You think you know New Orleans. You’ve done your research before arriving. You know what you want to see, what you want to do, what food you want to eat, what drinks you want to order, etc. You think you know the neighborhoods, how the city is laid out, where the streetcar goes, how to navigate the city, uptown, downtown, riverside, lakeside. You’ve looked at pictures, made your plans, made reservations, scheduled tours, read the archives of this blog, and then you went and read the archives of our former blog. Good call with that last move, mon ami. You’re all set, right? Maybe you are. In many ways, that New Orleans you expect, that New Orleans is pure imagination.
New Orleans is not really a paradise.
Let me start again. New Orleans is a paradise, but it’s not a fairy tale. It is a real city, a city full of blood, sweat, toil, and tears, and lots of them. People live here. This isn’t a theme park. If all that people who live here did was get drunk and wander up and down Bourbon Street, there wouldn’t be much getting done here. What about Frenchmen Street? Cut it out. It’s the same thing with a better reputation.
Ask me how many times I’ve been inside The Spotted Cat compared to the number of times I’ve walked past The Spotted Cat. I’ve got nothing against The Spotted Cat, but when I go to a bar to listen to music, I like to sit down, enjoy my drink and the show, and not be disturbed by a bachelorette party from Spigot, Nebraska who are in their cups and decide they want to flirt, now that they’re out of Spigot, with a bunch of frat boys from the State University of Preprinted Diplomas.
That’s me. Everyone knows The Spotted Cat. Going there is a Frenchmen Street rite of passage. It’s like going to Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. It’s like having a hurricane (a kind of drink, not the storm) at Pat O’Brian’s. When someone tells me they knocked back a couple of beverages in the courtyard at “Patty O’s,” I always ask them how they liked it. “Awesome,” “Life affirming,” or “Memorable,” have never numbered in the responses I’ve collected so far.
I read a lot about how Frenchmen Street is more authentic than Bourbon Street. The New Orleans No Name Club keeps a mojoscope hanging on the wall in our lobby, but we don’t own an authenticity meter. I will say that you will probably see more New Orleanians who aren’t employed in the service industry on Frenchmen Street than you’ll see on Bourbon Street, but that hurdle is set pretty low. Very, very, very, very, very few people you see walking on Bourbon Street, and enjoying themselves people-watching, live in New Orleans. The number is slightly higher on Frenchmen Street during any season, but I never run into anyone I know on Frenchmen, either. There are only very, very few locals on Frenchmen Street looking to enjoy New Orleans culture. Why? Because New Orleans culture is all around us. You don’t need to be pointed in a direction to find it. If you’re in Orleans Parish, New Orleans culture is where you’re at.
Where do I run into the people I know if I don’t see them on Bourbon or Frenchmen Streets? This is the innkeeper’s dilemma. Luckily, it’s only an innkeeper’s dilemma, which means it’s small beer in the scheme of things. La Belle Esplanade is only a five-suite boutique experience inn in New Orleans. We only have a maximum of ten people (five couples) at a time staying with us. When we recommend local places to our guests it has a minimal impact on those establishments. They appreciate the business, but they aren’t overwhelmed by bachelorette and frat parties. If the concierges at the big hotels send people to the places that New Orleanians go to, those places would be, well, like the places on Frenchmen and Bourbon Streets. What are you looking for, exactly?
Here are a couple of true statements. People in New Orleans don’t all play the trumpet, the saxophone, or any other musical instrument. People in New Orleans do dance like nobody is watching, but they don’t do it when they’re walking down the street. You will probably not see a jazz funeral while you are visiting New Orleans. You may see a second line parade, but that is a different thing and it usually only happens on Sundays. People in New Orleans eat more than red beans and rice, shrimp po’ boys, and crawfish; we have more balanced diets.
People ask me, “How can you eat like this all the time?” Answer: I don’t. I’m not on vacation. I don’t eat overstuffed fried oyster po’ boys every day for lunch.
“Hey, hey! What about Laissez les bon temps rouler?” you ask. Oh, the good times roll in New Orleans, I can attest to that. They roll every day in every way. New Orleans is like nowhere else on earth. The thing is, if I can try to put a fine point on the matter, people who live in New Orleans go about their lives with a special sensibility that informs everything they do. They have a different perspective. Convivialtiy is a cardinal virtue. Every stranger is a friend we haven’t yet met. This is a city of neighborhoods and traditions that bind the place comfortably tightly in a weave so easy that everyone knows they belong here. If they didn’t, they would live somewhere else. You either get New Orleans, or you don’t. Live in New Orleans long enough and you can’t live anywhere else. You’ll be spoiled for the rest of the world but you’ll be just ripe enough for New Orleans.
Come to New Orleans with preconceived notions. The stereotypes exist for a reason. There is more to New Orleans than meets the travel guide writer’s eye. Once you get here, and you start to feel the city in the round, once you start to interact with its citizens, once you get a taste of what New Orleanians really eat (the food here is the best), after you sip a real New Orleans cocktail (and people have cocktails for lunch here), once New Orleans soaks in through your pores and once you get outside the French Quarter and wherever else you HAVE to see, you’ll find yourself in another world, a better place. It isn’t pure imagination. It’s also bricks and mortar, potholed boulevards, abandoned buildings, homes that need a coat of paint, empty plastic bags plastered between tree roots after a thunderstorm, grease-stained sandwich wrappers tumbling down the street, panhandlers at major intersections, life, glorious life all around as people make their way to and fro from one place to the next, going about their business which is no business of yours. You’ll be a witness to it all and you’ll be a part of the grand cityscape. Welcome to New Orleans, mon ami, bon ami.
When you are in New Orleans, you’re in a special place. Whatever you do, make the most of it. You’re on vacation. Go where you want. See what you want. Eat what you want. Drink what you want. Let your best intuition be your guide. Dance like nobody is watching. You’ll feel at home in New Orleans. You will be at home in New Orleans. Home is where you are welcome. Welcome to New Orleans, mes amis.
While you’re here, we hope you’ll stay at La Belle Esplanade. Check to see if we have a suite available at the top of this page for the time you are looking to visit our fair city. We will love meeting you. A stranger is a friend we haven’t yet met. We only have five suites, so we tend to fill up early. What are waiting for? New Orleans is pure imagination but it’s more than that, too. It’s much, much, much, much, much more. You’ll see for yourself.
À votre santé,
La Belle Esplanade
…where a vacation is making a temporary home in an exotic place.
August 30, 2016: No rain for three days. The water level in our fountain in the back garden is getting low. I’m going to fill it tomorrow—a sure guarantee it will rain as soon as I’m done!