By Victoria David
January 6, 2017
« The Spirit of New Orleans, that’s forever ». This one is from Allen Toussaint, singer and author of Yes We Can Can, the song that has inspired Barack Obama’s slogan. I spent five days in New Orleans. Only five days but this quote already resonates with me. This city has something special, an atmosphere that does not leave you indifferent, all the more so if you are French.
In the French Quarter of course, but also outside of it, French names are everywhere, from the names of the cities to those of the streets and shops to the food on countless restaurants’ menus. The most famous café is even called Café du Monde and serves inimitable « French donuts » that they call « beignets », which is the actual French word for it. And, because one cliché is not enough, I had dinner at the Napoléon – a restaurant that serves typical creole food.
Curious about this French presence – and knowing very little about New Orleans -, I took several tours that allowed me to get a sense of the fairly recent and turbulent history of The Big Easy. This is the nickname given to New Orleans. In 1970, James Conaways wrote a novel entitled The Big Easy, after which the name remained popular. Seventeen years later, the eponymous movie starring Dennis Quaid came out. Referring to the laid-back, relaxed atmosphere of the city that contrasts with its Northern neighbor, the Big Apple, this expression is everywhere in the city. The nickname is often seen with a « caption » that says « Laissez les bons temps rouler » (« let the good times roll »), a cajun expression apparently frequently found in Louisiana. I had never heard it before. Although written in French, it is thus not a French expression.
If like me, you want to know where all of this French – I’m already tired of writing the word French – and fleur-de-lis, come from, you have to look back at the history of this town. The biggest city of Louisiana was founded in 1718 by French colonists that gave it the name of Philippe, Duke of Orléans. In 1762, the city became Spanish – although a large part of the population was still of French descent – before being French again in 1800. For three years. In 1803, Napoléon Bonaparte sold New Orleans to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
However, and as surprising as it may be, New Orleans is the city where people speak the least French in Louisiana. Yes, you will hear a lot of French there. From tourists. As a result, New Orleanians have a hard time pronouncing the names of their own streets and events. Actually, no. They gave up. Chartres is now pronounced « charters », and Mardi Gras has become « Mardygra ».
Other than the French, I very much enjoyed the architecture of this incredibly colorful city that sometimes makes you feel like in the Caribbean. In these streets, I could not count how many dogs with sweaters and shops selling sweaters for dogs, which makes sense, I saw.
However, and even though there are countless pink houses, life is not all pink in NOLA – yes, another nickname. Spatial segregation struck me. It’s a segregation that draws a clear line between the poor and the rich, between decaying houses and giant mansions, between the blacks and the whites. One of our guides even told us that his Prom was still a de facto segregated one until only a few years ago. The good times do not roll for everyone in The Big Easy. Katrina hit the city hard. But it hit the poor harder in neighborhoods that were, and are even more so today, totally unprepared to face such an event.
My favorite thing about New Orleans must have been music. Live music is everywhere. In restaurants, in bars, in the street. Jazz makes the city alive and is a living proof of the past of this Southern city.
Of course, with music comes alcohol. American tourists are crazy about one thing there: they can drink alcohol outside. But, surprise, Bourbon street is full of tourists and commercial music, when Frenchmen Street is where the locals go to have a drink and listen to good jazz. Now you know where to go.
Ernie K-Doe said « I’m not sure but I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans . » So am I.