Nouvelle-Orléans, Je T’aime
The love affair between France, New Orleans and moi
written and photographed by Melanie Warner Spencer
With a single thwack of the sword, the cork launched from the bottle of Veuve Clicquot and champagne bubbled forth from the angled cut as the courtyard erupted into applause. Carrying on the tradition of Napoleon’s Imperial Guards, more than 12 people (including this reporter) were inducted as sabreurs at Brennan’s in New Orleans on Jan. 30. According to the literature of “Brotherhood of the Golden Sword,” or Confrérie du Sabre d’Or, in the early 1800s, the Guards would receive “cases of champagne from Madame Veuve Clicquot as a gift to give them strength on the battlefield. [The] Imperial Guards would open these champagne bottles with their swords.” Napoleon of course sold the approximately 828,000,000 square miles of territory that included Louisiana to the United States in 1803 for $15 million, but ceremonies like this one — which made the storied, circa-1946 restaurant Louisiana’s first certified caveau (cellar) of the Confrérie du Sabre d’Or — are reminders of the depth of the connection between France and Louisiana. Of course, this year, New Orleans is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its founding in 1718 by the French as Nouvelle-Orléans, by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. The influence of the French abounds in Louisiana in ceremonies like the one at Brennan’s and is a large part of why I wanted to live in New Orleans, the most French city in America.
To this Francophile’s delight, the architecture, street names and monuments — especially the shining Maid of Orleans Joan of Arc statue near the French Market — exude the city’s inherent Frenchness. It’s also not uncommon to hear native Louisianans speaking French. French immersion schools are ubiquitous in the city and employ French teachers in large numbers. A version of Napoleonic code is still the law of the land for many issues and a laissez-faire attitude abounds, especially in the French Quarter (or Vieux Carré).
French cuisine is blessedly di rigeur — merci beaucoup. There are a host of French festivals, such Fête Française on March 10 and Bastille Day Fête in July, which is presented by the Alliance Française of New Orleans, the Consulate General of France in Louisiana and the French-American Chamber of Commerce - Gulf Coast Chapter. There is even a Mardi Gras marching krewe that celebrates the doomed last Queen of France Marie Antoinette (of which I am a member).
More than anything however, it’s the joie de vivre of New Orleans and her inhabitants that touch my heart. I can’t help but think it traveled with the brave souls — many of whom were exiled prisoners, prostitutes and the poverty-stricken sent by the French government to populate the territory — who traveled across the ocean in the 1700s to tame this wilderness — as much as she might be tamed.
Once on a visit, before moving here in 2014, my husband and I were in the Quarter on a walk. We heard a brass band and followed the music. Before long, we were caught up in our first second line, which included several individuals dressed in French-themed costumes. We marched all the way to Washington Artillery Park and up the stairs, circling around the cannon. One of the leaders jumped atop the cannon and began waving the French flag to wild cheers and applause. It was in that moment, I knew I had to live in this place. As I write this column, it happens to be our four-year “NOLAversary,” and I’m so proud and moved to play a small part in this weird, magical city’s 300-year history. Bon anniversaire, Nouvelle-Orléans. We will saber many bottles of champagne in your honor. Cheers!