Why the Fasnacht? A visit to Helvetia, W.Va.

Ever since a couple years ago when I heard of Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten celebration in the Swiss-heritage community of Helvetia, West Virginia, I’ve wanted to go. This year I got to go and shoot video.

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Helvetia is a tiny town of fewer than 100 people in the mountains of Randolph County. The residents are descendants of Swiss and German immigrants and the town has kept many of their traditions. Every year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, they have a big celebration where they wear masks, play music, dance and drink. The party ends at midnight when they burn an effigy of Old Man Winter.

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Old Man Winter

Fasnacht is a happy time for residents, who in winter are typically in a sort of hibernation mode, one of the residents there told us. The winters there are typically so cold and snowy that people don’t leave their houses for days. Plus the festival brings hundreds of visitors to a town that typically has few. It’s not quite the coming of spring, but it means its closer.

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A jam session early in the night

Some of the masks that people have made through the years are really impressive. These are just a couple that are on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Masks on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Another impressive mask

The majority of the night was spent square dancing, which I don’t know how to do, so I watched. As a friend who was there Saturday told me, the people take their dancing pretty seriously.

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Helvetia’s Star Band Hall

There were a ton of people and they were all squished into a tiny space, so inside it got warm rather quickly. Though the weather was warm on Friday (80 degrees in Charleston, where I live) winter had returned to Helvetia on Saturday. Outside the town hall, the snow fell and temperatures dipped into the 20s. Relief from the heat and the dancing was as close as the bonfire that was building outside the town hall. A crowd gathered there to drink and wait for Old Man Winter.

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What I think is interesting about Fasnacht, is its mix of cultures. Helvetia has lots of Swiss traditions, but Fasnacht is very West Virginian, too. There was lots of old-time music. I think we sang “County Roads” at least three times and at one point around the fire, people were chanting a familiar chant that disparaged a WVU rival. It doesn’t get much more Mountain Mama than that.

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An original cabin that belonged to one of the town’s settlers

Coverage of Fasnacht is running in Wednesday’s Gazette-Mail, and there’s a photo essay in Saturday’s edition.

PS: If you’re going to Helvetia, the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, located about a half hour away from there, is definitely worth a stop. It was all sorts of wildlife that are native to the Mountain State. The animals are kept in spacious enclosures, but you can see wolves, mountain lions, elk, bald eagles and more in just a short walk around the center.

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Note to self (yolo)

When you die, they should take that list of things you were gonna do —

The cities you wanted to visit

The foods you would have tried

That grudge you’ve been meaning to forgive

— put in the pocket of your dress, and bury it with you.

An update in pictures

I’ve not made time to write for myself lately and that’s a shame because I love to write. But here are a few happenings.

The garden plot is full of tomatoes and it’s great.

Just waiting for them to ripen.

My cats are still jerks.

Summer is in full swing as evidenced by these blackberries.

Summer is also the best time to live in Charleston.

One reason for that is we have a lot of fireworks, like these from the Fourth of July.

I’m working on a lot of freelance stuff from home to make some extra cash.

OK the cats can be cute sometimes when they’re not being jerks.

I’m dreaming of building my own tiny house and living somewhere where the cats can run free outside. (Photo credit Tammy – Weekend with Dee.)

Also currently: reading “Eat, pray, love,” and saving money for my own journey someday soon. Send me travel ideas if you want.

Encounters in NYC Part 2: My purse is gone

It was my first time in New York City. I came for a work-related conference but was exploring the city by myself at night.

I come from a small Appalachian town where public transportation is nonexistent. We drive cars here. So I felt pretty good about having taken the subway, crowded at rush hour, down to the financial district to see the 9-11 memorial. It had closed by the time I got there.

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With my cell phone battery dying and because I kept getting lost, I headed back to the side of town where my hotel was.

I was  walking along 57th Street West around 10 p.m., probably with my eyes aimed at the tall buildings all around me. There’s a lot to take in in that city. Suddenly I was  aware I wasn’t carrying my purse anymore.

