Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Big Uneasy

Everyone should visit Nazaré Portugal in the off season. I’m sure there is a good reason so many tourists come from all over Europe and America in late July or early August, but in all honesty it was great to be some of the only tourists in that city. When we were there it really felt like what it must have been at one point; a small fishing village. Well, I mean it didn’t feel like that completely. There were hundreds of restaurants with table after empty table. But, there was also one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in my life. The grains of sand were so large you could have strung them on a necklace, but they were all soft so soft laying in the sand felt like silk on the skin. The waves crashed so hard on the beach that the beach itself sloped down at a steep incline. The water was too rough to swim in, and a little cold too, but it was beautiful. And the water was so blue. So very blue. Emily and I saw postcard and pictures of the beach at peak tourist season and it was just black with bodies and the crush of humanity. But the picture above is the one that I took when we were there. No people, just the beach and the waves. At the uppermost part of the beach (and the picture) is where the luxury hotels are and were being built. All the rest of the beach front and several blocks in is guest houses. The capacity of this "little fishing village" is enormous. I'm so glad I wasn't there at full capacity.

New Orleans is different. A friend of mine commented on this picture when I posted it saying "I've never seen a picture of New Orleans without a shit load of tourists." I like to think of this picture like the Nazare picture, it's better without the people. But, like in Nazare the absence of people is good for me, but it's bad news for the economy. Both pictures are of beautiful places looking beautiful, but both pictures are really pictures of desolation and depression.


When I told people when I was coming most of them looked at me with surprised faces and said "In July?!" I'm sure the reason for their surprise is obvious. It's very hot. There is nothing going on festival wise. And it is at the very beginning of hurricane season. What kind of idiot am I? I'm the kind of idiot who can get a table at any restaurant I want without more than a twenty minute wait. I'm the kind of idiot who can get a very cheap rate at a guest house. I'm the kind of idiot who more than anything just wanted to retreat so I don't need the razzle dazzle or the bang of Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest. I'm also the kind of idiot that is missing a lot of what makes New Orleans New Orleans.

But, I think I'm getting another side too. Everyone is on edge. There is a desperation somewhere in their voices and their eyes. It says "Thank god you're here. Please spend your money. Spend all your money. Then tell other people to come and spend their money." Maybe they've had one too many tourists ask them about their hurricane stories and they just start popping out when ever anyone asks "How are you?" And it's not that I don't want to know their stories because I do, but I don't want to be a disaster tourist either. I don't want to take pictures of devastation with the same attitude someone would take pictures of the Statue of Liberty or the grand canyon. And yet I'm a writer and I long to hear the stories and take the pictures and listen. I feel extremely conflicted.

"How are you today" Owner of a restaurant.

"I"m doing great, thank you. And you?" Myself

"Good, good. It's better now. We were able to open up again right after. Not a lot of damage. But you know that wasn't the problem. There wasn't anyone to work. No workers. We were short handed for a long time. But it is better now. I'm glad you're here."

"How are you doing today. You're relaxing. You like sitting around. I like that." Waiter at a different restaurant.

"I'm going great. Really great. It's a beautiful day. How are you?" Myself.

"Let me tell you. This is a tough city. A tough city. How long have you been here?"

"Three days."

"Yeah, then you don't know yet. You don't know. But it's a tough city. How long you staying?"

"Three weeks."

"Really. Good. Good. Then we'll see you again!"

"Probably."

"No probably. We'll see you again. It's good you're here."

"Hello. Let me know if I can help you." Antique dealer

"Thank you, I will."

"Are you enjoying your stay in the city?"

"Yes, very much."

"How long are you staying."

"Three weeks."

"Really? That's wonderful. How wonderful. You'll get to do a lot of everything. Let me know if you need any help."

"I will, but I think I might be just looking. There is a lot of beautiful things in this store."

"I know. He has good taste. The owner. This isn't is primary mode of income, so he has lots of time to look for things and he comes to the city to look after the store. It's his hobby so there is a lot of love. He has good taste. But it's been though. We were lucky and didn't have any damage. We opened up right away. But, it's been slow. I haven't sold anything for three months."

"Hello pretty lady, where are you from? Wait let me guess. Wisconsin." Balloon Man.

