Monday, February 21, 2011

Inside a Carnival Krewe

    This is the real deal of Mardi Gras! It's these organizations that put on all the parades that tourists flock to the city to see! The government has no part in planning or putting on the parade. They simply provide the police presence and the infrastructure. Everything else is done by the krewe itself. Getting in with a krewe and going to krewe events is like having a backstage pass to Mardi Gras! Traditions vary slightly between krewes for different things but the basic make up of our events is the same. These parties and festivities are events that tourists rarely get to see. But you know me *wink*, so here we go!
    My family belongs to the Krewe of Carrollton, which is the fourth oldest parading krewe in New Orleans. Like many krewes, Carrollton is an all male krewe. This means that the actual members are the guys, and they're the ones who ride on the floats and attend the meetings. Yet, this doesn't mean that women aren't involved! Ladies attend pretty much every event, plus the Past Queens and the wives of the King's Circle members (explanation momentarily) hold many of their own women-only events. There are also all female krewes (like Muses) and co-ed krewes (like Orpheus). For a krewe, Mardi Gras IS year round! Parties, get-togethers, dinners, and celebrations of varying size and formality occur all year. Meetings are held to discuss plans for the upcoming parade and ball. Also, of course (like anything else in New Orleans), to eat, drink, and generally have a good time. The leader of the krewe is called the Captain. The Captain is Captain for life (or until he chooses to resign). It is traditional for the Captain's identity not to be made public (although of course, the people in the krewe know who it is!). This is why you will see a Captain masked during a parade. The Captain is usually in all white riding at the very front of the parade. Although the position of Captain is voted on by a group of Officers, it is typical (especially for a well-liked Captain) to make it generally known who he wants to succeed him.  The Captain appoints the Officers, who help him in choosing that year's theme and selecting what float titles will be.  The krewe also has an executive board that is voted on by the members who take care of a lot of the financial and logistic decisions in the Krewe. The Royal Court has no part in making decisions, and hold their titles for one year. So yes, a Carnival Krewe has a Captain, a President, and a King... all at the same time!
    The events in the krewe generally revolve around the Royal Court and the celebration of their reign. Carrollton's Court is made up of a King and Queen who each have 2 pages, usually 6 or 8 maids and their dukes, junior maids (number varies), and ladies in waiting (around 10). Junior maids are girls usually around 12 - 15 years old. Maids are girls usually 16 - 20. Their dukes are typically men in the krewe and vary widely in age. Ladies in waiting are usually little girls 5-11 years old. The Queen is typically around 18-21. The King is a member of the krewe and his age can vary widely. Their pages are young boys and girls usually between 5 and 10. Other krewes' courts are similar although size and titles may vary. For instance, the king of Thoth is called the "Pharaoh" since Thoth is an Egyptian god. Some krewes may have more or less maids, that sort of thing. Different krewes also have differing traditions on how the court members are selected. This is how Carrollton does it...
    If you're a lady in waiting, junior maid, maid, page, or Queen, it's very simple. You pay. Family members pay the krewe, and the girl's name is put down on the list for the court for that year. For everything except Queen, the name does not have to be down too far ahead of time. Queens book up YEARS ahead. My daughter is two, and she is down to be Queen of Carrollton in 2027. We put her on the list as soon as the ultrasound confirmed we were having a girl. There are names down every year up to 2027 and some past that! There are families who put down a family's name for certain years for children who have not yet been conceived! This is the process for many of the krewes. The Twelfth Night Revellers, however, use the tradition of the King Cake to pick their court. Instead of a baby, they place one gold bean and several silver beans inside of a cake, and give slices to all girls of eligibility. The girl with the gold bean is the Queen, and the silver beans are her maids.
    For King the process is much different. In Carrollton, there is a club within the club called the King's Circle. The members of the King's Circle pay an additional fee to be a member. There are only 60 spots in the King's Circle, and it's of these 60 men that the King is chosen. Sometime in August, we have a "Pulling Party". A blank invitation is set out near the door, and all King's Circle members sign it as they enter the party. They then pick a number. Once all members are in attendance, the signed invite is placed in an envelope and mixed in among unsigned invites in envelopes. The members assemble, and according to the number they pulled, choose an envelope. They do not open these envelopes until the party is over. Once they are alone, they open the envelope. Whoever gets the signed invite has three options. 1. They can accept it and be king. 2. They can give it to any other member of the King's Circle. 3. They can sell it. The member who pulled it calls the Captain and let's him know what his decision is. If he chooses to sell it, the Captain then takes over. He has a list of which members are interested in case King comes up to buy. He calls these members and asks them to put in a bid. This bid can be for ANY amount. Nobody else's bid is revealed. Simply the highest bid offered gets the Kingship. King selection varies widely between krewes. Some krewes only pull from a select group, some, like Endymion, pull from all members of the krewe. Others have a list, similar to a Queen's list.
    The King's identity remains secret until the Coronation Ball, which is held usually around late October or early November. The Coronation is really a transitional event-saying farewell to last year's court and welcoming this year's. The ladies of the court are presented in white gowns, and the whole atmosphere is slightly less formal than at the actual Carnival Ball. Coronation Balls are fairly new to the Carnival scene, around 20 years ago, but once they were introduced, many krewes have picked up on them as if they were any traditional Carnival necessity. At Carrollton's the Captain makes a big to-do over who the next king will be by walking around the ballroom and trying the crown on various King's Circle members' heads in turn. He'll often fake-out the audience by placing the crown, shaking the member's hand, only to remove the crown as soon as that member begins to stand up. It's very amusing! In Endymion, any member can be crowned King, and the audience watches as a name is pulled from a large basket at random. It has happened before where a member's very first year in Endymion has been his year as king! 
