Day 5 through the end: In which our clueless heroine shops too much, learns to cook, and has the frog kiss of her dreams
I have breakfast the next morning at the hostel with Anna, and as I get dressed I realize something sad: I forgot to pack something blue. How can I have forgotten the color of Tiana’s most iconic moment– her frog kiss on the balcony with Naveen?
In fact…how am I going to have a frog kiss, anyway? It isn’t exactly something I’ve worked into my itinerary. I shrug and shake the thought away. I mean, a frog kiss would have been perfect, but I’ve had so many magical moments on this trip. Why stress a detail? Deep down, though, that missing piece of Tiana’s adventure irritates me. Little do I know how, without my planning a thing, the next few days would conspire to make my wish come true.
I don’t spend today with Anna/Lottie…but only because another of Tiana’s loved ones has arrived in New Orleans at last.
Tiana had a deep and affectionate relationship with her mother, Eudora. So you can imagine my delight when my fabulous Aunt Ifueko, after whom I was named, flew in from London to see me in New Orleans!
She’s staying for a few days with one of her old college friends, who lives just outside New Orleans. Over beignets on the Riverwalk, I tell Auntie Ifueko excitedly about my travel project and all the things I have planned for us to do.
“We could go on a carriage ride through New Orleans today,” I suggest, already in my Tiana-post-wedding-carriage-ride dress. “But only if you’re not tired. You just got in last night; we can relax today if you want.”
“Oh- well you know I walk quite a bit, darling,” Auntie Ifueko says in her lovely Anglo-Nigerian accent, blinking at me in amusement. “I’m from London.” I laugh, remembering that when I visited my aunt in London, I got tired far before she ever did.
“But this heat is punishing,” my aunt’s friend protests, fanning herself. “We should stay at here the mall, where it’s cool.”
“Yes, yes,” Auntie Ifueko agrees enthusiastically. “There was one store in particular I wanted see…”
I grin. There is one area in which Auntie Ifueko has the entire world beat: retail. I mean, I love a good mall day, But if I’m a retail warrior, Auntie is a shopping gladiator.
Two hours later, I’m swaying slightly on my feet as the three of us enter a third accessory store. “Hey Auntie,” I puff weakly, “Don’t stop for me, but I might just…go sit down for a while.”
“Of course, dear,” Auntie Ifueko says cheerily, distracted by a jewel rack. “But come look at this bracelet– it’s very nice, but I might have something like it…we need to find a hat for my friend, she’ll be at a wedding in three days…oh, this one is very nice. But it’s not a bright enough color. You know Nigerians will only wear those bright, loud colors…”
Just as I’m about to leave the store, a small pair of earrings catches my eye. They’re two-toned, silver with gold accents. I smile: they’re a pair of frogs.
“You should have let me buy them for you,” Auntie Ifueko scolds affectionately. “I want to buy you a present while we’re here. Look around– is there something else you want?”
“No, Auntie,” I say as we leave the store. “I’m just fine. There’s nothing in particular I’m looking for…” But when she insists, I remember: I am looking for something. “Well,” I say hesitantly. “It would be nice if I could find something blue. It’s just something silly I’m doing for the Tiana project.”
Right as we’re about to leave the Riverwalk mall, I duck into a Forever 21 on a whim. Then out of the corner of my eye, hidden on an overstuffed sales rack…I see a swatch of pale robin’s egg blue.
“Just in case…” I murmur as I place the fluttery chiffon top on the checkout counter. “Just in case.”
I wave Auntie Ifueko goodbye for the day, promising to meet her tomorrow morning. I’m tired, but since I’m already at the city center, I decide to commemorate one of Tiana’s happiest moments: her wedding day at St. Louis’ Cathedral.
I may not be getting married, but the St. Louis Cathedral is magical all the same. I cheer for the couple taking wedding pictures outside the gorgeous old architecture, and over the next couple days I would return to sit quietly in the lovely interior, thanking God for letting me have a week in Tiana’s story.
The next morning I wait excitedly on a corner of Decatour Street, where I’ve agreed to meet my aunt before my next step in Tiana’s shoes: a New Orleans cooking class. It strikes me as amusing that I’m living Tiana’s story backwards– two days before I leave New Orleans, I’m back where all the magic began.
