The southern accent is famously laid back, so to claw back some of the extra time it takes to say stuff, superfluous letters are removed and words rolled together. San Antonio becomes Santone and New Orleans is N’awlins.
I arrived in N’awlins late on Friday evening, slightly concerned that this famously relaxed city of blues, jazz and Cajun cuisine is now a destination for hen and stag dos (batchelor/ette parties). This thought was raised when, about 30 minutes before arrival, the snack/bar car on the train was closed and those who’d been camped out in there for anywhere up to 48 hours made their way up to the lounge car above, including one particularly drunk man who kept complaining loudly that they’d run out of liquor and that it must’ve been a “white guy in California” who placed the order.
New Orleans is divided into distinct quarters and districts, and my hotel was on Lafayette Square, in the arts district and a ten minute walk from the famous French quarter. However, when you’re on the road for a month with only five days’ worth of clothes, fun must occasionally take a backseat to laundry, so I started Saturday taking my dirty smalls for a walk to the laundromat.
Clothes laundered, I headed to the French quarter in search of some music. Bourbon St is tourist central, a road filled with bars, souvenir shops and late night food emporiums. One of the bars was so concerned about the calibre of people on Bourbon St that it had a strict ban on baseball caps worn backwards or sideways. Its general unpleasantness was not improved by the roadworks down the middle of the street that made it impossible to cross from one side to the other, in places. Partway along I found Musical Legends Park, a small square lined with statues of blues, jazz and rock and roll icons, such as Fats Domino. Within the square was a bar with a live band, so I spent the afternoon there and amused myself by reading Ed’s hilarious (sometimes intentionally so) blog of our trip down the east coast ten years ago, drinking a local lager and listening to some OK blues.
Following a couple of Facebook recommendations, I headed next to Coop’s bar (pronounced like a chicken house, not the British chain of small supermarkets, insurers and funeral directors), thus starting a chain of tips that would dictate my movements for the rest of the day.
Coop’s was on a street full of tourist tat, but was itself apparently immune to being visited by any of them. Except me of course, but nobody ever counts themself as a tourist. There was no live music, but a jukebox that played an above average amount of Meatloaf. I sat at the bar and chatted to a local couple who recommended I headed next to Frenchmen Street, where I’d be able to find some good music.
So, that’s exactly where I went, finding a small bar below an Italian restaurant with a blues duo in the corner. Everyone here was very friendly, from the barman who, on learning that I teach physics, insisted on emailing me a link to a YouTube video about a child who can read a book without opening it, or some crap, to the New Zealand fisherman who broke all American etiquette when asking for the restroom by bellowing “Where can ya’ take a piss around here, mate?” at the barman.
A group of friends from Alabama, a couple of whom I’d chatted to earlier, kindly came over and told me they were heading to a bar in mid-city called Chickie Wah Wah to watch an Alabaman band play later, and that I was welcome to join them there. With no better plans and getting a little bored of explaining the scientific method to the barman, I ordered a Lyft.
The Lyft driver was most impressed that me, a tourist, would be going to Chickie Wah Wah, a bar not normally frequented by tourists (presumably because its miles away from the French quarter). He also recommended the World War II museum near my hotel and we briefly wondered about whether the Civil War Museum in the Confederate Hall across the street from it might be a bit racist or not (New Orleans has recently removed some Confederate monuments, much to the displeasure of the Ku Klux Klan).
When I arrived at Chickie Wah Wah (it feels no less silly typing that the third time than it did the first) the band on stage (called Steelism) was not from Alabama, but from Nashville, Tennessee. Sort of. The band’s leader (they were instrumental, so I can’t call him the lead singer, but he did all the talking in between) had a strong Essex accent. He expertly played a weird horizontal board guitar, accompanied by a guitarist, as well as a drummer and bassist who weren’t officially part of the band. Steelism’s music is best described as instrumental psychedelic country-blues, strongly influenced by 60s movie soundtracks. Check them out.
After their set had finished, I chatted to the band leader, who it turns out is from Romford originally. He continued the recommendation chain by telling me about Preservation Hall, an old jazz room in the French quarter.
