Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mēs Esam Garezers! - Garezers 50

We arrived in Dziesmu leja/Song Valley Saturday evening, marveling at the sheer number of people present - we hadn't seen it that full in years, and we sat higher on the hillside than usual, although I must admit that observing the audience adds a certain entertaining element to watching the show.
Waiting for the show to begin!
The program began somewhat unexpectedly with a woman standing in the middle of the dance floor announcing, "Man ir 50 gadi! - I am fifty years old!" This was followed by a man, clearly a fair amount older, striding out to announce that he is 50 years old. Next came a young girl, who also said that she is fifty years old. Then a group of folk dancers ran out to yell that they are also 50 years old. By this point I think everyone in the audience had understood the touching all-inclusive theme, echoing the celebration's slogan of "Kas ir Garezers? Es esmu Garezers!" - because we are all a part of Garezers, we were all celebrating our 50th birthdays! Appropriately, the evening's concert was titled "Mēs esam Garezers!" ("We are Garezers!").

With an impressive number of performers - both singers and dancers - from several cities and GVV, a varied program of singing interspersed with dancing, and a great thematic idea, the concert was a rousing success. Beginning with a string of dances to represent the atmosphere (Vide)....
followed by children singing and dancing to represent childhood days spent in Garezers (Bērnu dienas)...
which was naturally followed by a high school segment (Vidusskolas laiki), which featured the dance "Gandrīz tautas deja" (Almost a folk dance), choreographed by GVV graduate Margrieta Langina and set to the famous song "Gandrīz tautas dziesma" by the famous Latvian rock group Pērkons. The only video of this dance I could find is this one, but if you've never seen a folk dance set to rock music, I suggest watching at least an excerpt!

The sections that followed were on returning/giving back (Atdeve), friendship (Draudzība), family (Ģimene), and Permanence (Pastavība). Two dances which earned the most applause and which were most fun to watch were in the friendship section, and fortunately the performances by Toronto's folk dance ensemble Daugaviņa have been posted online: "Nerejati ciema suni", as well as "Laucinieku deja," (the group behind Daugaviņa is Milwaukee's Metieniņš) choreographed by another GVV graduate and former teacher Iveta Asone. It was particularly entertaining to watch some of the men dance, as a couple of them are well over 6ft tall and stocky, yet they were moving as lightly and happily as young children.

Another wonderful moment was the performance of "Ģērbies, saule sudrabota," jointly performed by the choir, the folk ensemble All Folked Up, and by several dance groups. Two of the more beautiful songs included in the program were the moving "Svetī debesis šo zemi" and the beloved "Saule, pērkons, Daugava."
Two happy spectators!
The concert closed with the always popular song "Gaismas pils," and then with the entire audience standing up, everyone - choir, dancers, spectators - holding hands, and singing "Pūt, vējiņi!" I'm quite certain there were a few misty eyes to be found. By this point we all knew - we are Garezers.

Then it was time to party! (Or bedtime for a few folk in our party, so they headed home.) First up: Bob & the Latvians, who have posted a three-minute video featuring snippets from both their Garezers-Palooza and Saturday evening performances. They were followed Latvian superstars Pērkons. Photographer Brita Brookes took some amazing photos of their performance. I was busy visiting with friends at the top of the hill -- we were so happy to catch up and observe the scene from afar that we didn't seriously contemplate going down to the stage and dance floor.
Catching up
View from the top of the hill
Happy on the hilltop - until one friend who'd ventured into the valley returned and excitedly exclaimed: "The view down there is so different! The music's great, and so is the energy. I say we go down and party like it's the 90s. Who's with me?!?" This was expressed with such enthusiasm that we couldn't say no. And she was right! Pērkons puts on an amazing show! Interestingly, while I don't count myself among the biggest of their fans, Pērkons' music has apparently been so ubiquitous in my life that I was singing along to many of their songs. 
While they played a total of three sets, regrettably sis and I did not have the energy to stay that late. We were walking out of Dziesmu leja as they began playing their best-known song, Gandrīz tautas dziesma, so I sang and hummed along while we strolled back to the house, ingenious (thanks, Ks & N!) headlamps lighting our way on the dark country roads, which were otherwise only illuminated by many fireflies flitting about in the magical summer night.
What's an event in Dziesmu leja without a bonfire?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Garezers-Palooza Music Festival

While there were many wonderful things about the Garezers 50 weekend, one stands out as a particular blessing and bonus, as it's not something that can be planned - outstanding weather. The entire weekend was sunny, dry, and not too hot. Like most summer camps, Garezers has little indoor space, and certainly none to accommodate enormous crowds, such as the over 1,500 people who had turned out for this celebration. As one of the organizing committee members honestly told me, "We had no Plan B" if it had rained, so we can all thank whichever Latvian goddess or god is responsible for weather, as they apparently realized how imperative good weather was for this momentous event!

