New Orleans was better than I expected, and I'd had pretty high hopes to begin with.
What I expected: a Disney-fied city full of lights and magic and people who only cared about making a tourist buck.
What we found: a working city full of lights and magic and people who cared about their city and the people visiting it.
We stayed at the Hotel Villa Convento in the French Quarter on Ursulines. I'd just finished reading Heads in Beds (which was awesome, by the way, plus being half-set in New Orleans and written by someone who loves the city), and I was obsessed by this advice: Always tip the front desk clerk.
Now, I was a front desk clerk for years. I worked a tiny hotel in San Luis Obispo, a sweet place where I made four loaves of bread every night before going to bed (we shut the desk from 11pm-7am, and I slept in a back dorm, staying from Friday night until Monday morning) so that the guests had fresh bread when they woke up. Every once in a while, I got a tip, and to that person I was grateful though I was sometimes confused.
In the book, Tomsky says that you should always tip the desk. What's a twenty going to get you? Maybe nothing, but then you're only out twenty bucks. But hey, you might get an upgrade, or an extra perk, like a bottle of wine. I wanted to try it, but I was nervous. What if the clerk carefully picked up the bill between two fingers and sneered, "Is this a bribe, madam?" (Tomsky said this never happens.)
So as soon as we got to the small desk at the very old hotel, I said, "Hi, checking in, and uh, this is for you." I slid the bill across the old, scarred wood.
The darling man behind the counter said, "What's this?" (Worst nightmare.)
I said, even more nervous, "It's for whatever you can do for us. [Stammering] You know, for a nice room, maybe?"
"You're the last one in, and the only other room I have is the budget room."
"Okay, then. That's just for you. I used to work front desk and I know how people can be."
Oh, my friends. The look on his face! He just melted. "Oh! I NEEDED this. It's been SUCH a day, you have no idea!"
I wasn't trying to buy a friend, and I know we would have made fast friends with Vincenzo anyway. But that just made it faster, right? Twenty bucks very well spent. I will absolutely do this on all my future trips.
So our new bestie Vincenzo sent us down the block for a drink (I'd been up for literally 48 hours at that point, but really wanted to see a little of the city before we went to bed) to his favorite place, Pravda. At Pravda, we had a wonderful cocktail waitress named Lucy, who was so friendly it was unreal (we're from Northern California. We do politely disinterested, at best). She said, "Oh, you're not from here? Can I tell you some places to eat?" We expected her to return with a printed list of recommended restaurants. Instead, she brought us this.
And then she proceeded to take the time to tell us what she liked at each place and how to get to each one. ("Well, you could take a cab, but it would be better to take the streetcar. What you do is…") This was Friday night after Mardi Gras season had just started. (Lala and I kept looking at each other and saying, "What? Are we in Canada or something? People are so nice.")
Speaking of Mardi Gras, we NEVER would have booked a trip had I known that Mardi Gras is not a day or even a week, but apparently a month or so of crazy-pants-time. But we were innocently clueless. Lala had an old friend there, and we met up with him and friends (awesome friends! Adopting them!) and did a local's night, watching the Petit Rex parade. A whole parade of little tiny floats! Plus bands! Jayzus!
And, oh, oh! We did a bike tour with Bob of Big Easy Bike Tours. This cannot be highly stressed enough: if you go to NOLA, go on a bike tour with him. Read his reviews there on Yelp. The man knows everything, and is passionate about the city.
Three hours, pedaling through the (mercifully flat) town, we got miles and miles of information. The stories he told us about Congo Square in Armstrong Park made me teary, and I'll always think of that as the spiritual center of the town.
His excitement was contagious, and the most important part was that he told us about THE DOG PARADE which was happening on Sunday.
The Dog Parade (Barkus)! With New Orleans jazz bands? What? HEAVEN.
You know that game you play at the bar? "Who would you go home with?" We played "Who would you adopt?" This was the one I'd have taken home.
She was very small, very short like a French bulldog with a head like a pittie and legs splayed like a cowboy long months on the trail. I fell in love with her joyous waddle.
Dachshunds are natural peacocks, after all.
Her sign says "Show us your ticks!"
Mr. Smartypants here would like Miss Idaho.
We saw Bob!! He gave us a football for Clara.
There is a very cute moment when Lala gives herself over to something. Example: She's going to LA. Fine. That'll be fun, she thinks. Then, when she's there, she's all, "DID YOU KNOW ABOUT HOLLYWOOD? THE STARS! THEY'RE AMAZING!" There's hand-flapping, friends. It's awesome. At the dog parade, at first she said, "Nah, no beads, no worries. Don't need 'em. Just here for the dogs, thanks." And as the children continued to throw them at us from their dog-mobiles, she turned to me and said, "THIS IS AMAZING. I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. I WANT MOAR BEADS MOAR." In the above picture, she was finally (regretfully) culling her Mr. T. stash.
It was the best freaking parade ever.
I also got a very funny shirt while there:
New Orleans, it turns out, is Lala's Venice. She wandered at night, long after I'd gone back to the hotel, jamming on the banjo with some punk kids, losing herself in the streets. She's in love. (And in a particular way, New Orleans reminded me very much of Venice. A city that runs on tourist dollars yet still retains stubborn civic pride; a city falling down, crumbling at the edges but still beautiful; a city that smells of diesel and stagnant water and pastries; a city gorgeous in its unapologetic debauchery.)
We packed so much wunnerful stuff into a single weekend. And I adore the fact the fact that we'll be back.