Nervous American

Trying New Things. Reluctantly.

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Visiting Boston’s Dead: Fancy Cemetery Edition

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Lots of dead people are underfoot in Boston. For starters, every tourist who comes to this town will pass by cemeteries from Colonial and Revolutionary days, like the Granary Burial Ground just off Boston Common.

The Granary has 2,300 markers but probably twice as many bodies. In 2009, a tourist on a walk there discovered one unmarked grave by falling into it. She put her foot on just the right spot, where a broken slate slab had finally given way, and found herself hip-deep in a stairwell leading down to the tomb. The lady never identified herself to the press, which is a shame — I would have loved to read that interview.

Another of my favorite things about the Granary Burial Ground: After paying your respects to Samuel Adams, you can walk across Tremont Street, enter the Beantown Pub, and order a Sam Adams. Sometimes Boston is just fun like that. 

At places like the Granary and at Copp’s Hill in the North End (both begun in the 17th century) the gravestones are now just thin grey shards that lean and sink into the earth, but at least they are identifiable as graveyards. Other skeletons didn’t get that kind of ceremony — according to one historian, a couple dozen British soldiers probably lie underneath homeowners’ gardens in Charlestown, not far from Bunker Hill. Nobody knows for sure.

Sorry to ramble — that stuff is all just pretty awesome. I could talk about graveyards all day! But I write today not to discuss humble churchyards; no, I want next-level graveyards. I want Victorians.

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BLAM.

Forest Hills Cemetery and Mt. Auburn Cemetery

I’m surprised by how many locals haven’t visited the Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain or Mt. Auburn in Cambridge. Rich Bostonians went nuts with obelisks and tombstones, even above-ground, walk-in tombs of the sort I imagined were only used for undead French people in movies. 

Mt. Auburn was supposedly the first “garden cemetery,” where monuments were arrayed artfully among hills and trees.

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Behold! I have finally gotten an Instagram account. #sometimesIneedfilters

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Prime real estate for Mr. Tufts here. #forgottoaddafilter

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#shouldhavehadafilter? #probably

Mt. Auburn’s big draw is the tower right in its center, from which you can perfectly view the Boston skyline. The zoom on my smartphone camera isn’t great, so you’ll just have to trust me on that.

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#yep,filter #AmIUsinghashtagscorrectly? #IDontReallyCare

But that’s just Mt. Auburn — Forest Hills came along slightly later, and is more grandiose and quirkier, and therefore my favorite. I go every year in the autumn, which is why these photos look so autumnal:

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Forest Hills seems to be the place where people asked themselves: “But no, seriously, which type of tombstone really reflects me, as an individual?” There are huge examples self-aggrandizement and monuments to military badassery, as well as moments of genuine pathos. I mean, look at this stuff:

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Little stone sculptures of children’s empty beds. In a cemetery full of children’s and infant’s graves. I mean, good God.

The place is dotted with sculpture as well: It’s an outdoor museum, impeccably landscaped. The perfect place to walk on an October day. When it’s cold and misty, it’s like being in an Edward Gorey sketch. When it’s sunny, it’s just gorgeous. 

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Pottery shard obelisk.

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Why are these tiny houses carved into the rock the walls off this path? I don’t know, but I love it.

Filed under graveyard cemetery history boston

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Maine: Acadia National Park and my craven, abject fear of heights

Hey, do you have a problem with heights? No? Well I sure do! I don’t like ‘em. Not one bit.

This may shock you, but I am a lady of easily unsettled nerves. I also am pretty clumsy, and I don’t always have the best balance. So hey, here’s an idea: Let’s put me on the side of a mountain and see how that goes.

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The Beehive Trail at Acadia. That ledge seems a lot narrower when you’re as panicked as a horse in a burning barn. Credit: Garden State Hiker/Flickr

I didn’t take the above picture; it’s tough to calmly snap photos when spikes of dread keep stabbing you in the brain and melting your leg muscles into jelly. At that point on the trail, I was focused on keeping my eyes resolutely away from the gorgeous views and lack of safety apparatus.

Or…perhaps I should give myself more credit. I did, after all, successfully climb the thing. Not to brag, but I didn’t even cry. Someone else hiking the trail did start crying at one point — I could hear her on the next ledge up above me, all trembling and tearful. Was she a small child of about six years old? Maybe. (Yes, she definitely was.)

