Wonderful, Wonderful Wisconsin: Czech Slovak Fest

Finally, almost a week after returning, I have a moment to compress and express my thoughts on the Czech Slovak Fest in an episode of…

That’s So Jacob Presents: Wonderful, Wonderful Wisconsin

Episode 4: Czech-Slovak Fest


Official proof I was there.

Official proof I was there.

One day this past semester, I mentioned to an APO friend, Liz, that I was part Slovak. I don’t know how the topic came up – I think we were talking about languages – and she mentioned Phillips and the Czech Slovak Fest happening in June.

My first thought: “Awesome! I wanna go!”

My second thought: “Wait. Where’s Phillips?”

I asked my mom’s friend, who lives in the central part of the state, about two hours away, where Phillips was, and she said that it was “a small town, somewhere north of us, I think.” I looked it up on the map, and little did I know, but it is four hours north of Madison. That’s a lot of driving for one day. My parents said that I could spent the night there if I got tired, but after looking up info on the town – population 343 – it didn’t seem like the most fun place to spend the night. Plus, through the three days of the festival, the only interesting things were happening on Saturday, so I set out relatively early in the morning to make the trek up to northern Wisconsin.

Usually I can shave some time off of my drive, but even I was worried when my GPS said I’d be in for four hours of driving, each way. There are two ways to get up there: taking the superhighway through Stevens Point/Wausau, or taking a more scenic route through the Dells and a few rural counties – Clark and Taylor – that I hadn’t been to. To my benefit, I loaded a few geocaches for each of those counties, plus Price (where Phillips is) in case I hit a dead zone.

I left a little later than I wanted and thought that I could make it at least halfway without stopping…but not so much. My eyes started drooping around Dells, so I pulled off for a Starbucks. This is the first time I’ve seen the Dells in the summer, and it was surprisingly crowded. Once armed with coffee, I hit the road again as the scenery got more and more rural. Surprisingly, outside of a small area near Necedah, I had great cell phone reception, even while stopped for a train in some little town I can’t remember. I don’t think I ever saw a sign for Clark County, but pretty soon I was in Taylor County, passing through the adorable town of Colby. In Medford, I made my first stop, to grab a nearby geocache so I could check Taylor County off my list; for some reason, I missed Clark. Oh well. When I saw the Price County sign, I knew I was getting close, and after four full hours, I arrived at Phillips High School and the festival.

My $2 entry fee got me a nifty button and a festival guide. They were selling Czech and Slovak treats in the cafeteria, but it was mostly pork and thereby uninteresting to me. I did, however, enjoy the display posters of Slovaks and Czechs in Wisconsin; I’m a sucker for posters.

As I was about to enter the gym, which held the craft fair, I saw my friend Liz, dressed in a traditional kroj, along with her mom. I got a cute picture with her, but unfortunately, I had missed her pageant performance. Those events had happened in the morning. Whoops. At least I got to enjoy the craft fair in the gym.

There were a surprising number of actual Czech and Slovak souvenirs in the craft fair. I was hoping to practice my Slovak, and I managed to overhear two ladies speaking it at one of the booths, so I greeted them in Slovak to their surprise. We had a short conversation in Slovak before switching over to English. I told them my story and they told me theirs. Before I left to see the other exhibits, one of the ladies pressed something into my hand, “here, take it. For being such a good Slovak speaker.”

I looked down, and it was Horalky, a delicious chocolate wafer cookie treat. YUM.

After that, I poked around some more, and went into the auditorium to watch some performers. It wasn’t too impressive, but the girl in the kroj playing the tuba wasn’t too bad; I’m just not too into tuba, so I left, to find the library. In the library, they had all these computers with Ancestry.com databases loaded up on them, and though it took awhile, I managed to find some really interesting stuff, including several census records with my family, and the names of my great-great-grandparents, Israel and Annie. I got ahold of my mom and dad later, who told me that they didn’t know his name, but they thought that her name was Bluma. However, people had English and Hebrew names at that time, so it’s very possible that Annie was her English name. I also found my great-grandfather’s army draft card. According to the physical description on the card, we looked a lot alike!

The school-part of the festival ended, so I gassed up the car, got a Subway sandwich (for a town of 343, the fact that they had a Subway is pretty impressive) and found a geocache, before heading to the VFW Post for some beer tasting and chatting with other townsfolk. I had a really nice conversation in Slovak and English with Ivan and Linda, a couple visiting from Neenah, about our trips to Slovakia, the things we saw, and the foods we ate. There was a polka band playing, and some older couples were dancing. It was cute. However, it was getting late, and I wanted to hit the road before dark, so I left after 7 hours of fun.

Coming back, I decided to take the highway route to see something different. I’m glad I did; even the highway wasn’t as well lit as I thought it was, and I couldn’t imagine how dark the countryside must have been. I stopped in Stevens Point for some food, and arrived home at about 1:00 in the morning.

