If a friendship lasts longer than 7 years, it will last a lifetime.
I woke up this morning not remembering where I was. Oh, and with my leg splayed over my friend who doesn’t like to cuddle. Over dinner the night before, we all discussed what our strange sleeping habits are. I assured her that my only weirdness is somehow ending up diagonal in the night. But, much to her chagrin, I was wrong. I apparantly also inadvertently trespass on other people’s space! When we woke up, I asked her how her sleep was and she responded coyly with “Danny’s bed is super comfortable…..oh, and, you lied, you ARE a cuddler.” The smile on her face had meant she was taking it graciously though. I gave her permission to kick me next time. That usually works.
Our home for the next 4 days would be on the bottom level of a 3 story apartment in Chicago. Even though my phone displayed that it was 7am, the room remained pitch black. I pondered on how this was possible for a while, but upon looking around the room, I realized there were no windows. So weird! I did sleep well though, having recovered from the night before. Danny’s boyfriend Chris had cooked us an amazing meal for dinner (ending with some rum-soaked peaches topped with homemade whipped cream for dessert. Only I didn’t taste any peaches, if you know what I mean). The only home cooked meal I have had for a long time.
Flashback to when we first arrived at Midway International Airport: it actually was not a struggle at all. From Jacksonville, it was an easy 2 and 1/2 hour direct flight! What I was most worried about was using the trains. Or, as tourists from smaller cities know them, dreaded public transportation! I was already preparing myself to get lost in the subway. I tried my hardest not to look like a tourist. But it is hard not to when you are constantly looking around and jumping at the sound of every stop made. All I kept thinking was “Well, at least I have a change of clothes! Ugh, this luggage is heavy. No! Not more stairs! I wonder if they have any restaurants in the trains for the tourists who get lost on their journeys?”. Obviously I was confident. Per Danny’s directions, we took the Orange Line to the Brown Line. If you know what I am talking about, good for you. I am glad I had Elena with me because what I was imagining was a kid drawing literal orange lines and brown lines on the sidewalk. I don’t know what to do with that!
When we finally made it to Danny’s street, I was in awe of how cute it was! If you don’t count the constant clattering of the train tracks (which eventually turned into white noise), it is an incredibly quiet area. If Danny’s blinds weren’t open, I wouldn’t have had any clue that other people choose it as a route to their destinations. I couldn’t wait to make our home in a real Chicago abode.
I had expected to eat well in this city. If I had a shitty time or didn’t enjoy any of the architecture, I could live with that. But if the food was subpar? Take me back home. My first taste of Chicago was at a taco joint called…”Taco Joint” on North Halstead Street. And…it…was…GOOD. Ever had a salmon taco? Me either. But I had a delicious ceviche taco! We paired it with a beer-mixed drink called “Traditional Red”. We were disappointed because there was no wine it in, having thought we ordered a SANGRIA. But, when I read the menu again, I realized it said SANGRITA. So it all makes sense now.
My dad would be proud of my Modelo. It was a spicy wake-up call!
One thing I will say about Chicago is there is FREE STUFF EVERYWHERE. Literally, the minute we walked into the FREE zoo, there were girls handing out FREE cans of Red Bull. It just so happens that all of this was taking place in a FREE country! Kidding. But I could not believe that the zoo was free: there were no gates, no entrance fees, and no one to check your tickets. It wasn’t a small, janky zoo with sad looking animals either! They had rhinos, penguins, polar bears, meerkats, and a lot of other exhibitions that the Jacksonville Zoo does not have. And I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to enjoy a zoo without sweating your face off in 90+ degree weather!
Located on North Clark Street. They are open most days from 10am – 5pm.
When the night winded in, we headed over to Chris’ house. Two words: Bachelor Pad. To the max. He had a chalkboard wall adorned with business plans and a list of “Places to Go”. In the bathroom, there was a makeshift lamp made out of an old wine bottle. It was so revealing of his lifestyle. More importantly, the man can cook. We were entertained with a cute ass cheese plate for an appetizer, sausage and brussell sprouts, and a salad that we had all made with love. Fresh from the herb garden on his rooftop. We spent a lot of our time out there – shucking corn, cutting tomatoes, and trying to differentiate between this green leaf and the other. “This one is rosemary … or sage….or….kale? I don’t know put that in the salad.” Despite our uncertainty, the salad was scrumptious. Didn’t even need the drizzling of a balsamic vinegar dressing like I usually like.
