Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sorry about the long absence - I'm in the UK, where my mother is very ill.

I've left behind a city even more exuberant than usual: not only has the Mardi Gras season kicked off, but the Saints are in the Superbowl this Sunday. And, thanks to my sister Jacqui and the stupidity of the National Football League, the Saints' catchphrase "Who dat" is making international headlines. Make sure you watch the video as well - I think a lot of the people in it must have been a bit baffled about what was going on.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy holidays!

As I belatedly installed a pack of "holiday lites" on our Christmas tree last night, I realised just how comprehensively the C-word has been banished from the American vocabulary.

Google "happy holidays", and you get 61.5 million hits. Now try "merry Christmas": a pitiful 40 million. It's no exaggeration to say that in the past couple of months, I've seen the word Christmas in print about four times.

Tens of millions of people in this country don't celebrate it, but still it seems as though someone has done a colossal search and replace on every instance of the word in the United States, substituting something more inclusive, but also much blander.

I'm not religious, and I don't have strong feelings either way, but I'm fascinated at just how quickly and comprehensively the word has been airbrushed into oblivion.

I'm certainly not in the same camp as Fox News commentator John Gibson who, three years ago, published a book entitled The war against Christmas: how the liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday is worse than you thought ("I had a guy who called me and talked about the Christmas party, actually a holiday party now, and he said people would whisper Merry Christmas in each other's ears.").

By the way, if you're looking for a last-minute stocking filler for an unhinged relative, you might do worse than Gibson's hot new opus, How the left swiftboated America: the liberal media conspiracy to make you think George Bush was the worst president in history.

Anyway, in keeping with the magic of Christmas (which most Americans actually do very well, and very enthusiastically), here's some poetry from a member of a profession not normally known for its literary leanings. Her name is Liz Stroebel, and she's a realtor, or what we Brits call an estate agent. This is the complete list of all her condos (which we call flats or apartments) in Homes & Land of Greater New Orleans magazine. The poetry is probably unintentional.

2726 Prytania $229,900
1563-65 N Roman $155,000
2512 Magazine $195,000
736 Harmony $112,500
7508 Asteroid $109,000
2035 Deogracias $125,000
3100 Rue Parc Fontaine $69,000
3225 Whisper $169,000
3304 Meraux $110,000

And finally, here's a painting I did of our house:

Actually I used a very clever piece of software called PhotoArtMaster Classic, which turns photographs into paintings or drawings. It's so much quicker than a brush and easel, and there's none of that tiresome cleaning up afterwards...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I'm beginning to think that there may have been a hidden purpose behind the seemingly random sequence of events that led me from leafy London to the potholed poverty of Louisiana's biggest city.

Researchers from the University of Warwick in England and Hamilton College in New York have published a study of happiness in the USA. Its conclusions will leave most New Orleanians a little bit proud, but not in the least surprised.

They took the results of a major survey of self-reported happiness ratings in every US state, and compared these with objective quality-of-life measures such as climate, population density and house prices. And the state that ranked top based on all of these benchmarks was not Florida, not California, not Hawaii, but Louisiana.

I can tell you exactly why this is. No, on second thoughts I'll leave it to Dan Baum, the New Yorker columnist whose classic work of nonfiction, Nine Lives, encapsulates New Orleans better than any other. Of course Lousiana isn't just about New Orleans, but the city is home to a quarter of the state's population, and I like to think that a little of its lackadaisical outlook has rubbed off on its neighbours.
Most visitors to New Orleans start asking impolite questions: Why has the rebuilding since Katrina gone so slowly? Why do you put up with such corrupt and incompetent politicians? How can you waste so much money on Mardi Gras when you're still living in trailers? Doesn't anyone in this city ever show up on time?

New Orleanians are hard to offend. Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States, they say. Start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean.

While the rest of Americans dream and scheme and chase the horizon, New Orleanians are masters at the lost art of living in the moment. If we're doing okay this minute, goes the logic - enjoying one another's company, keeping cool, and maybe having something good to eat - of what earthly importance is tomorrow or next week? Given the fragility of life, why even count on getting there? New Orleannians are notoriously late showing up, if they show up at all, because by and large they don't keep calendars. Calendars are tools for managing the future, and in New Orleans the future doesn't exist.

Actually, we're not all living in trailers any more. When I first flew in to Louis Armstrong International Airport, three years ago and a year after Katrina, the city was awash with white FEMA trailers, but now they've nearly all gone. Life is getting better, but you just have to be patient. Fortunately, patience is a virtue that's in abundant supply round here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

If you live more than 500 miles from Jackson Square, you won't find this funny.

You know you're from Louisiana if...

You've never heard of a dry county.

You've never heard of a county.

You hear gambling is illegal in some other states and are surprised.

You reinforce your attic to store Mardi Gras beads.

Your sunglasses fog up when you step outside.

When you give directions you use "lakeside and riverside" not north and south.

Your ancestors are buried above the ground.

