New Orleans, my love..

New Orleans Carrollton area

Andrei Codrescu is an essayist, novelist, poet and professor at Louisiana State University.  He is also a regular speaker on National Public Radio, and such a brilliant speaker! I first came to know him from an audio selection in the material used where I was teaching ESL in Houston.  I then discovered this book, New Orleans, Mon Amour, a collection of his essays, at the LSU bookstore. I completely fell in love with his style and his writing. His voice, his humor, his way of seeing things are all completely endearing.

He is Romanian by birth, but moved to America and eventually to New Orleans, his adopted city, around 1985, the year the essays in this collection start.  The essays are grouped by periods, chronologically, except for the first which is a kind of preface. In his essays he talks about everything from his being a newcomer and his amazement of the environment, his fascination with the cuisine, his observations of our festivals, the heat, the humidity, the spices.  He talks about his favorite spots, his corner bar, his first Mardi Gras, the first time he had crawfish. Over time he will even talk about the politics of the city and its corruption, elections, and crime. No stone is left unturned. For me, it is interesting to see my city from an newcomer’s point of view on the inside. 

What I love about his writing is his very poetic way of describing things.  He makes even the most mundane occurrence seem significant and often hilarious. When trying to choose a new book to work with one of my students, I picked this from the shelf for consideration.  I flipped open randomly to the page entitled: Alligators. I read a few lines and immediately began to laugh out loud!  He is languishing in the heat, lying in his hammock “with [his] mouth open, waiting for a ripe fig to fall off the tree into it.” All the while he is looking in the direction of a drainage ditch near LSU, when he observed an alligator, that apparently all the students know.   His description of the scene is absolutely perfect, and anyone who has been here can imagine it.  

New Orleans French Quarter
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

I realized very quickly that this book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand this city, its citizens, the culture and history of New Orleans and even for locals who want to enjoy an outsider’s view on the city.  It allowed me to observe things with fresh eyes, seeing things that I no longer noticed due to familiarity. It is also a perfect book to work with ESL students because it is divided into short essays making it manageable in an hour-long lesson.  Yet at the same time they are still fun to discuss and eloquently written. An English learner will learn culture and history while developing vocabulary and language skills beyond just academic essay style.

It is a wonderful text for any college-age or adult learner of English wishing to improve her reading and comprehension skills.  Even more than that, it is a brilliant book for the lover or New Orleans, anyone who has traveled here, lived here or who has dreamed of visiting one day.

**** Available as a ESL Book Club course**** See my Services page for details!!

Louisiana English à la française!

Here in New Orleans we have a very particular way of life, from our mannerisms, customs to even our way of talking. Some of our expressions may seem bizarre or even foreign to those outside of the city.  Because of my long experience studying French, I have slowly come to realize that the reason for this must be the French influence on the city. Some of these expressions seem to be a direct translation of the French, and the locals using these expressions may not even be aware of it. I have in fact pointed this out to some of my students who seem genuinely surprised that the expression in French is more or less exactly what we say here in English. This could possibly be explained by the fact that generations separate the native French speaking inhabitants from the citizens of Louisiana today. French was officially banned from public schools and government buildings in 1916. It took awhile for English to take over and during that time, many French speakers were probably translating.

Joan of Arc Maid of Orleans in the French Quarter, gift from France
Photo by Morgan Hjelm on Unsplash

In Louisiana, for example, a popular expression is “making groceries”.  It is what we do if we go grocery shopping, yet no one else in America will “make groceries” when going out shopping.  This is easily explained by the fact that faire les courses in French is “to do errands or go shopping” because faire in French is both “make or do”.  

However, there are many more examples than that, especially involving the verb passer, to pass or spend.  Here you will often hear people say they “pass a good time”, not the more common “have a good time”, most probably because the expression in French is almost exactly the same, passer un bon moment.  They might also say variations, like passer un bon week-end, passer une bonne soirée.  People here might also “pass by your house”, meaning to come see you.  This too is a literal translation of the expression passer te voir (come to see you).  In other uses for the verb passer, people in Louisiana will also “pass the vacuum” when cleaning the house, which seems to come directly from the expression in French passer l’aspirateur.

One final “frenchified” way of speaking that is common in Louisiana is the use of pronouns, especially repeated ones for emphasis.  It is very common to hear people say things like “Me, I like it me.” As in, “I like me some gumbo, me”, or even “Him and me, we go there often.”  I suspect that this is a hold-over from French which is a language that uses repeated words, not vocal stress, to emphasize words or to clarify who the subject is. Therefore, the French might say, “Moi, je l’aime bien.” (Me, I like it/him a lot.) Or “Lui et moi, nous y allons souvent.” (Literally “him and me”, in order to say “he and I, we go there often.”)

