My arrival in New Orleans was more auspicious than anywhere so far: a parting of the heavy rain-clouds let a path of sunlight career beneath the plane and away across Lake Pontchartrain; as we taxied toward the terminal an immense double rainbow arched over the city; the arrival at the terminal itself was to a corridor filled with perky, chipper jazz. All seemed well, which is always a bad thing.
I had come to America with tired, infrequently-aired Spanish, which was dragged out more often than I had imagined necessary. I had some French too, hidden in the recesses of my memory. And, despite being frequently labelled an Australian, a Canadian, or most bizarrely 'European', I came with what I thought would pass here as English. Never though, have I heard before or since the tongue that was spoken on the bus into town from the airport. I knew New Orleans was an odd mix of Acadian, English and American stock, muddled over time with Haitian and African cultures and phrases, but I thought that it would be almost entirely softened by now. Apparently not. There was a girl and her daughter who were speaking, but that is all I could tell you. So far, so un-American.
What else I had heard about New Orleans consisted of Mardi-Gras and Katrina. Apparently New Orleans was a booze-soaked resort town, plagued by mosquitoes and intermittent floods, both of revellers and of water, most recently, famously, and catastrophically, with Katrina. A seedy, bedraggled backwater whose money was made on the back of a carnival of casual nudity (financed by beads), outrageous costumes and antiquated French balconies, the city was a swamp, literally and metaphorically. Crime was rampant, and Katrina made it worse. In New Orleans, you had to be careful. Arriving at the Amtrak Station, I dropped my bag for a moment to let the sweat air off my back; no sooner had it hit the floor than a casual voice behind me asked if I needed some weed, or, with a snort, some coke perhaps? So far so seedy.
While I'm not a fan of Columbia's finest, I do enjoy a tipple, and the atmosphere on Bourbon Street isn't exactly to be knocked, though if anything is going to turn you into a rampant misogynist, it's being on a balcony-nest there at two in the morning, with an armful of beads. It would be rude not to take part, but a small part of me thought that taking part was rather rude as well. However, the city is an odd blend of grimness and genuine enjoyment, from the depravity of Bourbon Street to the sunny weather and its accompanying humidity. You've got to take it together. The city is full of paradoxes; an hotel owner told me that Katrina actually helped the city in one way, as some of the neighbourhoods destroyed contained the ghettos that fed much of New Orleans' rampant crime. Overkill perhaps, but the crime rate has, apparently, noticeably dropped.
Moreover, wander away from the strip in the daytime, pushing all thoughts of Mardi Gras from your mind, and you realise that the architecture is far from a mere artillery range for the producers of 'Girls Gone Wild 13'. The railings and balconies that typify the French Quarter are very, very pretty, and there are enough of them to convince you that this part of town is not some Vegas-style reproduction but a genuine, historic neighbourhood. At the south-eastern corner of the Quarter is the Farmers Market, a recently refurbished area that does sell tourist fodder, from alligator heads to Mardi Gras masks, but also houses some fantastic little food stalls and areas where artists flog their wares in a quiet and altogether civilised manner.
Along the riverfront, still very much in the tourist centre, there are delis hidden amongst the souvenir shops that churn out cracking muffalettas, while nestled behind many of the bars with only one un-happy hour every day there are galleries and shops with a variety of creative art at a variety of silly prices. New Orleans' food is a leap ahead of the rest of The South's, with heavy French influences carrying some of the serious oomph that I found lacking elsewhere. The best example would be the gumbo, served everywhere, containing pretty much everything from oysters to sausage, and settled into a thick, roux-based sauce. It is a stew, but it is thick without being heavy, and it doesn't have any melted cheese in it, which is very odd in this country. New Orleans is different, it really is. You may see a lesbian couple taking their iguana for a walk. Not conventionally American, but not offensive in the least either.
Perhaps then that is the best way to explain New Orleans. The historic areas like the French Quarter and the King William District largely escaped the flood damage that followed Hurricane Katrina. Still, in other areas, there remain crushed sidewalks, vacant houses and posts distorted by unknowable impacts. However, in all likelihood, you will not venture too far into these areas anyway. The fact remains that most of the city's visitors will come for the architecture and food of the historic stereotype, or the booze, beads and boobs of Bourbon Street. Indeed, the bead industry alone is worth $4-5 million a year, according to a recorded man in the Mardi Gras Museum, and you can't really ignore those numbers. There is of course all the Voodoo, the jazz, the Mississippi, the various colonial powers operating over Louisiana and the ensuing slave rebellions, the gumbo-like muddle of Creole culture and language and the socio-political fallout of Katrina. But, with $5 million a year on beads, apparently people only want to know if anyone got their tits out. Yes. Yes they did.