Friday, December 25, 2009

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry...Christmas in New Orleans

What's Happenin' in New Orleans?

I got this question a lot.  Folks wanted to know what festival or event was going on the weekend before Christmas for me to want to be in the city.

First thing you have to understand is that I've been a Christmas geek since I was a wee little jit.  Blame it on my mom; the holidays around my house were like a ghetto Thomas Kinkade Christmas scene complete with mismatched ornaments, greeting cards planted inside picture frames, and Luther Vandross' and the Temptations Christmas albums in heavy rotation.

Unlike other kids, it wasn't all about gifts for me.  I was around nine years old when I asked for the Time Life cassettes from the informercial.  I begged for a Christmas carol book that I saw in Winn Dixie. To this day, I still love the warm and fuzzies you get during this most wonderful time of the year.

As for New Orleans, sigh.  Our love affair began with my first visit in 2007 during the Essence festival. I have a somewhat respectable travel log--Los Angeles, Vegas, New York, and the Bahamas to name a few.  Yet I've never been so fascinated by a city.  The music, the food, the history, the mystery, the architecture--oh the balconies!!  I'm whipped.

And so, you put two of my favorite things together--Christmas and New Orleans--and you get two flights booked (my homegirl Candice and I), hotel reservations, and anticipation for all kinds of holiday feel goodness.

The Cutest Lil' Hotel You Ever Did See

I tend to go for the biggest, baddest, sky scrapingest hotel I can afford.  In previous trips to New Orleans it was the gargantuan Hilton Riverside on Poydras and the Astor Crown Plaza on Canal.  You know, baller.

This time around I wanted to trade in the extravagant chain hotel for one of the many unique and historic hotels in the Vieux Carre.  And since I have an obsession with balconies, we had to get one of those too.  After much research, we settled on the Hotel St. Marie on Touloose.

The hotel (along with most buildings in the Quarter) is probably at least 100 years old.  We got actual keys to the room.  Keys. Not electronic wait-for-the-green light room cards (Me to Candice:  Man, when's the last time you saw one of these?).  The room was clean, comfortable, and cozy.  Regular TV (i.e., no flat screen).  The bathroom door had a gold handle to shut it, but no lock.  The paint on the balcony doors chipped on the outside.  Each detail added to the hotel's character.  I was sold.  No more chain hotels in the Big Easy for me.

Holiday Homes

"Savor the holiday spirit as Patio Planters presents beautiful French Quarter residences dressed for the season. Features include interesting architectural styles and home furnishings, as well as a variety of collections of Christmas decorations."
-Patio Planters Web site

Since I don't know anybody in the Quarter, I've only had one chance to see the inside of one of the homes (it was a rental).  So I was really excited about the holiday home tour.  We were provided a map to hit up the homes in whatever order we pleased.  Fortunately, everything in the Quarter is in walking distance.  Each home boasted holiday decor that could grace the pages of Southern Living.

I was surprised by the extensiveness of the shotgun style homes; they look so small and narrow from the outside.  But after you walk in, you just keep going back, back, back.  Rooms are one behind the other with no hallways.  

"You can go on to the back to see the slave quarters," a volunteer directed us at one home.  The slave quarters were about 10 feet from the house.  And of course, it's an entertainment room now.  

I really enjoyed seeing what different people do with their living spaces, particularly during the holidays.

Fa La La La La...

We arrived in Jackson Square after the home tour expecting to be sung to,  but to my delight, we were handed candles and songbooks.  A festive stage was built in front of the famous statue of Andrew Jackson on the horse.   The candlelight was shared from person to person until all 500+ carolers had a little light.

Some folks onstage stood at microphones and a keyboardist was ready with the melody.  It was time to get down to the business of singing. From "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" to "Feliz Navidad" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," we joined hundreds of locals and out-of-towners in the ultimate holiday ritual.  We even sang a couple extras--one for love of country ("America the Beautiful," I think) and one for love of city ("When the Saints Go Marching In"...with a "Who Dat" remix).  Before the last carol, the priest prayed, "...and Lord, please lift up the Saints in a Super Bowl..."  Amen!

