Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Of Beignets and Butt-Aches

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{Ed. note: You might want to block some time and get a big cuppa to sustain you. This is a-gonna be a looooong one. She's a wordy thing, is Diana.}

And so I am back from my adventures. Back over a week and all settled in my comfortable grooves. I find I like the idea of travelling alone more than the actual travelling alone. It's just so...alone. I am, as we have established, shy. Also introverted. So very shy and introverted and thrust into the milling mass of migrators. Without accompaniment of friend or spouse, I felt like I was missing a limb or a sense. Actually, given that I'd done all my luggage as 'carry-on', I was, in effect, missing 2 arms much of the time, as they were fully occupied with the compact yet surprisingly heavy bags.

Thursday-before-last found me, e-boarding passes clutched in my hand (and duplicates stashed in my carry-on), 2" syllabus on how to be all the Medical Review Officer you can be in my satchel, the accompanying text next to it, clean underwear, jammies, many clean shirts (I sweat very well) and toiletries in the rolling suitcase along for the ride, nervously getting on the planelet that would take me to the place that horrified my imagination beyond all things: O'Hare International Airport.

{Ed. note: How's that for the world's longest run-on sentence? I glow with misdirected pride.}

The place where more flights get fucked up and more luggage violated than any place on the planet. (Actually, I think its reputation is also worse than several large space ports in the Horsehead Nebula.) This is why I checked no bags.

And, it wasn't that bad.

I got myself some lunch (an egg bagel at a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk) and settled in to wait my connecting flight, which came on time.

I got myself out of the Louis Armstrong airport in muggy New Orleans, staggering into a cab (hailed by a very nice skycap) and trudged, smelling like stressed, sweaty grime into the airy marble lobby of the Mariott. My home away from home for the next 3 days.

My room reservation was all in order. (Possibly this was because the poor desk attendant, seeing my disheveled person, wanted nothing more than to get me up and out of view of the rest of the groomed and odor-free patrons. She helpfully pointed out that there were complimentary bath toiletries awaiting me. OK. Maybe she didn't say it out loud, but when the thing is thought forcefully enough, it comes through loud and clear.)

So, on the first night, following the first day of stomping through and sitting in planes and airports, me and my blistery feet and blistery ass ordered room service and sprawled on the downy-soft bed and passed out on the 35th floor, only waking once to see some of the crashing big storm that beat up the sky.

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The next morning, hungry and smelling of ginger and orange blossoms (rather nice complimentary toiletries, I must say), I trotted down to the 3rd floor to Meeting Room D and filled my tiny, tiny plate with complimentary continental breakfast (some OK pastries but good coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice) and sat, lurking in the back of the room, my accustomed place in such things. It's close to the coffee and bathrooms.

There were about 100 of us partaking of the joys of the course and I ended up sitting between 2 silent guys in their late 50s on one side and 3 military types in, say, their mid 30s on the other. Everyone ignored me, which was all fine and dandy. I don't do small talk with any sort of ease. The military guy next to me seemed to be feeling a bit 'off', to my learned and practiced eye: He spent the whole morning sitting hunched over with his forearms on the table and his eyes on his lap and didn't partake of any of the pastries nor even any coffee or OJ. I wondered if he had the flu, but after the break heard the snapping of plastic wrapper and the pop of child-proofed cap and noticed that a large number of Advil were poured into his palm and that he'd procured a 2 liter bottle of water to chase them down with. He handed the bottle of pills to his buddy, who seemed only a bit less undone than he did, and diagnosed them with having had quite a lot of fun the first night, perhaps partaking of the glitter of Bourbon Street a bit too enthusiastically. I would by lying if I said I didn't allow a small smile to raise one corner of my mouth. The third military guy sat at attention the whole time and seemed ready to invade a small country, should the order be given. He was wearing his uniform, too, just in case.

I then spent 8 hours the first day sitting on my ass learning all about the vagaries of urine drug testing and the duties of the physician who navigates the yellow waters of such. And it wasn't even dull. (This bit of golden goodness still has me shocked. So good were the speakers that, with the exception of one lecturer for only one hour on the 2nd day, I rarely had my attention wander and only started looking at the clock in earnest after about 4:30 pm.)

