It’s culture shock – in reverse. I’m currently experiencing re-entry to my native New Orleans, after a year as an au pair for the cutest little French boy in the most beautiful city in the world – Paris.
Sure, I’ll miss the breathtaking architecture, the stylish personas, and the pain au chocolate. Yes, Paris will forever maintain a certain reverence in my mind. But I’ve come to realize that familiarity is a powerful mechanism, and I am reveling in the land of big cars and hamburgers.
During a grueling layover in Miami International Airport, I ordered a glorious iced coffee (for some reason, ice is more precious than gems in Europe) and then realized that I had yet to make it to an ATM to get cash that comes in green rather than the Monopoly-like currency that is the Euro. I asked if I could pay for my $2.04 beverage (so cheap!) with a credit card, and the barista cheerily replied, “Of course you can do that here.” I wanted to sing God Bless America right there, both for her upbeat service and the fact that we were speaking in English.
There are other Americanisms that all ex-patriots miss at some point or another. Sushi, CVS or Walgreens (French pharmacies? No thanks), online streaming, Froyo, and, most importantly, FREE REFILLS. I had a British friend tell me once that her favorite thing about America is the way that we get all the free refills we want at restaurants. I’d have to agree that this is a major cultural accomplishment … or perhaps merely shows how unhealthy we are? Either way, I’m a fan.
After a week of being back in New Orleans, I’ve realized how unique this place is compared to anywhere else in the world – including America. New Orleans possesses a particular warmth and color lacking in often cold and gray major metropolises, such as Paris.
My sister and I celebrated my homecoming with daiquiris — obtained via drive thru (the trick is in the straw!).
Then, at the supermarket, I was called “baby” and asked more times than I could count how I was doing that day.
And from personal experience, I’ve learned that you can go anywhere in the world and yell WHO DAT to a fellow New Orleanian — from the streets of Dublin to a Trombone Shorty concert in Paris — and generate a response.
But one occurrence that perhaps best portrays the authentic New Orleans happened on my second day back. I woke up jet-lagged at 6 a.m., and immediately craved a real New Orleans breakfast — eggs, hash browns, grits, biscuits, grillades. After a quick search of neighborhood joints open before 8 a.m., I headed to Coulis on Prytania Street.
One step through the door and I heard my name, from a family friend from the neighborhood. We chatted, and then I spotted the mother of one of my good friends from high school. She sat down to hear all about my Parisian adventures. Finally, at the end of my meal, a man walks up to my table and tells me that he recognized me as one of the kids he taught in PE at St. Martin’s Episcopal School … when I was in pre-K. He had heard my name, knew I looked familiar, and came over to reintroduce himself as my former coach.
Where else in the world do you come home after more than a year and run into a host of people who know you, in the first place you visit? Where else in the world would they all stop to chat? Where else in the world do they ask what you’ve been up to … and then lean back and wait for your reply?
We natives all have experienced such moments at one point or another. There seems no other appropriate response than, “Only in New Orleans.”
Katherine Peck is a native New Orleanian and former intern at NolaVie.