Maine’s Acadia, a vast park of mountain and pine, is full of sweeping vistas, woodsy walks, crashing waves, and yes, the exciting Beehive and Precipice trails. These two trails have exposed rock ledges, so iron ladder rungs are built strategically into the rock to help you scramble up. Without them, the trail gets quite dangerous.

But with them in place, it’s a slightly scary but (for most outdoorsy people) do-able trail. Elementary-school kids were scrambling up, as I mentioned, and my mother-in-law had taken her sons on the trail when they were about five and six.

Everywhere you walk or drive in the park, the views are spectacular — especially Cadillac Mountain, the East Coast’s tallest oceanside peak. For much of the year it’s the first place in North America to see the sunrise.

Acadia is small, as national parks go (74 square miles. For reference, Yellowstone is about 3,500 square miles). Still, lots of trails upon which to scramble in the afternoon sun, or biking paths to cruise along. Even a beach, if you don’t mind New England’s freezing ocean water (Which, I very much do. I stuck to the trails).

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I will say this: Now that I’m safely down, I’m glad I went up. I spend most of my life walking on flat concrete or climbing stairs, and my sense of balance and my upper-body strength are rarely called into action. Once I got used to using them on our hikes, I realized they weren’t as faulty as I’d thought.

I’m also glad the only person to witness my terror was my husband. This man lives with me. He knows I am not a dignified human, and has accepted it.

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Filed under maine acadia hikes mountains

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Mead, drink of Vikings, gets a sexy makeover.

So, of all the boozy drinks out there, what’s the sexiest? Would it be wine? Champagne? A martini, maybe, because of James Bond?

Mead, I think you will agree, is an unlikely contender. Unless you think Beowulf is sexy — and if you think this, it is because you have not read Beowulf.

Mead is the stuff of grim Medieval halls and of bearded men who regularly go a-pillaging. It’s likely the oldest form of alcohol, because it’s easier to make than beer or wine. It’s just fermented honey and water. Anyone can make it, anywhere, and we’ve done so for at least 7,000 years. It’s referenced in ancient literature all over the world. And in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves,” it’s mead that Kevin Costner and the boys are drinking when they’re sitting contemplatively around the campfire, which provides as scholarly an authority on the subject as any I care to know.*

In these craft-booze times of ours, is it any surprise that mead is making a comeback? From 30 to 40 U.S. meaderies a decade ago, to around 250 now. The American Mead Makers Association just formed in 2012.

Of this pack of resurgent honey-wine makers stands Moonlight Meadery in New Hampshire. In a bold branding move, the Moonlight Meadery has tagged itself “Romance by the Glass.” All its drinks carry far-fetched names, like, “Stiletto,” “Flutter” and “Deviant” (oh my!) in a bid to sell mead as a delicious love-elixir. 

My husband and I went for a tour and mead-tasting at Moonlight for the sexiest reason of all: We got a Groupon for it from my brother-in-law last Christmas. 

We rolled up to the tasting facility, and the romance began!

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Sexy!

Then we went into the warehouse for the tour, and saw where they made the mead, bottled it and packaged it:

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Oooh!

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So sensual.

I joke, but the mead was actually really delicious. I eagerly held out my glass for another sip of Deviant, and would do so again. We bought bottles of mead entitled “Smitten” and “Flame,” and drank them at home, sexily watching John Oliver’s show and learning about FDA regulations. Romance by the Glass, indeed.

You’d think a honey-wine would be cloyingly sweet and unpleasant, but no. Apparently we’ve improved our recipes in the days since blond men with suspiciously American accents did battle with Alan Rickman. They add vanilla beans, berries, spices and the like, and just let it hang out in the mix for awhile, with tasty results.

I recommend the tour, especially if you’re a booze nerd and you want to hear somebody talk about fermentation and bottling. And it’s the best way to sip lots of different mead — I can’t argue with that.

If you have candidates for the sexiest beverage, let me hear them! No dirty-sounding shots, please. I reject any suggestion that include shots named after sex acts or body parts.

