I sit in my dining room in Maryland, reading a beautiful NolaVie article by Renee Peck, and I am brought to tears. And it’s not because she poignantly describes the bittersweet sensation of Tulane’s graduation (she does); and it’s not because my husband and I get a shout-out, which makes me feel just a little like a celebrity (I do); and it’s not even because Aaron is graduating and that means that we have to leave our own home in Uptown New Orleans (he is and we do).
It is because my heart is full of the love and gratitude I feel toward my city and my people. New Orleans. New Orleanians.
I should probably back up just a step. My name is Nadja and I am a New Orleanian. Once transplanted, now displaced, but a New Orleanian all the same.
I first moved to this magical place from Maryland in 2003 to attend Tulane University. I left for Katrina in 2005. I came back when Tulane opened again for the spring 2006 semester. In 2007, I proudly stood on the stage in the New Orleans Convention Center and spoke to god knows how many graduating Tulane students and their families. I spoke about the first time I called New Orleans home and how it just felt right. I had been a scared, homesick little girl when I left Maryland to start “real life” at Tulane.
By Thanksgiving, I was back in Maryland and talked ad nauseum about what I was going to do when I got … home. From then on, New Orleans was home and the small town in Maryland, where I had grown up and spent all of my first 18 years, was the place I went for holidays and summer breaks from school.
But I didn’t go back to Maryland for every holiday — for my understanding of the word holiday, as any New Orleanian, transplant or homegrown, will tell you, had changed forever. Not only is Mardi Gras a holiday that lets children out of school and closes grocery stores. There is also cause for a gargantuan celebration for mid-summer Mardi Gras, Po-boy Fest, Seafood Fest, Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, any other event where I can savor that buttery-cheesy-how-do-they-do-it crawfish bread, the entire month of February when the Saints win the Superbowl, White Linen Night, any Tuesday night for Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf, any Pint Night (aka Wednesday) on Bulldog’s patio, any Thursday to see the Soul Rebels at Le Bons Temps — the list goes on and on.
All of those holidays, those NOLAdays, were spent at home.
If it isn’t clear already, I had been swept off my feet. I had been wooed like never before. I had fallen truly and deeply in love. With a city.
But when I graduated, when I stood on that stage and shared my story, I was already mostly packed up and ready for my next adventure. I left New Orleans to travel the world — first to South Africa (thanks to a Newcomb Traveling Scholars Grant) and then to Cambodia to teach English. But I kept New Orleans in my heart. I wore a Make Levees Not War t-shirt all over South Africa, until my bags were stolen from baggage claim at the airport in Johannesburg. I had a Rebuild New Orleans flag hanging in the three different apartments I lived in in Cambodia. I spent August 29, 2007 in sadness and reflection — as I do on every Katrina anniversary — this time in the flooding streets of Phnom Penh.
And when I applied to law schools from overseas, I figured I might as well apply to Tulane, just to see if they let me in. And when they did, it always stayed on my list, managing to avoid the cuts given to some other schools. Then it was in my top three, my top two, and finally, I decided to go back. I just couldn’t imagine moving back to America and living anywhere but New Orleans.
It was … well … home.
My next three years spent in New Orleans will have to be the subject of a later article, but to summarize: I worked hard, I played hard, I adopted a native New Orleanian (dog), I met my husband, I graduated with another Tulane degree, I left New Orleans again with a heavy heart, and I vowed again to return.
It was time for me to leave New Orleans and gain experiences elsewhere. Experiences that I know will bring me back to my home when the time is right. When it’s time to “settle down,” whatever that means. When it’s time to finally to master what I’ve watched in awe so many times: running around the track at Audubon Park with a dog in one hand and a stroller in the other. When Aaron and I just cannot take being anywhere but New Orleans for any longer.
This article is a sort-of graduation present for my husband, who called me a month ago after I spent a perfect weekend in New Orleans, and asked, “Are we doing the right thing? Should we be leaving New Orleans?”
And when I responded, “I don’t know,” we both sat in silence for a bit, again wondering how we will fare in another city. We’ve been struggling with the question of whether or not to stay in New Orleans and try to make it work — but we know we’d never leave. And because we love New Orleans so much, we know that we have to leave now, so that we can come back later.
Now we both hold two Tulane degrees and know New Orleans is part of our “life plan.” It is where we fell in love. Despite the ever-growing mountain of student loan debt, we’re leaving New Orleans richer than when we arrived. From our deep distrust of chain restaurants (why go to Chipotle, when you can have Felipes?), to our love of living by the water (we got engaged overlooking the Mississippi), to all of the incredible people who will forever shape our lives, we have been so lucky to have lived in this amazing place.
I do not write this because I have a unique perspective on being a transplant in New Orleans; I write this because I know that my experience reflects that of countless others before me and generations of future laissez le bon temps rouler-ers. And I want to write about what it means to take New Orleans with you, if you do leave, because it really never leaves you. There is a magnetism, a powerful force, a lagniappe, if you will, that pulls you in and makes you think that maybe you should stay just a little longer. Have one more daiquiri. Take one more stroll on St. Charles.
And that is why I’m going to keep writing about what it means, as the saying goes, to be a New Orleanian wherever you are. Renee wrote, “I love the idea that those who have come here but not stayed, the ones who follow their careers into the Great Elsewhere, carry bits and pieces of the Big Easy with them.”
That’s what I want to share with NolaVie readers in New Orleans and beyond: Do not forget how New Orleans changed you, and bask in the glory of once calling this crazy place home.
It is going to be hard to leave, but it is just a little easier knowing that we have a home here. We have couches to sleep on and bikes to borrow when we decide we need that weekend NOLA fix. We laid roots. We’re just going to have to come back every once and a while to water them — preferably over one of the aforementioned holidays — and make sure they are staying firmly in the ground.
We will continue to be New Orleanians, if only so that I have a reason to keep writing articles, and carry the sweet Southern spirit with us, wherever this life takes us. Until the wind blows us back home.
Author and attorney Nadja Helm is currently working in York, PA. Aaron Helm will join her this summer, and study for the New York bar. They both plan to be back in New Orleans … someday.