In New Orleans, The Sweet Art of Stillness


Many years ago, I was reading an article in a magazine about how Starbucks adapts their store menus to the tastes of different American regions. There was a line that read, “For example, in Louisiana, we serve larger, sweeter cakes. Here, people want to linger.”

It’s funny how I’ve always remembered that. People want to linger. If any sentence sums up the friendly, vibrant people of New Orleans, that would be it.

New Orleans is a place where the days are languid, stretching out beneath the shade of an oak tree. You tell time in the beads of condensation on glasses. Every moment is meant to be savored — the wind in your hair as you ride the St. Charles Ave. streetcar, the long, sweet notes emanating from a trumpet in a Frenchman Street jazz club, the first sip of chicory-spiked coffee as you people-watch at Cafe du Monde.

To visit New Orleans is to learn the art of lingering. And for someone like me, that’s a particularly apt lesson.

I’m from Massachusetts, a commonwealth of fast-moving people who historically depended on speed for survival. The blood of my ancestors runs through my veins, screaming, “You better chop that wood faster or you’re going to freeze to death by January!”

Perhaps it’s hereditary, perhaps it’s nurture-based, but I am a speed demon at my core. I do everything in fast forward. And there have been times when I’ve forced myself to slow down, like when racing through the evening passegiatta in Italy. But rather than adjusting myself to a more normal timeline, I moved to New York City, arguably the fastest-paced city in the world.

But if you’re going to New Orleans, that won’t work.

The first test comes shortly after my arrival in New Orleans. I drop my bag off at the Cambria Hotel and head out for lunch at Willa Jean in a blazer and jeans, still dressed for a drizzly morning in New York. Google Maps tells me it’s a 10-minute walk, and I set off for a brisk walk-run — but soon the sun is blazing on my face, the humidity is puffing up my hair, sweat is pouring down my back and I’m realizing that this is not a city where you go anywhere in a hurry.

This isn’t Broadway, Kate, and you’re not late for Zumba, my higher self tells me.

I slow down to an amble, reach the restaurant, and order a lemonade with orange blossom. It’s floral and sweet — impossible to consume quickly. But like Starbucks and its larger, sweeter cakes, that’s the New Orleans way. Everything is designed for you to linger.

Two days later, I’m exploring the Garden District. I love this mansion-strewn neighborhood, where you can almost feel the spirits curling through the air. I’m walking off my turtle soup and browsing the wacky antique shops when a thunderstorm hits out of the blue. I head to a coffeeshop to wait it out, then after half an hour, check the radar and realize it’s going to last for hours. I call a Lyft to pick me up and pull on my backpack.

“Getting ready to go?” asks a woman sitting near me. She’s been enjoying an iced coffee with her husband since before I got there.

“Yeah,” I tell her with a shrug. “I just checked and it’s going to rain for hours. You’ll be trapped here awhile.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she tells me, smiling at her husband. “We live here. We’re used to it,” he adds.

And I find myself wondering if my friendships would be stronger if I took a rainstorm as an opportunity to sit in conversation for hours, rather than head somewhere dry and solitary.

My speedy tendencies continue the next day at the Bayou Boogaloo. If you want to experience a festival in New Orleans but avoid the crowds of amateurs, this is a great place to do so. Musical acts are performing on stage, art is for sale in every direction, and hundreds of New Orleanians are lounging on various floats in the bayou, which in this urban setting looks more like a canal.

“Just bring it back in an hour,” says the attendant as I hop into a kayak. “Sure,” I reply. It’s my first time in a kayak since Antarctica and I’m struck at how much easier it is to paddle when you’re not wearing layers of winter clothing and hauling pounds of photography gear and a second human behind you.

Let’s see how fast I can go! I speed up, doing hairpin turns, sliding between floats, and navigating my way through the bayou with ease.

Let’s see how many photos I get! I snap photos like crazy, trying to maximize my time, getting the most adorable photos of the swimming dogs.

And realize…I’m the only one acting this way.

Everyone is here to lounge. To make conversation. To make new friends. It’s the NOLA way.

You seriously have to relax, Kate.

Fine.

I summon every bit of introvert’s energy I have and say hello to the next float that goes by, an orange raft filled with twenty-somethings, a cardboard-and-duct-tape tent miraculously engineered to give them a bit of shade. They can’t believe that someone from New York actually showed up to this festival! After a few minutes, they offer me a swig of whiskey direct from the bottle. I kindly decline and thank them as I paddle on.

Slowly. Deliberately. Savoring each moment, the way you should in New Orleans.

Travel doesn’t change your true self so much as it reveals it. Maybe I’m able to refine the edges a tad, learning a bit of patience here, training myself to walk slowly there, but ultimately, I’m a Speedy Gonzalez at heart.

And then on my final morning, my Ancestry DNA results arrive in my inbox. It turns out I have a lot of Acadian blood. The Acadians were the French who settled in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada, then later moved to New Orleans, where “Acadian” became “Cajun.”

Maybe I was too quick to assume my identity. Maybe I was surrounded by family all along.

When I get home, I step off the plane and say hello to the two attendants waiting with wheelchairs. I smile and it hits me like lightning — this is the first time I have ever had the urge to say hi to these people. And I fly a few times a month.

An airline employee is waiting by the door, looking up into the air and ignoring everyone. And…I feel hurt. Why isn’t she welcoming us?

My Lyft driver brings me home to Harlem and I groan as I get out of the car — it’s after midnight, my neighbors are blasting music loud enough to shake the sidewalk, and I’ll probably have to call 311 again if they refuse to turn it down.

“Can you believe that?” I say to my driver. “Isn’t that so loud? They’ve been so awful since Cinco de Mayo, blasting music until 3 AM…”

“Yep!” he says, getting back in his car and driving away.

In that moment, I miss New Orleans so much, my heart aches. A New Orleans driver would have commiserated, shared stories of his own, listed his favorite sleep remedies, and who knows, maybe even offered me a place to stay.

That’s what I took home with me from New Orleans. A softness. A slowness. A friendliness. I come home valuing it more than ever before, and against all odds, it changed me, too.

Did you enjoy this post? Check out One Time in New Orleans for more stories from the city.

This campaign is brought to you by New Orleans and Company, who hosted me in New Orleans and covered my expenses. All opinions, as always, are my own.

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