New Orleans is a vessel that holds many wines. No two people see her exactly alike, yet all of us love her unequivocally. She is a mischievous child, a patient parent, a passionate lover, and like any “city of the moon,” she can be a harsh mistress. Her arms are always open to receive kings and welcome paupers; she is a lady of discriminating tastes who laughs at the rules of life while kicking up her glittered heels and snapping her manicured fingers.
America is a melting pot of nationalities that amalgamated to become the United States. New Orleans, on the other hand, is a gumbo: hot, thick, spicy, and delicious. Begin with the flavors of the early French. Add the colorful tomatoes of the Spanish, the spices of the Caribbean, the okra of the Africans, the seasoned sausage of the Germans, the piquant garlic of the Italians and voila! New Orleans food is perfected. As easy as we are, the one thing we do not tolerate is bad food. We don’t even do mediocrity. If it’s not fabulous, leave it alone.
New Orleans is the only city in America that can claim to have created an art form: jazz. French Catholic slave owners — and according to the early French code noir, nearly all slaves owners were French Catholic — allowed their slaves to have a free day on Sunday. French Catholic slaves gathered together in Congo Square to dance, make music, and enjoy socialization. With crude instruments and makeshift drums, the roots of jazz were formed and bent into the sounds of New Orleans music. Ellis Marsalis, the wonderful jazz pianist and patriarch of a family of great musicians says, “In other places culture comes down from on high. In New Orleans, it bubbles up from the streets.” It has bubbled that way since the beginning.
Dancing is also an important part of the New Orleans experience. We are grateful to the French for this joyous aspect of life. The French brought with them a love of music and dancing. The first thing that the French-Canadian explorer Jean Batiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, co-founder of New Orleans along with his brother Iberville, did when he arrived in the area was to name the spot of ground where he landed sixty miles south of New Orleans “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” He quickly realized it was on the eve of Mardi Gras in France. Soon after the city was established, the Bal Masque was introduced, and thus began the tradition of Carnival, where dancing isn’t a must — it’s an absolute.
During the Carnival season in New Orleans, there are about seventy parades that roll through the city and surrounding areas prior to Mardi Gras day. It is truly a spectacle worthy of the title, “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.” The parades are paid for and sponsored by the individual krewes that produce them. All funding is private, and there is no sponsorship or commercialization of Mardi Gras. The citizens and the city create the party and pay for it completely. Everyone is invited to play, dance and have fun from January 6 (Kings Day) through Shrove Tuesday, which is always the day before Ash Wednesday, when the parties stop and sacrificing begins. First and foremost, Carnival is a family event. We are indoctrinated from birth with the “Mardi Gras mentality:” we respect the personal space of everyone else and share the spirit of fun and excitement with others. We are truly unique in that way.
New Orleans is a city of celebration. We commemorate virtually everything from birth to death, baptism to funerals with music, dancing, and festivities. We come into the world ready to party, and we leave it in the same spirit of adventure. Our Jazz Funerals are world renowned, as well they should be. The Second Line is a parade of dancing people who gather to celebrate the life of a departed relative, friend or well-known stranger. Although the latter sounds like an oxymoron, it really isn’t. It could be a person you know of and maybe even admired but never met. You can pay your last respects by joining his/her Second Line.
One of the most loveable aspects of New Orleans is the attitude of acceptance. No one is “peculiar” or “different,” and no one is rejected. Newcomers aren’t merely tolerated; they are welcomed, cheered and applauded. The thousands of visitors who have come since Katrina to help rebuild the city are not only appreciated but treasured. We have come this far in the rebuilding process thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of men, women, and children who have given of themselves tirelessly to invest in the value and worth of New Orleans.
Maybe it’s the river, maybe it’s the moon, maybe it’s voodoo. Whatever it is, there is a magic and a charm about the Crescent City that changes people’s lives. They come here to visit and leave different. The most written-about writer in American literature, William Faulkner came in 1924 declaring himself to be a poet. By the time he left, he never again referred to himself as a poet but as a writer. In the few months spent here, he changed his mind about who he was, which is profound. Tennessee Williams actually changed his own name: he came to New Orleans as Thomas Lanier Williams and very quickly reinvented himself. Profound! The city has a way of touching people’s spirit, affirming life and confirming joy.
Visitors Caveat: New Orleans will get her highly polished fingernails into the sinews of your heart and turn you every way but loose. The good news is that you will love every minute of her. You’ll feel proud that she chose you as her family and happy that you had the soul to say, “Yes!”
New Orleans is Road Scholar’s Destination of the Year for 2018. See our complete collection of learning adventures in the Crescent City.
About the Author:
Clare Beth Pierson is a Road Scholar instructor in New Orleans and has taught literature and creative writing to all levels from third grade elementary through the university graduate level. She has been managing editor of the Tennessee Williams Journal, worked on the editorial staff of The Double Dealer Redux, and served on the executive committee of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. A lifelong resident of New Orleans, she was born there, married there, and raised her three children there.
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