Our traveling dynamic is very complementary and as soon as we define a destination we know exactly what each of us has to do. I do a lot less - I usually just find out what sporting events are scheduled for that period. Sarah does a lot more: she searches cultural attractions and restaurants, turning Google Maps into a tool with more stars than the Milky Way.
She likes this job but it has not always been that way. Because we have such different appetites - and by different, I mean that I am capable of driving anyone crazy by rarely being hungry - she had some problems in the past, with the uncertainty about where and when we would eat. Starting to look for restaurants as a homework was a smart survival maneuver that greatly improved our days.
And why does this all matter? Because for New Orleans, for the first time, I was assaulted by a voracious appetite. Food was what attracted me the most in the city of the Mississippi's mouth. The problem? I had no idea what Louisiana's traditional food was: I had no memory of ever hearing of po' boys, the beignets of Café du Monde, or gumbo and jambalaya. The reason is silly: the movie Chef (2014) by Jon Favreau. In a nutshell, it's the story of a respected chef who loses his temper and decides to start from scratch with a food truck. It starts in Miami and the second stop is New Orleans.
I actually watched the movie twice (the second time with Sarah) and I started to associate New Orleans with good food - leave me alone, I'm sure there are weirder people out there.
Four days with a gastronomic route in our heads
New Orleans is a magnificent city. Still, the intense heat and high humidity made wandering very difficult and we noticed it as soon as we landed... at night. Taking advantage of the jet lag, we decided to book a visit to the Oak Alley Plantation (one of the must-see sites in the city and surrounding area) for the morning of the first day.
The meeting point was in a hotel not far from the Café du Monde and we decided to have breakfast (the famous beignets) there, while we waited for the shuttle that would take us on that trip of about an hour.
We can feel the vibe of the city even when there is hardly anyone on the street. On the way from the house we stayed in to this hotel, we cross the French Quarter and everything is still being clean. The bars are open, there are hoses in the street and the smell may not be the most pleasant, but there is no escape from the festive character of a city that distinguishes itself from the others by not having a last call for alcohol.
We thought that the visit to the Oak Alley Plantation, a house-museum that belonged to a French family and sheds a light on the relationship between the owners and the slaves in a sugar plantation, was going to occupy a large part of the day but we returned in time to have lunch and spend the afternoon doing whatever we wanted to.
We chose the National World War II Museum. It is expensive but it is hard to find a place in the world that shows what happened with this level of detail and accuracy. We are not big fans of museums (though this whole trip might say otherwise) but we were surprised by some of the features offered. To start, we enter a carriage that simulates those that the Americans took to training after the recruitment and we are associated with a military that will accompany us until we leave the museum.
I was assigned to Jimmie Kanaya, an American with Japanese parents, who personally suffered because of his family after the attack to Pearl Harbor. At every moment of the museum, I was invited to pass my card on designated machines to learn how Jimmie evolved during that period: from training to detachment, to the prisoner-of-war phase, to liberation, ending with what he has done after the war ended.
These figures have been naturally handpicked, but this association makes us feel that each visit is unique and that my experience will always be different from Sarah's or other visitors'.
The museum is huge and includes several buildings. If the exhibition of the European conflict is more of a reminder for us, Europeans, than a discovery, the evolution of the conflict in the Pacific shows much more than just the bombing of Pearl Harbor by "evil Japanese" and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A Katrina hero appears
After a busier first day, we reserved the second to get to know the city and, without predicting, one of its figures. During a walk in the French Quarter, we noticed a huge line of people entering a store.
The journalistic curiosity (OK, maybe I was just being nosy) made me want to go see what was happening and I confirmed that the queue was about 45 yards long and that those who left the store had a huge smile because of... golden sneakers that Nike had designed exclusively for New Orleans. The euphoria was such that a girl offered to open the box and show them to me after seeing me take a picture.
By this moment, I was approached by a fifty-year-old man who was preparing to climb onto his bicycle. "Do you want to hear something weird?" he asks me. "Newseum has my bicycle", he goes on, pointing to the t-shirt I was wearing from the D.C. museum, with the inscription "Will write for food". He explained that he is also a journalist and that during Katrina biked with a fellow worker to the place where they discovered that one of the levees that protected the city had given way. He helped to spread the information and prevent an even bigger tragedy.
