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September 2015

Life and Death In New Orleans (Why Jewellery Is No Match For A Hurricane)

To some, a piece of jewellery is just a piece of jewellery. A static item that represents fashion sensibility, style or status.  Yet to others, the underlying story behind a favourite piece of jewellery may actually be more valuable than the value of the item itself.

I love New Orleans  and have visited there twice. I’m amazed at the energy, life and vibrancy of the place. Unless you experience it for yourself, it’s impossible to understand its magic – magic that makes you fall in love with it over and over again.

In October 2011, my husband and I took a much anticipated trip to NOLA and one afternoon found ourselves in the French Market. The market is a well-known eclectic spot where vendors sell food, food items, clothing and jewellery and other items. I was wandering around when I was struck by a table filled with vibrant colours. The table was full of fun, funky and unique jewellery made by NOLA native Russell Gore. I fell in love with several of the pieces and started talking to Russell. Turns out he was raised in the not so nice part of NOLA called the projects (St. Thomas housing development). His colourful jewellery, dubbed “Made in the Ghetto”, is a stark contrast to the harsh reality faced by others who had a similar upbringing.

Russell

(Photo courtesy of Richard Critz Photography http://prints.rwcfoto.com/)
 

Russell was wearing a huge gold medallion around his neck which he made out of his wife’s gold after she died in his arms during Hurricane Katrina. His life was filled with hardship and tragedy, and could have gone a different route had he not chosen art and photography as a way out of a seemingly desperate situation.

What struck me most about Russell (over and above his incredible talent) was his kindness, compassion and energy for everything and everyone. He had faced such tragedy, yet didn’t seem hardened by it all. There was energy and optimism in his voice.

After talking for a while, I mentioned that I had just been to the music store to buy CD’s by NOLA legend Kermit Ruffins. He told us he knew Kermit, and invited us to attend a local bar called Bullets where Kermit was performing that night. We smiled and said we would try to make it, not knowing anything about this place or part of town where it was located.

Bullets is a hole in the wall sports bar in the 7th ward area in New Orleans (Treme area). The neighbourhood looks tough and some of the clientele equally so. In spite of the “off the beaten path” location, the reviews were excellent and we decided to take a chance. We took a cab to the bar yet even the cab driver got lost. After driving around for what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of my life, we eventually found our way and made it to Bullets. The place had an amazing vibe and quite a mix of demographic. From biker jackets to well-dressed senior couples, anyone was welcome there and no one seemed to care who you were – or where you were from.

Kermit showed up and the place went wild. Russell walked in and everyone knew him. Turns out that if you know Russell and if he likes you, you’re treated with grace and respect. And so we were.

We had a blast. Strangers would raise their glass and everyone was dancing on the floor. Russell was total class, and even chased down Kermit so I could have a picture with him. For those who don’t know, Kermit Ruffins is to NOLA what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey.

We talked to the owner of the bar who was a total sweetheart. He told us the story of how he lived through Hurricane Katrina and lost several friends in the process. In great detail, he described the water levels and bodies floating down the streets. One could not help but get teary eyed. Bullets was one of the anchors during the storm and somehow he was able to feed many of the locals. In these parts, he’s known as a hero. He knew and respected everyone, and they did the same. To me, he represented the strength, optimism and resilience shown by many in the New Orleans area.

I still wear the jewellery I bought from Russell. A colourful guitar decorative piece – and eclectic piece I like to think symbolizes life and hope amidst the despair of the projects. To this day, I get more compliments and inquiries on his jewellery than any other pieces I own.

Russell_Guitar

I always wondered what became of Russell and hoped for the best. While researching his story, I came across a recent clip of him on CNN. He was interviewed for a 10th Anniversary story of Katrina  and seems to be doing well.  

When someone compliments me on his jewellery, it’s also a compliment to Russell. So the next time you see an interesting piece of jewellery on someone, take a moment to ask them about it. Because sometimes an object as small and seemingly insignificant as a piece of jewellery can represent a story far more intriguing and inspirational than you can ever imagine.

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Nostalgic Over Heinz

Heinz is one of the world’s most iconic and memorable brands. To this day, I refuse to buy any other ketchup than Heinz ketchup. The topic of brand loyalty has long intrigued both manufacturers as well as advertisers and academics. What makes a brand so good – that consumers will go out of their way to buy it every time – regardless of price or the wide array of other options on the grocery shelf?

Iconic global brands have several qualities, but perhaps the most dominant is their ability to invoke some sort of emotional connection in the consumer. By consuming a product represented by a global brand, we are often transported to a different place and time. A time when things were simpler and less rushed. A time when we were perhaps surrounded by family gathered around the television set watching the Flintstones or Walt Disney.

Take Heinz spaghetti. To some, it might be just another option to soup on a cold winter’s day. But to me, the idea of eating Heinz spaghetti has a far deeper connection and meaning. Having grown up with 3 brothers, I remember us all eating Heinz spaghetti on (usually wobbly) TV trays  watching our old black and white TV on those long and cold winter days. On some days we might have come home for a quick lunch from school. My grandmother would open up a couple of cans, then serve them to us sprinkled with Kraft grated parmesan cheese.  I still remember shaking those large green containers with the red lids. I also remember watching the spaghetti boil as the odour of tomato sauce filled our house.

