My year stint in New Orleans is over. I am currently back in Texas living out of my suitcase until I can move to the outskirts of Paris next month. I think it’s a great time to recap one of my favorite aspects of New Orleans… the architecture. From the houses on St. Charles in Uptown, to the Garden District, to the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny, the architecture is by far my favorite in the world. I used to love to walk in the French Quarter gazing at the Spanish Carribean houses with their galleries and balconies overhanging the street. I enjoyed biking down St. Charles and on Magazine street in the Garden District and checking out the houses that are a beautiful mixture of 19th century French and American plantation styles. There are even a few houses throughout uptown and the garden district that seem to be done in the Dutch style with narrow, pointy roofs and a mixture of dark wood and stone on the facades of the exterior. Here are a few of my favorite pictures from these areas of town.
The Lafayette Cemetery got its name from the town of Lafayette – not to be confused with the city of Lafayette, roughly one hundred and forty miles west of New Orleans, that later adopted the name. The cemetery was founded by the Spanish during their short-lived rule of the colony. Today, the above-ground cemetery style can be seen all over the former Spanish empire from Argentina to California.
Many believe that in New Orleans the tombs are above ground because you are not able to bury the dead due to the water table, sea level, bodies resurfacing, or something to that effect. These are only myths. There are indeed cemeteries in Louisiana with below ground graves but the tradition remains to bury the dead above ground because that’s how the Spanish did it.
The system is quite clever and makes good use of the land space. It works like this… Each family has a tomb. The tomb is concrete and marble and has two levels. On the top one, the recently deceased is placed in his/her casket. In the summertime the temperature outside reaches the 90’s or sometimes over 100 degrees; the inside of the tomb can reach about 200 degrees. This acts as a furnace and slowly cremates the person’s remains. After a year and a day the process is complete. When another member of the family passes away, they reopen the tomb, take out the coffin (that is either charred wood or rusted metal by this point), and toss the cremated remains into the compartment below. The ruined coffin is then thrown. The space is then free to add the recently departed and begin the process over again.
Now of course we can’t talk about a cemetery and leave out the spooky stuff. During the time of the cemetery’s founding, doctors hadn’t quite devised ways of discerning a death from a concussion. When they would open a tomb to place a new body in it, sometimes there would be a skeleton outside of the coffin and scratch marks on the inside of the tomb’s door… i.e. someone got buried alive. To counteract this, they started tying a string connected to a bell on the outside of the tomb. They then employed a person to stay at the cemetery all night, later dubbed the graveyard shift, to listen for the bell in case he needed to open the tomb in a hurry. If you woke up in a tomb, rang the bell and were heard, you were saved by the bell.
In New Orleans people walk around saying “Happy Mardi Gras” just like you would say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Halloween!” Festive just doesn’t capture what Mardi Gras is. Mardi Gras is fun, its festive, its debauchery, and its millions of pounds of plastic that people go crazy for that will later end up in landfills. Miles of people line up drinking in the street, bringing their families out to enjoy the parades, the floats, the costumes, and the music. Not all throws are created equal; the majority of throws are beads but you can also get a variety of other stuff like cups, bags, stuffed animals, boas (the feathery ones that go around your neck), as well as shoes (actually it’s a wizard of oz looking high heel that is quite sought after), and light up thingys such as rings, balls, and pens. There are also many shapes and sizes of beads with the huge ones being a bit more fun and the traditional glass beads being pretty rare. We happened to get some this year and the glass beads are probably the only ones I’ll end up keeping after Mardi Gras.
There are parades the week before Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, with the intensity building up the weekend immediately before. The parades on Wednesday and Thursday are a little more relaxed, with the weekend bringing some of the biggest parades. Starting Friday morning people start staking out territory on the parade route by putting out ladders, lawn chairs, tents, and even makeshift bleachers and couches in preparation for the evening. There are parades all over the city that have different routes, but I mainly went to the Uptown ones. The Uptown parades usually start off on Magazine and Jefferson. They go down Magazine to Napoleon and then up to St. Charles, where they continue towards Canal on the edge of the French Quarter. The type of crowd changes as you go further down the route, with closer to Napoleon being slightly more family friendly and as you get closer to the highway there are more drunk college students and the neighborhoods then to get a bit more dodgy.
I noticed that the parade processions tended to have this pattern:
High school band
Horse riders in KKK looking attire
Flambo guys (carry torches around and spin them, looks like remnants of older Mardi Gras parade tradition)
Band with cheerleaders
You know the parade is over when a fire truck cruises by followed by street sweepers.
This was only my first Mardi Gras, but here’s my advice.
1) Bring a backpack or bag with cups, flasks, bottles, and pretty much anything alcoholic that you want. Mardi Gras is celebratory, everyone is drinking, and it lasts for hours so try and pace yourself.
2) Regarding #1, bathrooms are hard to find. Your options are: Buy something at a restaurant or bar, bribe someone to use their private port-a-potty, or find a dark, secluded bush somewhere.
3) Wear comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy or stepped on.
4) Be aware of potential fights, as there will definitely be one or more drunk people that will get on your nerves. In general be aware of your surroundings.
5) Most importantly, here’s how to get the good throws. You need to scream or yell for beads, and distinctive whistles or noises that set you apart from the rest of the crowd. Also, many people shout stuff like, “gimme beads!”, or “gimme the pink boa!” But I hear tell you get more stuff by making eye contact, looking like you’re having a good time and saying “Happy Mardi Gras!” to the throwers instead of just yelling at them to give you stuff. Begging usually gets ignored. Girls on top of guys’ shoulders usually get more stuff as well as people with creative signs.
I would have to say that the Krewe of Nyx parade was my favorite. The ladies on the floats gave a ton of throws away and I caught some good stuff that night. I would have to say that after going to parades almost every day for the whole week it definitely gets a little tiring so if I were to do it again, I would probably be okay going every other day. Mardi Gras is an amazing holiday in New Orleans and once here it is easy to see that the whole city is enlivened leading up to and during the Mardi Gras season and for good reason. Mardi Gras is a festival like no other and I’m happy to finally check it off my list of world renowned festivals to attend.