    Between the Coronation and the Carnival Ball, there are numerous parties that occur in honor of the Court. Sometimes, court members' families throw a party (usually revolving around king cake) for their family and friends honoring their lady of the court. The Queen is expected to throw a luncheon for her and all of her maids to attend. The King throws a luncheon as well. One very popular place for these luncheons is Antoine's, an upscale, historic New Orleans restaurant that houses a good amount of Mardi Gras memorabilia. There is a room in Antoine's called "The Rex Room" because it houses memorabilia from past royalty of the Krewe of Rex as well as portraits of EVERY King and Queen of Carnival. This is the most popular room to request for a King or Queen's luncheon. An Open House is also held for krewe members to purchase Carrollton throws (as in beads, cups, etc... that is... anything you could throw off a float with the Carrollton emblem on it), Carrollton shirts and such, and favors and ball invitations.
    It is traditional for krewe members to purchase krewe favors to give to their female guests at the Ball. Sometimes these are necklaces or brooches, compact mirrors, small music boxes. They're usually some sort of small item that goes along with the theme for the year although sometimes they just have the krewe emblem on it. This year they're a really nice picture frame with the krewe emblem. 
    How do you get invited to a Carnival Ball? Usually, you have to know someone in the krewe, who either pays for your invitation or you give them money, and they'll pick up your invitation for you. Orpheus, Endymion, and Zulu sell invitations to their Balls online to the public. It is considered very poor taste to refer to Ball Invitations as "tickets", even though you pay for them and use them for admittance. Yes, in the case of Carnival Balls, you pay to be invited.
    Balls are extremely formal events. Men wear tuxedos and ladies wear floor length gowns. Even the craziest, hugest Carnival Balls, like the Endymion Extravaganza and the Orpheuscapade (which don't even have Court presentations), are formal-attire only. The fantastic paradox about Carrollton and Endymion (and most of the Carnvial Balls) is that... they're BYOL (Bring Your OWn Liquor). So It's perfectly normal to see people in long evening gowns and tuxedos pulling ice chests and carrying grocery bags full of booze into an event that with protocol doormen who WILL turn you away if you're not in proper attire.
    As explained in a previous post, Carnival Balls come in two parts, the tableau and the supper-dance. Some krewes do them on separate nights and locations. Some, like Thoth, do them on the same night, but hold the two parts in different rooms. Carrollton holds both parts in the same room on the same night. In any krewe's presentation, you will notice that surrounding the dance floor are reserved seats that are just for ladies. These seats can be requested when purchasing invitations.
    The presentation of the court will start with introducing the Return Court, these are the maids and Queen of last year's Carnival Ball. Then, the present court is introduced. First the maids, then the King, then the ladies in waiting and the Queen. Each member of the court processes around the floor and curtsies or bows (except for the King and Queen, who wave their scepters) at different locations around the floor to acknowledge all of the guests. There are then usually several special presentations that the King and Queen make, flowers for the Returning Queen and usually presents to the wife of the King, mother of the Queen, and other special guests. Carrollton has a special tradition of presenting dolls to the wife of the King and mother of the Queen that are perfect representations of the King and Queen's costumes. After these presentations are over, the entire court processes once more around the floor in what's called "the Grand March" while the orchestra plays the official song of Mardi Gras, "If Ever I Cease to Love." The presentation is then over and the supper-dance begins! This all occurs over about a 2 hour period. At Carrollton, the presentation begins at 9, and dinner is not usually served until around 11. This can vary depending on how many court members there are, and in the case of a very traditional tableau, which some krewes do, there are short skits performed between maids that depict different aspects of that year's theme. Those can end up being around 3 hours. They are absolutely stunning events, and I LOVE going to them, but I do like to let people know ahead of time that they should eat beforehand and plan on sitting for a while. That's why I love how Carrollton does it all in one place. Since you're basically already at your dinner table, you can go ahead and snack while it's all going on... wards off the sugar-crash!
   After that, you dance dance dance until the band goes home or until you pass out, whichever comes first! One dance that you will see done during a Carnival Ball is the Second Line. This dance originates from Jazz Funerals. Instead of having everything be very sad and mournful, after the funeral, a Jazz band plays and the family takes the same hankies they used to wipe away their tears and they wave them in the air while they dance to celebrate the life of the person who died. The family and the band are known as the first line, and anyone else who joins in are called the second line, hence the name of the song. This song however, has expanded to be used not just at funerals but at weddings, parties, Carnival Balls... basically any large New Orleans occassion. You'll notice that a lot of people have special, decorated umbrellas at the Ball. As soon as this song starts, you'll see them all appear out of nowhere, and the dance floor will be a sea of umbrellas and people dancing with napkins!
   The morning of the parade, Carrollton has a breakfast at the House of Blues for the krewe and family and friends, after which everyone second lines back to the Hilton, which is where everyone gets dressed for the parade. Everyone riding is loaded into buses and taken to the start of the route. The Return court is taken in their costumes to ride in the parade. The current maids and Queen dress in skirt suits with matching gloves and hats and are taken in limos to the front of the parade where they toast to the Captain and King for a good ride. Then, they're taken to grandstands in front of a hotel to have brunch and then review the parade as it passes. The Queen toasts to the King when his float comes by.
