... a conference in New Orleans.
On an airplane, headed from northern England, via Amsterdam and Atlanta, to the real heart of the very South.
Unfortunately, I keep being surprised at the sloppy, smelly American passengers in my last couple of air trips to the States – and they always seem to be so loud, too; and they take up so much room – pushing bags aside for overstuffed suitcases that obviously should have been checked, on flights where the service is slovenly, offhand and obviously depressed.
Of course, I know that I am too loud, for the northern English city where I live, and often for the norm in various cities across Europe; D., for instance, although we are friends and colleagues, often expresses barely covert (really, virtually passive-aggressive) irritation that I don't shut up more, or at least tone it down a bit. But perhaps I'm not used to hearing American volume en masse any more.
On the plane, they show a couple of films of exaggeratedly heterosexual American life – lots of families and children and relationships, and grandmothers and sons and wives, and such. Common denominator, I suppose.
I am, as it happens, reading Erikson's book on child development in preparation for my Zürich exams next summer... And some combination of all this makes me wonder: if many human lives, and many problems, are characterized by the dense knotting of several levels of positive and negative meaning between people, distributed across complex events and life stages – then can we say that I have unfortunately had a later life characterized somewhat differently – by unraveling, by a loss of meaning?
People dying; moving too far away from knots of lovers, friends, family... there is a sense of dissipation: by which I don't mean drinking and such, but simply the process, as a gas dissipates into thin air. As though the sorrows and confusions of my life have ended up lying a bit too far from their original objects, drifting tenuously through empty spaces – or perhaps it is like unraveling strands of rope. It becomes possible to see what happened in the past, but the results are a bit abstract – this is all like looking back over a story, and polishing details, when you already know the ending... or, perhaps, the lack thereof.
But there are a lot of rapidly shifting feelings and moods during this trip of nearly a week – so many changes, places, people: at first I was a bit shell-shocked, partly by that long plane trip. (How did I manage to go from northern England to New Orleans via three planes – eighteen hours total in one direction, then twenty-two in the other? It honestly seemed worse than those old trips to Hong Kong, which were at times twenty-seven hours long... but back then the airline was much pleasanter, the attendants happier and more helpful, and there was more space.) On the first day or two there was a lot of wondering just what I was doing at this conference – nobody seemed to remember me, nobody seemed to want to talk. Fortunately, this changed a great deal during the conference, and I was no longer another forgotten foreigner by the end.
And it is the kind of city where you can walk around and look at houses, and think: Ah, I wish that I could live here... in the French Quarter, the small buildings have an aliveness that you could imagine as part of a beloved home. In every street, you change your mind: no, I would rather live there...
In any case, New Orleans is enormous fun – in a frankly rather rough, often visibly poor kind of way. But they truly do know how to enjoy their lives: the Discworld book Witches Abroad is a blithe parody of a trip that Pratchett must have taken to New Orleans... including the wonderful food that is made out of anything (scrapings from the bottom of the bay, or rivers), but which has a real sensual magic to it. A wonderful scene in a market, where Nanny Ogg meets one of the local witches – who has a big pot of gumbo sitting outside her tent, a plate next to it for coins, and that plate is overflowing: Nanny Ogg tries the gumbo, and says: so, they pay you whatever they think it’s worth? The witch says yes, they do... and Nanny Ogg says, tentatively, and you don’t get loaded down with a lot of diamonds, and gold, and such?...
Long lunches and dinners, astoundingly rich food – and, most unexpectedly, the people are all so sweet and charming: as you would expect, the many tourists are mildly obnoxious (it is like Amsterdam or San Francisco, where tourists expect to have raunchy fun they wouldn’t ever have at home, and therefore behave accordingly – unfortunately, as when we had to convince German tourists in San Francisco not to piss on the street corners); but everyone I meet who actually lives in New Orleans seems truly civilized, charming, and friendly. And they flirt, also charmingly, which is always good for an aging ego. (The most unexpected case of this was the hotel clerk in his late twenties who said, So, young man, how can I help you?... I did snort in amusement.)
Best meals? There were a number of them, over six days – a rough-edged, loud diner full of tourists that Dan chose, because he had heard that the ‘blackened oysters’ were not to be missed. And he was right: a wonderful dinner of oysters roasted with spices on top – we devoured them, overseen benevolently by the bleached-blonde biker-chick waitress (she clearly missed getting to have a cigarette hanging off her lip), and then headed out into a Halloween night. Bourbon Street was busy and crazy, in a hectic and overcrowded way – there were a number of truly amazing costumes, with astounding craftsmanship; but it was even better at the eastern end of the French Quarter, in the trendy/scruffy/young/gay neighborhood, where Dan took a lot of pictures. We told people how good their costumes were, too – a blonde woman who had drunk so much that she was slurring her speech, an elegantly dressed Colombian man with painted-on scars and bruises (I forget what he was supposed to be, but I think Dan recognized the reference).
A number of times I went to the wittily modern/traditional mix in the café Green Goddess – possibly too often, given how many other restaurants were available – five or six meals there? Well, it was nearby, and it was (though you are getting sick of strong comparatives) really, really good. By the second time, the waitresses knew me, both the gentle dark-haired studious one and the brasher, rougher blonde one (a youthful, possibly lesbian, version of that biker chick). I went there with Mitchell, Susan, Rob – the food was good enough to make Rob happy (always a tricky negotiation, so it’s lucky that went well) and it was outdoors, which on most days was wonderful. Because it is in a street that has no cars, the tables merely face another set of charming houses and restaurants, painted in pastels and with flower baskets here and there – a good place to spend some time; I think Susan and I sat around for six or seven hours one night, joined for part of the time by others.
