Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mardi Grads, Meteorological Grandeur, and Ms Gillard

Did somebody say Mardi Gras?

New Orleans during the Carnival season is the stuff of dreams. Heck, New Orleans full stop is the stuff of dreams. As such, it’s fair to say for the past seventeen days I feel as though I’ve been walking around in some kind of lucid dreamscape as we have experienced New Orleans from the inside and outside. I’ve seriously been waiting for Leonardo DiCaprio to show up and steal all my subconscious secrets. Anyway, pop culture references aside, the two weeks were fascinating, and I now have an insight into the Who Dat city only a privileged few have.

            Admittedly, first impressions on arriving in the city aren’t great. Winding around bridges and causeways crossing polluted lakes and the Mississippi, with poor neighbourhoods still showing visible decimation from the Hurricane Katrina (almost six years ago now. It’s completely shocking to see these communities still in such disarray) had me quite deflated – maybe the city hadn’t recovered, maybe the rumours were true. Certainly a few of the people we had met along the way, particularly in Tennessee, Alabama, and rural Louisiana, were vicious in their condemnation of New Orleans. One charming gentleman told setting foot in the French Quarter was the worst mistake we could make – ‘full of titty bars, alcohol, Katy Perry and sin,’ was his verdict. That was a red rag to a bull, and so, of course the first thing we did in our spare time was steam down Decatur St, hunting down all that smut that had been so strongly described to us. Strangely we didn’t find it (who would’ve thought?), but instead we found a place that is, yes, a tourist trap, but still an incredible, vibrant, exciting locale. The first thing I noticed was the complete assault on all your senses. Sure, in most places you can be in awe of the architecture, hear the local music or accent, and taste the food, but down in the Quarter your sense of smell and touch work overtime too. Every square metre (I mean yard. I forget the metric system doesn’t exist here. Fact: Introducing the metric system will cause society as we know it to disappear. In fact, I’m predicting that if we keep using metric, there will be a sub-prime mortgage crisis, causing a global financial meltdown, coupled with a catastrophic warming of global temperatures. Hang on…) has its own unique scent, be it the aroma of incense from voodoo hideouts, the smell of crawfish and shrimp being prepared for étouffeé, gumbo or jambalaya, or, yes, maybe the stench of leftover vomit after one ‘hurricane’ too many on one of the balconies. And the Quarter just wouldn’t be the Quarter without the sticky footpath, or the feel of the icing sugar permeating every part of your body as you try to cleanly eat a beignet (an infinitely more awesome version of the donut), whilst slurping café au lait infused with chicory. Heaven.

            Although we certainly did spend a good amount of time being tourists – it’s hard not to in a city like New Orleans - in fact the brunt of our time was spent performing in local schools and colleges, and staying with families connected to the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans. Two of the three families who hosted us, and many others we met, had been directly affected by Hurricane Katrina, and their stories were both uplifting and saddening. The hurricane is still the most common point of conversation in New Orleans, and it’s easy to see why: It’s still so present in so many ways. Most streets still haven’t been re-paved, only people with enough money have rebuilt their homes, and empty blocks and abandoned homes still prevail in many areas. Compounding this is the apathy towards the situation that still abounds, which in fact borders on antipathy in many other areas of Louisiana. One of our hosts told us that most Louisianans outside of New Orleans felt that ‘we had it coming’ due to all the ‘immoral activity’ that goes on in the city. ‘But what they don’t realise,’ she continued, ‘is that the damage didn’t happen there. It happened where the normal people live, and they’re still struggling to recover.’ Yet these people seem to me to have a positivity that I’ve not seen anywhere else in this country. Perhaps it’s the weather, or the parades…or the food. Uniqueness manifests itself everywhere in this part of the world, but nowhere so much in food. Here’s a small sample of the traditional New Orleans fare we have eaten:
  • Crawfish étouffeé: A creamy, coconut and rice thing with crawfish (kind of like yabbies)
  • Red Beans and Rice: This is usually served on Monday, when in past times women would spend the day washing, and needed something which could cook all day without being watched. So the enterprising creatures came up with the idea of cooking red kidney beans, tomato, and sausage for hours, and serving it over rice. They were on a winner, too.
  • Beignets: Fried dough (similar to donuts) served with more sugar than dough. But who’s complaining about that?
  • Po Boys: Kind of like a sub, the most common varieties are roast beef and deep fried shrimp (delicious and nutritious). They are then smothered in gravy, tomatoes, pickles, lettuce and mayonnaise, to a stack size that would require a mouth three times normal size to eat easily. The sign of a good Po Boy eater is that he/she makes as much mess as is humanly possible, which, as a messy eater anyway, I took on with great gusto. In fact, just yesterday I found some leftover gravy in my belly button…
  • Jambalaya: A New Orleans risotto served with whatever you can find: usually crawfish, shrimp, sausage (noticing a theme yet?), and chicken.
  • Gumbo: Like jambalaya, but more soupy.
  • King cake: a giant cinnamon roll with multi-coloured icing, served during Mardi Gras celebrations.
It’s common in New Orleans that when describing an animal or plant, the first follow-up question is ‘can you cook it?’ The food is real peasant stuff, but it’s just fantastic. Too fantastic, my stomach is telling me.

