasure and Joy.

For those of us lucky enough to have come of age in New Orleans -- even more than for the tourist who falls for her instantly -- the decadent majesty of the city is like a forbidden love. You want desperately to explain the depths of your enchantment, but you know in your heart that others will acknowledge it merely as an easy infatuation or a passing fling. You know they will never awaken at night drunk on the coffee-and-banana fragrance of her docks or the beery sweat of her pre-dawn streets or the humid hum of her streetcar summers. How could they ever understand the depth of your passion?

How could they understand your love for a city in which life itself is an art form and the poorest, least privileged inhabitant a knowledgeable artist?"

many of the things that make new orleans "new orleans" are well known and often cited: pralines, kate chopin, louis armstrong, chicory coffee, beignets, jazz festival, city park, anne rice, a street car named desire, ignatius j. reilly,... i would like to add a few of my own to this famous list:

1). miss grace and the other women of bruff cafeteria who looked after us as if we were baby birds in their care. i will never forget hearing "omelet!" ring out across the cafeteria and everyone giving a blank stare because no one had any idea whose "omelet!" it was.

2). the feeling i got the first time i bought a piece of mignon faget jewelry; a staple of southern women who call themselves new orleanians.

3). studying at the rue de la course on magazine street and leaving smelling like i'd spent the night in a bar.

4). taking my dad to camilla grill and eating pecan waffles and drinking chocolate freezes.

5). having my first sno-ball from plum street out of a take-away chinese container and thinking i was the first to discover this delicious treat. and, returning to plum street for a sno-ball and seeing a sign that read "we open when we want. we close when we want. right now, we closed" and leaving empty handed.

6). a.h., d.l. and i going to jazzfest and befriending our cabbie, lil paul who we immediately put on speed dial. he brought us mcdonalds hot apple pies, and would leave us messages that he was on the “corner of broad street.” d.l. still chats with him occassionally.

7). walking bourbon street with my sister the night of my graduation, drinking gallon sized daiquiris and making fun of tourists. an all-time favorite memory, and an all-time great night.

8). standing in the street outside my dorm freshman year as my mother drove away and crying harder than i have ever cried in my life.

9). going home for jazzfest and sitting at the port of call alone… for about 2 seconds before some drunk revelers asked me to join their party; they bought me dinner and drinks and we laughed like old friends for hours. new orleans is a place where you can go anywhere by yourself, but never be alone. everyone is a friend waiting to be made.

10). meeting the people i still call my best friends who changed my life and helped me find my way. a friend introduced me once by saying we’d grown up together, and the person remarked how nice it was that we had remained friends for so long. we’d only known each other two years, but the statement wouldn’t have been any more true had we known each other our whole lives.


Anonymous TravelGirlDC said...

Ah a washingtonian who understands my love of Mignon Faget! You could walk around NOLA in Tiffany jewelry and no one would ever notice but I get gasps of glee from young girls in the grocery of my tortoise shell bracelet! They run to their mom saying "I want a tortoise shell bracelet like that when I grow up!" It's like MF is born to be recognized by a New Orleans girl!

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

Oooh! I love Mignon Faget! Never had heard of it until right now.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Boutros said...

This is beautiful. I was one of those tourists that fell in love on the spot when I used to visit New Orleans on business. I spent hours trying to figure out how I could possibly move there and change up my life. I was heartbroken by Katrina last year and remain so today. Dream's not dead, though. Maybe someday I'll end up there.

6:38 AM  
Anonymous janet said...

great post. I also have fond memories of Bruff -- and have been wearing my MF necklace with pride all week

7:32 AM  
Blogger harpi di milo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:42 PM  
Blogger harpi di milo said...

thank you so much - i am from new orleans and share you sentiments - i could not have stated them so eqliquently, and hope that those who have never had the experience of visiting, can gleen just a hint of what she is - thanks again

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