Thursday, January 12, 2012

adventures in New Orleans: the Mom edition.

Remember how I went to New Orleans for three months in 2009? I told you the horror story of my creepy Craigslist landlord, but I never told you anything good about my stay in New Orleans. The good far and above outweighed the bad; it’s just that my creepy landlord story is always the starting point. But now, it’s time to talk about the good.

Around the middle of November, I was sort of figuring out life in New Orleans. My internship was running along smoothly, and my two part-time retail jobs (mostly) kept food on the (non-existent) table. Ok, so I was poor and incredibly busy, but I was in New Orleans, which totally made up for it.

At the same time, I was a little lonesome. I was more than a thousand miles away from my family and friends. I had made some new friends in New Orleans, yes, but I still missed everyone back home. I’d had a less than wonderful Halloween that year (I sat in my shed/house and watched the Halloween episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and if you remember, Halloween is my favorite holiday. The disappointing Halloween made me lonelier than ever, and I was beginning to pine for the Midwest.

So when my mom called and asked how I’d feel about her visiting me for a few days near the end of November, I said, “YES, PLEASE!” before she’d even finished the offer. Mom would arrive on a Saturday and leave on Thanksgiving Day (as a retail employee, there was no way I could get out of working on Black Friday). The plan was set, and I eagerly began counting down the days until Mom arrived in the Big Easy.

As I mentioned before, my living quarters in New Orleans were a spiffed-up shed in someone’s backyard. I slept on an air mattress, my closet was one of those stand-up rack things, and my kitchen consisted of a microwave and a mini-fridge. Clearly, this was an unfit place to host one’s mother for a six-day vacation. So Mom sent me scouting for the perfect hotel. We wanted one in a decent neighborhood within walking distance of the streetcar line, but we didn’t want the exorbitant prices of the French Quarter.

Mom did some internet research, and she sent me to check out a place called the Prytania Park Hotel. Since I lived nearby, we thought it would be a good idea for me to check out the neighborhood and the Prytania to ensure that we weren’t staying at a roach motel in the New Orleans ghetto. Thankfully, it was just the opposite. The Prytania is a quaint little hotel right off of St Charles Avenue, which is famous for its ornate mansions. There was a streetcar line just two blocks away, which meant that we could just ride that everywhere and not have to worry about the treacherous parking in the French Quarter. The Prytania even had a little courtyard, and I was sold.

The day of Mom’s arrival finally approached, and we checked into our charming hotel. But what to do first? “Eating something delicious” was on the top of Mom’s to-do list. New Orleans is famous for its seafood, and my mom LOVES seafood. From our hotel, we could see a place called the Voodoo BBQ, which looked quite promising. We walked right over and ordered barbecue shrimp (which is not shrimp in barbecue sauce, but shrimp in a delicious buttery, garlicky, white wine sauce) and corn pudding, and it was heaven on a plate. Mom’s trip was off to a strong start.

Fall is festival season for New Orleans: summer is too hot, so when fall rolls around, they really celebrate. There’s some kind of festival nearly every weekend, and they’re usually food-themed. Mom and I hadn’t really thought about the festivals, but my landlady had told us about a festival happening that Sunday called the Po’boy Preservation Festival. A po’boy is a New Orleans submarine-type sandwich that is made on French bread and usually contains some kind of seafood. We decided to hop on the streetcar and go to the festival.

And what a great decision that was. As soon as we stepped off the streetcar, the aroma of food wafted into our nostrils. The street was filled with food booths, and there were so many tempting choices. Mom knew immediately what she wanted: char grilled oysters. We had come upon a giant open grill covered with halved oysters, and Mom wanted those oysters. 
I, on the other hand, was skeptical. The closest I had ever come to an oyster was the time Mom had me open up a can of smoked oysters, and they smelled like canned death. Mom assured me these oysters were different, so I hesitantly agreed to share an order with her. My mom was totally, completely, 100% right. 
This is the face of pure joy.
These oysters had been grilled to perfection and basted with butter, garlic, and lemon. I had died and gone to seafood heaven. We tried a few other things at the Po’boy Festival: stuffed shrimp, a shrimp po’boy… but nothing managed to even come close to those oysters.

