Mardi Gras 2012 – Veni, Vidi, Bibi (I came, I saw, I drank): Impressions of a Mardi Gras newbie
To hear Glen Abbott interviewed about his first Mardi Gras on WIBW radio in Topeka, Kansas, click here.
Mardi Gras 2012. It's over. The fat lady has sung (or barfed, more likely).
Beads were thrown, enormous quantities of booze were consumed, and undoubtedly many boobies were flashed.
As for that last part, I didn't see any because I didn't go to the French Quarter (mind you, I've got nothing against breasts, it's just that I've gotten to a point in my life where I don't feel the need to go out of my way to see 'em. Hmmm, maybe I've matured. Well, probably not, but that's a discussion for another time and place).
But what I realized as a Mardi Gras virgin and a new resident of New Orleans is that it's not like what you see on TV -- but then again, very little is. I discovered that Mardi Gras is about more than just the "unholy trinity:" booze, beads, and boobs (I refer here to drunken boobs as well, not just the anatomical ones), despite the picture America gets from national media coverage.
As locals know, Mardi Gras is actually an entire season of parades, pride, and celebration. Weeks of festivity leading up to Fat Tuesday, with krewes of all shapes, sizes, and colors doing their respective thing.
The range is astounding, from old-line krewes like Rex and Zulu, to newer upstarts like 'tit Rex (pronounced "T-Rex"), a satirical crew that marches pulling shoebox-sized floats, or the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, which promises to "save the galaxy, one drunken nerd at a time," and whose parade is led by a Sacred Drunken Wookie.
Sure, there is drunken excess and wanton carnality. This is New Orleans, after all, and we wouldn't want or expect anything less.
But away from the French Quarter, Mardi Gras is a family activity. Most of the larger parades begin Uptown before winding their way to the Quarter, and Uptown seems to be where families and locals go to watch them. You see kids and parents in costume, barbecue grills smoking, and coolers full of beer and soda. Sure, people drink in the streets, because that's what you do in New Orleans, but everyone I saw seemed happy, respectful, and in control of themselves -- enjoying Mardi Gras with friends and family.
A few random observations:
- Potholes in the city's notoriously-pockmarked streets seem to miraculously disappear in advance of Mardi Gras -- along parade routes, anyway. It's as though Mardi Gras elves made their way through Uptown in the dead of night patching them.
- I was super-excited to get several coconut throws during the Zulu parade, but when I unwrapped them later, noticed a label saying "Made in China." Really? Can someone explain this to me, please?
- I hadn't fully appreciated the prominent role of satire in Mardi Gras. Krewes large and small do a fantastic job lampooning contemporary people, politics, and events. And here in New Orleans, there's no shortage of material to work with.
- I don't get the whole concept of people being able to rope off and otherwise claim large areas of neutral ground as their own. I get that families and groups want to stay together, to party together. But, c'mon, doesn't this go a little too far? It hit home for me when someone objected to my 71-year-old mother-in-law putting her small chair IN FRONT of his tall stepladder on the neutral ground, not blocking anyone's line of vision. He told us she couldn't sit there, that we were in "his" area (and we were not even inside "his" roped-off area, just on the curb in front of his ladder. What a Mardi Gras douchebag -- pardon my French, as it were). Anyway, this whole concept of being able to claim territory IN ADVANCE seems wrong to me. From roped-off areas to claiming space with a stepladder the day (or days) before is just wrong and undemocratic. I don't care if that's how it's always been. First come, first served is how it should be. The early bird gets the worm and if you want a good spot, arrive early.
- Despite my previous rant, Mardi Gras is one of the most fun, incredible, and exhausting experiences I've ever been through, proof indeed that New Orleans really is a small town -- in the most positive sense of the phrase -- composed of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups that just want to get together and have a great time, and for the most part, do it very, very well.
As a newly-minted New Orleanian, that's my take on Carnival. You may or may not agree with me, but I hope you enjoyed it as well. Boobs not included. Or maybe so -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
Glen Abbott is a New Orleans-based freelance travel writer/photographer. Visit his blog at www.TravelinGringo.com.