Monday, 6 September 2010

Heat, Horrors, and Southern Decadence in Many Forms

On September 2nd, we woke up and decided to head to the little café directly across the street from the Bohemian Armadillo, La Peniche, for some breakfast.  We were served by a brusque older woman (who I later found out is named Joe), who efficiently bustled around the small café taking orders, delivering food, refilling coffee and iced tea, and she took our orders–and my weird “jokes” which stand as some sort of banter–in quick time.  The breakfast was fantastic, the price great, and overall it was a rather satisfying start to the day. We only casually took note of the many pride flags and posters relating to something called “Southern Decadence” as we headed to the car. Our mission today, outer borough shopping for a better coffee maker, a lamp, some cups and other sundries and my first cellphone!
Mr. T rudely directed us towards the highway, and through the maze of on- and off-ramps, we swirled our way towards the mall we had accidently found the night before in our food-crazed and over-tired haze.  Phoebe drove like a pro, but I was still white-knuckling the speed and craziness of the American highway system.  We wandered around a smallish and slightly depressed mall in what we later found out was Metairie, one of the suburbs or smaller communities surrounding New Orleans proper.  We shopped at a used book store, checked out what was playing at the local theatre, and then I acted like a monkey choosing and trying to figure out payment plans at the AT&T store. One cheap blue cellphone later, we headed to Target and picked up my various living needs…which would never see the light of day at the Bohemian!
Arriving back at the Voodoo Room after a full day of shopping, driving and Mr. T’s seemingly worsening directions, we pushed our overheated and muggy bodies into the cool of our living quarters and I headed into the kitchen to unpack a new coffee maker (only $7 at Target!! Woooo!!). 
I’m sure Phoebe can remember the slightly elevated voice and rising sounds of panic as I began to really take in my surroundings.  Some sort of bugs had skittered under the microwave on the counter as I turned on the light. Heading towards the stove and the piece of counter there, I noticed something receding into the darkness under the stove. I opened the only kitchen drawer which I knew must hold cutlery and other kitchen utensils, but was shocked to find ALSO held several fast moving shapes and a lot of small dark “dirt” looking spots everywhere. I asked Phoebe to come in and check things out with me, and together we tentatively lifted the microwave, hairs rising on the backs of my arms. Yep, cockroaches dashed from the now-lit counter to the dark nooks behind the fridge, which sits right by that piece of counter.  A plethora of roach poop, I’m assuming (unless it was mouse poop) sat on the counter alongside an old garlic clove. Egads and little fishes…no, don’t mention little fishes…it reminds me of the roaches! I sprayed the counter liberally with cleanser and paper towelled the area, and then we simply backed slowly from the kitchen back into the living room to access.
Now, I’m a city gal but have certainly spent my time in the country. I know bugs exist out there in the world in droves. And, as a city gal, I’ve seen my share of giant harbour and garbage rats, carpet beetles, silverfish (gross, gross, gross), diseased looking pigeons and other pests.  However, I ain’t no Rhoda Morgenstern here (look it up people), and I ain’t never lived in New York or nuttin’.  I have never really seen a cockroach except in movies and such, and I am now thankful I never had to deal with them until now. They are gross.  I immediately contacted the landlords who appeared to be as appalled as we were, and they promised to get both a cleaner and a bug person in to deal with the problem as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, for some odd reason which I’m sure is related to cash flow, Phoebe and I attempted to make the best of the situation, kill the few roaches which made it out of the kitchen area, avoid the kitchen entirely, and try to just get on. *shudder* The horror…………THE HORROR.
We had already eaten on the way home, so that night we huddled on the daybed and watched a movie on my laptop, then headed timidly to bed and talked and I`m sure eventually fell asleep.
We again headed to La Peniche for some breakfast, sheepishly showing up two days in a row, and this time the pride flags, and a poster depicting several drag queens who had apparently all signed their love to the restaurant was a little more noticeable.  As were what appeared to be a LOT of tables filled with older gay men.  As were what appeared to be a LOT of tables filled with older gay men.  We wondered what was going on, and soon found out as we headed into the was Southern Decadence, New Orleans version of Gay Pride! Phoebe and I were both struck with how many of the slightly older gay-set were out (heh heh) and about, but I figured the youngers were sleeping off terrible hangovers and danced out muscles from several parties that were advertised around town (including a classic White Party).
We lovingly gazed at wrought-iron balconies draped with plants and ivies, avoided loaded and reeking garbage cans, and attempted to see only the beautiful and exotic and not the grungy and puke-covered. The Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, is awesome. It's a really vibrant, unusual and eclectic space that has that sort of hippy artist vibe, mixed with a sort of goth vibe, mixed with a sort of old world southern charm vibe, mixed with a drink till you puke your brains out vibe. We discovered a myriad of antique shops, old book stores, voodoo shops, jewellery, soap, chapeaus, dresses…yep, good shopping in the Quarter. Most of it is somewhat pricey, being a super tourist area, but everyone was super friendly, even if they often had that slightly “hustler” thing going on. However, even after we would indicate that we were most likely not going to be spending money in an establishment, we were still treated with friendliness and were asked where we were from, etc.

