Saturday, March 26, 2011

Footy Clothes, French Creole, and Florida’s Charms

Southern Louisiana in two images - Alligators and footy shorts

One of my tasks before arriving in the US was to find a suitable ‘traditional costume’ should a concert host request that we wear something native to our home countries. For me, this proved a little difficult. I wasn’t about to go and find an Aboriginal outfit, because I’m not Aboriginal myself, and, let’s face it, most traditional garb for Indigenous nations, especially from the desert, is fairly revealing. So for the first few months of the trip, I wore a cobbled-together ‘jackaroo’ costume, which was not particularly inspiring, although it did give me a platform from which I could launch a scintillating ‘the male version is a jackaroo, the female version is a jillaroo, and when you put them together you get a jack-and-jill-went-up-the-hillaroo’ joke. Eventually, however, I got a bit sick of wearing a flanno, jeans and an akubra whilst the others were resplendent in bright, colourful, unique costumes. To counteract this, I remembered that I had brought footy clothes with me, just in case the opportunity arose that I could wear them, and that before I arrived here, I remember watching Ellen Degeneres interviewing one of the Modern Family actors having a good old chinwag about how Australian men have a strange habit of wearing ridiculously short shorts. Ahah, I thought. Not only a new, exciting costume, but some sort of story to go with it.

            My first outing of my new costume was at a presentation at a municipal library in Houma, Louisiana, down on the bayou in Cajun Country. What a wonderful place to first wear my Cats footy jumper I bought when I was twelve, dazzlingly maroon shorts, and holey green and white footy socks that reach above my knees. Strangely, I was actually a little self-conscious before the show began, hiding behind a strategically placed desk as the audience walked in. Eventually, however, I had to show myself for the start of the performance, and throughout our first few songs there was constant mutterings from the audience, in particular a group of ‘mature’ women sitting in the front row. Finally it came time for me to speak to the audience (I’m usually last because English is my native language – Americans love suspense and surprises), and so I could explain the cute little getup. I began fairly conventionally, explaining the Ellen Degeneres story, the popularity of Aussie Rules, and the origin of each of the separate pieces. Then I got ahead of myself. I was explaining that whilst the shorts may have seemed quite revealing to American eyes, my ‘modern’ wearing of them had them a bit longer than they would have been twenty years ago. ‘For example’, I went on, ‘For all the years my father played footy, he wore his shorts like this’, hoisting up the shorts to a height not seen since Robert DiPierdomenico graced the Glenferrie Oval, flashing my bright green underwear to all who were willing to see the show (at least I had the foresight to ensure my shorts and underwear were strikingly complementary. Imagine if my jocks were red. It would be like watching an episode of the Tellitubbies wearing rose-coloured glasses. Instead, it was just like watching an episode of the Tellitubbies normally). The aforementioned ladies’ club provided the best spectrum of  reactions. Of the four, one laughed, one couldn’t turn her face quickly enough, one gave a rather surreptitiously sultry thanks-for-the-view glance, whist the fourth one almost fainted (I’m still deciding if it was from excitement or shock. Maybe both). At least the women from Houma won’t be forgetting the day that the Australian came to visit for a while.

            Southern Louisiana wasn’t entirely made up of middle-aged and elderly women showing adverse reactions to the sight of Australian legs. We were lucky enough to experience a swamp tour where we were exposed to the nuances, joys, and sometimes confusions of the Louisiana Creole culture. The launch pad for the boat trip was at a Creole family’s house and store, filled with exotic animals such as snakes, gators and snapping turtles, and decorated so tackily it put Kath Day-Knight’s pineapple and chopstick-inspired table setting to shame. As we were wandering through the property, our guide stopped, pulled a baby alligator out of a bucket and brandished it around, saying ‘Heda coodie, innie?’ Pardon? Our host mother (a Louisiana native) translated: ‘He’s a cutie, isn’t he?’ Well, if you insist. A little later: ‘Dem snappin turda, he gonna bide you finga clean off you puddit dere!’ Apparently the snapping turtle likes the taste of human fingers. Soon afterward, we boarded a boat for the tour of the bayou and swamp. Our excitable guide was soon regaling us with all the sights around ‘Dere! Dat gator biiig boy!’ Sure enough, there was a three-metre alligator just a few metres from our boat. The swamp was filled with all manner of wildlife, trees, and houseboats decked out in Confederate flags, often with stickers proclaiming ‘if this flag offends you, you need a history lesson’. Personally, I feel that a ‘if you need a tacky sticker to justify displaying this flag, you probably shouldn’t display it’ sticker would have fitted the bill better, but Southern Louisiana plays by its own rules. Our Creole-speaking guide pedalled away on his rusty pushbike the moment he had us off the boat. This untouched piece of a bygone era, filled with drawbridges, over-vegetated gardens, people to whom neither English nor French was a first language, and where fried chicken and crawfish jambalaya is the epitome of health food, may not be the first place on a list of where to holiday, or even the top ten, but it sure was fun. And that little gator was a coodie too.

            Last week we left Lousiana after a month’s stay (it almost feels like home now) for the state of Florida. Americans call this place ‘God’s waiting room’, and immediately upon arrival it was easy to see why – the average age of Florida residents must be at least 60, and retirement complexes appear on almost every street in its cities and towns. Still, there is something of an idyllic feeling to the state – warm weather, palm trees, and complex waterway networks. My first host here was a dentist quite obviously going through a mid-life crisis – he lives in a treehouse ‘inspired’ home on the water, with a speedboat parked out the back, which he used to transport us to a waterfront bar for an evening of live music and relaxing. A little ostentatious, but then again, if I were a single, middle-aged dentist, I might live the same way too. Apart from that, Florida has been all singing, with a couple of hours at the beach (just enough to get sunburnt), although I’ve decided I don’t much like the beach here – it’s not very far from last year’s oil spill, and the beach reminds me too much of home. Still, we have complimentary passes to Disney World next week, so Florida still has an opportunity to show me it’s more than old people, playboy dentists, and oil infested beaches. Watch this space.

            Given the recent occurrence of St Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d finish with this.

Paddy was the first man in his village to own a motorbike, and for its maiden voyage, he asked his best mate Murphy along for a ride. Murphy gladly accepted, but after a few kilometres he shouted ‘Stop! Stop!’
‘What’s the matter?’ Paddy enquired
‘It’s too cold! I can’t take it!’ Murphy replied.
Thinking on his feet, Paddy said, ‘Well why don’t you take off your jacket, put it on backwards, and button it up that way – you’ll be more protected from the wind and it won’t be so cold!’

            Thinking this was a wonderful idea, Murphy did exactly that, and Paddy biked on happily for quite a while before turning around to see how Murphy was getting on – he was gone. Frantically, Paddy turned back, to find Murphy sitting on the road five kilometres away, surrounded by a group of farmers. ‘Oh thank God I’ve found him!’ Paddy cried. ‘Is the poor man okay?’
‘Well,’ replied one of the farmers, ‘He was fine when we got here. But then we turned his head around the right way, and he hasn’t spoken a word since!’

Happy St Patrick's Day!

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.