Three days in and it feels like I’ve been away for a month.
Jim has been dealing with my little red car which failed it’s MOT. Rust and a nail in the tyre, along with speeding fines and I’m thinking – whilst sipping iced water – thank the Lord I’m 3465.23 miles away.
Everywhere we travel we travel in miles. No kilometric calculations for us. America and my ancient brain prefer the old system, you can stick your metric up your mint Imperial. So for the last two days its been walking and mini drop-offs. This afternoon it’s a 114 mile round trip to ‘Houmas House Plantation and Gardens’ through Baton Rouge and over Louisiana’s historic River Road. The brochure said the plantation was less than an hour from New Orleans’s Armstrong International Airport and less than a half-hour from Baton Rouge. I wondered what Einstein would have said ‘Pull the other one…’
Juan and Lauren, both African Americans, felt uncomfortable about our trip to the Plantation, but as Lauren said.
‘You’re paying me to run and run is what I’ll do.’
Breakfast of scrambled egg and Early Grey tea took a back seat as we had an appointment with a doughnut in the famous Cafe Du Monde just off Jackson Square.
The official blurb says:
‘Finding Jackson Square is really quite easy. It is on the Mississippi River, on Decatur Street, between the Jax Brewery Shopping Mall and the French Market, in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. Across the street from the Square, you’ll find the world-famous Cafe Du Monde.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself. The Cathedral stands imposing and white in front of green grass and shrubs . Artists sit round the edge painting touristy pictures. The astonishing heat, so early in the day, makes for sighing and a snorting and that’s from me not the mules who are fastened to their carriages.
Cafe Du Monde has been around since 1862 when it was a coffee stand in the New Orleans French Market. The huge dining rooms, both in and out, were heaving. Heaving with overweight tourists who wanted a sugar fix. Coach loads of sweet talking Southerners who wanted a sugar fix, and foul mouthed British film crews who wanted a fix of sugar. Coffee is not terrific in many places in the US, the preferred method being a dark liquid poured from a thermos jug. But here in Cafe Du Monde it was Cafe au Lait old school. I couldn’t wait.
The walls are hung with black and white photographs monitoring the history of the place. The serving staff wear green and white paper hats bearing the monica ‘Cafe Du Monde’. The tables are rammed with singletons and family gatherings. The noise is continental – you could be in France – the traffic of people is like a time lapse sequence. Hurrying, scurrying, sitting, standing, scraping chairs and shaking sugar. Ants couldn’t do it better. A polystyrene mug of iced water costs 50cents, coffee and doughnuts cost about $5 bucks.
The water shortage has led to many restaurants waiting for the customer to ask for a glass, complimentary offerings are slowing down.
So there is a counter behind which stands a cashier and a very, very, very large man hitting the till. This side of the counter waitors and waitresses ‘stand in line’ with their trays. They take cups which are filled with hot milky coffee, and a plate of BEIGNETS. Hot, stodgy little doughnuts covered in mountains of white icing sugar. Let me tell you that one bite is not enough. Two bites makes you want more and when sipped through the milky coffee another plate of blistering beignets is ordered. Noses get sugar coated, lips get sugar coated, icing sugar is everywhere. Crowds of people wholly satisfied with New Orleans’s favourite sweet, pay their tips and disappear making space for more doughnut devotees.
My waitress – Kim – had been serving up coffee and doughnuts for 37 years. Standing in line behind other mature waitresses from the Philippines, Mexico, Japan and Vietnam. They stand quietly by the conveyor belt until they reach the till where the very big man takes the money.
We estimated the Cafe Du Monde must make in the region of $100,000 dollars a day. The eaters keep sitting, the coffee keeps flowing and the beignets keep coming. Gobs get stuffed all day, every day except Christmas day. It opens 364 days a year, and its always rammed.
Kim gets to work at 6.00 a.m. and waits on tables till 2.00.p.m.
‘I love it.’ said Kim with a real smile. Her American dream fulfilled.
I nibbled on too many beignets, well the camera was there and we had to do retakes and I’m a professional. The taste is really delicious. Too much sugar on my nose meant another retake. Who cares I got fourth helpings.
