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Tribute to the USA South: Savouring A Land of Charm, Grace and Warmth: My Overland Trip From Montreal-New Orleans

Tribute to the USA South: Savouring A Land of Charm, Grace and Warmth: My Overland Trip From Montreal-New Orleans

Jan 5th, 2007, 08:04 AM
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Tribute to the USA South: Savouring A Land of Charm, Grace and Warmth: My Overland Trip From Montreal-New Orleans

Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind had enough of Scarlett O'Hara's mercurial ways and returned to Charleston, hoping to find a land where charm and grace still existed. Taking the train down to New York City, a Canadian friend (he had never been further south in the US than NYC) and I continued south via sleeper car on the Crescent train to New Orleans. We saw along the way that even in this hurried, mile-a-minute era of the new millennium 2006/2007, that some of Rhett's sought-out world remains; like Melanie Hamilton, there remains a South where hospitality, charm and grace still exist.

Before this trip, my friend had a low opinion of the US (which I think he sees as too superficial, overeating, warmongering, dog-eat-dog, greed-as-virtue land... from the media I guess, who knows?) and he's more interested in travelling to Europe or the Third World. However, he's saving his coppers and I told him, if you get yourself to NYC, I'll get a sleeper car and you can take the top bunk of the roomette to New Orleans, my treat. Even though I tried to get him interested in the historic aspects of New Orleans (he's usually interested in history), he didn't seem to care, pooh-poohing it as being no history compared to Europe, Asia, etc... Ultimately, like many Canadians, he was lured more by the thought of going somewhere (New Orleans) with warmer temperatures for the right price. I secretly was hoping to open his mind, at very least nuance his opinion a bit. (My plan was nearly thwarted however when his luggage was rifled through at the border by customs agents and he was asked 3 times if he had any extra luggage; he told me if he'd been asked once more, he would have cabbed it back to Montreal.)

Despite the rocky start, his impressions of American quickly improved after the border as he had a lovely chat with a travelled woman from Upstate New York on the train and loved my humourous, generous, warm New York City actress-on-the-side aunt, who'd put us up in Manhattan before we caught our southbound train.

One of the most enjoyable things taking a long-distance train in the USA is the conversations one has with people in the dining car (you're seated at a table of 4), all of whom it seems from different walks of life. From an incredibly funny 88-year-old woman from Lynchburg, Va. (she said that when some younger relatives asked her if she's preparing for her great reward, she said "hell no! I'm gonna fight tooth and nail to the very end") to some country folk from Alabama who asked us if there were any ranches in our state (!) to some legal secretaries from New Jersey, most were so kind and warm that my friend commented that he was really impressed how friendly Americans, especially Southerners, were.

My first time in a sleeper with two to a roomette, I wasn't sure how well it would work, but it was quite cozy. My friend enjoyed the privacy of his upper bunk and that he could read and nap under some covers in his undies while travelling. He was surprised how mountainous and tree-filled much of the northern South was, expecting to be more flat, wide-expanse plantation fields. Highlights were the steep limestone sides of the Tombigbee River in Alabama and the sleepy small towns nestled in gorgeous valleys of low mountains one passes through, especially in central Virginia and western Georgia.

It was darkness by the time the train arrived 2 1/2 hours late at 10pm in New Orleans. I've only passed through the Big Easy quickly in the past and it was my friend's first time. Little did we know what effect Nawlins would have on us both; our Dec. 28-Jan 2 visit altered both our perceptions of the Crescent City forever.

The New Orleans portion...To be continued...
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 5th, 2007, 10:04 AM
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Hi Daniel_Williams-Im looking forward to hearing more!