Turns out the class I signed up for is more of a fancy demonstration than a hands-on cooking class! This wouldn’t have suited the hard-working Tiana at all, but I admit, it felt nice to relax in the theater-style kitchen, watching the charismatic chef crack jokes as he whipped up mouthwatering masterpieces.
In true Nigerian fashion, my aunt and I are late to the demonstration, and the moment we arrive in the kitchen the chef stops, points to us, and announces to the entire room with mock gravity:
“As tardy participants to the New Orleans Cooking School Island, you have 30 seconds to defend yourselves before we put your fate to a vote. Begin.”
I laugh and clasp my hands in supplication. “Forgive us! We would have been on time if my benevolent Auntie, out of the goodness of her heart, had not stopped to help some lost tourists figure out their way…” I wind the tale pathetically, which while dramatic, is absolutely true. My aunt chuckles beside me, and the other class participants vote to keep us on “the island.”
“Shoot- you tourists are too nice,” the chef tuts. “If y’all were New Orleand folks, you would’ve said, ‘Vote ’em off! More for us!'”
We take our seats and watch the famous chef, the easily 6-foot-5 Kevin Belton, conjure up gumbo, jambalaya, and praline bread pudding from scratch. In between his jokes and stories about Louisiana culture, we learn about the “holy trinity” of New Orleans cooking: onions, bell pepper, and celery.
The result is easily one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Three bites, and I find myself wishing the Tiana’s Palace restaurant was real, with chains throughout the entire country. If I lived in Louisiana, I’d be a goner- a doomed, happily pudgy goner.
My auntie was quite a fan of Chef Kevin. “You- we need a picture with you,” said my 5-foot-1 auntie, smiling up at the giant man and ushering him to her side. “Put on an apron for the picture. Now smile…I want to see those dimples.”
I giggled as the chef submitted to our coddling, and did, indeed, show dimples for the picture.
The next item on our agenda is a carriage ride through the French Quarter, Tiana’s-Wedding-Style. But the driver hasn’t found enough people to start the tour yet, so to pass the time we do what the two Ifuekos do best:window shopping!
I don’t think I’ll find anything I want in the tourist shops, since now I’ve been in New Orleans for days. Then amidst rows of brick-a-brac, I see a glittering collection that makes me shake my head and smile: tiaras.
“What is that for?” Auntie Ifueko asks as I buy a delicate silver crown and lay it carefully in my purse. “Oh, just…” I say non-committedly. “Just because.”
First the blouse, now the tiara. At this point, it feels like I’ve started some frog kiss scavenger hunt without even knowing it. Now all that’s missing is a frog and a balcony. The latter I think I can find easily…but where can I find a frog?
The historic French Market teems with vendors and blisters with heat, even though it’s covered from the sun. I admire the rows of jewelry and artwork, making a few impulse buys, while my cunning aunt barters the vendors down to low prices I’d never think possible.
“Any frogs?” I ask of every vendor, and they show me chintzy frog rings and glittery necklaces. Of course I wasn’t expecting a real frog, but none of these seem quite right. I shrug and move on.
Near the end of our browsing, I see a table with ethnic marble sculptures, manned by a sweaty young man. My eyes scan the smooth stone animals and patterns..and stop. Are they…yes, they’re what I think they are. Two multi-colored, intricately hewn marble frogs.
I pick them up, admiring them this way and that, and suddenly there’s someone in my face.
“You like frogs?” the man at the table says with a thick accent, grinning. He taps his chest. “Me. I am a frog. You like frogs? I be your frog.”
It takes me a moment to realize I’m getting hit on. I smile wryly and put the frog down, about to walk away.
“Wait!” he says. “You want that one? Twenty dollars.”
I hesitate. “That’s a bit high. I’ve already spent a bunch today.”
“Ten.” Then he changes his mind and says: “No, five, because I like your smile.”
And that, at long last, is how the Princess found her frog.
“Because I gave you a deal,” the young vendor says, suddenly earnest, “Pray for my business to do well.”
“I will,” I say, and I mean it.
I decide to look for a balcony later that evening, and celebrate my find with a cool daquiri and breezy carriage ride through the historic New Orleans French Quarter.
