(or Is This My Home?)
This week I find myself in New Orleans, and so naturally, this idea of “home” continues to plague me. I’m here for a work meeting, and the city is surprisingly quiet. I went to Café du Monde on the first night in town and I’ve never seen the place so empty. Sure it was a Monday night, but even so, the French Quarter was all but deserted. Perhaps it’s because it was a weekday, or because Mardi Gras season, while technically in effect, isn’t nearly in full swing yet.
I feel conflicted, in a way, being here. The last time I was in Louisiana was 8 years ago, to say goodbye to the family home before my parents sold it and moved to another state. I feel drawn to this city, the stomping ground of my youth, and yet also feel very disconnected from it. But there are triggers for long-forgotten memories everywhere I look, everywhere I walk. There is the Aquarium of the Americas, destination of many-a-school field trip. There is the parking lot where we would always park on day trips to the city. There are the Canal Street shops where my dad would buy his suits from Brooks Brothers. There is where the Hard Rock Café once stood. There is Jackson Brewery where we would buy trinkets from souvenir shops. There is the plaza where the street dancers would perform. There is the Riverwalk, once the site of the 1984 World’s Fair (which I did attend), and later a boutique shopping mall, and now, after a freightliner slammed into the building, after Katrina flooded it, sadly an Outlet Mall. There is Café du Monde. And St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, uncannily devoid of the fortune tellers and street performers. And Central Grocery. And Mother’s Po-Boys. And Court of the Two Sisters with it’s legendary brunch. And Pat O’Brien’s with it’s legendary dueling everything.
I remember the night we went for beignets after a Winter Formal dance, and I sneezed and blew powdered sugar all down the front of my emerald green dress. And the time when we drove to New Orleans on a complete whim and surprised my grandparents, who were embarking on a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi. This was a decade before 9/11, and there’s no way we would have been able to pull off such a feat today – un-ticketed passengers loitering around the docks in search of relatives who had no idea we were even in town! There is my sister, holding the hands of our other grandparents, as they walk up the plank of a riverboat for a trip definitely marketed for tourists.
I hear it too, sounds of jazz and tugboat horns. Sounds floating all the way down the mighty Mississippi. And I smell it, the combination of cayenne and chicory and seafood mixed with a stench and staleness that comes from the unpleasantries left behind on Bourbon Street.
A colleague remarks that it’s not a nice city. I get the impression that I am one of the few who is actually happy to be here. It seems many more would rather be in Vegas. I’m not sure if I don’t notice the blatant signs of poverty and decline because it’s just always been that way, even long before Katrina ravaged this city. Or if I don’t notice it because nostalgia has a way of glossing over the ugly parts, making it hard to see what doesn’t fit nicely into your own narrative.
It’s a slower pace of life here. People will talk your ear off. I noticed it as soon as I landed, the friendly southerner drawl, the nicknames of “sweetheart” and “dear” even though I am a complete stranger.
Maybe this isn’t home, but it’s definitely the place where I grew up. I saw an ornament in a gift shop, shaped like the state, with a heart in the middle. Is this where my heart is?
I look happy in the pictures I ask a co-worker to snap of me. Is it because I am reminiscing and enjoying the trip down memory lane? Am I feeding my soul with comfort foods of a childhood spent in the deep south? Is it nice to have a few nights away from the kids and routine back at “home”? Is it just nice to go on a work trip to somewhere that I can really relate to, somewhere where I know where to go, somewhere where I have friends from long-ago to connect with? Is it the sunshine and warmth on my face? Is it just nice to have an excuse, a reason to come back here? I suppose I don’t really need an excuse. We could come anytime, but it’s not a place I would choose to come visit, if I didn’t have to. But since I have to be here, it is nice to be back, and I’d rather be here than in one of our other favorite big meeting venues: Vegas or Dallas or Orlando, for example.
I walk through the souvenir shops and everything catches my eye. I think of all the foods and spices I can bring back “home” with me, but I don’t buy anything. I have what I need already, to recreate familiar dishes. I have the family recipes that we inherited from our neighbors, real Louisiana natives. And what I really want is for someone else to cook me these comfort foods, not to have to make them myself, which is why I’ve tried my best to avoid the hotel food and indulge in as many of my favorites as possible.
And I know there are places beyond what I can see from the French Quarter. There is the Audubon Zoo. There is City Park with the New Orleans Museum of Art and its collection of Faberge eggs. And the Saenger Theater where we would go to see musicals and plays. There is the empty apartment on Canal Street that we camped in one Mardi Gras weekend when I was a kid, running downstairs every time we heard the sound of the marching band announcing the arrival of the next Krewe. We’d run downstairs to our doorman-protected front-row viewing spot and afterwards, retreat to the apartment to count our beads and doubloons. We slept on the floor on air mattresses, ran to the convenience store across the street when we were hungry, huddled around a tiny TV set in-between parades. It is one of my fondest memories.
I also think there is a very strong connection back to my 8-year-old-self, which is the age that I was when we moved to Louisiana. It is the first age that I really remember being. I distinctly remember what it was like to be 8, the way I felt, the things I was allowed, and not allowed, to do. I draw on this often as I watch my own 8-year-old son navigate the world, and I try to see reality through his eyes. It’s not quite the same to be an 8-year-old now, but I hope I can offer some empathy just the same. I don’t know if 8 is the age that most people start to remember life in this way, or if it was because of this very move to this mystifying place that has made this age so anchored in my mind.
In the end, I went back and bought the ornament. Maybe I need to always remind myself of where I came from, as I set my sights on where I am meant to be. In Louisiana we have this thing called lagniappe which loosely translates to “little something extra,” a sort of goodwill gesture tossed in for good measure. Maybe this place is my own personal lagniappe, that “little something extra” that I will always carry with me. So I return home with Saints t-shirts and a King Cake in my suitcase, bringing memories from one home to another, carrying on the traditions and connections that still resonate and still bring me home.