So we're down to the 20th, and last jam, "Silent Night."  Candice and I are swaying like Whos in Whoville.  Folks are feeling jolly.  The night sky is clear, cool, and crisp. I'm focused on the unfamiliar lyrics of the third verse of the song when I feel a sting on my left thumb.  I look away from the song book to see that the little paper surrounding my candle stub had caught fire.

"Whew!"  I didn't know whether to drop the candle and possibly burn down Jackson Square or attempt to blow out the growing flame.  A thousand horrible and embarassing thoughts raced through my mind. I took a chance and a deep breath and blew.  The inferno fizzled and died.  I was relieved.

Meanwhile, my wonderful buddy Candice did what any of my good friends would do--she laughed.  She laughed so hard that she doubled over.  She laughed so hard she doubled over and she cried. Her guffaw could be heard from the top of St. Louis Cathedral all the way to the bayou.  Thank goodness the caroling was over and people were leaving.  But Candice couldn't walk.

Me:  I could've been hurt, man...
Candice:  (choke, howl, cry, laugh)
Me:  You couldn't even be like, dang let me help you out.  Offer some advice.
Candice:  (laugh, cry, howl louder)

Candice was so bent over with laughter that one woman stopped to inquire.  I told the woman the whole wretched tale of how my little candle paper was ablaze and I heroically saved myself and the city as my tiny friend looked on.

Friends. How many of us have them.

The Person Upstairs

The time had come for our last supper in N.O.  We strolled down Touloose to the highly recommended Ralph & Kacoo's.  It didn't open until 4 pm, at which time we'd be at Louis Armstrong International airport.  Candice and I about-faced, with no particular lunch destination in mind.  Thing about New Orleans is that bad food is hard to come by, so it really didn't matter where we went.

We turned the corner heading up Chartres and stumbled upon the Alpine Seafood Bar...witih courtyard dining.  We had yet to eat in a courtyard, so it was on.

The elegance of the courtyard was in its eccentricities.  Banana trees were painted on the walls alongside large potted plants.  The paint peeled.  Statues of two black cats peeked at us from the stairs and foliage.

A thin woman with blonde and gray bushy hair descended the stairs and disappeared into the kitchen.  Must be the owner.  She soon reappeared with coffee and a cigarette and sat at the table next to us.  "So where are you all from?"  she asked, taking a slow drag from her cigarette.  "Florida,"  I responded.  "Is this your place?"

"Oh no. I'm the artist in residence."

Artist in residence?  Do I really need more reasons to love this city?

Gwendolyn Siniard had only been living above The Alpine for a few months but she had been leaving her mark on the walls for over a decade.  (She painted the banana trees gracing the courtyard in the 90s.)  "Miss Gwen" (as the chef called her) escorted us inside to see other works she created, including a wall-length mural of jazz greats.  "The owner said he wanted something tropical so I did this real quick," she said, pointing to a cruise ship sailing a colorful sea.    "This is supposed to be a candy bowl." she said, sticking her hand into the mouth of a goofy pelican.    

Miss Gwen showed us a 3-ft shark made of paper mache and covered with nylon.  "Does he have a name?"  I asked.  "No, he doesn't have a name...would you like to name him?" Madam Siniard asked. The artist is asking if I want to name her piece.  Wow.  A moment went by.  I could only think of corny names like "Sharkey."  Then it came to me.  Louie--twice.  Louie Louie.  And you have to sing it like the song, "Ah Louie Louie...(oh babe, we gotta go, ay ay ay ay....)."  It was official.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

After caroling and touring and enjoying festive balconies, it felt like...December 26th, but in a good way.  We were so consumed by the Christmas spirit that we could take it back to Florida with us (along with a few extra orders of beignets).

Peace Y'all!

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