People are often surprised when I tell them I write a blog about London and New Orleans. The pairing is not as obvious as some. You might expect London and New York, or London and Paris. Or New Orleans and Paris, or Marseille.
There are some similarities, however, between the two cities. Despite their many differences, for me they sound some of the same notes at times: being dapper, old rhythms, deep water. There’s similar tone, too: a kind of proper appreciation of decadence shot through with courtesy and a sense of social order. This simply isn’t found in, say, New York (too uptight) or Paris (too laissez-faire).
Tastes echo as well. French-influenced food is still the ultimate in fine dining in both cities – but in both we’ll do it very much in our own way, thanks. New Orleans-style dishes have gone down a treat in London in recent years (some cooked right, some less so), as part of a wider fad for Southern food, and US comfort food as a whole – barbecues, posh burgers, hard shakes and all. I’ve recently heard that New Orleans gourmet grilled cheese joint The Big Cheezy might just be opening here in London soon…
Meanwhile, some British classics are well-established on New Orleans eating and drinking circuits – the Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House, for instance, is the best cocktail made with the English drink that I’ve ever had.
But regardless of whether or not you find actual connections, it’s always an interesting exercise to read any foreign city through your knowledge of another. I recently found an app that allows you do to so by juxtaposing a map of one with another, and I couldn’t resist immediately plugging in my two favourite metropolises.
I found the following. Two bendy tidal streams. Two east ends where the further you go out, the more the water dominates. Big swathes of parkland to the north-north-west with whispers of wild animals. Epicentres at riverbank cathedrals looking across to a neglected south.
I also saw that London looks like a web, and New Orleans like a spider spinning one. London seems a green and pleasant land, while New Orleans gets the blues. Follow the Mississippi river on a map of New Orleans and you’ll pass through Empire, Bohemia, Venice and Sulphur as the ground dissolves around you. From London, you’ll encounter less poetic-sounding places like Grays and Southend, and an assertive opening to the world, like a trumpet or a speech bubble in a cartoon.
Ultimately, this kind of mapping exercise is less about compare and contrast, and more about the questions it sparks in your mind. Just as children that are bilingual are supposed to grow better brains for communication than the rest of us, trying to translate between two cities makes you more able to grasp the elements that link them all, and to pose some interesting questions, too.
Are cities that look east different by nature to ones that look west? Does a river bring cities together or divide them? And just how far out is too far out? If you’re wondering any of these things about your own city, looking at another one might help you decide.