It's not overstating it to suggest a visit to New Orleans is a great tune up for an extended trip to Europe. Parts of the city come closest to the look and feel of Europe that no other city in the United States can muster. New Orleans is unique, I think, among American cities in that way. European cities of comparable size all seem to come with a charm, grace, pace and architectural beauty that is at once nostalgically Old World, yet eminently livable by every modern measure. European cities are as much playground as centers of commerce. They clang, ring, chime and clatter. Cafes spill cheerful patrons onto sidewalks and along cobbled squares. They effuse joie de vie, gemütlichkeit and la bella vita. They invite walking, if not pure wandering.
Alas, New Orleans has none of this as far as the locals are concerned. To them New Orleans is a dirty, dilapidated, noisy, smelly, corrupt, congested and backward berg that is a prisoner of a romantic past that never was. Which is more or less what Europeans think of their own cities. Obviously, then, the best way to visit New Orleans is to see it as a tourist, the way you would a city in Europe, rather than as a crumbling and neglected town in Louisiana. It might be a bit of a stretch to approach New Orleans that way, but possible for visitors who've not, for instance, been to Europe anyway.
It's a bigger stretch for me, because New Orleans is where I grew up, so there's also the baggage of a childhood where I never felt at home and so couldn't wait to leave. Yet there remains an allure to that city that always has me looking forward to a visit there that lasts until about five minutes after I arrive.
I see what the tourists see and bubble over about. But I also feel what I felt growing up when I visit there: that sense of the parochial and provincial, that suffocating compression of being cut off from a more real and exciting world, a suffocation that hangs everywhere with the heaviness of the humidity the city’s summers are infamous for. I do realize that most of my unhappy memories of my youth were self-inflicted expectations of overreach and grandiloquence that wouldn't have worked out had I grown up in Paducah or Tupelo. But still…
I look forward to going back, and not just because the food in New Orleans would make Jenny Craig and Mr. Atkins simply throw in the towel and just enjoy what remains of their cholesterol-shortened lives. But those overreaching dreams that I recall as I wolf down a roast beef po boy at Rocky and Carlo's in Chalmette or a shrimp po boy at Frankie and Johnny's in Uptown, I realize now have worked out over time, though in quite unexpected ways. Whether I found true love or it found me, it has happened twice, beyond any boyhood dream. Whether this was because of overreach or in spite of it, I don't know.
So I have nothing to offer the youth of today in terms of advice or insight, and that's probably as it should be.