Since Katrina, New Orleans has emerged on the national scene as a proverbial wasteland. It was once known as a vibrant city, full of eccentricity. Now it’s riddled with misconceptions and myths about crime and stalled development efforts, misperceptions that multiply with every national news story, and myths that hinder the influx of new residents and deter the return of many natives.
Part of what I’d like to do with this blog is try to vivify these misperceptions and spin them to highlight the very reasons we love this city: the food, the culture, the people and of course the weird stuff. Perhaps this mode of reflection — which will require constructive feedback from readers — will help reshape public sentiment and help outsiders comprehend what makes the city unique and worth preserving.
In the next few weeks I’d like to share my intimate experiences with the city. This approach seems much better than trying to unpack broad generalities and dispute sobering statistics. Who needs those anyway? We get enough of that from national cable news.
To kick things off, I’m starting with a list of unexpected shockers my husband and I experienced during our first year.
Feel free to chime in and share your unexpected experiences, as well. I’m sure others — especially newcomers — would love to hear them all!
Top 10 Unexpected Experiences of Our First Year in New Orleans (PART 1):
1. Mardi Gras
As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I have been here for a year and experienced only one Mardi Gras. And, like most Americans, we thought Mardi Gras was simply a modern-day bacchanalia. We didn’t expect to see examples of wholesome fun. And we certainly didn’t expect to see lots of families and children.
He and I attended some amazing Uptown parades, ate great food, saw hip second-line bands, mingled with spirited folk and caught tons of beads without flashing a soul –– literally, tons. We partied every day with beers in hand. We figured out early on that drinking is a prerequisite here, but not in a pro-alcoholism sort of way. In all, the festival functioned more like a five-week, family-friendly tailgate.
So we didn’t expect a tame and decorous Mardi Gras. We also didn’t expect the entire city to shut down for more than three weeks. Workplaces closed early, and people spent more time procuring King Cakes than worrying about their time sheets. We’d always envisioned Fat Tuesday as the focal point. But it seems the festivities start at or around Jan. 6, for Joan of Arc Day, and the good times keep rolling for weeks thereafter.
My husband found this out the hard way. He teaches at a local university, where his students gave him a startling initiation. More than half of them disappeared and failed to complete their assignments during the month of February. Some contracted early strains of “swine flu.” Others had faulty computers. One even resorted to e-mailing a paper from his PDA, probably while drunk along the parade route. The professor was dumbfounded. But now he knows: In the month leading up to Fat Tuesday, Carnival trumps all things eternal.
2. Flying insects and such
Creepy-crawlies aren’t unique to the South. I know this, having spent time in New York City, where roaches are ubiquitous and probably outnumber the human population.
What we didn’t know is that roaches in New Orleans are fearless. They will chase you; they’ll fly in your face and make otherwise suicidal moves that require swift extermination with your flip-flop.
It gets worse.
People warned us about the roaches and other subtropical insects. But they didn’t tell us about the flying termites. Back in April, we had our first run-in with the worm-like beige creatures. And imagine our shock and horror: These strange things were inching up every wall of our house, pervading every crack in the floor, procreating before our eyes. When we looked outside, we saw thousands of them encircling every porch and streetlight on our block.
Running to our neighbors for help, panicked and worried that the flying pests were wood-eating termites, we were greeted with shrugs of nonchalance and hollow explanations that the neighborhood was amidst “flying termite” season. The only remedy, they said, was to sit in utter darkness, as the termites were attracted to light and would gravitate toward any light source.
I slept in a fetal position on most of those April nights, worried that the mutant termites would creep into the bed. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I’ve since developed a certain reverence for these critters. In NYC, the bugs duck out of sight. Here, they love the city just as much as we do, and they’re always around to prove it.
3. Spotty Road Work?
The potholes in New Orleans resemble terrestrial impact craters. They’re deep. They’re unavoidable. They’re everywhere. We know it’s an unwelcome fact of life here. But we can’t figure out why. And how is it that streets in less need of repair garner more attention from work crews? Over the past few months teams of workers have been repaving dead-end streets near Audubon Park, streets that were already smooth, nowhere near as pockmarked as those in Mid-City.
It doesn’t make sense.
But, then again, it wouldn’t be the first time a local government agency has failed to employ common sense in public works projects. One wonders if our tax dollars can be spent a little more effectively.
4. Heat and Humidity
When we moved here last August, the heat and humidity were almost unbearable. A short walk to the store down the street felt like a day’s run at the Badwater ultra-marathon. We thought repeated exposure to such unforgiving temperatures was downright inhuman and that our lungs would never adjust to the steamy air.
Strangely enough, we’ve adapted quite well. A year later, we jog on summer days, bike for miles in dense August heat and can generally exist outdoors without wanting to disrobe.
It’s not so bad once you embrace it. It’s much like living on a tropical island. And with all the water around here, New Orleans is something of an island, right?
5. Snow on the Gulf Coast
A winter wonderland isn’t exactly something you’d expect down on the bayou. Growing up in New Jersey, I always expected snow and lots of it. So when it randomly snowed here on Dec. 11, 2008, I knew exactly what to do: my typical daily routine. A minor dusting of snow coated the city, but locals reacted as if the city got blasted by a Nor’easter.
It was hilarious.
During my drive to work — one in which I was the only driver cruising over 15 mph — a friend called me, frantic, wondering how to brave the snow. “It looks too dangerous; should I even drive?” she asked. I couldn’t contain the laughter. She hadn’t let her daughters go to school and lamented the fact that she didn’t own high boots or gloves.
To say that locals overreacted is a gross understatement. They say the city’s bowl-shaped, but its slopes aren’t steep enough to send cars sliding. The only hills around here are the levees, and people don’t exactly go sledding at “The Fly.”
A slight dusting of snow will never cripple or flood New Orleans. A hurricane, yes. But a dusting of snow, never.
To be continued…