Tim Foolery

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New Orleans – My Prior Trip that Nearly Destroyed the City For Me

This is a tale of traveling with family. Traveling with family who travel differently than you do. Traveling with family over a holiday. Traveling with family following a death. Traveling with family.

I love New Orleans. I don’t get to visit very often, but when I do I love the City. I love the food. I love the drink. I love the people. I am so filled with joy when I am in New Orleans.  This trip nearly destroyed those feelings for me.

2009 was a year of transitions for my family.  My parents moved in with me in Chicago – my dad was very sick and one of his hospice wishes was to move to Chicago and live in the City with me, before he died.  Six weeks after they moved to the City, he died – as he wanted. Surrounded by family, in a City I called him. He even had about 4.5 weeks to live in the City – to run errands and enjoy springtime in Chicago.  5 months later, my Aunt’s husband died.  Like my father, he died of cancer, at home surrounded by family.  This second death was in October.  Knowing the holidays would be a tough time and how my family enjoys ignoring issues (like proper grieving, etc), I decided that maybe we should take a trip – me, my mother and my aunt – to a City they’ve never been. Let’s explore one of America’s great Cities and help take our minds off of the recently departed.  They were game.

I laid our a couple ground rules before we actually pulled the trigger:

  • Everyone pays their own way (this isn’t a Tim Funded Vacation)
  • We will find a hotel that we all agree is acceptable and stay there (easier to meet for breakfast and to close out the night)
  • Everyone will make a list of things they are interested in doing PLUS a list of things that if they don’t do while in New Orleans they’ll consider the trip very disappointing
  • I will plan Thanksgiving Dinner – and give them the opportunity to weigh in on options
  • I am not your tour guide – we do this together or we don’t do it at all.

The rules were laid out and mutually agreed upon.  We decided to stay at the Marriott on Canal – it was very reasonably priced (Marriotts are consistent in quality) and in a perfect area – close walk to everything to do in the French Quarter and easy access to the Street Car and taxis.  I booked the hotel for the group.

I also asked my mom and aunt to share with me their list of things to do – so I could start to plan a general itinerary, book tours/excursions that needed to be coordinated beforehand, etc.  Both my mom and aunt wanted to visit an old plantation house.  They took it upon themselves to find a tour of Oak Alley Plantation – about 50 miles from New Orleans.  They also wanted to see the Lower 9th Ward and explore more of the Katrina history.  This being 2009, New Orleans was in a much different state than it is now. The tour that goes to Oak Alley also has an add on for the Lower 9th Ward and a Cemetery Tour.  While I’m not a big fan of day long bus tours, this seemed like a perfect avenue to hit 3 of their must see items in a single day – AND they planned this themselves.

Now I was a little naive at this point. Things were going surprisingly well – we agreed on a City, they created their lists of must-see items, they even booked a days worth of activities.  Would this be the start of an annual excursion with these ladies?  We pick a City, explore the history, the culture and start to recover from a very tough year?  New Orleans is up first? What’s next? Savannah? Charleston?  Do we work our way up to a quick international trip?  Neither of these ladies had left the country before – is this their renaissance?

We arrive in New Orleans. My mother and I fly down together while my aunt comes in from West Virginia arriving about 3 hours after we do.  My mom is a nervous traveler.  She and I struggle flying together.  She prefers to be sitting at the gate 2.5+ hours before departure (just in case they need her — need her for what is unclear, but that’s who she is), while I prefer to arrive at the gate just early enough to buy a bottle of water and walk aboard.

My aunt is tired from her journey as she had to connect in Atlanta – her travel time was about twice as long as ours. We decided to rest up for a couple hours then head out for lunch.  They retire to their separate rooms and I spend 2 hours catching up on some work.

