Month: February 2020

Exile at the Beach

The owners of our wonderful little shotgun cottage in New Orleans said we could stay all winter—except for Mardi Gras week. They like to come back to their hometown to celebrate. That was fine with us. We were there for Mardi Gras last year. This year, we saw lots of parades as Carnival season began weeks ago. We were ready for quiet. 

Last week, we drove just a couple of hours to a hotel we like, the Malaga Inn in Mobile. It’s got style, a shabby elegance with a fountain in the courtyard. 

Our room opened onto a balcony with a filigreed wrought iron railing. Now, to get to it, we had to pry open the tall, heavy sash window and use the stick provided to hold it open so we could climb out. But there in front of us was a magnificent live oak tree, branches loaded with resurrection ferns. (They have that name because they look dead when it’s dry and immediately turn green when it rains.)  

The Malaga is why we like to stay in Mobile. And the fish joint, Wintzell’s Oyster House, not far away. 

Moon Pie Gras

Mobile says it invented Mardi Gras, and there were parades that night, 10 days before Fat Tuesday. Like New Orleans, people on the floats throw gifts to the crowds. But there weren’t that many of the beads we expected in the parade we saw. Instead, we kept catching packages of Moon Pies and Ramen Noodles.

To the Riviera

Next day, we drove less than two hours to Gulf Shores, Alabama. We rented a beach cottage. In a hike in the maritime forest, we saw an eagle swooping around. We’ve eaten grouper. We watched the rain on the dunes with the Gulf of Mexico beyond. I lured Steve out to the beach on a sunny midday promising shade. I built a big sand hand. 

We are at one end of the Gulf Shores, a spit of land called Fort Morgan. It’s not as overdeveloped here as many beach towns. Here, some 15 miles from the town of Gulf Shores there are houses, not big condos, and there are long stretches of coastal forests along the main road. But plenty of building is going on. 

The threat of hurricanes and sea level rise is no match for the lovely white sand beaches and clear waters here. People will build and build and come and visit. Including us.

After Fat Tuesday, we will return to New Orleans. We’ll be all fresh-faced and burnished on Ash Wednesday when every one who stayed in the city will be hungover with crosses on their foreheads. 

We’ve seen plenty of wonders of the Mardi Gras season. Here are some more parade pictures from the weeks before we came on our vacation from our vacation. Our friend Miriam, who loves Mardi Gras, enticed us to keep on going to parades and begging for beads (she’s with us showing off her throws in the photo lower right, below).

People who haven’t been to Mardi Gras think it’s crowded and dangerous. No. The parades are extravagant, noisy, musical, and exciting. People who line the routes are friendly and only step on you accidentally. (I wore sandals one day. Don’t do that.) Kids are everywhere. They get bags and bags of toys and beads. It’s really fun. Go.

Click on photos to enlarge them.

New Orleans Portraits

People and the Neighborhood–East New Orleans

While we were in way out in East New Orleans, we stopped at the New Year’s Tet Festival at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. Meet Mary.

East New Orleans is a large, low-lying neighborhood far from the center of the city. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina, it has come back in patches. There are brick bungalows, some lonely on a block, others clustered together in new subdivisions with names like Sherwood Forest. On some blocks partly rebuilt houses and abandoned houses still stand. There are blocks of empty fields that used to be lined with houses. Running through the neighborhood is Chef Menteur Highway (translated as Chief Liar), sparsely populated with businesses. 

I wanted to visit East New Orleans because I had just finished The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. I had never noticed the neighborhood before I read the book, even though I’ve visited and explored New Orleans many times. Like East New York way out in Brooklyn, in East New Orleans, there are no tourist attractions, parks, museums or exciting business strips. It’s just a place to live for people of modest means and often a long commute to work. 

The Yellow House is a biography of a home bought by the author’s mother, who raised 12 children there. The house and family’s tenuous existence show us a history of people prevailing as best they can in a neighborhood built by strivers but abandoned by the early developers and the city. It’s a portrait of inequality and discrimination. It’s a story of people whose lives have been shattered and remade over and over despite institutional neglect and abuse.

It’s an unromanticized view of New Orleans, a corrective to our gushy illusions. We drove by the address where the author’s house once stood, and it was filled with junked cars. 

Yet, here in February 2020 was the first Carnival parade ever in East New Orleans, the all-new all-women Nefertiti parade passing in front of a new East New Orleans Public Library and many families cheering and stretching their arms out to catch beads and toys. Here is the popular Tet Fest in the Vietnamese neighborhood, tables filled with people and good food. These festivals were by and for residents. We were clearly outsiders at both events, though we were cordially accepted. Here we saw the flaws and resilience of New Orleans. 

How can you not have some gushy illusions when you see the most dressed-up Stop sign ever. This jasmine is in our Riverside neighborhood.

New Orleans Week

Latter Library, New Orleans
This old mansion is our neighborhood library. I got a library card right away.