After shopping for a while, we decided to try out those beignets and coffee everyone was raving about before heading out of town for the afternoon. We shopped our way to Café Du Monde, the famous café that serves basically two things: café au lait and beignets (though you can get coke or cold milk of the white and chocolate varieties as well). You can get your coffee iced or hot, and everything comes with a glass of water, and have I mentioned that beignets are the best thing ever?! Well, they are. They are squares and triangle of fried dough, sort of sweet but more bread-y than doughnut-y, if you can figure out what I mean by that, and are COATED in powdered sugar. For our first venture, Phoebes and I shared a plate, which we did not do again. So tasty, yet so messy.  I will note here that I have yet to find a seat in Café du Monde that does not have either a fan blowing my powdered sugar in my face, or a vent above me that does not drip weird water down the back of my neck. It was actually getting to be ridiculous as I changed seats only to have water dripping AGAIN! Regardless, well worth the trouble!

For our afternoon, we decided to head to Oak Alley Plantation, in Vacherie, Louisiana, about an hour and a bit from New Orleans. By this point we had abandoned Mr. T and opted for “Susan,” a strong, efficient voice that we felt sure would get us there with little to no trouble.  After a pit stop at our hacienda and re-sealing our bags against possible cockroach invasion, off we headed to the country.
The day was lovely, and my beloved albeit slightly aggressive driver Phoebe and I were excited to head out of the city and see some of that swampy beauty.  After navigating several highways and overpasses, we began to head up, Up, UP a strangely high and curving single lane highway-bridge-road-to-nowhere that seemed to head over swamp and treetops. Spanish moss covered branches were parallel to our car, and though Phoebe found it pretty, my un-adventurous ass was clenched in the seat and my hand was on the seat belt buckle as if I could physically hold myself into the car should it suddenly veer and topple into brackish water below. (Needless to say, I feel that Phoebe may have found driving with me as a passenger slightly exhausting at times!)The day was lovely, and my beloved albeit slightly aggressive driver Phoebe and I were excited to head out of the city and see some of that swampy beauty.  After navigating several highways and overpasses, we began to head up, Up, UP a strangely high and curving single lane highway-bridge-road-to-nowhere that seemed to head over swamp and treetops. Spanish moss covered branches were parallel to our car, and though Phoebe found it pretty, my un-adventurous ass was clenched in the seat and my hand was on the seat belt buckle as if I could physically hold myself into the car should it suddenly veer and topple into brackish water below. (Needless to say, I feel that Phoebe may have found driving with me as a passenger slightly exhausting at times!)
Soon after we turned onto Highway 61, and of course I calmed down enough to snap, like, 80 pictures of Highway 61 road signs like a git.  Tall, bright green fields of what I thought was corn turned out to be sugar cane, and I was suddenly so IN the South it was ridiculous! Susan led us on a merry chase around a few of these cane fields, and I feel was desperately trying to get us to drive through one, Cannonball Run style, but since we left our Burt Reynolds moustaches at home, we kept to the roads. The highway soon turned into a long and fast-paced dirt road along the Mississippi, and there we were in Plantation-orama-land.  All along the Mississippi are plantations dotted about, as the river was used as an easy and effective transportation system for crops and supplies. We passed the Laura Plantation as we drove further up the road to Oak Alley, which we chose because it’s one of the most famous and filmed plantations in the area. And it was definitely worth a look-see.

It was still hot as dog’s balls out, and re-adopting our Harlow Fieldtrip Survival Guide, we headed to the café first.  We had discovered that when you are about to get your history on, a sit down at the location, a glance through the gift shop, and a cup of coffee really helps to settle you and get you prepared for what’s ahead. After our coffee and pie, and postcards up the whazzoo, we headed towards the main house.  The oaks which the plantation is named for are truly breathtaking. Covered in Spanish moss and ivy, they’re like something out of a fairy tale, and the landscapers were busy cutting the acres of grass, so though there was more noise than we loved, the smell of cut grass and flowers was yummy indeed. The roots of the oaks were bulging through the ground like giant varicose veins (yes, not a romantic image at all, but it’s what you get with me), and some of their branches were so large and heavy that they didn’t so much branch up, but rather sort of languished along and drooped towards the ground. Some branches would rest there, only to then reach up again, like giants elbows on a green table cloth (there’s some romance for you, fools!).  Large copper bowls, which we later found out were sugar cane boiling kettles (where slaves would boil the sugar cane over hot bonfires to leach out the impurities for hours on end in sweltering Louisiana heat) were reutilized as water features, and large lilies and lily pads were visible when you looked over the tops. 