Finally, a very unique Louisiana term that we use here is banquette, which is used to refer to the sidewalks here, where the French would use the more modern term trottoir, meaning pavement.  This may seem like a uniquely Louisiana French term that the French outside of Louisiana do not use at all.  There are quite a few of those examples as well. However, this is a very different situation, as it is more a case of 19th century French still being used in New Orleans.  In my 1877 edition of a French-English dictionary from Cassell & Co., a banquette was a “footway of a road”.  That would actually make a lot of sense for its day, since sidewalks were not paved in New Orleans at the time. It was more likely a slightly raised side of the road alongside of the houses.  

There may be many more examples of this that I have not yet come across. I do believe that our French roots run deep here, and that while French was almost wiped out here one hundred years ago, it never really went away.  It went underground for a while and has reemerged stronger than ever. French words are a part of our daily lives, in the naming of streets, buildings, magazines, foods, shops, social organizations and so on. Additionally, much of that French-ness is also a part of the way we express ourselves, even while in English.  

This is a work in progress, so stay posted to receive updates to this article. If anyone has more expressions to share, I would love to read your comments below.

NOLA, mon amour…

A student asked once why we should study history.  In actuality the question was more about asking for “one decent reason” for studying history, which gave me the impression that he was not a believer in the importance of studying history.  Of course we should study it.  I cannot even imagine the alternative. Is that even a question on people’s minds?  We are more than ever a global community.  If we ever want to know each other better, understand each other more, we must know and understand our origins.

As a tour guide in one of the oldest cities in the country, I often tell my guests that to understand us, to understand why we are the way we are, why we do the things that we do, and the way we do them, they absolutely must know about our roots, hear our stories, learn our history.

And quite a history it is!  We have tragic origins, riddled with fires, floods, hurricanes, disease and epidemic, murder and catastrophe, and like the phoenix, each time we rise out of the ashes.  We rebuild and build stronger and better.  We bond together as a community.  Maybe this is the reason why we celebrate everything; even funerals are a parade.  We remember the life, not the death.  We have had enough of death.  Maybe that is why every celebration comes with food.  Food is comfort.  Food and music filled with soul fill our streets at every turn.  It is a music that heals and was born right here. We sing our sadness and grief until we are not sad anymore.


This is a city that knows its history, and hopes not to have it repeat itself, at least not the bad stuff.  To know and to understand our history is to understand us, and why we choose to stay, even when staying gets difficult.  People come here to celebrate sometimes without really understanding the backstory.  Some people were utterly amazed to hear that we celebrated Mardi Gras just six months after Katrina.  How could we not?   We needed a celebration to heal our wounds, to purge the memory of death, to feel like ourselves again.  A city-wide jazz funeral for the hurricane devastation that quite nearly took it all away.  They did not understand, but I did.  We showed the world that our spirit and our will to survive are indestructible.  We are the phoenix and we rise.

Why New Orleans Matters to Me

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet the author of Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza.  He was hosting a book club meeting at my neighborhood bookstore, so I got there early for the chance to talk with him, thank him and tell him how much I appreciated his book and to hopefully get him to sign it for me.  (Yes, I am a bit of a fan girl!  I make no apologies for that. Several other women lined up behind me for the exact same thing.) In honor of this fortuitous moment, I took the opportunity to reread it.


This book, Why New Orleans Matters, released quickly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is less of a novel and more of a very elaborate essay on the importance of this city and why it needs to be protected at all costs.  In the days and months, and even years, after the hurricane and my subsequent displacement elsewhere, I felt a loss like nothing I have ever felt in my life.  No one really understood why I was so unhappy, or why I was so unable to settle into this new city and call it home.  I told them I could never call it home, and that it would never be home no matter how long I stayed there.  I tried to explain to them why I felt that way.  I tried to find the words to explain what it was that was missing there, what it was that I had found in New Orleans that I could not seem to find there.  Mr. Piazza gave me the words to say what it was I was feeling. He effortlessly and eloquently put his finger on that timeless thing that makes New Orleans so unique, puts into words that intangible feeling, that mysterious quality that we all love and appreciate so much about this place we call home.  And it is very hard to describe for someone who has never been here.


New Orleans, he says, “has a mythology, a personality, a soul…” (xvii) that so few other places can claim to have.  “The past in New Orleans cohabits with the present…” (xviii) and its history is palpable; it is living and breathing its past.