    About a month after the parade, the king of Carrollton hosts a King's Party, a dinner and dance for the members of the court and the King's Circle. In some krewes, this party takes place during Carnival. While there may be several small parties and events that occur during the next couple of months, things stay pretty calm until the following August, when a new King is pulled and the partying begins all over again!
    As you can see, there's a lot that goes on, and every krewe is a little bit different and hold their own special events. Some krewes are extremely secretive, never revealing their royalty to the public and keeping their membership very private, but there are many organizations that are very open and anyone can participate in! Carrollton actually has a good number of out-of-town members. Having our Ball and Parade all in one weekend makes it very easy for guests to come to New Orleans and participate in all the big events. I have listed on the side links to several krewes who sell invites and membership to the general public. Go ahead and check it out! You can be a part of Mardi Gras too!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Parading: Where to Park and Where to Pee

     There are 75 parades rolling in and around New Orleans during Carnival Season this year! Seems a bit overwhelming, I know. Can you hit them all? Nope. This is logistically impossible as there are multiple parades rolling in different areas at the same time. Really what you need to decide is what kind of parade experience you want before you start plotting out which ones you're going to hit up and where you are going to stand. Are you going with a bunch of adults or is it a family affair? Are you concerned about catching as much as possible or are you more concerned about food choices or accessibility? New Orleanians don't just show up randomly at a parade. Many have their "spots" that they return to year after year, which are based on the above factors plus access to a potty. So what's the magic formula for perfect parading? Let's break it down...
   The families to adults ratio of a parade watching location is directly proportionate to the distance of the location from the start of the parade. As in, the closer you get to the beginning of the route, the more family oriented the atmosphere... and the closer you get to the end, the more adult it gets. This is ESPECIALLY true for night parades. Daytime parades are more family oriented in general and will have more families all along the route. The only real exception to this rule is Endymion. At the beginning of the Endymion route, the krewe hosts a concert (known as "Samedi Gras"... that is, "Fat Saturday") to kick off the parade so this tends to attract a more adult crowd around the immediate area of the concert stage, which is right at Orleans Ave. and City Park Ave. But as you move slightly further along, it becomes more families.
    There is a big bonus to making it an adult affair or taking your older kids to the end of the parade. Riders about to get off their floats start dumping all their throws as it gets closer to the end so standing at the end of the parade will assure you a really good amount of loot. The parades the second weekend (that is, the weekend right before Mardi Gras) have larger crowds and generally lean more towards the adult crowd while the first weekend (that is, two weeks before Mardi Gras) is more family oriented and the crowds are a lot lighter. 
    It is very simple to judge if the area you have chosen as your spot is family oriented. Just look around and see
how many ladders there are. A mandatory tool of any New Orleans family is a parade ladder. A parade ladder is typically a six foot-ish wooden ladder with a seat on top for kids to sit in so they can see and catch better. Some people really do up their ladders. Many are painted or hot-glued with beads. Some have shag carpet lining the seat so that it's nice and cozy. Many have cup holders (sometimes more for the parents than the kids!), and I've seen some
that take AC duct piping that's hooked on the side so the kids can catch stuff and drop it down the piping for a huge
bag waiting underneath! The more ladders in a an area, the more families are there.
     If you're traveling to New Orleans with your family and you're going to be in for numerous parades (particularly if you have kids 5 and under), it is well worth it to get a ladder. Hardware stores all over the New Orleans area sell them, usually around $80. Look for one that has wheels on the side of the seat so that they roll easily to your spot. Whether you have kids or not, necessities at any parade include folding chairs and ice chests. As many people are aware, it is perfectly acceptable (and very much EXPECTED at parades!) to have open alcoholic beverages on the street, but if you have glass bottles, make sure you bring plastic cups for your drinks because glass out on the streets is NOT legal... or safe. Plus, ice chests serve as extra seating if you run out of chairs.
    As far as food is concerned, many people brings snacks and such out to the parade route. Plus, there are numerous mobile food trucks all along parade routes, and I mean, you're in New Orleans... nine chances out of ten, there's an awesome restaurant a short walk from wherever you're standing! Just make sure you get in well ahead of the parade because if you're anywhere close to a parade route, all nearby restaurants are gonna be very busy in the hours leading up to a parade. The bonus of going to eat at a restaurant close to a parade route is that if you eat there, you can usually return back to that restaurant to use the bathroom! VERY IMPORTANT!
    The real art of New Orleans parading is waiting. You cannot arrive ten minutes before a parade starts and expect to get a good spot. For most parades, you should pan to arrive at your spot around two hours before you expect the
parade. Keep in mind that with all things New Orleans, start times are relative terms, and you can always expect things to run slightly behind schedule. Keep in mind also that New Orleans parades are LONG. If a parade starts at around 6pm, the first float is not gonna make it so the end of the route until around 10pm at the earliest. So if you plan on standing far along the route, don't expect the parade to pass by you thirty minutes after start time. Also, most parades don't happen solo. They roll by one right after the other. So if you're looking to see a certain parade, you need to check the calendar and see if there's a parade (or three!) that rolls in front of it, and just plan on hanging out for those parades as well.
    Now, for the Super Krewes (Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus), you need to get there WAY ahead of time to get a good spot! There are people who literally camp out for these parades. You'll see tents lining the parade route with old couches and easy chairs sitting in front of them! It is possible to get there the day of the parade, but you need to get there WAY ahead of time! For Bacchus, there are many good parades that roll that morning on it's route so you could hang out and just make a day of it, but if you don't care to, I'd stick with 3 hours before start time--keeping in mind, that you will probably find a lot of people who have already staked out spots from that morning. For Orpheus, Proteus rolls right before it, so you need to get out there two hours prior to Proteus. And then there's Endymion...
