“It’s like some kid’s picture,” I mumble sleepily. “Scribbled with a fat brown crayon.” Rivers cut across the marsh land in broad, whimsical curves. I press my nose against the airplane window as the flight descends rapidly into New Orleans. We soar over marbled patches of blue and green, a replica of earth’s surface viewed from the moon. I feel suddenly ignorant—I didn’t expect the swampland to be so huge.
The land was clearly whole once, gradually overtaken by the water. How many years ago? Would New Orleans have been whole in the time of Tiana, from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog?
I should know that, I think wryly.
After all: I’m supposed to be her.
Several months ago I was struck by a wacky, irresistible idea: what would it be like to step into your favorite fictional character’s shoes for a week? To adopt their dreams and fears…stumble through their adventures…eat their food, and walk their streets? It seemed far from impossible. Nearly all stories were based on something real, and wasn’t that why we read stories in the first place? To breathe, if only for an hour, with someone else’s lungs? The philosophical treatises ran seductive circles around my head…but of course, this zany author’s reasons for booking a flight to NOLA really boiled down to one reason:
I freaking loved The Princess and the Frog. I loved its unique story, whimsical setting, and diverse heroine. Deep down, a three-year-old toddler version of Jordan wanted to be Tiana. And she wanted it bad.
Reason enough for me, I thought gleefully as I went wild with plans, stuffing my ideas in the blog post How to Vacation Like your Favorite Fictional Character. I introduced the idea like a game, with fun but ambitious rules:
1) Choose a favorite film or novel, and find a way to do everything that happens in the story. Your experience will be a modern-day version of course, but remaining as close to the story as safely possible. You don’t have to live the story’s events in the order they occurred: take opportunities as they arise! [By the way, if you need a refresher on The Princess and the Frog plot details, a movie trailer is here and the wiki summary is here.]
2) Emulate the character in the way you dress: not in a costumey way, but with heavy inspiration.
3) Pick one major character trait to emulate for the entire week. I selected Tiana’s relentless hard work ethic. She dreamed of owning a restaurant, and I dream of writing for a living: so I vowed to write 1000 words a day.
4) Introduce yourself as the character at least once.
I had a ridiculous amount of fun on this trip, though needless to say, my rules ran into plenty of curveballs. Before I launch into my misadventures, though…I should mention that there was something strangely…twilight zone about this trip.
Half of my activities were planned, but many weren’t planned at all. Yet they still lined up, in one way or another, with The Princess and the Frog’s plot line. Every single incident. I ended up with an uncanny mix of Jordan-planned adventures and God-given ones, and so if anyone else tries a story-driven vacation, I’d be fascinated to see if fiction slipped its mysterious fingers into their lives as well!
Day 1: In Which Our Clueless Heroine Makes An Unexpected Friend…And Has A Scary First Adventure
“Girl, is that a selfie stick?” an airport attendant teases as he passes me in the baggage claim. His voice has a warm southern drawl. “You lucky I didn’t slip into that picture!”
I grin. “That’s what I get for traveling alone.” I continue to snap pictures, riding on a juvenile high of excitement. I’m a Southern California native, and it’s my first time ever on New Orleans soil. Already I have a daringly ambitious day planned out: find my hostel, master the streetcar system, and have my first plate of Tiana’s “man-catching beignets” at the historic Cafe Du Monde. I’m already wearing the first of my Tiana-inspired gear, cheery casuals of yellow and white.
The cardigan is my first mistake. It’s barely ten in the morning, I think cheerily as I head for the airport exit. The heat won’t be that bad.
Oh. But it is.
The moment the sliding terminal doors open, I can almost hear New Orleans’ 400,000 residents snickering at me as humidity seeps though my cardigan, clinging to my naive skin. I snort. “Nice going, Tiana. I guess this was your winter uniform.” My second mistake is the $20 bill in my pocket. I need to catch a bus to my hostel, but like many car-dependent So Cal natives, I’m not an expert on public transport. It dawns on me that the bus won’t have change.
“You lost, honey?” A stocky, cheery man in a car agency uniform tips his hat my way. He’s the fourth person to smile and greet me in an hour: are all Louisiana people this helpful and friendly? You’d think the heat would make them grumpier.
“Hahaha, er…no. Of course not,” I say convincingly, fumbling with my wallet. “But I could use some change. They don’t give you that on the bus, do they?”
