“Gimme the loot"
Jean Lafitte, the legendary Grand Isle pirate
Nestled fifty miles south of New Orleans is Grand Isle, an island where time has seemingly been forgotten, where the only constants are yesterday’s newspaper at your doorstep and the perpetual symphony of the waves floating upon the air. The island itself is tiny – 8 square miles with a population of around 1,500 people (summer numbers swell high to 20,000) – yet its history is massive. At one point, Grand Isle was a base of operations for the dreamy corsair, Jean Lafitte, and his band of pirates. At another point it was an island of brutal slave camps for sugar production.
In Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Awakening”, Grand Isle has once more changed its very nature into an island resort for the rich and stylish Creole families desiring to escape the busy life of New Orleans. Our protagonist, Kentucky-native, Edna Pontellier, is trying to find herself in Creole culture, an exotic culture she can’t quite seem to grasp. Her passions lie far beyond doting mother and dutiful wife, deep into the realms of sexual freedom and art, in self-exploration and independence. And yet, she is a walking paradox. Her talk of grand action is frequently met with periods of pampered torpor; she feels alone in the world yet is surrounded by family members who love her, friends who seek out her company, and men who prostrate themselves at her feet; and perhaps the most absurd, is her want to conquer her own destiny yet ultimately kills herself in the Gulf – a body of water she often speaks highly of. But perhaps, in some morbid train of thought, that’s the ultimate act of mastering your destiny.
In the same vein, Grand Isle is as much an enigmatic character as Edna Pontellier. It is an island that shamelessly adapted its slave quarters into vacation cottages, where the ratio of dilapidated buildings to functional buildings is almost 1:1, and the beautiful grasses are fertilized with bottles of Jack Daniels and crushed Marlboros. When you close your eyes on the beach it’s easy to forget the massive oil rigs peppering the horizon like steel tombstones. Waking up outside leaves you wondering what century you’re currently in and how much time has passed since you fell asleep.
In fact, it’s easy to forget just where you are lying on that beach, and that’s the point of Grand Isle. It’s an escape to a different world, where cultures collide in a rich union of old and new, hauntingly poor and uniquely elegant. The pace of life lies somewhere between sipping a beer on the balcony and watching the world pass you by via massive cargo ships and fishing boats and it seems that taking a step off the island in any direction catapults you back into real-time, back into the advancing world. Grand Isle is a haze, a gently placed veil over your eyes that sweeps you off your feet and into a languid embrace. Considering New Orleans is next on the list, Grand Isle is truly a calm before the storm.