My first night in Chicago can be summarized into one, simple statement: there is more to explore. The aching in my feet from that initial day would not compare to what would play through into the rest of my trip. I say I wanted to explore, huh? Well, I got my wish…
We have all heard of “The Crescent City”. It’s “The Big Easy”. The land of bayous, gumbo, and jazz. Simply said, it’s New Orleans, Louisiana. This is a city surrounded in mystery, culture, and grandeur. I have physically walked those cobblestone streets only once, but in my imagination I have been there far more times. I, too, have enjoyed the sensual sounds of Dixieland on a late night stroll. I, too, have ventured among the crowded halls of Cafe du Monde and devoured a powdery beignet . I, too, have braved Bourbon Street and “earned” myself some beads (it is as easy as screaming, “Hey! Over here!” surprisingly).
Are you considering making a trip? Do you have questions about where to eat? What sites to see? I cannot give you the “Official-Certified-5 Star-NOLA-Resident Tour/Expert Guide” summary, but I can tell you what I have personally seen and experienced on my short stay there. I can tell you exactly where I stayed, ate, ventured.
Keep on reading until the end and you’ll see my Top 5 Favorite Things About New Orleans.
→ WHERE DID WE STAY?
Feast your eyes on “The Gentry House“. How about you shut down the idea that you need to stay in a fancy hotel on Royal Street? Why don’t you rest your head on a pillow at this quaint bed and breakfast instead? Nestled between Rampart St. and Burgandy St., The Gentry House is a sight!
My favorite part? The courtyard! The only time I saw one of the owners was when he was tending to his garden. And what a great job he does! The fountain and wrought iron furnishings really add to the antiquated feel of the place. The house is 150+ years old with, I’m sure, lots of history. Makes me wonder who else had chosen to make their stay there within the last century.
True to their statement of “Come stay with us and live like a local!”, The Gentry House is a home away from home. It was like having our own apartment in New Orleans: it had a living room, bedroom, and kitchen with a fridge stocked with fruits, drink, and various breakfast options. My most favorite option were fresh, warm croissants – delivered daily and left on our door. We read about these in the reviews and were very excited to try them. They did not disappoint! I was surprised to find that there were different options: regular, chocolate-filled, and eclairs. I had the regular croissant and I was overwhelmed with it’s buttery goodness. On our last day, the group was ready to leave before we ran into Mr. Brian donning a bag of those delicious croissants. He insisted we prolong checking out and enjoy the baked goods before heading off. We HAD to stay and have a bite before turning in the keys, of course! It was worth it too.
Overall, it was a comfortable stay. It wasn’t a 5 Star hotel, you mostly pick up after yourself, but it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. It has great reviews on tripadvisor, as well. I would definitely book with them again.
Warning: From the moment we got there, we were told to stay away from Rampart St. come night time. Don’t park your car there and do not stumble upon those streets alone. But don’t worry, be courteous, mind yourself, and keep your wits about you always. Never be afraid of travelling. There is danger just stepping outside your own house everyday. Remember to have streets smarts.
→WHERE DID WE EAT?
Eat New Orleans
In my personal opinion, the most important part of a trip (besides a roof over your head) is how you fill your belly. What does the area have to offer when it comes to cuisine? As you can probably tell, I am not looking for anything fancy. I am always willing to try ‘hole-the-wall’/’mom-and-pop’ type restaurants and have been happier for it.
The first place we tried for dinner was “Eat New Orleans” located right on the corner of Dumaine St. Sliding into the little door with my cohorts wasn’t an easy task because we were all fighting each other to get a seat by the window (I like to people watch). From the outside, looking in, the restaurant gives off an air of humble trendiness. It beckons outsiders to try their cooking. Their name says it all we were there to EAT, NOLA style.
It seemed like a lot of the patrons were regulars, as the waiter seemed to be extremely all-knowing about their orders. The crowd was a little older, which is probably why we got eyeballed when we came in with our “grenades” and valor having survived Bourbon St. I try not to reek “tourist”, but I don’t think we fooled anyone that night.
I couldn’t decide between the “Crawfish Boil Stew” and the “Chicken and Dumplings” for dinner. The temperature that night in January was probably in the 50s, so it was on the chilly side. When I revealed my uncertainty with a food choice, the waiter pronounced that it was a “chicken and dumplings kind of night”. So I got chicken and dumplings. I don’t think I need to say more.
Cafe du Monde
Have you ever seen Disney’s Princess and the Frog (2009)? Do you remember her “man-catching beignets”? Even though it was only a cartoon, this delicacy just looked way too tempting to not have in real life! I wanted to try some immediately! And what better place to have your first, powdery beignet than the famous Cafe du Monde ?
