A small peek at The Big Easy

I hesitated to accept my boss’ invitation to the conference last fall, because I’d always associated New Orleans with grime and crime. And anyway, the conference was just one week after visiting my parents in Florida — and two weeks before my trip to Paris.

“It’s too much travel,” I told my husband Esteban. “But you’ll love the French Quarter,” he countered. He told me about the balconies and the hidden courtyards, about the music and food, and the friendly people. “Plus, it’s a photographer’s paradise,” he said.

Church 1180424 BLOG

Alley 1180001 BLOG

Cafe 1170665 BLOG

Street scene 1180154 BLOG

Preservation Hall 1180075 BLOG

I had doubts as the plane landed: All I could see was highways and swamps. The cab driver lived up to the friendliness billing, though, and I appreciated his brief history lesson and his thoughts on the city, post-Katrina.

He dropped me at the front door of my hotel, which was opulent.

Omni Royal 1180295 BLOG

But what really interested me was the gritty world outside those gilded doors.

Molly Bar 1180042 BLOG

Shoplifters of the month 1180151 BLOG

Sex shows 1180278 BLOG

I had two hours before the welcome dinner, so I set out to explore my neighborhood. It was just mid-afternoon but already the party was in full swing.

I tried not to eavesdrop too much as two men haggled with a pair of prostitutes. When the ladies refused to further drop their price, the guys made a creative suggestion: How about the two of them sharing one girl?

Around the corner a man wearing little more than a pink feather boa was puking in the street. And around the next corner, I came face-to-face with a voodoo dude in a black robe. His gaze was (almost theatrically) piercing and menacing. I felt momentarily unsettled, but managed a grin as I breezed past him.

I rounded the fourth corner, which brought me back to the hotel. I’d seen so much in just one block! I thought I’d seen enough, in fact, to know that New Orleans’ French Quarter was not for me.

A worn-out “working girl”

My first impression of the French Quarter reminded me of an old, worn-out lady of the night. You could still glimpse her faded beauty, but the millions of sailors and slaves and visitors who had passed through the city’s fertile delta had taken their toll. Her social fabric was frayed, and her infrastructure was sagging.

The old grande dame was still in business, though — with an extra coat or two of mascara and some neon lipstick to lure the tourists.

Bourbon street 1180550 BLOG

Huge Ass Beers 1180050 BLOG

Powerline 1180559 BLOG

Kitchen bitch 1180059 BLOG

It wasn’t this tourist-trap that interested me, though, but what lived around its fringes. There was crushing poverty here, of course …

Homeless 1180014 BLOG

… but it struck me that I saw hardly any beggars. From poets and “historical” reenactors to street artists and Starbucks-swilling voodoo priests, almost everyone was doing something to scrape by.

Poet 1170649 BLOG

Reenactor 1180108 BLOG

Street artist 1170671 BLOG

Street performer 1170652 BLOG

Street singer 1180351 BLOG

Voodoo guy 1170826 BLOG

I especially enjoyed the busker who called himself “Stoker Homebrew.” He was a tough-looking character — straight out of a Mad Max movie — but even he couldn’t resist cracking a smile when a lanky gentleman broke into dance.

Dancing in street 1180102 BLOG

Anyway … it was in talking with these people that I began to grasp the true spirit of New Orleans.

Porch dweller 1170679 BLOG

A French-ish (kind of) flavor

The view from my hotel window the next morning almost reminded me of Paris.

Humidity 1180535 BLOG

To a lesser extent, so did the balconies that overhung the streets of the French Quarter …

Classic french quarter 1180124 BLOG

… and the leonine doorknockers …

Doorknocker 1180198 BLOG

Doorknocker 1180204 BLOG

… the above-ground cemeteries …

Cemetery 1170837 BLOG

Cemetery 1170851 BLOG

… and the courtyards (many of them hidden) that provided welcome oases of calm.

Lafayette museum 1180344 BLOG

Some of the sidewalks even sported bollards, just like in Paris.

Horse heads 1180251 BLOG

And — much as in Paris — most everything seemed to be in varying degrees of disrepair.

Fountain 1180525 BLOG

Lamppost 1170730 BLOG

Old door 1180064 BLOG

Old gate 1180082 BLOG

Tourism bureau 1180017 BLOG

But comparing any city to another is small-minded — and unfair. Because, while New Orleans may have the French flavor my husband described, it also blends Spanish and Creole influences to create a personality all its own.

Calle del Maine 1170830 BLOG

Masks and street 1180107 BLOG

Street scene 1170741 BLOG

Alley 1170997 BLOG

I didn’t much care for (or understand) the fascination with voodoo …

Voodoo priestess 1180079 BLOG

Voodoo shop 1180087 BLOG

Voodoo shop 1170670 BLOG

… nor did I get the ubiquitous references to “Who dat.”

Who dat 1170696 BLOG

Who dat 1180348 BLOG

But once I got past the sex shows, neon signs and rowdy tourists, the worn-out old call girl still beguiled.

Church 1170973 BLOG

Church 1180392 BLOG

Tourist 1170953 BLOG

I barely scratched the surface in three days. But — whether it was because of voodoo, music, the people, or the food — I’ve fallen under New Orleans’ spell.

I’ll be back.


  1. Fabulous pictures! I haven’t been to New Orleans. It’s been on my list but keeps being pushed lower down for the reasons you mentioned. But your pictures may bump it up a place or two.

    • I was in the exact same boat, graciamc: NOLA was on the radar, but not a priority. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go — even if you go just once, and only for a few days, it’s well worth experiencing. Thank you for your kind comment.