    If there was such a thing as a SUPER SUPER krewe, it would be Endymion! This is the most gigantic parade that rolls during Carnival Season! It rolls right after 4, and it has its own route through the area of town known as Mid-City, and there are no parades that preceed it or follow it. Some people camp out for DAYS waiting for Endymion. You should get at least one member of your group out AT LEAST six hours prior to start time to secure yourself a spot. And when you get out there, I guarantee you will see a crowd similar to the crowds you would see ten minutes before start time for any other parade. Yes. It is that huge.
    So what do you do while waiting for a parade? You eat, drink. You talk. You people watch. You stroll up and down the parade route (of course, not your entire group! Someone has to save the spot!). Usually, you will be within earshot of someone who's brought a sound system so there will be music. People will probably be dancing. Once it starts to get close to parade time, the cops will block off the streets, and people will start mingling in the middle of the street. Kids sometimes bring footballs and toss them back and forth. People will carts come by selling peanuts, cotton candy, and stuffed animals and other toys. Chances are you'll see some people in costumes at any parade, but on Mardi Gras Day, they'll be fantastic! Keep your cameras out because they'll be tons to see! Some costumes are harmless TV or movie references, but many will be mocking any sort of local or national political or pop culture scandal that's going on. It's hysterical!
    So where are my top spots? Let me lay them out. I love standing by Superior Grill on St. Charles Ave. I think it's a great spot to eat in general so I don't mind eating there multiple times during a parade season! If you eat there, you can use their bathrooms. Their margaritas are so good, which I enjoy because I'm not really a beer drinker and that's the only thing easily hauled out to a parade route, unless you pick up a gallon of daquiris before getting out there. Plus, they play music and usually have a DJ, who can usually coerce a band to start playing a good song as soon as they pass in front of there. Also, you don't usually have to park any further than 3 or four blocks away, which is not bad. You take I-10 to the expressway and take the Tchoupitoulas exit, head back towards Uptown and park along Antonine (that's the Superior Grill sidestreet) just before you hit Prytania. Check the side streets too, because there's usually stuff all along there, and then when you leave, you can just head back towards the River and take Tchoupitoulas back to the expressway. Very accessible, and closer to the beginning so it's not late when everything passes. A great spot for both day and night parades any weekend!
    Now the first weekend is the weekend that my family's krewe, the Krewe of Carrollton does all its events. We have our Ball and Supper-dance that Friday night, Saturday is our...ummm... RECOVERY day... and Sunday is our parade, and there are numerous other events that go along with our Krewe this weekend (will go more into detail in my next post "Inside a Carnival Krewe") so we don't really do anything special for any other parade, and even though there are parades that follow Carrollton, we go back to the end of the parade to meet my family as they get off their floats so we don't see any other parades that day. Now, since we're already downtown, we stand downtown to watch Carrollton. There's a spot on the corner of St. Charles and Poydras right next to the Shell building, across the street from the Hotel Intercontinental that is a FANTASTIC place to watch daytime parades! Because the stands are across the street, not many people want to stand opposite them so it's not crowded at all. You can get there an hour after start time and still be right on the curb with no one in front of you. Plus, there are several food trucks that hang around the St. Charles and Poydras intersection so you've got lots of refreshment options! If you're staying downtown, and you want to hit daytime parades this is the best place to be!
    WARNING! DO NOT - I REPEAT - DO NOT attempt to watch a parade on Canal Street, day or night!! This is where every unsavory character in the city of New Orleans comes to watch parades!! They're rough, and they might literally fight you for beads!! Mixed in with these people are people who come in from out of town and stay at hotels on Canal Street and are unfamiliar with New Orleans parading and are easy targets for the hooligans who frequent this area. Plus, the street is barricaded right here so it's hard to get around, and the cops, who are aware of the rough nature of this area are not very likely to stop and let anyone get through. Even if you're staying at a hotel on Canal Street, GO WATCH PARADES SOMEWHERE ELSE! Trust me!
   Endymion does not roll on the regular "Uptown" route (which acutally rolls both Uptown and Downtown... the parades all start Uptown). Endymion rolls in Mid-City. I like to be right up close to the beginning of the parade right by Carrollton and Orleans. We go pick up Popeyes and king cake beforehand then go park so that we can snack all day while waiting for the parade. There is a warehouse on Toulouse that has parking, and if you pay to park there, they also let you have use of their portapottys, which is honestly the best bathroom you're gonna find around there unless you know someone who happens to live in the area. This is a more residential area.
   On Mardi Gras Day, I also have a special spot. While Zulu rolls before Rex, Zulu has a specialized route that does not turn onto St. Charles until Jackson Ave. (every other Uptown parade hits St. Charles at Napoleon, which is more Uptown). Personally, I do not like standing farther downtown on St. Charles than Jackson Ave. The closer you get to downtown, the less family oriented the parade route becomes, and there have been violent incidents in past years down St. Charles past Jackson Ave, closer to Lee Circle. To watch Zulu, I prefer just to walk down St. Charles and Jackson (no further!) and see Zulu as it turns onto St. Charles. If you want to be further Downtown so
that you can really see Zulu as well as Rex, I would go into the Warehouse District at St. Charles and Julia to stake your spot. Personally, I like having a really upclose view for Rex alone because the Rex floats are so beautifully detailed, and Rex (you don't say "King of Rex" or "King Rex" because Rex means "king" in Latin so it's like saying "King King") is the King of all Carnival so that's why I make it a point to get a superb spot for that parade. I like to stand on St. Charles about two blocks off of Louisiana because there, Rex crosses over to go down the opposite side of St. Charles so that Rex can stop and toast to Comus (which was the first Mardi Gras krewe ever and only hosts a ball - VERY elite!) at a mansion on the other side of St. Charles than what parades normally roll on. (All parades roll on the Riverside - the side of St. Charles closest to the Mississippi River - of St. Charles.) A lot of people don't realize that it does this so they don't set up their spots there. It's also close to a McDonald's and since Rex starts at 10am, it's great to go out around 7:30, get a McDonald's breakfast and check out the costumes and maybe walk and see Zulu before Rex rolls past. Love this spot! 
