Unless you live under a rock (aka not in the Southern United States), you’re most likely aware that with much revelry, fanfare, and bourbon- Mardi Gras came to a close yesterday with the culmination of ‘Fat Tuesday’.
While native Alabamans just LOVE to remind everyone that Mardi Gras started in Mobile, New Orleans residents ask that you note how quickly it got co-opted and made much more grand by the fair crescent city. And what better a place to celebrate with such joy, camaraderie, and fanfare?…(Along with deep-rooted racism, economic division, and broken hearts.)
I am one of the lucky few who have not one, but several good friends who call New Orleans home. These friends are not only interesting and amazing with what they spend their time doing [post-docs in psychology, Teach For America section managers, and doctors] but they open their houses, whiskey bottles, and hearts for me to come visit every year or so to get the much needed dose of – quite frankly – magic that comes from a place like New Orleans.
From all that I’ve read, researched, and listened to – New Orleans has always had a sense of magic and wonder. It’s steeped in history, filled with stories ranging from outcast Acadians (now Cajuns), slave trades, presidential meetings with Lafitte’s Pirates, and unspoken LGBT meetings from as far back as anyone can really remember. The way that this city captures the soul of its citizens- through plight and joy – is unrivaled and seems to happen without effort. From the local buskers and artists selling their wares, to the parade revelers; the dusty jazz club performers to those who pilgrimage every Sunday in their best to a house of worship: New Orleans has a way of capturing the pulse of the city and spreading it in an infectious manner.
Not everything here is joyful. There are daily reminders of tragic events: spray painted dates on houses from the weeks following Hurricane Katrina signaling that the house had been inspected; memorials to those who died in the Upstairs Lounge fire in 1974; plaques explaining the true history of this port city, once a bustling place of slave trade. But all of this, this tumultuous history, adds to the enrapturing magic of the city. With every sadness, there is a counter point of joy. The people who call New Orleans home really do know how to laissez les bon temps rouler, whether it’s with a unique cuisine, local holiday, or Cajun pronunciation of street names. (Curious? Try pronouncing Tchoupitoulas.)
Perhaps one of the most important (maybe annoying) things about this magic of the crescent city is that it draws in thousands upon thousands of tourists (like myself) who are all hoping to absorb some of its magic, and in turn become part of it, however oblivious. These are usually people who weren’t here pre-Katrina, who don’t have ties to the city, who don’t understand the history behind the Krewes that put on the famous Carnival season parades. Outsiders may not understand why Krewe of Zulu is important, different than other Krewes, and why they all – regardless of race- wear blackface while on the floats [or that getting a coconut from them is a prized experience]. Outsiders may not immediately pick up on the (seemingly obvious) division in race still apparent in the krewes and parade festivities, and understand what it reflects of New Orleans culture. Outsiders who may not understand the distinction between trash created by a parade, and trash created by parade-goers, and which is likely to get cleaned up first. Outsiders who may still think that Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street is actually a place where women flashing for beads still happens. (Hint: it doesn’t.)
But, to my delight, one doesn’t have to be born here to call it home. While native New Orleans residents would have to be hard pressed to leave, they accept everyone who seems crazy enough to make this city their home. As one older gentleman responded my desire to live here, “Well… welcome to your downfall. May as well start young!” (This was said with glee, perhaps with a hint of warning- not malice.) Everyone ‘from here’ can tell when you’ve caught the bug. When you’re ready to be a part of the history making rather than just a tourist.
And while maybe it’s the fascinating memoirs of a post-Katrina New Orleans I’m reading, or maybe it’s just a change in the weather, but my trip here as led me to being more insightful, more interested in self-love and growth. From visiting a city that is *so* resilient, one can’t help but want to grow strong themselves. Following accounts of the devastation created by Katrina, accented with stories of shared triumph- such as the smaller Mardi Gras held the season following, or the Saint’s super bowl win 4 years later, you get instilled with this desire to DO something, Create something, exist better, and love yourself as wholly as this city loves its people. So with this, I extend my trip one more day to spend a luxurious day exploring the French Quarter alone. I fully intend on reading every plaque I come across, and stepping into any doorway that calls my name. I only hope that each of you can someday do the same, and come to this city to follow your nose or ears. And perhaps most importantly- to experience what it’s like to spend time in a deeply soulful city that has, and will continue to, weather any storm.