If there is one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of travel, it’s that the more you immerse yourself into the culture of where you are, the more rewarding the experience will be.
This past weekend I flew to New Orleans for a friend’s big birthday bash weekend. 100 of her friends traveled to the Big Easy” from all over the world to her help celebrate her 50th in a way that only this city can offer. Most of the activities stayed clear of the French Quarter and the tourist scene and took place in parts of the city that felt “real”. You can’t help but feel the deep culture and history of this city, once you get yourself beyond the “sleaze”.
We had a couple of memorable dinners but one stands out in my mind, not just for the incredible cuisine, but also because of the company that evening. I was seated between a very distinguished young man from South Africa and a writer from Los Angeles. Across from me was an Italian who was living in London and a couple from Mississippi. Some folks I had met 10 years ago at the 40th birthday bash. The conversations were diverse and entertaining.
After dinner our group left the restaurant and formed our own parade in typical New Orleans style. Two NOLA cops on motorcycles led us and a second line band as we marched a few blocks to our next stop. It was a first for me – to be dancing up a New Orleans street, along with 100 other folks enjoying the moment. It was pure happiness and not just for our group but for all those who came out of their houses or restaurants and bars to watch our small parade go by. I enjoyed every bit of that 4-block walk and it is etched in my mind forever. And that’s the sort of thing that separates a city like New Orleans from a city like “Vegas”.
I was blissfully exhausted when I boarded my flight home Sunday night. When I ordered a glass of wine, the flight attendant happily announced that the man in 1 A is buying everyone on board a drink tonight. He was getting married and wanted to celebrate with his fellow passengers. Le bon temps continued to roll.
It started happening after JFK was assassinated, followed by Martin Luther King’s death and finally the brutal slaying of JFK’s brother, Robert in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles. We were beginning to shift from a culture of “we” that began after the troops came back from the “big war – WWII” and everyone wanted to get back to normal life – having families, friends, and earn enough money to take a vacation every year, pay your bills and be able to educate your kids so that they would have a chance at a better life.
I was a kid in the fifties and it was a time when there was a real sense of community – definitely a “we” feeling in many ways. Our backyards all connected into one big play field for all the kids in the neighborhood with the “woods” being the un-chartered territory beyond. We ran free, till dark, feeling like our own tribe of “we” with our own set of rules. Everyone pretty much looked out for one another –parents looked out for their neighbors’ kids, kids watched out for other kids, moms helped out other moms and dads the same. We had a sense of community.
In the late sixties things began to change. The Vietnam War was in full swing, along with the Civil Rights Movement and student unrest was building to the “Arab Spring” of its times. Our dreams were beginning to fade – our friends were coming home in body bags, our cities and neighborhoods were being destroyed during the riots of the late sixties, and our leaders were assassinated, one after another. A shift was starting to happen. We were becoming divided. Fences and hedges started to divide our backyards, breaking up that once endless playing field. We were starting to become more about “me.”
As a culture we roared through the 80’s and 90’s following a path as a society that believed that in order to win, others had to lose. We became greedy, thinking only of our personal gain and caring little how that affected others. The divide among us has exceeded beyond what most of us would have ever thought possible. We have made an art of “ how to get nothing done” with our political system and no one is getting anywhere. We are expending so much negative energy and if we don’t turn that around, we are all doomed.
I’m not a pessimist – just the opposite. I think if we can all just stop and flip our mindset into what we “can do”, instead of slamming the “other guy”, we just might be able to turn things around. I see a younger generation, the 25-30 year olds who are thinking more in terms of the “we”, and getting away from the “me” mentality. I have great hopes for this generation. We are at a turning point. I’d like to look back at this time 10 years from now and say to myself “I’m glad I did something.”