New Orleans has a mythic, magical reputation that mixes a rich, yet sordid, history with a vibrant culture. It evokes the image of Stanley Kowalski passionately, desperately calling for his wife Stella when she locks him out. And spooky, mausoleum-filled graveyards. And scantily-clad women tossing beads from iron balconies on Bourbon Street where revelers in masks play below. And streetcars. And gray Spanish moss haunting the trees.
Today, New Orleans still echoes of the devastating force of Nature, the Ninth Ward, and images of people young and old climbing out of the second story windows of their flooded homes.
Until last week, I had never been there. It was not, in my mind, a place to bring children. Our boys were not with us.
During the first night, as we walked down Bourbon Street, I was disappointed. I had romanticized the French Quarter, but it was trashy. Neon. A shabby street with a chip on its shoulder. People you typically see only at amusement parks happy at night to walk the streets drinking a flat Big Ass Beer through a straw.
It wasn’t until morning that I began to love the city. With the sun shining, the French Quarter came to life. Wonderful antique boutiques and hat shops. Restaurants with beautiful garden patios. Talented musicians playing their trumpets, trombones, drums and guitars in the street to crowds that included children and old men.
I ate shrimp at every meal. I drank good wine. I soaked up the sunshine.
The second night in the city, we discovered the small, crowded music venues on Frenchman’s Street: Snug Harbor, the Spotted Cat. As one band packed up instruments and divided their tips, we moved to the next bar where a second or third band was just beginning to play.
We took a private driving tour of the city and learned about its many neighborhoods and stories buried in the cemetery mausoleums. There was the second wife shunned by society whose towering burial monument says “I am here. We learned facts that those in the car had never heard before. Facts we Googled afterward to make sure were true. Facts that we thought might be fiction about free Negroes with slave quarters, some who owned more than 100 slaves themselves.
New Orleans does have its secrets and sad stories.
But I thought, as we investigated little pieces of history, that my boys would enjoy this learning adventure.
We went on swamp tour that was tremendously fun. The boys would have loved speeding along the top of the water, watching raccoons and six-foot alligators alike munch on marshmallows, spotting turtles sunning themselves on logs.
We went to the World War II Museum, which plans to triple in size in the next few years with the addition of an aircraft wing. It is a gorgeous museum, and the many two-minute oral histories throughout give it an emotional power that gives you a better understanding of what life was like for soldiers, women, and African-Americans before the war started… then during and after. It gives you a greater appreciation of Franklin Roosevelt and his ability to build a military that was only 18th in the world at the start of the world. I didn’t know that. The immense strength of people who came together with a single goal to win, to defend what they had even though it was not much coming out of the Great Depression.
Had my children come on the trip, I could imagine my ten year old listening to the oral histories and asking questions over the next few weeks. He also would have loved the antique weaponry and coin shop in the French Quarter with its many rifles, swords and centuries-old coins. He would have devoured the beignets at Café du Monde… as we did before wandering through the French Market and past the cathedral and Jackson Square.
The Roosevelt Hotel where we stayed had a rooftop pool with a bar. I longed to lounge the day away with a good book soaking in the sun before returning home where the boys’ homework piled up and it was threatening snow before Halloween. But New Orleans would not release me. Too much to do. Too much to see and learn under the living oaks that have witnessed much. Too much shrimp to eat and wine to drink and music.