Thursday, November 30, 2006

NPR - Nutria Hunting in Jefferson Parish

The god send of all car journeys in the USA is when you are blessed with finding enough NPR stations between two cities. Luckily Miami to New Orleans is not too bad (except for a redneck part of Florida). So while I was listening on Tuesday in my car, to "All Things Considered" I heard an interesting story on the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish who has got himself into hot water again for his less that PC ways of law enforcement. He is quite a character and the article is well worth listening to or reading the webpage - here.

But the great part of the story was not about the Sheriff. It was about a bunch of guys he hires to go out in pick-up trucks and shoot Nutria - a form of swamp rat (click on it for more info). It is so Louisiana to know there are a bunch of guys who go out with guns to shoot these rodent pests to try to prevent them from burrying into the levees and damaging them. I'm surprised fema didn't try to blame the flood from Katrina on this hairy, whiskery fella instead!!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Drivin' to N'awlins

So yesterday I did the hellish 12-13 hour trip drive from Florida to N'awlins. I have just given up coffee and chocolate (I know, I know, me give up chocolate - no I swear the world is not coming to an end!!) and so did the journey aided by the power of green tea - "Zen" green tea from Starbucks to be precise. The tea was wonderful and I was more aware than normal. With the amount of coffee and chocolate I would rely on for that journey I always felt jittery, awake, but jittery. However with the green tea I was awake and more aware than normal. Don't get me wrong I still miss the gorgeous taste of coffee and, of course, chocolate, its just that I reluctantly have to admit to feeling much better without them.

So without my jitters I noticed some interesting things on my 12 hour meditation in a metal box whizzing along asphalt. First was that Autumn, Fall whatever you call it comes to the South, just late. When I got about half way up Florida (so just past Orlando) amoungst the palm trees there were occassional appearances of orange and yellow. As I drove further those appearances grew until they dominated the landscape. It wasn't the same as Ohio and those other states with thier swathes of colour. This was the southern trees decorated with vines which also were changing into gorgeous colours of yellows and oranges. It looked like nature was decorating for Christmas. I have to admit I was happy to see fall - I hadn't realised how much I was missing it. The strange thing was it all happened during the week I was in Miami for Thanksgiving.

The other thing that kept my synapses occupied were the clouds. It was as if they were jealous of the display the foliage was making and were determined to outdo them. I saw Goofy, the old man in the half moon, a cherub and a rabbit. And don't worry I was watching the road too!!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Glass of Many Colours

Today was a true "Lagniappe" day. For explanation I can think of none better than Mark Twain in "Life on the Mississippi":
We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — "lagniappe." They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a "baker's dozen." It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — "Give me something for lagniappe."

The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don't know what he gives the governor; support, likely.

When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, "What, again? — no, I've had enough;" the other party says, "But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe." When the beau perceives that he is stacking his compliments a trifle too high, and sees by the young lady's countenance that the edifice would have been better with the top compliment left off, he puts his "I beg pardon — no harm intended," into the briefer form of "Oh, that's for lagniappe."

So today I had my little bit extra, my serendipity, a little bit of magic floating along on the New Orleans wind. My wonderful friend, Harriet, whom I am blessed to know, called me up this morning and invited me to go on a tour of stained glass windows in New Orleans churches. I said I'd be delighted and so began my adventure.

In any other city most people would reply to the suggestion of a stained glass tour with derision, as something to perhaps suffer through. But not here. There are so many churches here - so many. They are of every shape and colour but generally can be relied upon to be Catholic, that being the predominant faith in this town. In another city my friends would have heard my afternoon plans and taken pity on me, but not here. So many were excited for me, even a little envious. To be honest I cannot blame them.

In total we went to four churches, four totally different churches, all thrilling in thier own individual way. All deserving of their own individual postings.

St Dominic Catholic Church

The first was "St Dominic Catholic Church" on Harrison Avenue, just off Canal Street in Lakeview. It is a stunning structure built in 1961 and designed by the New Orleans architect Irving Kohler.

Greeting you at the entrance to the church is St Dominic himself displaying the battle scars of the Katrina waterlines for all to witness. Each church has its history of surviving against the odds of fires, demographic changes and, of course hurricanes.

When I entered the church I was in awe of the size and scale of the place. It is very modern but also very stately. I should like to quote the art notes they gave us for the tour:
"The windows at St Dominic church, especially those in the nave, are striking. They were designed and created by the Botz und Miesen Studio of Cologne, Germany. the company sent one of its artists to New Orleans to capture local elements, such as Spanish moss, in the designs. The symbol at the center of each cartouche reflects some aspect of the Dominican belief and practice, such as the black-and-white Dominican shield, the trumpet of St. Vincent Ferrer, and the crown of thorns of St. Catherine of Siena."