            Our performances in the city were also something to remember. At every school, we were received incredibly warmly, and excited students rushed to ask questions and take photos. A particular highlight was a high school where we were swamped by adoring young girls who were quick to label me as ‘awkward, but in a hot way.’ Uhhh…thanks? I should point out that, before I am accused of being arrogant and vain, me being called ‘hot’ has nothing to do with me at all. With an Australian accent, you can look like you were liberally doused in ugly powder whilst young and still be called hot…but more about that later. In actual fact they were more interested in He Who Has the Massive Hair, and so I was more or less bypassed (not complaining). The real high point of the week, however, came on Friday. First was an interview and performance on breakfast television, so I can now say I have been on TV in the US. Sure, I may have looked and sounded like a pompous git, but at least I looked like a pompous git on network TV. Friday evening brought a concert with the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans, in the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. The sound of 150 voices soaring through the room was really spine tingling stuff, and the extended standing ovation at the end really capped it all off. The days that we are struggling after singing the same songs countless times over 10 weeks, we just remember the affect hearing international music can have on audiences, and the excitement comes rushing back.

            Mardi Gras is, in reality, the day before Ash Wednesday (mardi gras is ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French), but the carnival celebrations go on for weeks leading up to the big day. We were lucky enough to be caught in the thick of it, and managed to catch six parades the space of just a few days. What makes Mardi Gras different is the ‘throws’ – trinkets (most often beads) that are thrown off floats to spectators, creating what can only be described as a miles-long mosh pit, moving to the sound of New Orleans jazz bands and hundreds strong marching bands and troupes. Contrary to common belief, you do not have to take your top off to receive any beads (if that was the case I would’ve received many more than what I did get), but it does help if you have something to catch the attention of the float riders. To this end, we were equipped with huge signs proclaiming it our first Mardi Gras, with symbols of our home countries plastered at the bottom (Sergio drew mine, and despite my noisy protestations, the kangaroo still got boxing gloves), and we waved them around madly on the route, hip-and-shouldering anyone who got in our way. It’s every man for himself on the parade route – the savvy parade-goer will arrive hours early to stake out his spot, beer and food are carried in eskies to ensure not a moment of action is missed, and children are merely smaller obstacles to your loot than a full grown adult. It’s not harsh, it’s just the way of things. Here, our newly-formed connections with the New Orleans locals really came in handy, as we found the perfect position to view and catch, with easy access to a loo (this may seem inconsequential, but trust me, after hours of standing around eating and drinking, it helps), and good strategies for catching. We came home from each parade laden with beads, cups and stuffed toys, exhausted but filled with carnival buzz.

            All paraded-out, three of the four of us used our free weekend to return to Mississippi to visit some friends. An easy, relaxing drive, followed by a weekend spent in good company. Not quite so. Within minutes of starting our drive, the heavens opened. Actually, not opened. Burst. Exploded. Erupted. Detonated. Anyway, you get the picture – there was a heck of a lot of water. So here we were, three international singers trying to navigate the interstate system (at 120km/h+ speeds), with torrential rain coming down, trucks whoosing past, and roadworks thrown in just to keep us on our toes. Kayla, our driver, told us at the end of the trip that she had to hide her emotions to ensure we weren’t frightened. Last time I checked, shaking at the wheel, squealing and a liberal dose of swearing were the antithesis of not showing emotion, but I’ll let her false bravado slide. For now. Thankfully the rest of the weekend went exactly as I had hoped. We cooked for each other, went cycling through the forest (jumping back on a bike after a three-year hiatus is fun, but uncomfortable on the derriere to say the least), watched movies and consumed root beer floats until the wee hours. We left (in much nicer weather thankfully) feeling happy and slightly healthier than we did when we arrived – who would’ve known that good food and exercise could be so good for you? It might just catch on some day.

            In case you were wondering, the mentioning of our Prime Minister was not to complete a stunning double-triple alliteration (although it did a pretty damn good job, if I say so myself) but rather to alert you to the fact that our very own Joolya has arrived in the country to fawn over the Prez for a few days. Finally, I’m not alone, and all I need is to turn on CNN to hear the dulcet tones of the PM. Which brings me back to my earlier allusion of Australian accents being audible beer goggles to many Americans. When the Hon. Rednut first appeared on screen, I quickly gave the obligatory ‘don’t worry, she dyes her hair and not all Australians sound like her’ spiel, just to cover my bases. Breathing a sigh of relief when CNN finally decided that How to Save Money was far more important than Crocodile Dundee and Pippi Longstocking’s love child (the first tip they offered: Spend less. I’m still reeling), I turned to face my host family to defend my national pride. ‘Oh, what a good looking Prime Minister you have,’ they began. I was wondering if we were watching the same programme. ‘And such a lovely voice!’

            Henny Penny, I think the sky is falling in.

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