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*Remember, it’s that one scene where they’re all bonding together and becoming best friends, and Robin asks Bull, “Why do they call you Bull? Is it because you’re short?” and he says, “no! It’s because I”m so long!” and then nearly whips his junk out to show everybody, but stops because it’s PG-13. 

Filed under mead new hampshire romance

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The Sex Talk from Catholic Marriage Prep

In the fifth and ninth grades, I sat in a classroom and listened to adults talk about sex. In both cases, the teacher tried to pretend she was totally cool with talking about this, and the students did not make eye contact with each other.

In January, I got to do it again! Except this time, it was a priest doing the talking. And he didn’t say “sex.” On no. He used this phrase: ”To express yourself genitally.” 

"To express yourself genitally," or "when you express yourself genitally." He said this repeatedly. I was awestruck.

Of all the sex euphemisms the English language has produced, that’s the one he picked. He could have said any number of other, less filthy-sounding things, like, “intercourse” or “express your love physically,” or even “doin’ it,” or “bone down” or “take the dump truck to the bone yard.” Anything is an improvement on “express yourself genitally,” which sounds like something only perverts do. 

To be fair, it wasn’t him who invented that phrase. One of the class worksheets quoted a book passage about how you shouldn’t have sex before marriage because you should really love the person you’re doin’ it with, or something. “Genital expression” was the author’s phrase of choice, there, so I assume we have him to blame.

Otherwise, nothing got too strange. I find that people are always curious about these Catholic prep classes. These are mandatory if you want to get married in the church; we got ours knocked out in a day, although they often require a much bigger time commitment and multiple sessions.

Most of these classes just make you fill out worksheets on your conflict-resolution style and your financial goals, and then talk about them with your intended. They make you talk about whether you want pets, or how many kids you’ll have. So, basically it was stuff my man and I had already discussed throughout our engagement. Except for hearing the word “genital” more than I have at any other point in my life, it was a very chill day. 

A priest led the class, but they do bring in married couples to lead sessions. Most of the sex talk was simply about how sex is important and special, and how maybe we should possibly consider Natural Family Planning as our birth control method of choice. Which, heh, the priest knew he was dealing with a skeptical crowd on that one. He put it out there, but you could tell he wasn’t convinced he’d have many takers. 

We got our certificate for completing the class and got ourselves properly hitched in April. At the reception, our friends requested that the DJ play “Express Yourself” and they tried to yell “GENITALLY!” at us through the music. We have weird friends. 

Filed under wedding

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Yes, I’m going to keep my weird, hard-to-spell surname.

Note: The Nervous American is not currently abroad. She just got married, and has some thoughts about it.

My last name is “Schreier.” In German, this translates to “Screamer.” This amuses Germans, although in my experience they are too polite to laugh. 

My family fully expected me to take my fiance’s surname (Mitchell) when I married, and I think I rather startled them when I declined. They were full of worries, like, How will you explain this to your kids? How will you declare to the world that you are a properly married woman? How will we address letters to your household?

My answers, in order: Life is confusing, and my children will be stronger for having faced this puzzlement early in life; I will declare I am married by use of the word “husband” and the gold ring on my finger; You can just call us “the Mitchells.” I don’t mind. 

Most people are cool with this, but a couple men of my acquaintance rolled their eyes. ”Oh, so this is like, a power thing?” one asked, as if my decision were some kind of power-play in the relationship. Wah?

Another man tried to convince me it wasn’t really a big deal to change my name, and to just do it. Which: I find it amusing indeed when men weigh in on a decision they will never have to make. Oh yes, please, do tell me how I should feel about this! 

For some men, it’s important that their wives take their names. I don’t really understand it, but there’s plenty I don’t know about how to be an American man in 2014. For me, I am simply very much attached to my name — it suits me, I like it, and I want to keep it. It’s a big part of my identity.

If my fiance had a serious problem with that, well, we would have had some awkward conversations in store. As it happens, though, my wary suggestion that I keep my name was met with a shrug, and we continued merrily about our business. Our kids can just be “Mitchell,” and if I feel like taking the name later on, I will do so.

I also don’t understand why my different surname is some sort of impediment to achieving full familial unity with my spouse and our future children. In Spain, women do not change their names when they marry, and it doesn’t seem to have had any adverse effect on their family structure. Seriously, have you seen any Spaniard families lately? “Tight-knit” is the appropriate adjective. They make American families look like a loose confederacy of people who just happen to share the same features. 

