September 18, 2007

A trip to New Orleans

I've struggled a lot with how to write about New Orleans. I feel like Katrina defines so much of what is there now, but it's such an old and spectacular city that I somehow don't want it to be defined only by that awful thing. I keep starting to write, and finding that I want to be weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth, feeling mournful for what this city lost without even understanding what they lost...since I'm not even from here, and pretending that I could have any real sense of it gained in an afternoon feels like it would be demeaning to them. Then I delete everything I write and try to just write about how stunningly beautiful, and interesting and wildly enthralling the place is, and then I realize I'm gushing and delete all of that. The mind numbing thing about New Orleans right now, is that it is both. Sad and happy, devastating and uplifting, thrilling and crushing. Right next to each other will be something repaired and beautiful and old and fantastic right down to its very molecules, and right next to that will be something just as ruined and sad's almost impossible to take ten steps in the city without goggling at one wonder or another while simultaneously having your heart broken. As much as I watch the news and read the papers, I don't think that I had any real sense of what had happened, or the enormous scope of it. In the complete absence of the ability to sort out my reaction to it, and what the right thing to say is,
I've decided just to let it roll. My tour of New Orleans was graciously given by Dez, who also makes an absolutely Kick Ass veggie gumbo.



The French Quarter was stunning beyond all. There was wrought and cast iron everywhere. Buildings with Spanish style architecture are everywhere (which struck me as sort of odd, considering that it's the French Quarter) but of course:


I need to remember what little history I know. Mardi Gras beads hang year round from some of the balconies and trees, and it's like coming upon little sparkling treasures everywhere you look.


We walked (and ate) our way through the streets, hot and steamy with my hair huge and ships going by on the wide Mississippi while we went. I saw a band, made up only of a man with a tuba and a man with an upright bass, playing fantastic jazz while a tarot card reader sorted out peoples destinies feet away. I looked for good sock pictures.


(This is an Alligator, not a crocodile and if you make that mistake you are quickly corrected by every person within earshot.) I laughed and laughed as I came upon balconies dripping with enormous plants that are wee potted things in Toronto.


It's like everything green in New Orleans is on steroids. We went to a very beautiful yarn/ needlepoint shop in the French Quarter, (The Quarter Stitch) and the place was like a jewel box.




Despite the way they wrap up the yarn that you buy like it's your birthday and how tempted I was to buy something just so that I would get a pretty bag, only Dez had a falling down and my virtue remained intact. Nevertheless, that can all really take it out of a girl, and I recovered the best way I ever have.



Coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde, out in the open air with ceiling fans spinning in the heat above us and live street jazz and people laughing and just beside us, the river with boats and ferrys going along. The menu at Cafe du Monde is printed on the side of the napkin box and I'm pretty sure all you can order is Café au lait or black coffee with chickory, and the only question about the beignets is how many. They take your order and bring you your things in about 2 minutes, and the whole shebang cost $7 for the two of us, with a tip.
It was one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had. Ever, and I don't say that lightly. I almost laughed myself stupid when Dez deliberately sweetened her café au lait by tipping some of the sugar from her beignet into it. Very efficient. Cafe du Monde is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but took 2 months to reopen after Katrina.

Then we drove through some other parts of the city. The French Quarter and much of the old city are on high (comparatively) ground and they sustained some minor flooding and significant wind damage. With the occasional exception of a building where the owners didn't have insurance, the insurance hasn't paid out or there is some other big issue,


most of the stuff there is fixed up. I think you can see that the French Quarter is beautiful. As you begin to drive out of the Quarter, the ground begins to slope, ever so slightly, and the amount of damage you see begins to be significant. There are whole communities where they have lost their schools, their stores...all the places that support a community and make it possible for people to live there.




It's a catch 22 for them. The people can't come back (HALF of the population of New Orleans is gone.) if there aren't things like stores, but the stores can't rebuild (even if they have the money) if they aren't going to have any customers.

By the time you get into the 9th ward, where the water was very deep, it starts to look like a third world country.






The incredible thing is that people are living here. These are their homes and they can't afford to move. Most of them didn't have insurance, and if they did, some of them got screwed. Some of them can't afford the repairs so they are doing it themselves, the find the money. Many of them don't have jobs any more, because their places of employment are in the same condition. Beside most of these houses there is a small white FEMA trailer. That's where they are still living, two years later. It's easy to be angry. Two years later thousands of citizens of a superpower country are living like this? I know it's expensive, but it makes you wonder why they aren't cancelling all the gala's at the White House to divert money to these communities until its fixed. I doubt anyone would complain. It's also easy to be impressed...since I cannot believe what enormous work has happened in the last two years to get trucks out of trees and boats out of of roads, and move the mud and the garbage in the streets and put the power and gas back on....and the huge amount of engineering repair that has happened to just get and keep the city dry is impressive alone. Somebody has seriously busted a move in this place. It just seems....stalled.

