As I got off my plane last year, a bright-eyed and admittedly naive freshman beginning college in California, I felt a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. "We're not in New Orleans anymore, Toto," I said to my imaginary terrier. Instead of leaving a monochrome Kansas for a vibrant dream world, however, I was doing the opposite: leaving the always-colorful New Orleans for a place a little bit more dim.
The cultural Oz that is New Orleans, with its music, food, cocktails, beer and maybe even a few people dressed like flying monkeys, can be dizzying to a new student from anywhere else. As a sophomore in college, a lifelong resident of the Crescent City and someone who knows the culture shock of leaving home for school, here are some insights to help newcomers conquer their freshman year in New Orleans:
• People will hug you on the street.
During a visit to New Orleans, a friend (and a native Californian) was shocked to discover that postal carriers, construction workers and most other people would say hello to her on the street and wish her well with a smile.
That's not all. Don't be surprised if people you meet for the first time welcome you with a hug. There's usually no ulterior motive in the greeting and they're not trying to be creepy; it's just our way of being friendly.
• There's always a party somewhere in New Orleans.
Missing one night of partying isn't the end of the world. You usually can catch up the next day. On any given night, it's easy to find a concert, nightclub or bar populated with other people who would like to forget they have class at 8 a.m. Getting decent grades and being able to stay in New Orleans for sophomore year is better than flunking out after a semester of nonstop partying.
• Our food will make you fat; learn to moderate.
I once heard this anecdote about New Orleans cuisine: If it tastes good, it tastes better fried. Our food is famous for its richness, and while food is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in our culture, it's best to go easy on comfort foods and soul foods that can pack on the pounds.
Healthy dining choices and food co-ops have sprouted up around the city since Hurricane Katrina. Naked Pizza, within walking distance of Tulane and Loyola universities, is one choice that offers healthier pizza options to cut down on the "Freshman 15," the pounds new college students are said to gain their first year.
• We do not pronounce street names correctly. Suck it up.
As Megan Braden-Perry has pointed out in her Public Transit Tuesdays postings on BlogofNewOrleans.com, Leonidas Street can be pronounced about 50 different ways (lee-ANN-uh-dus being most common) — none of them related to its Greek roots. The same goes for Calliope (KAL-ee-ohp) and Persephone (PUR-suh-phone). Tchoupitoulas probably will leave you scratching your head for weeks.
Don't think that you're more cultured than the natives because you say "median" instead of "neutral ground" for that strip of grass between traffic lanes. Immerse yourself in the culture, even if it means mispronouncing a few words.
• Get off Bourbon Street.
The center of New Orleans culture is not this strip of cheesy T-shirt shops and strip joints. My advice: Go to Bourbon Street, take your picture in front of the street sign with some oversized drink, and then go do something more fulfilling and less urine-scented.
• Don't get arrested during Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is everyone's mid-midterm chance to cut loose and blow off some steam from exams. However, police work long hours and have to deal with a city full of drunk people during Mardi Gras. They're generally tolerant of revelers, but don't push your luck. Do what they tell you to, don't talk back and don't act like an idiot. Even in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you can't urinate or smoke pot in public and nudity isn't allowed (that includes flashing for beads). The easiest way to ruin a great time is having to call a bail bondsman or hang out in Central Lockup.
New Orleans is its own cultural planet. How we party, the clothes we wear, our diverse cuisines and expansive music offerings get a lot of media attention, sometimes bordering on hyperbole. But if you can weather a few hurricanes (both the storms and the drinks) and carry a good disposition, you'll throw away your ruby slippers and enjoy the Land of Oz for what it is.