Smithsonian Revisited – the anniversary approaches.

Smithsonian 2009

Who's coat is that Jacket !!??

This picture epitomises the eccentricity of the whole gig.  Crazy dudes, gals, kids, grandpas and grandmas, and all the participants and crew, one crazy unreal extravaganza of cultural cake-mix.  I have made numerous attempts at ‘writing-up’ the experience of the actual festival (oh yes, and the ‘apres-ski’) all have crashed and burned.  I don’t have enough adjectives, expletives, space or indeed  ability.

Essentially the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an annual event in the heart of the Capital of the New World.  Wales was one of the featured ‘cultures’, along with participants from Latin America – with their astonishing music and dance – and the ‘Giving Voice’ programme which described in words and music the experience of the African American.  So much as to overwhelm the senses.  Unfortunately, being required to demonstrate our wares. participants did not get chance to see and experience the other programmes.  Confession here, I did sneak off some afternoons to go and have ‘physiotherapy’ on my achilles, which consisted of an hour of latin dancing….

The Welsh programme was a full and varied cultural representation of our nation.  Music, food, craft, tourism, politics and history.  The artisan elements were hugely popular and I don’t think any of us engaged in hand crafts were ever ‘alone’ – from the moment the festival opened each day until the close at 5.00pm people crowded around to watch, talk and compliment.  All preconceived ideas of the American persona was blown away.  Humour abounded, genuine and remarkable interest in the activity they were observing and, above all else, the most astonishing non-patronising politeness.  The American citizen left all of us embarrassed at the respectful interest and genuine welcome.

Well, here we are in Washington ! My daily opening statement, I never ever got used to being there - I'm not sure I've ever really got used to not being there..

Each day brought forth new and enthusiastic crowds, six hours of non-stop talking, a whole lot of laughing, and gallons of water.  Yes, water was a must and each day an ice-filled ‘igloo’ of drinking water was deposited at my work station.  Each day I all but finished it (we all became quite protective of our igloos, and begrudgingly shared its contents – only with ‘close’ friends) but as for the other sort of loo – I never needed one, all that fluid just evaporated such was the heat, the lovely lovely heat.  I was lucky, I had shade and trees, others suffered in the exposed heat of a Washington summer.

I can’t do justice to the festival here, not nearly, you’ll have to look elsewhere but one day is in need of special attention.  Although it celebrates the end of ‘our’ influence on the New World, Independence Day is quite the most remarkable thing I have ever experienced.  It fell on the last Saturday, thus far I had enjoyed the Saturdays, firstly a chinese meal at Betty’s, secondly the memorable ‘pool party’ which had the most incredible ‘blues duo’ and, of course, some life changing encounters, but, boy oh boy, July 4th, what can I say.  From early morning people started to arrive and encamp, chairs, blankets and the de-riguer massive cool box.  By noon there was little grass left to be seen and by the close of the festival at five the atmosphere was electric.  Promised was the most famous fire-work display, at 9.00ish.  The common advice was to return to Arlington (because getting back afterwards was deemed improbable)  and watch the fireworks from the Key Bridge.  Hang on, I’m in DC, on the National Mall – the place to be in the whole of the U.S. – no way am I going to go back to the hotel.  My friend Melanie (a young French lady with the most amazing full length, all covering tattoo of a tree down her back – leaves at the neck and branches along her shoulders, as for the roots….don’t ask !) was of the same mind, so we had drinks and watched the concert (each evening there was a free concert at the festival end).  No-one else wanted to stay, but I had a cunning plan.  Just up the road, at a building called ‘The Capital’ an outside concert was taking place. the artists ? Oh, just an ageing, big nosed pop singer adored by middle-age ladies, Mr B Manilow, and an iconic female, maybe well past her ‘sell-by’ date, but SO BIG (in more ways than one nowadays) in my mind that I was willing to gate-crash.  Who wouldn’t, July 4th, I’m ‘officially’ on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and a few hundred yards up the pathway a lady is going to perform who has broken my heart for years – Aretha Franklin – yes, shall I say that again, Aretha.  So, me and Melanie, we went, we walked up through the crowds, queued, and managed to get into an area where we could see and hear (and, in my case, film !).  What can I say, “when the angels ask me to recall, the thrill of it all, I will tell them I remember” – July 4th 2009.  We strolled back down the Mall in the dusk, and witnessed an incredible vision of human fire-flies.  We had been seeing fire-flies in the early evening, but here, in the seething mass of humanity that crammed the grass on the Mall were hundreds, maybe thousands, of hand held high green screens of mobile phones waiting to photograph the first firework !  What a surreal landscape, the Washington Monument with its eerie red eyes (it does look scarily like the KKK hood!) on the horizon, all these human fire-flies and then, boom, a firework display to end all displays – well it would be wouldn’t it – I’m not in the slightest bit impressed by the multitude of New Year’s eve displays we see each year from Sidney to London, but, hey, believe me, this was impressive, and then some.

Despite all fears to the contrary, Melanie and I got the metro back to Arlington with no problems.  We were accompanied up the elevators by a gaggle of my Rock Chics in a less than sober demeanour, but very very funny – albeit I slipped away and entered the hotel from the rear – I would have looked like the Pied Piper with that lot in my wake !

The last day dawned,  bleary eyed and strangely quiet.  Lots of visitors, lots of tension, the end loomed.  As soon as 5.00pm came the site began to be stripped, bunting came down, slate fences, signs, packing began everywhere.  But there was still one party, a party ‘for auld lang syne’.

If there’s one thing our American cousins can do, its to lay on the drama, the pathos, the tears, the goodbyes and the ‘thank you’s’.  speeches galore, heartfelt and well received.  Hugs, tears, kisses and booze.  Too much in reality.  This was no end of term, the chances are we would never see any of these fine folk again, heartbreak.  For my part it was a difficult night.  I loved the performances,  I loved the goodbyes which were so heartfelt, I loved the free license to ‘say goodbye’ to ladies I had viewed from afar all the previous two weeks.  But also, I knew the morrow would be hugely painful.

I took the chance, on the Monday morning, to travel one more time, alone on the metro.  I needn’t have gone in, but I wanted to see people sober and say goodbye properly and politely.  I worked hard helping demolish the site, my rock Chics were all there, the crew, the WAG girls and the ‘famous four’ (AJP had gone home the previous Monday – a sad event too).  I worked until luchtime and finally got to see the garden of the Museum of Sculpture, a stolen moment before we parted.  I can’t even go there now.  I turned my back on the National Mall for one last time, back to pack and leave.

If I thought the level of emotion the previous night was impressive (painful is another word for it) the ‘Goodbye’ at the steps of the Key Bridge Marriot was intense.  There to hug, kiss, cry and wave goodbye was the Director, Parker, and her entourage.  Altogether too much for me and too much to repeat here.  We departed, the bus was noisy but everyone had a certain sadness, no-one more than me and Evs and Lowrie and and and.

Delays in leaving Dulles resulted in delays in getting back to Wales, which I finally did at around 8.00pm the following evening.  In reality, that was just the beginning, but that’s another story..

Everynight a free concert. Here Catrin Finch and Cimarron perform in front of Tom's (AJP's hubby and my cousin's boy) poster. amazingly they performed down the road from me at the Wyeside in Builth Wells, I went and met up with them, they seemed astounded to see me again - I am from Wales ! We had a great re-union.

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