There are two locations in New Orleans, but we visited the original one near Jackson Square. Beware! This place is INCREDIBLY popular! Pretty much anytime of the day – being open 24 hours. So much so that the line was around the block! Surprisingly, it was only a 15-20 minute wait. My friend Manat was kind enough to wrestle some older ladies for a spot in line… She was very territorial about our table! (kidding)
The set-up was like a big parish hall. An open space with dozens and dozens of small, round tables. It’s pretty cramped in there, but the smell of coffee and baked goods were a sumptuous distraction. Tip: If you go around back, past where the to-go lines are, you can see the employees cutting and deep frying the dough! They have it down to a science. The guy I saw didn’t even have to turn around – he just tossed those buggers right in. Watch out for splashing oil!
If you’re looking for good southern cooking, look no further than Willie Mae’s Scotch House down St. Ann Street. If you didn’t know where or what this place was, you could easily drive right past it! The only way you would know it’s purpose is by seeing the sign outside and trying to push past the growing crowd lining up. It’s located in the middle of a (truthfully) grungy neighborhood and, just like the name entails, is inside of a tiny little house! It adds to the charm of “home cooked” meals and feels like you’re eating with the owner’s huge (and widely diverse) family of tourists. According to an article on nola.com, the original location is left in shambles from the destructive Hurricane Katrina. But don’t expect to come here for dinner because they close their doors at…wait for it…5 pm. It was the boys’ idea to eat here and I am glad they made this decision! I come from a land, though also in the south, whose best example of fried chicken is KFC. So…you can tell that anything could beat that! Take a gander at these:
I have never had fried-anything melt in my mouth the way these did! I don’t know what the batter was made out of, but I do know that it came from heaven. I paired them with some green beans, but there are so many other options to get. Do butter beans, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, sweet potatoes, or beans catch your attention? It should because they are great matches for the “America’s Best Fried Chicken”.
I will warn you that the wait was pretty long. It is not a huge facility, so there aren’t that many tables to work with. The service took a bit longer than we would have liked too, but it was around 3 pm, so I am sure they were preparing to close up. Regardless of these things, the food was marvelous! Best fried chicken I have ever had (don’t tell my Dad). I would recommend Willie Mae’s to anyone in the mood for some great southern, home-cooked meals.
→WHAT SITES WOULD WE RECOMMEND?
Drive along Lake Pontchartrain
No, this isn’t Lake “Pocahontas” (if you’re like me, that’s what you thought it said too). It is actually pronounced “pawn-sha-trun” (fancy, I know) and is known as the body of water that hosts the world’s longest bridge of its kind. Ready to ditch the typical “I spy” road trip gaming options of “tree, tree, stick, green highway sign”? How about imagining you are driving through water? Obviously the bridge is not sitting tire-deep! But, if you use your imagination as often as I do, it may totally seem that way. You are driving parallel to opposite traffic and the bridge seems like it is never going to end! That might sound terrible (and a bit scary – Twilight Zone: The Never Ending Bridge!?), but it is actually quite exciting. The Causeway Bridge was approximately 40 miles of anticipation for me. Once you reach the ending point, you can see the skyline of New Orleans getting more and more prominent. It was honestly breathtaking!
Go to Google Maps and use the street view. You won’t regret it.
Warning: Don’t drive on it during a storm. The water levels get extremely high and rocky – it’s not worth the terror, in my opinion!
Finding Marie Laveau’s Tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1
R.I.P. Rest in peace to these old souls who are “buried” in this alluring New Orleans cemetery. Take the term “buried” lightly because they are actually above ground. The walk to the cemetery was what you would think: it was musty, dark, and smelled a bit like the waste from the buggies that pass by. Rows and rows of tombs encompass your eye frame. Entering the iron-gate protected property was like voluntarily entering into a maze. Would you have the courage to venture into it independently? I suggest you and your friends do what we did. Have you ever heard of the famous Marie Laveau? If you haven’t, you absolutely have to look up her history (she is even introduced as a featured character on the popular TV show American Horror Story). Being dubbed the “Voodoo Queen”, you can imagine what she was known for! St. Louis Cemetery #1
Here is what I wrote about finding her tomb in a letter of mine to a pen pal:
Before we left on Sunday, we visited the old cemetery. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but because of the water levels in New Orleans, they had to “bury” their dead above ground. So there are these huge tombs and mausoleums (spelling) that house people’s loved ones. It’s supposed that the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau was buried there, so Hayley, Manat, and I split up to see if we could find it. The old cemetery was a big maze! I got lost amidst all the tombs, but I was the one to actually find her grave. You tell because it has a bunch of red X’s all over it and tons of “offerings” (which looked more like junk – old gum wrappers, bus passes, some lady even left her license from New Jersey). The story goes, you can go to her grave and ask for a favor, marking 3 x’s. If she grants your request, then you have to go back to the grave, circle your x, and leave an offering of thanks. Frankly, I think those are lies told by tourist guides … but, whatever, people still do it. I still payed my respects.” -Letter from March 9, 2015
Supposed tomb of Marie Laveau
Bourbon Street…I guess
I feel it is unfortunate to say that when a good number of people think of New Orleans, they immediately picture Mardi Gras, boobs, and drunkenness. This is true on many counts on the rambunctious streets of Bourbon. How can it not be with a name like that? My friends and I ventured out both of our nights there. If it were up to me, I would’ve skipped the party and taken a different turn down a jazzier street. But we all went for the experience. I guess I can say I left there “having partied on Bourbon Street”. I don’t know if that is something to be proud of, to be honest.