NatureGirl19317 is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 10:06 AM
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We were staying at St. Charles Guest House, which consisted of 3 buildings. Located on Prytania in the Lower Garden District, I loved the place immediately, very Old World, with carpeted staircases, portraits from the 1800s, mantelpieces, semitropical foliage by the small pool in a courtyard and bookshelves lined with books. It's definitely not for everyone as there's no TV or phone in the room, some visible water damage on the roof, the carpets were stained and the blankets were old. But I just loved it as there was a sense of family, a warm sociability in the breakfast room next to the courtyard; the guest house was used as a base for some volunteers working to help improve living conditions in St. Bernard Parish nearby.

I was almost shocked at the speed with which my friend (and I!) fell for New Orleans. The weather was largely in the low 70s and the first evening, just walking around the Lower Garden District, we both were so happy and surprised to be somewhere that the semitropical vegetation was so different from that of northeastern North America. My friend was reminded of his native Seychelles (he's Seychellois and Canadian) with the air fragrant with camelia and other scents.

Walking down Prytania, I felt saddened at those who said New Orleans should be abandoned post-Katrina, as I looked at all the beautiful homes with sometimes distinctive tall shutters, sometimes ionic or doric columns, sometimes such creatively arranged plants (from baby palms to banana leaves to camelia to passion fruit, etc...). I thought to myself: this is something to fight for! An American historical treasure!

Only a block and a half from Coliseum Park from our inn, I loved the ivy-clad live-oak and fountained greenspace surrounded by beautiful old New Orleans homes so much that I made sure I would see it every day of our 4 day visit! The energy was so special here in a uniquely Nawlins setting; I loved watching all the dogowners and dogs playing here, couples holding hands on a bench soaking in their surroundings, one guy practiced guitar under a tree. The Lower Garden District I must say was my favourite area of the city.

Numerous people (both Canadian and American) seemed to focus on worries about crime and safety for my Nawlins visit. I must say, my friend and I walked back and forth within the Garden District and even from our hotel (Lower Garden District) through downtown and into the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny a few times and I felt as comfortable walking there as I do in most North American cities. This might not be the case in the more heavily-damaged northern parts, and the area around St. Louis Cemetery #1 that was near the Treme District projects (notoriously rougher) seemed a bit dicey, but we felt pretty comfortable in the cemetery itself.

Our first day, we walked through the Central Business District. Highlights for me here were Lee Square, with its huge monument dedicated to General Robert E. Lee (and a gorgeous light show at night on the front of Hotel Le Cirque) and the peaceful green Lafayette Square surrounded by some architecturally-impressive larger buildings.

While I loved the Lower Garden District most, it was the French Quarter that my friend was most entranced by. The narrow streets and ornate wrought-iron-railinged galleries with gaslamps were enough to make me pleased to have chosen to vacation there. My friend however is obsessed with antiques and decorations and the French Quarter is chock-a-block with all sorts of incredibly varied baubles and finery. We split up for an hour; an hour later, all that talk he had of saving his coppers this trip went right out the door, as he showed up in front of Jackson Square with 3 bags worth of goodies, from black-and-white portraits of New Orleans streets to some glass-blown Christmas tree decorations.

Cliche as it may sound, Jackson Square was my favourite place in the Quarter; moved by my surroundings, I picked a bench in the manicured gardens beside the dignified statue of Andrew Jackson and just stared at those beautiful pointy black steeples and took in the saxopohone-imbued surroundings. A group of Caribbean acrobats/comedians did an incredible high-strength gymnastic routine on the steps leading up the Moonwalk/promenade by the Mississippi River. Jugglers, musicians, tarot readers, people eating powder-sugar covered beignets on benches, the energy was just electric. My friend wanted to stay for hours!

Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 5th, 2007, 10:12 AM
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wow-that was fast service, hee hee.

