NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Midwest Girl at Mardi Gras And What New Orleans Has Taught Me So Far

My parents were in town recently, along with my grandparents — the first senior members of my family to visit since my husband and I moved south from North Dakota to New Orleans last year. My youngest sister visited in October; my middle sister is planning to come out in a few more weeks.

I find that visits from family members have really brought out the ways in which an individual can change and grow after moving away from their home town and core family members. Here are just a few of the ways family and friends have noted — first, the more tangible changes, namely attire and décor:

Living in a Southern state has meant an almost total overhaul in wardrobe.  Gone are my uggs and layers of thick fabric skinny jeans and sweaters. Enter T-shirt dresses and palazzo pants, clothing meant to breathe and let air move through it, rather than keep heat from escaping!

How I organize my home has also undergone some pretty notable changes, too — New Orleans is known for its Shotgun-style houses and brightly colored facades. As a result, the floorplan of my home is very long — you walk through the front door and almost straight through to the back, with only minimal detours to reach various rooms. And the walls are funky shades of orange, blue and yellow with black-and-white tile in the bathroom. It’s weird, but it works (kinda like New Orleans in general, but more on that later).

Looking back, it’s almost like it was in anticipation of this change to the stark white and neutral beige of my old abode in North Dakota that I sold nearly all of our old art and wall hangings before we left. In our New Orleans apartment now, every piece of art that hangs on our walls is a custom-made original.

Take for instance this rendering of my belly-dance troupe from North Dakota, painted in a bright, postwar Japanese style. It was gifted to our troupe by the artist when we first began in our little raggedy basement studio — it no longer fit in the most recent studio space we were in around the time I was preparing to move, so my dance sisters gifted it to me, saying “It belongs in New Orleans.” And I can’t help but think they were absolutely right, as I see it now everyday above the mantel adorned with Mardi Gras beads and other brightly colored throws (forgive the dim lighting, I like my living space to feel like an after hours cocktail lounge, apparently).

This leads me to discussing some internal changes my family members have noted since I’ve been living in a larger city with a notably Caribbean culture:

“Whoo, Lord, look Natasha how she big!” my Grandmother cackled in her Caribbean lilt the first time she saw me after our move. Initially presuming she was talking about my weight (which she frequently does with all the people she loves) I chuckled, “Thanks Grandma.” But she pulled me aside later to expand on her comment, saying, “I meant you’re growing into yourself, not just weight.  That’s not a bad thing. It suits you.”

And she’s right. I mean, I have gained weight — though in my defense I’m a woman with PCOS who’s had some pretty major change-ups in her hormonal structure lately, and dangit the food here is just too damn good! But “growing into” myself? Yes, that I embrace wholeheartedly. Being able to blend in a little bit for the first time in my life has given me the opportunity to really get to know myself — how and where I like to spend my time, the kind of people I like to spend it with, etc.

All of that has shifted in subtle and yet profound ways. For example, I still dance, but I don’t teach dance anymore. And I don’t miss it like I thought I would. I teach in plenty of other arenas in my life. When it comes to dance, I just wanna dance. For me.

I don’t spend as much time away from home as I used to. I’m still busy, but in different ways. I say no more often. But I smile more often, too. My laugh has changed. I hear my Grandmother’s cackle in myself now, too. I “am” bigger. And it suits me.

The Caribbean culture of New Orleans seems to foster this sort of “bigness” in all its residents. Mardi Gras was a few weeks back, and no local holiday seems to amplify this more: School was out for the entire week, but festivities began even before then, on Jan. 6, which is King Day, or the Day of Epiphany, when the Wisemen were said to have visited the Christchild. New Orleanians celebrate with cakes that have little plastic babies in them (no I’m not kidding, they’re called King Cakes, and if you find the baby in your slice, it’s good luck AND you have to host the next party). Local Bakeries go all out for these, and if you want the best ones in town, you either have to order them in advance of when you need them or wait in line before the bakery that sells them opens at 6 a.m. because they’ll sell out by 7 a.m. I’ve had one such cake, and man was it worth it!

From January through February, weekly parades became increasingly extravagant, with major streets lined with people and lawnchairs, some families even barbecuing in the “neutral ground” between lanes of traffic, hours before start time. Edible treats like King cakes and nonedible artistic displays alike are decorated in the holiday’s traditional colors of yellow, purple and green and can be found in grocery stores, in the windows of people’s houses, you name it. On Mardi Gras itself, people adorned their bodies in the colors, with brightly colored costuming and makeup. Glitter and beads were everywhere.

And the parades. Good Lord the PARADES. I attended four out of maybe 20-plus that happened in the city from Jan. 6 to the end of February. The first was Krewe de Vieux, a walking parade through the French Quarter two weeks before Mardi Gras, with raunchy and politically themed hand made displays that were the perfect kick off to the day of debauchery that was to come.

My husband and I found a spot near the start of the parade route, right on the edge of the street within arms reach of marching marauders, who all seemed to get a great kick out of the shirt I had chosen to wear for the parade — which contained some NSFW material, but that was a good thing because it meant paraders threw me more elusive prizes from the floats. I was also kissed and spanked by more strangers than I think I’ve ever experienced before, but those also felt like prizes in their own silly way. The LGBT community shows up BIG for Mardi Gras, and as a bisexual woman, that was magic to experience. Love was all around.