“All sorts used to live here,” says the driver. “Spanish people- over there; French- over there; Creoles– there.” He pointed to different corners of a block. “When you all live this close together, you all hate each other about equal..so you all learn to get along.”
I laugh, and I think dreamily of what it would be like to live in the French Quarter, with its Spanish ironwork and Parisian shutters…or at least, what it would be like to lean on someone’s arm as we rode past the cathedral, having just said, “I do.”
After waving my aunt goodbye for the day, I steal into a bathroom and change into my blue Tiana blouse. I laugh at my own silliness as I spritz myself with perfume, and plunk the tiara on my head. It’s not like I’m going to meet a real frog prince…but I want the moment to be special anyway.
Now I just have to find a balcony.
But there’s one factor I hadn’t accounted for: my phone is almost dead, and so is my external battery. I can’t have a balcony moment without capturing it on camera! I’ll just have to find a balcony quickly. Shouldn’t be hard, right?
Weirdly enough, it is. Balconies flood the French Quarter, but as I visit store after store, I’m told that the balconies above individual businesses are individually owned. I google “Best Balconies in New Orleans,” using more precious battery power to find them via GPS. No luck- “Oh, we don’t own those, sweetie. People live up there. Rich folks.”
With less than 20% power on my phone, I’m faint from heat and walking, and frustrated. There are the balconies on the infamous Bourbon Street, but I can’t be there by myself after dark– especially with a dying phone.
I take a deep breath. I’m supposed to be learning something from this. What would Tiana do?
Promise me you’ll never forget what’s important, Tiana’s mother had told her, when Tiana got too caught up in ambitions.
What’s important? That I get the picture perfect moment on a fancy French Quarter balcony? Or that I got to have a magical adventure I’ve ever had, and see my aunt, and make memories I’ll never forget my entire life?
Just then, I know the balcony I should have chosen all along. It isn’t the rod-iron fairytale place of my dreams– but it has come to feel like home. I turn around, hop on the streetcar, and return to the Site 61 hostel. I climb the creaky stairs to the dusty abandoned balcony overlooking Tulane Street. Then as the sun sets behind me, frog in hand, I close my eyes and make a wish.
I’m gonna miss you, New Orleans.
I was going to finish this series by cataloging the last thing I did, which was ride the River Steamboat Natchez, and dance to jazz with my aunt on the deck. But I want to end on a more serious note: why deep down, I went on this trip in the first place.
Yes, I love the ingenious story, the film, the music, the characters of Disney’s Princess and the Frog. Yes, part of me wants to live in Tiana’s adventurous fairytale. But in reality, I packed my bags, traveled across the country, and devoted hours to writing this piece for one main reason:
Diverse representation in fiction matters. I can’t stress enough that even if Tiana is one blip in a homogeneous industry, she is beautiful, and her story is worth telling.
I want you to imagine for a moment a little girl who loved fairy tales. She loved the heightened beauty they offered, the danger, the hope, the towering stakes. She loved them all so much that a very young age, she started writing stories of her own. But for some reason, she always wrote about little girls with “pale delicate skin” or “emerald green eyes” — “long red hair” or “pink rosy lips.” None of this would have been strange…except that the little girl was African American.
That little girl was me.
I wrote stories that way, at ages 8, 9,10, 12, because I even though I didn’t think I was ugly, I could not see myself in that world of magic and beauty. Protagonists did not have brown skin. Princesses did not have dark, springy hair. A heroine was something specific, something that mattered, and something that was not me.
Yet I continued to cherish a world of stories that never cherished me back. And years later, in college, I first saw a preview for the Princess and the Frog…I burst into tears. Right there in theater. Heck, I’m crying now as I write this. Because for the space of a 3 minute preview, the world had suddenly decided that my story mattered.
As our world continues to roll out story after story- as little girls with black skin and brown skin and long names and monolidded eyes continue to crane their necks for a heroine that reflects them– this trip was my way of immortalizing Tiana. Of telling those little girls, past and present: Yes, we are heroines. Yes, we are beautiful and worthy of adventure. And yes, our stories matter.
So here’s to you, Tiana of New Orleans.