Part 1 N’Awlins
Well, here we are again, gliding precariously aloft, 30,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, Vodka Martini in hand. I’m off to meet my Honeybee in New Orleans where we shall be renewing our wedding vows. We first tied the knot in 1986 in a civil ceremony at Juliet’s Tomb in the Italian city of Verona. Always partial to a good outing, anxious to cement this arrangement and to wear a white wedding dress, Honeybee decided, two years later, to add a round turn and two half hitches to the knot we had already tied. This time it was a Church wedding in a Kentish village followed by sumptuous reception in Leeds Castle. Henry VIII bedded Catherine of Aragon there before divorcing her, so the location was fitting. And now the knot is about to grow to Gordianesque proportions. Imagine, after this latest junket, my Honeybee will have had 3 Cecil B De Mille marriage celebrations! Now I know where all the housekeeping goes and why we can only afford a car the size of a dog kennel. I knew when my Honeybee first asked for my hand in marriage that it was other parts of my body she was more interested in. I knew too, when I learned that she was of Sicilian parentage, that divorce would always be out of the question. But don’t think for one minute that I’m still married for fear of ending up in a concrete pillar supporting one of those stretches of Italian Autostrada that start in someone’s farmyard and goes nowhere. No sir! I’m flying, heart willing, into this, possibly conclusive, celebration. What makes this one special is that it will be our son, Jesse, who will be giving away his mother. I’ve never succeeded.
But what’s this? Dinner is being served. As usual it’s only the bread roll (before it cools) and the Snickers Bar that are edible. Have you ever wondered why celebrity chefs occasionally claim authorship for some of the dishes served as food on airlines? No one, wisely, is putting his or her hand up for the dish of over-cooked penne in a sauce of pea-studded, warmed-up cold cream that I have in front of me. I think I’ll see what’s on offer in Duty Free. Hmmm, I’m interested by the Lip Smacker, Coca Cola flavoured lip balm and the pair of La Tweez illuminating tweezers for those hard to find nostril hairs; just can’t think of anyone who might like them as a present.
I’m always happy going to America and that I put down to first impressions. In 1974 on my first visit, a business trip to Cleveland, I’m hardly settled into the back of the cab when the driver asks me where I’m from. England, I reply, even though I was living in Paris at the time. Apparently pleased with this information, the driver tells me at length how he had been based in Devon for several months in 1945 while preparing for the Normandy Invasion and how well he and his fellow soldiers were treated by the natives. On arrival at my downtown Hotel, my new best friend carries my suitcase into the hotel and drops it at Reception. ‘Look after that’, he tells the Receptionist, ‘I’m buying this young man a cocktail’. Americans have always been good on service. Later that evening, at a bar on the Flats, my Englishness alone scores me an invite to a party in Shaker Heights and the offer of a car for the duration of my visit.
I’ve yet to meet an American who is not happy and proud to be an American. Much of their patriotism revolves around respect for the flag. The etiquette regarding the Stars and Stripes is extensive and logical. It cannot be used for decoration. Bunting, with blue stripes upper, is used for this purpose. It cannot be used for advertising, or printed or embroidered on anything that is intended to be later discarded. It cannot be part of a costume or athletic costume (military obviously excluded). No part should ever touch the ground. I contrast these rules with those of some countries happy to see their flags on tea towels, rubber thongs and mens’ underpants.
Why New Orleans? We fell in love with the city on our first visit. It’s not called the ‘Big Easy’ for nothing. The people are laid back and friendly, there is live music everywhere and the cocktails are cheap. It also has HISTORY, currently unavailable in Australia. It’s the only place I know where I can wear a white suit and two-tone shoes AND I can understand the French they speak. Where else in the world can your wedding party, preceded by a marching band, be escorted by police through streets closed to traffic? Yes Sir, we love Dixie; everyone should be sent here to learn manners. Why Dixie? Well, in 1835 the Citizens State Bank opened its doors in the French Quarter and soon after began printing its own bank notes. Although the French had ceded Louisiana to the American government in1803 the French language was still prevalent and the bank’s ten dollar note carried the word ‘Dix’ (French for ten). In time these notes became known as ‘Dixies’, a term that spread to refer to the region. Did the song ‘I wish I were in Dixie’ start life as ‘I wish I had a Dixie’? Nice thought, but the song, reputedly written by a Northerner and enjoyed by Abraham Lincoln, did become the de facto anthem of the Confederacy. Those of a politically correct nature, who like to view history from a contemporary moral outlook, find it offensive and would bar us from our past.
