Thoughts from New Orleans

“We dance even if there’s no radio. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t.” – Chris Rose

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There are some cities whose reputation looms so large it can overshadow reality. For many people, New York is one such place. It’s been splashed across so many movies and TV shows and books and think pieces that the neon can be blinding. One arrives expecting chorus lines and cosmos and apartments large enough to house four generations and dog. The hype is so high that the starry-eyed newcomer is inevitably crestfallen, if not crushed by the disappointment of what seems to them a dull facsimile of their dreams. Paris is another such city. The disappointment of certain tourists  — particularly from Japan — upon arriving plunges many into such depths of depression that psychologists have a clinical term for it: Paris syndrome.

And then there’s New Orleans. In the panoply of American cities, no other metropolis’s mystique looms quite as large. It is the birthplace of jazz, the home of Mardi Gras, a city steeped in voodoo and tabasco and absinthe and sequins. It holds a personal thrall for me, too, as the home — along with some more rural corners of the state — of my father’s father’s clan. One quarter of my blood is Type B for Bayou. I grew up eating gumbo and jambalaya and dancing around the living room to Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Choo Choo Boogaloo.” When the Christmas decorations came down in my house, the Mardi Gras ones went up. Every year, two straw crawfish named Alphonse and Gaston kept watch over our dinner table in the weeks leading up to the blessed feast itself.

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I first went to New Orleans for spring break in 2nd grade, which to this day ranks as the best and most memorable vacation of my youngest years. I returned in high school, mostly to help with Katrina clean-up but also to eat beignets and walk the French Quarter (and see some truly egregious student theatre). But I had never been as an adult — until this past weekend.

Now my father, and my Louisianan roommate during my Parisian teaching years, taught me that Mardi Gras is much more than a day. Much like Derby encompasses far more than a single horse race, Mardi Gras is a festive season, complete with weeks of parades and hoopla leading up to the main event. This year, the finale falls on February 13th, but I planned my trip to coincide with the preceding weekend. As Sam, my roommate, explained it to me, this weekend was much like the Oaks Day of the season: The festivities have most definitely started, but they are mostly for the locals (although the number of fellow tourists on my Friday morning flight calls that statement into question a tad). I was promised parades and jambalaya and daiquiris and jazz. I was hoping for a festive respite from the long slog that was January, perhaps a bit of sunshine, and maybe a sense of connection with my Cajun heritage. On all counts, the trip did not disappoint.

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Here is what I learned at my first Mardi Gras. No flashing of any, shall we say, bathing suit areas is necessary in order to procure beads. Enthusiasm, smiles, and glitter eye shadow, though, do help. There are no open container laws in New Orleans; bars even go so far as to stock handy plastic “go cups,” so that as soon as the mixologist hands you your carefully crafted cocktail, you can poor it straight from the etched glass tumbler into a plastic one and be on your way (pro tip: these cups also make a free souvenir for the budget-conscious traveler).

As in much of the South, people are friendly. I can tell I’ve been in New York too long when I catch myself freezing up at a stranger’s approach, my face solidifying into my deadpan “do not mess with me” mask that I sport on the streets of the city. I was caught off guard when, within minutes of disembarking from the airport bus, a stranger on the sidewalk greeted me with a smile and a “hey, how are you doing.” I forgot how nice it can be to have a lady you don’t know call you sweetheart. And people chat — in lines, on the street, standing in the shadows at the back of Preservation Hall (which, incidentally, I learned is not the grand concert hall of my imagination but a ramshackle room with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it iron fence of a door, from which strains of jazz waft out like fresh beignets baking on a breeze). Strangers will shout at you from their porches or as you jostle past one another along the parade route, swapping beaming smiles and “Happy Mardi Gras”’s.

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Any plans made during Mardi Gras are more guidelines than actual itineraries. One never knows, after all, when a parade or a party invite or a free brass band show might call your name. It is also, I am told,”so Mardi Gras” to end up at a stranger’s house eating their homemade jambalaya or thoughtfully procured Popeyes. On Saturday, when steady rain made parade watching conditions less than ideal, Sam and I found our way to a house party hosted by an old rowing acquaintance of hers. An hour earlier, we were told, a couple had walked in. The hostess greeted them with a welcome and a help yourselves, and it took her a good 15 minutes to realize nobody at the party knew who they were, and they had just welcomed two strangers to the feast. Another point in the weekend found us in a hotel room overlooking Bourbon Street, rented and stocked with drinks by a friend of a friend of Sam’s friend who booked it in pre-season days hoping for a Saints Super Bowl. This, again, I was told, was “very Mardi Gras.”

We saw parades of all kinds, from homegrown outfits featuring middle school dance teams and decorated wagons to larger operations with tractor-pulled floats and marching bands to sci-fi and fandom-themed marches to one very festive and adorable dog parade. Each parade is organized by a “krewe,” most with names punning on the bacchanalian spirit of the holiday: Chewbacchus, Barkus, etc. Krewe membership is a fierce point of pride; some folks go so far as to hang their krewe’s flags outside their houses, where allegiance to a country or state might more typically be displayed. As we walked past iron fences strewn with colorful beads, Sam would point out this Muses house or that Nyx house, ticking off dwellings as ascribing to Tucks or Endymion or Zulu.

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We found my father’s house, where he lived during 7th and 8th grade. It was night, post-parades, and the large porch was lit up like a lighthouse, a swing swaying steadily in the breeze. I found myself thinking of him, and of his father, throughout the weekend. Was I walking a street they had walked down? Did our basement hold doubloons from this parade? What had he ordered at this restaurant? What songs did the band play as he stood, like I did, in the back of a dusty room, having almost certainly paid much less than my $20 to get in?

My grandfather died when I was 5 years old, and my memories of him are few, but almost all of them revolve around Louisiana. I remember him reading a Cajun parody version of “The Night Before Christmas” to me and my cousins; Santa’s sleigh was pulled by gators, of course, and the narrator spoke with a distinct Bayou drawl. And I remember his voice, a booming baritone, as he sang about the saints coming marching in.

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They say that home is where your roots grow, and though I haven’t spent much time there, a good chunk of mine are woven into the banks of the Mississippi where the Crescent City lies. As Sam introduced me to her friends — with the enthusiastic refrain, “It’s her first Mardi Gras!” — I found myself stumbling over the question that usually followed: Where are you from?

Well I came from New York, I’d reply, in the still-dark hours of a frigid February morning. But I’m from Louisville, I would say, eager to establish my Southern bonafides, lest they think I was just another Yankee noob come to gawk at the local culture. But I’m also from here, I’d think. I may not know the winding streets like the back of my hand (although I did pride myself throughout the weekend by identifying which way was lakeside or riverside with impressive accuracy). But there is something of this place in me, deep in my bones. New Orleans, I barely know you, but I have loved you since before we met. I can’t wait to see you again.

One comment

  • This was such a thoughtful and lovely write up. Many accomplished travel writers (from your esteemed institution and many, many others) get it so wrong that their stories often become stories themselves around here. But you got it so right. I’m touched by all that you observed and appreciated! It actually made me think of ways that I could’ve been a better host—if I’d’ve realized I had such a diligent note taker with me! But this was wonderful and your visit was wonderful and you’re wonderful. I hope to see you back soon!
    PS I didn’t realize your dad also read the Cajun Night Before Christmas!

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