On Saturday practically all events were held outdoors, where we all relished the sunshine. The morning official opening ceremony and subsequent panel discussion about Garerers' future took place a tad too early for some of us (and would have involved too much passive sitting for the kids!), and regrettably I did not make it to the Grasis Pavilion for that, as I was interested in the panel discussion. However, a very full day stood ahead of us - we were heading to the Atbalsis area for the first ever "Garezers-Palooza" music festival! While for many years Atbalsis was an independent entity, the fact that it recently became a part of Garezers was welcome news, and it was the perfect setting for this day-long event. In the spring volunteers had built a large addition to the main house's porch, and that served as the stage, while in the future the porch will be the perfect settings for parties and many outdoor meals.
Lini entertaining with their folk harmonies
Happily we arrived early enough to snag seats in the shade and enjoy the first performers, my good friends Lini, whom I know partially due to time spent at 3x3 camps in Garezers. They entertained with songs from their recordings, as well as new pieces. Lini was founded in 1994 in the Twin Cities, and has several recording to their name, but due to one member now residing in Latvia performs infrequently, so it was a rare treat to hear them. Their songs from a beautiful 1996 recording can be heard on YouTube. Two of my Lini favorites are Zviedzi zviedzi and Silta saule, karsta saule.

A couple of the other groups - Bob & the Latvians (founded in 1985, and very popular in the late 80s) and Frikadeļu zupa (founded in 1975, with performances and one record released in the late 70s) - had not performed in a very long time, thus it was also a fantastic treat to savor their music. Additional performers were the always popular Čikagas Piecīši and Adam Zahl, as well as the supremely entertaining rapper/hip-hop artist Delete who may have been performing his last show according to a rumor I heard. He was once part of the duo Latvian Syndicate, best known for their song "Riga-Detroita". Delete is a child of Garezers, and I particularly liked his artist bio in the printed program, where it stated that when in Garezers Delete likes to splash in the lake and visit Kantīne (the little store beloved by the camp kids for its candy and ice cream selection).
Frikadelu zupa
While adults listened to the music and chatted with one another, kids could keep themselves entertained in several large inflated "bounce houses," as well as a variety of games that had been set up on the lawn. Our appetites had also been considered in the planning, as a food stand was selling sausages and pulled pork sandwiches with sides and drinks. Many people came prepared for an all-day music festival - with their own seating, coolers full of drinks and snacks, hats, and sunscreen, and certainly a good percentage of us spent at least several hours in Atbalsis.

The atmosphere was relaxed and very social - it was wonderful to see a friend or acquaintance wherever one turned. I was able to catch up a bit with several friends I had not seen in a couple of years. At the same time, it was almost frustrating that the weekend was so short and the acquaintances so many, as there were many with whom I chatted for only a minute or two. Of course, as someone who tends a bit more towards introversion (while needing a decent amount of social interaction), I am also not the type of person who can just chit-chat all day long, and occasionally these short superficial conversations can be disappointing. Amusingly, I did have one exchange that afternoon in which an acquaintance and I seemingly read one another's minds: we saw one another, smiled, greeted one another while hugging, then - without launching into the typical "How are you?" exchange - almost simultaneously sighed, said "Yeah...", smiled again and then parted ways - having fully understood one another, while at the same time each having been glad to run into the other.

Having spent the better part of the day at Garezers-Palooza, and with both the kids and some of the adults having become restless and needing a bit of a break, we headed back to the house for some quiet time and dinner. The weekend's biggest event was taking place that evening, so the opportunity to recharge our batteries was appreciated.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Satiksimies Garezerā!" - Movie & Fireworks

Other than seeing many friends and spending time with family, the part of Garezers 50th anniversary celebration to which I was most looking forward was the documentary film made by Māra Pelēcis. While many Latvian celebrations include concerts, social get-togethers, and even art exhibits, this may have been the first time that a professional film was made specifically about a Latvian-American organization.

