“What’s king cake?”

Silence.

Five of us have come into the kitchen to refill our wine glasses. Four pairs of eyes are scanning me in confusion. The silence breaks with someone’s machine gun-like titter.

“You’ve never had king cake?” one of them replies, hand on her hip.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.