New Orleans, Here We Come

We were firmly entrenched in the honeymoon phase of our relationship. You know, that stage of new love that manifests as attraction, desire, and intense longing to be together every waking moment. Looking back at that amazing time thirty-seven years ago, I see more clearly how we chose to fill every spare moment making memories to catch up with the years together that we missed out on before we met.

It started with day trips out of town. They were the harbingers of trips around Florida, then touring the United States, followed by a delayed honeymoon in Italy which was at the top of both our bucket lists. Then there was Greece which merits a page of its own. Finally as we got older, we discovered the ease and joy of cruising the Caribbean Islands, boarding from ports in Florida, like nearby Port Canaveral, and Port Everglades which is one of the top three cruise ports in the world.

A lot of life happened from A to Z though. We grieved the loss of Gordon's parents, Annette and Arthur Greenwood and my mother, Olympia Normandy,  Gordon's and Jane's son Joseph, my sister Jean and her husband Pete, and many friends and relatives who died too young.
We had each other to lean on through it all. Our belief that there is life after life was instrumental in dealing with our sadness. I'm happy to say the good times outnumbered the sad times. Today I choose to focus on the good times, like my first trip to New Orleans in 1979.

 New Orleans poster
We had so much fun when Gordon took me to New Orleans the month after we met. He couldn't wait for me to meet his younger sister Melody, her husband Larry, and their young son, Shannon. He was sure Melody and I would instantly love each other because we had a lot of interests in common, and he was right. She was twelve years younger than Gordon and me and she turned out to be the little sister I never had.

Gordon timed the trip so we would be there for part of the two-week long Carnival season which ended with Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday. I learned that the fat in Fat Tuesday referred to it being the last chance to eat richer, fattier foods or "gorging" before the ritual fasting in the penitential season of Lent that begins the day after Mardi Gras for many Western Christians. In 1979 Mardi Gras was scheduled for February 27th.

How well I remember the Ash Wednesdays of my childhood. When I was around seven and a Roman Catholic, I felt such pride on Ash Wednesday when the priest made a cross out of ashes on my forehead as he said, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I'm pretty sure he said it in Latin. I didn't understand the meaning of it then. I do recall that every year I would proudly leave the ashes on my forehead all day until Mom said I had to wash my face before going to bed or I would get ashes all over the pillowcase. I was so proud to show the world I was Roman Catholic back then.

We all had to choose something to deprive ourselves of during the fasting season of Lent and although when I was around seven I wasn't required to give up anything, I wanted to be like the grownups so I chose to give up chewing gum. I couldn't understand all the grownups complaining about having to eat fish on Friday instead of meat. I liked fish better anyway and still do, but not that baccala, a dried and very salty codfish my mom made.

I had read that the pageantry of the Carnival parades in New Orleans drew enormous crowds and children and their parents collected colorful Mardi Gras beads and doubloons (coins) thrown from costumed people on the floats. Gordon had a cigar box full of them when we met and he hung on to them for decades until they lost their meaning for him. Melody and Larry told us the parades were family-friendly and not to be missed and they knew the best ones to take us to. However, it turned out that in 1979 the New Orleans police force went on strike using the leverage of Mardi Gras to take a stand to improve their working conditions. The powers in charge didn't budge and Mardi Gras was officially cancelled. Without police protection the parades could not take place in Orleans Parish.

Sixteen huge parades were cancelled, including the historic Rex (King of Carnival), Order of Venus, Krewe of Zulu, and Mystick Krewe of Comus. They all scrambled to find last minute venues outside Orleans Parish so the parades could go on, and they succeeded. To get an idea of the size of the largest parade, the Krewe of Endymion had 800 members at that time and finally ended up getting approval to have their parade in Kenner, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. More than half a million people turned out on that rainy February 14th to see Endymion.

Mardi Gras
                          1979 Priscilla and Gordon            New
                          Orleans-Endymion Float
Melody dressed me for Mardi Gras. We refused
to wear masks, so she made up our faces.

It didn't take me long to realize that nothing can stop some New Orleanians from enjoying the annual revelry and debauchery of Mardi Gras, also known as The Greatest Free Show on Earth. It's the people's party and they will party come hell or high water! I was still at the height of my spiritual awakening and loved to do spiritual chanting, but I had never witnessed the ritual chanting of Show your tits! like the guys in the Bourbon Street area shouted in the French Quarter that night, chanting to women on beautiful balconies adorned with ornate wrought iron railings. Women flashed their breasts for cheap strings of colored plastic beads. In what Universe is that fun?

I wish I could say that was the most embarrassing thing I saw that night, but I would be way more embarrassed to describe what we accidentally saw when we followed a crowd forming around we didn't know what. Our curiosity propelled us there, hoping it might be a magician doing magic tricks. Not even close. Since the police were on strike, the National Guard had been called in to keep a semblance of order with all the wild partying going on in the streets. They only intervened when things got totally out of hand. Sometimes it did and it took the National Guard's horsemen to stop the atmosphere from exploding into total chaos.

My first trip to New Orleans wasn't just about Mardi Gras. The very first place Gordon wanted to take me was Greenwood Cemetery, located at 5200 Canal Boulevard and City Park Boulevard (formerly Metairie Road). It was an unusual and unexpected introduction to New Orleans but I had already learned that Gordon rarely did anything without thinking it through first. Once we got there I understood. It wasn't just because the cemetery shared his last name (which we learned later was originally Grunewald when the first of his line arrived on our shores. That's a whole other story for later).

