Thursday, January 24, 2008

the french quarter

We’ve realized we didn’t actually tell you about the French Quarter, the only part of New Orleans most of you have ever seen. It is the oldest part of town, originally settled by the eponymous French settlers, though it was later held briefly by the Spanish before becoming nominally American. It is hands-down the most European neighborhood I’ve ever seen on this continent, with truly glorious architecture, and has a history more rich and dramatic than its measly (by Continental standards) 400-some-odd years of permanently settled existence.

It’s disgusting, though. Rivulets of piss, vomit, spilled alcohol-swill, and god-knows what else trickle down the old worn gutters. The lights and music and crowds at night cast a forced revelrous aura, but in the day the reality is unavoidable. Tacky plastic signs (tacked irreverently to gorgeous facades) advertise tacky plastic merchandise and tacky plastic women for sale. It’s all much, much too much. It smells terrible, and is at this point so entirely self-aware that there is no joy left, just commerce.

I would strongly recommend to anyone visiting New Orleans: go to the French Quarter once, during the day; explore its nooks and crannies, but don’t look too close; pay a boatload of money to eat at one of the gazillion fine eating establishments that have been there since Napoleon, and don’t ask what the delicious thing you’re eating actually is; hold your breath the whole time; and then leave. The rest of the city is actually wonderful, not trying to be.

(P.S. Petra liked it better than me. I think that’s ‘cause she doesn’t have a very good sense of smell. Or self-preservation. :) She, of course, would disagree.)

it's the off season for a reason

My sister Lisa had stopped into my uncle’s house the Tuesday evening of our drive home on her way home from her own mid-American road trip, which was a fun coincidence. Six people in a very small two-bedroom apartment was a squeeze, but my family was very accommodating—my uncle slept under the kitchen table, and one of my cousins curled up on the loveseat. We all slept surprisingly well, perhaps because our bellies were happily full of my uncle’s hearty stew.

We left at the same time as Lisa Wednesday morning—she on a 14-hour leg to Boston, and we on an ill-fated northerly diversion to Niagara Falls. It started out well: we stopped in Erie, Pennsylvania on the shores of Lake Erie so that I could appreciate this great lake up close for the first time. I’ve never been to any of the Great Lakes before, and the lack of sea smell and salt taste in the face of so much water disturbed me. I had to taste the water myself before my body would believe its freshness. It tasted like melted freezer burn or old ice cubes. I don’t recommend it.

In Ohio we had already realized that we didn’t possess the correct attire for the ever-more-northern climes toward which we were advancing, but we were undeterred. We’re New Englanders, after all. A little cold wind and snow wasn’t going to hinder us. We layered up and drove on. To Niagara Falls. Where it was really, really, really cold. Right.

Why is it that we continue to think it’s a good idea to visit popular tourist destinations in the off season? There’s usually a reason the season is off. Especially in [expletive deleted] Niagara Falls. Despite newly-purchased hats, gloves, and scarves, our hearty selves only lasted about 45 minutes outside in our first walk down by the falls, and that only through the awe of the fall’s splendorous plume (you could see the flame-like spray from 10 miles away) and sheer determination overshadowing our bodies’ pain (PAIN!). It was probably around 10 degrees out, combined with a strong wet wind, and felt like something around -20 or colder. So we cut our losses and went back to the hostel, where it turned out our radiator was broken such that our room was approximately 130 degrees all night, even with the window wide open and snow blowing in on my pillow.

We “woke up” the next morning (having never really fallen asleep) ready to face an exciting new day. We treated ourselves to a tasty breakfast at the delightfully-named and Jetsons-d├ęcored “Why Diner”. Part way through breakfast, it started picturesquely snowing.

Before leaving town we swung by the Canadian side of the falls. The strength of the biting wind driving ice shards toward our faces unfortunately made it so we couldn’t even look in the general direction of the falls. Even when we bravely peered through our fingers toward where we thought they might be, we couldn’t see twenty feet past our noses. So much for the view—though it really did seem much better than the view from the American side. I’d recommend Canada to anyone visiting Niagara. We could feel the rumble of the falls beneath our feet, and its pummeling roar permeated the air. Quite the impressive force of nature. SO MUCH WATER.

By the time we got on the road (having almost been not allowed back into the US by the extremely ornery American customs official), the picturesque snow had turned into a proper blizzard that mucked up the roads very efficiently and followed us all day long. Driving 30-45 mph across most of upstate New York in horrible horizontal snow for eight hours gave me a new appreciation for a number of things: windshield wipers, snowplows (our modern angels), the well-designed drainage ditch system of the New York department of transportation, the surprising persistence and proliferation of the Seneca tribe, and books on tape.

By 6 pm we still had 100 miles to go to our intended night’s destination, Albany; Petra, my fearless driving wife, was exhausted; and the roads were getting even worse. We gave up in Westmoreland, and happily ensconced ourselves at the wood-paneled and quilt-covered Carriage House Motor Inn, where we took approximately 37 hot showers before sleeping like hibernating bears.

The next day was a long and thankfully boring drive across the remainder of upstate NY and all of Massachusetts (the long way) to finally safely arrive at Petra’s parents’ house in Concord. We were very, very glad to be home.

basketball court update

For those of you who astutely noticed that the basketball court that I built didn’t have backboards and hoops in the pictures you saw: indeed, we had to go back a second day to complete that rather astoundingly-difficult task. You’d think sticking some backboards on some poles wouldn’t be hard, wouldn’t you? It took six people all day to do it, and it was hard work. At least we got more delicious fried chicken and sausage po-boys out of it. And at the end of the day, the kids came and shot some hoops, and all was well with the world.

I’d encourage you to read the thank-you notes written by some of the students at the school to all the Hands On New Orleans staff. They’re absolutely wonderful. The text of the letters are here.


No, no, not the condiment. We're just going to start writing posts about all of our favorite things from our trip to New Orleans that we haven't told you about yet. So be prepared! Blog-o-rific deluge of catch-up coming!