When Amtrak asked us to do a Honeymoon Giveaway with one of the destinations being New Orleans, they asked us if we’d mind spending a weekend in The Crescent City, to write about it. Would we? Ha! New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world, so I thought that would be just fine, thanks. Plus, I wanted to remind y’all that putting your honeymoon dollars to work in NOLA’s ongoing recovery was a brillant choice… not to mention eloping in the city (they just put in a wedding chapel in the Quarter, if you’re into that). And then, thanks to Amtrak, I was able to take Maddie along with me, which turned a good weekend into something great. Which isn’t to say that this post is sponsored. It’s totally not. In fact, we paid our own way in the city, so if this post is sponsored by anyone, it’s sponsored by me (the best kind of post).
So! We agreed to go to New Orleans, but we had no idea what was in store. It started on the train to Atlanta, when our porter, a NOLA native, remarked that we were lucky to be in town for Krewe Du Vieux. Now. As a person who loves New Orleans (and who watches Treme. You watch Treme, right?) my whole face lit up with wonder the minute she said that. We were going to be in town for the first parade of the Mardi Gras season? The local, racy, super ironic one? I felt like the universe was raining blessings on my head. But then it kept getting better, in totally surprising ways. Claire (who you remember from her post about caring for her nieces during her first year of marriage) invited us to hang out with her family, and the girls, over a Sunday morning brunch. Then we realized it was Super Bowl Sunday, which meant that we were presented with an enormous bucket of free crawfish when we went out to dinner, and that when we went to Preservation Hall, it was the emptiest I’ve ever seen it. So we ended the weekend just hanging out with forty other people and listening to legendary jazz musicians. You know, whatever, nothing doing.
And then, there was the joy of watching Maddie discover the city for the first time. But I’ll let her tell you about that.
I’ll tell you the truth, I was prepared to be disappointed by New Orleans. Like my experiences with Paris and New York City, I expected New Orleans to be a place that’s great to live in, but which fails to live up to reputation over the course of a mini-getaway (or which requires a significant amount of money and access to truly take advantage of during such a short stay.)
Then I stepped off the train. And it smelled like my childhood vacations to Florida, charged with hot damp air and a soft breeze. I looked around and I saw people dressed like me, which is a rare occasion (with leopard jackets and zebra suitcases, oh my!) And as I scanned my surroundings I slowly realized that this might be a place where I would not only enjoy a visit, but perhaps even want to live.
On the way to our hotel, I kept asking Meg “How have I never heard of this place before?!” and she kept looking at me like I’d failed elementary school geography or something. But of course I’d heard of it. I just wanted to know why nobody told me that this is where I belong.
But I can’t give all the credit to the city itself. My tour guide was remarkable. Keeping us off the beaten path, Meg ensured that we were enveloped by the neighborhoods of New Orleans, so that rather than arriving as outsiders, we quickly became wrapped in the fabric of the city. Which, really? Is what it’s all about.
On our first night in New Orleans, after a day-long train ride, Meg took me to Praline Connection for fried chicken, pralines and sweet tea (yeah, I’m jealous of my former self even as I’m writing this). As we were finishing our meal, a band of young jazz musicians set up shop on the corner in front of the restaurant and began playing a serious brass band set. Meg and I threw money down on the table and ran outside to catch the action.
At first, the crowd listening stood mostly still while hesitantly moving their feet. Then they began to sway. And before long, they were dancing. And then Meg and I were dancing. Or at least, I was swaying and doing the hip-tap thing which are my cumulative dance moves when Michael isn’t around, and Meg was dancing. I remember looking over and seeing a group of jocks in their late-20s moving like Shakira, and a young couple dancing with progressively less restraint as each song came to an end.
I don’t know how to express the sentiment of that moment any other way than that I thought to myself, “This is what living should feel like.” I mean, within an hour of arriving in New Orleans, I was eating food that went straight past my lips and into my soul and I was surrounded by a hundred people who had collectively agreed that they didn’t care if they looked stupid doing it, they were going to dancing like no one was watching.
I don’t know about you, but that is more than I could hope for in a honeymoon. That’s what I’m looking for out of life, and New Orleans offered it up to me without question before we’d even had a chance to properly introduce ourselves to each other. And maybe that’s southern hospitality. Or maybe it’s what I really suppose: that New Orleans is actually the most romantic city in the world.
But for me, the real joy of the trip, the real lightbulb moment, came at the end. During the brunch with Claire and her nieces, it came up that her five-year-old-niece sings songs of her own composing, and likes an audience. I also (of course) sang songs of my own composing at five, so I tried to get her to sing one. She was feeling shy, so I thought she might feel better if I stood up on my chair and sang a small song about the chickens in the brunch garden (yeah, I just typed that) for her. So I did, and then we all had King Cake. Afterwards, Claire emailed me :
After we left Slim Goodies, Five-Year-Old Niece says, “I didn’t know grown ups could stand up on chairs in public and sing their own songs.” I laughed and asked “Why not?” ”Well, usually adult ladies just like to sit around and talk in their inside voices. But not her.” So thanks for showing her that women can stand up and sing their own songs in public.
And then I realized that it had taken a five-year-old girl (who are always the wisest) to explain the whole book tour to me. The book tour has been about me singing my own song in public, and all of us talking about how we each have a song to sing, so we need to clamber onto our chairs and get warbling. It just took a small girl and New Orleans to point that out to me.
Because that’s how New Orleans does. Always.
P.S. Maddie has made me promise that if the winner of the Amtrak Honeymoon Giveaway chooses New Orleans as their destination, I will give them the Meg Keene New Orleans Itinerary (TM) if they request it. It will involve a lot of eating and music, so you know.
Photos by: Maddie of Hart & Sol West