I'm home now. I was in New Orleans from Monday (9th) to Saturday (14th) at the big American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) meeting. The conference was pretty good, but smaller than usual and I hope that's because genetics is having a quiet year, although I fear it was because people didn't want to go to New Orleans, even though it's one of the best ways to help some parts of the city recover! Anyhow, I spoke on Wednesday. On Tuesday I made the mistake of going in and checking out the room I'd be speaking in...BAD PLAN! It was huge! OK, so 'ballroom' should have given it away but I was not prepared for the sheer number of chairs. I nearly wet myself on the spot. John also changed the entire structure of my talk on Tuesday afternoon so I was pretty much peaking out. But all that aside my talk actually went really well! It seemed to be well received and I got a tonne of questions, even though my session had been very quiet till then. The audio setup was terrible for the stage though. The questions were audible to the crowd but not to us on the podium, so I had to guess most of the questions from the few keywords I picked up. All good though. I had a lot of comments afterwards as well. Our group had about 6 people at the conference, three speaking, so it was great to be part of such an active group rather than wandering round as a lost an lonely PhD student, which has been my experience in the past. The only problem with 'the group' was it meant there was a LOT of socialising!
So, on to New Orleans. We were staying at the hilton on the river, near the convention center, on the corner of the French Quarter. That whole area was not really flooded by Katrina, although it did suffer wind damage and huge economic loss that comes from 80% of your population having to go elsewhere! Most of that side of town is up and running now, trying to get the tourist trade back. However, even from that relatively untouched part of town you can still sense the huge scarring. There's a major labor shortage in the places that are up and running. There are a lot of places in the French Quarter that weren't necessarily damaged, but they're closed for economic reasons. But all of that aside we had a fabulous time!
This is the view from my hotel window. I was up high enough that I got no noise, but it was lovely to watch the sluggish barges on the Mississippi!
It was gorgeous weather for nearly the entire trip, sunny and warm but not hot. Good for walking! On Monday evening, after we arrived and got settled in, we headed straight for the French Quarter. First place we hit was the Acme oyster bar. Classic Southern style...black and while tiles, red and green neon lighting and a menu consisting of 98% fried stuff and plenty o booze. We circumnavigated the fried options and had fresh oysters, which were good and made even better by the horseradish laced tomato sauce, but nowhere near tassie standard. They were too clean, to the point of being tasteless. I had an oyster shooter and that seemed the best way to enjoy them! After that we headed up to Bourbon St, which is truly it's own unique experience. No idea what it was like pre-katrina but it was rowdy, loud and a lot of fun! Drinking on the streets seemed to be not only condoned, but celebrated, and the majority of bars were 'to-go' meaning take away, no seating room at all.
I discovered the joys of the mint julep! Apparently another southern tradition. Massive amounts of fresh mint, crushed with sugar (think Moroccan mint tea) then smothered in bourbon and a hint of soda or 7-up, not sure which. Pretty darn good though! I also tasted a hurricane, and unfortunate local specialty, but it was nasty! So glad I didn't order one of those. After some good live tunes at the 'Famous Door' we went in search of dinner, and ended up at Brennan's, one of the well known and well respected local restaurants. Even more well respected now for keeping their staff on the payroll during the down time! They run several of the top local eateries, but the one we went to is the birthplace of 'bananas foster', a local dessert that involved caramelising a banana in brown sugar, rum, cinnamon and lots of flamage! Tastes pretty good even to the girl who doesn't like bananas! Dinner was gorgeous, and between three of us we had frogs legs, escargots, soft shelled crab and numerous other yummies. Dessert was, of course, bananas foster. The service was excellent and the wine list was pretty good, even though they were recovering from losing 35,000 bottles in the storm!
OK, so perhaps they're not so random. They were actually the least smelly/rowdy parts. The Quarter sure has it's own, distinct fragrance >_<
Tuesday was mostly spent stressing about my talk, having it completely rewritten, then getting it loaded (since my talk was first thing Wed morning). However, I did go on the dinner cruise put on by the company we use for all our gene expression/genotyping work (Illumina). I was kind of stressed and quiet but it was lovely just to glide up and down the river and see a little bit more of the environs.
Wednesday, post-talk, was pretty cruisy. I managed to fit in a nap and catch up on some of the sleep deprivation. That night we hit the parties run by the different universities. They were all in different conference rooms at our hotel so we spent most of the night party hopping. There were some pretty good ones, with a range of food and drinks. The ones that started later even had desserts instead of dinner snacks!
Thursday was an early start for the last of our cohorts talks, followed by a good look at the posters (2000 of them!) and freebie collection at the exhibitors section. Basically all the different companies lure you towards their product by giving away a range of great free stuff. I scored an umbrella, insulated lunch bag, pens, pads, clips and numerous other glowing things, a great coffee mug that changed colour with heat, t-shirts and a bunch of other stuff. I'm a bit of a freebiephile...
Thursday night we were meeting a bunch of friends and collaborators for dinner. The plan was to meet at Acme and go from there but there was a huge queue to get in! (it wasn't that good!) Anyhow, we found a great looking wine bar (La Louisiane) across the road and hung out there. This place was not only accommodating of our huge groups barging in for drinks and snacks, but they also made a bloody mary that included blue cheese stuffed olives! Heaven on a cocktail stick. After the pre-dinner drinkies we headed to a place called NOLA, set up by well known US chef Emeril. While Brennan's had great public support for the way they treated their staff during after Katrina, Emeril copped a fair amount of local flack for staying closed for so long, but they're back up now and the place is definitely worth checking out. We had 10 people, yet the meal was incredibly good all round and hiccup-free! I had mussels followed by crab cakes and a fennel&white bean salad with lump crab meat. I also got to try the lovely Chicory Coffee Crème Brûlée and a glass of ice wine...mmm
Friday was relatively quiet. The conference was all but over. The hotel breakfast was a great buffet that included a station with a lady who made you an omelet topped with your choice of a range of toppings. Brilliant! We ended up having brunch then heading off on a 4 hour mini-bus tour of the city. Tour options includeded swamp, city and disaster and so we decided to do the city tour. It wasn't intended to be disaster focused, but as the guide pointed out, Katrina is now such a major part of their history that you can't ignore it completely. We just didn't want to go around only to look at damage, since the city has so much other history and life as well.
The tour was pretty good, aside from being cramped into a tiny bus with a very loud guide! I certainly learnt a lot about New Orleans in general, but also about the impact of Katrina and the on going ramifications. We went through the garden district which was just gorgeous. Some amazing houses out there. We also went to one of the cemeteries and our guide explained all about the mechanics of above ground burial and it's utility in flood threatened areas. Some of the family tombs were enourmous and soo extravagant. The walls of the cemetery contain mini tombs that are for more general public use, if your family can't afford their own dedicated tomb. Some of the larger ones were set up by clubs, guilds and societies for their members. The deal is that the coffins sit in the tomb for at least a year and a day, sealed behind bricks and mortar, and if there's another burial after this time the remains are emptied into the tomb then pushed to the back where they fall down to the bottom level. Pretty amazing stuff. Almost no cremation and what they do have is only in very recent history! These massive above ground cemeteries are knows the "the cities of the dead".
These are the public and/or cheaper tombs that make up the cemetary wall.Ok, so this has turned into a post of EPIC proportions so I will sign off and finish the rest tomorrow. I guess the message is that New Orleans as it is now is definitely worth the visit.
A private tomb. Some of them are enormous!
A private tomb. Some of them are enormous!