Friday, September 21, 2007

Hello Big Easy

Although we have been here only about a month, it feels like a whole lot has happened. I began work at the International School of Louisiana towards the end of August. It is an interesting place to work due to its international flavor. The staff is a blend of French and South American teachers and each student is taught in either French or Spanish. The major challenge seems to be the building's infrastructure. Built in the 1920's, there are major renovations needed to get even the basic facilities covered. The staff is a blend of French and South American teachers. Things have been going pretty well except for one thing: the little kids. On an individual basis, they are charming, but I wouldn't wish a class full of 8 year-olds on my worst enemy(Elton John). I might have made a huge mistake.

Lauren is working with New Leaders for New Schools. They are a non-profit agency that recruits principals to work in poorly performing urban schools. It seems like New Orleans is a great place to be for work in education reform. Before the storm, the public school system here was among the worst in the nation. A silver lining of Katrina's devastation is the tremendous attention now being placed on improving that sad demographic.

The city was a bit intimidating at first. When we drove in on the first night, I felt like I was arriving on the set of Boyz in the Hood. Bizarrely, down the block from the group of kids drinking malt liquor were some amazing old French colonial style homes. As we got our bearings on the city, that trend seemed to continue. The dangerous parts of the city and the wealthy areas are sometimes separated by a single street. The nieghborhood we live in is walking distance from the store, restraunts and pubs. And it is safe. Weird. Describing neighborhoods in the U.S as safe has never occured to me before, but that's how it is here. When you look for a place on Craig's list or whatever, the word "safe" is all over. This, of course, implies that there are plenty of places that are not safe. So far, we have heard stories but have not felt threatened in any way ourselves.

The food is as good as they say it is. I have eaten more pork products and barbeque sauce in the last month than in the rest of my life combined. And the nightlife is great. There really seems to be a "come as your are" mentality that results in bikers and gangsters sharing drinks with yuppies and hippies. Definitely more enjoyable than the "scene" atmosphere I encountered in Seattle. In addition to the food and bars, the idea of New Orleans as a foriegn country emreged in our many talks before we arrived. In a way I can see what they mean, there is a culture here that reminds me of my time in the Caribbean. This is shown in the style of the dress, warm smiles, semi-legal establishments and a general lack of modernity. Although it is hard for me to express in words, I think of the "modern" world consisting of autonomous people efficiently interacting within a framework of legal and moral authority. Here, it is all about who you know and what corners can be cut to best serve yourself and your friends. If there is a problem, either you have friends in powerful places, or you're stuck. Now, of course this description is far too black-and-white, but it gives a glimpse into the idiosyncracies of this unique city.

Katrina devastated certain areas of the city and left others relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, the wealthier neighborhoods were situated on higher ground and therefore the damage was not evenly distributed. For instance, the lower ninth ward, which was heavily publicized during the storm, is virtually destroyed. Still, two years later, the area has seen little improvement. In fact, Gorbachev was recently in the area and declared that if there wasn't change soon, he would help lead a revolution. The area we live in was looted after the storm, but is structurally sound.

Overall, we are still very stoked to have chosen New Orleans as our home. We are slowly furnishing our apartment and are now waiting for our first guests, my mom and twin brother are coming down for Christmas. Not too long after, our friend Jenn will be coming for Mardi Gras. We won't be here forever, so hop on the New Orleans train while you can!

Road Trip

Wulp, we left the cozy confines of Spokane, Washington on Aug 21st. Destination: New Orleans. My job started less than a week later and we had about 3000 miles to drive. We had two things going for us: Lauren had a nice car, and we have some friends who are kind enough to live near our driving route. The nice car thing is somewhat new to me. For those who know me well, they understand all my previous roadtrips were colored with a healthy, realistic fear of my car dying on the road. No, my car "baby blue" was sold the week before and was now being tortured by some sixteen-year-old kid with baggy jeans and a nose ring.

Along the way on our drive we got the chance to see my old friends Stacey and Brian in Utah. They are both pals from my days with Second Nature. They have a great cabin up in the hills outside of Salt Lake. Lauren and I had taken a trip with them a coupla years ago up to Jackson, Wyoming. We had to run pretty quickly, but we scored with some homemade zucchini bread from Stacey. From there we headed south, past where those miners were trapped. That was a sad realization when we recognized we were so near such a tragedy. The local stores all had signs of support outside and there were donation jars set up to help the families. As we crossed into Colorado on back roads we entered into some of the most beautiful landscapes either of us had ever seen. We have some special places in this country. While a sophomore in college, I had moved to Telluride, CO to be a ski-bum. Lauren's friend Liz is living there now, so we were able to stay with her and I could show some of my past to Lauren. It is a great town. Imagine, I could ski from my front door to the chair lifts. Onwards we went southeast to New Mexico and a stop on route 66. Conventional wisdom held we should stay at one of the big chain hotels, but I got us a steal of a deal at this hokey Indian-run motel on the side of the road. In Dallas we had dinner with Lauren's brother Travis. While driving lost through the city we saw some incredibly wealthy neighborhoods. Each home was a castle. There is definitely money in Texas. His school, Southern Methodist University, was equally impressive. As we ended our trip through Louisiana, we got our first bit of the local culture at a Popeye's chicken house, and at my new favorite, Cracker Barrel. Move aside McDonald's, you can score baked ham and mashed potatoes during your road trips in the South! The accent on the gal at the chicken place was so strong I couldn't understand a word she was saying, and the guy at the drive in window was roaring his demand for buckets of fried chicken. I had been the minority before while traveling, but this was the first time I was a minority in the US. It's a funny feeling. One of my little-known enjoyments is listening to Gospel radio, and in that regard I am truly blessed here. We cruised into New Orleans with the solid backing of a fired-up preacher. Hellooooo Big Easy!