I know the grey structural elements are inspired by the louisiana swamp plants but I find them more mechanical, industrial or reminiscient of the architectural details of New Orleans.

The transcept windows, east and west of the altar are huge striking abstracts. The east is symbolic of Mary and the west of Christ's passion. I was particularly taken with the huge droplets of blood that are represented in almost 3-D. They were designed by the German artist, Fanz Pauli.

The window that struck me on first entering the church was the one on the south wall. It is huge and magnificent. It is designed by John Chase, an important artist and historian from New Orleans. The normal procedure for designing figures in stained glass windows on this scale is to make the head much larger than the feet so that the figure is in proportion to those looking up at it. This convention was not followed by Chase and consequentially Christ has great big clod hoppers of feet. The very nice lady that took our tour for this church told us that many people see this as making Christ appear more human and symbolise his "walking" the earth.

There are also lots of ceramic figures of saints around the church walls. They are very unusual and sometimes seem like they are almost appearing out of the walls themselves. We were told of one in particular - St Peter Martyr. He refused to die.

St Peter Claver Catholic Church

So next we got on a schoolbus - yes, one of those American yellow school buses. I think I was a little over enthusiastic about it as it was my first time ever being on one!! We were then driven (whilst trying to ascertain the score for the Saints game that was playing at the time) to Treme. It is a black neighbourhood of New Orleans - if you click on it you'll get more info from wikipedia.

The houses were gorgeous and we were diverted by a different street because of what we thought could very well be a small parade (its started already). The church is very modest looking from the outside and doesn't give anything away as to the treasures that lie inside its walls.

On walking into the building I was overcome with a feeling of calm serenity and warmth even though the walls were somewhere between white and cream. The wood is beautiful and so too the glow from the colourful stained glass windows.

I was thrilled to discover that all statues of Jesus, Mary and the christ child were depicted as african and carved lovingly out of wood. From the notes we were given, these carvings are from Nigeria.

There were also wooden carvings, which were like totem poles, of important black figures in history and the community - the souzaphone player was my favourite!!

The large painting of Christ was also quite hypnotic.

The stained glass windows date from various times but a New Orleans artist, Ruth Goliwas, was commissioned to creat a window to commemorate Hurricane Katrina. This church had five feet of water and had to be restored after the storm. The carpet was replaced with tile - which looks perfect.

This church is a work of love from their congregation. It was begun as a church with no windows, no door, 154 years ago and now is a beautiful gem in the community.

The only thing I didn't like was that they have a running fountain beside the altar - it made me want to pee - I don't know how people get through services without running to the bathroom!!

Grace Episcopal Church

A modern church typical of the 1950s when it was built, Grace Episcopal was the next stop.

This church also had its share of Katrina woes. The notes comment on this:
"Katrina's flood waters inundated the church, which made national news because parishioners worshipped on the front sidewalk for many weeks. They are now inside and the sanctuary is air conditioned, but the church is sparsely furnished and a disassembled organ sits on the nave floor. The four-foot water line is still evident and the church complex is under renovation. A large Chartres Cathedral-style labyrinth has been painted on the concrete floor."

The labryinth on the floor was very intriguing and I liked the design.

I was first most struck by the large mural on the wall opposite the altar. The figures are presented at odd angles and it doesn't strike me as peaceful in anyway. However I do feel it demonstates the power of God reaching into mankind and showing the higher power instigating the ascention of Christ. Both murals in this church are by John McCrady.

The windows are designed to be "ribbons of light" as Harriet told us (she did the presentation for this church). I was struck by the incorporation of written scripture in the windows but placed in such a way that the letters and words are played with. You have to find the words and place them together yourself in a lot of cases and yet you're also forced to appreciate the form of letters as autonomous symbols in of themselves.

The first window Harriet presented to us is one of the most unsusual windows I've ever seen in a church. There are two soldiers in green fatigues and one is bayonetting the other. I've never seen such a violent act portrayed in a church window before (of course with the exception of the crucifixtion!).

We were then led into the small chapel attached to the church - going through this gorgeous iron gate.

The chapel was my favourite. The windows are wonderfully abstract blocks of colour and light. They reminded me of the work of the artist Paul Klee.

I liked the peaceful quality of the altar.

The question of the day became the debate as to the nature of the "bird" in this window in the chapel. Is it the holy ghost as a dove (follow the line through in a sweep)? Is it a chicken?

I like the chicken idea - keeps us humble!!