Saturday, May 29, 2010

avant la lettre - the U.S. chronicles ep.03

let the good times roll (or whatever may be rolling instead)

Last week's post had two striking characteristics, both beginning with a L : it came Late and it was Long. Lery Lery Late; Lery Lery Long. So today, I'm gonna try to write a S post: Short and on Schedule. Hey! I just said I was gonna TRY, okay? Sure? Okay, let's go!

"we serve REAL food": most convincing statement EVER!
After a pretty long day of road kills along highway 59 South, a late lunch at Tracy's trucks' kitchen "we serve REAL food" (!!!) and a very very huge bridge over troubled waters, we got the welcome of a beautiful orange and pink sunset as we entered New Orleans, Louisiana. But you already knew about thatWe made our way through a light traffic on I-10 West, then I-90 West, then South Claiborne Ave, until this lovely neighborhood they call Uptown. It’s interesting how their concepts of Up- and Down- town, of South and North or East and West are a bit different from the conventional ones in the rest of the world... something to do with the non-metric system, maybe? But it doesn't really matter: one has to get used to it and it's no big deal after all.

We drove slowly along (dirty) dozens (brass band) of similar blocks of lovely little wooden houses painted in bright colors, each one with a thin stripe of lawn and a bunch of stairs climbing to a porch with rocking chairs and plants. The lazy cats and rusty cars peacefully share the street in front of every house. A couple of odd oil lamps (mostly some fake, modern electric devices mimicking the burning of a noon oil lamp) bizarrely hung on each side of the front doors, invariably turned on all day and night. Probably some sort of friendly welcome to some possible visitor. My guess... Their guest? So, in a comfortable space the cats seemed to have kept vacant just for us, we parked the car right in front of Rachel's house. She was our first Couchsurfer in town and was supposed to be waiting for us for dinner. She had this lovely little home, furnished with taste and many plants, the walls painted in surprisingly nice and unexpected colors, different for each room: chocolate and beige in the living-room, bright lime green in her room, salmon-ish in the guestroom. Can't seem to remember which color was the kitchen, though... And since you have to cross both rooms to go from the living to the kitchen, if you run a little it's like a rainbow on your retina and on the whole, it's a pretty cozy, warm and welcoming atmosphere. After a warm CS style welcome and the classic questions "Where you from? First time in the US? Oh really? How do you like it so far? And exactly, what is it you do for a living? How long you been on CS?", we cooked together (delicious tulapia in homemade marinade with quinoa and raisins) and spent half the night chatting with her and her boyfriend Jeme, a charming, hilarious and goofily brilliant mathematician and computer geek who happened to be our next CS host's flatmate! Not only is the world not so big, but it is also really small! Anyway...
Nola's Uptown neighbourhood: mainly black and blue - and quite green, too! 
Rachel and Jeme both gave us a lot of ideas and tips to discover the city, some what-to-do, many where-to-go, many where-and-what-to-eat, plus thousands of anecdotes about computers, maths, software, Microsoft, FB and the internet in general... Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady probably hired him as a scientific/geek adviser and consultant when they started to write The big bang theory - and if they didn't, well they should have! So with all this written down in notebooks and flying post-its, we left Rachel's the next morning and took a street car - those old-fashioned rusty tramways whose slow motion and ringing bell seem to give the pace to the wandering tourists and crowds of street musicians. For New Orleans seems to be a city of tourists and street musicians. Got down in the French Quarter, had a coffee and some French beignets at famous Café du monde, a local equivalent of Parisian brasserie Lip or Globe, or Café Zurich in Barcelona, while listening to a small fanfare playing the very standards with an austere snare and mid-tom, trumpet, trombone and this bass brass thing I call a tuba and they call something else (sousa-what?). Anyway... Along the streets, everything are artists’ paintings of jazz musicians and caricatures in the plus pure tradition de Montmartre and Las Ramblas.
New Orleans' favorites: spicy, tasty, cajun, tiny and... furry bottles.

