(Make sure you hover over each picture to see the captions.)
This morning Jacob and I had a late breakfast together at a tiny cafe that barely rates the title—one of those out-of-the-way places with half a dozen tables and a single waitress, cash only. Even so, I think you’d have to work hard to find an eatery in this part of town that doesn’t have good food. Around 9:15 Jacob headed off to another day of unrelieved geekery, and I strolled along down Chartres toward the museums around Jackson Square: the Cabildo, the Presbytere, and the 1850 House.
I was there before 9:30 and thus discovered that the official New Orleans tourist website was wrong—the museums’ hours had changed recently, and they didn’t open until 10. I entertained myself with a walk down Pirates Alley, which runs between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral. Midway down the alley you come to Faulkner House, where William Faulkner wrote his first novel way back before he was famous. The bookstore on the site opened much later (which I already knew), but mainly I was happy that Pirates Alley picks up an unexpected cross-breeze, because at 9:30 I was already uncomfortably warm. I went around the corner and hung out in an upscale souvenir/art store, admiring the work of a local artist who uses the fleur-de-lis motif as the foundation for hundreds of different pieces. Outside the store I had an interesting conversation with a homeless man who had actually been to Salt Lake City. He asked if I was Mormon and when I said yes, he told me that the Mormons had helped him out when he was traveling through the city to a funeral, years ago. He also gave me directions to a bookstore not on my list. It’s the first time in my life I’ve given money to a street beggar (not that he asked; he more like hinted around, woe is me, it’s so hot and I have nowhere to go). He was missing a lot of teeth and looked totally grizzled and was two years younger than me. It was actually a fun way to start the day.
On the stroke of ten I was inside the Cabildo, but the stern lady running the cash register had the attitude of government officials everywhere that ten o’clock did not happen until her computer said it did. There was a small group of pre-teens there waiting, I presume, for a school tour. Every one of them spoke French, probably as a first language based on their interaction with the surly government lady. I wish I knew enough French to know if it was French Creole or not.
The Cabildo was the seat of colonial government when the Spanish controlled Louisiana and continued to be a government building after the U.S. took over. The museum exhibit displays the history of Louisiana and New Orleans from the early days of white settlement through the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, which actually happened in the Cabildo, and beyond. I knew practically nothing about any of it, so it was worth going. I had no idea the Marquis de Lafayette had lived and entertained in the Cabildo, or that Spain had signed over the Louisiana area to the French less than a month before the French and the U.S. completed the Louisiana Purchase. (This seriously pissed off the Spanish, because they had transferred the property on the condition that it not be given to a third party, but Napoleon really needed the cash and didn’t care all that much about the opinions of the Spaniards—as was seen a few years later when his army tore through Spain.) The Cabildo also has one of the four bronze castings of Napoleon’s death mask. Cool, and a little creepy.
One of the things the website got right was that you get a discount if you buy tickets to more than one of their museums, and I was able to see all three of them for $12. So I crossed past the cathedral (I never did go in; maybe another day) to the Presbytere which, despite its name, has never housed any priests or other religious types. Half the museum is closed off while they install a new exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, but the permanent exhibit on Mardi Gras was open, and it was what I came to see. Where the Cabildo exhibit is as much about the building as the history, the Presbytere looks a lot more like a traditional museum (except for the long gallery at the front, which used to be open to the Square and is now, thankfully, closed off and air conditioned. I make no apologies for being a soppy tourist). I know about as much as Mardi Gras as the average person who’s never been to Carnival in New Orleans, which means I know almost nothing. The Mardi Gras celebrations are a seriously big deal here, and the people involved in the krewes (the groups that organize the parades and parties) take them at least as seriously as hard-core sports fans take the big game, probably a lot more. My favorite rooms showed the regalia of the “royalty” of the different krewes each year, the favors the krewes commission and give out (not the same as the “throws” the participants throw from the floats), and a long series of pins designed for the different krewes each year. It was impressive and a little alien, in a good way.
I decided I’d been standing long enough and took a lunch break. Across the street from the Presbytere is Muriel’s, and I was just looking over their lunch menu and thinking it was a little heavy and expensive for me when a woman from somewhere much further southeast stopped to rave to me about how wonderful the food was and how I wouldn’t regret eating there. So I changed my mind. The place was way upscale—I would have been underdressed for dinner there, but fortunately at 11:45 the place was nearly empty. I was seated near two ladies, one of whom was a native, who started chatting to me just out of the blue. I’m finding that this is a New Orleans trait; the people all love talking to strangers and are genuinely interested in meeting you. It’s a trait that rubs off on you after a while. I’m not a gregarious person, but I’ve had more random conversations in the last two days than in a month back home. In the ladies’ conversation with each other I also confirmed that the natives do pronounce “Chartres” as “Charters,” which I can’t quite bring myself to say.
