“The normal is strange here; the strange is normal.” Friday, Nov 11 2011 

Every spring, I work for several weeks to prepare the students in my New Orleans class for what is akin  to foreign travel. New Orleans: the sights, the vibe, the attitudes are the antithesis of New England and it is a challenge to explain it adequately. And if you go back through these pages, you will see my past attempts to explain the differences.

However, a wonderful post by Brett Will Taylor at nola.com helps do it for me. So, if you are planning a visit, be sure to read the “Newcomers’s top 10 guide for living in New Orleans,” for yourself.  But to sum it up, you might say: “don’t think too much; just go with the flow.”

Taylor’s ten main points are as follows:

Truck cab bar, Mardi Gras Indian Indian parade, March 2011.

1.  Planning.  Abandon all hope of planning ye who enter here. It’s not going to happen.  If you try to plan, you’ll get an ulcer and find yourself constantly making incredulous faces. Just. Let. It. Happen. If you’re meant to hang with someone, Mama NOLA will make it happen.  If not, she’ll send even more fabulous people your way to hang with!

2.  Comfort zone.  Drop yours.  New Orleans is like no place on Earth, so don’t experience it the same way you experience everywhere else.  If you do, you’ll miss her completely.

3.  Costuming. My best friend tells me that he’s never worn a costume in the 7 ½ years he’s lived here. I’ve told him he has until Carnival to change that. Or find a new best friend. You just can’t live in NOLA without costuming. To get started, get yourself a glue gun, spray paint, and a make-up drawer.

4.  Da Saints.  Love them.  Pretend to love them. Or move.

5.  Food.  We eat our food like we live our lives:  rich and over-the-top. And no need to ask what’s good. As someone told me my first week here, “Baby, if a place don’t serve good food, we will shut it down.”  She’s right.  My corner gas station serves some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted.

Kermit Ruffins at the Rock and Bowl, March 2011.

6.  Music.  Lady who?  When it comes to music, there’s New Orleans music … and then, well, why you would want to look beyond New Orleans for music?  There’s a lot to take in here. For a crash course, immerse yourself in OZ. For a master’s course, listen to David Kunian’s “The Kitchen Sink”.

7.  Pronunciation.  It’s Brrr-gun-dy, Charters, Esplan-aid, and Cont-eye.  Don’t worry about Tchoupitoulas (a word that can devour your entire afternoon).  Locals just say “Chop”.  Oh. And the Nine Muses streets? Don’t even try.  Unless you were born here, you’ll never get them right.

8.  Perspective.  Repeat after me:  “The normal is strange here; the strange is normal.”

9.  Bugs.  This morning, I heard frantically scratching child plead, “Mama, when do the mosquitos go away?”  “It’s New Orleans, baby,” she said.  “They never go away.”  True dat.  The bugs in this city were here before you and, just like Cher, they’ll be here after you. And they all have wings (except for the stinging caterpillars that free-fall onto you in the spring). Oh. And our bugs have serious boundary issues.  As in, they all come into your house (you didn’t really want to live alone, did you?).

10.  Politics.  Don’t ask.  This city elected Ray Nagin. Twice.

I could not have summed it up better myself.

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Over the Years Wednesday, Nov 2 2011 

Black Team 12, St. Bernard Parish, LA, March 2006.

It has occurred to me that I am preparing for my seventh spring break trip to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In 2006, I traveled down for the first time to work with FEMA and Habitat for Humanity. We spent a week gutting homes in St. Bernard Parish. I was with a group of a dozen strangers, but by the end of the week, we were a pretty close-knit bunch. And it was the most disgusting, most arduous, and strangely satisfying work I’ve ever done. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. From that time on, I have made a point to take photographs to record  my experiences, as well as the the destruction, the progress or lack thereof, and the beauty of the Gulf Coast.

UNH Students, Islenos Parade, St. Bernard Parish, March 2007.

UNH Students, Musicians' Village, New Orleans, LA, March 2007.

Inspired by this experience, I created an interdisciplinary course on New Orleans. It was offered for the first time in 2007. At the same time, I was working with the University of New Hampshire Alternative Break Challenge to send students to New Orleans during spring break. Seven of  the students in my class accepted the challenge to spend their spring break in Louisisana. We worked with Habitat for Humanity constructing homes in and around Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. And they had the chance to absorb the local culture. I watched the students from my class and realized that they would have a distinct advantage over their fellow students…and I was right.

UNH Students, near Waveland, MS, March 2008.

A year later, I petitioned to make the trip a part of the course and much to my surprise it was accepted. As a result, in 2008, I took the whole class of 20 honors students and six leaders to work in Waveland, MS, about 60 miles from New Orleans, In spite of high gas costs, we made the trip into the city almost daily. More importantly, the students had the opportunity to participate in the Mardi Gras Indian parade on Super Sunday.

Stu and MeAghan's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2009.

In 2009, we began a three year run working with Operation Helping Hands, which is part of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was a good fit for us, as classes in 2009, 2010, and 2011 stayed in

Trevor and Conor's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2009.

Marrero, LA and had the chance to work in the Upper Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Treme, Marigny,and Carrollton sections of New Orleans. Alas, all good things must come to an end and we’ll miss our friends at Operation Helping Hands (especially Miss Kathy’s cooking), as they close shop to volunteers in 2012.

Next spring, we’ll move across Lake Pontchartrain to work with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany. And once again we’ll add to the gallery of UNH students who spent their spring break working for others.

Brittany and Brad's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2009

Carol and Petter's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2010.

Bill's group, March 2009.

Trevor and Sasa's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2010.

Trevor and Ben's and Chelsea and Tom's groups, New Orleans, LA, March 2011.

Kyle and Maddie's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2011.

Jake and Mandie's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2010.