We meet at noon in the Lobby and decide to head out for a meal in the French Quarter.  I suggest we hit the Palace Cafe for lunch.  It is close to the hotel, will allow them to get their bearings.  They review the menu and enthusiastically agree.  We sit down and there is nothing on the menu they want to eat – despite reviewing and approving it less than 5 minutes before.  We decide to leave and try another place.  After spending 20 minutes walking between restaurants and finding nothing at all to eat, we decide to visit Shula’s in the J.W. Marriott.  Hotel chain restaurant for our first meal in New Orleans.  Ok.  Let’s ease into this trip.

This was Thanksgiving weekend and the restaurant was quite empty, except for me, my mother, my aunt and a table at the far end of the restaurant full of screaming children (5 or 6 kiddos) and two parents who were at their wits end.  This display caused great angst for my aunt which had ripple effects on my mother.  The meal was delightful — as delightful as an extremely salty, loud, chain restaurant meal could be of course.

I asked again for my mom and aunt’s list of things to do in New Orleans so I could build the itinerary of spur of the moment things.  “What list?” they ask.  I remind them.  They tell me this is the first they’ve heard of it – even though we’ve been chatting about it for 6 weeks now.  They both say that they are just along for the ride and that I’m planning everything.  Ok – maybe a miscommunication.  I’ll build the itinerary, but I need their must-dos.  Nope.  My aunt then says “The man plans the vacation.  Are you telling me you didn’t plan anything??  Oh god, I need a Xanax.”  My mother follows suit.  This evidently was too much for them and they both needed a nap after lunch.  I get it, travel can be draining – especially when you are getting up for the first flight of the day, etc.

We all retire to the hotel and agree to meet in the lobby at 16h30 for dinner (yes, 16h30 for DINNER).  I go off and explore the French Quarter.  The witching our approaches and I find them sitting in the lobby of the hotel enjoying a coke (they don’t drink alcohol — yeah…I know!).  It was 16h15 at this point.  I am immediately scolded because I am tardy (evidently 15 minutes early is the new late…who knew?).  I ask what they are in the mood for, to which is met with a glare of frustration.  “You don’t have this planned, still?”.  They offer the suggestion of visiting the Palace Cafe for dinner.  The same place just 4 hours ago had NOTHING they could eat.  They said the checked the dinner menu and it had a wider selection.  They were excited about going. We go.

We sit down and the menus are delivered.  You guessed it. There is nothing on here I can eat, they say in almost unison.  We leave again.  They decide the best bet for them is to grab room service at the Marriott and call it a night.  Mind you, it is 17h15 now.  Once I tell them I can’t do Marriott Room Service for dinner (we are in one of the best food Cities in North America for God Sake).  They frustratingly tell me that they’ll see me tomorrow morning at 09h00 in the lobby…and that we should have eaten breakfast by then.

I leave them and wander off into the French Quarter to find a meal and some solitude.

The next day is Thanksgiving.  I arrive in the lobby at 09h00 and am informed that I am late again.  It is cool and rainy in New Orleans.  Our plan for this morning was to go to Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee.  But since no one planned for it being 10C (~50F) we had to wait until the mall opened to get a sweatshirt and rain jacket.  We take the 15 minute walk to Cafe du Monde and a new complaint was launched with every step.  “It’s too cold”; “I didn’t know it would rain today”; “It’s too far”; “This better be worth it”; “Why did you pick New Orleans, Tim?”; “Why can’t we take a cab”.  We arrived at Cafe du Monde. “We have to sit outside!?”; “This coffee tastes gross”; “There is too much powdered sugar on these beignets”.

Ok, we finally checked something off of their must-do list. At first pass, it appears they hated everything about this place.  I suggest we talk around the French Market.  “Walk? Are you kidding me, I can’t walk any more”.  We get in a cab and go back to the Marriott.

By now it is 12h00.  My aunt says that it is lunch time.  I ask her for a suggestion on where to eat and she goes over to the concierge to ask for advice.  I found the front desk people at this Marriott to be very helpful in previous stays – I’m sure they are use to catering to the less seasoned traveler.  My aunt comes back with a map and an excited glint in her eye.  She explains the concierge has provided a few great recommendations and my aunt leads the way.  We go out the side entrance, cross Canal Street, go down an alley and enter a back door of a building.  We snake through what appears to be a service hallway.  I’m excited at this point, did my aunt get a recommendation on where locals eat? Will this be a great little lunch counter with fantastic po’ boys?  We walk into a side door and we are at Shula’s at the J.W. Marriott.  Again. My aunt had made reservations this time.  We sit down and order the exact same thing. Two days in a row.

