Big Easy | Thanksgiving

I made one of my impulse plans last week.

After the meticulously put together first plan fell apart with a whimper, I was at my wit’s end as to what to do over Thanksgiving break. So I hied off to New Orleans. Sometimes things fall into place without planning. It is shameful when that happens. Serendipity is not in my list of favourite things. In my case, the flights were going via Atlanta. So I backed off from my fierce decline of Elisabeth’s gracious Thanksgiving invite, and asked her if she could host me, please. She must have seen it coming. There was less than the expected amount of I-told-you-sos. I am grateful for that.

When her offspring heard of my altered plans, he took over the plan, and even managed to coordinate his outfit to have both the scarlet of his institution and the blue of Louisiana. He insisted on playing jazz all the way to our destination.

It was old and new, untouched from memory and drastically changed, to see the Rally’s and the Publix stores, to see the long queues outside the social security offices, to see the fall foliage at Emory, to see my southern magnolia sapling taller than it had been the last year, to see Elisabeth’s dogs and hot-house plants, to see placards of Trump and Clinton. I have fond memories of living in Atlanta, though those had been difficult times. I remember that the food had been warm and the people too.

New Orleans was different. Where Baton Rouge had held echoes of the recession and the tumult of changing times, New Orleans managed to be big and easy. She seemed suspended, mostly, in a state of timelessness. Though the reverberations of current-day politics were present, they were muted, compared to the other places I have travelled through, compared to the worry prevalent in the San Francisco area.

I have to admit that I did not enjoy the French Quarter as much as I had expected to. I had expected it to be lively. I had not expected it to be a mass of repressed humanity taking great pleasure in having permission to carry plastic glasses of alcohol on a street. It is sad that an otherwise beautiful place, full of art and performers, can be weighed down by people who find it a safe haven from the laws about alcohol in the open; those laws remind me of the Prohibition era in many ways. I am not the finest connoisseur of alcohol, but I don’t see why it is so regulated by these arcane laws. It only leads to desperation and darker alleys. Much of the French Quarter, understandably so, is halfway between what it perhaps once was, and what people need it to be now. The caricature was not what I had been looking for, but I was fortunate to find more in other parts of the city.

There is a lovely and impressive sculpture garden, around the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art. The last sculpture garden I saw had been in Seattle, and perhaps the occasional attempt at it in the Golden Gate Park. I enjoyed this one. The museum is lovely, though the air-conditioning is twenty degrees colder than the outside.

We went to the World War II National museum, and walked through the vicious, sad costs that war had made humanity pay. My travelling partner and I have strong opinions on pacifism and neutrality. While we discussed them, we managed to offend a gentleman whose father had served proudly and well. At times, it is easy to forget how deeply raw and emotional involvement in a cause like this can be. When you have given life and blood, in many, many ways, it is necessary for your sake, for your family’s sake, that you believe in what you fight for. I may be using the wrong words, but English perhaps lacks the perfect word to capture that two-way dependency between faith in a cause and fighting for it. Yes, having faith in a cause helps you to fight for it. Having to fight for something, even involuntarily, goes better if you learn to have faith in it.

The Jean Lafitte Preserve was another lovely gem. The marshlands reminded me of the voodoo novels and the John Grisham books I had read under the covers of my childhood bed. The mist was lifting from the water as we walked the first few miles. We later took a boat ride, on a contraption that reminded me so of that film Anaconda. I am not fond of reptiles, holding Eve’s grudge faithfully. I am still not sure how my travelling partner managed to trick me into going near them. Despite the reptiles, the preserve was beautiful, cloaked in secrets and possibilities, just as I had imagined it when reading those novels.

We attempted oysters bravely. After our last oyster marathon at Bodega Bay, we were a bit wary. These had no repercussions, thankfully. They were Gulf oysters, bland compared to the New England or the Tomales Bay ones, but because of that, they allow for many versatile combinations of spices and cooking methods. We had them chargrilled, scandalous as that sounds.

In keeping with the tourist traditions, we had beignets and coffee at a famous place. I asked for my sugar on the side and did not touch it, averse as I am to sweet things. Sibelius, proper American that he is, ate his with the sugar powder on his beignets.

I had so many new and tasty dishes this time around, starting with the dinners at the usual, recommended places and wonderful, wonderful brunches at whatever random places in the city took my fancy. I am not a carnivore on most days, despite my liking for oysters, so I had to launch a hunt for Southern vegetarian food, oxymoronic as that sounds.

Now it is time for Thanksgiving. I am delighted to be here, among friends. I am delighted that I don’t have to worry about cooking or plan anything. My daily life has been chock-full of people who are content to let me take initiative when it comes to work and grunt-work both, and it has been tiring. So I am delighted to be here, where Elisabeth rules with an iron fist, and I have no vote, and all I am required to do is play a duet, and to eat everything that is put before me.

Little Rachel is curious about my origins, because she has heard a friend say that Indians are Hindus, and we spent half an hour idling away on the wikipedia page about Saint Thomas Christians. A good deal of the rituals have Aramaic names, Elisabeth says, sharp as always. What do I say? A popular joke among the nuns at my  grandparents’ church, where I did catechism for getting my first communion, used to be that we are culturally Brahmin, religiously Catholic, and liturgically Jewish. As a child, it had not made sense to me. As an adult, I accept that there was no sense to it, except that a group of people wanted to have a sense of identity. Religion is an identity grouping, at its base.

Conversation moves to my hair. It is shorter now, much to my mother’s dismay. She grumpily said I might have waited until January before such drastic changes. Elisabeth says the longer hair suited me more. It will grow, I tell her. It doesn’t seem like a comforting answer. It gets me only a glare and more iced-tea.

I am writing from my little corner by the hearth, my feet trying to pick threads out of a worn and fraying carpet that my hostess refuses to replace for sentimental reasons, and cuddled up in the heat of a military-issue, olive blanket. After this, I will go make myself some proper tea, a night-time habit of mine that is much maligned around here.

I am reluctant to return, now that the vacation is over, now that I have to get back to reality, where choices and complicated circumstances still wait impatiently. I liked the procrastination, but now I have to go prepare for my Christmas trip home, for some paperwork related to my visa, for a life which is duller and lonelier, though I find joys in it nonetheless.

We will have the dark chocolate meringue pie tomorrow! Too many episodes of Southern Living, and Game and Garden, have elevated my hostess’s culinary skills. I learned to make excellent fried green tomatoes under her tutelage, four years ago. Maybe that is what  I will do when I get back. I will prepare them, and have them with tea.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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