     Locals (and some visitors who frequent New Orleans often) will notice that I haven't mentioned any tips for Metairie parades. For those of you who aren't familiar with the area, Metairie is a large suburb that runs right into the city of New Orleans. The only border between the two is a drainage canal known as the 17th Street Canal that runs from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River. Otherwise, it would be impossible to tell where Metairie ends and New Orleans begins. Many people who will respond "New Orleans" to the question "Where do you live?" actually live in Metairie (myself being one!). Metairie has its own set of parades that roll on the same schedule as the New Orleans parades.
    Warning, I am now going to sound extremely snotty so forgive me a moment until I explain. I don't go to Metairie parades. while Metairie parades have gotten larger and improved greatly over the years, the largest, most extravagent, and oldest parades roll in New Orleans. To me, there's something so much more authentic and magical about watching a parade beneath the ancient oaks that line St. Charles Avenue (which is why in New Orleans parades, I don't like to stand downtown... I love the oaks!) than watching a parade from a mall parkling lot. It's just not the same atmosphere, and it cost absolutely nothing to attend a parade so why not go where you enjoy the atmosphere better? There are people who think that Metairie parades are more family oriented and safer than New Orleans parades and this simply isn't the case as long as you know where to stand, which I have just provided for you... so there ya go. No matter where you go, Metairie or New Orleans, there are going to be people drinking and partying so I don't see what the difference in being in Metairie or New Orleans makes to be "safer". And let's face it, if people drinking and partying makes you uncomfortable, then chances are you shouldn't be in New Orleans in the first place! LOL!
    You've probably heard of the saying "Throw me somethin' mister!" However, you'll find at actual parades, people aren't really asking for a gerneric "something". They're usually looking for something specific. Long beads are something that people ask for as well as pearls. Now, we're not talking about actual pearls. What people mean are the plastic beads that are a pearly white color. Krewes usually have plastic cups with that year's theme and/or names of royalty on it, and you'll hear people yell "CUPS!!" a lot. (Go in any New Orleanian's kitchen, and you'll find it's always stocked with Mardi Gras cups!) Dubloons are coins that have the krewe's theme and year on it. These can be hard to catch. Usually what you have to do is stomp on them as they clink to the ground. Just watch your fingers since everyone else will be doing the same thing! Stuffed animals are prized throws, and a rider can get a crowd really riled up over them! Some krewes have special throws you'll only catch with at that parade. Muses is an all-women krewe, and they decorate high-heels that they selectively throw during their parade. Zulu paints cocunuts that they throw. It's a big deal to get a Muses heel or a Zulu coconut! Don't worry, they don't actually throw them, they kinda just hand them off the side of the float. You need to be up close to get these!
    You know a parade's starting when you see the cop cars, and you know a parade's over when you see the firetrucks. Everything in between is pure, ultimate fun! I hope you have a great time at whatever parades you decide to hit! Don't forget a bag to put all your throws in!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mardi Gras: What It Is and How We Do It

      Mardi Gras is usually one of the first things people think of when they think about New Orleans, and it's easy to see why that's so. Nobody on Earth does any sort of celebration quite like it. It's entirely and singularly unique. One thing that's very upsetting, however, is how much it gets twisted by national media and Hollywood. They paint this picture of an all-out freak fest with sex, drug, and alcohol induced chaos that somehow incorporates the throwing of beads and wearing masks--not anything that anyone except drunken college co-eds would have any interest participating in. Please, please, PLEASE release this ridiculousness out of your head! What people show on Girls Gone Wild is a tiny, restricted peek of what happens in a very very SMALL part of the city, and in which locals typically do not participate! It's the drunken co-eds who come in from out-of-town who recreate the pictures they've stolen from raunchy videos that are the main participants in these sorts of activities, and they really have little to nothing to do with actual New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions. So let's break it on down, define Mardi Gras's true purpose, and do some myth busting at the same time.
     There are two different myths about the duration of Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras activities. One is that Mardi Gras activities occur non-stop in New Orleans, the other is that Mardi Gras is just one big day with one huge parade. Both of these are off the mark. Yes, Mardi Gras Day is one day, but Mardi Gras is a single day that culminates a larger season of "Mardi Gras" activities. This season is called Carnival. Carnival comes from Latin meaning "Farewell to the Flesh". Carnival is a pre-season to Lent, which is a pre-season to Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus' rising from the dead. The date of Easter (according to the Catholic calendar) is set as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal (Spring) Equinox. Lent is a forty day period (not counting Sundays... so actually 47 days) of penance and fasting that is meant to be preparation for Easter. Part of fasting used to include not eating meat for the entire duration of Lent (which has been reduced to Fridays only). The starting day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday, a day on which Catholics fast and go to Church to have ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us of our own mortality and need for repentance. The day before Ash Wednesday is called Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French), the last day to really feast before the fasting of Lent. The days leading up to the end of meat-eating are what make up the Carnival Season. Hence, the title "Farewell to the Flesh". So yes, Mardi Gras is actually a religious holiday.
