One of the great things about living in the Washington, DC area is that you get to experience world cultures without having to leave the city. Of course, this is mainly because of the great Smithsonian Institution, which sits royally in the heart of the city and acts as beacon of culture that is second to none in the world. On this particular weekend it is Peru that has their attention, with a celebration of Peruvian culture and traditions at the Folklife Festival smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. In fact, after visiting several of these festivals in the past, it is my impression that this one is one of the best festivals I have ever seen at the Mall, and I’m not just saying that because of the copious amounts of Peruvian food I came in contact with. Really, they even have Alpacas there, which you can go check out after trying your dance skills at the sound of some rhythmic Andean tunes.
But what was most impressive for me was the sight of weavers and boat-makers who could turn simple threads and straw into incredible works of art. In a city where the first thing that comes to mind when talking about “ancient skills” is having to type on a manual typewriter, actually seeing people who can build something with their hands is a quite a big deal. And after several hours observing them at work, I never saw a single one of them using a cell phone. Amazing that people can survive without them. Gracias amigos.
What can you say about the yearly H Street Festival downtown Washington, DC. Have I mentioned before that this is by far my favorite street festival in the area? Well, it is, and every year I go back to take some pictures and to enjoy the music, the incredible restaurants, and above all, the laid-back party atmosphere at the place. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that way, as judging by the wall-to-wall crowds, this must be one of the best attended festival in DC. Not served by a metro station and somewhat out-of-the-way from the tourist areas in the city, H Street is one of those places that you reach by either intentionally walking there for a reason (and there are many reasons to visit) or simply by getting lost. But no one has problems finding the place in September, when masses of revelers and artists descend on the neighborhood for a cultural festival like no other in this town of buttoned-up politicians. Boasting some of the best ethnic restaurants in town, H Street more than makes up for its otherwise glamorous-challenged existence by becoming party central for a day. That the festival happens to coincide with the start of the famous Oktoberfest in Munich is even better, because just like in that great German festival, the folks at H Street never run out of beer either.
What a difference a couple of weeks make. As April started in the Mid-Atlantic region, freezing temperatures and a couple of inches of snow would have led you to believe that winter would never end. Instead of birds singing in the morning all you could hear was the unmistakable raspy sound of ice scrapers chiseling away windshields before the dreaded morning commute to work got started. Gladly, all that appears to be behind us now and those dreaded ice scrappers have been put away for good. This coming week should also be the peak bloom period for the famous cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin in DC. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is in full force and the weather could not be more perfect. Time to get out and see the world waking up from its long, winter slumber. See you out there.
You wouldn’t know from the young, vibrant faces of a new generation of Chinese Americans that this past weekend they were actually celebrating 4711 years of Chinese cultural history. As the Year of the Horse dawned on us all, a small but proud Chinese American community in the Penn Quarters district of Washington, DC took to the streets to celebrate the cultural traditions that the elders surely experienced back in the old country many years ago. In spite of the fact that DC’s Chinatown is a mere shadow of what it once was (the 2010 DC census shows 24.84% of the local Asian population as ethnic Chinese), year-after-year the dwindling community goes through great efforts to keep this colorful event alive. With the relentless encroachment of the business community in the area, it is hard to say what the future holds for these types of events, specially as the ranks of the older generation continue to dwindle and a new generation looks to the suburbs to plant their roots. Even local newspapers have a tendency to point you in the direction of the Virginia suburbs and Maryland if authentic Chinese food is what you are after. That’s a pity, but perhaps somewhat typical of the realities being faced by similar communities around the country. Nevertheless, I am convinced that notwithstanding this reality, as long as we keep supporting events like these in the various ethnic communities around the country, something very precious will be preserved for future generations. And that, my friend, would be a good thing.
The National Book Festival put together by the great folks from the Smithsonian Institution took over the National Mall this past week. As always, this well-attended festival is kind of a national reminder of the value of books and the great benefits that come from reading. I will admit, though, that in the era of Tweeter, Google+, Instagram, and Facebook, book reading as a national activity is not what it used to be. Most of us can be considered “occasional” book readers at best, even when technologies like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have made acquiring and reading book about as easy as it can be humanly made.
But having recently returned from Paris, something very interesting caught my attention during this book festival. This was the contrast between the French and the American attitudes to book reading. The French as a whole are considered some of the most prolific book readers in the world, and when I say books, I mean the hardbound, physical, nice-smelling books we grew up with a generation ago in America. Walking the streets of Paris, book readers were everywhere holding books of all sizes while sitting at outdoor cafes or at the local park benches. No doubt their “bookworms” reputation is well deserved. But what I did not see in Paris were electronic book readers. Not one. Nada. Zip. In contrast, if you removed the bare-bones Barnes & Noble tent from the National Book Festival, there wasn’t a physical book pile to be seen anywhere (at least that I could find while walking around). And here is where the contrast with France appeared most evident: in the reality that digital distribution and consumption of books in America is rapidly overtaking the tired, brick-and-mortar sales model that appears to be alive and well in France. Old world vs. new world? Not sure, but while this distinction doesn’t mean that Americans are reading any less lately, it surely seems to point to the fact that most of us are not going to be flipping pages a-la-France these days. For most of us today, a walk to the local bookstore these days involves logging in to a digital book seller online and never hearing the friendly “great book” comment from the bookstore employee. Maybe this sort of human interaction is not needed these days, or maybe online reviews are a good-enough substitute for the old bespectacled clerk. Who knows. All I know is that if they could replicate that great book smell that hits you the first time you open a brand-new book, then that would be something. Ahaaaa! Well, in the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath.