A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…

Advertisements

Read this: Wish You Were Here by Sheridan Jobbins + BOOK GIVEAWAY TIME!

Wish You Were Here
by Sheridan Jobbins Continue reading

Read this: Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac City
by Bill Hayes

A while back, I saw a picture of this book on Instagram (can’t for the life of me remember who posted it…); it grabbed my attention, I screen-shotted it to come back to later, and forgot about it. A week later, I was Googling books about/set in some of the cities we’ll be visiting on our big trip, and it came up again, under New York books. Onto my library app I went to reserve it, and I collected it a week later…

“In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night, I recognized my insomniac self. If New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed with agrypnia excitata, a rare genetic condition characterized by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment – an apt description of a city that never sleeps, a place where one comes to reinvent himself.”

Written by Bill Hayes, a writer and photographer who packed up and left San Francisco for a fresh start in New York, where he made a new life for himself and fell in love with Oliver Sacks, a particularly brilliant neurologist.

When I realised this booked was about Sacks as much as it was about New York, I knew I was meant to read it; I had just completed an online course in psychology from the University of Toronto through Coursera in which Dr Sack’s name came up a few times, with some of his work recommended as further reading.

Back to Insomniac City; Hayes write about his experiences of living in New York  as an insomniac, with his writings interspersed with diary and journal entries. I found it to be a really easy read and flew through it in only a few train rides to/from work – while a good part of the book covers their slightly unconventional love story, the parts that really drew me in were Hayes’ recollections of the city itself on those nights sleep evaded him and he went out into the city to explore.

“I’ve lived in New York long enough to understand why some people hate it here: the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the expense, the rents; the messed-up sidewalks and pothole-pocked streets; the weather that brings hurricanes named after girls that break your heart and take away everything.

It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here. But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least. Just remember: ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you- even if you don’t get something back right away. You will.”

I loved reading about all of his chance encounters with his feller New Yorkers, all of the beautiful dialogues that came simply from asking people if he could take their photo. He writes so charmingly about his adopted city and it’s people; his descriptions all felt so real to me, it was so easy to place myself right there with him…

It was also a wonderful insight into the brilliant mind of Oliver Sacks; there’s so much we could learn from the way he viewed the world, which lead me to his book “Gratitude,” a collection of four of his essays. Highly recommend both for a weekend read 🙂

Anything but ordinary…

This was originally written just to be shared on the site for my new little project, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories, but some kind words from my sister and her saying that it was “relatable” encouraged me to share it here, too. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised she was right – relatable is exactly what I was hoping for, and relatable is what we need more of. While I was writing, I believed I was writing for the sole purpose of encouraging more people to join the project and contribute their stories. I see now that it was much more than that; as I typed it up earlier today, with a dog napping on my lap and a pot of green tea steaming in my face (ahh, the perks of working from home occasionally), my subconscious clearly had a lot of feels stewing inside of it, and consequently, a lot to say…

 

 

Despite what everyone’s social media accounts might have you believe, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. This time that we’re living in right now is the most unique in history; we’ve never been simultaneously more and less connected to each other before.

–      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –

With a tiny little computer we can carry around in our pockets, we can send a photo of our birthday celebrations to the family member on the other side of the world who can’t be there, and we can just as easily send anonymous abuse to a stranger who we’ve decided that we just don’t like. We can see what our best friend is doing while they travel around the world as they’re doing it, and at the same time get so wrapped up in what they’re doing that we ignore the friend we’re having a coffee with in real life. This constant connection truly is a double-edged sword.

–      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –

With being constantly connected and observed comes another issue; the pressure to portray constant perfection. We’re acutely aware that the whole world is watching us, because we’re watching everyone else as well. And the more we see perfectly edited and filtered images of other peoples’ lives, and their carefully worded (and re-worded) captions, the more inadequate we feel unless we can curate our lives in the same way.

–      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –

So we show our perfect new shoes that we wear out to eat our perfect brunch with our perfect partner that we gush about so that everyone knows how perfect things are. What we don’t show is the hours of nightshift work that went towards being able to afford those shoes. Or the anxiety attack over going out to brunch with an eating disorder. Or all the fights and hard times your relationship has survived to make it to that weekend brunch. We all work so damn hard to keep up the shiny veneer of exciting and extraordinary, for the fear that we will be irrelevant and left behind if we show how “ordinary” we really are.

–      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –

The irony is that the ordinary stories (the nightshifts, the eating disorders, the fights) are what truly connect us. They connect us so much more than the new shoes and fancy smoothie bowls. Human beings have an innate desire to be understood and accepted and acknowledged. When all we see is perfection, it’s no wonder we feel so misunderstood and inferior.

