Exposing the French Roots
The giant oak tree I once played under, that shaded a massive circumference at the rear of our Lakeview house, had tumbled into a huge heap, recently sawed into several sections, its roots high in the air along with the slab of pavement that once was the neighbor’s driveway. The windows were all blown out. The shrubbery all dead and the line along the white brick told tales of the height of the water that drowned it.
These were my roots — uprooted. The only thing remaining are the memories from when that old Live Oak dropped acorns that crushed under our shoes.
I made the voyage to New Orleans knowing that I wouldn’t really want to see what I knew I would. But…I had to, I just had to.
We drove through Lakeview, Lakewood North, Lakewood South, the 9th ward and the districts where the flooding was the highest. We passed down “Fleur de Lys Drive,” “Paris Avenue,” “Elysian Fields,” “Gentilly Boulevard” — the streets that bear names from the city’s French roots.
I wept at the sight of my father’s grave, in tact, undisturbed. I wept at the sight of the two colorful cottages in “Bucktown” one block from the levee that broke, uprooted from their foundations, collided into each other, stopped in their tracks only by well-rooted trees. Massive centuries-old Live Oaks are downed in the parks and all over the city, their roots exposed to the air, just as I felt mine had been.
Roots. Was my love for France rooted in the heritage of my home town? The influence is seen everywhere, undeniably. The French Quarter may have been built by the Spaniards, but Jackson Square is a close cousin to the Place des Vosges. The beignets we powdered with sugar we washed down with café au lait. The T-shirts in the souvenir shops are imprinted with “Laissez les bons temps rouler” and the counties, called parishes, still follow Napoleonic code.
Ironically, the French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, never looked more beautiful!…Peaceful, calm, clean, fresh. Jackson Square, bordered by the elegant Pontalba apartments on the east and west, St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere on the north, Café du Monde and the Mississippi on the south, felt like the heart of a city that remains very much alive, in spite of the destruction. The Quarter hardly looks touched, as if some powerful force protected it from mother nature herself.
Up the steep stairs my family climbed one by one to the private rooms at Tujague’s, the city’s second oldest restaurant, where seven courses were served us — Shrimp Remoulade, Brisket of Beef, Crab Soup, Turkey with Gravy and Stuffing, Bread Pudding, Coffee and Chicory. The other rooms were filled with old New Orleans families where I discovered a high school friend I hadn’t seen in all these years. It was if nothing had changed since the last time I had been there and business was good it seemed — having only reopened about two weeks earlier.
My roots have been firmly planted in Paris for more than 11 years now, yet New Orleans has never been forgotten. With one foot in Paris and the other in New Orleans, I am neither Parisian nor New Orleanian…or am I both? No matter how well-rooted I will become in Paris over the next so many years, my New Orleans roots will forever keep me partially planted there,
maybe even more now.
The destruction is temporary. The seeds have already been planted for a new and brighter city. The community, however small, is sad, yet strong and optimistic. Every day, more return to the city to rebuild their homes and their lives and the city they love. It is evident everywhere. As the merchants and services reopen for business, their advertising signs become littered on the neutral grounds. Everything and anything anyone has to offer is being advertised there — my favorite: “Sign Making! Call…”
What I discovered in my 48 hours there, having taken eight planes and rented three cars to make the aggressive trip to be with family and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday, is how much New Orleanians are rooted in their Big Easy, just like the Parisians are rooted in their City of Light.
Would I give up Paris to return to New Orleans? No! But I certainly want both rooted in my life…as my past, my present and my future.
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
Email [email protected]
P.S. We are planning to hold a Living and Investing in France Conference in New Orleans at the Sheraton New Orleans on Canal Street in May 2006 — with a special Saturday night group dinner at Tujague’s and all our finest professional presenters. The details are in the final stages now and it is sure to be our biggest and finest conference ever, with New Orleans’ open arms to visitors who want to show their appreciation of this world-class city so rooted in American and French history. Join us! For more information and to be on a special mailing list for notification when registration will be accepted, email Schuyler Hoffman at [email protected]