In this country, 19th century suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone declined to use her husband’s name after they got married. One of my textbooks in school said women who followed this example were called “Lucy Stoners.”  It appears I will be joining the ranks of Stoners everywhere, then, and my hat’s off to the sainted Ms. Stone for setting the example back in 1854. 

Filed under wedding spain

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Nervous Wedding: Saying “Eh, sure” to The Dress

Note: The Nervous American is currently not Abroad. She is in Boston, planning her wedding. This is an episode in her life as a bride-to-be.

Despite years of watching “Say Yes to the Dress,” I’ve never pondered what dress I’d want for myself, much less about the process of buying it. 

But I probably didn’t expect that I’d be rolling into a David’s Bridal at age 31, a half-hour late and with a roaring hangover. 

Yet there I was! Voraciously chugging seltzer water and chowing down on crackers, bolstered by a trusty bridesmaid and trying not to fall over. The sales girl asked me questions; I struggled to organize my thoughts. What kind of dress did I want? Wha…What kind of dress? Dimly, I recalled the one idea I’d ever had about my wedding dress — something I’d thought up when I was 14 and really, really loved Romantic poetry — when I’d envisioned myself as an ethereal woman in a cobwebby white dress of delicate lace, like some spirit lady who’d flitted in from a forest glen. Otherworldly and fascinating. 

Then I remembered that I was 31, a half-hour late, and hungover. “Something with sleeves?” I offered.

This was in October, and I was back home in Nebraska for a college reunion. In my giddy excitement at seeing old friends, I’d forgotten that while old friendships might stay strong throughout the years, livers do not. Thus, the hangover. I was disappointed in myself, because shopping for one’s dress is kind of a big deal. I wanted to find a dress in Nebraska, in large part so my mom and I could do our shopping together. That meant I had two days, and I had not gotten off to a great start.

In “Say Yes to the Dress” the brides often demand to look like princesses, or they want to look “sexy.” In bridal fashion, it usually involves sheer corsets bestrung with jewels, as though you’re the fanciest hooker in all the Old West. 

Reality TV brides always also have opinionated entourages who seem to care very, very deeply about convincing the bride that her ideas are wrong and she looks terrible in 90 percent of all dresses. As for me, I brought a good-humored entourage of friends, my mom and a dear family friend. We all agreed that the dresses were lovely, that extravagant spending was foolish, and that my preferred dress was appropriately modest for a church wedding. Most boring realty TV cast ever.

The David’s Bridal people still made me say “I’m saying yes” to that dress, and to ring a bell as a little celebration thingy. I played along - you have to humor people sometimes. 

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Nervous American, Gettin’ Hitched

Note: The Nervous American is currently not abroad. She is busy planning her wedding and she wrote down some thoughts on the process.

I can think of plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t be throwing a large wedding. I don’t like to spend money. I get squirrely when a lot of people stare at me. I have no talent for decorating. Whenever I host even a small dinner party I tend to frantically worry that, dear Lord, what if no one has fun and then they stop being friends with me???

So why on earth am I having a wedding? I will be stared at; it is very costly (for my parents, mostly, but still); and I am hosting more than 100 guests — many of whom I am asking to fly across the country for, essentially, dinner and a dance. 

Yet, I really do believe in this whole ritual. I believe in community — that friends and family support each other, that exchanging our vows in front of this big group of people is a heavily symbolic act, not just an exercise in vanity. You’ve supported us throughout our lives, friends and family, and now we’ll need you to keep supporting us as we combine our lives and try to build a family of our own. We’re all in this together.

Still, though — weddings, man. There is a ridiculous level of gamesmanship about them these days. We’ve gotten really carried away with this idea of weddings as some sort of expression of selfhood. The worst embodiment of this is TLC’s gloriously terrible “Four Weddings” reality show, where four brides attend each other’s weddings and score them, rating them on dress, venue, overall experience, etc. It invites cool critiques from perfect strangers — what’s more, they’re all incentivized to tear down each other’s weddings so they’ll come out on top (The winner gets a free honeymoon). I get that the competition is just an excuse to showcase different weddings — people do love weddings — but, c’mon, did we have to turn it all into a beauty pageant?