I cant wait to read more about your trip!
NatureGirl19317 is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 11:09 AM
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I love your trip reports, Daniel. What a delight on this rainy Friday.
cmcfong is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 11:13 AM
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I love old places with no tvs, phones especially, good choice.
JJ5 is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 12:12 PM
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I get very nostalgic hearing about New Orleans. It's a bit heartbreaking for me. Not just because of the devastation Katrina wrought upon the Gulf Coast. Mainly because I cannot reconcile the loving memories of the state where I was born with the reality that the citizens of Louisiana voted last year to enshrine institutional discrimination against gays and lesbians into their state constitution. I will not be returning to a place that now is filled with hate.
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Jan 5th, 2007, 12:39 PM
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Daniel, I really enjoyed your report! My parents often take the train and talk about the variety of people they meet in the dining car. They love traveling that way. I hear so many negative comments about Amtrak, that it was nice reading the positives in your report. You should write for the New Orleans tourism board. Your report makes me wish I was there. Thanks!
wtm003 is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 12:42 PM
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I was fotunate enough to have lived in New Orleans for two years. "The City That Care Forgot"...or perhaps better expressed as, "When Care showed up, New Orleans slammed the door in its face!"

The City which got an exception from the infamous "blue laws" so that the antique stores on Royale Street could stay open on Sunday.

The "City of Sin" which is decried in other parishes while at the same time those decrying folks rush there for the weekends.
Dukey is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 02:46 PM
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Wonderful experience!
We love slow here in the mountains of Mexico.
Nearly all my TX lady friends are Daughters of the Confederacy and have (photos and letters from) their direct ancestors who were rebel generals: a wild bunch to say the least
mikemo is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 04:09 PM
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I thought I heard someone mention my name?
lol, Daniel, you did it again! Wonderful report, full of it's own Grace and Charm.
Please do continue ~
Scarlett is offline  
Jan 5th, 2007, 04:57 PM
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After enjoying some powdered sugar beignets and coaxing my reluctant friend away from bauble-and-trinket heaven (aka the French Market), we meandered toward my 2nd favourite area of the city, the Faubourg Marigny, which I associate with some of the best food I tasted in Nawlins. I had my first po-boy sandwich (shrimp) ever here at the Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street which I enjoyed, although I secretly coveted my friend's delicious seared catfish with collard greens (I had a taste). On our last night, we were to enjoy a delicious meal on Frenchmen across the street in atmospheric hardwood-floored and dimly-lit Adolfo's, where the wait was an hour, a smiling Bob Dylan impersonator sang in the bar where we waited below (who seemed happy despite the fact no one seemed to be listening to him), but the shrimp and crawfish pasta was divine and worth our patience!

The Faubourg Marigny has many lovely homes to admire worth exploring, as we'd notice ambling away from the sidewalk-drinkers and jazz emanating from some Frenchmen clubs. Washington Square in the Marigny is great place to sit and watch playful dogs enjoying life as much as the citizenry.

I can't talk about New Orleans without mentioning the best meal we had there, at the end of our first full day, at the Gumbo Shop on St. Peter, not far from St. Louis Cathedral. The price was right ($7.95), we ate the chicken-andouille (me) and seafood-okra gumbo was divine(friend) in an outdoor courtyard in the center of the building (charmed), the tasty pina coladas and daiquiris got us sociable and happy, the maitre d' and waiter were class epitomized, we were in heaven.

More to come (Algiers Ferry! friend goes nuts on Magazine Street!)...

Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 6th, 2007, 03:24 AM
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Your report is fascinating, both for what you did and how well you write. Thank you!
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Jan 6th, 2007, 07:52 AM
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While our first day was devoted to exploring downriver toward the French Quarter, day 2 we explored the "upper" Garden District all the way to the Tulane campus area uptown. Beginning at my fav Coliseum Park, we snapped photos and admired the homes on Coliseum Street, which seemed to have a trend toward larger and even more Greek Revival (white columns galore!) as we gradually strolled toward Uptown. We pondered lives and deaths at the above ground tombs at Lafayette Cemetery.

