As more and more people come to our fair city to film, I find myself increasingly anxious to explain New Orleans culture to the people of L.A., my former home of nearly 18 years. First, the name. Most people here don’t call it N’Awlins any more than they eat “blackened” things, but they never, ever call it New Or-LEENS. Except in a song. Let’s face it, nothing rhymes with Orleans. Try New Orlins (rhymes with fins). And if you need to find Tchoupitoulas, a local street, it’s Chop-a-toolis. Oh, and Burgundy is Bur-GUN-dy like Rodeo is Ro-DAY-oh.
When they say there’s a 30% chance of rain, I’ve come to find that it usually means there’s a 100% chance of rain… somewhere. But, you could actually find yourself standing on one side of a street watching it rain on the other without ever touching you. When it really rains, it’s like the sky unzips and water comes gushing down. Within minutes, you can end up soaked to the skin. Luckily, LOTS of places here sell plastic rain capes for a few dollars than can be carried in any pocket or purse. I recommend cute rubber shoes for women during warm rainy seasons and rubber boots for the cooler months.
We also have something called a Heat Index. Like a wind chill factor is the colder temperature you feel when the wind blows on a cold day, a heat index is the hotter temperature you feel on a still, humid day. On a hot, humid day, everything sweats. I don’t just mean you or a glass of ice, I mean your soap will sweat if you don’t have the AC on and your windows will if you do.
When people say making groceries, they mean going grocery shopping.
Bring your own Trader Joe’s. We have more amazing food than you can possibly imagine and there’s a Whole Foods, a Jamba Juice and 2 PinkBerrys for those who miss home, but we have no Trader Joe’s as yet (though I hope to change that). That means we also don’t have Trader Joe’s at craft services on sets. Not to worry, we have plenty of treats. Try Zapp’s potato chips, Strawberry Abita Beer (with locally grown strawberries) when in season, a Nectar Creme sno-ball from SnoWizard, a beignet (ben-yay) “French donut” from Cafe du Monde, and as much of our local tomatoes and seafood as you can get your hands on.
Almost all the food here is amazing. Try things like turtle soup or fried gator on a stick and almost any food they serve in a booth at a festival. Look for the longest lines to find local favorites. Red beans and rice are a tradition on Mondays and many restaurants are closed this day. Though it’s hard to know the good from the bad in the French Quarter, your best bets are places where people are dressed for work or festivity rather than wearing tourist garb (t-shirts, jeans, etc.). For fine dining, men wear jackets or at least collared shorts and slacks, women wear dresses, skirts or nice slacks. Reservations are recommended and local regulars, not celebrities, get first choice of tables.
Boudin (boo-dan , but the N is sorta silent) is a pork sausage made with rice inside. And it’s damn good.
Chicory coffee is made from ground, baked chicory root. Chicory was adopted as a coffee bean substitute and additive by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War when coffee supplies ran low.
A Hurricane is a rum drink that goes down like Kool-Aid and will kick your ass like a teenager on their first binge with at least 4 shots of rum and other liquors.
SAFETY and HUSTLERS
New Orleans is a layer cake of poverty and profit where you can travel through a variety of socioeconomic neighborhoods on a single street. I use a GPS when I’m not sure where I’m going and I don’t leave valuables in plain view in my car when I park. Walking at night, I always choose the streets with the most foot traffic. I often carry a bag but usually sling it over my chest. There’s no reason to flash a wad of cash around here. The only people who will be impressed will be thieves.
There are many street performers in the French Quarter. If you take a photo of one, please give them some money. If you like a brass band or a child tapping on shoes made with coke cans and you stop to enjoy them, help support our locals trying to make a living. If someone tells you he can “tell you where you got dem shoes,” I won’t blow the answer (man’s gotta make a living) but trust me when I say – bet him at your own peril.
People here don’t give extra points if you beat the waiting list for a Louis Vuitton bag. Most won’t know which season your Prada shoes are from. Many of us fight a losing battle with bad hair days, but we have many hat stores and obedient hair isn’t the measure of a person here. Don’t worry about sweat stains on hot days, we all get ’em at some point. If you tend to sweat a lot, many people find it helpful to carry a kerchief, towel or rag to wipe their faces.