Our guests, except Ralph and Doris who are natives of the city, are all staying with us in the Prince Conti Hotel. My niece has come from England and my friend Pierre-Jacques from Paris. Larry and Bonnie have come down from upper New York State, Gayle and Jim from New Hope, Pennsylvania and John and Susan from Boulder, Colorado. Larry, Ralph, John and I all met for the first time in 1971 in the Paris office of Ernst & Young.
This is a serious drinking town and, apart from some areas of Bourbon Street, it’s carried out with refinement. ‘Civilisation’, William Faulkner, a native of New Orleans, pointed out ‘began with distillation.’ And so, appropriately, we start off with cocktails in what may be the best bar in the world, The Bombay Club (where happy hour lasts from 4 to 7pm).
After cocktails we all go to dinner at the Palm Court Jazz Restaurant. There’s a five-piece band playing Dixieland Jazz. I don’t remember the food due to the pleasure of reuniting with friends. At some point the band dedicates to us their version of ‘It Had to be You’ and Honeybee and I take to the dance floor and stun the diners with our nimble footwork. A bottle of Champagne arrives anonymously and when I go to pay the bill the waiter informs me that it has been ‘taken care of’ by another table. We never found out who made this generous gesture so I can only make public here my sincere thanks.
Breakfast of beignets and coffee at the famous Café du Monde. As if in a Roman bathhouse, we move from the frigidarium of the hotel to the caldarium of the street and back to the frigidarium of bar or restaurant. Someone asks Jesse where he’s from. Australia. He is asked what language they speak there. It’s the 70th Anniversary of D Day and Private Lynn scales the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at the WW2 Museum while Gayle is an early casualty on the beaches.
It’s late afternoon on Saturday, 7th June and we assemble in the courtyard of Ralph and Doris’ home on the Rue Royale. My Honeybee is wearing Camilla and looks like a Princess from Sheherazade; I’m wearing a white, double-breasted jacket and dark trousers and look like a waiter from the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas. Jesse comes as a riverboat gambler in blue velvet and bootlace tie.
A saxophonist plays Stephen Foster songs while the guests arrive. Our first marriage was supervised by the Mayor of Verona, splendid in sash of green, white and red, our second by a Protestant Vicar in black cope and surplus of white. Conducting this ceremony is the Rev. Tony Talavera, a tall, distinguished looking African American in straw hat and tan suit. His business card announces him as an ‘Ambassador of Romance’. The ‘Reverend’ whose theological qualifications I would not presume to investigate, runs the French Quarter Wedding Chapel, which contains the welcoming totems of every religion, and God, pagan or otherwise, including my own favourite deities, Venus and Bacchus. Are we about to be blessed by a Snake Oil salesman? Who cares; what counts is what we say and mean. There’s a brief moment of panic when the Reverend asks for the rings. Rings? No one mentioned rings! Besides, my Honeybee has more rings than a shower-curtain manufacturer. Jesse produces a plain diamond number the size of a walnut and I’m seeing myself on the pavement in George Street with begging bowl. He then hands over my ring, a massive gold affair with purple stone, popular with Los Angeles drug barons. Jesse whispers ‘25 dollars the pair’ and I breathe easily once more. After I’m allowed to kiss the bride, I have another, pleasant, surprise when Jesse reads us WH Auden’s poem, ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’.
Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.
Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.
Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes.
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.
Does it howl like an angry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.
I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.
Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.
When it comes, will it come without warning,
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
The truth about love is that life is desperately dull without it. A keen interest in sport, bee-keeping or the stock market can never make up for the deficiency. There comes a moment amidst all the fun and laughter when a note of gravitas is required; it’s supplied by Larry who gives us a short prayer. Then the Champagne is broken out and we all pose for photographs.
Meanwhile the 5 piece band and police escort have been assembling in the street for our Second Line parade. ‘Second Line’ refers to the members of the general public who join the celebrations behind the ‘Main Line’ – the band, the celebrants and guests. Fronting our column are two Policemen on motorcycles, then comes our Master of Ceremonies and Bandleader, carrying monster orange ostrich feathers, and then the band in traditional costume of white jacket, black trousers and white, peaked cap. A NOPD Patrol Car follows us and our guests as these festivities have been known to get out of hand. The Rev. Tony Talavera is also there, seated on a mobility scooter dragging two cart-loads of coloured beads like a miniature road train.