Our second stop was the museum where I was interning. They had a display there of original Disney animation studio drawings from a number of movies, including Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. Mom is a tried-and-true Disney fan, so we went to see the exhibit. It was doubly fun for me, since I got to show Mom around “my” museum. 
She even let me take her picture by the sign.
It’s not too often that unpaid interns can feel important, but when you get to walk around and say, “See the label for this piece? I wrote that paragraph!” you do feel a little special… especially when you have someone who will at least pretend to be impressed!

For supper that evening, we ate at Landry’s, which is a floating seafood restaurant. It’s situated on gigantic Lake Pontchartrain, and you get there via a little floating walkway. Mom had not had her fill of oysters for the day, so that’s what we got. They were not quite as good as the char-grilled oysters, but it’s almost unfair to compare them. In any case, we got to eat at a floating restaurant, which was a first for both of us.

Later that evening, I took Mom to the pinnacle of the New Orleans experience: Bourbon Street. 
Mom loves Bourbon Street!
We rode the streetcar right into the heart of the French Quarter, and we just strolled along, taking in all the sights, sounds, and (less pleasant) smells. Mom got to see the kitschy little shops with all their ridiculous wares. I tried to convince Mom to bring home a dried alligator head for my brother, but she was a tough sell.
Though my brother never got his gator
head, Mom did make friends with this guy.
Our final stop of Mom’s first full day in New Orleans was CafĂ© du Monde: home of the beignet. A beignet is a fried French donut covered in powdered sugar, and they are divine. Mom, who has never been a big dessert eater, thought they were just ok. 
She put on a happy face anyway.
For her, nothing compared to the Po’boy Preservation Festival oysters.

The next day, we headed back to the French Quarter. It was a lot different in the daylight, and Mom wanted to see some of the little antique stores and the architecture. We went to Jackson Square and wandered through St Louis Cathedral, and we walked down by the Mississippi River. Mom and I went to the French Market, and we just took in the charm. We went on a cemetery tour and saw the tomb of Marie LaVeau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. 
Not creepy at all.
Fun cemetery fact: Marie LaVeau’s grave is the second most visited grave in the United States, right behind Elvis and right before JFK. Legend has it if you draw three Xs on her grave and leave her an offering, Marie LaVeau will grant you a wish. Mom and I didn’t try it, mostly because our tour guide told us that you can get arrested for defacing the tombstone. Sounds like a good enough reason to leave it alone.

Mom and I each had a three-day streetcar pass, and that included as many rides as our little hearts desired. When we were done with the French Quarter that day, we hopped on the St Charles streetcar that would take us back to the hotel. We decided, though, that we could just as well ride the streetcar and see where it went. We rode through the Garden District, which was even beautiful at night. After a while, though, the neighborhoods got less and less pleasant. Suddenly, the streetcar stopped and it was announced that we were at the end of the line. Mom and I really hoped that we weren’t about to get thrown off: it looked pretty scary out there. Luckily, the conductor just flipped the seat backs so they were facing the opposite direction, and we took off back the way we came. Mom later told one of her coworkers that we had ridden the streetcar all the way to where it ended. Her coworker, who had spent quite a bit of time in New Orleans, told her that he can’t believe we did that – it gets dangerous towards the end of the line!

We spent Mom’s third full New Orleans day riding the ferry across the Mississippi River to a little island known as Algiers.
It was breezy. Can you tell?
The island is right across the river from the French Quarter, but it seems like it is worlds apart. The streets were quiet, and there were hardly any tourists around. Mom and I went on the Jazz Walk, which sounded a lot more interesting than it actually was. The Jazz Walk started with a statue of Louis Armstrong and consisted of lampposts containing facts about obscure jazz musicians. 
Yes, I have heard of Jelly Roll Morton. But how are we
near-sighted folks supposed to read the lamppost facts?!
We followed the Jazz Walk until we reached a giant green, yellow, and purple building announcing itself to be Mardi Gras World. Just like the rest of the island, there seemed to be no one around. Mom and I crept around the building, and we stumbled across something rather unsettling: piles and piles of disintegrating Mardi Gras float pieces. 
I'm pretty sure this is where nightmares go to die.
We left Algiers shortly afterwards, which was probably just as well.