For those who had supported the film as sponsors, we had an opportunity to attend a reception with Māra, her co-producer Cory McLeod, and the film's artist Linda Treija before the film's premier. Held at "Sēnītes" (aka little mushrooms, which in reality are over-sized mushrooms next to benches), we had a chance to chat with them, see Linda's original art which she drew specifically for the film, and enjoy a glass or two of wine.
With Linda
Linda's sketches & drawings. SPs represent!
Catching up with a friend, and being photo-bombed by her son.
The outdoor movie night took place in Dzintari. While walking from Sēnītes to Dzintari, I was awed by the setting sun: a bright orange orb, its golden rays reflecting beautifully in the calm lake.
There was already a great deal of  commotion. Two large screens had been set up - one on the main volleyball court, the other on the kids' beach. Volunteers were selling popcorn, much to the delight of the many children in attendance. Families and groups of friends kept arriving, with blankets and chairs in hand. I know that some of us were a bit afraid that too many folks, being social Latvians who have not seen one another in a long time, would use the screening as another opportunity to chat, but our fears were unfounded. After some short introductions, when the movie began, the audience was silent. It seemed that even the active kids who were playing on the jungle gym during the movie realized they needed to be quiet!
Popcorn eaten, just waiting for the movie to begin!
The film is titled "Satiksimies Garezerā!", which means "Let's meet in Garezers!" A slogan used a couple of decades ago, it is both an accurate slogan and title, as that is precisely what why we travel from around North America to this specific lake in southwestern Michigan - to meet others like us. Once the movie began, for the next 80 minutes the audience, as we say in Latvian, "dzīvoja līdzi" or immersed itself in the experience. There was laughter and much spontaneous applause, there was even an impromptu sing-along to a song in the film. I was most touched when the narrator mentioned Garezers' founder Rev. Vilis Vārsbergs, with an old photo of him appearing on screen, and the audience broke out into applause. After all, without his idea, vision and work, we would not have experienced that meta moment - sitting in Garezers, watching a film about Garezers and about ourselves. Rev. Vārsbergs passed away in the spring of 2012, but his widow, his children and grandchildren were at the celebration.

By all accounts, the film was a huge success, and did an excellent job of showing what Garezers is, and why it is so meaningful to many people. Later I heard a few viewers complain that they would have preferred more about Garezers' history to be reflected in the film, but as Māra explained to me, such a goal would have been difficult to accomplish while keeping the viewers truly engaged. History in the movie was explained via interviews and old photographs, and as Māra said, no one wants to watch a film featuring "talking heads."

After the movie, it was time for something else unusual -- a professional fireworks display, courtesy of donors who specifically funded that. The launch area was behind the pond known as Dūņezers (next to Ods, for those who know Garezers geography well), thus many of us watched from the beach or from the side of the pond. I certainly had never been so close to such an impressive display, although at such a close distance and on a small lake, the noise was at times overwhelmingly loud.
View from side of Dūņezers. Photo credit: Edvīns Rūsis
Other people watched from their lake house balconies, or from boats out on the lake. 
View from the lake. Credit: Ērika Sensnovis
Pretty! Photo credit: Edvīns Rūsis
To many it was a festive and fun conclusion to an enjoyable day. However, there were concerns among some viewers about the environmental impact of the fireworks, as well as how the money (provided by donors specifically for this purpose) could have been utilized for other needs.

After trekking back to the house, it was midnight before anyone got to bed -  incredibly late for a 6 year old and a 2,5 year old, and even a bit too late for others! However, the day had been a memorable one, and yet another day full of Garezers fun awaited.

*Special thanks to Ērika and Edvīns for kindly allowing me to use their photographs!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Kas ir Garezers? Es esmu Garezers!