It’s funny how the atmosphere changes once night life emerges. The street that was once filled with families and street performers turned into a totally different world. Guys holding signs pronouncing their bars have BIG ASS BEERS. Drag queens luring you in to see their burlesque show (we did see a non-drag queen version that night though). A tour group of old people dressed in devil costumes double-fisting grenades. Grenades are the drink to get there. They are in long cps, filled to the brim with alcohol. Once you get to the bottom, you find a little plastic grenade. I got the frozen kind and it was pretty strong. I like partying as much as the next person, but I don’t ever go out to get ridiculously drunk to the point of belligerence. A lot of people did that out there.
As you can read from my letter, I was not a big fan of the whole thing. I am all for having fun, drinking alcohol, dancing, etc – we did all that. But there is a LIMIT. I do not care if you are on vacation, there is no excuse for belligerent behavior. I was honestly over the scene after the first hour. I had been bumped into, hit on, offered drinks one too many times. One guy came up to me and said he “wanted the d”. Uh, what? Okay, dude.
I say, by all means, venture out on Bourbon Street at night. It was, indeed, an experience. But I can’t tell you that I enjoyed it all too much.
Check out my fun run-in in the bathroom:
The Sounds of the Streets
Every turn you made, there was an artist sharing their skills. I highly suggest taking time out of your day to search for streets musicians. Just follow the musical notes…
→WHAT I WISH I HAD DONE
Popped more tags: I wish I had gone into more thrift stores. We only visited two, including one that had a studio setting that carried vintage clothing and jewelry all the way from the 20’s. I want to find more treasures! I spent too much time in the touristy shops 😦
Visited more artsy places: Jackson Square is filled with artists displaying their canvases (and psychic skills) in the morning. But I wish I had looked up museums or some local art galleries! I am sure they were bustling with creativity I missed out on.
Seen the plantations: Even though they have dark histories, I would love to see the statuesque yards and old houses. They make for the best settings for pictures and I regret not making time to go out there. A good option would be Oak Alley Plantation!
Gone on an American Horror Story hunt: Our first stop was actually at the Buckner Mansion, where the fictional “Miss Robicheaux’s Academy” was set in American Horror Story: Coven. It was surprisingly not busy at all! There were maybe 3 other people outside the gates snapping fan pictures. Plus, the neighborhood it is in is beautiful!
I just wish I had gone to other places where they filmed. If you look it up online, you can see all of them!
That’s all for now! Did you enjoy my suggestions? Do you have dreams to visit Louisiana as well? Feel free to ask me anything in the comments.
The question people ask me when they first find out I pen pal is “…wait, so how do you meet these people?” I joke around and say through a prison pen pal match up site (which, I am sure, is a real thing). After the look of shock and worry strain their faces for a minimum of ten seconds, I break the news that it is a simpler, more boring answer.
It involves hashtags and Instagram.
Can you get more 21st century than that?!
Jokes aside, it works. It is as easy as looking up hashtags, scouring all the results, and “creeping” on their Instagram seeing whether they’d be a good match. I find myself attracted to those who showcase each letter they write individually. The creativity some of these ladies (and few men) display is so inspiring! They can take a plain, white envelope and turn it into a masterpiece. You would be surprised to see that there is a whole community out there! This community is filled with sweet, like-hearted souls who just want to reach out and learn more about other people and parts of the world. They even have their resident “popular” crowd! Women who have made their Instagram into almost an art museum. They showcase each and every one of their letters, both incoming and outcoming, for the world to enjoy.
