Why I love New Orleans

All photos by Melanie Warner Spencer

People often ask Mark and I why we moved to New Orleans. We came here for the first time many years ago for less than 24 hours. We were living in Austin, Texas and traveling through on a road trip through the South up to Kentucky to visit family. After rambling through the French Quarter, sipping a few cold beverages, taking in the people, the architecture, the history and, of course, the food — we were smitten and vowed to come back when we could stay longer. That first time, we had dinner in the courtyard at Café Amelie and it’s still my favorite restaurant. During our second visit, after dinner and drinks we were headed back to our hotel when we heard the ubiquitous sound of a brass band in the distance. Following the music, we fell in line and danced along as it and our fellow revelers marched past Café du Monde to Washington Artillery Park. Once we stopped, the band continued to play while the man leading the band and second line jumped onto the cannon and began waving the French flag. We quickly realized it was the weekend before Bastille Day. Not that New Orleanians need any reason for a parade. The smitten feeling quickly turned to love during that visit. Before too long we move from Austin to Houston and were coming to town two or three times per year. It got to the point where we dreaded leaving the city, so we moved here. A year and a half later, the love we feel for New Orleans continues to grow deeper by the day.

There are several reasons I for one hold such a deep affection for this city. One is the Southerness of New Orleans. As a Kentuckian, I have a visceral reaction to the sounds, fragrances, flavors and ways of the South. Storytellers and the saccharine smell of magnolias and Confederate jasmine; cold sweet tea and warm, spontaneous hospitality; and the deeply welcoming and nurturing spirit of the people are things that — once I had them again — made me realize how bereft I’d been over the absence from my day-to-day life. I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed the South until we were back in the thick of it.

That’s not to say the good people of Texas we lived among for 12 years weren’t warm, welcoming, funny and downright wonderful, but there was a certain kinship missing. Texas is technically the South, but even natives don’t really think of it as Southern— it really is its own country in so many ways. I suppose that’s because of the Western influence. We weren’t Texans, though they adopted us and loved us like one of their own. Perhaps it was because of the many Kentuckians, including the infamous James Bowie, who fought alongside their ancestors during the Battle of the Alamo.

(Come to think of it, there also happened to be a large number of Kentuckians at the Battle of New Orleans. I’m beginning to think my kinsmen just liked to fight.)

There was a time when Tex-Mex was a foreign concept to us, though we learned to love it and its frosty companion, the margarita. Texas’ national sport is, of course, football. As Kentuckians however, we were born and breed on basketball and thoroughbreds (and, bourbon, which some people approach as if it’s a sport). But, football fever is easily caught and impossible from which to recover. It was hard to leave Texas, but like so many before us, we could no longer deny our love affair with New Orleans.

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the world’s attention once again turns to New Orleans, its recovery, the stories of tragedy and triumph and the follow-up and “where are they now” pieces about the people who appeared in so many stories during the aftermath. I wasn’t here when it happened and will never be able to understand or imagine what the city’s inhabitants experienced, no matter how many articles and books I read or photos and documentaries I view on the subject, because that level of loss, heartbreak and devastation cannot possibly be imagined by someone who didn’t go through it.

Ten years later, I assure you, the storm is still as real, present and raw to the people of New Orleans. Our friends — many of whom have become like family in the short time since we moved here from Houston — still struggle with memories of the storm, the flooding, leaving, returning and recovery. You can see it in their eyes, which to this day well up with tears of emotion when they talk about it. I listen to their stories and hug them when they need it. That’s the least I can do and the only thing I know to do.

The story of Katrina is most certainly theirs, not mine. So, I’ll let my friends and adopted New Orleans family talk about the storm and of how they brought back the city.

My story about New Orleans is one of gratitude. I’m thankful every day for the joyful, unwavering spirit of this city’s inhabitants and their sheer determination, because those things made it possible for me to live in this magical place. Like so many people, when I want to feel connected to that magic and tap into the history and flavor of New Orleans, I wander the Vieux Carré. As an artist and writer, the historic architecture, narrow streets and Creole color palette are what caught my eye and captured my heart and soul the first time I visited. Since then, I’ve become besotted with my Uptown neighborhood, the Garden District, Mid-City, the Central Business District, Algiers, Lakeside and so many other corners of the city.

The other day two men passed us while we were out for a walk. One was pushing the other in a wheelchair, which is no small feat given the state of the sidewalks in pretty much any neighborhood in town.

“Hello,” Mark and I both said as we walked by.

The gent in the chair said, “Where y’at?”

(If anyone reading this doesn’t know, that’s New Orleanian for, “What’s up?” or “Where are you?” or “Hi” or “How are you?” depending on the context.)

“All right,” we responded and I looked at Mark with the dumbest happy grin on my face, because I realized that somehow, this was the first time someone had actually said those words to me.

That experience prompts one more thank you, which is for speaking the local language to us as if we are fellow New Orleanians. We’ve made it a point to immerse ourselves in the culture and not stand outside of it like spectators. It of course feels premature to call ourselves New Orleanians this early in our residency, but we certainly love it when we get mistaken as such and aspire to earn the label through the coming months and years. 

Yes, the French Quarter was the initial draw, but ultimately it was the city’s life-loving, dance-in-the-streets, joyous, openhearted inhabitants that lured us to make this our home. Thank you to the New Orleanians who stayed, came back, worked tirelessly to recover and who continue to mend this mysterious, beautifully decayed, decadent, strange, lyrical, naughty, humid, ever-intriguing, seductive and creative place. Thank you for welcoming us with the Southerness we craved and missed for so many years and for making us feel so at home, as only Southerners can do for their own. This and so much more is why I love New Orleans. 



Categories: Bon Vivant, Gulf Coast, LL_Home