Greenwood Cemetery began in 1852 and is the most popular cemetery in a city that offers  your choice of numerous cemetery tours with a Voodoo emphasis and related ghost stories. Many historic tombs and landmark monuments can be found at Greenwood. "Six feet under" does not apply to cemeteries in New Orleans. The high water table there necessitates an above-ground burial tomb. They learned that the hard way in the 1800s when
all deceased were buried in coffins that were lowered into the ground. Accounts of that time stated that when graves were dug, they frequently filled up with water, resulting in watery graves. Coffins often floated and rose to the surface. After awhile a law was passed against underground burials. That's why we saw so many elaborately decorated mausoleums, many with beautiful stained glass windows. They were built like little houses very close to each other and the more affluent families had iron fences around theirs. The rows of tombs are like streets and are referred to as "cities of the dead." It turned out to be a quiet, fun day since we had the cemetery all to ourselves. It was one of Gordon's unusual surprise dates. In 1985, he took me to the lost city of Pompeii, Italy, where the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD turned at least 2000 people into what looked like stone. He never could top that one.

Greenwood Cemetery,
                          New Orleans

Melody and Larry took us to the French Quarter and let us play tourists. Gordon had been there often, but said he got a kick out of watching my joyful discovery of places I had only read about. He couldn't wait to show me Central Grocery at 923 Decatur Street. It was a small, family-run, old-fashioned Italian-American grocery store exactly like the ones I remembered from my childhood in Brooklyn. Well, not exactly. I don't remember Brooklyn menus offering chocolate-covered grasshoppers or bumble bees in soy sauce! Although we did also have cheeses and sausages hanging from the ceilings of our stores, only Central Grocery could claim the title of the original home of the deliciously huge muffuletta sandwich.

Central Grocery,
                          home of the Muffuletta         Muffuletta from Central
                          Grocery, New Orleans
 A muffuletta is so much more than your ordinary sandwich. The round roll is about ten inches wide and cut horizontally. Then it's covered with the heart of the sandwich, a marinated olive salad consisting of olives, celery, cauliflower, carrots and seasonings. The olive salad was covered in olive oil and left to marinate for at least 24 hours before it was used. It was made in large quantities to meet the neverending demand of tourists and locals alike. Next they piled on layers of capicola (a pork cold cut), salami, mortadella (a large Italian sausage also popular in Brazil), emmentaler (Swiss cheese I still don't like) and provolone (yummy)! The locals ordered either a "hot muff" or a cold one. Melody warned us to order only one hot muff for the two of us to share and have it cut in half. We ordered it to go and found a shady bench somewhere to sit and enjoy.  Even half a muff was too much for me to finish. We were sold on the scrumptious sandwich and always headed for Central Grocery for a hot muff on our many trips to New Orleans for years after that first experience.

The French Market is at 509 Decatur Street in the French Quarter. It has been in the same location since1791 when it was a Native American trading post on the banks of the muddy Mississippi, making it America's oldest market. In 1983, the year after Gordon and I were married, a new bronze sculpture by Paul Perret was unveiled in the world famous Dutch Alley pedestrian plaza. It was called Martha - A Market Customer. She was a woman in Victorian-era clothes sitting on a metal park bench holding a basket of fruits and vegetables. On a future trip we took the picture below sitting on either side of beautiful Martha. I love that smile on Gordon's face and his "go-to-hell hat." He was so relaxed and having fun away from the demands of the office. Me, too.

Bronze statue of
                          Martha - A Market Customer by Paul PerretJackson
                          Square in New OrleansStatue of
                          Andrew Jackson on his horse

We stopped at Jackson Square on Decatur Street. In the center photo, that's Melody standing next to me. The photo on the right is of the famous statue of General Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson on his horse. He later became the seventh president of the United States (1829-1837).  He defended New Orleans against the British during the War of 1812. The unique statue was placed there in his honor in 1856. The statue is unusual because his horse is balanced on its two back legs. At the time, people were sure it would fall over! In the background is the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, also known at Saint Louis Cathedral. It is the oldest cathedral in the United States, having opened in 1794. By the way, if you like history trivia, the ceremony in which the Louisiana Purchase took place was held in Jackson Square.

Not everything in Jackson Square is related to its history. An open-air artist colony has thrived in the square for over fifty years. Some of the well-known prolific artists have been selling their original canvasses there for decades. No reproductions are allowed at all. You can't just set up and sell your wares there. You have to have a permit, but only 200 permits are issued every year. New artists usually have to get on a waiting list and wait until someone doesn't renew his/her permit. In case you are considering doing this, in 2016 the application fee is $20 and the license cost is $175 a year. I love details. Can you  tell? Blame it on all those planets I have in Virgo. (Not sure I believe that.)

Cafe' du Monde is the original French Market Coffee Stand at
800 Decatur Street near Bourbon in old Jackson Square. It has been open 24 hours a day for 150 years according to Google, one of my best friends when I'm writing. This iconic New Orleans cafe is well known for its square, donut-like beignets (French doughnuts) heavily dusted with Domino Confectioner's Sugar, and for its traditional cafe au lait, made with their blend of dark roasted coffee and chicory and served half and half with hot milk since 1862. Now their famous coffee and box of beignet mix are available on their website. If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can buy it with free shipping and have it in two days. No money has been received for this obvious plug.

Cafe du Monde in New Orleans     Beignets at Cafe' du Monde

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