“Will we go to the parades in Memphis instead?” my 7-year-old asked me last year when I told her that, for the first time in years, we would not be in town for the culminating weekend of Mardi Gras. Instead, we planned to take advantage of the school break to pay a long overdue visit to my husband’s family.
At first, I chuckled and explained that people in Memphis don’t celebrate Mardi Gras, but then it occurred to me that my daughter had no idea that New Orleans isn’t like other cities. While I could shrug this off as childhood ignorance, I recalled that many of my high school students had expressed similar shock and awe when being told that other uniquely NOLA things do not occur everywhere else. I even remember a college friend recounting a story of how she had almost been arrested in another city for carrying her beer out of a bar because you can’t just walk around the city with a to-go cup in other places (let alone order a drive-through daiquiri). As a transplant to New Orleans, I have always been aware that there are many things that only happen in New Orleans, but it suddenly occurred to me that a lot of locals might not truly understand just how different New Orleans is from everywhere else. And for the first time in all my years as someone who truly felt at home in this city but could never call myself a local, I finally had an advantage over the locals.
There is absolutely no doubt that locals are fiercely proud of their city. They are also well aware that the city has an inaccurate reputation in other parts of the country (a reputation I often confront when others discover I am – gasp – raising a family in New Orleans). But so many of the things that New Orleanians love and embrace about their city are things that have never been any different for them. They are the familiar comforts of home and childhood, much like beautiful mountain landscapes and summers at Hershey Park were for me. Six months after Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans still celebrated Mardi Gras, not to prove anything else to the rest of the world, but because locals needed the city to feel like home again. For a transplant like me, however, all these things that make the city great are something entirely different – they are magical.
I first moved to New Orleans as a college freshman, but I stayed because I felt like it was where I had always belonged. From twelfth night to New Years, there is something to celebrate in New Orleans almost every day of the year, but living in the New Orleans area, and raising a family here, is about much more than “laissez les bon temps rouler.” Living in New Orleans is embracing a culture unlike anywhere in the world; it’s adopting new words and phrases that don’t make sense (and can’t be pronounced) anywhere else. It’s trying new foods and learning how to eat them; it’s developing a mental map of the counter-directional neighborhoods. It’s navigating the unique school systems and trying not to offend fierce loyalties to those schools (or parade sides); it’s learning how to balance on the back of a parade ladder while holding a beer and blocking beads from smacking the kids in the face. It’s thinking normal is weird and accepting every difference with a “yeah you right!” I discovered all of these amazing things about this city, not as a child who sees the whole world as a wondrous, magical place or who accepts things without question, but as an adult in awe of the depth of culture and the loyalty to tradition in tandem with the constant acceptance of the new.
Even when the world shut down this year, New Orleans kept up the magic, proving once again that its people always know how to have a good time even when things are tough. When Jazz Fest couldn’t happen, we drug our radios out to the street or our back yards, popped open our camping chairs and a White Claw, and fested in place. When we still couldn’t party together in the fall, we fested in place again for Essence Fest. While restaurants in other cities adapted to take-out models, we switched to drive-through and to-go mode like it was second nature. We rode out a seemingly endless line of hurricane warnings and jumped into action to help our neighboring cities when they were hit. And when the city declared that parades could not happen, we shouted back, “You can’t cancel Mardi Gras (or King Cake!),” started turning our houses into floats, and made the whole city one big parade route for Yardi-Gras. We may have had to cancel a few things here and there, but for the most part we’ve found ways to keep the magic alive. And when we can all finally be together again, you’d better believe we are going to throw the biggest, loudest, must spectacular party this city has ever seen.