     Carnival always begins on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, also called "King's Day" or "Twelfth Night" (because it's twelve days after Christmas... know the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"... yes, this is what it's referring to). This is the day, according to tradition, that Three Kings (or Three Wisemen) came to visit and bring gifts to Jesus. However, because Easter moves (refer above to the date based on the Equinox explanation) and Mardi Gras is connected to the 47 days preceeding Easter, Mardi Gras Day can be anytime from the beginning of February to the beginning of March. Carnival Season, therefore, can last anywhere from one month to two months.
     So what kind of things go on during this season? Well, starting on King's Day, bakeries around the city begin to sell a very unique dessert known as.... [drumroll] KING CAKE!! King Cake is a circular cake that tastes a lot like cinnamon rolls. It has icing and/or sprinkles usually in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. Hidden inside the cake is a little plastic baby. Friends get together and eat king cake, and as the tradition goes, whoever gets the baby has to buy the next king cake. This is typically done amongst families, co-workers at an office, lunch groups at school, etc. The cake symbolizes the Three Kings' search for the baby Jesus, which  is why it's called a king cake. There is one bakery in New Orleans that ONLY makes king cake, and is only open during Carnival Season... Manny Randazzo's... which is, in this New Orleanian's opinion, hands-down the best king cake in the Universe, but everyone has their own favorites. No matter which one, no self-respecting New Orleanian eats king cake outside of Carnival Season.
     The other activities that go on during Carnival involve organizations called "krewes". Krewes are private clubs that host Carnival festivities, Carnival Balls and parades. See, there isn't just one general Mardi Gras parade. In fact, the two weeks before Mardi Gras are full of parades, each one thrown by a different krewe. Krewes are named after Greek, Roman, or Egyptian gods, historical figures, or after the neighborhood in which the krewe originated. Each parade has a different theme and each float corresponds to the chosen theme. Like if the theme was "Children's Stories", you could expect to see a Cinderella float, a Peter Pan float... you get the idea. Anyone and everyone can head out on the street to watch a parade. Many parades roll along a standardized route, although there are a few krewes that stray slightly. For example, the Krewe of Thoth modifies its route so that they pass in front of Children's Hospital because Thoth does a lot of charity work for Children's Hospital. Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide, which comes out every Mardi Gras season gives a preview of all the parades and posts their routes. It's a great resource for both tourists and locals. There are some krewes that only stage a parade while many have both a parade and a Ball, but there are many krewes that only stage a Ball.
     Carnival Balls are a side of Mardi Gras that few tourists get to see. That's because typically, you have to know someone in the krewe to be invited to one. The superkrewes (designated by the immense size of their parade and that celebrities are featured in them) have Balls that feature multiple well known bands and are basically all-night concerts (except everyone is in tuxes and evening gowns), and you can buy invitations to their Balls from their websites. While these are awesome, they do not reflect the true nature of a traditional Carnival Ball. In a traditional "Bal Masque", members of the krewe (and family and friends) are chosen to become the krewe's royal court for that year. This usually consists of a king and queen along with maids and dukes. Methods of choosing the court, the size of the court, and the actual titles of court members vary from krewe to krewe. The costumes also usually go along with the krewe's theme for that year. Members of the court are presented around a dance floor so that krewe members and guests may oooh and ahhh over their costumes. This part of the Ball is called the "tableau". Following the presentation is a supper-dance, where everyone eats dinner and then parties the rest of the night. Some krewes hold their tableaus on different nights from their supper dance while some have their supper dance immediately following the tableau. Carnival Balls are extravagent, extremely formal events, and they're AWESOME!! Don't worry. I'm gonna do a whole post on them later on. While parades are pretty much confined to the two weeks prior to Mardi Gras, Carnival Balls are going on pretty much the entire Carnvial Season.
   There is one more aspect of Carnival that you may have heard of, and I will now finish up this post with the little that I can tell you about them... the Mardi Gras Indians. Mardi Gras Indians are not actual Native Americans. They are African Americans who dress as Native Americans in beautiful, extremely elaborate costumes, which they call simply... "suits." They are organized into groups called tribes, each of which has a "Chief" as their leader. Mardi Gras Indians do not participate in regular parades. They have their own marching parades on Mardi Gras through their neighborhoods. They don't ever have published routes or even a regular schedule... so if you want to see Mardi Gras Indians on Mardi Gras Day, you have to go out and search for them, and typically in areas that are not always extremely safe. Mardi Gras Indians keep very much to themselves and don't really communicate to the media so finding them and seeing their activities is a rare treasure. Yet, the interesting thing is that most of the music that is played widely in the city that's branded "Mardi Gras music" is music about the Mardi Gras Indians.