The tourist industry is a global plague and no economically-challenged area seem to have developed any kind of immune response to it: everybody’s selling pseudo crafts and souvenirs, tee-shirts, caps and hats, crap jewelry and all the key holders and magnets you can imagine (Yes Edu: I got one for your fridge! ;p). This and all the cajun, creole, spicy, acid, bitter, sweet, super strong, tahiti, cuban, alligator, chili and French bottled sauces. Because gastronomy, and street gastronomy especially, is a market too: you’ll find no store without cooking books, cooking chefs, cooking stuff and cooking lessons. Did somebody just scream Chiang Mai? Well, it’s same same but... different! The architecture in the French Quarter - and in the rest of (down- and up-) town - had this je-ne-sais-quoi-de-désuet (already said so, right?) and somehow decadent, vieillot but with the charme d'antanThe wooden and colorful tiny shop houses reminded me of old colonial Melacca and Georgetown and had me back in Malaysia for a moment... Many art galleries, many antiquités and thrift stores, many many restaurants and bars and cafés with the local spécialités: alligator meat balls, po' boyz fried oyster sandwiches*, fried shrimps with onion rings and the king of all Nola’s food : the gumbo. Gumbo is a kind of fish and seafood soup with rice, made from a roux brun with alcohol, butter and shrimps. The result is surprisingly dark, brown and hot, with a petit air de déja vu for anyone who ever experienced a decent paella.

one of the many (dirty) dozen brass (bands?) thrift shops.
But food is not the only exotic and refreshing thing around. The language is, too! The people we met were extremely nice, smiling and friendly, and they spoke a delicious and singing americano del sur, with a lot of grammar and lexical adaptations from the French cajun and creole. Now, what do you call a pot-pourriWe spent the evening around the French Quarter, trying to get lost in Bourbon St., Toulouse St., Chartres St. or Bordeaux St.. We met and spent a while toalking with a nice old hippy who looked quite like Janis Joplin behind her rounded sunglasses. She had long grey hair, was in her early seventies and happened to be almost totally blind. She told us about how Nola was being abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the country; about how successive governments - including Obama's despite of his promises - were doing nothing at all for them; about how NGOs, volunteers and a bunch of true New Orleans lovers were the only reason why the city still stood on her feet -or better said on her knees. She told us about how life was getting increasingly difficult and how expensive the bills had been over the past few years: people not recovering yet after Kathrina, many of them leaving the city to go anywhere else, may houses, streets and blocks abandoned and closed by the authorities for safety purposes, that were unlikely to be ever given back to the population. And finally, the gigantic, tragic, oil spill in the gulf of Mexico: I wonder whether you heard about that in Europe? It began about the exact time I landed in the U.S. and is getting worse and worse everyday. She insisted on how it was threatening the fragile ecosystems of the marshes and swamps. And she emphasized on how the hurricane season was already on its way again... She left us a bit confused and depressed: More concerned than we were before about the oil spill, too. We don't travel to just have fun and drink cheap booze on the beach, right? Or do we? Do we pay to go to Disneyland and believe the world is doing alright?

Kathrina paradox: whole blocks devastated and.eight philanthropic architects' houses funded by... Brad Piiit!
After checking for the expensive fruits and vegetables, we decided not to do the groceries - to speak local - at the French market. We then waited for the sunset wandering along the Mississippi bank, hoping to see if, like Ike and Tina used to sing, big wheels kept on turning, or Proud Mary kept on burning... We began the night in Frenchmen St., where we had some delicious appetizers at Adolfo's, a tiny italian restaurant on the first floor of an old little street house. We then enjoyed a swing concert at the Spotted Cat, a music bar just as tiny as the restaurant. It was crowded and a few euphoric couples even managed to dance in the few square feet between the tables and the door. Went back walking until a miraculous streetcar picked us, et là pour le coup, ce fut plutôt du Swing low sweet charriot, coming for to carry me home...
New Orleans' favorites (bis): some cool catz swingin' at the Spotted Cat.
At home, we found Jeme and Rachel talking in the living-room, in those little hours, with tea and a fan. We joined them for a while and of course, helped them finish the tea.The next day, took the car to a peripheral neighborhood, far East. One of the most devastated by the hurricane, where under 25% of the people were still living in their houses. We were supposed to meet a dude called Floppy, friend of this guy named Grumbles (or Grumpers. or was he called Flumbers?) we had met at Climate Ground Zero in West Virginia. For the last 20 years, Floppy had been running an ancient school bus transformed in a nomadic kitchen where he prepared and served food for anybody who needed to eat. In the post-Kathrina disaster, he parked his "Everybody's Kitchen" in the heart of falling apart New Orleans and has been running it there since that day. A small group of vounteers take their morning or afternoon 6 hour shifts to cook and serve free warm meals 5 days a week in a few missions in Nola. Due to an approximate list of instructions to get there and a bridge closed for works, we arrived late for cooking but just on time to wash the huge pans and faitouts, load the pickup and go serve lunch downtown. After running out of chili and rice, we headed back to the bus to do the dishes, we had a coffee with the whole team and went with them to a farmers' community organic garden to leave the compost of the week. The school bus was totally green: solar panels on the roof, two 90 gallon tanks for white and grey waters, fully equipment to store and recycle waste and garbage... Plus, it's painted in a fancy bright orange, which adds to the magic! A beautiful volunteer project, run by an incredibly peaceful and humble, committed cook/driver/manager.