And then we’re off and for the next 45 minutes we march through the streets of the French Quarter, tossing beaded necklaces to the public on the sidewalks, until we stop outside Antoine’s Restaurant. Antoine’s has belonged to the Alciatore family since 1840, and, apart from the addition of a microwave and a food mixer, not much has changed. Our waiter Chuck, who looks as if he’s been there since the opening, takes us to our private dining room on the second floor. The fare is traditional New Orleans, which leans heavily towards aquatic life and Tabasco – crawfish tails in white wine sauce, Gombo Creole of blue crabs, oysters and Gulf shrimp and baked oysters a la Rockefeller. Pierre-Jacques, a true bec fin, takes the Potage Alligator au Sherry. Then there’s Pompano fish from Lake Pontchartrain, soft-shell crabs and the Delmonico Centrecut Ribeye au Champignons et a la sauce au Demi-Bordelaise, which I was still ordering when everyone else had moved on to the Baked Alaska. I see, on page 4 of the bill, that the evening finished with Cognacs. Jesse and I took ours out onto the balcony overlooking St Louis Street where we shared our first cigar.
Part 2 New Mexico
Farewelll to N’Awlins. It’s been such a fabulous party I’d like to do it all over again. I suggest to Honeybee that we get divorced on the grounds of my adultery with Scarlett Johansson and then re-marry. The proposal doesn’t merit a response. At Louis Armstrong Airport I’m the only person wearing a proper pair of shoes, the only person, apart from Honeybee, who is not dressed either for the beach, the fitness centre or a Tattooist’s Convention. On the flight to Albuquerque a gentleman from Louisiana engages us in conversation. I say ‘engages’ in the sense that he engages us as listeners. He shows us photos of his wife, children, house, cars, boat, an armoury bigger than Boko Haram’s and a selection of the animals that he had killed in an effort to rid the Deep South of its wildlife. Don’t get me wrong; I like a man who is proud of his family and achievements, it shows he is happy with his lot. Not entirely happy however, for he tells us that he feels Americans are hated in many parts of the world. Don’t worry, I tell him, we like you.
Our destination is the town of Taos, situated seven thousand feet above sea-level, in the high desert of the Colorado plateau. The small town of 5,700 inhabitants, which consists almost entirely of adobe constructions, is surrounded by arroyos, dry riverbeds overhung with cottonwood, hackberry and desert willow. Goldfinches flutter in the branches and goshawks glide over plains carpeted with wild sage and studded with juniper. The plain is bisected in a deep gorge by the Rio Grande, on its way from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.
In the distance, tiers of ochre and olive hills are capped with the Prussian blue peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The air is clear and thin and the altitude leaves us, at first, a little breathless. ‘Touch the country and you will never be the same again’ wrote D H Lawrence when he came to New Mexico in 1922. I know how he felt. Lawrence, who intended to stay, acquired the Kiowa Ranch near Taos in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers but left for health reasons in 1925 and died five years later in the South of France. But his ashes came back to Taos. Some say they are mixed into the cement of his memorial that stands in the small chapel on the Kiowa Ranch, now owned by the University of New Mexico.
Dinner for six (served on 2 plates) at the Gorge Restaurant on a terrace overlooking Taos Plaza. My Honeybee chooses the Nachos. Despite some determined fork-work, at the end of 20 minutes she appears to have made no impression at all on the loose mountain of corn chips, black beans, melted cheese, avocado, sour cream and tomato salsa. As I pick at a rack of barbequed pork ribs I slowly uncover what appears to be the fossilised rib cage of an adult brontosaurus. A portion of onion rings, like a set of deck quoits, goes almost un-nibbled. Would we like a doggy bag? Doggy bag? We would need a cabin trunk to remove what was left on our plates! My Bud Lite is so cold it leaves a light coating of frost on my tonsils and refrigerates my stomach.
Like many places in America, Taos has no butchers’ shops or greengrocers, no markets selling cheeses and fresh fruit. A stall on the road to Santa Fe offers jerky for sale but it is never open when we pass. Where can one find a nice joint of silverside or a fresh cauliflower? Into Walmart, the nadir of supermarkets. A brown and beige grid of sofas and popcorn, of cheeses the color of Tequila Sunrise, of processed meats, of tubs of ice cream and yoghurt the size of dustbins. Along corridors of frosted windows is everything you need but nothing I wanted. I emerge into the sunlight, look out at the blue mountains and the nightmare is over. Hunger drives us into a fast food outlet. What drink did I want with my happy meal combo? Water. After repeating the word four times the assistant is still shaking his head. ‘Agua’ volunteers Honeybee and I get what I want.