At the cemetery, I asked a friendly gentleman volunteer tour guide with the last name Perret if he spoke French, which he did quite articulately (went to a language school he told us), although informed us that the French language was dead in New Orleans. On the other hand, a hotel clerk from an old New Orleans family who spoke French told us there were more than a few speaking French around the home in the Big Easy. Given the number of epitaphs at St. Louis Cemetery #1 in the French language, even as recently as the early 1900s, I left wondering: is the French language really dead in New Orleans or does the language exist clinging to life in certain households? It makes me pause (seems almost incredible) to think that a dominant language could actually die in a space of 100 years.

We caught the #12 (St. Charles) bus toward uptown as the St. Charles streetcar line is still down up from Lee Circle (from the dirt covering and grass growing on the streetcar rails, looks like there's plenty to do yet to fix it). Ogling the columned mansions on the way, we disembarked at the Loyola Campus/Audubon Park. Oddly enough, while I expected to see Spanish moss everywhere in New Orleans, it was only in the fountained and laked expansive Audubon Park that I saw the Spanish moss draped like a light feathery coat over the ivy- and fern-covered live oaks.

In Audubon Park, I marvelled at the expansive mansions that had the park directly behind them as a back yard (no road or sidewalk separating the houses from park). The ornateness and extravagance of many of these enormous homes and gardens found me pondering the incredible disparity in wealth from this upper crust versus the tougher existence in the projects of the Tremé or wiped out northern portion of the city. Despite this nagging conscience, I could not help but be seduced by the image of beauty, creativity and tranquility that emanated from these grand old dames of houses here and elsewhere in the Garden District.

We returned to the Lower Garden District on the Magazine Street bus (#11). After lunch at a very good Middle Eastern restaurant on Magazine, my friend was lustily eyeing the antique shops and I was ready for my afternoon nap! Agreeing to split up and meet at the hotel, my jaw dropped and eyes popped out when my friend somewhat guiltily (but with head held high) showed up at the hotel 2 1/2 hours later with two wrought iron door adornments, a metal dish, two more baubles and a miniature red tinsel Christmas tree! "What about your plan to not spend much?!", I'd say half-reprimanding. "And how are you planning to get all this back to Montreal?" He counters that he's doing his part to help revive the New Orleans economy. (Mmmm hmmmm)

That afternoon/evening a hard rainstorm, a semi-tropical kind with large intense raindrops and gusts one would not get in eastern Canada, pounds down on New Orleans turning Prytania Street into half-river. The next morning the air is clear and the street is remarkably relatively dry.

We take the Riverfront Streetcar into the French Quarter our 3rd day. After exploring the St. Louis Cemetery #1 (much more French, statues, monuments here than in the Lafayette Cemeterey) mausoleums, we work our way down to Plaza de España by the Mississippi River, where we wait for the ferry to Algiers. This circular plaza is courtesy of Spain to celebrate the common history that New Orleans and Spain share (between the French and the US, in the late 1700s New Orleans was briefly a Spanish colony).

The ferry to Algiers offers a view of Jackson square from midriver (my friend was originally considering a paddlewheel ride but my friend had spent too much money on baubles, so the paddlewheel idea was nixed). Historic Algiers (founded 1719) was a lovely place to spend an afternoon with quite a few pleasant reasonably-sized decorated homes, handsome churches and a few cafés and parks. Algiers I would recommend as an enjoyable quiet respite from the buzz and whirr of the other side of the river.

Thanks cmcfong, Scarlett, JJ5, wtm003, dfrostnh, NatureGirl for your kind comments and all others for their thoughts. It feels all the more worthwhile to me to write something that brings reading pleasure for others. Thanks for reading!

Some final thoughts to come...
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 6th, 2007, 08:52 AM
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The Crescent train leaving New Orleans gave my friend and I a glimpse of some of the destruction that Katrina wreaked on the magnificent city, from sand- & grass-covered streets to rooves pulled off, windows smashed, cars rusting, abandoned homes with paint peeling. Sadness thinking of the lives lost and uprooted.

