Features Australia

Big Easy notes

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

I’m hoping that at least a few readers will be happy to hear that I survived my first ever trip to New Orleans, the Big Easy. My wife and I had been on the US west coast, both for work reasons. I was in San Diego, a place I really like and not just because it’s the only big US city with a Republican mayor. You might have a theory on why that is. Mine is that it’s related to the fact that over a third of San Diego’s economy is directly or indirectly tied to the US Navy.

Sure, those who are au fait with the sort of thinking that dominates Australia’s Human Rights Commission are inclined to say the biggest force for freedom and rights-protection in the world today is some UN rights-related treaty or other, with its committee treaty monitors employed by that same United Nations. (And for what it’s worth you might be interested in knowing that employees of the UN, including even those who work for the International Labour Organization investigating low pay in, say, Bangladesh, pay no tax at all. Zero.) Or maybe our rights and freedoms are best protected, these people think, by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which issues more resolutions condemning Israel than all the world’s other countries combined. Apparently it’s that miniscule little country in the Middle East, the region’s only democracy, that is the font of most rights-related grievances and outrages on this planet of ours. (That’s not my bad joke, it’s the UNHRC’s bad joke.)

Of course for my money all that is pure bunk. The biggest guarantor of freedom and rights-respecting conduct in the world today stares you in the face every day in San Diego. It is the US Navy. A century and a bit ago it was the Royal Navy. If you’re ever in San Diego, take the time to take the harbour tour and see all the ships then in port from aircraft carriers to battle ships to new stealth ships to helicopter carriers and a whole lot more besides. If you’re really lucky you will also catch a glimpse of a nuclear submarine coming in from one of its six month tours of service. During the Cold War, these were the beasts that were at the frontline of mutually assured destruction.

But let us fly east from San Diego to New Orleans. Tip number one. Avoid the red eye flight. We arrived early in the morning, very tired, and went straight to our hotel in the French Quarter. Then it was off to one of the iconic New Orleans restaurants for a truly great breakfast. Let me say this just once. The food in New Orleans is superb. Take all those prejudices you might have about tasteless, industrialised-sized US dining and throw them in the rubbish. The Cajun, Creole Louisiana cooking is world class. We spent three days in the Big Easy and never had a bad meal, from posh restaurant to Mom and Pop places to the early morning coffee haunts that serve good coffee (you heard that right!) and the local beignet donut-like specialty.

How could that be, you ask. It’s the French influence. Louisiana is where all those Canadian French-speaking Acadians were sent, the ones who refused to swear allegiance to the victorious British monarch after General Wolfe defeated Montcalm in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759. This is the battle that made North America overwhelmingly English-speaking, and the one that also made possible the American Revolution. As long as the French were a force, there would be no chance of any colonists splitting with Britain. Heck, George Washington served with the Brits at the time.

As a sidenote that may be of some interest to Aussies, a little-known lieutenant in the Royal Navy guided Wolfe’s British forces up the St. Lawrence river, till then considered not navigable. This allowed them to come up from behind the French forces on those Quebec plains. (Some French strategies apparently never change, witness the Maginot Line.) This young officer was nothing short of a navigational genius. Antipodeans know him better by his later, higher rank of Captain. His name was Cook.

The smashing British victory knocked the French out of Canada and gave the Acadian French-speakers a choice. A good number chose to stay loyal to the Bourbon monarch in France. They were shipped to Louisiana. ‘Acadian’ became ‘Cajun’. Napoleon’s plans to take back Haiti after a slave revolt collapsed, and so he sold Louisiana to President Jefferson. And over time that French influence played a big role in one of the two magnificent cuisines you can find in the Big Easy. If you’re a lawyer, you might also know that Louisiana is the only US State with a French-like civil code.

And then there’s the music in New Orleans. This is the home of Louis Armstrong and a who’s who of jazz greats. You can wander into any bar on Frenchman’s Street on any night and hear whatever style you prefer. In the French Quarter the booze is cheap. There seem to be lost souls aplenty. Puritans are nowhere to be found. They even let you take your drink from bar to bar or wander the streets with it. And let me say, for a second time, that the food is great.

One day my wife and I took a bayou swamp tour on one of those air boats. Do that if you ever go. You’ll be out with the alligators guided by a Cajun whose every second sentence will be ‘Y’all know what I’m sayin’?’ And the wildlife will be amazing.

The half day guided bike tour around the city, too, was a treat, and not just because Louisiana doesn’t have those idiotic helmet laws that save some vanishingly small fraction of people from injury or death while deterring so many others from riding. In Louisiana they treat you like adults; you choose. Almost all of us declined the helmet. As I said, a few readers might be relieved to hear I survived.

Of course surviving was the goal of everyone in New Orleans back in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina when the levees broke and huge floods swept through the city. Most of the town is now rebuilt. Some parts never will be. When you stand beside the mighty Mississippi you better understand the odd geography and how much of the city is below sea level, and what an engineering feat it is to keep the water out.

And have I mentioned the food?

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