In New Orleans, The Sweet Art of Stillness

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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.

More from New Orleans:

Best Time to Visit New Orleans

Solo Female Travel in New Orleans: Is it Safe?

Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Best Foods to Eat in New Orleans

Exploring New Orleans’ Garden District

See all New Orleans posts here.

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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14 thoughts on “In New Orleans, The Sweet Art of Stillness”

  1. I love this post, Kate! It’s so well-written, and I can relate to it so well when it comes to New Orleans! This explains why you can never seem to get normal-paced service in a restaurant there. I guess instead of getting annoyed at having to track down servers in order to pay, my friends and I should have reveled a little more in our 2.5-hour lunches!

  2. As a fellow New Yorker and speed demon, slowing down on vacation is an oxymoron. The moment you land in an airport at your destination, time seems to go very quickly and you’re trying to cram in as many sights as you can per day so that and when the trip is over, you can say that you got to cover everything that was on the list. But there are the moments like seeing the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the night from the Arc de Triomphe, taking a look at the Placa de Espanya with the fountains of Montjuic from the steps of the NMAC after the long walk up the steps and the first sip of the pint at the Guinness Storehouse with a panoramic view of Dublin that make you stop and appreciate the stillness of where you are Eventually, the stillness encountered during your travels becomes part of who you are. New Orleans and Spain have in common the fact that there’s a slower pace to life but everything still manages to get done.

  3. Love your writing and sentiment here so much! As someone who lives in Boston and travels to New Orleans frequently, I found myself nodding along. Living there one day isn’t out of the question… Can’t wait to head back down in a few weeks!

  4. Yes. Yes to all of this. It’s been a few years since my last time in New Orleans, and I remember after I got back people were asking me what I did and I did some stuff (took a tour, went to a museum and parks, ate great food, etc) but what I really loved was just lingering. Just walking around with no where to go and taking my time. I kind of got why it’s nicknamed The Big Easy after I went to New Orleans myself. And now after reading your post I really wanna go back. That Bayou Boogaloo Festival looks like a lot of fun.

  5. I love that blurb about Starbucks- what an awesome little reflection of NOLA! I love New Orleans, but like you, struggle to slow down and just enjoy my time in another place. NOLA is a great reminder of that- good music, good food, and even better people!

  6. I’ll say it — probably 90% of the U.S. is like this. (I’ve traveled extensively throughout much of it, except Alaska and northeast of Boston.) It’s you jaded megacity folk who think this is the anomaly. 😉

  7. I’ve heard it said that when most people travel they always check out the livability of the place they’re visiting. I’ve been to New Orleans three times and each time I think, “I think I could live here”. I absolutely love the place! And you are spot on in defining it’s stillness, it’s slowness as special.

  8. This is a fabulous post! So well-written that I savored every word, letting each piece linger and sink in. What a beautiful tribute to New Orleans. I haven’t yet visited, but it’s high on my priority list, and your post inspires me to push it up even higher. I also often feel the sense that I need to rush through moments and life, to maximize my time, as you say. It can be helpful in some regards, but more and more I am wishing for a slowness like you’ve described.

  9. I love your writing, Kate. This is such a great post! I felt like I was right there with you. And I totally resonate, as I was brought up in downtown Toronto. New Orleans is so high on my travel bucket list and I’d love to experience this lingering and stillness. You usually hear about New Orleans being all crazy and party, so it’s nice to know there’s this quieter side.

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  10. I love this post! The laidback, relaxed lifestyle sounds so perfect right now, but I think I’d probably struggle if I had the chance to visit! I’m not usually in a rush, but I do hate waiting.

    Your writing is so lovely. I feel like I’m reading messages from an old friend.

  11. I love this! I have only spent a week in NOLA but this resonates a lot. I remember being struck by the fact that no one was in a hurry. I rarely saw anyone speed walking to overtake the person in front, or sighing if they got stuck behind a slow walker. Everyone was savouring the moment and taking life slowly. I think we all need to embrace their ethos a little, especially in the fast-paced world many of us live in.
    Thank you for sharing 🙂

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