“The airport line? Naw. But we’ll help you out. Thelma, you got any change?” He hollers to a woman behind one of the car rental stands, and soon my pockets are stuffed with singles. Two different people give me directions to my stop, and live jazz pours through the airport atrium. I’d soon discover there’s no such thing as non-live music in New Orleans.
Another stranger helps me lift my bag onto the bus, and the driver promises to stop near my hostel on Tulane Avenue. In hindsight, I’m so grateful this was my first impression of this city: a place in which one truly can depend on “the kindness of strangers,” as described by Tenessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m grateful…because my next impression was decidedly less comforting. Little did I know that Tiana’s first scary adventure was right around the corner. But that comes later!
First, I arrive at the charming, newly renovated old house that’s to be my home— and Tiana’s— for the next 7 days.
My room is on the top floor of Site 61 Hostel, and I fall in love immediately. It’s cozy with wooden slat floors and a bunkbed, a room barely fitting two. “I guess I might have a roommate,” I think aloud, remembering how hostels work. “I hope she’s chill. Maybe she’ll want to go sightseeing…” Then I trail off.
My fingers freeze over my suitcase, which brims with frilly bras and panties. The hostel website never said anything about gender-assigned bedrooms. I mean, it would make sense if these, ah, intimately-sized rooms were arranged that way…but anyone can book a hostel. The rule is first come, first serve. Which means, I realize slowly, clapping a hand over my mouth with nervous laughter, I mean I doubt it, but I guess…it’s entirely possible…my roommate might be a—
“Hello?” says a deep, accented voice, key rattling in the door.
I swallow. Whelp. Tiana’s story does have an accented stranger in it.
I dive to close my suitcase, rearrange my clothes, and yank open the door. In walks a tall, duffel-bag laden man who looks just as startled as I am. We both recover quickly, exchanging smiles as he sheds his luggage.
“Hi,” I say a tad too shrilly. “I’m Jordan. I just got here an hour ago.”
“Alex,” he says jovially, shaking my hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m from Germany.”
“Los Angeles. Oh. My stuff is everywhere! Let me give you some space”—
“No, no, it’s fine, I don’t need much”—
We shuffle around each other, chattering about our backgrounds and travel plans. He’s on a tour of the United States to celebrate finishing his graduate exams, and I’m…well, I’m doing something a little different.
“Story-driven vacation?” he echoes.
I nod, blushing a little. “Princess and the Frog. It’s set here in New Orleans. Have you heard of that movie?”
“I know it! I’ve seen clips.”
My stomach grumbles. “I think I’m gonna try and figure out the streetcar system. I hope there’s a grocery store on the way.” I’ve barely eaten today, and I don’t have a crumb of food. “See you!” I flee the hostel and charge into the powerful Louisiana sunshine, still in my impractical yellow cardigan. I’m so desperate for supplies that I forget my hat, parasol…and even my water bottle. Less a few blocks from Site 61 Hostel, I’m confused already— my printed-out directions to Cafe Du Monde are contradictory, and my phone has less than 20% power. I realize with a sinking feeling that this walk is a very, very bad idea.
I’ll have to settle for finding a nearby grocery store, then camping out at Site 61 until my phone charges. So I return to the hostel, find the nearest grocery store (still alarmingly distant) on Google, arm myself with sunglasses and a parasol, and head down Tulane in the opposite direction.
It’s worth mentioning that, unknown to me, parts of Tulane Avenue have a…reputation for unpleasant incidents. Also unknown to me, I’m actually heading away from central New Orleans, where bustling stores—and lots of witnesses— keep things safe. Minutes pass in the blistering heat. I don’t like this at all. I pass by a house with broken shutters, pounding with music in broad daylight, reeking with alcohol, sweating bodies, and a sickly sweet smell that might be weed, mixed with something…stronger. Men leer at my body from front porches, calling out as I pass. One continues to yell for two blocks as I pass, breathing hard, not certain if he’s following me.
“What’s your name, baby? I said, what’s your name? You shy? I know you can hear me, girl.”
How can I have not passed a single store or restaurant by now? The nearest grocery is only reachable by bus…and there’s no way I can wait at a stop in this neighborhood. Faint with heat and hunger, I glance desperately at my dying phone. Not a single helpful listing. Then— by the sheer grace of God— I notice a tiny blip amongst the lines on my Google map app: Sandwich Shop.
I whirl around. It’s nearby— why can’t I see it?— there! An almost literal hole-in-the-wall that looks no safer than some of the houses I passed before. A man peers impudently at me from the entry, but it’s this or no food…so I inhale and enter briskly. All eyes in the tiny shop fall on me: my foreignness is palpable. But I realize slowly that their gazes aren’t hostile, but concerned. They’re worried for me.