I am visibly frustrated at this point, but am trying to be a good sport — and obviously failing.  Since this day had already stressed my mom and aunt out, they decided that they should return to the hotel for the afternoon and relax before dinner.  Now remember, our day had consisted of a 15 minute walk to Cafe du Monde, a taxi back to the hotel and a 7 minute convoluted walk across the street.  We go back to the hotel and agree to meet at 17h30 before our 18h00 Thanksgiving dinner reservations at the Ritz-Carlton.

They nap.  I wander aimlessly, trying not to let their attitude impact me.  I find the list of things to do that I created based on my mother’s comments.  Mind you, the list of to-dos from my mom and aunt never materialized, but my mom said that she wanted to go to a real Jazz Club; wanted to eat gumbo; try turtle soup; see the garden district – all in addition to the plans she and my aunt organized for the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I use this afternoon to put together an itinerary for us, which limited the walking and maximized the immersion into the life of an average resident of New Orleans.

We meet up for Thanksgiving dinner and walk the handful of blocks to the Ritz-Carlton.  We are seated and the excitement is palpable.  There is a change in menu tonight – instead of the prix fixe and an a la carte option, only the prix fixe is available.  The traditional Thanksgiving items are no longer available other than one course which is either a beef or turkey option.  I will admit, I was quite disappointed.  I was afraid this would happen and knowing my travel companions, I need to get ahead of this.  I called ahead and was assured that both menus would be available.  The food was perfectly fine – it was not a Thanksgiving meal – I was not happy with the food selection and it was clear that neither were my mother or my aunt.  Dinner was nearly silent (which in hindsight is probably a good thing – I couldn’t take their complaining about how I ruined Thanksgiving throughout the full 7 course meal).

We finished dinner at 20h30 and it was clearly time for bed.  I mentioned that I found a couple places that had a great dessert option – Bananas Foster for example.  I was shot down.  How about a Jazz Club? Nope.  It’s time for bed.  We agree to meet at 09h00 (after breakfast on our own) and head out for the pre-organized bus tour of the 9th Ward and Oak Alley.

I am exhausted and want to go home.  These people are sucking the life out of me.

The next morning we are up and out the door.  The bus picks us up near the Aquarium along the river.  We arrive at the pickup point at 0915 (we took a cab).  The tour leaves at 10h30.  There is no discussion on why we are waiting outside in the mist for 75 minutes prior to the loading of the bus.

The bus trip was perfectly fine.  It was what my mom and aunt wanted.  A no stress, no planning excursion where you are dragged to various spots and you can see what you need to see from your bus seat. No need to get off the bus at all. sigh. I will admit that these guys did a good job on the tour for their demographic.  We scraped the surface of the history of New Orleans from 1800 to present. Oak Alley was interesting and for a quick tour accomplished what my mom and aunt wanted.  Plus, I had a couple fabulous mint juleps – just what I needed to stomach the day.  We return to New Orleans around 17h00 and evidently it was a forgone conclusion that dinner that night would again be Marriott room service in our respective rooms.  I again asked about the Jazz Club and was met with a stern stare and clear response that we were done for the day.  They retire and I grab a drink in the lobby – marginally depressed and promising myself I will never travel with these two again.

I didn’t realize that some of my favorite places in the Quarter closed the entire with of Thanksgiving: Napoleon House; several of the Brennan restaurants; nearly all the po’ boy places I came across.  As I wandered the streets in the early evening that Friday night, I stumbled across a good friend from Chicago who was in New Orleans with another friend celebrating her birthday.  We traipsed through the Quarter stopping by various bars that were open, telling tales and drinking booze.  This was probably the highlight of my family trip to New Orleans.  We even hit the Jazz Club that my mother so earnestly wanted to attend — in theory — but could never pull the trigger when the time came.