The meal was wonderful. Because I was alone, I indulged in food I will never be able to have at home: chilled beet soup and crawfish with goat cheese crepes and shrimp. The crawfish came whole, propped up on the crepes, and he was so cute I felt bad about disemboweling him. I don’t know what kind of tomato-bisque sauce they swam in, but it was so good I could have licked the plate clean. Yum yum yum.
After lunch I went over to the 1850 House, which is the least impressive of the museums visually. The main floor is given over to a gift shop of mostly books about New Orleans in general and the House in particular. It’s part of the Pontalba Buildings, on opposite sides of Jackson Square, that were built by the Baroness Pontalba in the late 1840s as part of a renovation along the Place d’Armes (as it used to be called). It’s not much different from any other building of its time as far as the furnishings, but it’s three very steep floors up overlooking one of the many inner courtyards you usually only glimpse from ground level. I was more interested in the life of Baroness Pontalba herself—an heiress before she was three, married by 16 to a cousin, tormented by her father-in-law, who wanted her fortune and ultimately shot her trying to get it, and finally a wealthy and influential businesswoman of New Orleans. The shop sells her biography, Intimate Enemies, but at such an exorbitant price that I bought it on Amazon.com instead. (This brought my book purchases on this trip to just over $200. Woohoo!)
I headed back along Chartres to see the pharmacy museum, but decided I was too tired and hot to appreciate it and just went back to the hotel instead (with some stops for souvenirs and to admire the jewelry stores—I was tired, not dead). I was thwarted in my search for Coke, too; I didn’t buy one at Jackson Square because I figured it would get warm on the way back, the vending machine was broken, and the hotel store only has Pepsi. Bah. I ended up paying almost three dollars for twenty ounces of a too-sweet Pepsi that was still cold and caffeinated, so not a total loss. When I reached the glorious room I was, again, drenched in sweat. The back of my head might as well have been sprayed with a garden hose and my clothing was sticking to me in places I didn’t know I had places. I haven’t seen a single other person get this drenched, even the other middle-aged women who dress like me (as opposed to the slim young girls who wear thin cotton tank tops and short shorts and seem invigorated by the heat. I hate all of them on principle). I’ve only seen one person sweating at the back of his head, and that was a fifty-year-old balding man. I think I’m not made for this climate.
Anyway, I changed out of my dampest clothes and laid down to cool off. I underestimated how tired I was, though; I started drifting off while I was playing Eschalon II and nearly got eaten by wolves, so I switched off and took a nap. Blessed, cool, lovely bed.
Jacob got back early, around 5:30, and then he needed a nap. We set out for dinner around 7. This time we were looking for a hole-in-the-wall place, something simple. It took a surprisingly long time to find one, and now I can’t remember its name, but we had sausage po boys and I had a dish of really good jambalaya. Despite being stuffed full, we managed to roll ourselves around to the Cafe du Monde…and in so doing discovered that we’d eaten on Bourbon Street and hadn’t known it! That explained why the roads were blocked off; it was closed to traffic. We turned off just before reaching the stretch of Bourbon Street that is all girlie shows and stuff. I’m
pretty sure it isn’t what Sting had in mind when he wrote the song.
The streets were filling up with people going on the haunted tours; they start after sunset, but I was starting to see a major flaw in the idea of me going on one, namely, that it was getting dark and I was still sweating like a pig. (Pigs don’t sweat, but the imagery is more evocative than mere fact.) I’ll have to figure something out, because they look fun. We stuffed our faces with beignets and wandered back, making stops at some souvenir places and a little neighborhood grocery. How cool would it be to live in one of these apartments in the French Quarter and shop at the local market? (I speak figuratively. It would actually be hot as hell.)
We also visited a little jewelry store that had the nicest collection I’d seen so far. Almost everything was made by local artists, and coincidentally the one I was most interested in has her own shop just up the street. Not only does she have elegant designs, her prices were far more reasonable than any others (and at this point I have a very good idea how much the materials and labor cost for beaded jewelry). I am definitely going back later this week.
We got in around 9 p.m. I immediately got in the shower so I could feel more like a person and less like the unholy spawn of a garden sprayer and the Swamp Thing. I love this town already, but I’m not sure I’m built to live here. Thank goodness for air conditioning.
Tomorrow I plan to do laundry first thing. I wish the shops opened earlier or stayed open later (the jewelry shop we went to closes at 10 p.m., which is extremely unusual) so I could shop in the cool of the day. I’m either going to the pharmacy museum or the Riverwalk, depending on how adventurous I feel. After a night in the glorious room with the duvet, I feel very adventurous.