–      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –

So here we are. A little space where we can be raw and honest in a scarily “perfect” world. Let us “ordinary” people share our extraordinary stories, so they all of the other “ordinary” people out there will feel less alone. And let us realise how extraordinary we really are.

Are you ready to share your story?

Through my eyes: Beechworth Cemetery, Victoria

We had a quick backyard adventure last weekend, spending a night in Beechworth – with the old streets lined with big, leafy trees, it’s the most stunning place in autumn as they all turn golden, orange and crimson…

Last Sunday morning, husband asked what I wanted to do with the morning. I wanted to take a nice stroll; through the cemetery. I know, I’m weird.

The Beechworth Cemetery sprang up in the 1850s, along with the gold rush, huge influx of people to the town, and outbreaks of disease as a result of the less than civil living conditions. Their website states that “Between 1853 and 1860, an average of one child per week died of disease including measles, scarlet fever, dysentery, diphtheria and typhoid.” Pretty grim numbers…

Despite the nasty start, the cemetery is an important place to the community. Again, from their website (because I couldn’t possibly word this any more eloquently),

Lives are commemorated – deaths are recorded – families are reunited – memories are made tangible – and love is undisguised – This is our Cemetery.

Communities accord respect – families bestow reverence, historians seek information and our heritage is thereby enriched.

Testimonies of devotion, pride and remembrance are recorded and preserved to pay warm tribute of accomplishment and to the life – not the death – of a loved one. Our Cemetery is homeland for memories that are a sustained source of comfort to the living.

The Cemetery is a history of people – a perpetual record of yesterday and a sanctuary of peace and quiet today.

Our Cemetery exists because every life is worth living and remembering – always.

The cemetery is laid out in sections – Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Methodist United, and so on. Two of the more fascinating areas for me were the Chinese Section and the Strangers Section.

The Chinese Section was introduced to accommodate the Chinese who passed away after coming to Beechworth to get in on the gold rush, so that they’d have a place to cater for their cultural needs. This includes not only grave sites with simple markers, but also the two Chinese Burning Towers, used to burn offerings and gifts for the afterlife.

As for the Strangers area, as per the Cemetery website: “An area has been set aside for the purpose of the burial of bodily remains of deceased poor persons.” This was an area for those who came to Australia to look for gold, and were killed before they could return to their homes. This was also an area for those whose religions were unknown. And, given there was an asylum located there, well…

 

Next time you’re in Beechworth, take a drive down Balaclava Road and take a stroll through some local history. It may not be the most obvious romantic weekend walk, but it’s more peaceful and beautiful than you’d think 🙂

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories

I’ve been sitting on this for a while now. Like, over year. I’ve been working on it and getting really excited, then doubting myself and letting my fear of failure get the better of me, which has seen this project shelved nd revived several times.

Long story short, after a bit of a rough time, I came to some big realisations, one of which was that I love to document life and stories, and not just my own. After thinking about how many things fear has held me back from and then talking to my sister about it, I thought I’d just give it a go; say hello to Ordinary People, Extraordinary Dreamer.

https://ordinarypeopleextraordinarystoriesblog.wordpress.com/

 

Developing as an offshoot from this blog, I wanted to find a way to not only tell my story, but to give a voice to everyone else’s, too. This is, pure and simple, a platform for every ‘ordinary’ person to voice their extraordinary stories. Because we all have them.

Taking inspiration from modern documentarians and projects like Humans of New York and NoLa Beings (who give a real voice to the every day faces of their cities) and Seph Lawless (who captures with brutal honesty the state of once-great cities and monuments that have now fallen from grace), as well as photographers like Zoe Leonard and (much older) Eugene Atget (who have been able to authentically capture ordinary moments forever), this is my way of contributing to the documentary of this time that is my present and will some day, inevitably, become history.

And the most important thing to preserve, I think, is the every day, ‘ordinary’ people, who we find out actually aren’t so ordinary after all…

 

The site will be launching soon, but in the mean time, I’m putting the call out to anyone who might be interested in contributing their story 🙂 If you think that might be you, click on over to the new site for more information about how to submit your story!

Photo essay: an Italian family tradition – tomato sauce making day

There’s actually not all that much I want to write this morning; I’d rather the photos do the talking. Last weekend heralded our family’s annual tomato sauce making day at my grandparents’ house, something I’ve been meaning to capture on film for a few years now. As you may have notices from my blogging habit, recording memories is important to me, and I wanted to share some of the pictures I took to give others a bit of an insight into a centuries old Italian tradition that continues in the backyards of countless emigrants in Australia today…

img_7188

img_7195

img_7197

img_7200

img_7206

img_7212

img_7245

img_7249

img_7253

img_7260

img_7261