New Orleans - As I take another step down Bourbon Street - past a young hustler with a winsome come-on-in smile standing in front of a bar, past a group of women on a second-storey balcony showing their cleavage and dangling cheap necklaces as though they were gold over a wild crowd of frat boys and grandmothers - and choose between another margarita in a huge plastic cup or a "big-ass beer," it occurs to me that New Orleans is the perfect antidote to winter.
Winter is more than a season - it's a state of mind. It inspires a kind of bland practicality that comes from buttoning up and acting sensible and prepared. Winter is about rationing out those acorns that were squirrelled away in the fall and hoping you don't run out before spring.
New Orleans, on the other hand, is a decadent, impractical, preposterous city teetering on the edge of a floodplain, threatened with annihilation by every hurricane, where time itself seems to run to the tempo of a Bohemian clock.
And by that I mean real Bohemian, not the New York variety with expensive lofts and registered retirement savings funds. I mean shoeless young women in Gypsy skirts who offer to read your fortune outside St. Louis Cathedral, or my neighbour for a week on the other side of St. Peter Street who sings hillbilly tunes to tourists for change.
As I stand here in the epicentre of the madness, I realize there's something about this place that is anti-winter. Obviously, there's the weather, but many other getaways are warmer. Yet New Orleans, and in particular the French Quarter, can help you shake the burden, the angst, the struggle, the responsibility of winter as nowhere else can.
It's a place where a new party spontaneously erupts every night of its own volition, as if by a law of nature. It's a place where public drunkenness and excess are not only tolerated but encouraged, where it's easier to buy a mask or a feather boa than a carton of milk. It's a place to come if you know you have only 24 hours to live, because its citizens seem to live this way every day of their lives.
This city makes no sense. A friend who's lived here for years explains to me that New Orleans could become a real economic force if its millionaires didn't squander all their money on Mardi Gras and coming-out parties for their daughters. (Yes, they still have them.)
The shopping is absurd. There's a whole store filled with 6-foot-tall chandeliers. Kind of pretty, but who wants a chandelier that looks as if it's just been ripped from the ceiling of Versailles? Scores of shops sell lace and romantic Victorian jewellery and capes. An entire store sells nothing but Little Red Riding Hood capes. Huh?
Don't fight it. Don't try to understand. Surrender. By day, park yourself in a café by the banks of the Mississippi and write long, indulgent letters to friends at home, try to remember the various flowers you've seen poking through wrought iron balconies, eavesdrop and pay too little for excellent food. At night, wander from bar to bar and listen to the world according to Dixieland, jazz and the blue, blue blues. Abandon all your ambitions and dreams, your fantasies and burdens, and let the logic of the saxophone replace every thought in your head.
Above all, take deep gulps of warm Mississippi breezes and forget for a little while that there ever was a thing as winter.