In conclusion, though I didn’t have that many expectations for the festival, I think that it was probably worth the trip, just to see something different. I was hoping to speak more Slovak, but the fact that I spoke any was a bonus. It was a good excuse to get out of town for the day, even if my legs were exhausted for two whole days.


The Importance of Storytelling

“Tell me a story.”

No matter what city, country, or culture, children all over the world have always made this imperative statement to someone older than them. To most parents, this is a burden when they’re just trying to get their kid to go to sleep. In traditions without a written language, like some tribes of Africa and Native America, storytelling is a core way to communicate and transmit information from one generation to the next. It can be via a song, a dance, some sort of performance, or just through mere verbal communication. Nonverbal cues help add to the context. The stories told can be wild fanciful fables, parables with lessons, or true stories of ancestors and other family members, dead or living. Some view storytelling as a way to dwell on the past, or make it ridiculous, but it is imperative to listen to that call and to tell the story that you need to tell, that needs to be heard, rather than keeping it bottled up inside you forever.

That’s part of the reason why I started this blog, and I feel like I’m straying from it somewhat. I don’t know if there is a National Storytelling Month, but tomorrow is the first day of October (!!) so I am going to declare it “That’s So Storytelling Month.” I always wanted to make my own holiday, and now I have.

I have so much that I want to release, to share, but since it’s not quite October yet (for a few minutes, anyhow) I’ll just tell about something that happened to me today.

Instead of kabuki class today, we had a guest lecturer come in. She was a dancer of kathak, a traditional dance style from North India. She introduced us to the world of kathak through speech, storytelling, activities, and performing herself. She was also wearing a lovely peacock-blue outfit with several golden anklets around her feet, jingling each time she moved. One of the activities she did was assign different emotions to different people, and the challenge was to display the emotion by performing the action. The action for everyone was the same: picking up (and sometimes putting down) a rose. With a class full of actors, there were some very talented performers. One girl, who I’ll call Eva, was tasked with the emotion of happiness. In her narrative, she stared forward as if she were blind and felt around on the ground for the rose. Once she palmed the rose, she put it to her face and smelled it, giving a giggle of recognition. This story said so my by saying so little. The instructor asked her to imagine the rose as an object of desire or a happy memory, and she performed it again. This time, Eva did the exact same actions, only kept her giggle to a mere smile and some wordless facial expressions, which communicated something entirely different.

Getting up and learning the dance moves was equally impressive. She talked about peacocks, and we did some movements that were reminiscent of the birds, using our hands, fingers, and wrists. I was in the front row, and though I don’t know quite exactly what happened – I was either really getting into the music, or was just shivering a little – but the instructor pointed me out as doing an “excellent peacock.” She had me come up next to her and show everyone what I just did. I didn’t quite remember, but tried to focus the best I could on being a peacock, and it caused a lot of giggles from the class, especially when she said “see how he moves from the chest?”

So maybe there is hope for me after all.

When we were dancing, she taught us a short poem to remember the principles of kathak. It went something like this: “where your hand goes, your wrist goes; where your wrist goes, your eyes go; where your eyes go, your head goes; where your head goes, your heart goes.” This was a nice way to picture the dance, as one of telling a fluid story through the body. I felt very happy, natural, and free doing the kathak movements. It didn’t require as much intense focus as kabuki, and it didn’t require as much skill as ballroom. Kathak allowed the body to flow where it wanted to go in natural movements. Maybe that’s why I excelled at it; after learning the movements, I was able to “tune out” and just let my body enjoy the moment, accept it, all the while committing the dance to memory, making it second nature. I hope to be able to one day study kathak and increase my skills in telling a story non-verbally, and maybe even experience more feelings of pure joy in motion.

She ended the class with a captivating dance that incorporated many emotions, with movements both gentle and stern. There were lots of turns and hand gestures, and at points she seemed to glide through the space, letting her hands lead her wherever they wanted her to go. She looked so free during the dance, especially with the spirals she made with her body and how her costume followed her movements. I was watching in awe and wonder, and it seemed like the dance could go on forever. When it did, however, we went around the room and introduced ourselves to her along with the reason why we chose this class. At my turn, I said that I enjoyed being here not only for the cultural benefit but because I haven’t taken a movement class in years, I enjoy the challenges and the physical activity, and it’s a great way to start off the week. Okay, maybe that last bit was overkill, but I felt my heart grow warmer when she said replied to me, saying, “You were very good. Keep moving.”

Somehow this turned into a post about dancing rather than about storytelling, but I guess one of the best parts about storytelling is getting lost in the story and then coming back to bring it full circle.

But some days, all I need to hear to keep me going, is a story that features me in the starring role.

“Keep moving.” It’s the start of a new story, and hopefully many more stories and positive experiences that can spin off in all directions, like a whirling, twirling, kathak dancer.