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Aural Report

North Portland's Polish Festival
More than just the Hokey Pokey
by Kurt Dahlke

ow in its 12th year, the Polish Festival in North Portland is going stronger than ever. It's no wonder: the festival features great food, beer and music.

It's a foolish person who would argue against two days of kielbasa and pierogies. But the festival has a challenge or two.

Dishing up the grub: A volunteer offers a variety of traditional Polish treats.

Chief among those challenges are the varying forms of Oktoberfest happening nearly simultaneously throughout the region. Yet the Polish Festival has many reasons to stand out. And all that close-in beer and sausage sure beats driving to Mt. Angel.

We stroll under a lowering autumn sky toward the weird brown plywood wall, a low-rent medieval fortification across from the Palms Motel.

It's the gate to the fest, where a one-dollar suggested donation bucket gives way immediately to four rows of friendly people urging you to gorge on various traditional Polish treats.

Beyond that is the booth where you can trade cash for the tokens that will enable you to buy those treats.

So maybe there are still a couple kinks to work out. But after we rush to the token booth so we can pay for the food just waiting for us, we have no complaints. Plus, a pierogi in hand beats a block-long line for potato pancakes any day.

No mistake, I love a good potato pancake and I want to see if they are as good as the ones my mom (who is not Polish) used to make. Thank God there's always next year.

Whipping up a frenzy: PLUS adds to the fun.

We grab some school desks near the bandstand so we can sit and eat while watching Portland's own PLUS whip a crowd of teenybopping girls into a frenzy.

I dip delicious pierogi into the ultra-rich sour cream and think: I should be near the stage dancing to work off the thousands of calories I'm ingesting.

Youthful enthusiasm (plus a ton of Polish pride) is well on display as PLUS (PL for Poland, US for United States) tears into another of its hours-long repertoire. PLUS represents Polish traditions of music and fun as one of the West Coast's premier Polish-American party bands.

Lovely pints of Zywiec beer entice us to enjoy a few more songs of hybridized Polish rock with melodies that sway back and forth between traditional and late-20th-century pop. It's cool hearing the lyrics in Polish, too, even if the novelty of rock music with non-English lyrics is fading.

We ask Mark, one of the festival volunteers, what makes this festival so good. He points to its hardcore authenticity.

Authentic stuff: passed-down recipies and beer.

Mark rhetorically questions how much conversational German one might hear spoken at any of the many regional Oktoberfests, while noting that we've been hearing volunteers and attendees rap in Polish all over the place.

He also mentions that the food isn't the standard collection of "cookbook" recipes cranked out for the other fests, but authentic stuff from recipes passed down through generations – likely cooked by grandchildren of the authors.

Wending on through the small plaza of vendor booths we find traditional crafts, jewelry and this amazing deal: a violin, bow and case for $100. At those prices, anyone can play!

We gulp back our Zywiecs before absorbing the museum-like tribute to the late Pope John Paul II, assembled with great care in one of the church meeting halls. My lack of pious Catholicism reduces me to simply marveling at the many photos of the pope greeting crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. Pretty impressive.

Polish pride: Oregon Polka Beats.

As the pancake line shortens we instead look for dessert in the coffee hall. Whoa – here's Oregon Polka Beats, a traditional trio with a roomful of bouncing, prancing revelers. Better to go for water than pastries, as it's about 80 degrees and the atmosphere of frenzied dancing is contagious.

The accordion player exhorts howls of enjoyment to "blow Mt. Angel off the map." That Polish pride is showing strong, demanding attendance at the festival (both by Poles and the rest of us) to continue to burgeon.

Then the damn accordion player calls out our group. We have to hit the dance floor for the compulsory Chicken Dance. If I go with the flow maybe there'll be another Zywiec for me when I'm done.

What's the deal: traditional crafts at amazing prices.

Or maybe there'll be the zany compulsory Hokey Pokey, which after 30 years is, for me, a little rusty.

There's definitely another Zywiec to wash down the Hokey Pokey – and maybe to help the fun we're having at this year's Polish Festival sink in.

We pass the awesome Palms Motel and it's just a quick trip home, on foot or on MAX.

We'll be back next year.

But for me, the Hokey Pokey ain't what it's all about.

E-mail Kurt at orangeandorange@msn.com, and don't miss his previous reports.

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