   So if you're planning a Mardi Gras trip, don't think you need to be college co-ed to enjoy it! It's for families and people of all ages! If you want to see the bigger parades and heavier partying, come the weekend before Mardi Gras, and you'll have blast! If you're new to the holiday and are looking for something a little more low key, come to New Orleans two weekends before Mardi Gras, you'll still see parades and participate in all the excitement of Carnival, but with less crowds and chaos. So don't believe everything you see on TV! Mardi Gras is amazing and something that everyone from anywhere can enjoy!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The NOLA Space-Time Continuum

     The fantastic thing about being in New Orleans, which visitors can feel when they're here and locals recognize the abscence of when they travel, is that something about the normal laws of time, direction, and nature seem absolutely not to apply here. It may frustrate tourists that things that are allegedly to happen at a certain time never seem to do so. New Orleanians are used to this phenomenon and usually factor in time for anyone or anything to be "fashionably late". New Orleanians quickly become befuddled and flustered when confronted with trivial things like deadlines and schedules, and if New Orleanians recount any sort of negative experience, chances are one of the complaints will be "I felt so RUSHED!"
     New Orleans parades are legendary and held in wide acclaim, and few would argue that nobody knows how to do parades like New Orleanians. You would think that having this much experience would mean that New Orleans parades run smoother and more professionally than any other in the whole nation! ...and yet, this is remarkably NOT the case! Even the largest and grandest parades that roll are consistently plagued with float breakdowns and lengthy periods of non-movement. Yet, no one gets frantic. It's usually not until the parade is stopped for at least ten minutes that people even start wondering what's going on. Typically (and this displays so greatly the resiliance of the people of New Orleans) these incidents are seen not as drawbacks, but opportunities. If a float stops in front of you, you get a few extra minutes to hound the riders for more beads or cups. If they stop longer, you might even get the chance to coerce them into giving you a stuffed animal... which you have an even better chance of if you have time to go back to your ice chest and trade them a beer for something REALLY good! If a band stops in front of you, chances are their dance team will give you a show before putting down their instruments and watching the crowd... which is another fantastic thing about New Orleans parades... There's really no true distinction between performer and audience.
     In other places, there's such a strict line between those watching and those riding in a parade. The parade-goers clap calmly as floats roll monotonously by with riders who plastically wave and pretend to smile. At a New Orleans parade, the crowd hollers and cheers in turns... a rider can taunt the crowd with a prized throw and listens to the yells rise and fall in waves. In areas that don't get barricaded, people are crossing back and forth between floats and bands, running to whatever obscure restroom happens to be available. The riders, in turn, are watching the crowd, cheering along, making eye contact with a single on-looker--who might just be ages away from the float--and using all their might to get that one person a pair a beads when scores of people are literally pressed up against the float in front of them. You look at the bands that pass by and realize that most of the members are wearing beads, which were probably given to them by parade-goers, rewarding them for their entertainment.
     I can remember a specific occassion, standing on St. Charles Ave. by Superior Grill, a fantastic Mexican restaurant in Uptown New Orleans that always gathers a crowd during parades. They build a huge scaffold for parade season and set up a sound system and a margarita bar, and the parade-goers flock around it likes moths to a flame. It was Mardi Gras Day, and we were those aforementioned margarita moths, when one of those parade-pauses occurred. The band and dance team of McDounaugh 35, a New Orleans public high school stopped right in front of us. After doing a couple of numbers, they put down their instruments and Superior Grill cranked up the dance music. Before long, the band members and the people on the street had started dancing together, and my sister was out in the middle of the street being cheered on by the McDounaugh 35 drumline with "Go Whitey! Go Whitey! Go Whitey!" The rest of us had to stop dancing because we were too busy crying with laughter! It was awesome!
     I'm sure if all these parade halts and rowdy crowds were anywhere else in the country, you'd see newslines like "A calm celebration erupts into anarachy! Chaos at what should have been a happy event!" But things like this are accepted, shrugged off, and prized in the place aptly called "The City That Care Forgot". In any other town, doing things like abandoning time-guzzling methods of public transportation would be touted as "progress", but several decades ago, when the New Orleans city government decided to start using more buses and ripping up streetcar tracks, people were appalled. Who cares if buses are more modern, go faster, and can handle more routes? So what if streetcars inch along and take ages to stop? I mean, what are we in a rush for anyway? Our current mayor recently made an announcement that New Orleans was moving forward and making progress by announcing a new project... several old streetcar lines were being put back! Locals are ecstatic about this. What makes me smile even more over this news is how happy we all are about this new progress...that is actually... moving backwards.
     It's easy for non-locals (or "out-of-towners" as they're often referred to... which could refer to anyone from places from Bombay to Baton Rouge... what's the difference if they're not from New Orleans, right?) to get befuddled as to which direction you're actually moving in while in New Orleans, because typical directions don't work here. Nobody from New Orleans uses terms like North, South, East, or West. Ask a New Orleanian directions and you'll hear things like "you go down Canal Street towards the River"... or "towards the lake", "heading Uptown", "like you're going Downtown". It's the Mississippi River that washes away all use of a compass here. The River makes a massive bend on which the French Quarter, which is the original city grid out of which all other neighborhoods grew, sits. That gives the "Crescent City" it's title, because it's poised on the crescent of the River.    
     Across the River is an area comprised of several towns that locals know as "the Westbank" or "the Wank" for short... yet, while the Westbank is actually on the West side of Mississippi River, you have to drive East to get to it. The curve of the River creates this paradox and another very interesting one. Looking at a map of New Orleans, you'll notice that Downtown New Orleans (an area comprised of the French Quarter, Central Business District, and Warehouse District) is actually located NORTH of the area known as Uptown New Orleans. So why is down up and up down? Once again, because of the River. UPtown is UPriver of Downtown. The River bends northwards and then curves back down on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico, turning normal city-planning upside down.
