New Orleanians have their views — often jaded — about tourists and tourism. Sometimes it’s worth hearing from the visitors themselves. In early October, 14 writers from the University of Iowa’s esteemed International Writing Program spent five days in New Orleans. Craig Cliff, a fiction writer, poet and columnist from New Zealand, and Roland Rugero, a fiction writer, journalist and filmmaker from Burundi, ask each other questions about their time in New Orleans.
What was the most surprising thing for you about New Orleans?
Rugero: Like no other town that I have visited, it was the feeling of being in a huge “transit-space,” a harbor 10 times bigger than my city, Bujumbura, crossed by amazing bunches of travelers. I couldn’t stop staring at fine-dressed friends walking along Bourbon Street, beers in hand, and young black dancers doing hard entertainment in the street, and old white retired couples emerging from a new gumbo-jambalaya restaurant that I hadn’t noticed before. And jazz here, and jazz there, and, in uptown parts of the city, the biggest plate of food I’ve had in my life (green peas, smothered chicken and mashed potatoes, plus a sweet bread pudding at the end — at Mandina’s, lovely place!)
Cliff: I feel silly, but it was the music. I knew about the birth of jazz and the city’s great attachment to music, but I didn’t expect it to be so all pervasive. I forgot to pack my iPod and never once missed it in New Orleans. There was always someone busking or the sound of a live band leaking out of a bar to keep me company. Frenchmen Street was so much fun. When I ventured uptown to attend an indie rock gig (Local Natives at Tipitina’s), I wasn’t sure what to expect. It didn’t seem like the Big Easy’s kinda band, but the sold-out crowd had clearly been raised on live music. They knew how to urge a good band on to great things and make for a memorable night.
Rugero: Ooh! I can’t forget about talking French. I came to the city hoping to have a couple of days back in my French tongue — or maybe Kirundi (Why not?) — for I’d been told that I would be in the most French city in USA. Hehe! Actually, I had only two brief times when I spoke French, first to shout to young alligators in the bayou: “Viens ici!” (“Come here!”) I never found out from the swamp-guide why they speak to alligators in French. Secondly, after an incredible Jazz concert at Snug Harbor. I danced, I guess, like a slave on a sunny Sunday in Congo Square, 150 years ago: one hour of pure joy, like it was the last time I would be allowed to listen to music. So, just after that amazing moment, as we were flopping out from the jazz club, we found a bunch of friends playing traditional New Orleans jazz outside. And among the dancers and the crowd gathered for the “show” were three young Frenchmen on holiday — mémorable.
What was the best thing you ate in New Orleans?
Rugero : Apart from the meals I mentioned above, my strongest memory is the delicious plantains in the shuttle back to the airport. They reminded me of au Coin d’Ixelles, a popular restaurant and wateringhole back in Bujumbura.
Cliff: Chicken and andouille gumbo at the Gumbo Shop (630 St. Peter St.). I tried to make gumbo once in New Zealand, but this was sooo much better. Deep, rich and comforting — without having to spend hours making the roux myself!
Did anything disappoint you?
Cliff: We stayed on Bourbon Street so we could get “the real New Orleans experience,” but I found that particular drag similar to what you might find in Europe (e.g. the Reeperbahn), with a splash of Las Vegas. Getting off Bourbon always led to better things.
Rugero : Exactly. I wish I spent one or two days around New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and that I had more time at Bard Early College in New Orleans discussing the city and their studies with young people and teachers. They seemed to be far more open to the world than what I expected from young Americans.
What is the biggest difference between Iowa City and New Orleans?
Rugero: Iowa City is a quiet place, a perfect neighborhood for writers, students and researchers to work and live in. New Orleans is almost the opposite. It’s a place that takes you out of your daily worries/thoughts/duties and starts to tell you about history, music, beignets, clowns, Katrina, voodoo and shouting, “Who dat!” at every corner.
Cliff: Yeah, Iowa City isn’t very diverse, in terms of food, people … anything actually. New Orleans has much more on tap and changes markedly from neighborhood to neighborhood. In Iowa there’s nothing like the grandeur of the Garden District or the hardship and flux of the Lower Ninth.
Was there anything in New Orleans that reminded you of your home country?
Cliff: A series of large earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 severely damaged the Canterbury region in New Zealand. There’s a kind of kinship in disaster, and speaking to locals in New Orleans I often heard things I’ve heard people say in Christchurch. Neither New Orleans or Canterbury were perfect before facing their tests, but folks in both places seem set, not just on recovery, but on renewal. I met many people who have moved to this New New Orleans from elsewhere in the US — writers, artists, musicians — drawn by the energy and excitement there. My hope is the same thing happens in Canterbury.
Rugero: A meal. A rice-beans boil that tasted like the one I have in Burundi.