Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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The lost city of New Orleans

A frequent visitor returns to the Cajun capital and finds it just as easy to love

It's a quintessential New Orleans morning: muggy steam rises from the streets, baskets of petunias and impatiens spill over wrought-iron balconies in the French Quarter and the clip-clop on stones of a buggy drawn by horses with flowers woven in their manes punctuates the lone wail of the trumpeter just outside the Café du Monde.

It could be 1862, the year this coffee house opened. It certainly is not August 27, 2005, the only time (aside from Christmas Day) it ever closed. Hurricane Katrina spared the Café but the owners decided to shut down for two months to upgrade and refurbish. Coffee drinkers in those gloomy post-hurricane days were few and far between.

On this particular day last April, when my merry band of coffee aficionados hit the Café du Monde, it was bustling. Waiters rushed platters of icing sugar-dusted beignets and juggled fistfuls of café au lait to tables packed with patrons, some sporting icing-sugar moustaches. The trumpeter outside was going through his repertoire of jazz and old favourites and, for this brief moment, on my first day back in New Orleans I was convinced that Thomas Wolfe was wrong and that you really can "go home again."

It doesn't take long however to discover that N'awlins is really two cities -- the one trying with all its heart to convince all that nothing has really changed and the other that fears for its future. Throughout my stay, I kept finding a kind of poignant desperation in those who had committed to stay and rebuild. Chefs came out after dinner and pleaded with us to tell people to visit -- the city needs its tourists to come back and support it.

Everyone points out that the city people have always loved is still here, as it was. They're quite right. The French Quarter, the Garden District, the Arts District -- all the best loved areas were only slightly damaged by the hurricane and, on the surface, everything is indeed business as usual.

It's only when you look deeper into the closed stores and hear the population statistics and tour the hurricane-ravaged districts that you realize that New Orleans is a city with a hole in its heart.

A Tale of Two Cities
New Orleans has always been like a favourite child: much loved and called "special" because of its ineffable sensuousness, its history, its architecture, its food and music. It was like family, a city you went back to time and again because it was always much the same. Life changed, we changed, but the Big Easy went through the decades hanging on to what it was. One writer pointed out that you could be away for years and come back to find your favourite bookseller behind his counter holding on to a volume you once requested. After Katrina, everything changed.

It wasn't until my last day on this recent visit that I decided to get some perspective by viewing the extent of the damage done by the storm. A friend, Brian and his wife (locals who have opted to stay), drove me around the Lower Ninth and Lakeview where Katrina had done her worst. It was like being in war-torn Europe in 1945 -- whole suburban tracts stood empty, dotted with vacant houses, many still marked for demolition. The frightening part is the sheer vastness of the destruction -- mile after mile of desolation and spooky silence. Once a garden of tropical colours, now everything is dusty, brown, dried out.

How and when this massive area will be revived is an unanswerable question. Huge problems remain with government bureaucracy and insurance coverage. The population has been reduced by 50 percent; many (maybe even most) of the former residents in this area will not return.

A city can function on reduced numbers but many of these people are the very ones that made New Orleans… well, New Orleans. The musicians, the artists, the wonderful characters that filled the streets and many books.

People who have never been to New Orleans have come to know Ignatius J. Riley (The Confederacy of Dunces), Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and the Vampire Lestat created by Anne Rice.

Although the city has changed one important quality remains -- the spirit of the people. Within weeks of the Katrina/Rita double whammy, people were scrubbing and cleaning and getting businesses back on their feet, sometimes grilling meals on the sidewalk of a restaurant. Plans for the next Mardi Gras resumed -- the idea of the city missing Mardi Gras was unthinkable. Even Jazz Fest was held on its usual weekend attracting its normal large crowd. Today, residents who have chosen to commit to the city are throwing themselves into rebuilding New Orleans "better than it was before."

Fiestas were always synonymous with New Orleans and classics like Mardi Gras continue with new ones added, each beckoning a different visitor.

Are you a foodie? Then the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience held each Memorial Day weekend puts you into the hands of the best local chefs who prepare traditional dishes and match them with wines of the world. Others include the French Market Tomato Festival and the Tales of the Cocktail which presents the hottest trends in food and drink including cocktail tastings here in the birthplace of the cocktail.

There are music and jazz festivals, art festivals, literary festivals, Christmas festivals and even a Swamp Fest at the Audubon Zoo. My visit coincided with the April French Quarter Festival, three days of partying, music and food that included such bizarre events as the 24th Annual Gumbo Ya Ya's World's Largest Praline Contest.

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