Saturday, July 19, 2014

Travellers and Guests, Learners and Tests


A building with palm trees on our way to New Orleans from Houston

The journey to New Orleans from Houston I believed someone said would be four hours, but it was then explained as six. That meant with breaks, well, we'd be travelling quite a while. 

Taking photographs helped me stay focussed on something outside the car, not my aching knees, not my need to get up and walk around, but also, I think they show how different the south is, to elsewhere in amrka. Culture shock took me over completely at this stage, for some time, it is still with me, unnervingly, but I'm going to go out and see what's going on anyway.
Much swamp and strange growth, or possibly dying trees, as we neared New Orleans

Nearer the city, we saw some moulded concrete sides of motorway, like some of the designs we have back in New Zealand. The joy this gave me was ridiculous, but welcome.

Then at last there we were, in the city of New Orleans, (said locally as Nawlins, even if I'd learnt to say it as New Orl'ns) and arriving at our hotel. We could stop outside and get valet parking. Everything costs, but in a city this size, that's ordinary.

Those strange shapes are not ghosts, they're reflections on the interior glass car window.

So, at last in the city that gave me the music of my childhood, joyous times, (along with various rock and roll songs, and popular radio songs too). The main character in my new novel also loved music as much as I did. Music's such a great friend, as someone said to me once. 

After Katrina, when the people in New Orleans were treated so dismally, I was appalled and decided to go there one day and pay back for all the goodness the place had given me. Goodness through Louis Armstrong, for instance, who has his own park here. Jazz, (earlier spelt Jass) is said to have been born in Nawlins, and funk.

This mule is, Blanche DuBois, after the Tennessee Williams character in A Streetcar Named Desire - written in New Orleans.

After meeting with my friends in The French Quarter, we traipsed around enjoying the place, had a mule buggy ride, then went for cocktails and for me to eat, at a gumbo place. I ordered a Hurricane, which my friend from Houston assured me was local. The woman at the next table however, piped up and said the real local cocktail would be a Sazerac  and I needed to go drink that at The Roosevelt Hotel, they invented it there. It didn't take long for me to discover this was a local writer, Mari Kornhauser. 

We did not say much to each other but Mari did admire my name, and asked (laughing) if I'd mind if her and her friend named a dog after me, "We're dog people." So if you ever see a dog in New Orleans called Raewyn, well, you'll know how the name got there, I suppose. From Celtic origins, via New Zealand, via my meeting writers on the internet, visiting them and then one of the amrkn writers, my friend Julie, deciding to come along with me, including some of her family, to New Orleans.

Modern life. Ha.

The French Quarter was stunning. There are a great many photos of it on my farceberk page. Here are a mere few of those, below. The picture of me with Death is by Dana Williams. 

I love to see evidence of French culture. I'm descended from French people who sailed from France in navy ships, because Southern Maori wanted to give the South Island to us, not to the English. We arrived in NZ, in 1840, on the Comte de Paris, a sailing ship, but were forced to become English citizens. That did not work well of course, such measures almost never do. I say 'we' because I identify with those long-gone French people in Akaroa, so closely, Francois Leleivre and his wife Justine Rose. Their names a secret from me for so long then rediscovered recently.

So, New Orleans, a taste of France, and so much more.


Then today, sharp-edged, I noted a large heart-shaped hole in the dark grey flagstone sidewalk near here; a half a metre across. Spied this rock-edged heart on my way to the corner store for a Naked smoothie, (boosted blue machine flavour, all natural), sliced Granny Smiths with peanut butter, (gluten free), and dark chocolate, (full of iron). I've been ill. Food is medicine. Natasha Dennerstein told me this in San Francisco.

Some flagstones missing here and there in a few places from the pavements of Nawlins. Where do they go? Often about thirty centimetres or more wide, about ten centimetres deep at least, and heavy. Does someone heft them off to perform some garden ritual to promote growth and poozling?  

What is a gaping dark heart-shape in hard rock paved ground to me, besides that? A memory of what romance may feel like at times? Stolen feelings, squared off, abrupt, far to easy to see and take in, something people avoid for fear they fall in? Grubby? (The hole lined with true Nawlins' dirt, after all, no matter its fanciful shape). Or is love resolute, and oddly engineered to stay in shape, no matter what, albeit a surprise, an obstacle to easy thoroughfare perhaps, but how delightful to be reminded of love, surely?

