Friday 6 April 2012

Letters From America | Week Two: Lost Souls and Liquor in New Orleans and Florida

Last time we talked properly – that is excepting the intros and outros appended to each of the guest posts you’ll have seen on the site since – I had just arrived in New Orleans, having been knocked for six by the sheer size of everything here in the States. I should perhaps amend that observation now that I’ve seen a smidge more of this massive landmass; after all NOLA was dramatically different from Houston, and Panama City Beach – where I’ve been recovering since – is a whole other kettle of fish again.

But look at me and my seafood-based wordplay! If you didn’t know different, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was having a whale of a time here in America. :D

I am, at that... though New Orleans, as I intimated in the inaugural edition of Letters From America, was rather a shock to the system after the incredibly warm welcome we were treated to in Texas. Long story short: me and mine got off to a bad start on our first night in New Orleans, and though things were looking up by the time we left, I still hadn’t quite come around.

So I didn’t love NOLA, no. But by the end I didn’t despise it either, and after that first night – no gory details today, I’m afraid – to be able to say even that speaks to how much more pleasant the city was once we found our skinny Scottish feet in it.

Wait, I didn’t say the city, did I? You must excuse me – that’s not entirely true. I suppose we were in the city, which is to say surrounded on all sides by endless urban sprawl, but honestly, it hardly felt like it: we didn’t leave the French Quarter once during the entire time we propped up the Best Western on Rampart. Perhaps we should have, quite against all the advice we’d been given... not least because by the end of our stay, I for one was feeling a bit boxed-in.

In fairness to the place, I think the trips I’ve taken to beautiful little European cities like Krakov and Bruges and Bratislava somewhat spoiled me on New Orleans, without me even realising it. All quaint places, I guess, with beer and wine and good food and music in abundance, but none of the nastiness that kept cropping up here, nor the ripe aroma of piss and shit and sick in the air everywhere, and definitely lots less leering. Also: if you’re planning on spending more than a few days in the French Quarter of New Orleans, have your paperwork in order to declare bankruptcy in the midst of your trip.
My nostalgia for the New Orleans Poppy Z. Brite painted so perfectly in the books I swore by as a moderately freaky teenager probably didn’t help matters either. Lost Souls and such; especially the Liquor trilogy Brite ended up capping off her writing career with.

I did wonder how different the French Quarter would have been if I’d only experienced it before the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t ask any such thing, obviously. It seemed impolite... not that decency seemed to be any sort of obstacle to the innumerable booths and shops and street-walkers looking to make a quick buck on glorious guided tours of the devastated areas.

But I should digress. At the end of my time in New Orleans, I was certainly keen to get on with the rest of this crazy-with-a-capital-crazy road trip, but we’ll be taking a few happy memories home with us, and it wouldn’t do to overlook them: one born hot and throbbing in Maison on Frenchmen Street – on open mic night and everything – and another, oddly, from a ghost tour with a guy from Haunted History who told some of the best spoken word stories I’ve ever heard. Ever.

So what happened next?

Truth be told, it’s a bit of a blur already. We drove for six hours in a rented Nissan, delighting in all the classic rock radio stations we kept picking up along the way, only to lose mere moments later. We stuck, cleverly, to the right side of the road, which felt wrong on so many levels. Eventually, we arrived at our beautiful apartment in Panama City Beach, and slowly settled in.

And then? Then: beer. On the balcony, and on the beach. A stone’s throw away from the sea and the sand, while the sun split the skies... oh my. I don’t mind saying it’s been kinda sorta stunning here. With Spring Break and March Madness mostly over, there was time and space to let everything we’ve seen and done here in the States to date sink in, and I’m glad of that. It was beginning to feel a bit surreal.

A few hours from the time of this writing, alas, we’ll be leaving Panama City Beach behind, and one of our party as well – though we’ll catch up with her on the back end of this trip. In the interim, the other half and I are heading to a lovely log cabin in the woods of upper Alabama, where by hook or by crook, there will be books!

Sadly there’s only been the one since last week’s Stephen King, but it was – how to describe it? – a bona fide beauty. A masterfully wrought political parable for the larger part, A Song For Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay also took in tragedy, romance, fate, friendship, and occasionally even farce. It couldn’t quite eclipse Tigana in my heart - I wonder sometimes if anything ever will - yet it’s certainly the best book I’ve read in a long time.

Do stay tuned for more thoughts of that sort shortly; I should have a review ready before I’m back in Britain. For the moment, my thanks to those of you who recommended it. And to everyone who plumped for The Lions of Al-Rassan instead, take heart in the fact that I abandoned several essential items of clothing in order to bring more books than I’d meant, among them that other Guy Gavriel Kay, which given the magnificence of A Song For Arbonne I’ve half a mind to read immediately.

On the other hand, A Game of Thrones is sat right there. Staring at me, even. The monster.

Speaking of which, how was the premiere of the second season? It kills me that I missed it, but maybe that’s for the best. Maybe this year I wait till I have all the episodes and watch them in one massive whack. Maybe that’ll give me time to read the bloody books I’ve brought all the way across the Atlantic...

Anyway! I’ll be back again next week with another of these sentimental Letters From America, but between times I’ve lined up another round of brilliant guest bloggers for you to look forward to. Remember to give them a warm welcome!

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