I hung around a bit longer for the headline set, a country act from Alabama called the Lost Bayou Ramblers; a bearded man with a guitar and a woman with a violin shared the vocals. After a few songs, I headed home.
On Sunday morning I took the Lyft driver’s advice and went to the National WWII Museum. Spread across four angular metal-clad buildings, it had clearly had a lot of money spent on it. I paid the extra $10 on top of the $26 entry fee for the ‘4D cinema experience with Tom Hanks’ and the ‘submarine experience’.
The 4D experience was, like most things in the museum, very well produced. It wasn’t the normal 4D thing of 3D glasses and some special effects. Instead, they had a big screen 2D movie, with occasional real objects that dropped in from the ceiling or rose up from the floor, accompanied by lighting effects.
After an eight minute introductory movie in the lobby, which covered the period up to Pearl Harbour, the main show focused on the role of the US military in the Pacific and in Europe from 1941 to 1945. It was all very interesting, until the last five minutes which was an embarrassing flood of rousing music and stars and stripes.
The submarine experience, on the other hand, was uniformly crap. We were each issued a card with a number on, showing the station we would have to occupy inside the ‘submarine’ (a very spacious room with a big screen on the ceiling). I was responsible for loading the torpedos into the tubes; in practice, this meant I was supposed to push some light up buttons, perhaps in some sort of sequence, when issued the order by the video that was playing above our heads. It wasn’t at all clear, and it turned out to be irrelevant, as the torpedos loaded themselves with or without my action. I’m not sure I would be much help at sea.
The rest of the museum was very American-centric, with little about the suffering of the civilians in Europe or the Pacific. Maybe the Imperial War Museum in London is equally biased, but I recall visiting there a few years ago and being impressed by their home front exhibition and moved by their holocaust exhibition.
In the evening I went to Preservation Hall. As recommended by the musician the previous evening, I arrived an hour before the show was scheduled to begin and took second place in the queue.
The entertainment for the hour queuing was provided by an elderly lady with an elaborate New York accent, looking for her friend Peggy who had apparently gone to get a cab. There was nobody within a few blocks who didn’t know about her concern that Peggy had taken a while. Eventually, a few cabs drove by; she waved each one down, asking the perplexed driver if they had seen Peggy, before refusing to let any of them drive off on the grounds that she did need a cab and Peggy might never show up. Eventually, Peggy did show up, as promised, in a cab and we had to go back to staring at the backs of our hands.
Preservation Hall is a small, wooden room with no air conditioning and few lights. The lucky members of the audience get to sit on a bench, while the rest stand at the back. My seat was practically VIP, as I had both a bench and a wall to lean against. The mother and daughter I was sitting next to turned out to be from the small town of Binghamton, New York, and were over the moon when I told them I had visited their town ten years earlier.
At the front of the room, seven men (six old, one young, all African-American) assembled with a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, double bass and drums, then proceeded to battle each other in a jazz and blues musical tug-of-war for the next 45 minutes.
After checking out of the hotel this morning, I had a couple of hours to kill before getting my train. I headed to the French market and found a cafe with a live band. There really is music everywhere in New Orleans; even the buskers and the young boys playing drums on upturned plastic buckets tend to be high quality.
As I enjoyed a cup of gumbo (a stew made with andouille sausage, chicken and rice), a stocky tattooed man requested that the band play ‘House of the Rising Sun’. When they obliged, he went up and asked to join them on stage; they, unsurprisingly, said no, so instead he stood at the side of the stage and insisted on loudly singing the same song in a different style to the band. His wife looked mortified, but not surprised. As they left, he made sure to tell a stranger that he used to play college football.
This behaviour at 11:45am in a terrace cafe, by someone that Americans would probably call an asshole bro, is another transatlantic differentiator. A Brit wouldn’t dream of trying anything like that until after at least 10 pints.
I’m now shivering my way through the hot and humid swamps of Mississippi, as the train has its air conditioning turned way too high (or low). The train is bound for Chicago, but I’ll be getting off in Memphis, Tennessee for the next leg of my adventure.