Tuesday, April 06, 2010

My Day as a Flâneur

My friend and brother in Christ, Deacon Latif Gaba, posted this wonderful reminder to enjoy life, encouraging his readers to be flâneurs in their own cities. If you don't know the term flâneur (as I didn't), I would encourage you to read Br. Latif's blog post The Virtue of the Flaneur. It is a treat.

I took Br. Latif's advice yesterday, being a flâneur in New Orleans - more specifically the French Quarter.

I have to say that it was a glorious experience.

It has been so long since I have had a true day off, I forgot what it means to relax, to be a flâneur. Now that the Lenten and Holy Week flurry of activity has ended, and now that school is out all week, I am trying to catch up on some relaxation. The way that I speak of it as a "to do" item demonstrates that I really need to pay heed to Deacon Gaba's admonition - as well as that of some of my own parishioners (you know who you are, and I really appreciate your concern and desire to take care of your shepherd).

Mrs. H and Leo are spending their days this week in French Camp. It is run by Lango Kids and held in New Orleans at one of the campuses of Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle Orleans, a local French immersion preschool and grade school. Mrs. H., a native Canadienne whose first language was French, is serving as a teacher's aid - which enables Leo to attend gratuis. They are having a great time.

Though I don't like to be separated from the fam, it is allowing me some quiet time, time to reflect, to relax, and even to get some work done at a slower pace and in a more contemplative setting.

Yesterday morning, I walked to the French Quarter from my front door. And yes, I did walk across the Mississippi River. Unlike our blessed Lord, I required the assistance of a boat. The Gretna Ferry now connects us West Bankers to the Canal Street ferry station. Walking to the Quarter is describable in no other way than by the French injection: Super-cool! It was also free, at least as far as any government operation is free (in other words, it is paid for by property taxes and other government funding schemes).

The ride was a relaxing twenty minute cruise along the bend of the Mississippi, water spraying as the ferry cut its way through the rapid currents near the mouth of the world's third largest river.

The weather was a glorious 70-something with the sun shining upon Canal Street as I headed toward the French Quarter with my backpack. I carried only the essentials: books, notebook, camera, and more books. I did leave room in the backpack for books, as there are some magnificent bookstores in the Vieux Carré. I did break a strap on my backpack (I wonder how that happened...), but that was a little later in the adventure.

There are always tourists in the city, in various degrees of sobriety, from every imaginable socio-economic level, of every race, and speaking many languages. There are also plenty of locals - both residents of the Quarter and flâneurs like me out for a stroll. It is never difficult to find French-speakers in New Orleans. Although we are nowhere near as francophone as the parishes to our west, there is still a remnant dating back to the age of the deportation of the Acadians, to the era of the Creoles, and even further back to the age of French colonialism to account for the language's survival even to the 21st century.

Near the St. Louis Cathedral (which viewers of The Princess and the Frog will recognize), I found a little French import store. I wandered in and was greeted with a "bonjour" by the friendly and proper frenchwoman behind the counter. We chatted in French, which means she spoke beautiful native Parisian while I stammered - but my interlocutress was most gracious and patient.

It turns out that she is not the owner, but was helping out her friend who owns the shop - which features elegant French knick-knacks, clocks, artwork, soaps, etc. In fact, she is actually a French teacher who works at Alliance Française de La Nouvelle-Orléans. Her father was born in Paris and her mother was born in a small town in Québec. She lives in New Orleans full time now, and isn't fond of our hot summers, but prefers them to the cold Canadian winters.

We had a delightful conversation - about 90% of which was in French - at least insofar as my own attempts can be classified as a recognizable version of the language. My own experience with French people is far from the stereotype of Gallic arrogance and rudeness. Like this temporary shopkeepress, I have found most French people - be they European, Canadian, or Lousianian - to be kind, polite, easy-going, and filled with joie-de-vivre.

I wondered around the streets of the Quarter with no particular place to go, in no particular hurry, not wanting to see anything in particular. I snapped a few pics here and there. I did visit William Faulker's old house on Pirate's Alley - which is today one of the landmark French Quarter bookstores. While there, I picked up yet another copy of the bookstore map - that is, the map showing the various bookstores in the Quarter. Have I mentioned books yet?

Strolling north of the Cathedral on Orleans Street, I visited the Acadian Bookstore. The owner has signs on the window indicating that he is also a French speaker as well as being a supporter of CODOFIL - an agency dedicated to the promotion of the French language in Louisiana. It is a sad reality that most young people do not speak French - whereas their grandparents often did. The state constitution of nearly a century ago forbade the use of French in public life - including in the public schools (where children were given corporal punishment for speaking French). That ill-advised policy nearly rendered Cajun French extinct. Fortunately, there are those (like CODOFIL) working to resurrect the language. They have made inroads among the young.

The Arcadian Bookstore is what a bookstore should look like. It contains a wonderfully disordered sense of order - the owner knowing precisely where to find any genre amid the anarchic and chaotic stacks and piles. The only thing missing was the typical bookstore cat - and he may have been lost in the stacks anyway. A bracket was laid diagonally connecting two stacks of books. It contained more books in addition to an electric fan. I hit the jackpot, finding the stash of books pertaining to Latin pedagogy - not to mention hundreds of French language books. To Mrs. H.'s relief and delight, I restrained myself, only purchasing two inexpensive Latin titles. But it was a fun place to hang out.

The Crescent City Books has a completely different feel, but was also a bibliophile's delight - with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, old couches, and rickety stairs connecting to even more books.

