2017-09-06 08:12:03
Frugal Family: We Wanted a Carefree Family Trip. So We Invited a Second Family.

It was Friday night at Bacchanal, a lusty backyard wine shop, open-air restaurant and performance stage deep in a postindustrial corner of New Orleans’s Bywater neighborhood, a levee away from the muddy Mississippi. I drank wine and flirted with a handsome man as a jazz quartet played and a warm wind shook the flowering trees overhead. The man was my husband and the semitropical air was weighted with expectation. This was a rare opportunity.

Parents of a toddler, Tim and I don’t get nights out together often — much less late nights in New Orleans, a city we love and that we visited whenever possible in the years before our 22-month-old daughter, Roxie, was born. But on this mild night, Roxie was asleep in a pop-up travel tent on the floor of our Airbnb, a short walk away, and we were flush with freedom.

This had been my scheme. I’d been wanting to rope our friends, Meghan and Andrew, who live in Chicago with their son Albie — a year older than Roxie — into a two-family trip. Spring in New Orleans, a long-but-doable drive from Illinois, finally convinced them. It was high season in late March, but for about the cost per family of a modest motel room ($112 a night), I found a full two-bedroom apartment, the rear unit in a historic shotgun house. It had a kitchen and a washer-dryer, the things that make being away from home with a toddler feel more manageable and less like a television episode of “Survivor.”

The apartment was in the Bywater, a once-working class neighborhood where — years ago, pre-Hurricane Katrina — Tim and I had been convinced we would someday live. I remember feeling at home among its eccentric residents and fabulously gawdy-colored shoe box cottages, many now spray-painted with the cross-shaped search symbols used by rescue and relief agencies in Katrina’s aftermath. Despite now being deep in the throes of gentrification, the Bywater still feels lived in, unlike some places that change so quickly that nothing is left but the architecture. I was thrilled to be back.

The plan seemed flawless. We could spend concentrated time with friends we seldom see in a place we love, save money by splitting costs and, I hoped, swap a couple nights of babysitting, with each couple taking a turn staying in after bedtime while the other couple was cut loose.

Having had Roxie at 36, I don’t often miss the wantonness of my pre-parenthood life. I had my fill. But in New Orleans, I pined for us to be some version of the couple we’d been in the 14 years before Roxie made our lives bigger, more joyous and significantly less carefree. So, by the time we got our Friday night alone, we’d spent hours scouring online music listings, trying to decide between the dozens of intriguing free or cheap shows. We didn’t just want to listen to music, we wanted to dance. We wanted to drink too much and stay out too late.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on an evening. Our plan was to wait until Roxie was asleep so our friends wouldn’t have to tackle bedtime, walk to dinner, then hop a Lyft across town to Tipitina’s, a bar where Tank and The Bangas — a woman-led soul band with wild energy — was performing for $12. It took Tim and me so long to settle on our destination that by the time we arrived, after a lengthy detour at the mercy of lost Lyft driver, the show was sold out.

From there, our night just stalled. We lost momentum. We wandered the neighborhood around Tipitina’s, hoping to chance upon something wonderful in a city that rewards aimlessness. But we never found our footing. We tried one bar, then another — bickering, as we rarely do, over who was at fault for our lousy planning. Ultimately, though, we were just tired parents with the back-of-mind worry that our daughter would wake while we were out.

But even if our aspirations for a night of undomesticated, immoderate revelry were unfulfilled, the two-family trip was a revelation in less dramatic but equally significant ways. As our family’s designated travel planner, for example, I was thrilled to have another set of eyes and interests guiding our itinerary. While I was searching for rentals, Meghan compiled a list of friend-recommended restaurants and made reservations for a three-hour Confederacy of Cruisers “Creole New Orleans” bicycle tour ($49 per adult). It was a two-family outing that wouldn’t have occurred to me. But the two- and three-year-olds rode in toddler seats mounted on each dad’s bike. It ended up being a high point of the trip.

Our guide, Keith, a native New Orleanean in a white linen shirt, a straw hat and a silver beard, performed his hometown’s history with theatrical flourish. In his telling, the complex interwoven narrative of African slaves and freed blacks, of French Canadian “Cajuns” and Colonial Protestants, of German, Italian and Irish immigrants was an artfully constructed dark comedy. The ride itself had us navigating mellow side streets a few blocks at a time, then stopping at a cathedral or a monument or an old recording studio-turned-laundromat, where Keith would fire off anecdotes and trivia, periodically lamenting that he was “again giving unjustifiably short shrift to the Native Americans” — a lighthearted yet self-aware acknowledgment of how much history he was glossing over.