You take a bite of five-alarm chili and reach for the tabasco.

You don't learn until high school that Mardi Gras is not a national

You push little old ladies out of the way to catch Mardi Gras beads.

Little old ladies push you out of the way to catch Mardi Gras beads.

You leave a parade with footprints on your hands.

You believe that purple, green, and gold look good together.

Your last name isn't pronounced the way it's spelled.

You get pissed at people who pronounce it Nawlins, Norlens, or New or Leans.

You know what a nutria is but you still pick it to represent your baseball team.

Your town is low on the education chart and high on the obesity chart, and you don't care because you're No. 1 on the party chart.

Your house payment is less than your utility bill.

You don't show your tits during Mardi Gras.

You can spell and pronounce Tchoupitoulas.

Your grandparents are called "Maw-Maw" and "Paw-Paw."

You have to reset your clocks after every thunderstorm.

You're walking in the street with a plastic cup of beer.

When it starts to rain, you cover your beer instead of your head.

You save newspapers, not for recycling but for tablecloths at crawfish boils.

When you travel abroad, you always carry a bottle of tabasco and a salt shaker of Tony's.

You know that if you buy a drive-thru daiquiri, it's not drinking and driving until you put the straw in.

You drive east to get to the West Bank.

You stand on the neutral ground at parades and have no idea what a 'median' is.

Pulling a baby out of a cake is completely normal.

The only Bush you respect is a black man.

You refuse to believe that there is such a thing as the "Utah Jazz".

There is a color called "Bur-GUN-dee".

The concept of a basement never crossed your mind.

You have to get your car's suspension repaired at least twice a year.

Someone in a Lowe's store offers you assistance, and they don't work there.

You've worn shorts and a parka at the same time.

You've had a lengthy telephone conversation with someone who dialed a wrong number.

You install security lights on your house and garage, but leave both unlocked.

You actually get these jokes and pass them on to other friends from Louisiana.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I had my first encounter with the US healthcare system yesterday.

I went to a GP with a minor ailment, and was told that the charge for the initial visit would be $200. (British readers: forget the official exchange rate. In purchasing power terms, $200 is roughly the equivalent of £200.) After that, it would be $70 a visit.

"So why is it so much more expensive the first time?" I asked politely, concealing my resentment.

"Oh, that's because the doctor has to take a detailed medical background," the receptionist told me.

Then the doctor came in. He didn't say good morning, and only reluctantly shook my hand when I proffered it. He showed me a piece of paper with about a dozen boxes on it: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. "Ever had any of these?" he asked.

I told him no, and that was it - my detailed case history had been taken, and my 15-minute visit netted him about 22 cents a second.

It's no wonder the US spends twice as much as other nations on healthcare, and yet lags behind on basic measures like infant mortality and life expectancy. And nor is it surprising that inability to pay medical costs is the biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in this country.

We're still being bombarded with TV commercials opposing President Obama's healthcare reforms, most of them by the thoroughly sinister US Chamber of Commerce. And when I visited the website of my insurance company the other day, there was a banner ad on the home page: OBAMA'S REFORMS WILL INCREASE YOUR PREMIUMS.

The other day, NBC news did a segment comparing British and American government policies on swine flu. They interviewed a British GP who was also a visiting lecturer at Harvard, and therefore had detailed experience of healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic.

At the end, he threw in a nicely crafted and seemingly casual aside. "Of course the two systems are very different. It's survival of the fittest here. If you've got money you're OK, but if you haven't, you get thrown to the wolves." It was so refreshing to hear this one little home truth amid the overwhelming tide of anti-reform propaganda.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Well, that was a non-event.

First Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm, and then, perhaps offended by this snub, she stumbled ashore and lost the will to live. All she could manage was a stiff breeze and a sprinkling of rain.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I never thought when I came to New Orleans that I'd spend so much time in gay bars. But a large proportion of our friends are gay, and so are many of the best bars in town, so I feel quite at home there now.

Nor did I ever expect to end up devoting so much of my time to football on TV, but you can't really avoid it at the moment unless you want to end up a hermit, rejected and unloved.

The Saints, our local team, are on a roll, having won every one of their eight games so far this season, and as a result the whole town comes to a standstill every time they play. This afternoon, the streets of the French Quarter were empty but for handfuls of bewildered tourists wondering where everyone had gone.

Pam and I watched the game at the Good Friends bar. One big advantage of this was that the staff handed out free shots of ultra-potent Cactus Juice liqueur every time the Saints scored, and the final score was 30-20 to us.

Anyway, the sole topic of conversation all afternoon was football. Not once did I hear the words "hurricane" or "storm" mentioned, which was surprising given that the category two Hurricane Ida is heading straight for us, and is scheduled to arrive tomorrow afternoon.

It was a bit like Katrina, when bars in the Quarter were abuzz all the way through America's worst-ever natural disaster, with many drinkers oblivious of the fact that 80% of their city lay underwater.