The Latvian Center Garezers celebrated its 50th anniversary in grand fashion over the July 4th weekend. The celebration's slogan was "Kas ir Garezers? Es esmu Garezers," which I decided to use as the title although my post is in English. "What is Garezers? I am Garezers" perfectly sums up this place which has been so important to many North American Latvians. Thousands of people have played a role Garezers' history, and many of us have filled various roles. Garezers would not exist if not for the founders and their vision and perseverance, the countless volunteers who do everything from build buildings to stack chairs to paint walls to shelve books, the children and teenagers who attend the programs, the parents who drive them there and foot most or all of the bill, the summer employees who work tirelessly with little pay, the full-time employees who work tirelessly through the year, the visitors who attend events or spend weekends or vacation time in a Garezers cabin or tent, the shareholders who own Garezers, and the many donors who support it.
Given how important Garezers has been in my life, I had every intention of attending the celebration; it had been on my calendar for two years, and although July is a difficult time for me to take time off from work, I'd made plans to make sure I would be there. As I kept hearing about more and more friends planning on participating, and as I pitched in with some volunteer work in the weeks leading up to the big event, I felt like a little kid waiting for Christmas!

Due to schedules and other considerations, I drove to Michigan instead of flying. The drive between DC and Three Rivers, Michigan is not an exciting one, and at best can be done in under ten hours. I left home at 7.10am,  and was pleased that traffic moved smoothly during the entire trip. Amusingly, my sole "delay" was when I ran into friends at an Ohio service plaza. They, too, were on their way from the DC area to Garezers! When I mentioned this to an American friend who also travels frequently, he observed, "You run into all sorts of people. I don't think I've ever run into someone I know while traveling." Well, this is what happens when one is Latvian and one knows people everywhere! The rest of my roadtrip was uneventful. With only a few quick stops on the way, I happily drove into Garezers at 4.45pm.

My sister, brother-in-law, little nephew and niece, mom, and I all rented a private summer home in the nearby "Ciems Latvija" neighborhood. I arrived to find my eldest niece and her husband setting up a tent and fancy sun shade in the backyard, and after everyone had settled in, they provided us with a delicious dinner of grilled meats and various side dishes (fresh meat purchased from Food Dance, and sides from Water Street Coffee, both in Kalamazoo). The weather was absolutely perfect, and we relished sitting outside, enjoying the late-setting sun, crisp Michigan countryside air, chirping birds, and even fresh blueberries from the backyard bushes.
Post-dinner relaxation
The weekend's first event--a beach party sponsored by the American Latvian Youth Association-- took place that evening, however, I was too tired from my long drive, and too relaxed after dinner and playtime with kids to seriously contemplate going. Unfortunately, that meant I missed a performance of the group "All Folked Up," which by all accounts was great.

Friday morning my eldest niece, a friend, and I volunteered at the event's registration table, a fun way to help out while welcoming some of the many visitors arriving in Garezers for the weekend. 
x 2 = 50! Retro mug at the house.
For some folks Friday was a day of sports - many individuals participated in the First Arnis Skulte Open golf tournament in the morning, while in the afternoon there was a East Coast vs. Midwest soccer match. My day, however, was more culturally oriented.

I spent part of the afternoon visiting Klinklāva Art Gallery to see the special exhibit, which featured an enormous variety of pieces, all of which were for sale. Some were donated, others had been provided by the artists. For your viewing enjoyment, below are a number of photos; I only apologize for not knowing the titles for these works.
Painting by Girts Purins
Metal sculpture by Gints Grinbergs
Painting by Janis Kalmite
Painting by Sasha Kinens
By Evalds Dajevskis
Painting by Sasha Kinens
Metalwork by Gints Grinbergs
Painting by Margarita Kovalevska
This is but a tiny selection of the many works that were exhibited. For a final bit of art as I finish this post (I will continue description of day 1 in the next post!), I spotted the adorable dancers below on the wall of Zemitāni (one of the GVV dormitories). They remind me of characters from the Richard Scarry books I loved as a child!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

More from Ziedins' exhibit "Travels in the Imagination"

Good news! After figuring out how to manipulate the photos that were being finicky and which I was unable to include in my original post, I am now able to share a few more photographs from the art exhibit about which I recently gushed. The exhibit is on view until July 26, and I'll point out that the Katzen Arts Center is closed on Mondays, while Tuesday through Sunday it's open 11:00am to 4:00pm.
"Bust" 1980s
"Box: Beverina." 1988
The artist's desk.
Exhibit description
Katzen Arts Center