Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

I miss New Orleans.  I imagine I am one of millions, including the many who had to leave before, during, or after Katrina and were never able to go back.  I have only been there twice, during two consecutive Easter weekends, but it is my favorite city in the world (edging out even Portland, Oregon, which is a brilliant, brilliant place that I still adore).  Though I can never hope to understand New Orleans (no matter how many documentaries I watch or how thoughtfully I follow the HBO series Treme),  I felt almost instantly the first day I was there that New Orleans understood me.  That it understands everybody, really, and that everybody is welcome there– writers and poets and musicians and chefs and artists of course but also drag queens and pirates and science fiction fans and voodoo priestesses and prophets.  

Even with all of the coverage the city received after Katrina,  I wonder if most people really understand how important New Orleans is in terms of shaping American culture.  Congo Square in New Orleans was one of the only places in 18th century America  where African slaves were allowed to play their music, sing, and dance on the Sundays that they had free in the tradition of Spanish and French colonialism (as opposed to English colonialism). Because of this weekly event, where crowds of 600 or more slaves would gather and townspeople would come to watch the dancing and listen to the music, New Orleans became rich with the musical and cultural traditions of Africa and the Caribbean.  Congo Square is thus said to be the birthplace of jazz (and perhaps, even  of rock and roll).

New Orleans doesn’t feel like any other American city, though.  Many people say that it feels either European or Caribbean, which makes perfect sense given its history and geography.  It’s special.  And fragile.  It takes in a rich gumbo of cultures and peoples, simmers everything over a tropical heat in Mississippi Delta mud, and turns it all into a culture that soaks itself, swims, and proudly parades, dripping, in gorgeous food and art and music.  

The second time I left, I distinctly remember a great sadness growing in me as the taxi zoomed me to the airport and away from this magical, funky place.  It made no sense to already miss something I barely knew, especially so strongly.  But I’ve come to understand that visiting New Orleans  is like touching the heart of humanity– the richest, ripest, deepest, sweetest scariest part.  Like falling in love with the only person who really, truly gets you.  I know I’ll spend the rest of my life missing it, going back, falling in love again, tearing myself away again, missing it, and then trying to get back again.  

Have you been?  You should go.  They need you there.  And they don’t mind sharing, so long as you come with respect and with love.

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2 Responses to Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

  1. brungardtk says:

    I really enjoyed reading all the information you provided about New Orleans. I understand your feeling – I know what it is like to miss a place so badly, and how that feeling can surprise you because this place is not home.

  2. Richard Louth says:

    Susan: I really enjoyed seeing what you had to say about New Orleans. I just spent 6 days there ( four of them while the French Quarter Festival was going on). Even though the dozens of free music stages and great food made the Festival special, it was the people, too–everybody laid back, enjoying themselves, filling the streets. And I don’t really need a Festival in the Quarter to make it a place I miss. When I’m not there, I miss hearing the calliope on the Natchez at 2:30 when I am sitting in my courtyard, or the sound of mules’ hooves on the street as I sit in my apartment. The charisma of a good waiter or bartender. The smell of garlic pumping out of Irene’s kitche at the corner of St. Philip and Chartres. I could go on and on. The good thing is, wherever you go, you take New Orleans with you (sort of like Hemingway said of Paris). There aren’t many cities you can say that of. Richard Louth

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