I had been carrying a clutch purse with a cord that was around my wrist. And it was just gone. I didn’t feel anyone snatch it from me. I sure as heck did not lay it down anywhere. But it was still gone. I stopped on the sidewalk, felt my coat pockets again and again. Nope, not there.

So. Many. Curse words.

I was alone in the city, except for a few people I met at the conference. The cash could be replaced and my credit card could be canceled but my license was in there. How do you fly without an ID?

Great, I thought. My first time in the city and I can’t ever leave. I’m gonna end up with a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign that reads “Too ugly to strip,” begging for the kindness of strangers.

My cell phone and hotel key were in my coat pockets, thank God. I could call for help and I had somewhere to sleep, at least for a couple nights.

I stopped a random stranger on the street. “What do you do if your purse is stolen?” That’s a dumb question, I know. It must have been the shock. Plus I didn’t know how New York City’s police dispatch would feel about fielding a call about a lost purse when people were probably murdering people or stealing cars elsewhere in the city.

“There’s always a cop in Columbus Circle,” he said.

Columbus Circle, NYC October 2013

Columbus Circle, NYC October 2013

I headed there and found a police car sitting in traffic. The two officers were nice but didn’t seem to want to believe the purse had been taken. “Let’s just look for it first. Maybe we’ll find it. Miracles happen.”

Ok, officer, I thought. Let’s you and me retrace my steps while some criminal is off using my credit card to buy an X-box and stealing my identity. They eventually took me back to the police station for paperwork, then drove me to my hotel.

“Hey, those people are looking at you because they think you’re a criminal,” one of them joked. “You should get out and run.”

“Oh, can I do that?!”

“No, you’d get tackled,” he said. Fair enough.

Lincoln Center, October 2013.

Lincoln Center, October 2013.

I thanked the officers as I got out of the car at my hotel. I shared an elevator with two women on my way to my room.

“How’d you get a police escort?” one of the them asked, grinning.

“My purse was stolen,” I said.

It’s kind of funny, when you think about it. A girl from the sticks goes to the big city for the first time in her life and, while exploring, all wide-eyed, and innocent, has her purse stolen. I’m a cliche, I keep telling people. I’m pretty sure this was an episode of Beverly Hillbillies.

But you know who wasn’t a cliche? Some of the New Yorkers that I met while I was there. People say New Yorkers are rude and unkind, but I met people who bucked that stereotype. One of the conference staff members gave me cash from her own pocket when she found out my  money was gone. Another acquaintance bought me dinner one night.

I found out you can’t wire a person money if they don’t have an ID. Well, my mom found that out when she tried. I think she was even more panicked than me about what happened. And a little miffed. “What were you doing walking around New York City by yourself after dark?!” she asked.

Turns out you can fly without an ID. Someone at the airport did a background check on me and then asked me questions about myself to make sure I was who I said I was. When they told me about the process, I was briefly concerned they’d come back with some creepy NSA questions about stuff they shouldn’t know anyway.

“OK, what color are your bedsheets?” I imagined the man asking.

Nope, the questions were about my birthday, car and previous address. Good, I know these answers, I thought.

I made it into the security area of the airport and was “randomly” selected for a full pat down. As if standing with my arms above my head while a strange man sees through my clothes during a full body scan wasn’t enough, they also had to subject me to more touching than I’m used to on most dates.

And they didn’t even buy me dinner.

“I bet you’re so ready to leave New York,” another airline security guard had said to me me while I waited for my background check.

Yes, I was. But I hope I can go back. Next time I hope I don’t have to involve the cops.

Encounters in NYC Part 1: Honesty is the best policy

I’m in New York City a couple days for a work-related seminar. I got in Sunday afternoon and, because it’s my first trip to the city, headed straight for Times Square after checking into the hotel. What a trip that place is. Street venders everywhere vying for your attention. All the trinkets and t-shirts and stuff you could ever want. The lights. The sounds. The … smells.

One of my first conversations with a person here was this guy.

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This is James. He’s just standing in the middle of Times Square. Asking for money to buy weed. And it sounds like people actually give it to him.