Contrary to what most book-lovers would like to believe, man cannot live on books alone. It was time to eat. I have always wanted to dine at the Napoleon House. And so that is exactly what I did. The Napoleon House is just that, a house - a building built as a private residence at 500 Chartres Street (at the corner of St. Louis) for the mayor (Nicholas Girod) in 1797.

In 1821, Dominique You, the half-brother of the famous pirate Jean Lafitte (it is impossible to write about New Orleans without the word "pirate" - and I have done so twice already- I think it is part of the Napoleonic Code as a literary requirement) was persuaded to hatch a plan to liberate the deposed French Emperor Napoleon (living in exile at St. Helena) and move him to New Orleans, with the intent of putting him up in this very house. Napoleon died that year, which ended the plot. But his personal physician, F. C. Antommarchi, did move into the house and practiced medicine there for some 13 years. This is why the State of Louisiana has one of the three death masks made of Napoleon Bonaparte - housed in the New Orleans Cabildo Museum next to the St. Louis Cathedral (the other two are in Paris).

The Napoleon House was purchased by the Impastato family in 1914, and remains in their possession to this day. The house was converted to a landmark restaurant and bar, and is still run by the family. It features open beams, peeling plaster, and a wood floor. The doors and windows are wide open. There is no air conditioner, as ceiling fans move the breeze around. I was seated at a small round wooden table next to one of the plastered brick walls. Graffiti abounds - not the crude and crass variety, but rather various odes and proclamations of love to the city. I watched the horse-and buggy roll by outside, observed every kind of person walk past - from well-heeled conventioneers to liberally-tattooed local denizens. Classical music plays as the waiters and bartender efficiently and yet with great warmth ply their trade - clad smartly in traditional white shirts and black bow ties. There is additional seating available in a peaceful little courtyard in back, featuring a fountain and banana trees.

Lunch was a pleasurable experience consisting of an Italian sausage po-boy and a Stella Artois. I did some writing before and after my meal: old fashioned pen-on-notebook - no laptop, no MicroSoft Word. No hurries and no worries. It was sheer delight.

And here is a video that captures the essence of the Napoleon House.

After lunch, I continued to wander to and fro, finally heading back towards the Cathedral. I decided to drop back into the little French store, realizing that I had not taken any pictures to show Mrs. H. or to share with Fr. H. readers. Upon entering, it became apparent that the nice French lady had been replaced by her less cordial friend - whose mannerisms and speech came across in a more stereotypically French way. It was really rather comical.

When I asked if I could take a couple pictures, she scowled: "No!"

I smiled and said "Pas de probleme."

She then barked back with great suspicion in a heavy accent: "Why do you want to take pictures of my store?" perhaps supposing me to be a terrorist or a rival importer of French goods looking for trade secrets.

I replied: "Because your store is so beautiful."

"I know it's beautiful" she replied, tossing her head back in an exaggerated gesture of pride. "But why do you want to take pictures?"

I did my best Gallic shrug and repeated that I understood her prohibition: "Ce n'est pas une problem."

So, I won't give her store a plug or a recommendation. Pas de problem. But in this day and age, courtesy is a nice policy, as anyone with a camera could be uploading a full video to YouTube. You just never know. So, I won't mention the name of the store or give it a bad report, but will try again at a later time. Maybe she was just having a bad day. Or she may be the living stereotype of French hauteur that has actually pretty-much evaded me until now.

In spite of this little blip of unusual rudeness, my time as a flâneur did not end on a sour note. The sun was still shining, the air still exuded the scent of flowers, the streets and shops and buildings were still every bit as charming as before. C'est la vie.

I strolled back by the Cathedral where a brass band was playing and a man had hair dyed the same color as the magnificent azaleas that were in full bloom. Jackson Square was all gated up in preparation for the upcoming French Quarter Festival, as workers put finishing touches on equipment. From St. Peter Street, I headed back to Canal Street to the ferry ride home.

The set of pictures of my little adventure as a flâneur can be found here.


Ted Badje said...

At my home town, people called flaneurs a different name - loiterers ;-). It does relieve alot of stress to take time to walk city streets and see the art and beauty of shops, offices, and apartments. In McKinney, TX, you mostly drive through the streets to see the old homes of the East side. Thanks for the article.

Ariel said...

Huh...apparently I was a flaneur and I didn't know it. For Thanksgiving 2008 I stayed with a friend in Chicago, and the day after Thanksgiving while he was at his job during the day I took the opportunity to stroll the neighborhoods of the north side. I wanted to figure out where was the REAL Chicago--not just the touristy stuff of the Magnificent Mile. I wanted to find out where the REAL Chicagoans lived.

I remember Napoleon House. I had the best roast beef po' boy in au jus that I'd ever had. I also had Pimm's Cup--now THERE'S something that's rare to find elsewhere!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Ted:

Ha! That's a good point! In NOLA, we call them "tourists" and we like them.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Ariel:

Yes, indeed. I did not get the Pimm's cup, nor the sazerac. I do look forward to visiting again, though!

Joe Greene said...

Fr. H,

Is the ferry you describe a different one than the one we used when we visited? We're very tentatively considering a return trip in March or April of next year.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Joe:

Yep, it's the one and the same.

Only now, when you leave the Canal street ferry, you can either go to Algiers (just across the river) on the half hour, or to Gretna (which is upstream a bit) on the hour.

I hope you're able to come back!