My two favorite cities these days are Florence and New Orleans. This month I have been fortunate enough to visit both of these wonderful destinations only two weeks apart. So, what is it that moves me so deeply in these places? Why do I never tire of these lanes and levees?
Art, Music, History, Beauty, Cuisine. Both cities offer an overflow of sensory delights, aesthetic entanglement for all of my senses.
On these streets, I feel I am walking in the exact footsteps of Galileo and Danny Barker, Michelangelo and Louis Armstrong. I look around, and my eyes are seeing what they saw. In Firenze, I taste unsalted focaccia bread, white bean and lamb stew, and earthy red wines. On elegant Renaissance lanes, I walk through the old market where Leonardo bought his groceries. I look up and marvel at the church of Orsanmichele, adorned by Dante’s inspired hands.
In the Crescent City, gumbo simmers while Po-boy sandwiches keep body and soul together. A lyric coronet sounds in the distance. Ah, the music of New Orleans! Jazz was born here with a great shout of freedom, and it lives on in an ever-evolving, ongoing celebration of spirit. I sleep in an attic atelier, a freshly remodeled room that has stood since the 1880’s. Through triangular dormer windows, I see the magnificent river winding away from me to the left, while on the right the three spires of St. Louis Cathedral frame the view. Faintly, I hear the up tempo tune from a Dixieland jazz band playing in a restaurant below.
The past lives on, despite cell phones, selfies and diet sodas. Without a time machine, this is as close as I can get to another era, specifically the moments in time and space that changed the world of art and music. In fact, these are the places that changed the world through art and music.
I have come to realize that my imagination is playing an active role in bringing this illusion of history into my reality. The New Orleans I want to experience perhaps never existed. I desire the elegance of the gentrified Garden District without the brutality of slavery; the unique, European-esque charm of the French Quarter without the segregation of Jim Crow. In Florence, I enjoy magnificent sculptures, paintings, buildings and piazzas paid for by the Medici without dwelling on the violence and greed that founded their empire. While the worst of these atrocities may be over, the wounds of racism and exploitation remain.
I want to hold hands with a handsome, ephemeral history that embodies the remarkable achievements of the past despite the miseries of crime, war and disease, the creativity that answered terrible abuses and obstacles with dignity and beauty. Perhaps it is this heroic achievement that is my siren song, luring me back time and again to taste, hear, and see what they achieved through cuisine, music and art. Standing the test of time is the sweetest victory of all.