Driving to New Orleans Friday, Aug 9 2013 

In 48 hours, I am going to do something I’ve never done before: drive to New Orleans from New England.  Every spring for the past seven years, I blithely (not really, I worry about them a lot) have sent van loads of my students along the same path I will follow. Because I usually fly, I’m left to experience the trip vicariously through their discussions and journals.

louisiana-sign-realThis trip will be different. I’ll be travelling with my son, Stuart, who is relocating to Los Angeles. And we’ll be driving a loaded Toyota, not a 12 passenger van. And, we won’t be driving straight through.

My first trip to New Orleans, way back in 1977, was by car, but it too was different. First, my cousin and I were driving from Eastern North Carolina and not Northern New England. We did the auto equivalent of sauntering, travelling from Charleston, SC, to the Sea Islands, to the Okefenokee Swamp, to the Florida Panhandle; well, you get the picture.  It was also summer and we thought it would be a good idea to cut costs by tent camping. The humidity throughout the South, but especially in New Orleans, was stifling, as usual. But if you stepped out the tent to try to get some air, you’d be attacked by robin-sized mosquitoes. I remember taking a tepid shower at 3:00 am just to try to cool off. It didn’t work. And that was before two days exile in Baton Rouge, courtesy of a broken clutch cable.

JAX_breweryWith that as a basis, I was not impressed with New Orleans or Louisiana (I still have mixed feelings about the rest of the state). The waterfront had not been cleaned up. The Jax Brewery was a vacant shell. It was interesting, but dirty and smelly and I felt no compelling reason to go back. However, destinies are seldom built on first impressions; this will be my 13th trip to the Crescent City. It will be my son’s first, but I have assured him that he is not required to share my love for the City. I know.

The southern detour is because I’ll be attending a conference in New Orleans, which coincidentally, is the main reason I went back to the City for a second and third time. And it was on that third trip, just days before Katrina, when I fell madly in love with the place. I’ve also set aside a day to volunteer in the Lower Ninth with a small group of stalwart conference-goers.  As a result, Stuart will have plenty of chances to explore. Obviously, I have a myriad of suggestions, but I want him to have a chance to experience it on his own terms. There will be time in the evenings for us to enjoy food and music and the less touristy things the City has to offer.

So, before daybreak on Sunday morning, we will embark on Bill and Stuart’s Excellent Adventure. And I’ll try to keep you updated on our road trip to New Orleans and then, on to Southern California.

18 Days from New Orleans…But Who’s Counting? Tuesday, Feb 19 2013 

Exactly 18 days from now (it’s a little past 10pm on February 19, 2013), we will have traveled over 1500 and most of my students will be walking the streets of New Orleans for the very first time. It’s about this time every spring when I sit down and write a column on what to expect in terms of preparation, of the trip, and what to look forward to in this exotic and shockingly different place.

Rebirth Brass Band at Howlin' Wolf, March 2008.

Rebirth Brass Band at Howlin’ Wolf, March 2008.

But when I sat down to do that, I was paralyzed. I’ve probably written a dozen or more such entries since 2008. What can I say new? And then it hit me: I’ve got columns buried in the recesses of the blog that I can recycle. Aren’t we supposed to recycle? And then, rereading some of my previous entries (for the most part — typos still sting) is fun.

So, here is trip down memory lane that I hope will prove useful for this year’s eager and very receptive crop of future NOLA-heads:

Last year, I wrote this entry called Ten Days. It was my attempt to get the class excited about the trip — as if that is necessary. I also tried to get them in the right mindset for the trip and how to approach their encounter with the Crescent City. It was also intended to serve as inspiration for starting their New Orleans journals well in advance of the trip

This a column I wrote back in 2011 called New Orleans in March, i.e. preparing for the trip. Keep in mind, this was for when the class stayed in Madonna Manor over in Marrero, LA. Where we are staying this year shouldn’t be near as creepy, haunted, or utterly fascinating. However, much of the advice of what clothes, begging, and personal effects still rings true. Students still debate about boots vs. sneakers; but if you end up working in demolition, nothing is better insurance than a good pair of boots.

Irish Channel St. Patrick's Parade, March 2009.

Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade, March 2009.

Another one from two years back is New Orleans Quick Reference Guide. In this entry, I pulled together a number of  street maps of New Orleans and the French Quarter, as I feel strongly that students should get their geographic bearings in spite of GPS. I also included quick links to New Orleans weather, news, music, events, etc. Back in 2011, I likely assumed students would be relying on their laptops. With smart phones, the same information is more readily available.

This one, from last year, entitled Zero Hour. It is all about the night before departure jitters and anticipation. It does make me wistful, because I am flying down on Saturday this year and chances are, most of you will beat me to the Lower Ninth.

Domilise's oyster and shrimp po' boy, March 2008.

Domilise’s oyster and shrimp po’ boy, March 2008.

The next two are in the vein of Letters from New Orleans. One I lifted pretty much from a Brett Will Taylor column in nola.com — he didn’t seem to mind, as he commented on the entry. I titled it using a quote from his column: “The normal is strange here; the normal is strange”. The other is one of my favorite essays of all time called Five Ways People in New Orleans are Different from Us. It helps capture my respect, fascination, and love for the folks I’ve encountered in New Orleans. And it is one of my most viewed blog entries ever.

The last of this collection is one of several great student guest contributions from last year’s class. The posting, from Sam Docos, leader of the Baratarians this year, beautifully captures the anticipation and fulfillment of the trip. Pretty much focused on food (wonder where she got that from?), it is called Po’ boy Dreams.

