"Got to Leave the City, Got to Get Away"

I’m not moving. It’s just that there are so many other places to visit, some of them exciting cities, some of them just great spots in this country or others. So, sometimes, you have to sample other places and see what the visit there might tell you about your own plot of earth or daily life. Without the “there,” how can you understand, appreciate and improve the “here.” So, recently I went to a couple of “theres.”

I took a  little trip to Louisiana and visited a wonderful Cajun Restaurant called Aucoin’s Cajun Restaurant in Hayes, Louisiana. If you aren’t familiar with south Louisiana, you just go to Bell City and head east for several miles past a good many rice paddies and look for it on the right. No? OK, go Lake Charles (near the Texas border) and drive east through Bell City to Hayes. It has neon lights.

We landed there on a recent Friday night and enjoyed all the great Cajun music and fried crawfish we could hold. The place is built for dancing and eating, no frills, with folding tables and chairs serving their purpose until you get up to dance. Cajun music sounds somewhat like older country music, but it has an accordion, a little bit more of a bounce, and is usually sung in French. When you hear it you smile. Then you dance. If not, check your pulse.

The family who runs the place circulates to make sure everyone is having a good time. Everyone is happy while immersed in this little slice of French America. Every song was in French and French mingled with English throughout the room, sometimes each sounding more like the other. In that culturally rich environment it is hard to imagine being so mean spirited as some Americans get about language. These are great Americans – and they speak French.

Being that close to New Orleans, I had to make a detour a bit out of the way to soak up a little of that vibe. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that even though I grew up elsewhere, New Orleans is where I fell in love with cities. I visited there often with my family. I grew to love the fact that abundance was confronted with deprivation, that depravity was forced to examine beauty in a place where jack hammers met jazz and gospel music on the streets, where the unfortunate smells of masses of people mingled with the smells of Cajun spices and beignets. It is almost too much for the senses, and yet, it is a summation of this thing we call humanity in all it’s degradation and delight, mired in in its garbage and lifted by its grace.

The last time I was in New Orleans was July 4, 2005, about seven weeks before Katrina hit. I was a little nervous going back, fearing it would not be the same. The specter of the oil spill also hung heavily in the air and was constantly on every mind. On the outskirts of the city, particularly to the east, large areas of devastation were still apparent.

St. Louis Cathedral – Front View Across Jackson Square
St. Louis Cathedral – Rear view off Chartres Street
Cafe DuMonde – Best Coffee and Beignets in America

Urban Baby says, “I’m nearly one and you never told me about this?”
Of course, the New Orleans of my childhood is mostly the French Quarter and the Garden district. I missed large swaths of the city – many of which were the ones impacted most by Katrina. I could not tell much difference at this point in the quarter, though we were only there briefly. I’m told that more of the merchants are now Latino as opposed to Creole. I didn’t notice, but if that is true, then the city is simply cycling back to an earlier incarnation.

Urban Baby sleeps with her Mardi Bear – too much excitement.

My take-away for my current city? What was different? The massive numbers of people, the ethnic blend and the large numbers of skyscrapers. The scale of everything was bigger – even the statues are bigger. Despite what some of my pictures seem to show, nearly every sidewalk was covered with a crush of people of all races and not so heavily Caucasian as Knoxville. It made Knoxville on a pretty busy night seem deserted.

When I returned to Knoxville and was happily able to jaywalk all over Gay Street in the middle of the day, I missed the excitement of the larger numbers of people. I also missed the blend. Having grown up in an era when many of us marveled at skyscrapers, I do wish Knoxville had a bit more imposing of a skyline. Maybe Marble Alley will help in that area. I love our little city, but we are clearly still a little city. There is still room for us to grow. I hope as more people move downtown they won’t all look the same and think the same. We’ll never be the gumbo that is New Orleans, but I do like a little spice with my city!

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