Nancy's Travelblogue

... there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Location: California, United States

Saturday, November 07, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA SECRETS: Croatian American Cultural Center

Culture at the Crossroads ... An apt term to describe any number of phenomena in the Bay Area; in fact, it could well describe the Bay Area itself. But I want to tell you about a particular crossroads of culture which resulted in a concert series of the same name at San Francisco's Croatian American Cultural Center (CACC), and how it came to be.

For more than 20 years the CACC's cultural director John Daley has been organizing festivals and concerts which highlight the culture of Croatia, the Balkans, and Central Europe. Though everyone else considered these events successful, John wanted more. He wanted to reach deeper into established ethnic communities to ask what their culture means to them; to open a door to recent immigrant communities; and to extend a welcoming hand to younger audiences and families. His goal is to develop programs with a more inclusive lineup of artists and an appeal to a wider audience, especially families and youth.

John figured the best way to do this is go directly to the communities and ask about what's most important to them, and he invited me to come along. We spent the spring of 2008 traveling throughout the greater Bay Area, meeting with 25 artists and cultural workers with roots in Hungary, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia, and Poland. We were treated to wine and cheese, coffee and torte, and home cooked feasts as we sat across the table from our new friends and listened.

We listened to stories about family; about the leaving home -- sometimes involuntarily-- and beginning anew; about finding the balance between preserving culture and assimilating; and always, about the power of food, language, music, and dance. For example:

  • College students Antej and Igor are the lead dancers in San Jose's Koraci Croatian Folk Ensemble. Both emigrated from Bosnia as children during the war, and are outwardly just two girl crazed American teenagers who happen to speak Croatian and dance well. But Antej was leaving soon to spend his sophomore year in Dubrovnik, and he got real serious as he told us about the mixed feelings inside him as approached his childhood home as a young adult.
  • Rumen is a Romany musician from Bulgaria. Rumor has it that he is the best tambura player in the world, but that only begins to describe his musical talent, for he sings, plays percussion, and any other instrument you put in his hands. We visited Rumen in his Berkeley home and met his daughter -- a dancer -- and granddaughter, who had recently arrived in California. He told us his own emigration story --the lucky series of events which brought him here -- and how much he would like to help his family and musical colleagues do the same.
  • Tanya was a professional dancer and choreographer in Bulgaria till she emigrated to the Bay Area in the mid 1990s. She has been instrumental in introducing the Bay Area to Bulgarian culture through the annual St. Kiril & Methody Festival. Tanya would like to increase Bulgarian cultural activities, especially to reach out to young people, and she has the energy and commitment to make it happen. She suggested a "kids pre-conference" to accompany all of the CAC festivals.

John and I left each interview excited and inspired by our conversations, and overwhelmed by the potential opportunities for creative programming at the CACC. But I wondered how John would organize these diverse ideas into a concert series. Well, I needn't have worried. The result is the Culture at the Crossroads concert series, which John produced this fall, based on our 25 conversations.

The series kicked off with a concert in August, appropriately titled Firewalkers & the Sun, referring to the English names of the featured bands, Nestinari (from the Bulgarian word for firewalker), and Helios, (the Greek word for sun). I remembered our evening conversation in their Concord (Calif.) home the previous spring, the feast we were served, and the musical treat afterwards. These accomplished musicians stated clearly that they are in it for the love of music, not for the performance. Which made me especially grateful that they made an exception for this occasion.

The second concert in the series had a Hungarian theme, but not the same-old Hungarian Rhapsody/Csardas theme. Curated by Hungarian born musician, instrument maker, and ethnomusicologist Ferenc Tobak, this concert had a bagpipe theme. Am I kidding about bagpipes in Central Europe? Well, no, but you have a good excuse if you've never heard about them. Ferenc spent much of the 1990s uncovering a bagpipe tradition among the Csango people of Moldova that was literally dying out. Ferenc found discarded old bagpipes in the villages, and inspired some of the elders to play tunes which Ferenc recorded. This concert (and another one in December devoted solely to the bagpipe) featured the bagpipe (called duda in Central Europe) and tamburitza music featuring the Slavonian Traveling Band.

The series concluded with a concert by Sidro Tamburitza Orchestra. A successor to the Blue Adriatic Orchestra, Sidro is composed of family and friends from the San Jose area who have been playing music together since childhood. They blend tamburitza music with rock and roll, and bluegrass to create their unique sound. We were not disappointed at the concert. When I walked into the hall, I immediately noticed a different ambiance. White tablecloths. Tea candles, The lights turned down low. A full bar. I flashed back to our conversation with Emil, Thomas, and Kristine the previous spring. They represent the 30 something couples and families with strong ties to their Croatian culture. In our conversation they emphasized heir wish for a social outlet for young people, but with a Croatian theme. I can see immediately that John Daley listened, and made it happen.

This series was delightful both musically and culturally. I was impressed to see the musicians on stage -- most of whom we interviewed in their homes the previous spring. It was wonderful to see many of the ideas and requests we developed, unfold in this concert series. And the really good news is ... John just told me he hopes to produce a similar concert series next year !

Stay tuned!!

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SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA SECRETS: SF Ferry Building Farmers Market

My cousin Ellen from Montana visited recently. We took the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco and hung out around the piers on stunning morning. Her photos of the food at the Farmers' market are so wonderful, I'm posting them here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

SMART Cars are Smart

The first SMART car appeared on my block last week. Isn't it cute! Be assured, my neighborhood is not "smart" or upscale in any way, which is why I'm so pleased. These new cars have hit the mainstream and, at least in the Bay Area, are now found in ordinary, working class neighborhoods like mine, along with Peets coffee.

I first saw these little cars in Europe in 2007, before they were distributed in the United States. I would never have believed these cute cars would be gracing the U.S. Interstates within a few months, and my very own neighborhood with two years.

Here are some photos of the Smart cars I saw in Europe.

This one in Jelsa, on the island of Hvar, Croatia.

These last two photos from Vienna.

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