The next morning our plans were to visit the Garden District, see the beautiful old houses and spend time in Jackson Square.  We take the street car, hop off and walk a few blocks to start the Frommer’s self guided tour of the District.  It was warmer this day – 22-25C (72F-77F).  We saw some beautiful houses. They didn’t want to stop in any of the little stores or cafes to shop, relax or enjoy a refreshment.  They wanted to power through and get back to the hotel.

During our self-guided excursion they asked what I did the night before.  I told them about running into a friend and the different historical places in which we snacked and drank and even about the Jazz Club we visited.  That was the breaking point. Both my mother and aunt became visibly frustrated.  How could I go out and do all these great things without them.  This wasn’t a friends trip, it was a family trip.  The man organizing this would make sure they had a good time and I would just leave them alone in their rooms bored.  This was where I lost my cool.  I reminded them I gave them every opportunity to join me.  It was agreed that this was our trip – not a trip I was planning for them, we all need to take responsibility and ensure we are the masters of our own trip.  Do not blame me for your bad time.

It was at this point the decision was made that we’d head back to the hotel and call it a night. It was 15h00.  They would take their dinners in their rooms and that would be the end of the trip.  My aunt’s flight was at 06h00 on Sunday.  She was done with New Orleans.  My mom and I were leaving at 14h00 (I’m not leaving at 06h00 return home – I’d rather go in the night before, save the hotel cost and prep for the week ahead).

The next day my mom and I meet for breakfast — again, in the hotel, but not room service.  She says she’s sorry New Orleans isn’t a good vacation City.  She says she wished I had more time to plan their vacation. She says next time I’ll be able to do a better job. She mentioned how the food in New Orleans is so overrated – it’s just like food you get everywhere. She explained how disappointed she was in me that I hadn’t allowed her to check off the things on her to-do list (the Jazz Club specifically).

I had had it at this point.  I reminded her of our agreements (again), we went through all the opportunities she had to “check the boxes” on her travel wish list.  I explained how chain restaurant and hotel room service is just like food you get everywhere – the City is alive with great food, great people and great experiences.  She not-so-politely disagreed – “We’ll agreed to disagree on these points” she said.

We returned home that afternoon. I was drained.  My plan of a leisurely exploration of one of America’s great Cities – a place that I had grown to love – was dashed.  I knew I could not travel with my mother or aunt again.  They had different ideas of fun.  Together their negative energy fed off of each other (and was directed to me).  My plans for a fun filled weekend where we could put the sadness of the first holiday without your spouses were a failure.  On that note, they only brought up their recently departed husbands when they were talking about what a disappointing tour guide I was.

A few months later my mom provided a real apology. She said she felt like she couldn’t go out to the Jazz Club or these other restaurants because my aunt didn’t want to try new things and she didn’t want her to feel bad or left out.  My mom said she was taking one for the team so my aunt would feel better.

I learned a lot from this trip.  I learned that people travel differently.  I learned that people thrive off of different things and that people are sometimes afraid to speak their feelings on what it is they really want.  Why is that?  Are they fearful they are the only one wanting it and they’ll be ridiculed if they make their real desires known?

My mom wants to return to New Orleans – this time without my aunt. She wants to eat, to explore, to sit and people watch.  She wants to stay up late and listen to jazz.  I told her that I am willing to travel again with her, but before we book anything, she needs to do her planning.  Not like last time with a theoretical list of stops, but a firm checklist.  I want to see restaurant ideas, names of Jazz Clubs, walking/bus tours. This will be her trip – her foundation, but I will help string the various items together.  She needs to lay the groundwork.  She talks about visiting Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans.  Every couple months she asks about our future travels and I respond accordingly each time with “Let’s see your list”.  She says she’s built a great list of things, but she never shares it with me.

How do you travel with your family? Do you have the same travel style?  What are your biggest struggles when traveling with family – and more importantly, how do you overcome those?