The best part of Mardi Gras is rediscovering it through someone else’s eyes

When I was waiting in line to check out at Winn-Dixie on Saturday, the man standing behind me did the side-eye scan of my basket, taking in the stack of frozen pizzas, bags of Zapp’s and packs of bacon sitting atop a foundation of boxed wine and beer.

“Having a party?” he laughed.

It’s Mardi Gras, so aren’t we all?

As young adults who live in New Orleans with the benefit of a guest room or, that is, an available flat service, my husband and I are about to enter our third year of hosting out-of-towners for the final days of Carnival. It means we’ve had extra keys made, bought another set of towels and sheets and made that big grocery store trip so we have sustenance in the late hours when we stumble home from parades or wake up famished and ready for brunch.

It is not, to be sure, an easy thing to host a bunch of people during perhaps the most un-plannable time of year in New Orleans. You’ve got the logistics to figure out, planes to meet and people to feed between all the assurances that no, you really can’t expect to drive around certain parts of town during parades. The box, y’all, you gotta learn about the box!

One of my friends who’ll bunk up with us this Mardi Gras is Lauren, a friend I’ve known now for nearly six years after we met working together in Baton Rouge. Back then, she’d make weekend trips to New Orleans, coming back exhausted but exhilarated all at once. Lauren caught that weird, unpinpointable thing that people from elsewhere often figure out quickly, that New Orleans is unlike anywhere they’ve ever been. She’s since moved out of state, but visits often and, when she’s here, makes it a point to track down second-lines, carry a go-cup and never leave the house in her natural hair color.

I used to smile, amused, at the innocent joy she’d feel discovering things I was lucky enough to grow up with. Yep, you can wear a costume any day of the week, and no one notices. Yep, the fever for the New Orleans Saints is unavoidable and infectious. Yep, people here don’t bother being worried that you’re just doin’ you, letting your freak flag fly. Yep, yep, yep. All of those things and more.

Eventually, though, I learned a new appreciation for Lauren’s discoveries: These were the things I’d slowly learned to take for granted as I got older, trusting that the bars would never close and that you could celebrate your life however you wanted so long as you were nice while doing it.

These days, there are new things I love about when Lauren visits. When I watch her painstakingly select the sequins or weird cat-printed leggings that somehow speak more to her true self than the professional attire her normal life requires, what I’m really seeing is her giving herself permission to choose her own route to happiness.

And this year, we’re expanding our circle. My siblings-in-law will be joining us at Mardi Gras for the first time, and I’ve spent the last couple weeks sending suggestions — comfy shoes and functional purses! — and fielding questions over costumes and sparkly tops. It’senjoy work, sure, but getting to enjoy the silent humble-bragging that we get to live in this place, that you can be whoever you want to be here, that joy?

It makes it all perfectly well worth it.

Chelsea Brasted is a columnist on the Latitude team at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write to Chelsea at cbrasted@nola.com. You can also call or text with story ideas, tips and complaints 225.460.1350.