Towers of Glory

If you ever have the chance to go to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on The Mall in Washington, DC, I would highly recommend it. The Smithsonian chooses anywhere from one to three different cultures, brings in dozens of craftspeople, artisans, and performers, and gives visitors the chance to see everything from Chinese paper cutting to Peruvian American folk dancing to Somali buraanbur poetry reading. One of the most memorable exhibits for me was of an ice fishing shack from the 1998 festival, which featured Wisconsin (other highlights of that year included cheesemaking, polka dancing, and a tailgate party — true culture, indeed).

This year, the two cultural groups highlighted were Armenia and Catalonia. My old friend Chris and I went and saw Armenian bread baking, embroidery, and wood and stone carving. On the Catalonian side we walked by stalls with glassmakers and ceramicists, blacksmiths working with weavers on these huge leaves …

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… and an exhibit on how they build giant wooden figures like these for special parades:

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But the most amazing display was the building and eventual dismantling of the castells. These are human towers that the Catalonians have been building for centuries now. There’s no reason behind these things — some guys just started building them for fun in the 1700s, and now they’ve become a major competitive activity (UNESCO has also declared them to be a “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”). To build a castell, a large group of people (usually men) create a super-strong foundation…

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…and they they begin constructing tiers:

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Eventually, one very small person stands on top of the very highest level:

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These things can get up to ten tiers tall! That includes the bottom layer, but still, that’s amazing. We were already feeling blown away by the six-tier layers that were going up right in front of us. And while it’s impressive to see these towers going up, it’s equally amazing to watch them coming down …

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… down …

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… down:IMG_2933

They can even walk with these towers, accompanied by triumphant music:

 

The only downside to the Folklife Festival is that it’s usually hot as blazes in the DC in the summer. But we hit it on an absolutely perfect day. Once we were done seeing the many exhibits and exploring the endless gift shop, we spent a little time wandering around The Mall. It’s so incredibly beautiful in this part of the nation’s capital. You can see sculptures …

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… and you can admire the national museums (which are free if you want to go inside) …

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… and you can see rainbows in fountains …

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… and you can eat bomb pops (my walking-around-DC guilty pleasure)!

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It was also just hugely fun to spend time with Chris!

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As a side note, my hair stylist in Connecticut straightened my hair so that I looked more like Chris than I ever have before:

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But it didn’t last — one whiff of humidity and I was back to my old self!

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