Going to Southampton yesterday, after a long break from the cruise port city, we took a look around West Quay Shopping Centre and had a meal out, with dessert in a different place. As a big Trip Advisor user, I don’t really go to a restaurant any longer without researching it on the website. This time, the choice was for the Mexican one called La Baronia and the French patisserie named Boulangerie Victor Hugo. I am not going to talk about them here, but if you are interested you can read the reviews I will leave on Trip Advisor as soon as I get some of our photos on my laptop.
What I will say is that we had huge portions of mille feuille, so heavenly light and crumbly and flavoursome, while listening to French music (my fingers itch now for writing a review, which I will refrain as I am divagating enough already). Savouring the lovely piece of sweet pastry I remembered New Orleans, with a light-hearted nostalgia, wrapped in a summer evening glow.
It was not a Deep South evening which came into my mind, although I did take the night Vampire tour in the French Quarter and I found it quite fascinating. What came to mind was the mornings I would be off duty as an Au Pair and go for coffee (I used to have the vegetal, fake one) and French beignets (oh, the bliss!) in the big cafe placed opposite Saint Louis Cathedral. Called Café du Monde, it just made every morning I would spend in the beautiful Southern city something to look forward to.
All my memories of New Orleans are bright, fresh, joyful, and free of any of the tensions and loneliness which filled my American year.
I had the opportunity to visit the city in 2004, just before Katrina (lucky me!). My host father was originally from New Orleans and they had to attend a wedding there, so they took the opportunity of spending a whole week to visit family and friends. I would be off during the days (I think with just one exception) and would have to babysit only in the evenings, while the parents went out to meet people, attend wedding rehearsals and all the rest.
Maybe part of why I didn’t feel so lonely there (as this was one of my biggest challenges in the US) was because the host dad asked one of his friends to show me around one day. So the guy took me to a very local restaurant, not at all the fancy type, but with great local cuisine, I remember I had alligator sausages and chicken livers deep fried in an egg and batter blanket, then in the evening we went for drinks and the Vampire tour. Another day I went with the host family to the big zoo and I remember I was impressed.
Maybe I didn’t feel so lonely there because I could walk everywhere and just take the pulse of the place on foot.
What can I say, New Orleans was one of these cities with a vibe, I could feel its energy, which didn’t work for me in Cancun, where, despite going out every evening in clubs, where there was always somebody to talk to and where I even fell in a love a bit, I still felt agonisingly lonely. So it must be the feel of the place which grew inside me almost instantly, probably quite bohemian, vibrant, dark and sweet, fresh and light at the same time.
And look at me, the way I remember New Orleans is through eating mille feuille, hahaha, just like Proust wrote a whole novel and slipped inside the stream of memory while eating a madeleine, and I swear I did not try to copy him! Shamefully, I haven’t even read his works, which I feel dreadful about confessing right now, as I writer.
One thought makes me laugh right this instant: did I love New Orleans because it was the most European place I have visited in the US? Probably so.
What could be more European than Jackson Square, with the cathedral guarding one of its sides, and the river on the other? With all the shops aligned on the sides of the square, the big café opposite, and then the historical houses with their balconies on all the streets, all the little shops and pubs and restaurants, so different from the very American Williamsburg where I used to live for 9 month with my first host family?
What could be more European than a sightseeing river cruise? I do have to acknowledge the American flavour of this one activity, as I have been (if my memory doesn’t play tricks on me, mind you, I am growing older) on the Creole Queen Paddlewheeler, the one which appears in “Interview with the Vampire”, one of the best movies of the sort ever made, a truly romantic production, less commercial and more true to what romanticism is about. I took the afternoon cruise, cheaper, and not the jazz dinner which I would just LOOOOOVE to take nowadays if given the opportunity. Well, I was an Au Pair, pocket money of $120 (or less?) a week, so I couldn’t afford much back then.
Nevertheless, taking the old tram was a very affordable attraction and what could be more European than this? The ride along the old quarters, with the lovely houses, very Southern in style, an architecture I find beautiful, then off the tram and into the historical park, strolling down the big alley guarded by very old trees with the branches reaching towards the ground, is there any wonder at all I wasn’t feeling lonely, isolated, misplaced in such a well rooted, bohemian place?
One of the sweetest things which happened to me was the day I couldn’t get a lift from the host family back into our airport hotel, but had to catch a cab. It was no big deal, as whenever I went out with them I did not have to pay for anything, even if I was not on duty at the time. They did advise me about asking in the hotel reception about how much would a cab ride normally cost from the French Quarter, so I knew what to expect and also not to allow drivers to trick me on the cost.
When it was time to go back, I just went and asked a hotel porter to help me call a cab, which he did. The cab arrived, I got inside and told the guy I needed to go to the Double Tree Hotel, and he took me just around the corner. Well, apparently there was one of these in the French Quarter. Then I said this was not the one and I did not know of this one at all. The taxi driver was a local African American, a really nice guy, his voice sounded really embarrassed and he would not stop apologising. I calmed him down, told him it was an honest mistake, so there we were on the way to the airport hotel. I told him how much I knew the ride would cost, according to the hotel reception people, and he asked me nicely if I agreed for him not to turn on the meter machine any longer, as the first trip would anyway come from his own pocket. I was perfectly fine with it.
Some people might judge this as being naughty. I don’t. Before going to New Orleans, while trying to find out more about the city and its surroundings, I had learnt that there was still a lot of discrimination, that the African American population did not have the same opportunities and was still struggling in poverty. My driver was an African American, and a very pleasant and sweet person. I don’t see any problem with helping him on this occasion. You could see it as a tip.
When we arrived at my destination, he came out of the cab and opened the door for me and offered me a hand so I could get out more easily. Very chivalrous of him. Then he said, in the Southern chanted accent: “Thanks, hun, I really appreciate it”. I felt like I made a person happy for that day.
Ten years have passed since I was an Au Pair in the US. Some memories come back, with all their aromas and scents, and part of this is probably me trying to recover whatever I buried under the hardship of the whole experience.
Some weeks ago, I realised how much time has gone while hanging up my laundry to dry in the small back garden we have here. There was this summer T-shirt I have amazingly been wearing ever since and which still does its job quite well. A ten years old T-shirt. I will probably just keep it, this one will never end up in a charity shop or at the skip just because it somehow became a symbol of my American memories.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I have any of the photo CDs from the States with me here, in the UK. I would have loved to post some images, and I hate it that I could not find them. I might have to ask my mum to look through my very few things still left in my parents’ house, and hopefully the CDs are still there, somewhere.
The day I will find them I will post some photos. Harsh and sweet at the same time, my experience across the ocean meant my first step out of my comfort zone, out of my sweet lair back home, in Banat, a very small and unknown region in Central Europe.