We loved Heinz spaghetti, and I still eat it today when I want to feel nostalgic. That’s one reason comfort foods exist. When it comes to brands, it’s not so much what they ARE – but what they DO to us that represents their true quality and value. A brand is a promise of quality, and I know that whether it’s today or 10 years from now, Heinz will still offer me the same quality product I experienced when I was 10.

Perhaps most importantly, it will offer me the same brand STORY I experienced when I was 10. Brands offer context, and whenever I eat Heinz spaghetti I’m transported back to childhood. It represents comfort food and reminds me of a time when we were all together as a family.

To me, it’s not just another can of convenience food. It’s a promise that what I experience when I eat it will contain good memories and will make me feel good about the purchase. That’s what iconic brands do – and will always continue to do. It’s what makes them unique.

Are there any other brands you can think of that offer you a similar story? Are all brand decisions based on price, or do you sometimes buy something just because it reminds you of another place and time?

Heinz_spaghetti

 

 


What Alois Said

They called him the “Butcher of Prague” and the “blonde beast.” A man known to carry out his tasks with brutal efficiency, even Hitler called him the “man with the iron heart.”

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich, a high ranking German Nazi during World War 2, arrived in Prague with the intent of suppressing Czech culture and deporting and executing members of the Czech resistance. Also nicknamed “the hangman”, Heydrich was one of the most fearsome members of the Nazi elite. One of the chief architects of the Holocaust, he was the leading planner in Hitler’s Final Solution.

On May 27, 1942, Heydrich was attacked in Prague by a team of British trained Czech and Slovak soldiers sent by the Czech government in exile to kill him. The project was called Operation Anthropoid and revenge was swift and lethal. The Germans falsely linked the assassins to two Czech villages. One village was burned to the ground, men and boys over 16 were shot, and most women and children were taken to Nazi concentration camps.

Heydrich died one week later of his injuries.

So why does this man – and this horrific event in history matter to me? Because if it weren’t for the man in this picture, I might not be alive today.

If a picture can say a thousand words, then this one can tell a thousand stories. One day while picking through my Mom’s old ruffled family photo album, I came across this photo of her as a young girl. She’s being held by her Uncle Lola (Alois), her mother’s older brother. It was taken in Prague along the river Vltava circa the 1940’s.

My Mom describes Uncle Lola as “A tall, not too handsome man, but with a beautiful and kind heart.” He lived in a small European size flat with his wife in a 5th floor apartment in Prague. They had a child (boy) called Jan, who contracted scarlet fever but was treated with penicillin. Unfortunately he was sent to school too soon which seemed to affect his heart. Poor Jan died at the age of 8. The death of Jan had a great impact on Lola’s marriage. It slowly fell apart. His wife left him, and he remarried a gold digger who just wanted his pension. In the end, he suffered a stroke and died a lonely man somewhere in a hospital in Prague. A sad ending to the story of a man I never knew.

An only child, my Mom didn’t have much family in Czechoslovakia. Both her parents were Czech. Her Dad (who died months before I was born…my Opa) went to law school at Charles University in Prague then worked as a lawyer. Her Mom (my Omi), was his secretary and later on became his wife.

The family grew up in Czechoslovakia during turbulent times when the country was invaded by just about every brutal regime on the planet. What little they had was soon confiscated by whatever forces happened to be invading at the time.

To this day, my Mom has very fond memories of Uncle Lola. She remembers him, his apartment – even being at the funeral of his son. But it’s time spent with him around Prague that holds the most meaning. On May 27, 1942, Uncle Lola had taken my Mom to the Prague Zoo. An armed German soldier approached them as they were making their way home. Remember that the Germans were bloodthirsty for revenge and weren’t about to spare anybody. Which makes the next part of the story even more unbelievable.

There was a heated conversation, and understandably my Mom (then a child) was quite terrified. I’m sure Uncle Lola was too, although whatever it was he said to the Nazi saved both himself as well as my Mom. Looking at what happened that day, and the deadly consequences on innocent Czech civilians of Operation Anthropoid, there’s no reason that they both shouldn’t have been shot on the spot in cold blood.

I wish I had known Uncle Lola. Because I would have thanked him. If it wasn’t for his smarts and quick thinking, I might not even be here today.

After having led what seemed to be a life full of tragedy in a very dangerous and turbulent time in history, I felt it necessary to tell his story. Because a picture isn’t always just a picture. There are real people, stories and memories behind pictures too.

Pictures tell the story of our past – and help us to understand our present.

The story of a moment. Imagine for a brief second, how it would have felt – to have been confronted by a revenge thirsty Nazi officer during a time of total hysteria? How would you react knowing, that the next words coming out of your mouth could mean the difference between life and death?

Uncle Lola – today I honour you. Your bravery shall not be forgotten for you are a true hero. Thank you.

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