Most travelers will tell you: the people, customs and certainly food encountered on the road are some of the best, most memorable parts of the journey. While you can’t beat experiencing them in their native habitat, having them come to you isn’t a bad thing!
In most cities, you’ll find immigrant communities from all over the world, often anchored by a church or cultural organization. These communities serve both as a “little bit of home” and a way to keep the language and customs of their homeland alive for them and their children. Every one that I’ve encountered has been filled with warm, friendly people eager to share their history and culture. Never is that more true than during the various festivals and celebrations these communities host throughout the year.
Some iconic celebrations are re-created around the world. If you’re in the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo probably come first to mind. It seems they’ve become huge commercial events in almost every city across the nation; lots of fun but generally light on cultural relevance. If you look further, though, you’re likely to find much more authentic celebrations that offer much more than drink specials! And you’re likely to find them fairly close to home. At our base camp in north Texas, we decided to set down the coffee cup (not a light decision!) and venture out to experience a few such events.
Originally a wedding celebration for Crown Prince Ludwig, Oktoberfest has grown into an occasion to celebrate all things German the world over. While our local festivities bear little resemblance to the celebrations in Germany, we spent a pleasant afternoon in Southlake, Texas’ Town Square, where Oktoberfest is celebrated by as many as 50,000 every year. We giggled and cooed at the Dachshund races, clapped along with the polka band and probably had more strudel than we should have. There were kids galore in the block-long Kid Zone, which featured rides, games and activities and dozens of volunteers to keep the little ones entertained.
Being in the Town Square, you’d expect displays from local groups and businesses, which were out in full force. Craftsmen and artisans from around the country – and a few points beyond – displayed their wares but, honestly, it was about what you’d see at any arts & crafts fair and didn’t seem to have much to do with German heritage or culture.
Of course, Oktoberfest is all about beer and food! After wandering the grounds, you’d be inclined to think Germans eat only bratwurst with sauerkraut, or the fairground staples of corn dogs and funnel cake. Once we found Die Festhalle, we were able to sink our teeth into some traditional German fare but, regrettably, we found no samples of delicious German goodies, aside from one strudel stand. Even more disappointing was the search for that most German of Oktoberfest staples: beer. Oh, there was beer, but the options were largely domestic. Given that a large American brewer had a very strong presence (as they always seem to do), I shouldn’t have been surprised.
The three-day event had quite a lineup of entertainment, taking advantage of the town gazebo. Local bands were featured playing everything from polka to disco to jazz, highlighted by the areas most popular party bands playing well into the night on Friday and Saturday. With the music and dancing, food and beer flowing, and throngs of festive townsfolk, it seems to me this is most likely what the original Oktoberfest might have been like.
As Oktoberfest, it was a bit disappointing. I expected more traditional entertainment, perhaps a sample of Bavarian history and heritage, and certainly a biergarten stocked with some craft and Bavarian brews. That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, though. Frankly, any afternoon spent with friends and family is nice, and having a chance to chat with vendors, artists and craftspeople – whether from down the street or around the world – is always interesting. And it never hurts to have a few beers and brats.
Oktoberfest Southlake is an annual event on the first weekend of October. www.oktoberfestsouthlake.com
Romanian Food Festival
Sponsored by St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Colleyville, Texas, the Romanian Food Festival was delicious, fun and educational…in a good way. A true community celebration, there were few vendors or sponsors. Instead, most booths were staffed by church members selling authentic home-cooked fare, wine and beer, arts and crafts, including hand embroidered traditional clothing which were true objects of art. The beautiful church offered tours and an invitation to celebrate an Orthodox mass with them as well.
Many festival goers and volunteers were clad in traditional costumes and you were just as likely to hear Romanian as English in conversation. Entertainment included folk dancing and recitals by local groups, from children to seniors, and entertainers including traditional bands, Romanian vocalist Ionica Ardeleanu, and “The Violin Guy” Radu Cernat who got the crowd dancing with a blend of classical, traditional and contemporary music. Truly, the highlight was the food – all home cooked, authentic and delicious, and reflecting the different regions of Romania. One of the volunteers confided, “This is what we do; we cook, sometimes too much. When we have parties, it’s just like this – everybody cooks!”
The Romanian Food Festival is an annual event on the first weekend of November. www.romanianfestival-dallas.com
I am unabashedly enthusiastic about Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, so it’s no surprise that I would be “all in” for Greek Fest! Luckily, there are several in the area we call home; one of the best is the Fort Worth Greek Festival, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2012. St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church is the always graceful host and center of activity, offering tours and informative talks on Greek Orthodoxy. Within the halls and grounds, the Festival includes arts and crafts, live Greek entertainment, folk dancing and, of course, FOOD! Lots and lots of it. I have never seen many vendors at the Greek Festival; the few there typically sell Greek art, handmade jewelry and home crafts. The big attraction is the stall selling pastries and bread; tough competition for any vendor!
Wherever there is a celebration of heritage, I love seeing traditional costumes and folk dancing, and at the Greek Festival there were performances by groups from pre-schoolers to young adults keeping the culture and traditions alive. Again, not uncommon to see folks attending in traditional garb and conversing in Greek. Thankfully, the volunteers are always patient and helpful when you’re trying to pronounce things like galaktobouriko – the delicious filo and custard desert that I just can’t seem to get enough of. (Okay, I couldn’t get enough of pretty much anything there!) From main courses to decadent deserts, Greek coffee and beer – this one has it all, and it’s all a volunteer effort. There were no big sponsors or vendors, just lots of enthusiastic local Greeks celebrating their heritage with you.
The Fort Worth Greek Festival is an annual event held the second weekend of November. www.fortworthgreekfestival.com
Arlington Christkindl Market
Still in its infancy, 2012 was year #2 for the Arlington Christkindl Market, the brainchild of a city councilwoman who attended markets in Germany and thought we should have one in North Texas. It only makes sense and it’s somewhat stunning that it hadn’t been done before given the region’s significant German heritage. Though young, it was very enjoyable and has lots of potential for the years ahead. Taking advantage of the off season emptiness at the Rangers Ballpark in Alrington, there is ample free parking in a good location with easy access. The selection of vendors was perhaps the best in our little tour of festivals, actually lending to the authenticity of the event with offerings that were better matched to the occasion, almost exclusively featuring food, arts and crafts with a European or holiday theme by vendors from around the country.
There is great entertainment over the two weeks of Christkindl Market, this year including an Alpenhorn ensemble, the UTA Jazz Band, Grammy Award winning Brave Combo, folk musicians, and many local school groups. We were there on opening night and were treated to a fireworks countdown to the tree lighting! The Christkind Angel herself was in attendance, Glühwein was flowing (as was coffee and hot cocoa) and Sankt Nikolaus was “in the house.” (No really, Santa’s House had cookies and pictures with the Jolly Elf!)
The annual Arlington Christkindl Market is open daily from late November to mid-December. www.arlingtonchristkindl.com
Out & About
Even when you can’t get away, you can get out and about to experience other cultures, taste their foods and witness their traditions without traveling far from home. Though they may have started a world away, they are now your neighbors. You should venture out and say hello!
Let us hear from you! Have you attended any events or festivals either at home or while traveling? How was your experience? Are there any upcoming or recurring events you would recommend? Let us know in the comments, and thanks in advance for sharing!