Skirting between St. Louis Cemetery #3 and the Metairie Cemetery, we glimpsed seemingly miles and miles of tombs and mausoleums, some with obelisks, others with statues of angels. As the train curved northward onto Lake Pontchartrain (so big, it really looks almost like an ocean!), my friend found it spooky as we were almost suspended midair above the water in parts (we could not see the tracks below!).

Looking back toward the city separated from the north by the Pontchartrain "Ocean", thoughts flowed back nostalgically about our stay. The passing-by greetings of people on the street, the dignified mansions of the Garden District and rowhomes of the French Quarter, the smiles, friendliness and warmth of people with all shades of skin colour we interacted with, the volunteers working to rebuild others' lives staying at the eccentric yet welcoming and homey St. Charles Guest House, the tranquil graceful parks, the festive and giving spirit of New Orleanians enjoying their time on this earth despite tragedy. I can see now why so many did not want to leave the city post-Katrina.

In my opinion, some of the rest of us could learn a thing or two taking some leads from dignified New Orleans. Certainly far from perfect, but yes, charm, hospitality and grace despite hardship still show their beautiful heads mightily even in this below sea-level land some may call a swamp. I suspect Rhett Butler would want us to fight to keep the gracious spirit of New Orleans alive.

Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 6th, 2007, 12:16 PM
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Thank you, Dan, for a delightful report about a city we love and visit often.

I was also interested in your description of the train ride, especially since I live in one of those sleepy little towns on the high white bluffs of the Tombigbee River.

Byrd is offline  
Jan 7th, 2007, 08:07 AM
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Looking back through my travelogue, I realize that I didn't mention one of my favourite things about this trip was watching my Canadian friend's eyes open throughout the journey. He went from being a man with a disdainful attitude toward the US to at one point asking me why I wasn't living in New Orleans instead of Montreal (I have dual status).

Originally condescending toward US history as self-aggrandizing and boringly young, he went from no interest in New Orleans history to being so taken in by it that he bought a beautiful bound book on diverse New Orleans homes and gardens (brilliantly compiled I must say, showing mansions to creative, modest homes), which he chose in part for its introduction talking about the city's fascinating history.

He told me that before going he had a "ho-hum" attitude about visiting the French Quarter ("Why travel to another touristy Old Montreal when I could go to France for the real thing?", he'd say.) Turned out he was like a bee to honey, so drawn was he to the elegant antique stores and the pulsating energy of the Quarter.

Originally only desiring to go to New Orleans with me largely for its milder climate and perhaps a mild curiosity, sociable New Orleanians and the city's shops, innate semi-tropical vegetation and architectural beauty seemed to minute-by-minute melt his steely uppitiness. He saw that while yes, car culture dominates in America, food portions can be large and often not healthy, obesity is a problem AND YET some in-shape people we met bicycle to get around in New Orleans and places like Whole Foods on Magazine Street (he was blown away by the selection) offer up alternatives with organic, fresh and local produce. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly people (not just my friend, it's a worldwide phenomenon) generalize others, whether they be from other regions, countries, ethnic groups.

Needless to say, given his original attitude, I was secretly pleased when he told me our second day there that he wished he could find a way to move to New Orleans.
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 7th, 2007, 08:20 AM
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Don't stop now, Daniel! These tales of your New Orleans adventure are mesmerizing. Tell us more! Tell us more!
stevebarr is offline  
Jan 9th, 2007, 06:15 AM
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Thanks Byrd and Steve Barr. I'm afraid to say my tale is finished, but I promise to speak of future adventures when the time comes.

Here's to the great city of New Orleans and its citizens...that managed to almost singlehandedly make my friend have a whole new positive outlook on the USofA!
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 10th, 2007, 09:26 PM
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Lovely report. I am so pleased when I encounter someone who learns that we're not just the stereotypes that abound so freely.

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