Enjoy. But please stop drooling.


The Dirtiest City in America…But There’s More! Tuesday, Jun 14 2011 

There it was. Headline. First thing this morning: The Ten Dirtiest Cities in America: New Orleans Tops the List. Needless to say, I had to investigate. Not because I thought the charge erroneous, but because I knew there must be a back story.

For one, it is clear that cleanliness is not necessarily linked to popularity. As it turns out, New Orleans has some good company in the top ten of America’s dirtiest cities: among them are New York, Memphis, Las Vegas, and Miami. Not exactly vacation backwaters. They are all among the Nation’s favorite vacation destinations. But I figured there must be more to the story.

After a couple of clicks, I got to the Travel+Leisure web site. It led me to the requisite, attention grabbing dirtiest cities story. And there I found that source was the 2010 America’s Favorite Cities survey. There was more to the story.

Cleanliness was one of over 50 different criteria. And needless to say, New Orleans, a favorite tourist destination did equally poor on some and exceptionally well on others.

Sidney's Saloon, Treme, New Orleans.

The survey topics where New Orleans rated poorly were quite obvious: New Orleans is not a good place to visit in the summer; pizza is not a first choice for food in New Orleans; New Orleans is not a center for fitness freaks; New Orleans is not clean, quiet, or safe; and, New Orleans is not a choice for a family vacation.

And while all of these help make New Orleans a singular place, it is the positive stuff that leads us to go back again and again. In times to visit, New Orleans ranks number one for New Year’s Eve, which is quite surprising. Under food and restaurants, it ranks number 1 in neighborhood joints and cafes, number 2 in ethnic restaurants, and number 4 in big-name restaurants. Visitors also like New Orleans’ B&Bs and boutique hotels, noteworthy neighborhoods, and shopping for antiques and vintage items.

Of course, New Orleans excels in a number of other areas. It is ethnically diverse and ranks number 1 in people watching. And, it should surprise no one, that New Orleans is ranked highly for a place to go for a wild weekend, and for live music, and is number 1 for cocktail hour and for and the singles/bar scene.

So, it pays not to go  just with the headline. There is often a lot more to the story.

New Orleans Quick Reference Guide Thursday, Mar 10 2011 

OK, you guys will be heading out in around 36 hours. And there are probably labs, papers, and exams to complete, clothes and bedding to pack, and last minute questions. At this point, I can’t help with the first two, but I’ll see what I can do to help with the questions.

Jackson Square, March 2010.

Well, one of your first concerns is geography. You’ve got a 1500 mile drive ahead of you. What route are we following? Where are we going to be? I suspect most of you will be taking the western route, following I-81 from Pennsylvania, through Virginia and into Tennessee. It’s not terribly exciting, but neither is sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic in a major metropolitan area.  Google Maps will help you visualize what you are going to be up to.

Once you get to New Orleans, Kyle found a couple of maps that will be helpful.  Check here for a New Orleans Street Map. It covers most of the metropolitan area, but cuts off Marrero, where we will be staying. You’ll have to go to Google Maps for that. And for the French Quarter, Central Business District, and contiguous areas see this Map of Downtown New Orleans.

As you pack, I’m sure you are curious about the weather. I’ve looked at a number of sites and it looks as though we’ll be experiencing typical March weather. Highs in the low to mid 70s, with nights in the 50s. But if you don’t trust me, you can check out: the Weather Channel and National Weather Service.

We have a lot planned for the week, but if you want good sightseeing and tourist information, you can go to New Orleans Online. It is geared towards tourists, but this site contains some interesting pages on everything from New Orleans history and culture to information on gay nightlife.

And if you want to see what’s happening in New Orleans, you can check out news and events at what I consider the three best sites: Times-Picayune (nola.com) , Gambit (bestofneworleans.com), and Offbeat Magazine online. You can get all of the current news, culture, etc. that you’ll need during your stay in New Orleans.

And finally, if you’re into music, New Orleans is the Holy Grail. And the best place for music is New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Station, WWOZ. Great interface for listening to the station online. And for the most complete listing of musical happenings in-town, check out the WWOZ Livewire.

But, regardless of what you do and learn and accomplish in the meantime, I’ll see you in New Orleans on Saturday!

Weather Watching Monday, Jan 24 2011 

January snow drift.

We are only a month into winter and it seems more brutal than most…and I haven’t even been here for all of it. Since December 26th, we’ve had several good rounds of snow. And today, it’s mid afternoon and the high temperature is still in the single digits. I won’t talk about the wind chill factor…

Since I moved to New Hampshire from the mid Atlantic, late winter and early spring have been hard to adjust to and cold weather and winter precipitation just makes it worse. When you grow up with green grass and flowers in March, it makes New England winters a little hard to slouch through.

And that is why, since 2006, I have been looking forward to spring break and my annual visit to New Orleans. And it’s not all fun and games: whether it’s gutting houses; clearing brush; light demolition and construction; or painting, I inevitably offend muscles I had long forgotten about.

Formal garden on Royal Street.

But in between workdays, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be able to wander the streets of the City in short sleeves and shorts. With the exception of last year, which was historically cold, grass and tree leaves will be bright green and azaleas, camellias, and redbuds will be in bloom. And there will be parades and street performers and, well, you get the idea.

So, there are almost seven weeks of winter between now and them. And I’ll dutifully put on my layers and clear my driveway and listen to the heat come on, again and again. But I can remember:  the average high temperatures in New Orleans during March are in the low seventies. At night, it will likely drop down into the fifties. I think I can deal with a little of that.