My second parade was one I actually got to participate in, with a group of belly dancers from a local studio where I’ve been taking classes. Chewbaccus is a science fiction-themed walking parade where not only the floats are handmade but the prizes thrown from them were too. My sub-Krewe spent hours upon hours making little bottlecap necklaces with our logo on them, and we STILL ran out by the end of our three-hour march. The name we danced under was “The Sensuous Sisters of Zaltros,” a reference to an obscure race of aliens from the Star Wars universe.

I texted my mother an image of myself before the parade started, joking “do you recognize your long lost daughter?”  My mother replied “I’d know that face anywhere!”

The last two parades I attended were the largest, with the last one really being a series of parades on Mardi Gras itself. The Krewe of Nyx marches the Wednesday before Mardi Gras and was the first parade I saw with industrial-size floats.  They’re actually stored in a warehouse and take almost a year to make —each one is a work of art.  They’re typically pulled by a tractor that declares the name or theme of the float along with the names of any sponsors or special guests on it.

Each parade typically has “royalty” in it, a king and queen and some dukes and duchesses; they’re either elected from the membership of the Krewe or invited by the community the Krewe represents (for instance, Chewbaccus had a member of the Walking Dead cast in our parade, though I was too far back in the lineup to see him and as I understand he marched in disguise).

Each parade is also known for different types of throws. As I mentioned the ones at Chewbaccus are all handmade, but the more industrial parades throw a combination of factory and handmade throws. Naturally, the most coveted of these are handmade, and each parade’s handmade throws are unique.

Nyx throws purses. Like, actual purses. They’re hand-bedazzled and painted and rare, rare, rare.

Grown adults elbow each other in the face for these things, no joke. It’s really so bizarre to witness and yet easy to get caught up in. When you lock eyes with someone on a float and see them winding up to throw in your direction, you just wanna catch it so badly!  But Bernie and I are both really bad at catch so alas, no purse this year — maybe next year.

The Zulu parade throws hand-painted coconuts. Once upon a time, they were real coconuts, but now they’re plastic.  Still, it’s a treat to catch one of those! This year, I got two. I just got lucky enough to get close to a float and someone literally just reached over the side and handed it to me — no catching required. I think Bernie caught the second one from a distance. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened.  The whole day is a bit of a blur.

On Mardi Gras itself, people get up super early. The Zulu parade starts at 8 a.m., but most folks are lined up by 7 a.m. Some even camp out on the parade route overnight. My husband and I walked from our apartment, which took a little longer than expected, so we rolled up around 8:30 a.m., and the street was packed.

Working our way to the front was a wild, rotational adventure. As people catch things and move to return them to their lawnchairs or other “home bases,” space sort of naturally opens up and you move forward. But then the marching bands come through.

When you hear a marching band approaching, the crowd just moves — you get out of the way because the bands are always wider than the floats (ALWAYS), and the gradual inching forward of bystanders when floats come through can sometimes result in the crowd occupying as much as half of the available lanes of traffic. So the bands would seem to be positioned in a pattern to help maintain order. You’ll maybe see two or three floats, then a police car and some band parents blowing whistles and yelling at you to move back, then the band comes through. I got caught in the arm with a baton once when I didn’t back up far enough.  That thing hurt! Those parents were not joking around.

But really, the bands in these parades, most of which are made up of middle school and high school students, are really good.  Like … REALLY good. And the parade routes are several hours long.

Bernie and I watched about half the parade from our midcity location before taking a shortcut to the French Quarter and catching the end of the parade there a few hours later (like, seriously, we first caught the parade at 8:30 a.m., took our detour about an hour after that, then we caught up with the parade, and had time to wait in line “and” eat an entire assortment of food from a food truck before we saw the end of it around 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m.). But even then, the parade doesn’t really end when it hits the Quarter. It just turns into a giant, miles-wide street party.

The atmosphere of Mardi Gras truly is amazing.  It showcases the tremendous resilience of New Orleans’ people and the cultures they come from and cultivate together in a way that is remarkably uplifting. And people are so genuinely kind and supportive of each other in this time. No matter what details fade from my memory, I think I’ll always have that.

My favorite moment of Mardi Gras, and I think the moment that highlights this genuine fun-loving spirit of New Orleans, was down on the banks of the Mississippi River, where a brass band and an assortment of hippies (for lack of a better word) gathered to play, dance, sing, and drink — four of my favorite things — by the waterfront. You haven’t lived until you’ve hung out with a grown man dressed as a unicorn singing the “Sesame Street” song “Rubber Ducky” accompanied by a brass band.

I feel like I am truly living here. Truly, for the first in a long time.

That isn’t to say everyone and their mother should move to New Orleans. Far from it — New Orleans has its messes (though that reminds me, shout-out to the city’s sanitation workers, seriously — very impressive cleanup after Mardi Gras!).  But I do definitely advocate for allowing oneself to be extensively challenged by either moving or taking up the study of something that allows you the opportunity to engage in self-exploration. This time has been incredibly valuable for me, and whether New Orleans is my forever home or not, I know I’ll always carry it with me.

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