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, March 27, 2010


Last night was another great event in the Croatian American Center's innovative new concert series, Culture at the Crossroads.

This event showcased San Francisco jazz artist Milla Milojkovic, and her tamburasi accompanists - Danny Ovanin, Ryan Werner, Adis Sirbubalo, and Steve Ovanin -- who flew in from Chicago for the evening.

Tamburitza-jazz fusion. Are you kidding? Sounds unlikely, but it works, thanks to unbelievably talented artists, with Balkan rhythms flowing through their blood, and to vision of series curator John Daley.

Milla put together a set alternating the tamburitza melodies she grew up with, sung in Croatian, with the jazz standards she is so well known for. Her smoky contralto carried us from the Ellington classic Caravan to the Romany favorite Jelem Jelem to Whatever Lola/Milla Wants to to Besame mucho in Spanish and Croatian to My Heart Belongs to Daddy, a loving tribute to her father who sat in the audience.

Milla was born into the musical culture of the Bay Area Balkan community. She was singing and playing piano and tamburitza by the time she was five. She went on to study at the Manhattan Conservatory of Music and earned her degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As a Milla groupie, I've been following her jazz performances throughout the Bay Area. I find those sentimental old songs in her throaty voice absolutely irresistible.

I thought she had found her musical home with jazz standards, but this concert broke new ground. Milla understands the music so well -- the jazz and the Balkan melodies -- that she can move seamlessly from one tradition to the other, keeping the essence of each rhythm and melody and language, and at the same time making it all her own.

And Milla's on-stage style makes the audience feel like favored guests in her home. Don't be surprised if you get a hug from Milla if you attend her performance!

Definitely an emerging artist to follow.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Today is Anchorage's glory day, and I'm here to witness it! This is the ceremonial beginning of the Iditarod, the world's longest and most famous dogsled race. The race course travels more than 1100 miles from near Anchorage to Nome, way out on the Alaska's west coast on the Seward Peninsula. You can follow the course and see photos along the trail.
Mushing (the official word for dog sledding) is a serious sport for those who practice it, and this race is much like the Olympics. Mushing is a way of life for the devotees, and their lives and their savings accounts to breeding and training dog teams. Seventy-two teams come from all over, including entries from Jamaica and Georgia. Mushing in the South????#$?? Go figure. True devotion.

I learned from my personal musher in Fairbanks (more about that later) that dog sledding originated with native Alaskans as a mode of transportation. The idea was adapted by
prospectors during the Alaska Gold Rush in the 1890s, who needed to haul their equipment through Canada's and Alaska's interior. They first experimented with pack horses, but horses couldn't handle the rough terrain and their weight was too much for the ice, so dogs were substituted. It was only later that it turned from transportation to sport.

Today's event isn't the real beginning. That begins tomorrow in Willow, a little town north of here. But today Anchorage is alive with people and dogs and all the associated activities from everywhere. The weather was warm for both people and dogs -- about 32 degrees. They had to bring in snow for the sleds. It was parade style; each dog team was announced off they went down 4th street. The dogs get really excited, and their barking adds to the chaos and general activity. Tons of media, too.

My Fairbanks colleague, Robyn Russell, treated me to my own personal dog sled ride a few days ago. Much better in that it was just me, my musher, the dogs and the wilderness. My musher Miriam Cooper is, pictured below, is originally from Sacramento, but now completely innured in the Alaska sledding life. She is developing a sled dog sanctuary near Talkeetna. Our team consisted of eight dogs who did all the work, me cozy in the sled, and Miriam standing behind me directing the dogs.

LOCAL COLOR: The Anchorage Captain Cook Hotel has a very comfortable lounge, so that's where I'm blogging from. I order a glass of chardonnay, settle into and easy chair, open my computer and take in the atmosphere. Along with all the Iditarod celebrants. Now a rather loud party of four sits down next to me, and the drinks start flowing. There are three youngish men, a somewhat attractive middle aged woman, and an older man who has already had a few.

Who in the world are these people? Locals? Iditarod folks? Tourists? For the life of me I can't figure out from their conversation what is their connection to each other, or why they are here. The woman is making overt sexual overtures to all of the men, the older man gets more talkative as he downs more drinks. He tells a garbled story of his childhood involving Eastern Russia, adoption, and a Catholic boarding school. A tantalizing story that makes me want more.

Then someone looks over at me listening to them and says, "I bet you have a press card." I tell them no, but I am blogging. They say, "Good. Put me in your blog." And so it goes for another hour or so -- more drinks, louder conversation, that is just enough to titillate me, but not quite enough to figure out their story.

Finally things quiet down and the party is getting ready to leave for dinner. By this time the horny woman and the drunk guy are over in a corner getting it on, and the three younger guys strike up a conversation with me. I learn that all three of them are involved in the tourist trade. One of them runs a touring bus business and the other two are involved the the cruise industry. the older guy has a high position in the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. I never found out about the woman.

So this is a business meeting! The young guys are negotiating with the older guy for more connections from Anchorage, especially touting the advantages of adding Anchorage as a destination for cruise ships. The tourist economy is suffering in Alaska just like everywhere else, and these folks are just doing business over drinks.

Just another day in the Far North.

See more Alaska photos.

p.s. Looks like Sarah Palin is come kind of Iditarod sponsor. Check the video, which can't be avoided on the Iditarod homepage.

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