These are flagstones in The French Quarter. Now, Canal Street's flagstones are smaller, but you see what I'm getting at surely? Substantial pieces of rock here, where do they disappear to?
Things to ponder while I navigated busy Canal Street, red streetcars clanged by. People drawled loud conversations. No one seems to hold back here. Words float free and wide. Some wore the most fanciful outfits, a blond toddler in a bright yellow and green plaid shirt, a tall, slim, dark girl in a brash silver on black top, with a red fringed mini and tooled black and tan cowboy boots, two older, fuller fashion figured black women, one in white pants and a yellow t-shirt, as tight as upholstery, her equally ample friend in all red, top to toe including her peaked hat. They laughed at the tour guide salesman putting his hand inside the taxidermy alligator's mouth, behind the display stand. A massive black man in front of me, at the traffic lights, with perfect dreads to the middle of his back tumbled over his shiny yellow top, above those shimmering purple shorts past his knees great with jazzed trainers, lime green yellow and white. Two slim white teenage girls wore t-shirts and short skirts, one in red, over patterned blue on white, the other more subdued in a camel skirt with a white t-shirt, some logo splashed across the front, shiny black and perhaps touches of pink.... More black people than pale people here, seems that way to me anyway. It reminds me of Grey Lynn in many ways, (there I am often out-numbered by Polynesians, after all, but a whole different culture here even if some echoes rumble and mumble).

Too many sights to behold and enjoy to explain easily. 

A crowd of teens sat on the stairs outside that ubiquitous coffee place that starts with an S. One striding up and down, he proclaimed this and that, laughing under his red peaked hat. The others called cheek to him. Their dark faces aglow with good humour, flashing smiles. 

A couple of pale matrons in flowery cotton frocks, blue on white, and their white kerchief head-wear suggesting religion, for some reason. Each picked their way slowly along, mumbling to each other in the sultry heat.

All rain that flooded the streets the day before finally gone, but the air humid.

Outside any one of the many hotels edging the French Quarter, as we are, various bellhops and other staff smoked cigarettes around the corner from their usual post. Or they looked for taxis, for guests, for tomorrow, for a sign, for what we may only imagine. Their, usually, dark skin set off by white or gold trim on black or dark uniforms.

Travellers notice things that locals may've grown used to, for instance I've also noticed that here at the St Christopher Hotel in Magazine Street, service from the front desk is erratic, sometimes downright unhelpful, although a couple of receptionists have been okay. The valets and bell boys are the best assistance. One valet went so far as to google information for me. I needed to call Visa the other day. This while the stern receptionist behaved like I was trying to get out of paying. Then later, she used my Visa card that she'd said did not work, to pay for my 'part two' booking, which had to be done due to their mistake.  By then I'd taken cash out at a bank, to cover it. 

O the fun we had at the front desk sorting the paperwork. Just what a holiday is for, uh huh. I dance to relieve stress, make up songs about the tiresome, shout and squeal in my dreams, the sounds make patterns in the sky, better than fireworks.

Also, room service took me just now a half hour to get through to, on the phone. Now they've answered the telephone, but left me hanging on for a good twenty minutes. Sounds of brassy jazz and cheery voices in the background, some group has sung happy birthday, too. They must be too busy to serve hotel guests. This kind of experience helps us to learn patience, certainly, and also, where not to go again and where not to recommend to anyone to go, in future.

Guests, hospitality, gratitude, decency, kindness, generosity.... I found them on google, their menu the same as the one in the back of our hotel folder with information for guests. They provide a feedback form, I used it. As a guest, invited to try their service and hospitality, I hope they are grateful for my comments. I trust they have the decency and kindness to others to stop pretending they offer a service, being generous enough to pass on that role to someone who can do the job. The Oceana in Conti Street, it was, they seem to specialise in frustration. It's not tasty, or satisfying.

I have nevertheless much to rejoice about.

Today there were gold hoop earings the circumference of saucers, in a store so pink and glittery it was like being inside the dreams of the most fabulous drag queen who ever existed. I walked across a mosaic skull to wander a store crammed with colour and shine. The retro tinplate souvenirs a shock, they reproduce Black Mammy and Picaninny cartoons, grotesquely exaggerating the features of black people. I thought we'd learnt better? Is it okay if it's old? Can we pretend we're still ignorant then? Obviously, some people are. In the middle of the stand a retro sign advertising oranges, fruit and leaves in glowing old-fashioned toned colour, Honest Louisianna Oranges.

I did not take my camera, feeling weak after two days in bed, more or less. I wasn't sure I could walk far, carried as little as possible.

There are plantation tours too, you may have a wedding there if you wish. These grand (and they are spectacular) houses, restored, painted glittering white again, offer fine dining, offer tours of the slave quarters too, which have been restored. Made like new. Gobsmacked yet?

As far as I'm concerned those places were concentration camps, places of torture, slavery, rape, exploitation, cruelty, families were deliberately broken apart, some people were murdered, like in Dachau. The slaves were all kidnapped and taken there in ships like hell, where many died. What kind of sadist would have a wedding there? Someone told me recently, "O no one thinks of those places like that [as slavery places] any more." The fact I'd said I think of them that way was beside the point, I guess because I'm merely a foreign visitor. In Dachau they destroyed the huts where prisoners were kept, they were ashamed of what they'd done to Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others considered disposable. They showed they were sorry. What does it mean in this case then, to have restored these places to what they once were, intact, slave huts and all?

