February 20, 2013 by Caroline Leland
Looking Back on New Orleans
This is a two-page piece I wrote for my “Writing Journeys” class. The prompt was “write about a travel experience that defines your personality.” I like how it summarizes the significance of my summer, so I thought I’d share it here.
“Making groceries,” they say in New Orleans. You don’t just shop for groceries in the Crescent City, you make them. Selecting the ingredients for your food is a crucial step in a process this city takes very seriously. It’s the first step in cooking, which is relished here. New Orleans, more than any city I know, values “slow food.” People from New Orleans savor their food and cooking in a way that most people in this fast-food nation simply don’t. But it goes beyond that. New Orleans is a place where everyday life is celebrated with an enthusiasm that sets it apart. An enthusiasm that I was lucky enough to share in for one treasured summer.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked as an intern for a nonprofit called marketumbrella.org that runs Crescent City Farmers Market. I fell in love with food and food culture, particularly New Orleans food and food culture. Spending every day with major foodies who came to work recounting in detail their dinners from the night before, at a nonprofit founded on the value of community built around food, all in a city that takes food more seriously than perhaps anything else… I realized early on in that if I didn’t gain weight that summer I was doing it wrong.
And I embraced it. I sought to make the most of my eight short weeks there. Having grown up in a small town in rural eastern North Carolina, I was thrilled by the prospect of spending a summer in a “big city.” I did everything I could to prepare: networking by asking everyone I knew for recommendations; researching not just places to eat but all points of interest and special events in the city; making note of every festival, concert, museum, park and, of course, restaurant. I had a continuously growing bucket list that I referred to throughout the day, and I was always excited to mark something off. By the end of the summer I only had a few things left on the list, things I knew I’d try or see or do in subsequent visits to the city — because there was no doubt I was coming back.
I loved New Orleans. I loved the flavor of the city, the unique culture. The ubiquitous creativity, the unabashed rowdiness, the devotion to basic pleasures like eating and drinking and dancing. New Orleans is a city that loves to live, and I loved living there. The city inspired me and energized me. I lived more fully, more deliberately, more delightedly, in those eight weeks than I ever have before. I loved who I was in New Orleans, loved being an active part of that spectacular city. It brought out the best in me. Every day I acted on my spirit of adventure and love of learning, reveling in being in a city that shared my natural happiness for simply being alive.
And I hope to always keep that with me. I wear a ring now, a small silver ring shaped in the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of New Orleans. It’s a token of that summer, a reminder of my time in a city that embraced me and still calls for me to go back. In a city so genuine, a city that so highly values authenticity, I found my best self. In a city where people “make groceries” with the same care that they make their meals, with the same enthusiasm that they live every day, I felt like I belonged. I was only a part of New Orleans for eight short weeks, but I know New Orleans will always be a part of me.