Bati Bleki January 6th, 2014

HAPPY NEW YEAR. At the end of an action-packed 2013, two of my friends, Jeff Pinkerton and Michael Marsh,  invited me to join them in New Orleans for New Year. They have been going there for years, it’s a great experience, they promised, and I could just move in with them, into the extra bedroom; they are staying with dear friends, they explained. Really?! Nah. I was incredulous. I could stay with you?! At friends, and miss the spectacular Aruba-style celebration?  But then I remembered I vowed to have more fun, and embrace opportunities. I did make a new year’s resolution eons ago, that if someone sincerely invites me on a trip, I would go. True to that old and wise decision, which by the way delivered me to many interesting places over the past decade, I decided to cash in my reward miles on American Airlines and go. We’re all familiar with the New Orleans name from that disastrous hurricane in 2005, and the crazy scenes from the Mercedes Benz Super Dome, as viewed on TV. In the past years I have enjoyed Treme on HBO, off and on, admittedly, I missed a few episodes. So off I go, in sweaters and boots, this was going to be a cool vacation, and my second time in the Crescent City. As it turned out our magnificent hosts, Laura and Ron Blackburn, two oversize dogs, two cats and two parrots, live in a three-story historic mansion in the French Quarter and I settled into their opulently-decorated top-floor, three-room suite, having climbed 47 narrow wooden-stairs to get there. Luckily Jeff carried my suitcase!  I also got plenty of exercise going up and down that staircase during the week, alas, food in New Orleans is so good and calorific, no stairway can possibly counteract the effect of butter, sugar, cream and liquor, consumed in just five days in the city nicknamed NOLA.  The French Quarter is an adult playground, and because the clever French built their neighborhood on a slightly raised hill, it was the only area almost untouched by Katrina’s flood water. The rest of the city, as we know, lies below sea level, and flying in it looks like it is suspended mid-swamp, rising from bayous and waterways. I turned down the offer to go on organized Swamp Tours, Ghost and Haunted House Tours, Cemetery Tours and Plantation Tours in favor of just walking around the Vieux Carré, and stopping at the Creole and Cajun inspired restaurants. Yes, there is a lot to do in New Orleans, including an impressive and popular National WWII Museum, where we watched Beyond All Boundaries, a 4D journey through the “war that changed the world” narrated by executive producer Tom Hanks. At Arnaud’s, off Bourbon Street, serving Creole fish cakes with sauce remoulade since 1918, we were serenaded by a strolling Dixieland trio, playing live jazz classics. I wanted to take them home with me. At Muriel’s on Jackson Square I loved the Seafood Bayoubaise, enough to feed three hungry people. Cafe Amelie, has scrumptious Cochon de Lait sandwiches. Everything tasted better with a French name. On New Year’s Eve we congregated at the charming Grapevine Restaurant on the corner of Royal Street. Thank you Ron for dinner, it was exceptional! At midnight, we watched the great fireworks display from the street. It was drizzling. The sky was eerie -smoky-hazy-misty. The shells exploded behind the St Louis Cathedral, at the end of the street, lighting the night red. In the garden behind the cathedral, stands a statue of Jesus, affectionately nicknamed “touchdown Jesus” because of the outstretched arms of the figure. In my pictures, the statue appears giant with a flaming celestial halo as its backdrop, a truly unforgettable sight! In between fancy restaurants we had overstuffed Shrimp & Oyster Po-Boy sandwiches, beignets at the world famous Cafe du Monde, with lines wrapping twice around the corner and Pecan Pralines, everyday, from a candy factory Michael swore was the best in the universe!  We sipped cocktails at the swanky bar of the Ritz-Carlton and at Harry’s Corner Bar, a dive, with equal enthusiasm. Food & beverage in New Orleans is a serious business and saturation or no saturation, the good places enjoy long lines of people snaking around them. They all tell a fun story, with historical references — Napoleon, almost stayed here; the mother of Princess Alice lived there — most serve generous portions of really great products, with a secret ingredient, which for lack of other descriptions I decided to call Flair!  Music is everywhere and the music-makers on the street entertain in a great variety of sounds, new to my ears, but wonderful: Zydeco with rubboards and spoons, French-inspired Cajun Country and Creole Delta Blues, which has African-American roots. It’s all a big Jambalaya of tunes, all ear pleasing. The musicians sit in the street and just give it away. OK, not really, they remind you to tip them. We also saw the show of a local celebrity, the last remaining burlesque performer, Chris Owens, an 81 year old singer/entertainer, who owns a club on Bourbon street. Yes, you heard me right, the 81 year old icon, rocks.  Shopping?  We found extensive selections for impulsive shoppers, jewelry, antiques, vintage bric-a-brac, paintings, art objects, junk and knick-knacks. I sauntered through entire stores dedicated to hot-sauces and/or sweets and/or masks and beads, and finally bought mine quintessentially, and wholesale, at Jefferson Variety Store –  I didn’t have to bare my breasts there. For a glimpse into the life of ordinary people in the city, my legendary tour guide Laura Blackburn took me through food markets and Wal-Mart. Wow, America is the land of plenty! Laura has a cute store in the French Quarter, Jazzy Nola, on Toulouse St., stop by to say hello to Carrie her daughter. Get a hand crafted Voodoo doll to go, complete with needles, they come in handy, and they’re made by no other than Laura, true, she is an excellent artist.