They say every Christmas ornament has a story. Last night, possessed by a rare desire to clear out the rubble in one corner of the war zone that is my bedroom (if cleanliness is next to godliness, then I’m an atheist on Lexapro), I uncovered a shopping bag from a glassmaker in New Orleans. I took out the box inside and carefully unwrapped two glass ornaments. And, as if in a movie, my present world went to quick fade and I was transported back to New Orleans.
It had been 12 years since my husband and I had spent a long weekend away from home – with no child. And going to someone’s wedding doesn’t count. Our last getaway where we had to buy plane tickets? Our honeymoon. Yes, our honeymoon. How pathetic. How did 12 years go by? Time simply flies when you’re trying to figure out how to put the blender pieces back together when they come out of the dishwasher.
But in May of this year, I got my golden ticket. I was going to meet my husband in hot, sexy New Orleans. A commercial photographer, my husband was shooting a conference for five days, ending on Saturday. I would fly down to meet David on Friday night, and we’d fly back Tuesday. After orchestrating a complex itinerary for my child shuttling between grandma’s and friends, I was free. Really free. As the plane took off, visions of big fluffy hotel pillows danced in my head. No scrubbing crusty Purina out of the cat dish. I was practically apoplectic.
On the plane I reviewed the intelligence I had gathered: "Feet on the Street," an outstanding book of New Orleans walkabouts by Roy Blount Jr., a former reporter for the Times-Picayune, and several dozen E-mails from my friend Trudi in Los Angeles, who had recently been to New Orleans and had E’d me a slew of restaurant reviews from chowhound.com, the "anti-Zagat’s" website. Forget the music; New Orleans is about food. I mean it’s all about the food.
David was shooting all day Saturday and Saturday night, so I was a free agent. What was the first thing I did Saturday morning? Eat breakfast? God, no, I buy two pairs of shoes! Immediately upon exiting the hotel, and hanging a right on Chartres Street, I find a fabulous two-for-one shoe store. And I’m thinking, I love this town.
Here’s what I notice. In N’Awlins everything is slow like molasses. People talk slow, they walk slow. It’s hot. And the bars are always open. Pretty much nirvana for a working mother. The ideal antidote to real life.
My first day’s breakfast is at a renowned hole in the wall, Elizabeth’s on Gallier Street, way in the outskirts of town. I take a United Cab there. When I mention to the driver that Roy Blount Jr had written that United is the cab of choice in New Orleans, my driver says, "We’re the ones old ladies call when they need vodka and cigarettes in the middle of the night." "Do you guys really do that?" I ask. "Yes, we do. And we deliver groceries too." "What’s the oddest request you’ve ever had?" I ask. After a beat he says,"Lady wanted to have sex in the back of the cab." "Did she have a man with her or did you have to go get one of those too?" I ask. "Oh, no," he says, "she had a man with her."
At Elizabeth’s I am sloppy-happy with my Eggs Elizabeth – grilled French bread smothered in butter topped with poached eggs, ham, and Hollandaise, served with hash browns and praline bacon – that’s crisp bacon with praline crust. Then I walk and walk and walk all over the Quarter. I step into a store called La Provence on Chartres Street, and the proprietor, an elegant tall gentleman with a honey-soaked drawl asks me where I’m from.
When I say Princeton, he says, "Oh, I knew Barbara Sigmund. Went to grammar school with her," then adds, almost as an afterthought, "I was a freshman at Tulane 50 years ago." In the space of 15 minutes he gives me all the scoop on where to go and how to live like a New Orleanian. "At about 5 or 6 p.m. go back to your hotel, lie down and watch the news – if the news doesn’t bother you – if it does, watch something else, and just rest, then go out to dinner, about 9 p.m. That’s the thing to do." I leave, elated. After a 4 p.m. lunch, a bloody Mary and a dozen voluptuous oysters at the bar at Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street. I follow the Provence guy’s advice – bath, nap, get dressed for dinner.
Just to give you a taste of the way you can eat in New Orleans, here’s what I have for dinner at Peristyle on Rue Dumaine. To start, l’assietee du charcutier, duck pate with brioche points; for a main course, juniper-scented grilled boneless duck breast served with seared fois gras, duck cracklings on sweet potato hash, sauteed Lousiana kale, and a stratified fois gras-berry reduction. I sipped a 2001 Mourvedre Bodegas Olivares Altos de la Hoya. Dessert was Caramel Cafe Alaska, Turkish roast coffee and caramel gelato atop moist bittersweet chocolate cake covered with a toasted French meringue, served with bittersweet chocolate sauce and coffee toffee.
My husband and I spend the next 48 hours indulging in every sin New Orleans has to offer; we have so much fun it’s practically illegal. Walking the Garden District, full of stately antebellum mansions, eating like pigs, drinking like fish, wandering the French Quarter, picking out which little hotels we will stay in the next time we came back (for we’d already planned to make an annual pilgrimage), and staying up til the wee hours being very, very naughty on Bourbon Street.
On Sunday morning, as we wait for our table outdoors at Dante’s Kitchen on Dante Street, we wander around the block to Dublin Street, and stumble upon Nuance Blown Glass Studio. It is closed, but David sees someone moving around inside. It is the owner, Arden Stewart, and she opens the door and lets us in. People do that in New Orleans. We and admire her work and buy two glass Christmas ornaments, then say goodbye.
Four p.m. on Monday finds us at Napoleon House, a 200-year-old bar (New Orleans’ oldest) with French doors open to the warm, intoxicating air that permeates the city, where the music is always classical and the drink of choice is a Pimm’s Cup, made with an herb-based gin liquer and topped off with a cucumber. I look at my husband. I mean really look at him. And I see not the gray hairs that surely sprouted as a result of being married to me, not the guy who puts three pots and one fork in the dishwasher and deems it loaded, but rather the man I fell in love with at first sight 16 years ago. This is the man I married, handsome and funny, creative and kind. This is the real deal, I thought.
New Orleans had me, limp and vulnerable, like an insect in the sticky center of a Venus fly trap. Little did I know that three months later the loving arms of that city that held us so close would be broken, her sweet bougainvillea-scented breath strangled, her soft bosom crushed by Hurricane Katrina. All I knew was that at that moment I was happy.
Last night, after putting our son to bed, David and I slump on the couch in our typical state of post-workday exhaustion. Our Christmas tree glitters in the firelight. Carefully I unwrap each of the two glass ornaments from New Orleans, one a rich purple teardrop with majestic swirls, the other a small blue globe with tiny doves, as if spreading peace around the world.
"You know," David says, "we saved these ornaments from Katrina." I silently wonder what happened to all the other glass orphans. At least I know two are safe and loved, reminders that we should cherish moments – or weekends – of joy, because they can vanish all too quickly in the storm of life. As my friend Anne Marie likes to say: "Be here now."