introducing Everybody's kitchen: the green orange magic school bus and kitchen on wheels, serving meals for the hungry 5 days a week!

Later that evening, we drove back to Jeme's place where we met his flatmates before taking bicycles to go together to a small park by the river. There, we flew kites between a railroad track and the bank of the Mississippi until sunset. Blue, red and golden skies, the bell of the old rail crossing road, the trees, the fat, inquisitive squirrels and the acute, buzzing vibration of the nervous kites in the night breeze coming up from the greasy water... Had a late dinner at Jacques Imo's, one of the best restaurants in town (and for a reason!) with an impressive menu of fusion Cajun and creative food. Tried the quiche with alligator sausage and shrimps, the young spinach salad with fried oysters* (again?), the catfish in Cajun sauce with sweet potato fries and the vegetarian delight, sort of a Thai green veggies curry served with smoked cabbage and greens. Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!

"yellow is the colour", hope B. Wesseltoft forgives me, is perfect for a rainy day.
Next morning, under a light rain which soon turned into a flood as the day went on, we took the car to go and visit the Cajun country and bayous, on our way to Lafayette. Nothing but marshes and swamps on both sides of the road, under this grey humid pressure cooker weather. We had lunch in front of the gulf of Mexico, staring at the shrimp fisher boats smoking their way in and out the pier. Huge heavy bridges like dinosaur skeletons over the rivers; gigantic rusty cargoes and tankers whose paint hardly keeps the steel sheets together; nineteenth century factories and plants, hollow and grey as the skies; and every now and then, some lovely little towns with Hispano-French names evoking times long gone. We finally didn't make it to Lafayette nor to Baton Rouge because of the rain, which got really wild and crazy. We u-turned and headed back home, passing through the old abandoned houses and cabins of some cotton plantations, remembering pages of our not-so-distant history and heritage, the struggle of generations for their freedom, then for their civil rights. The South is a beautiful and, as far as we could say, peaceful place. But there are memories that can be touched from every other curve of the road, asleep and crystallized over the landscape; and need to be always remembered. After a warm shower and with dry clothes on, we had another nice night at home with Jeme and Rachel, plus Casey, Rob and Nina, the other flatmates who happened to be all three brothers and sister. Had dinner all together then played games, two of which I'll take back home to renew the fever and passion of the Jungle Speed nights!

stormy weather, ruins, no man's lands and rusty stuff: the vrai visage of Louisiana? at least, the most photogenic!

On Sunday morning, Laura got a call from home and a family (un)expected issue called her to come back to New York right away. Too long a ride to do alone in a car: we packed everything, said goodbye to our New Orleans new friends and got on the road: 32 hours, 1.300 miles later and a lot of take-away coffees with milk, we were in New-York, where she'd stay for the following week or so. Took a night silver greyhound bus to Montreal yesterday and here I am, Wednesday at noon, in charming french speaking (free) Quebec!
Well, that's all folks!
Take care.
Lots of love from Montreal!


*just a word about the po' boyz fryed oystaz sandwich and fryed oytaz in general: I tried those as a New Orleans must-do, because I generally try what can be tried (without jeopardizing my own health or negatively impacting the place I'm visiting). BUT I admit I don't see the point to deep fry a oyster - which is basically sea water - until there's nothing left but the salty oyster's soul buried in golden flour and egg. I always considered oysters as the only accepted AND chic way to swallow snot in society...

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