On Saints game day, the entire city wears black and gold. Period. This is the only case I can think of where conformity is rewarded in the city. Normally, community is a much higher value than conformity and individuality is its own reward here. No one here is trying to be unique, but I’ve never been in a city with more unique characters per square mile.
I encourage you to try the many local shops selling no-name goods but if you need to find your favorite designers or high-end goods, try Magazine Street in the Garden District and Uptown. They may look like unassuming shops and converted homes from the outside, but inside, these stores hold a bevy of riches from all your favorite makers.
CELLPHONES and MANNERS
Most restaurants and many shops do not allow cellphone usage indoors. You are allowed, however, to talk on the phone while driving. Basically, people here treat cellphones the way they treat picking their nose or smoking – they don’t do it while grocery shopping or walking down the street or eating a meal, instead opting for designated areas or the privacy and seclusion of driving or being at home.
People here are very friendly and may engage you in conversation at any time. Maybe you don’t have time to talk to everyone but a smile takes no time and, just like in L.A., you never know who you may be blowing off.
You get no points for finding things “boring” or “lame” here. Maybe going tubing in the river or seeing a free concert in the park or parading in a wig and tutu isn’t your thing (this goes for guys and girls), but trust me when I say none of it is “boring” or “lame.”
We have a saying here so prevalent, it’s on signs in many establishments and taken very seriously, “Be nice or leave.”
Our area code is 504 and we are inordinately proud of it, often chanting it during songs. Actually, we chant lots of things during songs as the call-back is a strong tradition here. No, not the call-back for an audition, it’s when a band sings something and you answer back when prompted.
You will hear the word, lagniappe (lan-yap), and see it in ads sometimes. It means gift with purchase or freebie so it’s usually good to say yes if it’s offered.
For those who’ve been living under a rock, Who Dat!?! is our Saints battle cry. The full chant is, “Who Dat? Who Dat? Who Dat saying they gonna beat dem Saints?”
“The Storm” is Katrina. “Ain’t der no more” refers to businesses, homes, parks and the many things that disappeared during “The Storm.” After successfully getting the Army Corps of Engineers to assume responsibility in court, we’re all pretty clear down here that the hurricane was bad but the death and destruction came as a result of the failed levees. Despite the hurricane, Katrina is not referred to as a “natural disaster.”
Go-cup is the cup you ask for to take your drink with you when leaving a bar or restaurant. Yes, it’s true, we drink on the streets here. I heard someone once joke that this is the only city where you can smoke inside (some places) and drink outside.
People are not very judgmental in this city. Do Watcha Wanna is more than a great song by Rebirth Brass Band here, it’s a way of life. The only thing I’ve noticed is harshly judged here is aggression. Wait in lines with everyone else, let the cashier talk about the weather to the person in front of you even if you’re running behind and for goodness sake, don’t honk your horn unless the Saints win the Superbowl again. For every time that you let someone into traffic or wait patiently for someone to parallel park, you will find that you are afforded the same human frailties. It all evens out in the end. Just relax, enjoy the radio and remember you could be sitting in the parking lot-like traffic of the 101.
It’s all pretty great and much of it is free. If they pass a hat for donations and you’ve been enjoying the show, remember that this is how people here make a living and every dollar counts. Some bands also sell CD’s at their shows. Though many tourists enjoy Bourbon Street, the local music scene has moved to Frenchmen Street in the Marigny (the G is silent).
There are many, many types of local music and lots of favorite bands in each genre. Try festivals to see lots of bands for absolutely free (not even a passing of the hat). If you find a favorite musician, look them up. You may find they play with several other bands or even have one of their own.
I’ve listed my favorite places, bands, foods and more for 2010. This blog records my experiences here of everything from a massage at Belladonna Spa to Mardi Gras, from making my car street-legal to doing volunteer work and literally hundreds of restaurants and concerts. Feel free to use the search tool at any time. I also have a LINKS page that may be helpful (though it is woefully in need of an update).
Welcome to New Orleans. Eat, drink, be merry and remember, “Be nice or leave.”