October in North America

By: | Post date: September 24, 2009 | Comments: 8 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

I’ve booked my accommodation, so I might as well un-embargo the news. Work takes me in three weeks’ time to San Francisco (actually, the erstwhile theme park outside San Francisco that is Oracle HQ, for the IMS Quarterly Meeting), and then to Irvine CA and the TLG. In between, I will visit a place on the other side of the continent, that will capitalise on some of what I’ve been posting about here for the past couple of months.

No, I am not going to Moncton. Maybe I should, maybe I will yet, but instead, I’m going to the third Francophone dominion of North America. I’m spending the weekend in the Big Easy.

I’m not going to New Orleans primarily out of attachment to Francophonie. You might not know it from this blog, but out of the two languages I learned at high school, I always preferred German—the music had a lot to do with that, and I found annoying the aesthetic I stereotype as French: the unresolved, the ambiguous, the elusive, the balloon floating away. Pah, give me ardour and fists on the table and crunchy consonant clusters. And French may be easier to read for an English-speaker, but I will always struggle with spoken French, and appreciate the crispness of spoken Hochdeutsch.

That doesn’t relate much at all to my fun and games trying to speak French in Montreal: I didn’t have that much more success in Berlin or Salzburg. But it means I’m not romanticising Francophonie because it’s French specifically; there’s other reasons I found Quebec intriguing. (And I doubt I’d find Amish Country intriguing just because they speak German.)

Nor will I go to New Orleans out of a great love for gumbo or jazz. The one time I’ve had gumbo (in Memphis), I loved it, and the two or three times I’ve heard Dixieland, I’ve grinned profusely; but I don’t own any Dixieland recordings, and I haven’t sought out gumbo since. I don’t know if you can even get gumbo in Melbourne, though we are pretty good on diverse cuisines as a rule… “Recommended is the organic cajun seafood gumbo with john dory, mussels, vegetables and rice “, you say? OK, I’ll have to look that up when I get back.

I’m under no illusion that I’m going to hear any French spoken in the Tourist Theme Park of the French Quarter; nor am I not going to hire a car and head out for two days through the wilderness to whatever out-of-the-way parish along the coast Cajun is still spoken in. I’m not so naive as to believe that the French Quarter will be much more than a Tourist Theme Park; and I gather than post-Katrina, New Orleans still has deep-set problems (which I won’t notice from the Tourist Theme Park vantage point), and will likely never be the same.

So why am I going to New Orleans? Because ten years ago, I went to Disneyland.

Disneyland is lame, surprisingly lame even by theme park standards. I went because my mother was visiting, and it’s the only tourist attraction in Orange County I could come up with. (Have I mentioned my ill feeling towards the OC lately?) I was wandering around the surprisingly lame and surprisingly small attractions of Disneyland, to see what I could sneer at next.

And as I turned a corner in Backwoods USA Simulacrum, I came across a fake New Orleans.

A bad fake, of course. A solitary ramshackle French colonial shopfront, with two Disneyland employees throwing beads out a first floor window window, and the three or four girls on the the ground catching the beads were fifteen years away from the customary Spring Break response to the activity (as filmed on Girls Gone Wild). The mint julep on sale had the unmistakeable savour of Kool-Aid about it, and no alcohol that I could sniff out.

And yet, otherness can seep through even a bad fake, even a parody. Brush Up Your Pidgin parodies Tok Pisin—and colonialism, and missionaries, and anyone in Papua New Guinea in the ’30s; and its Tok Pisin version of “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” is played for laughs—hence its exaggeratedly English orthography:

Frend, all man belong Rom, wan-tok, hearim me now

Yet when I read it in my teens, I was startled: parody it may have been, but this was unmistakably its own language, with its own spirit (to use the non-linguistic impressionism): it was not a bad English, but something new. (That book could have made me a Creolist. But I don’t know if Creolists are that much more employable than Hellenists.)

(E, disla buk, em i ken inap long mekim mi kamap olsem saveman bilong Kriol. Tasol, ol lain saveman bilong Kriol, em i save kisim bisnis i pas ol lain saveman bilong Grik? Mi no save. I don’t know if that was correct, but it sure was fun…)

In the same way, this bad fake of America was not like the bad fakes of America I’d already seen on TV: this was not Seinfeld or Family Ties or Cheers or The Dukes of Hazzard (Fake New York Upper West Side, Fake Columbus, Fake Boston, Fake Georgia). This was something new to me, something intriguing and European-worldly and louche, which I had not expected to find in the US. When I went there, I discovered the same of Manhattan. (Well, substitute “louche” with “wired” there.) And I’d like to see that fake more close-up.

So when I’m at the corner of Canal and Bourbon in four weeks, I may not find something substantially more “authentic” to Louisiana than the Disneyland rendition; but I’ll see *something* unfamiliar there, anyway. From the underside of a gutter in a drunken stupor, possibly (though knowing me, rather unlikely…)

I don’t really know what I’m expecting to see. I know little enough about New Orleans to reduce it to a series of keywords. A rather embarrassing series of keywords, but that’s why I’d like to go in person:

Jazz, Big Easy, local pronunciation: Nawlins, gumbo, Cajun, Cajuns, Acadians post-Great Upheaval, Creoles, Dixieland, Louis Armstrong, levees, Katrina, flooding, refugees, demographic collapse, Mississippi, Emeril, Mardi Gras, big-ass floats, beads, boobies, drunken college kids, Spring Break, Bourbon St, French Quarter, Quaint architecture that Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal is meant to be reminiscent of, House of the Rising Sun, Tulane University, Different Status during Reconstruction but I don't remember what exactly, French, James Carville, Heckuva Job Brownie, Cities of the USA I know too little about, jambalaya, bayou

Not necessarily in that order.

Thank God I didn’t post a similar keyword portrait of Montreal before I went…


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