As we approached the main house, we could see ladies in semi-period costume standing about with a nearby refreshment stand that sold alcoholic or non-alcoholic juleps.  As we walked around to the “front” of the house we walked along a wrap-around veranda with tall, Grecian columns and then saw the famous “Oak Alley,” a long driveway with 200-year-old oaks placed on either side leading to the main road. It was ridiculously stunning, and I must admit to feeling a little breath taken.  Soon, Geraldine, our guide opened the front doors and we were let into the house.

Geraldine was a lovely, blonde woman most likely in her 40s, who had the most awesome voice ever! I could most definitely spend hours sipping iced tea and listening to the cicadas and her voice tell me stories of the Old South. It was that particular voice that some Southern woman have that is very deep, smooth, and almost liquid-y with a touch of raspy-ness. It’s the kind of voice that I always wished I had, instead of my sometimes high-pitched, sometimes nasally, often childish talking-from-the-top-of-your-chest kind of voice. Perhaps I need to take up smoking and get drinking a lot harder!
The house was actually smaller than I felt it should be, and some of that might be owning to the thickness of the walls, which apparently helped keep the place cool without a/c back in the day. But it was pretty, and very plantation-y. I was surprised that although the website boasted some good ghost stories, Geraldine kept strictly to the history of the family and house. We mostly heard about Jacques Etienne, and his 2nd wife Celina. Celina was much younger than Jacques, and more of an 18th century party gal, and so Jacques attempted to build the plantation up so that she would be able to entertain and have parties, while at the same time maintain a working plantation. However, Celina, who supposedly loved Jacques very much, kept mainly to New Orleans in a house in the French Quarter, so she could go to affairs in town. Though we kept hearing about how much Celina loved Jacques, I’m not sure the story really sounds like that. It sort of sounds like she was young and spoiled, and spent as much time away from the place as possible, or that Jacques was already an older man with a large family who was marrying some young thing and wanting to keep her nearer on the plantation. Who the hell knows, though, as none of us were there!  After Jacques died his wife, most likely through inexperience at running a plantation, drove it into the ground, and it was eventually sold.
One great story we heard that I must share has to do with pineapple symbolism! You heard me! So, pineapples are a big thing in the south, and they were carved into a lot of wood-work, etc. If you were a guest at one of these lovely plantations back in, oh, say, 1775 or so, you might get a pineapple left in your room as a sign of welcome and hospitality. However, if you overstayed your welcome and were just clinging and eating the free food too long, the maid would bring up your breakfast and there would be a second, more dreaded pineapple with your eggs and coffee. This golden fruit meant, GO HOME! So, as Geraldine told us, and as many a good assassination proves, always beware the second pineapple!
After the tour we were asked if there was anything else we wanted to know, and I piped up, “Are there any good ghost stories here?” I was interested to note that Geraldine’s total demeanour changed, and she instantly become less formal and somewhat more animated. She said that yes, there are some ghosts that supposedly haunt the place, including a woman in black who is, perhaps, the grieving Celina. Phoebe and I both agreed that again, I’m not sure that Celina would be grieving too much at the plantation, and would most likely be more grooving in town, but still interesting.  Geraldine herself had seen what she thinks may be the spectre of a dog or cat which crossed the hallway and promptly disappeared through a wall, but it moved too fast for her to see clearly, and was not in the adjoining room.  Our guide, who was fantastic and a good storyteller, seemed so much more personable and connected to the house when she was relating her own paranormal sighting, and indeed, the fact that she had possibly seen something from another time most likely would connect you in some way to the history of a space. Almost as if you are a part of something that happened there long ago, which I think is so crucial to why people connect to historic spaces so much. They can almost tangibly feel that people from a bygone era had used those rooms, or walked those paths, or cooked in that kitchen, etc.  The idea of literally experiencing something sensual, as in with your senses, from the past could be both frightening and deeply connecting in some way---or at least so I muse.
On the way home we stopped at a drugstore called Rite Aid to pick up much needed anti-itch cream for Miss Phoebe as she was bug-bit to hell. Apparently she was taking all the mosquitoes for me, like a good friend. When we got back to our room, we decided to head out for pizza and ate at Desperadoes on Frenchman, which was deeee-lish!  And that (after bug check and a movie) ended another day in the Big Easy.

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