Silence on this blog usually suggests one of two things. Either I am feeling a little uninspired by London – which typically only happens when I’m spending too much time in the office and not out exploring – or I’m overseas somewhere without a wifi signal strong enough to send a one-line email. But the real reason for the lack of posts here of late is a sort of combination of the two. I’ve spent much of the past few weeks either in mid-air high above one continent or another (reason #2: no wifi) or whizzing from an interview to a meeting, or exploring a new community then dashing off to run a focus group (a variation of reason #1: being super-busy; but I certainly wasn't feeling uninspired). But there has also been a new element, a reason #3: the subject I wanted to blog about – the city I have been in for the past two weeks – was somewhat eluding me.
Try as I might, and believe me I spent ages trying to work the place out in my head, I just couldn't quite get a handle on the city of New Orleans. It really was unlike any other city I had visited. Sure, there were aspects of the place that reminded me of other cities - the climate, the wide river, the streets lined with familiar shops, the sounds and the voices. The city's famous Bourbon Street is a hideous, neon-lit tribute to the party strips of numerous Spanish towns; it is Magaluf-by-Mississippi. The hot, damp climate of the city too was familiar. Indeed, it had so reminded one former local archbishop of the city of Saigon that he'd invited scores of Vietnamese refugees to build themselves a new home here in the 1970s. The voices I heard varied from Southern American, to Caribbean, right up the East Coast to New York City. The near complete lack of road signs or the potholes that so decorated even the most central of streets brought to mind the hectic and horrifying streets of Accra. The French Quarter felt, well, if not exactly French, at least distinctly European. Hell, the city's cathedral looked not entirely unlike the castle at Disneyland Paris.
The people I had the pleasure of meeting were almost exclusively utterly delightful. They effortlessly demonstrated what one person described as "Southern hospitality times 100". They really did. I couldn't leave a meeting without someone asking me where I was going for dinner. They weren't being nosey, they just couldn't bear the thought it might be a restaurant not quite so good as somewhere they could suggest. Worse than that, I might have no plans at all, in which case I needed taking firmly in hand and directing to the nearest palace of gastronomy. People were charming, interested and engaged, and staggeringly generous with their time and wisdom. They were open and honest to a level of frankness I rarely encounter in an interview conducted in front of a scribe and an audio recording device. Many of them were clearly Americans, but a few did make me wonder. There is an oddly British quality to the nature of the New Orleanian. Many of them have a self-deprecating quality, a lack of willingness to blow their own trumpets - which is not a common characteristic in a lot of Americans. They were only too happy to admit the faults or flaws of their city, in much the same way a Londoner delights in a good whinge about the weather or the delayed running of the #29 bus.
And now, such is the nature of my job sometimes, I am in another city, on another continent, about to try to define another place. I am sat in a hotel room in Cape Town, South Africa. But I have my scrawled notes on the city of New Orleans beside me, and my photographs on the laptop before me. They conjure up the city as it is, or as I experienced it, perfectly in my head. But what it was that I experienced, I am still not sure. But that's ok - maybe that IS the city of New Orleans; enigmatic, evolving, elusive.
Tired from my 11 hour flight to South Africa, I order up some room service and flop in front of an episode of 'Treme'. Desperate to bring a tiny part of New Orleans with me on my further travels, to continue trying to crack its cryptic code, I have brought alone the first season of the HBO drama series set in early post-Katrina New Orleans. The first episode opens with a Second Line parade - people dancing through the streets with a jazz band at their heels. I recognise a street name and smile. I pause the DVD to get up and search for something in my suitcase, but the band plays on. I can still hear the tuba and the trumpets. I lean back to check my laptop; yes, the DVD is definitely paused, and no sound is coming from the speakers. Stupidly, jet-lagged, I wheel around in the room. Nope, just me here. No trombone player in the bathroom. I cross to the window and pull up the blinds to let in the South African sunshine. And coming down the street towards me is...well, what looks just like a Second Line parade right there in the centre of Cape Town. There is the band, and the parading people. Where the hell am I? Where is my head? I lose track of where I am, or where I have been, and just resolve to work and be. In ten days time I will be back in London. In the city that, after six years of living, playing, and working in it, holds infinitely less mystery for me than these other two new cities. But I will be in the city that feels most familiar, the city where I know exactly where I am.(More to follow on New Orleans shortly when my brain feels less fuzzy...advanced warning: there will be New Orleans cat pictures.)