Ready to do the same business again? Or making it acceptable that so many now work for slave wages? Many homeless work and cannot afford rent. The big flash house, that's what to admire though. They're more important than the lives of men, women and children going to waste. Things. We're slaves ourselves to things.

It is more difficult to write a happy story than a sad one, however, and I prefer a challenge. Please do protest about whatever you wish, nevertheless, and boycott anywhere you think beyond the pale. That's positive. We can rid the world of tyranny, by refusing to take part.

Now, I've opted for a swamp tour. It would probably be impossible for me to go to a plantation tour and keep my mouth shut. Being quite alone, foreign, and female, this could cause immense trouble for myself. I've learnt to choose my battles. Please, however, someone, anyone, as many as possible, do something you think best about changing those plantations, won't you?

Alligators. Yes, I want to see some, and the swamp, which I have an extreme fondness for, the majesty, alien qualities, and danger of it, the lovely, terrifying wilderness. 

After Katrina, (they just say the name, they don't say "Hurricane Katrina"- it's as if she was a psycho girlfriend), the tour salesman told me, there were a few alligators still around so they rounded them up and kept them on a farm. (I have no idea if this is at all true, he was somewhat amused while telling me all this). The alligators therefore got used to being around people, and although they are wild creatures they are quite safe. 

We shall wear life jackets. But if the boat sinks, which it has never done, it will be us and the 'gators, in the water, having to somehow get along - and we humans will need to get out, smartly.

I at least know how to swim. Wish me luck.


My internet friends have all been visited now, this latest time, those few writers I know here who I could make it to see. The last of them, a great writer, Julie Payne Williams, (I hope to see that book in a year, thank you), being driven back to Iowa in the car I hired for us, (as I write). Turned out to be a Dodge SUV eventually, the first car had a transmission issue. Magnificent for long-range travel, air conditioned, comfortable and with extra power when needed. We did appreciate it, even if some of us got road flu - a disease from disliking travel, we could say. 

Sitting still for so long in that massive car I also suffered extraordinary pain. Arthritis requires a person to keep active, with some rest but not too long, this lessens the inflammation. But full of painkillers and in a hotel now, I've mainly forgotten that. I simply wish I could get room service, perhaps I shall try again, soon....

Friends, we go together but are often different, like say these cast iron gates and this brick wall in The French Quarter, both beautiful, functional, sympatico, but quite unalike.

And yes, I've learnt more about my friends this time. We've possible grown more familiar to each other. People change and shift in our relationships, don't we, as we go on together in this mysterious place, life? I suppose we could say we've also learnt how vulnerable we each are, in fact, to a degree; and what we may trust to be true about each other, and the opposite, for now.
No longer like the Christmas fairy as I was two years ago, meeting them all for the first time, in real space and time. It felt so unreal then that I behaved as if I was in a dream, the whole time. We were also somewhat delighted with ourselves, for having engineered those meetings. Unimaginable before, the reality startling, exciting, inspiring. I've won prizes with some of the writing from those experiences too, and been published in amrka and at home, due to that work. Never before and impossible to replicate, every day afresh, even for the faded and jaded, and of course this trip is quite a different experience.

It's not as exciting this time, true Julie, (as you did mention), it is however just as informative, just as good to see you too, and therefore just as valuable. 

Now, we're still friends who met on a legend called the internet, but we also know the story we share has other aspects. Some of the truths appear so real we're not sure we want to look at them, not too hard. Facts are after all only any good if they're useful, aren't they? (To paraphrase a Greek philosopher, who said the truth is only ever any good if it has help in it).

My fondness for ancient Greeks led me also to this quote -

"The time when most of you should withdraw into yourself is

when you are forced to be in a crowd." - Epicurus. 

He also said, "You don't develop courage by being happy in your 

relationships every day. 

You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging 


I'm not sure what he means about 'challenging diversity', is it something to do with ensuring any diversity is a genuine state of different cultures, or necessary change, not simply a chaotic circumstance? 

But truly, learning how to maintain a strong sense of self, and what one wants and does not want, especially in a crowd, (which to some of us, is simply anyone else and us), is a great survival ability. It's taken me years of therapy to learn - highly recommended. 

Boundaries are what we will say yes or no to, for instance, we make those decisions constantly. Reminding ourselves we may say yes or no at any time, to whatever is occurring, is a fine way to stave off anxiety, trouble, and helplessness. Also, maintaining boundaries is a way not to grow too familiar, and contemptuous with people. I've vowed we must stay friends, all of us, if at all possible. Time meanwhile slips on along like a river, like air, like memories....

 Ah yes, time, it keeps on slipping into tomorrow. 

Thanks Mark, Kathy and Dana for accompanying me around the French Quarter, afternoon and into the evening. Also thanks to Mark and Kathy for your kind hospitality and great company in Houston, just so kind.

Love, it's still the best thing, ever.

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