“You ain’t from around here, are you, baby?” says a man with missing teeth, trying to put me at ease. I smile wanly and start filling my arms with junk food. There’s little else: it’s more of a convenience store than a sandwich shop.
“Just got off a plane,” I say, juggling three water bottles, cashews, and a dubious packet of sliced turkey. “I’m starving.”
The shopkeepers make loud jokes as I shop, clearly trying put me at ease.
“You want a sandwich, honey? Try this stuff over here.”
“Make sure you get some cheese. Ain’t you getting cheese?”
“Leave her be now!” another laughs. “If she don’t want cheese, she don’t want cheese.”
When I check out, the woman at the register says, “Make sure you put that wallet in that purse before you leave this store.” I must have looked dismayed, because then she says quickly, “Aw, you ain’t got nothing to worry about.”
Still she adds: “You be careful out there, baby.”
As I leave, Blanche’s DuBois’ faltering soprano echoes in my head: I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
By the time I’ve passed back through the neighborhood and arrived at the peaceful hostel, I’m trembling all over. I lay on the bottom bunk of the darkened room, swallowing hard, and taking shallow breaths. This is not how I imagined my first day. Cafe Du Monde will have to wait until tomorrow; there is no time to find it before dark.
Still— a mysterious courage simmers inside me. In spite of my fears, there was something strangely purposeful about the events of today. Almost as if I’m living in a story…one I did not plan on my itinerary.
When Alex returns from the showers, he asks for a rundown of what happened. His eyes widen with concern. “That’s terrible. You know, the other way up Tulane is not so dangerous— there are people. Buses.”
I nod resolutely. “I’ll figure it out. I only went that way because I needed a grocery store. Never again!”
Alex pauses thoughtfully. “You know…if you’re still hungry, my travel book mentioned a famous restaurant. The Gumbo Shop, I think it is called? I was planning to go there for dinner tonight— you are welcome to join me!”
Gumbo. Something stirs in my memory, and suddenly I want to laugh. I’ve had my first adventure as Tiana already…and I didn’t even realize it.
Moments after meeting Naveen, Tiana-turned-frog is whisked into a
sketchy Tulane suburb murky wood on the outskirts of New Orleans, where she’s set upon by predatory men on porches alligators and leering bayou trappers. After defeating them together, Tiana and Naveen share their first meal as new friends: Swamp Gumbo.
“Let’s go,” I say, grinning. “But we are definitely taking a cab. No more walking these streets for me today.”
“Are you sure? I think the other way is pretty safe”—
He laughs. “Right.”
I see the bustling New Orleans French Quarter for the first time through a cab window. It’s brightly lit at night, and music bursts from every door and balcony: I can’t wait to return in the daytime. When we arrive at the Gumbo Shop—which is actually a high brow restaurant— there’s a line, so as we wait I explain the Princess and the Frog’s plot to Alex. “…and now we’re eating gumbo!” I finish, as we’re led to our table. “So thanks to you, my adventure and the movie plot lines up. Are you okay if I put pictures of tonight on my blog?”
“Sure! As long as you don’t do anything weird to them!”
“I won’t,” I promise. I mean, besides strongly imply that you’re the real life incarnation of a fictional frog. That doesn’t count as weird, right?
We eat fabulous dinner, of asparagus dip, salad with incredible pecan sauce, gumbo, and jambalaya. Alex educates me on beer festivals and college life in
Maldonia Germany. Our conversation actually makes us miss our our cab back— so we wait outside for another. We wander around St Peter Street…and then I see, quite possibly, the most beautiful establishment I’ve ever seen.
“IS THAT A GROCERY STORE?” I ask in rapture.
“I…believe so,” says Alex, bemused.
“Oh my gosh— I know the cab’s coming, really, but I have to”—
“I’ll keep watch,” Alex offers, so I dash inside the store. Fresh vegetables and Kellog products have never looked so good in my life. Even though I know how to safely reach the main town—and can return any time I like— I stock up like I’m hunkering down for the apocalypse. Brimming triumphantly with groceries, it’s a short and cheerful ride back to the hostel. Things are definitely looking up, and tomorrow’s itinerary holds streetcars, and beignets, and the pretty French quarter, and…alligators. Real ones.
Tomorrow, I think dazedly as my head hits the pillow, is the day this zany writer will explore her first New Orleans swamp.
Thanks for following along on my adventures. Read Day 2 here!