To be clear, this is absolutely ridiculous. But his smile in this video cracks me up every time I watch it.

Songs for a roadtrip

One of my friends recently packed his car and took off for a city 9 hours away. It was the latest installment of what I call the Mass Exodus of 2013, in which all my friends move away. But that’s another blog post.

I wanted to make him a mixed CD for the road, because I am just that cheesy. But also because I think the best part of a good road trip is the music.

But alas, my MacBook STILL has that copy of Food Inc. stuck in the CD drive. It’s been, like, a year and I never even got to watch it.
I know you didn’t ask, but here’s what would have been on that CD. All of these songs are newish to me. A lot of them I discovered using iTunes Radio. (If you haven’t updated yet, iOS 7 is worth it, if only for iTunes Radio, in my opinion).

Let me know if I left something good off the list.

  1. Matt Wertz “What I know right Now”
  2. Bastille “Pompeii”
  3. Lorde “Royals”
  4. The Family Crest  “Love don’t go.”
  5. Vance Joy “Riptide”
  6. Ryan Adams “Lucky Now”
  7. One Republic “I lived”
  8. Jason Isbell “Traveling Alone”
  9. The Avett Brothers “Another is Waiting”
  10. Neulore “Shadow of a man”
  11. Ivan & Alyosha “Don’t wanna die anymore”
  12. Lee Dewyze “Like I do.”
  13. Jared and the Mill “Breathe me in”
  14. Avicii “Wake me up”
  15. Passenger “Let her go”
  16. Vienna Teng “Whatever you want”

D.C. in a day: a how-not-to

If road trips are fun, spur-of-the-moment road trips with friends are even more fun. That’s why I’m glad my buddy Michelle agreed to come along with me this weekend on a whirlwind trip to Washington D.C.

I had not visited the Nation’s Capital since my fifth grade patrol trip and Michelle hadn’t been at all.

It’s about a seven-hour drive from my home in Charleston, W.Va. We left Sunday afternoon and stayed the night with my aunt in Canaan Valley, W.Va., which is on the route and about four hours away from the city.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Pro tip: If you’re staying with family, be sure to change your alarm ring tone from “Blurred Lines” or don’t rely on the snooze button. Otherwise, Robin Thicke will yell “I know you want it,” over and over in your 70-something aunt’s otherwise serene mountain home at 5 a.m. while you shower because you forgot to turn it off. Yes, this happened.
  • The best part of the drive to D.C. is without a doubt, Canaan Valley and the surrounding areas in WV.  Thomas, Davis, Elkins, Hampshire County. All beautiful.

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  • When someone says hey, let’s go to a major city hours away from us and try to take it in in one day: don’t do it. Technically we did it in two days, but we still were in the car about 10 hours altogether Monday. We were on the road from Canaan Valley at 6 a.m. and on the D.C. Metro by 10:30 a.m. We saw the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, the White House, Washington Monument (from afar, as it’s under repairs because of earthquake damage) and the Holocaust Museum but could have used more time to see the other museums and sights. And it would have been nice to see the downtown section of the city, not just the tourist traps and monuments. 

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  • Growing up in Appalachia prepared me for a lot of things, but using public transportation is not one of them. I spent hours the day before I left trying to plan and get over my apprehension about taking the Metro. Michelle and I didn’t have any trouble (save for a taking a long while finding a place to park my car) taking the Metro into the city. Coming back, though, we went to get on a rail car and got separated. I was two steps behind her and she had made it on when the doors began to close. I had my arms through and, had I left them there, I’m sure I would have lost them because there was no stopping or reopening once they were closing. All I could do was watch as her train car pulled away from the station. Don’t panic,. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Her phone was going dead and there was no service anyway so I didn’t even try to call or text her. Luckily I caught the next car and we met at the station where we had parked.

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  • I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would think, all these years later, if he knew that we honor his memory by taking selfies in front of a huge marble statue of him.
Michelle and I do a selfie in front of the Lincoln Memorial. September 2013

Michelle and I do a selfie in front of the Lincoln Memorial. September 2013

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