This episode helped to prove that in New Orleans you do not need to ask for permission to approach someone on the street. I quickly understood that t-shirts with inscriptions (that was not the only approach of the day) are a gimmick. But sometimes we don't even need it: later, when we were looking for a po' boy place Sarah had in her recommendations, after riding the whole St. Charles Line by streetcar and after a few minutes in the park across from Loyola University in New Orleans, we were the last alternative of someone who needed all the help she could get to carry a broken organ that someone had thrown out between the car trunk and the basement.
Everything there seemed strange. We couldn't say no - even if the effort made us all sweaty in a day that could do that by itself even if we stood still - and we stayed there for over half an hour trying to find a solution, with more brains than muscles. Finally, the girl's military neighbor appeared and made everything simpler, freeing us, sweaty, with scrapes, bruises and pieces of wood everywhere, for that long-awaited po' boy by the end the street of that residential area.
We ended up eating at the same time that LSU, Louisiana's most famous college football team, was playing against one of its biggest rivals (Auburn). We didn't see the whole game, but the in extremis triumph with a field goal to end the match was celebrated all over town, continuing to be a conversation topic the next day during the New Orleans Saints' game.
An adventure from one end to the other (almost) on Canal Street
After the Saints' game on Sunday, our schedule was completely free to do whatever we wanted to. Usually, this is the time when we just walk, trying to get familiar with what we do not know yet and repeat the places we liked the most.
The conversation of the day before still echoed in my head and I was surprised that there wasn't any memorial or museum related to Katrina. Sarah had not discovered anything in the research she did and I decided to search for something using Google Maps. The result: there is a Katrina National Memorial Museum near Canal Street but it's quite far from the busiest area.
I convinced Sarah to go there (on foot, a terrible idea) and when we got there we realized why she had not found anything: it was a residential space and seemed to be no more than a small association in a family house. I realized (once more!) at that moment that doing things by impulse does not always go well and we resigned ourselves to return... by streetcar.
Canal Street is the city's main artery and the palm trees give it a tropical touch. The streetcars are an excellent option to see the street from one end to the other (the three dollar-daily pass is well worthy) and to connect to points of interest that are far from the center.
At one end, there is a mall next to the Mississippi, overlooking one of the most easily recognizable bridges; in the other, depending on the streetcar you choose, there is the City Park, perfect for a short walk and to take advantage of the free sculpture garden of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The perfect ending
The initial plan had reserved the National World War II Museum for the last day. As this chapter was already scratched from the travelogue, we had the opportunity to do what we liked the most: to be in the city as a local, repeating the places we like and creating our own gastronomic route.
We had breakfast at Café du Monde - this time we got ourselves a table (at the weekend it is practically impossible but on a weekday it is feasible if you arrive early) - and after that we continued to the commercial area on the left bank of the Mississippi, not to buy anything, but to be on the terrace that has a privileged view of the river.
When lunchtime came, we finally tasted jambalaya and two different types of gumbo. It was little past noon, and the waitress got our profile wrong. There, so close to Bourbon Street, noon is almost dawn and those who are awake are likely to be recovering from what they drank the night before. After a little innocent joke saying that Sarah had some really good hangover reflexes (from the way she managed to hold our camera preventing it from falling on the floor), she told us that what we had asked for was more than enough for that "hour of the morning".
The dynamics of this day was different. Instead of staying on the street until we got tired, we decided to explore the French Quarter a bit more and stare at some of the stores' windows (voodoo including), before heading home to get some sleep. We did not go out until late afternoon when the sun lowered and the weather was slightly more pleasant. The plan was set: 1) go to a recommended grocery store to buy a shrimp po' boy; 2) go to the Café du Monde to get beignets (yes, again!) and 3) head for the riverwalk while we ate.
We ended the day and our stay in New Orleans perfectly. For the first time, the heat was not unbearable, there was a nice breeze, the colors looked perfect and we were eating what we liked the most. New Orleans will be missed exactly for that. Out of our plan, this time, was a more intensive exploration of the Cajun country, Louisiana's traditionally French zone, and its swamps - temperatures (and the fear of alligators) spoke louder.
Oh, and yes, you can stay four days in New Orleans without gaining weight. It seems that walking an average of five, six miles a day with that kind of weather can do wonders. It couldn't be better.