Weddings have a lot in common with Christmas, come to think about it. Hugely overcommercialized. Stress-inducing. Expensive. But we keep celebrating weddings, like we keep celebrating Christmas, because underneath all of that is a warm, beating heart — there’s something real under there, and we don’t want to give it up.

That being said, did I need to invite dozens upon dozens of people? Well, no. But, I do love big weddings. I think I’ll really love mine, also… just as long as I can convince myself that people are having fun, and that they’ll still want to be friends with me. 

Filed under Wedding tlc

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"Hey baby, how’s your mama?": Great things about New Orleans

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I didn’t know this before, but Louisianans casually refer to other people as “baby.” We heard it all over town: ”Right here, baby.” “OK, baby.” “What you want, baby?”

It’s not a come-on, or even a term of endearment — it’s just a friendly way to address someone. And it’s delightful. So casual, so redolent of good-humored, easy-paced living. Also, very Louisianan; can you imagine a Bostonian calling a stranger “baby” at the Dunks or on the T? No — in Boston, you express friendliness by cheerfully insulting someone. In the Midwest, you’re warm and polite but always give people a ton of space, both physically and socially, so “baby” seems way too forward.

Yet in New Orleans, “baby” makes perfect sense. This is also a place where one may inquire about your relatives by asking, “how your mom an’ ‘em?” (to wit: “how are your mom and them?”)

Again, this is very charming. Also extremely agreeable? The food. Here’s a rundown of recommendations:

Mother’s Restaurant: Off an unremarkable stretch of Poydras, a strictly utilitarian diner. Wood-paneled walls and fluorescent lighting. Brutally efficient counter service. And the fluffiest biscuits, served with perfectly greasy eggs and possibly the best sausage I’ve ever had. If the proprietors wasted any time trying to pretty up the interior, I’d be mad at them. They are perfect as they are, and I suspect they realize it — get to Mother’s early, as the line quickly stretches out the door.

As with most places we went, the coffee is chicory, and therefore extra-bitter — not my favorite, but I respect the tradition

Beignets. A hunk of fried dough overwhelmed with powdered sugar, it can really be enjoyed any time. You should probably eat some after every meal. We all should. I want one right now. Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to get them — and it’s definitely worth waiting through the interminable line — but it doesn’t hurt to sample the beignets elsewhere (Cafe Beignet is an adorable spot, for example) But be warned; they give you like three beignets with your order, so come hungry. 

Creole: The Gumbo Shop, just off Jackson Square. Gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee,  shrimp creole — pretty much everything creole is on the menu, and it’s all rich and tasty. The place is casual, too, but with that “beautifully faded grandeur” thing that a lot of the French Quarter has going for it.  

Similarly, restaurant Napoleon House also drips with this old-time vibe, with a dark color palette and ancient-looking wooden tables. It specializes in muffaletta (Italian immigrants’ contribution to Louisiana), which is a sandwich with typical Italian cold-cuts, served on fluffy bread. 

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An artist by Jackson Square

Tours

New Orleans Historic Tours are the highest-rated in terms of historic know-how, and we loved our Voodoo/Cemetery Tour with them. Guide was super friendly and really knew his stuff (curiously,he didn’t actually talk that much about the practice of voodoo, though I’d still strongly recommend this tour).

For cemeteries with the famous above-ground vaults, St. Louis No. 1 is one of the oldest (the oldest?) and it shows — you can see the alleged tomb of Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen. Nicolas Cage also already bought a grave there, because that’s what wealthy weirdos do, I guess.

But some tombs are literally just a pile of bricks. For a newer, more elaborate cemetery, LaFayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District is fantastically gothic — and while you’re in the Garden District, you can ogle the grand homes of the neighborhood. 

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Swamp tours are also mandatory: Cajun Encounters will shuttle you right over to Honey Island Swamp. And they don’t tell you this until you’re on  the boat, but the swamp in early February is far less awesome than it is in, say, full springtime. We loved our guide — again, super knowledgeable, funny and friendly — but he often mused aloud, “this place will be gorgeous in a few weeks” and it totally bummed me out. Honey Island in April might be a vision of loveliness, dude, but that won’t make it any less February at this moment.