Planning on taking a bit of a stroll around the French Quarter after lunch, I hied myself down to the cafe in the lobby and had a quick omelet (the 100% carb breakfast had me craving protein). Walking by the window, I found that this was more good luck. Had I gone out in search of lunch, I'd have been caught in what was a deluge that dumped about 7" of rain on us over about 7 hours. Those who'd not had my luck came in absolutely drenched for the afternoon lectures. A nice Mariott employee came in 5 minutes later, laden with large towels that she draped over the dripping and shivering.

A large pot was also placed at the front of the room to catch the water coming through the ceiling on us, the learners on the 3rd floor. We were told that we should feel fortunate as there was flooding on the 4th floor. I found this rather perplexing as the hotel was over 40 stories tall and hoped my room was not completely submerged. I wondered if this was some sort of engineering response to the flooding from Hurricane Katrina that would spare the bottom floors at the expense of the upper ones.

So, I had room service for dinner, again, and watched the water come down and study-study-studied.

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The next day, Saturday, the last day in New Orleans, dawned cheery and sunny. The 2 hung-over military guys from the day before seemed in better shape, each managing a small bit of food, and their cohort, now in civvies rather than uniform, spent the morning snoring loudly, head propped on his laptop carrier. Apparently he had decided that it was not fair that they should have fun and he should not. Every now and then, a buddy would elbow him in the ribs and hiss at him. This is why it is good to sit in the back. That's where all the naughty kids sit.

After the day's marathon session of classes, I finally stepped out of the hotel for the first time in 48 hours and headed for the French Quarter. My last night, my last chance to acquire t-shirts and beads and other booty for my loved ones languishing at home. My last chance to make it to my personal mecca of Cafe Du Monde and it's legendary chicory coffee and beignets. I had only 2 hours, as I'd promised Charles faithfully that I'd not be out past 7 pm so the brigands that roam the city wouldn't get me. So, off I trotted and had myself a grand 2 hours being the complete tourist. I found a rather cool t-shirt and souvenir shop and bought many things (including a turtle's shell and an alligator tooth for Colin). I found Cafe Du Monde, just where it was supposed to be. I waited in line for the exceptionally cranky young miss to sell me a little paper bag of beignets and an iced coffee (and a t-shirt, how could I resist?). And then I took my bounty, dreamed of for the last 4-5 years, to the banks of the Mississippi and said hello to the water that flows past my neck of the woods, 1000 miles up stream.

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The river smiled back and not only didn't it smell bad, it smelled good; fresh and flowery and softly breezy. That was the high point, that. Sitting, eating beignets (spoiling my dinner, hah!), drinking iced coffee (spoiling my sleep) with nothing left but the trip home, the cramming all the information in my noggin, and the taking of the test on Monday. Child's play and a well earned moment. My own little Everest conquered. True bliss.

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And so I went back to the hotel, reassured Charles that he was not yet a widower and couldn't touch the life insurance for a new projector for the home theater, and packed up as I planned to depart at about 7am. (Everyone else who took the course stayed for the following exam, which I fucked up the scheduling of.) I then proceeded to not sleep for about 6 hours (awakeawakeawake), sleep for about 4 hours (damn coffee) and then wake at about 5am. Bah. So, I breakfasted in bed on the rest of the beignets (the powdered sugar blending with the snowy white bedding) and did some more reading. I want it stated for the record that my employers got their learning money out of me over those 4 days. Yes they did.

The return trip was just fine, although the hour delay in the plane that was to take me from the St Louis airport to Madison was a bit of a disappointment as I'd already been sitting there for 4 hours. Still and all, a small thing.

Damn! it was good to be home with the small ones, who loved the beads and dead animal parts, and Charles, who loved me for being home.

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And that night I slept.

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The next morning I zipped into one of the Chicago suburbs to take the exam, at the desk of the assistant of the coordinator of the MROCC. I sat in a soft, comfy chair with a glass of ice-water at my hand and an extra day's study time. I swore to myself, (but didn't tell the very nice coordinator, with whom I'm now on a first name basis), that this is how I planned to take all future certifying exams, come hell or high water or leaking roofs. The others who took it on Sunday would probably have thrown their #2 pencils at me, had they known.