And then the rain came, out of nowhere, all the camera and sound equipment was outside. We had a few dodgy hours of nail biting to find out whether the equipment had been damaged. It hadn’t….
Given that the cafe serves hundreds of people daily the one lavatory was a mystery. It was dirty with a cracked bowl but still the queue of caffeine addled punters went round the block. Maybe it was trying to emulate a French Pissoir, they succeeded.
The rain had stopped, the sun was out and two crews piled into our ‘Suburban’ SUV’s to drive 57 miles to Houmas Plantation house.
The Houmas grounds are superb, the ancient trees and the well tended gardens are magnificent. Kevin had renovated it. He treated us to lunch in an opulent dining room, and then I was taken to a hot room, where a mother was dressing her daughter for wedding photos. Houmas is used for weddings and celebratory gatherings.
Mother insisted on putting my hair up with her daughters ‘ bobby’ pins as I slipped off my spandex and stepped into a two hooped petticoat. The blue satin dress slid over the hoops, and made me look less like Vivien Leigh and more like Mike Leigh. Lauren and I had spent yesterday morning having a fitting in a dress hire shop where a beautiful tattooed girl pinned me up so that the seamstress could add more hooks and eyes. The dress fitted although a corset would have helped fill out the decolletage. I had the whatnots but not the wherewithal.
But I played my part well with little lacy gloves and a parasol. The dress swished and swung in the 100 degree heat, but like the Southern Belle that I was I kept my cool, until I sat down too fast and the hoops disappeared over my head. Sharon Stone eat your heart out.
We filmed in the bedrooms, the music room, the balcony, the dining rooms and the gardens. Relics of a bygone age were everywhere. Olly changed into a hat, waistcoat and trousers that did him proud. We played at being Rhett and Scarlett to the delight of the visiting tour parties.
Glass cabinets filled with oversized Negro heads, balls and chains, thimbles, hair brushes and endless historic artifacts were in all the rooms. It felt strange the history of the Plantation jostling into the 21st century. Blackamoors stood by fire places and sculptors of working children stood between the huge foliage. An eyeopening experience.
The crews had to get general shots and footage of Olly driving by so I sat on the grass verge. Watching and listening to the birds, as the sun set I flicked a big black bug off my leg. A chigger it wasn’t but a great big itchy bite it was. I read that a heated teaspoon put on the bite draws out the toxins. Houmas House was locked and I’d left all my teaspoons in the Cafe Du Monde – silly me!
By the time we got back, and I got into my room, by the time I had scraped the stains off my dress and hung it on the balcony chair, by the time I had washed my face with delicious hotel creams it was twelve minutes past one.
The gang had gone carousing but I chose to pack my case as we were leaving the following morning.
I was hungry. Didn’t like anything on the room service menu so I called down and asked for an omelette.
‘Sorry ma’am, the eggs are for breakfast.’
‘Excuse me.’ I said calmly . ‘Just two little eggs, surely they won’t be missed?’
I felt far from calm.
‘Hold on ma’am I’ll ask the chef.’
I waited for her to go into the restaurant which was next to the open air swimming pool which was still warm.
‘Yes’ I said calmly. I felt far from calm.
‘The chef he said No. The eggs are for breakfast.’
I hung up.
I called down again. I would now take anything on offer.
‘I am so sorry’ I said appealing to the concierge’s better nature. ‘I am so so hungry I’ll have anything you have to offer’.
‘The kitchen is closed’ she said perfunctorily and snapped the phone down.
I was desolate. I fumbled through my bags, and found some mints from Chicago airport.
I unpeeled the sweet wrapper and climbed into bed. It was so hot I ripped the bottom mattress cover off. You know the ones that are there to prevent staining, covered in vinyl and too awful to sleep on.
‘I’ll give you no eggs’ I thought. This was mattress revenge.
My bag packed I sucked on the sweetie, my stomach gurgling. After the third mint, my lips puckered from the sugar, I turned out the light and settled down for my last sleep in New Orleans. I dreamt of coffee and beignets, “Gone With the Wind’, and tinsel town. I pulled the sheet over me and drifted off.
LA here we come.