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That tree is probably way prettier right now

No gators to be seen, either, although various other wildlife (blue heron, raccoon and others) were around. They keep baby gators in a tank, however, and you can hold those as a consolation prize — so, still worth it, even if February isn’t exactly prime swamping month.

I’d also recommend the swamp tour just because it takes you outside French Quarter. As soon as you leave the tourist areas, Katrina’s legacy is still immediately visible. Still a lot of blown-out, ghostly vacants, including an abandoned Six Flags by the highway. I don’t know what else to say about it, except to remind everybody that, hey, that disaster is still very present there. Hopefully dollars from lame tourists like me are helping the city (slowly) recover.

And hey, maybe we should go back for a second visit? I hear the swamp is really gorgeous in April.

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Filed under new orleans US Travel history nature

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Bourbon Street, New Orleans: Drunktown USA.

Sober, I did not understand the appeal of Bourbon Street. The beads flew, the crowd staggered — and I was among them, clear-headed and annoyed. It was like being that person who arrives late to a party that has reached its boozy peak.

My drunk self? She understood. Indeed, Bourbon Street brought tears of joy to her unfocused eyes. So I am calling upon Drunk Nervous American to offer up thoughts and recollections from various points in the evening. A selection:

SHOTS! shotzzz yesssss. so many shots.

OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS SONG (dance it up! pop that shoulder! Shake that hip! yeah!)

SHOTS!! Come over here, girl selling shots! Here, take my money. What a nice girl you are! Capital! Top-drawer! (concentrate on speaking. must. ennnunn… enn… e-nun-ci-ate… clearly)

Bartender, I would like a gimlet please. (lean casually against the bar. I am totally killing it today. I am one classy gal.)

 HEY, what am I doing on stage? I should prob get down.

….shots?

And so on. Earlier that evening I had sallied forth, my stomach full of jambalaya and a sazerac to start off the night. I was accompanied by my friends, a rowdy bunch of dames ready to cut loose. We were in high spirits.

Even at that early hour (about seven o’clock), the wide boulevard of Bourbon Street had an orange-red-green glow, its people beginning to stir among the French Quarter storefronts and balconies. Gangs of partiers roamed, often divided by gender (a lot of bachelor/bachelorette parties), and most had a drink in hand. The music thronged — live bands, mostly, doing a bang-up job of covering Top-40 songs for the liquored-up crowds.

Bourbon Street is named for the royal House of Bourbon, the rulers of which presided over France and Spain when Louisiana was founded. These days, “Bourbon” is a party, pure and simple. You pop into a bar, grab a drink, dance to a song or two. If you like, you can move on down the road, walking and sipping. 

It was probably my overwhelming sense of well-being (and that cohort of boisterous ladies) but Bourbon seemed friendlier than other party zones I’d witnessed. On the club streets in Kos, Greece and Marmaris, Turkey, I felt a bit like a spectator in the European crowd. They dressed better, for one, and a lot of people weren’t dancing. Here, I was wearing jeans and a hoodie and felt right at home. People were making fools of themselves on the dance floor, which I respect. It all seemed very welcoming.

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Blurry, but you get a basic idea. I really was not focused on focusing at that point.

This all took place several weeks ago, well before today’s Mardi Gras celebration. As I write this, the city is no doubt awash in green, gold and purple. And probably a lot of booze and vomit as well. There are also family celebrations, events of huge cultural and historic resonance all over town… but yeah, mostly it’s famous for being a giant bacchanal. I don’t know that I would have loved Bourbon Street quite as much if it were absolutely choked with people. 

Don’t miss Frenchman Street

Bourbon Street isn’t the only game in town; the locals all recommended we hit up Frenchmen Street.

Now, Frenchman street was named for a group of executed French Louisianans who had tried to defy the newly arrived Spanish governor in the mid-18th century. (Spain got Louisiana in a trade from the French, who’d recently had a spot of trouble that we now call the French and Indian War. Spain kept it for 40 years, then the French took it back, and then pretty quickly sold it to Thomas Jefferson). A group of Frenchmen rejected Spanish rule, so an Irishman called Bloody O’Reilly, who worked for Spain, put them in front of a firing squad. This had rather a cooling effect on things. 

