And you may find yourself in another part of the world…And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
And you may tell yourself it’s “All because it’s Carnival time, Whoa, it’s Carnival time, Oh well, it’s Carnival time, And everybody’s havin’ fun.”
And you’d be right. As was Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, the originator of the sentiment.
Let me explain why I found myself in a floor-length formal dress, standing on a chair, in the New Orleans Convention Center, drink in hand, getting hit in the face with beads, as a parade rolled by…
A friend of my husband, a man from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a member of the Krewe of Bacchus, and invited him to ride along on a float for their Mardi Gras parade this year. The parade is a huge affair with a multitude of marching bands, and dozens of enormous floats, with the riders of said floats throwing beads (and doubloons, cups, stuffed animals, toys, and lots of other stuff) to the spectators. This year’s theme was “Throw Me Something Mister” and so there were floats dedicated to Mr. Clean, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Potato Head, and so on, including Mr. Spock–which is why my husband and everyone else on his float eventually arrived at the ball in light-up Star Trek costumes, including Spock ears. It was a bit incongruous with the formal attire of the attendees, but as I explained earlier—”Oh well, it’s Carnival time…”
Now, we’d flown in specifically for this purpose, but when in New Orleans, do as the New Orleanians, and so we spent five days there enjoying the sights and sounds and atmosphere.
It’s a bit hard to explain Mardi Gras in New Orleans if you haven’t been–the whole place is basically in an uproar for the entire season, the streets packed with people. There’s dancing, there’s drinking, flamboyant costumes, humor, a sense of fun and mischief hand in hand, an amused tolerance for humanity’s foibles and indulgences.
Locals, to their credit, make space for the tourists, and the joy of the season is a shared joy, a collective effervescence. You may find this sort of thing at a college campus when your team wins a football game, or maybe at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve in a crowd happy to have made it around the sun one more time. If music speaks to you, you might experience it at a concert, finding yourself suddenly tearful and in sympathy with all of humanity. It’s the sense of energy and harmony between people, a burst of community feeling which can be sudden and unexpected. We’ve all been there (at least I hope we have), having a moment of transcendence or connection–like a conversation between strangers that you might remember decades later, or a brief happiness when all seems right with the world. This is what you can find at Mardi Gras, if you’re looking for it, or maybe even if you aren’t.
Our hosts in this adventure could not have been more warm and welcoming: recommending our hotel, making restaurant reservations for large groups (not an easy thing to do when the city is packed with visitors from far and wide), texting everyone the plans and keeping us organized, serving food and drinks in their hotel suite, introducing us to their extended family and friends.
And, as a beautiful bonus, a gift from the universe, I had a few extra moments of grace with people I wasn’t even introduced to:
*** A young man, early twenties, with a group of friends, found my cell phone on the floor of a dive bar, and returned it to me before I’d even noticed I’d dropped it. After recognizing my good fortune, I offered to buy him a drink, and purchased a pink and no-doubt potent concoction at his request. Cheers, and thanks to that stranger.
*** Another young man asked me to dance with his younger brother, 17 and shy. After explaining that I was both married and far too old for such antics, I agreed, pulling the surprised teenager onto the dance floor with enough enthusiasm that he had no choice but to go along with me. MIssion accomplished: their mother thanked me afterwards, telling me that I’d made their entire trip. (I believe the whole thing was recorded on her phone; I do hope it never sees the light of day.)
*** At dinner one night with a large party, a woman from another table came by with a gift bottle of wine for us. Apparently she and her husband had inadvertently each ordered one, they were both opened, and there was no way they were going to finish them, so they thought they’d donate the excess to our group.
*** At a French Quarter bar, while listening to a live band, we encountered the Naked Cowboy. I asked him what he was doing in New Orleans–I was used to seeing him in New York City. His response: “I go on vacation, too!” (I think it was a busman’s holiday, though–he was posing for pictures and collecting cash.) Someone else at the bar asked me (apparently I looked authoritative?) if he was the official Naked Cowboy. I’m pretty sure there isn’t an accreditation process for naked cowboys–you too, can go play guitar without your clothes on and attract attention! No need to apply, no background check required…
And the absolute best of all…
*** We met a friend I used to work with for lunch–she’d moved to New Orleans six years back, and it was great catching up, and hearing about her adventures in her adopted city. We decided to get a drink afterwards, and she wanted to take us to a place she’d enjoyed recently when she’d stopped in with some friends. Unfortunately, it was closed and not scheduled to open for two more hours. We were about to leave for another destination, when the door opened, and the owner invited us in. She served us delicious cocktails and let us sit in peace in the gorgeous courtyard. That level of hospitality and graciousness is rare and beautiful, and deserves ample reward.
