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Ode to the French Quarter

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A lifetime of memories made in the Vieux Carré

NOL_HiRes_P.1-34_Page_22_Image_0001.jpgNew Orleans’ most widely recognized neighborhood, the charming French Quarter, is one of those precious places that qualify as a premier global destination. Like Soho in New York City or Saint-Germain-des- Prés in Paris, millions have traveled to the French Quarter to partake in the sights and sounds specific to its culturally rich environs. From imbibing in its amazing architecture and art, to dining on its fabled cuisine, to succumbing to the rich and haunting history that chokes the oxygen right out of the air in all directions, many a traveler has enjoyed the French Quarter’s awesome wealth of scintillating offerings. Artists, actors, writers, poets and musicians have forever claimed that their time spent in the French Quarter has been the inspiration that allowed their minds to flourish wildly with creativity. Sometimes we locals forget how wonderful and multifaceted this grande dame of New Orleans truly is.

We all have a lifetime of memories that were birthed right in the French Quarter. As a child, whenever we visited the Quarter, my parents would take me to an enchanting store named something like The Lemon Tree, whose vendor sold fancy soaps, and I’d get to pick out a new bar. Those trips created in me a lifelong obsession for all things scented and sudsy. I remember walking what seemed to be the entire length of the city on the Bienville Trail, snaking through parts of the Quarter in the heat with a gaggle of other hypedout Girl and Boy Scouts, taking it all in, including clusters of “ladies of the night”–types on duty early outside clubs, as parent-chaperones hurried us by. (That trek earned me a cool Bienville Trail patch that was placed amid all the other kitschy flair on my Girl Scout sash and served as a reminder of that physically draining yet fun day I had in the Quarter.) At the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, among the large apothecary jars of rainbow-colored liquids, I’d watch with gripping fascination as medical leeches sucked the clear sides of their watery captivity, hoping there was no possible chance of a mean, hungry one escaping and finding its way onto me, where it could conceivably suck every last drop of blood from my body.

As for bloodsucking and other vexations, we who know the Quarter are quite aware that these kinds of ominous acts are an integral part of it. The evidence hangs as heavy as the perfumed blooms of sweet olive and night jasmine that creep from secret gardens behind thick, worn brick walls. Consider what may lie trapped behind any of these walls: Have you ever felt the intoxicating pain bursting from the charred souls of the dead former slaves who perished in an intentionally set fire when you pass the LaLaurie House? What about the seeping presence of tortured human remnants that make up the strewn leftovers of a blood feast enjoyed by a pair of vampiric brothers on St. Ann Street? For the naysayers, dare yourself to walk alone to your car on any eerily quiet evening, especially after midnight on a pink-skied night soft with fog. The strong and steady pulse from something intangible remains inexplicably tangible for those who are perceptive—loud even in the complete dead of solitude. Come on! You can feel you are not alone in your aloneness. The simple act of locking yourself in your car after making it safely to the driver’s seat feels as protective, encasing and shockingly warm as a mother’s womb.

In addition to the bedeviling activities, the French Quarter has always been a stomping ground for the most joyous of life’s occasions. Watching a new bride wrapped in the arms of her groom as she saunters down the steps of the Saint Louis Cathedral, the soles of her cream satin heels scratching the top of Chartres Street as they head toward the Omni Royal Orleans for the most lavish party of their lives, reaffirms that life is good. So does celebrating a Friday with friends over a raucous four-hour lunch at Galatoire’s, as your favorite waiter keeps the soufflé potatoes and Crabmeat Maison coming, or having intimate conversation over a Pimm’s Cup at the Napoleon House with your future lover, or dunking beignet after beignet after beignet into hot coffee and chicory tempered perfectly with milk at an outdoor table at Café Du Monde. Enjoying Mardi Gras from a Royal Street balcony with lifelong friends is one of the truest forms of kinship and camaraderie ever. Hearing the sweet, melodic notes culled from the well-loved instruments of the most seasoned musicians stirs emotions inside your heart and soul, bringing even more life to an area brimming with it.

And no matter how many times I visit the French Quarter, I still get a thrill strolling its legendary streets; smiling at familiar faces in crowds; hearing foreign accents lilting with awe; window shopping for clothes, art, jewelry and antiques that I promise myself I’ll be back for; popping a still-warm handmade sugary praline from Southern Candymakers into my mouth; soaking up all the opulent and decadent scenes I know I won’t be privileged to see anywhere else but here; feeling extremely fortunate that the French Quarter belongs to me and to the others on this planet who love her, and that she’s always unfailingly happy to see us. It’s funny how religious zealots claim God sent storms to devastate New Orleans because of the sinful lewdness that permeates the boundaries of the Quarter, yet the Quarter remained virtually unscathed from any Katrina-imposed damage. It’s obvious that God must dig the French Quarter as much as we do.