And so, what about all the destruction of this beautiful and completely unique city? What I saw was mostly repaired, but bear in mind I went from the airport on the west side of the city via freeway to the French Quarter, which, as I recall, wasn't damaged as badly as pretty much every place else.

From my room, I could see this across Canal Street, the only obviously damaged area that I could see from my window (there is a large version at flickr):

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Across the other way, was this view:

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Canal Street, itself, below my room:

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And looking off toward Lake Pontchartrain:

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I'd never been to New Orleans, so I'd nothing to compare it to, but the spiffed up bits I saw looked fine. There were some places being roofed or otherwise attended to, but you'd expect that in any city in the spring. There was one billboard on the way to the airport that caught my eye. It said, "Wanted: Fortune 500 Company To Invest In New Orleans"

Amen to that.



Blogger Voyager said...

Ahhh, business trips. Don't they seem enticing in advance: see a new place, spend 3 or 5 days being fed and cleaned up after, do something different than the regular job routine? Then it turns out the best part is the cat in your empty suitcase when you're home.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Dumdad said...

I've always wanted to visit New Orleans so thank you for taking me there. Fascinating travelogue.

2:57 AM  
Blogger brooksba said...

I do want to go to New Orleans. Can you convince my company to send me on a business trip? While I'm sure they are tiring and packed, it would still be exciting to explore a new city for a few hours. Glad you had a good time. Do you know if you passed the exam? I'm sure you did.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

Voyager- You said it all, you did. I did like the part where someone came through and cleaned up after me. Could have gotten used to that.

Dumdad- I rather fell in love with it across the crowded dance floor, as it were.

Beth- You know, bringing trade to N.O. would totally be the P.C. AND patriotic thing to do (gets both the right and left sides, politically). Or, I could see a 'Beth and Dana do N.O.' scenario. I'll know if I passed in about a month. They have to do the usual statistical stuff and throw out the bad questions and then re-score and so on. If I don't pass I'll be wimpering in my coffee, let me tell you. I don't fancy re-studying all that.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Ariella said...

Looks like a fun vacation! I am jealous that you got to go to Cafe du Monde. We should do a "wives vacation" or something and leave our husbands at home with the kids/cats/dog. In the sun.

12:36 PM  
Blogger CarpeDM said...

Mmm. Beignets. I am jealous. Did you partake of praline pecans, my absolute weakness? I want to go to N.O. so badly. In fact, it is on the list of places that Beth and I are going to go to, which so far, we've crossed off Portugal. So much for 10 year plans.

Love the pictures of Mad-kitty. Eddy would be in my luggage, if I'd unpack. Maybe tonight.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So now I suspect you will want an extended report on what we did in Greece. As I remember, Cathy gave you such a report from the notes she wrote-up every night. We have pix, but will need to get them in order before we see you Christmas.

But your adventures sounded like fun. Reminds me a little of travel with the Air Force with little or no advanced notice--or any idea of for how long.

The Ole RF-er

3:07 PM  
Blogger Rozanne said...

Excellent and entertaining post!

I was in N.O. in the late '80s and I def. remember making a big deal about getting beignets from the Cafe du Monde. I'm glad it's still there!

Also, I totally love that chicory coffee.

When will you know how you did on the test?

3:36 PM  
Blogger Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

Excellent photos! Glad you navigated O'Hare safely... it's such a lovely place, is it not?

10:15 PM  
Anonymous christie said...

Uh hum, I've been to N.O., I KNOW exactly what you have to do to get beads...apparently those 2 hours you had free were spent mostly flashing...but good for you! Who'd a thunk it? N.O. is a very unique city, fun to visit, don't want to live there, and don't go in August, it's the armpit of hell. I would however enjoy sitting on the back row with you and the other bad kids at a future meeting...just not a future meeting for this particular subject. The picture from your hotel looking down on the rooftop pool? I stayed in that hotel about 10 years ago, gorgeous, very very wild to be kicked back in a pool overlooking a huge city, but nice place (ex boyfriend with lawyer type wealthy brother getting married that paid for all the fun and games, good way to take a trip!). Glad it wasn't hellish!