New Mexico is Georgia O’Keeffe country; you need to see the country to appreciate her delicate interpretations of the dramatic architecture of the land and the shapes and textures that the dry wind and warm sun have on its nature. On a first visit in 1917 O’Keeffe declared, like Lawrence, her instant love. ‘When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country.’ In 1929 she stayed in Taos, visiting Lawrence on his Kiowa Ranch where she painted the tall pine (‘The Lawrence Tree’), which still stands outside the chapel. Later she would spend summers in her house on the Ghost Ranch and winters in her home in the nearby village of Abiquiu. If you have never been to the Ghost Ranch, you might well have seen it on film, as it is a favourite location for producers of Westerns. Among those filmed there: Silverado, City Slickers, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, The Missing, No Country for Old Men, 3.10 to Yuma, Cowboys and Aliens, Lone Ranger and, of course, the 2009 film Georgia O’Keefe. More interestingly, there you can inspect the very trees and landscapes that appear in GOK’s paintings and from her house you can see the massive Pedernal mesa in the distance. ‘Pedernal is my private mountain,’ she wrote, and it was there that her ashes were scattered in 1986.
New Mexico is Roadrunner country. In fact the Roadrunner (Geococcyx Californianus, a relative of the Cuckoo) really does move faster than the traffic. Although there are no CCTV cameras, drivers here respect the speed limits; no one seems in a hurry and drivers will slow anywhere to allow pedestrians to cross the road. I sensed none of the suppressed anger you feel on the roads of Sydney. Big Harley Davison bikes are popular. They are ridden sitting upright, which Honeybee reckons is because they are a substitute for horses and a legacy of the Western riding tradition.
New Mexico is cowboys and Indians country. Billy the Kid began and ended his dark saga here. And then there was Kit Carson. Has anyone heard of Kit Carson? No? I thought not. In the 40s and 50s every young American and British boy would be familiar at least with his comic book persona. Unlike Hopalong Cassidy and Lash Larue, Kit was a real person. He started life as a trapper until a change in European fashion determined that gentlemen’s hats should be made of silk, so ending the market for beaver and ensuring the animal’s survival. In 1843 Kit scouted for John C Fremont’s expedition to explore the North Platte River into western Wyoming, returning late in the year to Taos where he married 14 year old Josefa Jaramillo. Outraged? This was a different world; in the early West 14 year olds didn’t waft around in mini skirts and heels listening to Justin Bieber; in any case they had seven children together in a long and happy marriage. In 1844 Kit joined Fremont’s winter crossing of the Sierra Nevadas and scouted for his third expedition to the Great Salt Lake Desert. Back in Taos he started a ranch and led an attempted rescue of a woman kidnapped by the Jicarilla Apache. He was appointed Indian Agent, dealing with the Cheyenne, Navajo, Ute, Arapaho and Apache. When the Civil War began Kit became a Lt. Colonel in the New Mexico Volunteers but spent most of the war fighting the Kiowas and Comanches. At the Battle of Adobe Walls he successfully extracted his small force of 200 from the onslaught of several thousand angry Indians with minimal casualties. His single story adobe cabin in Taos is now a museum. Behind the cabin the Stars and Stripes fly permanently over his tomb out of respect for his defense of the flag against Southern sympathisers during the Civil War. Carson City, capital of Nevada is named after him. He was the embodiment of America’s Manifest Destiny, the dream of Westward Expansion.
A few miles out of town is the Taos Pueblo, the Place of the Red Willows. The first living UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is and has been for 1,000 years, home to the Pueblo People of Northern New Mexico. The houses, built in tiers, some as high as five storeys, are constructed from adobe – sun-dried mud bricks made of sand, clay, water and straw. Two communities, separated by a small tributary of the Rio Grande, share the newish (1850) San Geronimo Church and a sadly neglected Boot Hill. While visitors are welcome, there is a pleasing absence of blatant commerce. This is reserved for the Taos Mountain Casino (‘the only non-smoking casino in New Mexico’) on another part of the reservation. Paradise Lost.
Uniting Taos, Georgia O’Keefe, DH Lawrence, Kit Carson and the Red Willow People is the remarkable Mabel Dodge Luhan. Born Mabel Ganson to wealthy parents in Buffalo, NY in 1879, Mabel decided to set herself up as patron of the arts, first in the Villa Curonia in Arcetri, near Florence and later in Taos where, in 1919, she bought a 12 acre property on the edge of town and named it Los Gallos. Mabel had arrived with third husband, painter Maurice Sterne, but was unable to resist the attentions of Chief Tony Luhan of the Red Willow Pueblo People, who planted his tepee in front of Los Gallos and drummed each night until she came to him. Sterne left in disgust and Tony became Mabel’s 4th in 1923. In September 1922, at Mabel’s invitation, DH Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, came to stay at Los Gallos. Georgia O’Keefe, Willa Cather, Ansel Adams and Carl Jung, among others, followed. The house, now a bed and breakfast, is little changed since Lawrence slept there, and in Mabel’s tiny bathroom you can see the windows painted by a prudish Lawrence to protect his host’s privacy. Mabel died in 1962; she is buried near Kit in the Kit Carson Cemetery.