Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Orleans Spooks Margaret (Part 2)

"Visitors staying in this hotel would go home, have their film developed, and find pictures of themselves sleeping in their beds...taken from the ceiling!"

I heard this ghost story and many other convincing tales on the New Orleans Spirit Tours Ghost and Vampire Tour. The visitors mentioned above were staying in the Andrew Jackson Inn which at one time was a boarding school for boys. There was a fire in which some of the students perished, and these became the mischievous photographers who also noisily haunt the halls.

Like me, our tour guide, George, is skeptical about the existence of vampires. Thanks to recent movies and television shows, vampires are a big, big topic in New Orleans. Believer or not, George had some interesting stories about them. One tale describes a mysterious and dashing man-about-town from last century who suddenly disappeared. When his New Orleans social set researched his name, they found that it matched another character from generations before in Europe. The two men even matched the same description down to the "diamonds in his clothes" part. Was he a vampire? A ghost?

Whether or not vampires really exist (I hope not), there does exist a community of wanna-bees who hang out in clubs like the Dungeon, just off Bourbon Street. Walking past this establishment, even in the daytime when it was closed, gave me the willies. (It was also uncomfortably close to my own hotel.)

Ghosts and vampires may or may not exist, but one piece of New Orleans culture might be the most chilling of all. In the cemeteries, bodies are buried above ground because of the high water table. These family tombs are like real estate, and as with any property, there is a limited supply. (Do you know where I'm going with this?) After at least a year and a day (an old rule that allows for the quick decomposition that occurs in the NOLA climate), when there is a new body to be interred, the coffins of previous residents are removed and destroyed. The contents/remains/bones are pushed back into the crypts underneath (called caveaux) to make room for the incoming deceased. (Creeped-out yet?) As I mentioned, these tombs are property, and as such can be sold. New owners can agree to let the remains of the previous stay, or, they can insist that the tomb be cleaned out and the bones deposited elsewhere. (Shiver.)

In case you're wondering, no pictures of me sleeping in my comfy white Hotel Monteleone bed taken from the ceiling materialized on my memory card. (Phew!) How would I have reacted to that?! The Monteleone is supposed to be haunted, too, but I haven't heard any tales, or looked for any, either.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Orleans Captivates Margaret, (Part 1)

Sitting on the airplane, catching up on my journal, I realized I would have to limit my New Orleans posts to the sights and experiences that I found the most interesting. It might seem strange to pair a cathedral with street jazz musicians, and then mention piles of powdered sugar with doughnuts underneath, but these are the big surprises of New Orleans. We did visit the famous Bourbon Street, a few times, but it was close to what I expected. I intend to concentrate here on the delightful surprises.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, sits just north of Jackson Square in the French Quarter. Taken from pretty Jackson Square, almost any photo of the cathedral will have Crepe Myrtle, magnolia, and palm trees in the foreground. I couldn't resist taking a few photos of the Spanish-style cathedral, but I hadn't planned on entering until (of all people) our ghost-and-vampire tourguide advised us not to miss it. It might have been partly the turbo air-conditioning on a beastly-hot day, but to me, the cathedral was breathtaking and I wanted to stay in there and inspect every stained-glass window (those tell Saint Louis's story), every shrine, every ceiling painting, and every piece of Catholic symbolism. This cathedral has more recently (1964) been named a basilica (meaning an archbishop presides here) and the umbrella see left) and bells encased in glass symbolize this important designation. If the Pope should visit, he is greeted with the umbrella, a symbol of hospitality as it is too narrow to protect him from actual rain. The massive organ pipes are framed by an arch illuminated by golden vines and angels reminding me of the prominence of music in this city. The organ was water-damaged during Hurricane Katrina and had to be sent away to be fixed. It was reinstalled in 2008.

I expected to find jazz musicians on the streets of the French Quarter, but I did not expect them to be so good! Almost every block had some unusual combination of instruments playing technically-virtuosic, heartfelt, and intense jazz. My favorite, just down the street from Aunt Sally's Pralines, was a clarinet player endowed with the technical prowess of Benny Goodman jamming with an equally accomplished trombonist. They were playing in a Dixieland style. As a longtime clarinetist who has enjoyed many friendships with trombonists over the years, I appreciated this combination. Music is after all, a kind of conversation between musicians, and jazz is the most personal kind of conversation. As usual, when I heard this clarinet I heard it as my voice even though I never was and never will be as good as the player sitting on this bench. By the way, the bucket says, " My name is Fill=up D. Bucket!"

These guys outside the cathedral were irresistible. I heard the saxophonist alone as I was shooting photos of Jackson Square and the exterior of the cathedral. Then the drummer joined him and added a hot beat and some vocals--WOW!!! I could feel some swing-dance moves coming on, but oh, no partner (shucks).

On the other side of Jackson Square is the famous Cafe du Monde. I couldn't get near this place until my last day in New Orleans because it was so crowded. Finally after our city tour, Linda and I popped in for some beignets in the late afternoon. Sadly though, the sousaphone player who had been there Sunday for this photo was not there to entertain us on Monday. She had the required cafe au lait, but I stuck with a nice cold diet soft drink (they don't say soda). I will admit to making a mess with that powdered sugar, but it was worth it and in my defense, so was everyone else! The small cafe tables were covered with it. I think I might start a movement to replace all Starbucks with Cafes du Monde. What do you think?