It’s been just over 24 hours in New Orleans and we’ve certainly made the most of each one.
After a leisurely New Year’s Day in Waverly, Alabama, we had decided to drive to Mobile and spend the night there before continuing to New Orleans in the morning, because we thought it would be fun to actually see the bayou. But when we arrived in Mobile during a torrential downpour (our windshield wipers getting stuck was a particularly unpleasant moment), we weren’t so sure anymore. It was only 8 pm, but the town was eerily quiet. The driving was weird, with lanes suddenly changing directions. And the sheer darkness made us feel lucky we live in a land of cheap electricity and (somewhat) effective street lighting. We couldn’t pick up wifi anywhere. There just didn’t seem to be anything happening in Mobile at all. So, after a quick confabulation, we decided to power through and drive the rest of the way to New Orleans (just over two hours) right away.
However, before getting back on the road, we’d need to find coffee (Riccardo) and a snack (me) – no easy feat in a veritable ghost town. We got on the highway and eventually spotted a forest of fast food signs. I didn’t feel like wasting a meal in the South on Chic-Fil-A or something equally vile, but my stomach was growling. Suddenly, amidst the glow of the neon signs, we spied a small shop with a modest sign: “Gumbo Shoppe”. It stood out like a shining beacon against its flashier competitors. And it looked open! I felt hopeful. We drove up.
My hopes were dashed when we peered in and found nothing but four Asian dudes drinking beer and watching football – the lights were on, but the shop was clearly not open.
But wait! They were beckoning us inside. Not wanting to offend them by turning our backs and running away (okay, I can’t speak for Riccardo but that plan did cross my mind), we explained to them that we were just looking for some food. “What you wann? We make it!” the least drunk of the four said brightly. I glanced around at the sad darkened display cases. “Gumbo?” I asked.
Their offer to defrost some gumbo from the take-out section certainly seemed weird, but still more interesting than going to Arby’s. As it heated, we got acquainted with our new friends. If you think it’s hard to decipher a Southern accent at the best of times, imagine when it’s coming from a Vietnamese guy. They asked us all about Canada, shared their beer with us, and schooled us in the art of eating boiled crawfish. (Riccardo was skeptical, but he sucked it up – so to speak.) Whenever we’d clink bottles, I noticed our hosts touching their forearms in what I knew to be a sign of respect in south Asian culture. We had been educated on this in Cambodia, and they were surprised when we returned the gesture.
Riccardo and I kept glancing at each other and I knew what he was thinking – that this experience was bearing an uncanny resemblance to the time we were invited to join a gregarious and friendly crew of beer-drinking Laotians at a gas station. It was a little surreal. We got our gumbo, promised to come back (yes, with my sister next time!), and jumped back in the car (which had thankfully not been jacked while we were inside). And yes – the gumbo was delicious.
The drive to New Orleans was more fun than expected – we reminisced about 2012 and made a list of the best meals we’ve had over the past year. Before we knew it, the swamps were behind us and the lights of the skyline came into view! I found some Cajun music on the radio and we cruised slowly into the city, taking it all in. There were bright lights, magnolia trees strewn with Mardi Gras beads, and scores of badly-dressed tourists roaming around clutching hurricanes. We picked up wifi from the Ritz and went about finding a room. This task was complicated by the fact that it’s not really possible to book a hotel online when it’s technically the next day! On to plan B – stopping at hotels that looked nice and making use of the sharp negotiating skills I’d honed in Asia. We were in luck at the Hotel Modern, where the desk clerk I befriended agreed to a great rate and helped us find free parking.
We woke up to what we’re told was the coldest day of the year in New Orleans! People here seem refreshed by the low temps, but I was pretty bummed (especially since I had to wear Riccardo’s winter coat, having forgotten mine in Waverly, Alabama). No matter – we were in New Orleans! We set out early and tried to cram as much as possible into our whirlwind stay.
Our hosts in Waverly had referred us to a slew of things to check out, including a coffee truck which would be our first stop. (Riccardo was very happy with his cappuccino.) We had a mini-breakfast of shrimp and grits at Café Fleur de Lis, and a moving stroll through Louis Armstrong Park (where modern jazz and R&B are said to have their roots. For real.) We had an incredible roast beef po’boy at Mahony’s before rooting around in antique shops on Magazine Street. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day. In the evening, we met up with my friend Audrey, whom I’ve known since second grade and who now lives near New Orleans. We met up with them at a wacky bar in the slightly sketchy neighbourhood of Bywater, where Riccardo wondered whether Montreal road crews had been brought in to pave the roads. Mike brought us to a great seafood restaurant where we discussed the nuances of life in Louisiana over crawfish etouffee, gumbo, and crab au gratin (pronounced grat-inn). The waiter informed us rather gravely that while they did have oysters, they were all out of saltine crackers. “Is that a big problem around here?” I asked? He confirmed that it was a deal-breaker for some.
After dinner we headed uptown for more drinks, then finished the night at a jazz club on Frenchmen Street. When we left, I took the last of my drink with me in a plastic cup – just because it’s New Orleans, and you can do that here.
Bonus musical selection, chooglin’ on down to New Orleans: