Julie Urbišová: Once thrown during Mardi Gras, Czech beads are still to be found in New Orleans antique shops

Julie Urbišová, photo: Ian Willoughby

Journalist Julie Urbišová has just published a book entitled Doma v NOLA, or At Home in NOLA, with NOLA meaning New Orleans, Louisiana. Having first visited the city on a student stay in 2007, Urbišová has now been living for several years in New Orleans, from where she reports for Czech Radio, Czech Television and other outlets. Our conversation took in NOLA’s Czech connections, its crime rate and Hurricane Katrina. But it began with the organisation of its famous Mardi Gras parades.

Julie Urbišová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Mardi Gras has this motto which says that it’s the biggest show for everybody in the world.

“It’s the biggest show for free, so it is for everybody.

“But it has different kinds of rules, a different kind of tradition, within the big tradition.

“The crews, the organisations who basically make the parades, are very old.

“They can be from the 19th century, and those were typically just for men.

“They are still some of those working and you cannot take part if you are a woman.

“There are also tens of new ones where everybody can take part and have fun.

“There is also a carnival in the streets for hipsters and new people. Seriously, it’s fun for everybody.”

And the people who take it very seriously spend the whole year preparing their costumes and stuff?

“Yes. Not just that, they spend a lot of money.

“If there is Mardi Gras especially, or Saints games, you see old ladies wearing jewelry and t-shirts. Everybody wears the fleur-de-lis.”

“They spend thousands of dollars buying all those beads which they throw and which is garbage within a minute [laughs].

“So all those thousands of dollars are basically thrown out of the floats. But it’s part of it.

“People are very proud that they can actually be part of a crew.

“It’s not just that you call the crew and say, Hey, I want to be a member – you have to be on the wait list for many years sometimes, because it’s a really very big tradition.”

In your book At Home in NOLA, you have a section called “Beads all the way from Czechoslovakia”. How did beads go from this part of the world to New Orleans?

“That was a surprise for me.

“I tried to dig into the history and tried to reach historians in New Orleans and here in the Czech Republic and I figured nobody really has anything about it written, which was kind of disappointing for me.

Photo: Radioservis
“But from what I learned from the historian of the Louisiana Museum, probably what happened was that some members of the crews came to visit Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and found these beautiful glass beads.

“Apparently some wife found them and liked them, so they made a deal and bought a lot of beads.

“They used them for carnival until the ‘60s. After that they started using just plastic beads from China, which is still the case.

“But you can still find those Czech glass beads in some antique stores and they’re very popular.

“People still remember them. They say, like, Oh yeah, my grandma used to have hundreds of them.”

“So it’s still there.”

I had the sense when I was there that the people in New Orleans see themselves as being different, or almost separate from the rest of the United States. Is that how they see themselves, do you think?

“Maybe not just them, but also the rest of the US [see things that way].

“People who come from the north make jokes about southerners and about their accent.

“So yes, your observation may be right.

“I think they are very proud of it, honestly, that they are different.

“Preservation Hall is a really amazing place where you can hear the best traditional jazz music. So there are places where they really present the best of the tradition.”

“They’re very positive, they’re very culturally oriented.

“It’s just an original place.”

I’ve never seen city be so patriotic. They all have the Saints flags everywhere, and the fleur-de-lis symbol. It’s remarkable to me how a city can be so proud of itself.

“Yes, that’s very true. You can find the fleur-de-lis everywhere.

“You can find cookies, you have jewelry.

“If there is Mardi Gras especially, or Saints games, you see old ladies wearing jewelry and t-shirts.

“Everybody wears it. It’s everywhere. Seriously.”

You arrived 18 months after Hurricane Katrina. Obviously New Orleans got back on its feet a long time ago. But what’s your sense of how Katrina changed New Orleans in a deep way?

“It had a big impact. Basically everything changed.

Photo: Julie Urbišová
“People say it actually helped the city.

“It might sound weird, but all the money that came from Washington, D.C., was basically something new, something what made New Orleans what it is now.

“When Katrina happened a lot of people were complaining about the president not supporting them enough, sending the troops late and so on.

“So at least they could use the help and the money to rebuild.

“And there was no doubt that they will rebuild.

“There was a big motto after Katrina: We need to rebuild and we just cannot lose New Orleans.

“Because there were questions about if it’s worth it, because there can be another hurricane and floods again.

“But they decided it needs to be rebuilt and I think everybody is happy about that.”

But is it more expensive, or more gentrified, or maybe even whiter than it was?

“I don’t think it’s whiter, but it’s definitely different, that’s true.

“What I always say to tourists who come to New Orleans is, Don’t try to explore the city in the evenings, don’t go anywhere you don’t know.”

“I remember when I came for the first time the city was kind of empty, because a lot of people left and never came back.

“Right now the city is coming back. It’s becoming very crowded. The prices of houses are increasing incredibly.

“All the festivals are crazily crowded. I feel like I don’t want to go to the jazz festivals any more, because it’s just too many people.

“It’s very popular because the city is just beautiful and people love to come and love to stay.

“But it’s becoming a little difficult for the people really living there.”

I guess no city in the world has such a reputation as a musical city as New Orleans, which was the birthplace of jazz, of course. But is that tradition alive today and thriving? Or is it something that has become kind of ossified and commercial and targeted at tourists?

“I think it’s a mix of both.

Photo: Julie Urbišová
“Of course in the French Quarter, which is the city centre, there are tens of music clubs where you can hear really great bands.

“I would avoid Bourbon St. It’s a very famous street but it’s just craziness and you cannot really find great music, except for a couple of clubs.

“Preservation Hall is a really amazing place where you can hear the best traditional jazz music.

“So of course there are places where they really present the best of the tradition.

“And I would definitely say it’s alive, because if you look at the music scene within schools, they really offer great music programmes for kids.

“They even distribute musical instruments to people who cannot afford them.

“So they really try to promote the tradition.”

In your book you also refer to the high crime rate in New Orleans, which has a murder rate similar to for the whole of the Czech Republic. Have you yourself experienced crime directly?

“Fortunately not. Nothing ever happened to me and I hope it will stay like that.

“But I have many stories from around and I have to tell you that I stopped watching local news, because if I watch it, and if I read the newspapers, I would probably just stay locked in my house.”

“The Czech the community is growing. I think we are many – we just don’t know about each other.”

Is it all shootings?

“It’s not just shootings. There is carjacking. Somebody just shot somebody in a restaurant just a couple of blocks from my house.

“These things happen a lot. It’s just how it is there.

“What I always say to tourists who come to New Orleans is, Don’t try to explore the city in the evenings, don’t go anywhere you don’t know, because these people know you’re a tourist, they can see it from first look.

“It’s just not safe.”

You report from New Orleans for Czech Radio and Czech Television, and you write from there. What kind of things do your editors – or listeners, readers or viewers – typically express interest in? What stories get the biggest attention?

Photo: Julie Urbišová
“I think it would be jazz and carnival stories, because they are always very alive – they can really present the city and the energy of the place.

“And also links with the Czech Republic.

“So whenever I find somebody who is from the Czech Republic and has an interesting story, I try to interview that person. And it comes out pretty well.”

Are there many Czechs in New Orleans?

“Not so many, but the community is growing.

“I think we are many – we just don’t know about each other.

“We actually have a new honorary consul now.

“He was named recently and he looks like he’s trying to really get us together.

Photo: Julie Urbišová
“So hopefully I’ll find new people soon.”

At the front of your book is written “Temporary address New Orleans”. How long do you see yourself staying in the city?

“That’s a big question.

“We love it there, of course. But we also see that the city has many disadvantages for family life, for kids.

“The school system is so complicated in the US comparing with what we know from here. The health system is so different.

“So we’ll see. My husband is originally from Turkey, so we are kind of open to all kinds of options.

“My kids are small. So yeah, we’ll just try to give them all the options of the world right now.”