That night we all piled into Meghan and Andrew’s S.U.V. and drove across town. We were following the recommendation of the owner of our rental, Danny, a native New Yorker who has lived down South for decades. Danny had offered to pick Tim, Roxie and me up at the airport and had arrived in a cream-colored, 1980s-era Cadillac with a laundry list of recommendations that he rattled off faster than I could write them down: the not-to-miss live music happening that week, the neighborhood bar that sells crayfish at $10 per pound on Tuesdays and his favorite .50-cent raw oyster happy hour: Superior Seafood in Uptown. I trusted him implicitly.

With two car seats and four adults, it was a cramped ride, requiring some creative seating arrangements. (I spent the ride to Superior curled up in the S.U.V.’s cargo trunk.) The meal, in an unexpectedly elegant dining room of dark wood, bronze accents and white table cloths, made us feel as if we were somehow getting away with something unseemly by paying so little. We ordered a dozen large, plump, raw oysters for $6. Then we ordered another. Meghan and I shared a $9 bottle of decent sauvignon blanc, while Tim and Andrew drank $3 pints of craft I.P.A.’s and the kids gobbled fried shrimp and French fries ($6). This was vacation food, indulgent and celebratory. Our entire bill came to $38.

Danny was a charming, generous host. But what had drawn me to his place was its backyard, which was shaded with trees and had not only a screened-in porch but a swim spa: a cross between a small pool with jets and a large hot tub. During the day, we would unleash the floaties and splash with the kids in the temperate water, a welcome break from the midday heat. White butterflies flitted among the leaves and birds with deep indigo feathers hopped from branch to branch. At night, we’d turn up the temperature, Meghan would make Sazeracs, the classic New Orleans cocktail of absinthe, rye and Peychaud’s bitters, and the four of us would stay up late, soaking and laughing under the stars.

Working around nap schedules meant that there were times when the best use of a three-hour window was to stay close to home. We’d take the Rusty Rainbow — an arch-shaped pedestrian train track overpass — from Piety Street to Crescent Park, an unpolished, Highline-style public space built from the remnants of riverfront industry. We’d walk through the Bywater and the next neighborhood north, Faubourg Marigny, where the “Creole cottages” and shotgun shacks were painted like multicolored parrots. We’d return to the same corner store, Frady’s One Stop, again and again — eating our way through its menu of impossibly affordable foot-long po boys, muffulettas and “Grumpy Old Man” budget breakfasts (beautifully scrambled eggs, butter-doused grits, toast and sausage for $5.50) at the playground across the street.

Other days, we were more ambitious, with varying degrees of success. One overcast morning, we all rode the $3 streetcar — which the kids would happily have done all day — to the Garden District, a neighborhood of stately mansions and sprawling shade trees. We stopped in Stein’s Market & Deli, a classic Jewish delicatessen, where we ordered meaty $10 sandwiches that were large enough for two meals.

Another afternoon, we drove to City Park, a 1,300-acre public park with fields and lakes, museums and amusement parks. Though there’s a children’s book themed playground (admission $4) at the park, we decided on the free-admission sculpture garden instead. Paddle boats and gondolas dipped under a bridge leading to winding paths through massive, three-dimensional works that shimmered in the sun and reached to the sky. The piece that stayed with me was the artist Do-Ho Suh’s “Karma,” a stainless-steel man with another man crouched on his shoulders, and another man on his, and on his, and on his, arching high above us like a human spine. Tim and Andrew stood beside it, Roxie and Albie on their respective shoulders, a juxtaposition that was both ridiculous and somehow poignant.

I never did get the carefree night out I’d wanted so badly; and neither did Meghan and Andrew, who didn’t take us up on our offer to return the favor of babysitting Roxie. In the end, it didn’t matter. Watching Roxie and Albie walk hand-in-hand (and occasionally squabble) was, as much as anything, what the trip was about. That and delicious food, beautiful art and stunning architecture. And friendship. Friendship and Sazeracs.