Anyway! Now Frenchman is where you go to hear original music (not Top-40 covers) of blues, jazz, some kind of bluegrass gypsy jazz and whatever else. We stopped in The Maison for a cocktail or two and had a listen, and caught some brass bands booming in the street as well. 

That was our last evening out. I decided to turn in early that night, but half my group went back to Bourbon Street… and showed up back at the hotel at roughly 4 a.m., giggling loudly and full of new tales to tell. Such is the magic of New Orleans. 

Happy Mardi Gras, everybody!

Filed under new orleans american travel party wedding

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New Orleans: Possibly the most interesting city in the U.S.

Nervous travels in the U.S. continue. In honor of Mardi Gras week, let’s talk about New Orleans.

I’m getting married soon, so naturally I wanted a party trip with my girlfriends. Las Vegas is the obvious choice these days — but, c’mon. Las Vegas? The soulless, glittering, gambling theme park of America? Where d-bags own the night? You know me, friends. Does Vegas sound like my jam?

Luckily our great nation is blessed with another city that has partying in its bones, but which also has a soul — in a sense, this town helped invent soul. And if d-bags flock there, well, it attracts interesting weirdos in equal measure. 

Clearly: New Orleans.

And God bless New Orleans. A glorious town, sprung out of the muddy bogs where the Mississippi spews up a whole country’s worth of sediment. As the neglected colony of Louis XIV, it was founded by France’s adventurers — with an assist from that country’s criminals, prostitutes, and of course, African slaves. Here, French dance crazes collided with African beats and melodies. It’s always been a party city, but it has the distinction of being one with a big personality. 

(Yes, I read a history book about it before I went. A well-informed bachelorette is the very best kind).  

Without New Orleans, we wouldn’t have jazz, and here’s why:

So, Anglo-American slaveowners in most of the country made it a point to stamp out African slaves’ native languages and cultures, and they forbade large assemblies. Didn’t happen in French and Spanish New Orleans.

The rules against such things were a bit more lax, and huge gatherings converged on Sundays at Congo Square to trade, talk and make music. When the drums started, the dancing got going. The ground shook, the voices soared — the very air throbbed. It must have been something to behold, especially because it wasn’t allowed to happen anywhere else in the U.S. The sight of it shocked a lot of visitors.

In those days in New Orleans, slaves could save up to buy their own freedom, and many did. In the book I read, “The World that Made New Orleans" these meager freedoms, stewing in French New Orleans, were the ingredients for the amazing cultural genesis that gave us jazz, and all the musical offshoots thereof. 

Food, you say?

Without New Orleans, we wouldn’t have gumbo, jamabalaya, etouffee, po’boys… the place is really a culinary powerhouse, thanks to the Creoles and Cajuns. Every time you order something described as “Cajun” on dinner menus — and blackened or “Cajun-spiced” food is everywhere, if you think about it — you owe a debt to the swamp-dwelling descendants of forcibly displaced French Canadians. Many thanks, Cajuns. 

And without New Orleans, the U.S. probably wouldn’t even notice the pre-Lenten festivities that we refer to as “Mardi Gras.” In many places it’s known as “Carnival,” and it’s a big deal. In the U.S., it’s like the soccer of seasonal festivals — sure, we participate in it, but it’s a much bigger deal elsewhere. But without New Orleans to show us the way, we might not even bother to get drunk on the day before Ash Wednesday. A troubling thought, indeed.

Going There

In the French Quarter, music is always playing somewhere, whether it’s in the clubs or on the street. The iconic wrought-iron balconies are graceful and plentiful, the shops are charming, Jackson Square is full of artists (and more music). The graveyards are gothic and elegantly decayed. You can see why people keep putting their witches and vampires in this town, although its history of voodoo practice does not hurt, either.

As I said, the place still attracts weirdos in addition to the mix of bachelor parties and fratty parties happening on Bourbon; the city has a lot of faces to it. It’s too much a trip to cram it all into one blog post, so I’ll spin it out over several. First stop: The parties. Second: The tourism. 

I could talk about the town’s history all day, but I will spare you. Just pick up “The World that Made New Orleans” and read that, instead. Then go there, eat some gumbo, wander a cemetery and listen to the music. 

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