10:16 PM  
Blogger Mona Buonanotte said...

The hotel bedding and bag of beignets have me SO jealous!

O'Hare, otoh, makes me want to pee my pants. (Shudder)

7:24 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

Ariella- That WOULD be fun to do. Charles hates hot, sunny places.

Dana- Homer Simpson has nothing on me when it comes to the love of the donut-y pastries. Good luck on that unpacking thing. It's much easier if it's just a tiny carry-on case than if it's what you could cram in a car.

Dad- Looking forward to hearing more of your tales. The pics you've sent so far have been fun.

Rozanne- I had wanted to have the chicory coffee hot, but as it was over 80 degrees out, just couldn't make myself do it, so went with the iced. The iced, while tasty, wasn't that different than an iced coffee from a coffee shop, so I'm thinking I need to go back and get a hot one to see what everyone's talking about... I should know in about a month if I passed. Lord help me if I don't.

Teri- Oooooooh, Yes! O'Hare is divine. Actually, I feard for my safety as I trotted along with the surge of people. Had I slowed or changed directions, I'd have surely been trampled. The reason why I chose the Dunkin Donut lunch is because the kiosk was in an eddy that I could get to and my tennis shoes were rubbing my heels (I was 'doing laps' to stretch my legs between flights.)

Christie- You know, I did think thrice about getting Mardi Gras beads for Sara, but rationalized it because one can buy them in plastic bags and I DID avoid the ones with plastic penises and bottles of beer strung on them. Plus, the shiny, colored beads are just so pretty! The 4-year-old in me wanted to have them. I can see how pit-ty it must be past, say next week. We must make a joint CME happen! You stayed in the hotel with the pool??? I was fascinated with the thought of staying there. As Jazz Fest was going on, I figured some music SOMEBODY with entourage was staying there. All I saw, though, were model-type women and pudgy guys out by the pool, though. Not that I would peep through the window, no. Just glancing at the scene...I waved at you, well at the state of Arkansas, as I flew over on my way home.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

Mona- O'Hare is rather nightmarish. The Louis Armstrong is a bit of a pit and the chairs are royally uncomfortable. The St Louis airport was rather nice, though. That was one comfy bed!

7:35 AM  
Blogger Sanjay said...

Loved reading about your trip. Nice pictures too. :)

8:04 AM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

It would feel weird for you for a few days to be out your usual family loop. I'd love to just catch the jazz there...but with my husband, not alone.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Jocelyn said...

Random comments:

I've been to enough conferences that the words "Meeting Room D" make my blood run cold.

Your proud run-on sentence isn't technically a run-on, but it is an impressive construction!

Your children are beautiful.

I love the pillow on the hotel bed.

You tell good stories.

2:12 AM  
Blogger Babs said...

Now, you see, had you brought a steamer trunk instead of that tiny-ass suitcase-let I could have stowed away and gone too. Bah!!

And O'Hare?? Try Midway. THAT joints a nightmare.

I will not even speak of JFK or Heathrow. I was only ever at each place once. And I still have nightmares. Thank god for Newark Int'l. Did I just say that??

Oh dear god.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

Sanjay- Thanks, pal.

Ruth- It was very odd, especially the not picking up after a living soul. It was, of course, lonely.

Jocelyn- Now you will have to educate me in what the hell makes a sentence a 'run-on' vs 'impressive'. Is it all in the accessories (eg: bloody slob vs impressive dresser)? Charles and I have always said that, should we have run short of funds, we could have gone into the blackmarket baby business as we do, indeed, have physically pleasing children. They occasionally have nice manners and took naps until the age of almost 5. I wanted to take each and every pillow home with me. If I had to be stuck in a hotel room, studying, that bed made the process as comfortable as possible.

Babs- (smack!) I knew I was forgetting something! You! You and me and New Orleans! Good God. The Spaz and the social misfit in The Quarter. We'd have fit right in. I'd always been taught that O'Hare was the worst. I am dismayed that there are others I need to spend my life avoiding. Charles has done Midway a few times. He seemed more shaken by the driving there than the actual airport, but he's a strong man of doughty character. I shall take your word and work hard to never darken its security lines.

8:15 AM  

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