I found it incredible the way the consequences of the hurricane are viciously unbalanced. Compare these two schools two years after Katrina. The first is a public school in the 9th ward, the second, a private Catholic school in the old part of the city.



Admittedly, the old part took mostly only wind damage and not wind and extensive flooding, but still...the consequences and the way they are divided are unbelievable. To paint it with broad strokes, all the people who are least equipped to cope in this disaster are the ones with the most to cope with. On our way to the bookstore, we saw some of the old and beautiful homes in the garden district. These sit on higher ground and suffered terrible wind damage, but not as much flooding. The wind damage shouldn't be underestimated though, it's tremendous. One old church had its entire spire ripped off. Almost everyone had their roof trashed and their windows blown out. In some cases trees falling did a lot of damage.



For the sake of history it's a lovely thing that these homes weren't taken out, and that the people living in them are affluent enough to have adequate insurance to bring them back. It's stunning through this part of the city. I love the "live oak" trees.


I would find it incredible that there would be an old an beautiful live oak next to a smashed up house. The things are built to last.


Dez pointed out that they grow in a slightly twisted, spiral growth pattern. I didn't get it at first, but she asked me what happens in spinning when you twist fibres. "They get stronger," I said. "Oh....I get it. Holy Crap Dez, are you saying the trees are PLIED?" She was. Nature is a smart cookie. We journeyed on, arriving at the bookstore at almost the last minute (everyone needs a little adrenaline now and then) and I met the Knitters of New Orleans....


Er...sorry about that. I have no idea why, but my camera didn't take the pictures of the crowd. Some weird New Orleans voodoo. It apparently perked up later, and I got a few fantastic ones. (I think I figured out what goes wrong actually, there's a little wheel with settings on the back and if it's between, that's what you get. I think the wheel gets turned while it's kicking around in my bag. I'm onto it now. I hope the knitters can forgive me this time.) It was a small but thoroughly charming crowd. thoroughly. Evidence? You bet.

This is Allie and her brand spanking new knitting tattoo. So new it's still pink.


This is Christina and her knitting tattoo.


This is Christina and Allie laughing because they both thought they would be the only ones with knitting tattoos.


This is Debbie B, saying hi to Ms Too Much Wool.


and this is Sarah, knitting tiny, tiny, teeny tiny socks for preemies.


This is Martha, blaming me for enabling her right into a Kauni Cardigan of her own...


(I'm not sorry either.)



She brought me a little of the fabulous Cafe du monde coffee to make in hotel rooms. I may love her entirely and forever.

This is Dez with a wee New Orleans gift for me.


A squirrel voodoo doll. (I am armed so many ways now. Do not speak to Lime and Violet about this.)
Finally, Dez, fulfilling her role as hat lady,


seen here with the charming Vanessa who gave me a ride back to the hotel, which was incredibly fortunate, since as we were driving along...we saw this. Vanessa was beside herself, saying that these are rare and wondrous.


It's a bottle tree. They are an African idea, transported to the American south with the slaves, and it's a remarkable and beautiful thing. It's in the front yard of an ordinary house in an middle class neighbourhood. Some of the houses are repaired, some are still trashed, stalled without insurance to fix their homes. Some of the people got their insurance money but are waiting to see if the community comes back before they rebuild. Many people, moved out of their modern 3 and 4 bedroom homes are living in tiny trailers next to their homes. These people are. You can see their unused home on the left of the bottle tree and the trailer on the right.


Here they are, living in a trashed neighbourhood with their trashed house and this crude little trailer and half of the people they know have moved away and things sort of suck, and what do they do? A bottle tree. Bottles are hung in a dead tree, along with other sparklies. Bad spirits and luck are attracted to the bottles, go in, and can't get out. When the wind blows across the bottle tops you can hear them, but they are stuck. It's meant to improve things for you.

It's hopefulness, and I think it's really something remarkable that people who lost everything two years ago and don't have it back yet, would come out of this cruddy trailer and make something this beautiful in the hopes of improving their lot. There's a small sign on the tree that reads "rebirth".


I loved it. I wonder if they are knitters?

Posted by Stephanie at September 18, 2007 5:52 PM