What else do you need to know about Mardi Gras? Generally, you may live by Coco Chanel’s dictum of taking one accessory off before you leave the house. In this place and for this occasion, there’s no room for understated minimalism. Don’t take one thing off; put another three things on. Maybe more. Glitter, sequins, feathers, gold, fringe: the more the better. You need a hat or maybe a fascinator, a boa, sparkles of all kinds, and many, many beads. (Beads! Some graduate student of semiotics could probably write a whole paper on beads as tokens of exchange.)
Carnival season won’t be back until next year, but New Orleans is good at finding reasons to celebrate. If you pay a visit at any time, you’ll find a party.
Some suggestions of places to eat and drink:
Restaurant R’evolution: modern versions of classic Cajun and Creole cuisine. Recommended: gumbo, crab beignets, fire-roasted gulf oysters, sea scallops and black truffles. Gracious service, attentive waitstaff, a beautiful setting, a feeling of abundance.
Antoine’s: New Orleans’ oldest restaurant, French-Creole cuisine. What to eat: Oysters Foch, charbroiled oysters, Fillet with Marchand de Vin, pecan bread pudding, probably anything else on the menu. These people know about food, and about good service…you won’t go wrong.
Brennan’s: a fine-dining landmark. Go for brunch and stay for three or four hours. (While you’re still at the table, cancel your dinner reservation for that evening, as we did.) Have a few mimosas, or just drink champagne. The Eggs Sardou are very good. Be sure to save some room for the Bananas Foster–a dessert on fire is a good way to end a memorable and indulgent meal.
Tommy’s Cuisine: Italian food with a Creole twist. I enjoyed the fried calamari, the shrimp bruschetta, and the crawfish and Louisiana blue crab capri. Also copious amounts of red wine. As one does.
The Windsor Court hotel: in the evening, their Polo Club reminds me of a university club for well-off alumni at a prestigious institution. The drinks are good, the crowd is a bit older and very polite, and the burgers are terrific and perfect for a late night meal after too much day drinking. They also do a very nice brunch at the Grill Room where you can get one of those excellent burgers with an egg on top, or any number of traditional egg dishes, or shrimp and grits–it will be delicious, no matter your choice.
21st Amendment Bar: named for the end of prohibition (of course!), formerly owned by mobsters, it’s currently got an upscale crowd, good live music, and talented bartenders who make extremely well-balanced old fashioneds. (No cover charge, but do be generous to the musicians.)
The Famous Door: a bit of a dive on the infamous Bourbon Street, with very good cover bands, a raucous, infectious energy on the dance floor, and an extremely varied playlist. (Again, no cover charge, but generosity to hard-working musicians is a virtue. While I’m at it, be sure to tip your bartender, too.)
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar: a dimly lit, somewhat sketchy tavern, which has been around since the 1700s. Loud and crowded, but if you like old buildings and a sense of history and place, this is for you.
Gus’s Fried Chicken World Famous: the New Orleans outpost of a Tennessee original. The chicken is good and crispy and just lovely with a cold beer. I didn’t order it, but I was absolutely delighted to see that they had champagne on their menu as well. (Champagne and fried chicken is a much better combination than you might think.) Nothing fancy, but extremely tasty.
Drago’s Seafood Restaurant: home of the charbroiled oyster. If you have yet to have a charbroiled oyster, I suggest you head to Drago’s and give it a go. I mean it. They’re seriously good.
Vyoone’s: we didn’t eat here, since when we visited, it wasn’t actually open, but Vyoone Segue Lewis exemplifies hospitality and charm. The cocktails were phenomenal, and her kindness made them all the sweeter. I can’t wait to go back for dinner–it is absolutely on the top of my list for my next trip.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and two cockatiels.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com