When I first started, to get some traffic and interest going, I even went as far as making an advertisement for myself and tagging the picture with some hotspot tags. Here is my first one. Laugh all you want, but it got some good responses.
topshelfmischief penpal advertisement
It says this was posted about 42 weeks ago. What a journey it has been since then! I have made 15+ new friends and exchanged probably over 50 letters. Each one differently decorated; adorned with various return addresses and styles of creativity. My favorites are the ones that have a slew of international stamps stuck to the top right corner. Other countries have such beautiful, original stamps! I feel a little disappointed sending off some of my international letters; it’s either a round stamp with the global sea temperatures on it, or simply a boring white sticker with the price of postage. What a disgrace! How boring!
SOME TIPS FOR YOUR PENPAL ADVERTISEMENT:
Bring back the early 2000’s with a/s/l (age, sex, location)
State who you’d like to write with: just females? What age range? (There are kids as young as 12 starting!) Do you want international pen pals? Or do you want to stay within your own territory?
Make sure your Instagram is not on private. These people are going to want to check out your page and see what you’re up to! Do you have any #outgoing letters? What is your style like? If you are like me, you probably don’t want randoms looking at your personal Instagram/photos. That is exactly why I made a totally separate one just for my pen pal business!
WHAT HASHTAGS SHOULD YOU USE?:
Comment below with your pen pal instagrams! I would love to see your endeavors. Also, post any questions you might have about the pen pal-ing process. I would be happy to answer any!
Everyone has to start somewhere. A runner starts at a jog. An artist starts with some sketches. A magician starts with a small performance in the living room. But where does an aspiring traveler begin?
I am no expert on the subject. I have only been to a small share of places within my own territory: Florida (of course), California, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and soon Illinois (I will be visiting a friend in the Windy City come July). Internationally, I have been to the Philippines (Mabuhay Cebu!) and several Caribbean locations on different cruise lines.
Although I say “only have been” to these places, as if it were not a big deal, that does not mean I don’t cherish my experiences. The [ ] I feel is the same as anyone else backpacking through Europe in the same instance. My wanderlust is real. There is no hiding that I yearn for more…
Do you want to know where I started? Unfortunately, it wasn’t with an impromptu trip to Japan (the top of my destination bucket list). That would break the bank really quick. But…does WRITING to someone from Japan follow in close second for some of you?
That’s right. I picked up a pen and paper (along with washi tape, glue, stickers – any outlet to make my envelope look prettier) and did it the old fashioned way. And by “it”, I mean got to know a stranger long distance. The funny thing is that the unfamiliarity of “snail mail” has given my life a bit of mystery. I like to visit my P.O. box on my lunch breaks every now and then. It wasn’t until the 4th or 5th time I came back into work with a goofy, satisfied smile on my face and a couple envelopes tucked underneath my arm that people started asking questions. They are always shocked to know that “penpal-ing still exists”! Now, to start conversation, my coworkers always ask how my penpal-ing is going. They seem genuinely intrigued by my endeavors.
As they very well should be. Writing letters is COOL! Opening up your PO box to find a collection of envelopes is COOL! Peeing your pants is COOL!
(anybody? anybody catch the reference?)
I got a little overzealous when I first got started and collected a bit more pen pals than I could handle (15+). That doesn’t mean to say I open my PO box to find 8 envelopes every time though. Because that never happens. Sometimes it takes people about two months to even write me back. But before you get “twenty-first-century-instant-gratification-y” on me, I have to say that I am okay with it. The waiting is the POINT. Because, you know when that letter finally arrives, this person in a totally different lifestyle and location from you has put their heart into it. It takes TIME to write down things. It takes TALENT to make a themed letter. It takes HEART to truly care about someone else’s life. I’m willing to wait for that.
What have I gained from doing this? It has been almost a year now and, amongst the 15+ pen pals I have, I have to say that I really have made true connections with only 5 of them. The rest is just an outlet for my creativity, the joy of getting something in the mail, and to satisfy my true curiosities about their location. When I say “connection”, I mean that I feel like I have really made a friend. The correspondence for most of them isn’t even about making the envelope pretty, it’s just about pages and pages of stories between the two of us. I’m not an avid reader, I was in high school, but now I don’t have the time. So instead of picking up some chic-lit novel, I read about true stories from a friend across the world from me.
I started out knowing people in only a few states. But I’ve outreached to Canada, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Turkey … and I hope to meet more from other places. It’s like traveling to these places, knowing these people, without ever having to leave home.
I hope I never lose that feeling.
Do you have a pen pal? Do you see value in writing people the “old fashioned way”? Let me know in the comments.