"No. California." Myself.

"Oh, then it would be San Francisco."

"Right."

"I used to live in San Francisco. I've lived all over, but I lived out there when I was a kid up to...I guess in my twenties. Let's make you a flower. A flower for a pretty San Francisco girl. How's your trip been so far?"

"Good, good. I only just got here. But it's been great."

"How long are you staying?"

"Three weeks."

"Oohh wee! That's a long time. You should just go ahead and move here. You're going to be in love by the time you have to go away again."

"Maybe. Maybe."

"I tell you what. It's been slow slow. But it's cause it's hot. Too hot to be outside. The locals all know better. Stay in and tuck in. Wait for the weather to be nice again."

"Yeah, but I teach so I couldn't really take time off any other time."

"That makes since. That makes since. But you should. You should come back for mardi gras. Nothing like mardi gras. And they've got it mostly back up like it used to be. All the crews are back now. Some of the floats are gone, but there's some new ones. Sometimes it feels more like a funeral than anything, like it's sad some how under all the party. Jazz funerals are a celebration of life, but it's still a funeral you know? I'm not a native, so maybe my perception is skewed. There you go, a lovely flower for a lovely lady. A dollar for the clown gets him new balloons."

"Absolutely. Thank you."

"And thank you. Now go get you some breakfast pretty lady."

And now, looking around and the restaurants, I just feel tired and sad. They are empty or nearly empty. Their hours are odd or change to frequently to post. And I may just be going to the wrong places, but the food is not good. At one restaurant I had shrimp creole on rice. The shrimp was tiny and obviously just defrosted then put in the sauce. The sauce was out of a can and sort of seasoned. The bread pudding was burnt most of the way through. Maybe this was just one restaurant, and maybe it's always like this at this restaurant, but it was so disappointing. I have been to Cafe du Monde and it is as good as everyone says. My favorite restaurant so far is Coops. It's a very small place, it's packed every time I go, the food is good, the music they play is fun, and I feel relaxed. I'm surrounded by tourists, but I'm not treated like one. I'm a costumer and no one asks how long I'm staying or where I'm from. I'm in New Orleans and I'm eating and this is all that matters. But restaurants with no customers can't afford fresh food and can't afford to be open when I want to eat and I don't deserve to complain because I didn't come when they could afford to be open more or serve their best quality food. . And another problem is I'm not a drinker and I don't like to go to bars alone. But the French Quarter is all about bars. Unfortunately, they are also all about pre-mixed daqueries (you know the kind in neon unearthly colors made from powder or syrup packages) which I've always found gross and have given me a headache before I can even feel buzzed. And so many of these places are empty any way. They may be busier at night, but I wouldn't know yet. I've felt uncomfortable going out alone at night. It's mostly the alone part, but also I've had this conversation a lot:

"You are going to have so much fun." Playwrighting teacher from New Orleans.

"I know, I'm so looking forward to it." Myself

"Good good. Make sure and take a taxi home when it gets late."

"I will -"

"No. I mean it. Be careful. Take a taxi. Don't walk around alone."

"Well, have fun and good luck on the play." Producer in New Orleans.

"Thank you, I will."

"I think you're going to have a really good time."

"Thank you, I'm looking forward to it."

"Just be careful. Very careful. You sure you don't have any friends in the area?"

"No, I really don't."

"Ok. Well, take taxies to get around. But only take the ones from in front of hotels. Don't walk around at night."

"I wont. Thank you."

"I mean it."

"That sounds so exciting. You are going to have such a good time." Friend from New Orleans.

"I know. I've been looking forward to this for so long."

"Just be careful. Don't drink too much alone and make sure to take taxis. Don't walk around alone."

"I know. I've been told."

"And I'm telling you too."

"Ok, that's it. If you need more towels or laundry or anything don't be afraid to ask." Guest house owner.

"Thank you. I wont."

"And let me give you the number of a taxi company. They are the best one. Don't walk around alone. I've never had any problems, but you never know. You never know. This is a dangerous city."

"Thank you. What's the number?"

I'm in a city where nothing seems to be coming easy to the people who live in it, I haven't met a lot of people who seem relaxed and at ease with anything, and no one I've met has encouraged that attitude in myself. This is the Big On Edge.



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