     My advice to New Orleans travelers is this, don't fight it. Go with the flow. Asking the question, " is that north or south of here?" will have a local looking at you like you've just spoken some alien language. Just like going to a non-English speaking nation, we appreciate if you at least try to use our lingo. We love showing off our city so don't be afraid to ask a local directions... chances are you'll not only get instructions on how to get there but a list of ten other places you've gotta try. And maybe you'll get a little lost getting there, and maybe it'll take a bit longer to get there than you anticipated, but nine chances out of ten, you won't even care and you'll have caught an authentic glimpse into the lives of true New Orleanians. We just roll on.

Friday, February 4, 2011

New Orleanians: Who We Are and How We Talk

If there's anything on Earth that will make a New Orleanian cringe, it's watching a movie allegedly set in New Orleans. Why? Because of the accent that directors place on actors playing New Orleanians. Either they douse us in Plantation frilliness, making us sound like Scarlett O'Hara's long lost cousin, or they throw an insanely fake overly Frenchy-fied Cajun accent on us. If you know any New Orleanians, you know immediately that we don't sound like that. Let me lay down one thing right off bat... being from New Orleans does NOT make you Cajun. In fact, most people that are Cajun do not actually live in New Orleans. First things first, what's a Cajun? A Cajun is a person who is descended from French Settlers who had originaly moved into Nova Scotia in an area called Acadia. When the British took over, these people were displaced and moved down into the bayous of Louisiana. While they speak a dialogue that many mistake for actual French, Cajun-French is a dialect all its own. A French person and a Cajun person talking would have a hard time understanding each other. Cajuns live predominantly in the extreme Southern areas of Louisiana, right close to the Gulf of Mexico. They have their own music, food, and culture that is distinct from the music, food, and culture of the city of New Orleans. "Cajun" and "Creole" are NOT interchangeable terms. Creole refers to the food and culture of the African slaves that interbred and intermingled with French (not CAJUN French... ACTUAL French) settlers in Louisiana. A New Orleanian with a thick New Orleans accent is often mistaken for someone from Brooklyn, New Jersey, or sometimes Boston, except using the term "y'all"... which is when people get lost and finally ask "Where are you from??" New Orleanians refer to someone with a thick New Orleans accent as a "Yat"... because of the greeting that we use "Where Ya' at?" or "Where Yat?"... which incidently is not an inquiry as to your geographical location, but rather another way of asking "How are you?". You might hear one person say, "Hey! Where ya'at, dawlin??" And the other will reply "Oh, I'm just fine, baby! How's ya mom an' em?" ("ya mom an' em" or "your mom and them" is term referring to your whole family, by the way... example: "How's ya mom an' em?" "Oh, baby, my daddy had to have a bypass last month"). The reason we probably sound so similar to New York is because, New Orleans, like New York, is a city with a very large amount of immigrants... and very many Italian immigrants. There's also a large Irish population, not to mention French and Spanish, since France and Spain both owned Louisiana at different times. In fact, it is way more likely that someone from New Orleans is of these descents (Italian, Irish, French, or Spanish) rather than Cajun. Although we claim Louisiana and of course, love the lore and culture of our state in general. New Orleanians prefer to be classed in a category all our own, and we are fiercely proud of those things (like our accent!) that can distinguish us from other areas of the state. If you ask a New Orleanian where they're from, they might give you what New Orleans neighborhood they grew up in or simply say "New Orleans" before they would say "I'm from Louisiana." New Orleans is who we are--not just a place on a map, but rather the mark of a distinct way of looking at life. Perhpas that's why we cling to our identity so strongly. There was a bumper sticker that came out after Hurricane Katrina that said it so well: Be a New Orleanian, wherever you are.

What I'm Here to Do

My name is Carol and I love New Orleans. I live here. I was raised here. I'm raising my family here. New Orleans is my heart, my soul, my blood... well, pretty much everything. I love my city. The only thing I love more than New Orleans and everything about New Orleans is telling people about New Orleans and getting them to love it too! I happen to spend a.... umm.... good amount of time on Facebook... and my out-of-town friends ask me a lot what to do, what to see, and....most importantly... what to eat when they visit this city. My message inbox stays pretty full with inquiries of this sort so I put the question out there, should I start a NOLA blog? Well, the answer was an emphatic yes, and so here I am, your happy hostess! What is this blog gonna be about? Well, OBVIOUSLY, it's gonna be about New Orleans...but the thing that will set this site apart from the tons of travel information out there about New Orleans is that this will be a blog about everything New Orleans from an actual New Orleanian's perspective. Don't get me wrong; I love to go around and read about wonderful things that other people write about this city, but well... when non-New Orleanian's try to guide people around New Orleans, something just kind of gets lost in the translation. I'm always reading those articles thinking "Yikes, I would have said to go here instead..." or "No, please, don't tell them to go there!!"... "Ugh!! Why didn't they talk about this??" You get the picture. There's a bit of frustration that comes into play. Another thing that I can promise you a very inside perspective on is Mardi Gras. It's such an integral part of the city, and a part of the city that people are always so interested to know about, and I happen to have quite the inside viewpoint there! I reigned as Queen of the Krewe of Carrollton in 2001, and my family and my husband's family is involved in not only this krewe, but several others. Speaking a different language to you?? Don't worry. I plan on doing lots of posts about this, so you won't feel lost for long. Suffice it to say, you are getting info about Mardi Gras and New Orleans from a genuine Carnival Queen, and that's a pretty schnazzy deal! Expect general posts about the city, posts about things going on in the city, restaurant reviews, parade reviews... It's gonna be fantastic! I hope y'all enjoy reading it just as much as I know I'm gonna enjoy writing it!