It feels different in subtle ways.  Never before have I ever felt the air upon me as I do here. It hangs, as one friend described, like a damp wool blanket on my skin.   It sounds different even.  I remember after having been away for a while, that one weekend I was back in town visiting.  I remember telling a friend one morning that the sound outside was different from the place where I was currently living.  I, once again, could not find the right words. My friend immediately knew what it was that I wanted to say and said “it is organic.”  That was it.  Organic.  I could hear the banana plant leaves rustling in the wind, the sounds of birds (not cars and construction), leaves blowing in the yard.  It was the beautiful sound of the closeness of nature.  It smells different, too.  As I walk down the sidewalk, I smell the combination of a dozen flowers and fruit trees mixed with coffee and fresh rain from earlier in the afternoon.  An intoxicating elixir.

Reading how Mr. Piazza describes our love of food, music, festival and family, all of which are inextricably tied together, was a beautiful affirmation of what I had already believed and felt, but simply could not express as well as he had. The  “food of New Orleans is a language, and all those who prepare it and love it are family.” (22).  It is a big small town, with a community mindset.  We all here are family in a way.  We greet each other on the street like friends even though perfect strangers, yet in our way of seeing things, if I see the same person on the street every day, we are not strangers.


If you are one of the million or so people who experienced Katrina first-hand, I recommend only reading part one.  Part two starts with the aftermath, and while I did experience the storm and the coming home part where I saw images that I will never be able to erase from my mind, I read it anyway. It was a very emotional experience, indeed.  If you are one who wonders why we stay here, why we live here, or why we came back here, maybe you need to read this.  It was not a matter of whether I would come home despite what happened, but more of a question of when.  It took me long enough, but when I finally did, I knew it was the right decision and the right timing. Like Mr. Piazza, I knew this was home, “for keeps, no matter where I might travel.” (7)

Vive La Nouvelle-Orleans!

On Feb 11, 2014 I wrote a blog post on Tea-BookShelf on a book entitled Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? and its follow-up Where We Know New Orleans as Home. I want to talk about what New Orleans is to me, why it is home, and why I know what it means to miss it so much.

It just made sense to me, to move to New Orleans after school. It was logical. It is quite simply Louisiana’s only real city, the city that care (or time?) forgot, the city where no one really cares what you look like or how you live your life. It all just goes rolling leisurely by here, like the old Mississippi, not too fast either because it is too darn hot and too darn sticky.

It is a big small town, overgrown but not grown up. It is a neighborhood a city large, and we all know each other, or at least act like it. Neighbors really do ask how you are, or about your mama, and they truly do care to hear the answer. The other day a neighbor asked me how I was, and I replied that I was surviving. He replied that I looked pretty good for just surviving. Neighbors introduce themselves when moving in.

New Orleans is a lady a little worse for the wear but who still cares to dress herself up in her Sunday finest. She eats well, parties well into the wee hours and still looks great for Sunday morning brunch. And she never, ever forgets a holiday. She is celebrating 300 years soon and know that it will be a crazy party! This city that predates the United States, with all her heritage from France and Spain, but not forgetting the many nations who added spice to her soul, she is weathered but not worn. Well, let me be honest, she is sometimes worn out, but does that not add some charm?

New Orleans has character that just is not found in many places. We dress up the old; we do not tear down. We put a shiny plaque on houses saying Faulkner wrote here, Burroughs slept here, Crowley drank here. Her history, her soul, her dirty secrets, it is all so very interesting.

There is music on every street corner, and interesting people everywhere you look. You may see costumes and wonder where the party is, but know that the party is optional. That may just be their everyday wear. The city draws people back time and time again, and you are very likely to see someone you knew from some other time from some other place. The city also attracts artists, poets, writers, musicians because the city is a story waiting to be told.

It is a song waiting to be sung. It is timeless but not old, and we are all aware that it is not immortal. In fact it lives (as Laferriere says about Haiti) intensively, for the very reason that we know it is not forever. Every year that I spent away from New Orleans after Katrina, was a year that I felt was lost, wasted. It was a year I felt I was on the outside of a window looking in, watching my life roll past me, while I bided my time in another place. It was torturous.

Now that I am home, it is almost as if I had never left. I rolled right back into my place, a place that felt like it had been held for me. Those with whom I had formerly worked asked if I was available, as if I had been simply gone for the weekend. It strangely feels like a place untouched by time. When I consider the time that has elapsed since my return, it could be weeks, or months, but it is inconceivable that years have passed. Years in other places felt like eons.

She is generous, too, this city. In spring and summer she gives us banana trees, fig trees, and citrus that line the streets, bending under the weight of the fruit. Flowering plants in all varieties, gardenia, sweet olive, jasmine, magnolia, shrubs most of them as large as houses, bursting with blooms to perfume the air are everywhere in spring. Yes, indeed, there can be no doubt, New Orleans for me is home.

Vive La Nouvelle-Orleans!