|The Curious Case of New Orleans' Joie de Vivre
|The dictionary translates the French phrase "joie de vivre" as: "hearty or carefree
enjoyment of life; exultation of spirit." If it added "New Orleans" somewhere among the list
of synonyms for the phrase, few who have ever attended a celebration in the city would
have cause to disagree.
|The city's joie de vivre is alive and well after 300 years - undeterred by fires, floods and
epidemics, even by its near-destruction in 2005. This irrepressible spirit, some say, is the
living legacy of the French, who gave birth to the city and nurtured it in its formative years.
|On the subject of the Spanish reign over the French population in New Orleans, Edwin A. Davis
once wrote: "Seldom has a ruling nationality been so completely dominated and assimilated
by those who were supposedly held under their control."
|When you measure the length of time the French were in power against the length of time
New Orleans was-and-has been under the control of, first, the Spanish, and then, the
Americans, the city's unwavering devotion to its French roots is somewhat remarkable.
|The reaction of the citizens to news of the transfer might have been anticipated by the powers
that be, because it was two years after the treaty turning the city over to the Spanish had been
signed before they were even told of the change. When they finally learned about it, the
French New Orleanians were stunned, angry, despondent and, ultimately, determined.
|A new nation might be in charge of the geography, but subduing the French soul of the colony
would be an altogether different matter. The people had no intention of willingly surrendering
to Spain socially, culturally or emotionally. If there were to be changes, it would have to be the
Spanish who adapted. And, slowly but surely, they did.
|Even simple acts of courtesy toward the Spanish authorities weren't guaranteed from the
usually refined and courteous Creoles. From "New Orleans, The Place and the People" by
Grace King: "The Creoles met any attempt at social interaction on the Spanish governor's
part with a stern and cutting coldness. He gained access only to those houses whose doors
were forced open by official obligation.
|"It was in such a house one day, that, when his manner had provoked his hostess into a sharp
repartee, Spanish Gov. Alejandro O'Reilly lost control and said: 'Madame, do you forget who
I am?' 'No, sir,' answered the lady, with a low bow, 'but I have associated with others higher
than you, who, never forgetting what was due to others, had no occasion to remind others
what was due to them.' "
|The citizens clung tenaciously to a French way of life. One way in which this was demonstrated
was by the continued use of the French language. Although, Spanish was made the "official
language," it was never accepted by the citizens. In all the years that the Spanish reigned,
there was never one Spanish newspaper printed in the city. When the Americans came to
power in 1803, after 40 years of Spanish rule, French was still, by far, the predominant
language in New Orleans
|The only lasting tribute to Spanish rule is the architecture of the French Quarter -
which was almost entirely rebuilt by the Spanish after two disastrous fires in the late
1700's. But, they don't even get credit for that, since - architecture notwithstanding -
the Old Quarter resolutely remains known as the "French Quarter."
|New Orleanians love music, parades, carnival balls, holidays and any excuse to celebrate,
just as the original colonists did. I don't know if the spirits of the French settlers still roam
the streets of the Quarter today, but their spirit - their joie de vivre - is clearly evident.
|First, the Spanish authorities, and then, the Americans, were puzzled by the behavior of the
citizens of New Orleans - their love of celebration and lack of restraint in same. Gov.
Claiborne, the first American governor, wrote to a friend, ruminating over the fact that the
citizens would rather dance than sleep or eat. He'd never seen such behavior and didn't
know what to do about it.
|Spanish officials had been equally vexed when they'd arrived and voiced their concern about
"the problem" in letter after letter back to their superiors in Spain, trying to understand the
reason for the exuberance of the citizens. One official wrote that he thought it was "probably
caused by the excessive humidity."
|Apparently, they didn't suspect that it might have simply been a case of French joie de vivre
- an enjoyment of life, an exultation of spirit - that lives on today.
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