For lunch that day, Mom wanted a muffuletta sandwich. A muffuletta is a round sandwich made with a bunch of different deli meats and a vinegary olive salad. According to Mom’s New Orleans savvy coworker, the Central Grocery originated the sandwich and was therefore the best place to get one. The Central Grocery is a little grocery store where you can buy everything from fancy European cheese to pickled octopus. You line up at the counter to get your sandwich, and then there’s another little counter where you can sit down and it eat. Those sandwiches were delicious (even though I picked the olive salad off mine).
See how much I love my pseudo muffuletta?
Mom and I were progressing quickly through her “New Orleans Food Bucket List.”

After lunch, we spent more time walking around the French Quarter. This time, we were looking for some of the supposedly haunted houses: the LaLaurie Mansion and the Sultan’s Palace. The LaLaurie mansion is supposedly haunted by the slaves that were tortured by Madam LaLaurie in the 1830s, and the mansion was actually owned by Nicholas Cage at one point. The legend of the Sultan’s Palace is allegedly haunted by the spirit of a sultan and his harem who were murdered by the sultan’s brother. 
I was half expecting a see-through Turkish sultan
go strolling along the balcony.
What a sultan was doing in New Orleans, I have no idea. We could not go inside the mansions, but that was fine: we got the creeps just from standing on the sidewalk across from them.

After we spent time looking at the mansions on St Charles Avenue (some of the most expensive real estate in the country), Mom decided that she wanted the Voodoo BBQ for supper: really, their barbecue shrimp was to die for. After supper, though, we had run out of plans. Since we had spent our entire day on our feet, Mom and I decided we wanted to do something that involved sitting for that evening. We ventured out to the New Orleans suburbs to the five-dollar AMC theatre. There was a time when every movie at AMC during the week was $5, no matter if it was a 4 o’clock show or a 9 o’clock show. Ahh, the good old days.

Wednesday was to be Mom’s final full day in New Orleans, so we had to do something great. Up until that point, I had been the one suggesting activities. Before Mom arrived, I had seen plenty of things I wanted to do (like the cemetery tour), but no one with which do to them. We had been doing all sorts of things from MY list, and Mom seemed to be enjoying herself. When I asked her what SHE really wanted to do, she usually turned the reigns over to me and informed me that she’d let me know if one of my ideas sounded really lousy. On her last full day, though, Mom decided that she really wanted to see Oak Alley Plantation.

 Oak Alley was built in 1839, and it’s a gorgeous antebellum mansion that sits along the Mississippi River. Oak Alley is about an hour from New Orleans, and the drive itself was half the fun. We traveled through sugar cane fields and swamps: nothing you see in South Dakota. What really makes Oak Alley special, though, are its oak trees. There are twenty or so nearly two hundred year old oak trees that line the pathway to the plantation, and they are curved to form an arc over the top of the pathway: hence the name Oak Alley. We got a tour of the mansion and a tour of the grounds, and it really was incredible. It was like stepping in a time machine back to the old South.
Who doesn't love a good plantation?
When we got back to New Orleans, it was suppertime. Mom and I decided to sample a restaurant called Copeland’s, which was actually famous for their desserts. We ended up splitting appetizers for supper and bread pudding (a good Southern dish!) for dessert. I loved the bread pudding: it was warm and fluffy with a white chocolate/raspberry bourbon sauce. Mom, who would generally prefer another serving of vegetables over dessert, was not as thrilled as I was. To end the night, we went to another $5 movie (new movies were never that cheap, even in South Dakota). We’d had a great day.

The next day was Thanksgiving Day: the day of Mom’s departure. She didn’t leave until the early afternoon, so we had a bit of time to accomplish a little bit more sight-seeing. We walked down Magazine Street, which is famous for its little shops and cafes. We found an abandoned church that had a “for sale” sign in the window. We stumbled across a little Norwegian church, which was kind of surprising to see in Louisiana. For our Thanksgiving dinner, we had breakfast sandwiches at a streetcar-turned-restaurant. You may think it’s odd to have breakfast sandwiches for Thanksgiving, but Mom and I were perfectly happy. Neither of us likes turkey, anyway.

All too soon, it was time to take Mom to the airport. I had to work that evening at the craft store, so it was about time for me to get my uniform on and go sell glittery flowers and scrapbooking scissors. Mom found her plane with no problems and made it home with no problems, which is always a good way to end a trip.

I had such a fantastic time in New Orleans with my mom, and if you asked her, I believe she’d say the same thing. Permit me a moment of sentimentality here, but it really is great to have a mom who is also your friend.

Stay tuned for adventures in New Orleans: the Dad edition!

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