I didn’t know what to expect of New Orleans. It was a mythical place full of history, music, colour, many races, food, corruption, terrible hurricanes and floods, awful stories of loss, strength, heroism, mismanagement, and ultimately regeneration.
I spoke to one local, a man of about my age, who maintained that Katrina was the best thing to have happened to New Orleans, as it cleared out the bad. I also spoke to a strong, brave young woman, who told us her Katrina story. She was 19 and alone, apart from her dog. I will never forget her words, the look on her face, and finally a few tears. If you meet someone from New Orleans, ask them their story, they usually want to tell you.
We hadn’t been to New Orleans pre-Katrina, so we have nothing with which to compare the current city. When we arrived, in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, I found it jubilant and expectant, noisy and musical, and above all, incredibly friendly. People chatted with us everywhere – in the grocery checkout line, in bars and restaurants, and simply walking along the streets. If we paused for just a few seconds to see something more clearly, someone would strike up a conversation. There’s also a massive amount of building work going on, and this is heartening to see.
I was unfortunately still suffering from bronchitis, so we alternated trips to urgent care and filling prescriptions, with helping our hosts Brian and Rebecca bead up the house,
and finding new and delicious things to eat in the local restaurants.
Brian enthusiastically gave us recommendations to his favourite places such as Three Muses, Port of Call, Café Negril and Bamboula. Music is everywhere, and although everyone has heard of Bourbon Street, for me Frenchmen Street became my musical home. I love trad jazz, as well as bluesy rock n roll, and the clubs and bars of Frenchmen Street were honey to my ears.
After a trip to buy a couple of masks, we were ready to see our first parades. Forget the images of drunken tourists baring all for beads in Bourbon Street. Set yourself up outside the Irish House pub on St Charles, you get waitress service outside, and a warm place to duck into during the wait for the parades (it was an unusually cold February!).
Of course we got chatting: with locals Diane & Koral,
visitors Chelsea with her dog Vash,
and semi-locals Brian and his daughter Maddie,
who were waiting for the Nyx parade, as Brian’s wife Kaye was in the Nyx Krewe. Diane shared some of her King Cake flavoured vodka (what a concept!),
Chelsea told us stories of travelling the country with her dog, and Brian and Maddie were so excited to see Kaye in the parade. We had learned about the “neutral ground” – the central strip separating the two lanes of traffic. Families set up on the neutral ground hours before the parades begin. They have bbq’s, a few beers, the children play, the adults chat, and everyone waits in prime position for the parades to begin.
Finally, our first Mardi Gras parade began: the Ancient Druids began to pass. Each member is masked, in costume and wearing a tall black druid-style hat. Music, beads, bubbles, arms waving. We shouted ourselves hoarse: “throw me something Mister!”
And they did! Not only beads, but druid hats, purses, and all kinds of shiny bling were tossed by the armful! The floats were extraordinary, the marching bands were in step, the dance and cheer groups were spectacular, and the audience kept shouting for more! Sometimes there were gaps in between floats, and inexplicable pauses, and those were some of the most fun times, as we watched a small group of wildly energetic children give us their take on how to dance for Mardi Gras. I bet they slept well that night!
Here’s a short video I took and edited of the Druids and Nyx parades.
The first time my eyes connected with a masked Krewe member, and s/he threw some beads directly to me, I felt the meaning of Mardi Gras. It’s about pride in belonging to a group, a neighbourhood, the camaraderie, the willingness to spend months making costumes and collectible throws, decorating the floats, rehearsing the moves, and connecting with the audience, who are more than audience. When we connect, we participate. It sounds corny, but I truly felt the soul of New Orleans. These are the last few frantic days leading up to Lent, in a traditionally Catholic city, and we are going to make the most of it!
When the Mystic Krewe of Nyx floats began to arrive, the excitement around us reached its peak! Brian and Maddie were straining to see Kaye, and so were we. “Throw me something Mister!” What do you shout if the Krewe is all female?! Kaye was so kind – Brian had texted her about meeting new friends from out of town, and she had put together a swag bag of every item of throws that Nyx had, including a gorgeous hand-beaded purse, that I will always cherish.
What memories of our first Mardi Gras parades! I confess that I cried a little with the emotion.
The fun and feasting continued over the next few days. Mardi Gras parades continue daily, usually at least three parades a day, for the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday itself. As well as parades, the people of NOLA meet up and have parties. We met new friends Robin & Bob (introduced to us online by mutual friends in CA).
We enjoyed a lovely foody and chatty evening with them at Mr B’s Restaurant.
Even daytime in Jackson Square is crazy during Mardi Gras, with music on every corner, and people in or out of costume!
We loved randomly meeting new friends in bars, and deciding to go for beignets followed by a walk along the river with Kickie and Stacy.
We were thrilled to learn that the Endymion parade, one of the largest in the city, was due to pass just three blocks from our temporary home at Brian’s house. We found ourselves a prime location on the library steps, and watched the hours-long parade of incredible opera themed floats go by.
Click on the link below to watch my video of the Endymion parade:
That evening ended with a fun impromptu pizza and champagne party back at Brian’s house, filled with self-proclaimed gays, straights, rednecks, Cajuns and us!
The next evening we cycled out to meet Brian and Robert,
to watch the huge Bacchus parade. We saw some of the most enormous, spectacular floats we had ever seen – frogs and alligators, duck hunters and kayakers! We also saw an interesting “backwards” tradition. Beads are usually thrown from the floats to the audience, but in this parade, there were a couple of giant King Kong figures, with no Krewe members on them, and this is the only time the audience is allowed (for safety reasons) to throw beads back to the floats. Giant gorillas covered in beads… only in New Orleans!
My Bacchus video follows, click below:
After the parade, Brian, Robert, Chris & I cycled to the Quarter looking for a late dinner, came across this fire & knife juggler, on a street corner!
We eventually ended up in a dive bar, Port of Call, which served delicious burgers and the most enormous loaded potatoes I’ve ever seen!
We continued on to Frenchmen Street, and hung out in Café Negril and Bamboula, enjoying the music. We cycled back home at 1 am, through the Quarter, and along Canal Street, seeing the hard-working garbage crews clean up all the beads and mess, ready for the next day’s festivities.
We were delighted to be invited to brunch at Cathy’s lovely home in the Garden District the next day. We enjoyed the wonderful spread of food, and the fun and interesting mix of people. After that Brian and Rebecca took us to the park, where we boogied to the music of Kermit Ruffins and Amanda Shaw.
Mardi Gras day itself was extremely, unusually cold, and soon started pouring rain, so many people, including ourselves, changed plans. We watched some of the parades on TV, and felt bad for the Krewes, who stoically carried on. However, judging by what we saw and felt, the spirit of New Orleans is still alive and kicking. This is definitely a city I’d love to come back and visit again. Laissez les bons temps roulez!
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