    • Thank you so much, Kent! I worried that I was painting an unfair (or at least incomplete) portrait of the French Quarter because I was there so briefly — and sitting in a conference room for much of my brief stay. But your kind comment has set my fears aside. Thank you for making my day!

  2. You’re a master at capturing the light of a place. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I feel as if I’ve almost touched it by looking at your photos.

    It’s odd when you arrive in a place that’s feeding the tourist expectation of itself in order to survive. It reminded me of all the red phone boxes and double-decker buses you find in central London, left there to fit with every 1960s film version and every photo-opportunity of our capital city. Outside the centre of the city, far from the expectant eyes of tourists, the citizens survive on single-decker bendy buses and mobile phones.

    Your post reminded me, somehow, of an article that just appeared on Longreads – about satisfying tourist expectations in the Arctic https://read.atavist.com/welcome-to-dog-world

    Thanks again for bringing a taste of New Orleans to the south coast of England!

    Best wishes

    • You are so kind, Elaine … thank you for your lovely comment. Having expectations and the creation of a tourist “experience” are two of the topics I ponder most when I travel — because, as a travel writer told me, “expectations are the killers of good travel.” Nevertheless, it’s near-impossible to approach a new experience without preconceived notions … just as it’s near-impossible to preserve the authentic personality of a place once the tourists start coming. The fascinating article you shared proved this in the extreme: Would people still visit if their experience of the Arctic weren’t so carefully managed? (Putting mascara on the dogs is a new one!) These are bigger questions, worthy of a separate post … so thank you for the inspiration! And thank you, as always for stopping by. I appreciate that you always have something thoughtful (and thought-provoking) to add. Cheers to you, Elaine!

      • We do all carry our preconceptions with us in our carry-on, don’t we? I suppose that’s one of the fun parts of travel – surprising yourself.

        I remember, before living in Andalucia, expecting alegria and flamenco to flow through the veins of the locals. And it does, in a way – on school bus trips the kids at the back of the bus amuse themselves with complicated flamenco hand-clapping games. But there’s a deep vein of social conservatism that runs out of sight of tourists, like an underground river.

        I think the authentic personality of a place lives on, in the out-of-sight lives of its inhabitants – at the schools, in the dentists’ waiting rooms and at the supermarket check-outs. Sometimes I think that the touristic mask preserves and protects ‘real’ life for inhabitants. Somewhere else. (Unless, thinking about it, you live in one of those tiny ‘traditional fishing villages’ that foreigners love to ‘discover’!)

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post, H.

    I visited New Orleans in the late 1980s and absolutely loved it. It was so different and, in part, so weird that I found it utterly beguiling.

    I loved the sound of the music constantly floating through the air and the special sound of the street cars. I took a ride on a paddle steamer on the Mississippi, visited a swamp, came within touching distance of a huge alligator and ate my first creole food. I even tagged onto a tour party in an above-ground cemetery and learned that the bodies self-incinerate because of the heat and humidity – how weird is that!

    This post has brought all my colourful memories of New Orleans flooding back so thank you.

    By the way, I have a picture on my sitting room wall of ‘Number Two Meeting Street’ in Charleston, South Carolina. Another magical place in the American South. I look forward to your blog piece about that someday!

    • I’m so honored to have brought back so many wonderful memories for you, Des. It sounds like to had a terrific visit! As for Charleston, SC: Perhaps we should visit together, after we’re done with Mont St. Michel?

  4. Wow, how interesting and strangely beautiful. It seems a very moody place. I can see and feel all the European influencias through your images. Lovely post. You always make me think and discover new things.
    A Big Muac 😀

    • You’re so sweet, Rosa! And you’re so right that the European influences are tangible — though it seemed to me that the traditions of many countries had been put in a blender and applied to New Orleans in uneven coats. 🙂 ¡Muac!

  5. New Orleans was one of my favorite cities pre-Katrina. I’ve been scared to go back, afraid of what happened to her, but I think you’ve convinced me that it’s time. Gorgeous photos.

    • Your kind comment made my day, Cindy! Thank you. My husband was in the same boat, by the way — he was worried that the post-Katrina version of the city would pale by comparison to his memories. I only know New Orleans in its post-Katrina incarnation so I can’t comment on what’s changed … but I can tell you that your favorite city is still well worth a visit. Happy travels!

  6. Another wonderful virtual tour, H. I only visited NOLA once, in 1973. I didn’t stay at the Royal but I did visit it with someone I met at Preservation Hall. She was only a Senator’s daughter but she taught me all about the Congress.

    I did a blog a while back about my visit to The Big Easy, when the city looked even older than I’d expected.


    • “She was only a Senator’s daughter but she taught me all about the Congress.” Ha haa! That’s very witty, Xpat — it’s like something out of a Paul Simon song. Well done! 🙂

      Where is your old blog post, though? I looked, but can’t seem to find it. I’d really love to read your impressions …

      • HOLY MOLY! What an extraordinary introduction to the city, Xpat. And what wonderful images you created, too. Thank you so much for sharing the URL. It’s outstanding.

    • How wonderful that you got to see NOLA for yourself … it’s really a city that must be experienced to be believed, isn’t it? And how equally lovely of you to stop by. Thank you!

  7. Wow, these images. Stunning, stunning, stunning! I can understand your hesitation to visit at first though, but what magnificent photographs you brought back. 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Rochelle! Coming from such a skilled and beautiful photographer as yourself, your kind comment is a true compliment. xoxo

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