Bookstores ranged from excellent to scruffy, but they all exhibited a real affection and passion for books, used and exotic and bizarre. I went back to one of them several times, a large, dark space filled with shelves; the pleasantly talkative proprietor looked through my list of books-to-find-someday, and managed to pick five or six off scattered shelves. It was a pleasure when he complimented me on the list, which was evidently fairly esoteric and interesting – there were bursts of tourists asking for more standard current hits, and he dealt with them quickly and casually. I did find Beerbohm (although I still can’t ever find an affordable copy of that small multi-volume set of the collected essays – perhaps I never will), an older edition of Katherine Mansfield’s diaries (I was a bit uncertain about this one, as there is now a completely revised edition – but on the other hand, I’ll probably never get a chance to compare versions next to each other, so I bought it); and a book on Anne Rice, which seemed a particularly guilty pleasure in what used to be her city (I didn’t quite feel I could read it until I came home, as I would look like – yes, horrors – a tourist).
There was also a gay used bookstore in the scruffy-trendy neighborhood – but the exceptionally casual (apparently demi-stoned) proprietor left the place closed with all the lights on, then later had problems with the electricity going off, then finally let me look through a mostly dark bookstore. My sense was: a lot of uninteresting junk, plus some unexpected knockoffs… but it was too dark to know much by the end of that visit.
Incidentally, you could tell from the guidebooks – even the conservative ones: Frommer's was surprisingly dramatic – that the writers from New Orleans were still deeply angry, deeply grieved, over Hurricane Katrina. There is a lot of extraordinary writing that reflects such a lot of sorrow and pride – that they survived, that they weren't helped more, that they are fighting their way back up, inch by inch... the passion behind this is remarkable.
Dinner with James (one of Mitchell's students, therefore instant 'family') on the last night, back in the trendy neighborhood: excellent food, a number of different dishes – a bar/restaurant with a playful interface between those carnally intense seafood dishes that are always so good here, and subtle postmodern variations that didn’t ruin them. Most surprising was the band – a pianist, trumpeter, and an oval-faced young singer, doing 30s jazz; they were absolutely excellent (jazz as casually played on the street in New Orleans is far more remarkable than the most skillful stage performances elsewhere – it is the expert local language). The singer really caught my ear: you know how those old recordings have particular overtones, a quality I had always ascribed to the technology – missing spectra, or amplified ones. She was recreating that with her own voice – which raised the interesting question: when it originally appeared, was that quality a matter of training, or of technology? Probably an unanswerable question now – if the recording is all that is left, how can you know what the sound was before it was recorded? A great musical/culinary experience, at any rate (and a fairly powerful existential/Jungian discussion with James that came into sharper focus after we walked the length of the French Quarter to get back and sit in the big, brightly-lit hotel lobby, as people watched football, interspersed with bulletins on the election).
The last morning, I had time to go to an old-fashioned Southern-style café with tables outdoors under the trees, and a huge buffet designed for tourists. The waiter was a sort of elderly black character actor, enjoying his professional role and playing with it – again we became friends during the brunch, and he started to make recommendations and steer my choices. At the next table was a family from Atlanta, with a big, loud father who kept talking about Romney and the election – and was pushing the waiters around in a way that was just a hair away from outright racism. My waiter started to get a distinctly and visibly sour expression: we exchanged looks of sympathy, but when I commiserated he said: I am a professional...
I had to leave a bit too quickly because it was getting to be time to go to the airport; but it was still a striking experience.
My paper was surprisingly successful – I was nervous during it: parts seemed to me too dry, too lifeless; and I realized during the course of it that, because there were so many things to explain about each slide, my examples and text were both far too long. But I managed to skip over two pages smoothly, without anyone noticing; and I cut both of my later examples short – rather unfortunate that the audio didn’t fade out evenly, but oh well, no one seemed to be too upset.
Most excitingly: it seemed as though that people thought it was really beautiful, which is what was intended. I keep feeling as though much of my writing in the last decade has perhaps become academically rather sketchy, casual – but it does tell stories, and reach points that seem to me more important than merely technical detail. And in this case it was successful: working through Derek Jarman’s last films, even with several pages and examples missing, in order to come to some more sympathetic understanding of his point of view in the face of death, actually came across...
I may not be the most useful of musicologists: but at least I seem to be talking about things that people find actually interesting.
And there was time spent with Mitchell, after too many years (he is always taller than I remember him, as we usually only talk on the phone these days); and with Fred – who is now happy with a sweet-tempered boyfriend. And a ridiculously brief encounter with Andrew, absolutely in passing – I think we only exchanged quips with no greetings. And many other friends and acquaintances… and no, I didn’t do a perfect job of remembering people's names, but I can’t do that even at home, so you can’t expect much at a large conference.
And the trip home, as bad as the flight out – and the background anxiety over the election – I didn’t hear that the Crazy Psycho Brutal Boss had lost until I got home, geographically far from the loony politics of modern America; and then that was a pleasant relief. Late evening after many hours, a frigid apartment because the heating had been off – but it was pleasant to lay on the couch, turn on all the heat I could find, and drag together some food from my own kitchen.
I do enjoy the best parts of travel, but as I age I have become quite a homebody…
Ah, but the food – and the people and the streets and the houses – of sensual, relaxed, slightly crazy New Orleans.