My Uber driver slowly navigated the narrow streets of the French Quarter, dodging daytime partygoers while casually giving me a quick geography lesson on each cross street. "This one's St. Peter Street; that'll take ya all the way to Jackson Square by the river." He was detailing how locals don't use cardinal directions but rather relation to the river to navigate the city as we pulled up to my hotel on Burboun Street.
I stepped out into the hot and muggy June weather that I'd been trying to prepare myself to no avail. "I grew up in Ohio - I know humid summers," I told myself. Surprise! I did not know humid summers. Not even a little bit.
Even stunned by the muggy weather, I didn't waste much time checking into the hotel. I threw my suitcase down and left the sweet relief of the air conditioning to wander the French Quarter. I had approximately 8 hours of exploring to do before I'd have to be in bed, the following morning sitting through conference lectures. And I was going to make the most of those 8 hours.
The French Quarter flooded my ears with the sounds of adolescent boys playing percussion on five-gallon plastic buckets. It seemed as though the buckets may be a "starter" form of street performance for young musicians, as it's the young men who claim a side of Jackson Square with their full brass band. While I did thoroughly enjoy the performance, that wasn't the reason why I had headed towards Jackson Square. I was on the hunt for a beignet from Cafe du Monde.
Cafe du Monde is a staple in New Orleans - it's practically on the top of every "must do in NOLA" list on every travel website. That also means it's insanely busy almost any time of day (it's open 24 hours), so it was a chore finding a table, but I finally did it. It took me about five minutes before I realized there was a sign on the wall - "CASH ONLY." Panic washed over me as I fished out my wallet - and if I don't damn my millennial self, only plastic stared back at me. I reluctantly gave up my table and decided I'd make it back to the famous cafe before the end of my trip.
Later that afternoon, I hopped on one of the historic trolleys that roll through the outskirts of the French Quarter and headed towards the Garden District. I wasn't sure what awaited me there, but decided I'd hop off and walk around where it looked interesting. I found myself meandering through streets of plantation-era mansions, gawking at homes that looked like they belonged on the set of Gone with the Wind. I could have meandered through that neighborhood for hours had it not been for - you guessed it - the damn heat.
Now I was on a mission - I needed one of those frozen daiquiris that I'd seen everyone drinking on Bourbon Street. I have to admit, I was also excited about the novelty of drinking alcohol on a public street - after years of conditioning in college to never, EVER carry a beer outside for fear of being cuffed before you could U-turn back into the bar, I was admittedly a little giddy to sip a drink in freedom. it felt rebellious in some way.
I sipped my 30-ounce strawberry daiquiri as I wandered back towards my hotel, more than ready for a shower. I had to make myself somewhat presentable; I connected with an old friend from high school who now lives in NOLA, and we had planned to meet up for dinner at Couchon. I'd been told by a handful of people that Chouchon is a must - and their guidance did not lead my wrong. It's cajun cooking at it's finest, and their kitchen delivered - dare I say - the best beef brisket I have ever had.
While I was relatively bummed to have to call it a night relatively early with my conference starting the next morning, I was in for a surprise regarding the level of "party" that a conference in New Orleans would bring. Following the first day of conference sessions, the organization kicked of the welcome party with a second line. We were met in our hotel lobby by a peppy New Orleans brass band who proceeded to play loud and proud through while we followed along waving white handkerchiefs and dancing through the streets of the French Quarter. Spectators quickly gathered, lining the streets and waving and clapping to the music as our procession went by.
While most of my four days in New Orleans was spent sitting inside of a windowless hotel conference space, It didn't take much time for the city to absolutely wow me in almost every way possible. I didn't just hear the sweet, sweet sounds of jazz on the street, but I also sat in an intimate audience and was moved to near tears by the pros who play at Preservation Hall. I felt sweat drip down my spine while I swallowed another gulp of iced Irish coffee from Erin Rose. I had my tarot cards read by a woman named Scarlett, who wore pink glasses and sat under a tassled umbrella, and I bought a voodoo doll to bring home for my boyfriend. New Orleans is truly a city for the senses.
But I never got my goddamn beignet from Cafe du Monde. It'll happen. I'm looking at flights as I type this.