Friday, August 12, 2011

NoCa & San Francisco Day 3 - 31st Annual Steinbeck Festival

Giant Rabbit by Pierre-Alain Bertola

"Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans"
said John Lennon and was right. This day is a perfect example - it went completely different than planned.



The initial idea was to go back to the National Steinbeck Center, do the tour to the archives and then drive around the Monterey Peninsula to explore the Steinbeck Country and visit the Monterey Aquarium on Cannery Row, but when I got up I felt quite exhausted (no miracle ... jetlag plus very long day on Saturday) and the weather - sorry my French - sucked big time. Ironically it cleared up to a sunny, cloudless afternoon full of the strange dreamlike colors of Northern California right when I had to drive back to San Francisco ... stop & go on 101.

But back to the morning. When I arrived, I still had a little more than half an hour left and went for the museum part of the center. I was there already the day before, but had not enough time to closely look at some items in the exhibition that had caught my attention and interest. The Steinbeck Museum showing the most important stages of John Steinbeck's life as well as the characters, locations and stories from his books is a very visual and vivid experience. I especially loved to see Steinbeck's Rocinante - the camper he traveled with for "Travels with Charley"
. The old lady is really small - definitely smaller than I thought.

At 10 am I finally went down the stairs for one of my personal highlights of the weekend - the "Archive Tour with Herb Behrens". Herb had the holy halls prepared for us with pieces from the collection related to the festival theme "Friends & Foes". He started the tour with photos, books and letters of Steinbeck's friends like photographer Robert Capa, politician Adlai Stevenson and of course Ed Ricketts as well as some of Steinbeck critics - and he had quite a few from some literature experts who were not so excited about his work to several people in Salinas, who found themselves portrayed in Steinbeck's
books and not always in a pleasant way.

In the 2nd room we got a little introduction to the structure of the archives and the amazing collection of books stored there. My two favorite pieces were both handwritten paper sheets. One was the original logbook of the "Western Flyer" written by captain Tony Berry (The one with the Dalmatian face. I would die to know if he was really of Dalmatian descent  ... could easily be.).  The other piece was written by Steinbeck himself. His handwriting was TINY and obviously set to not waste any paper. But what fascinated me most is that there was not single word corrected, nothing crossed out or added at the edge of the paper. This man obviously knew EXACTLY
what he wanted to write down before he even raised the fountain pen. Amazing.

Everybody who knows me a little longer and better also knows that this kind of adventure is exactly my thing. Not for nothing I studied history at university. I love traveling back in time and see and touch things of people who lived before me and who's life is still impacting me in some ways. It adds a certain dimension of reality
and that is a great experience.

I also used the chance to ask Herb all kind of questions about things that were spinning in my head after reading the books and he answered them all with patience, passion, incredible knowledge and a good portion of humor. It was so much fun - thank you, Herb!!  If I get the chance to come back to the National Steinbeck Center, I will definitely go back down, schedule another visit of archives and explore some new sites of Steinbeck's work and life
.

After the tour for maybe 10 seconds I was wondering if I should go now to drive around like planned, but I already did not feel like leaving when I ran into George Wallace, poet from New York City and 2011's Walt Whitman Birthplace Writer in Residence. Staying at the same hotel we had already talked a couple of times during the weekend and when he invited me to his show starting in the next 5 minutes back at the exhibition hall of the center, the last piece of resistance was gone and I decided to stay in Salinas for the day.

I would have loved to provide you with a picture of George Wallace in action, but - just in case you will read this, dear George: You do not only talk in a Manhattan speed - you also move that quickly while talking ;) and with the low light in the museum and without flash it did not work out.
The session itself was fantastic. With lots of passion and great expertise George took us on a wild ride along the themes of Steinbeck's work and through some highlights of American poetry from Walt Whitman to Toni Morrison and Woody Guthrie.

After this whirlwind of poetry I did not even think about leaving anymore. I felt much more like finding myself a place with a power plug and .... writing. So I just went to extend my parking ticket and pick up my notebook, got myself a brownie and a coffee (yes ... I am suprsingly drinking a lot of coffee here - however that could happen) and comfortably settled down in a corner of the main hall and started preparing the first blog post
about the festival. Funny enough lots of people stopped by - staff from the festival checking if I would need anything (sadly the WiFi was too weak at least near the power plug) or festival visitors I had chatted with before in the past 1.5 days. It was totally relaxing.

At 3.15 pm I packed my stuff together to join the audience for the performance of the theater group "Poetic Justice". Like I told you I never had the chance before to see a Steinbeck play on stage and so I was excited to see "Of Mice & Men" or better ... at least the bit of it I could only watch, because I had  to leave for San Francisco half way through the play.

"Poetic Justice" is a "through collaboration of formerly incarcerated writers, artists, musicians and actors" and the artists might not act as elegantly as their professional colleagues on bigger theater stages, but we are also not talking about "A Midsummer Night's Dream" here, but about "Of Mice and Men" - the story of two farmhands during the Great Depression.
For me it was exactly how it should be. I especially loved the performance of Nick Homick as Lennie
, who brought the combination of Lennie's physical strength and his mental deficiency and vulnerability perfectly on stage.

Before the drama around poor Lennie could run its inevitable final course, I had sadly to sneak out to say good bye to the 31st Annual Steinbeck Festival, The National Steinbeck Center and Salinas.

This year it was such a giant case of good luck that my business trip to San Francisco fell on the same week like the festival, that the chance that this will happen again next year in May for the 32nd Annual Steinbeck Festival is very small, but who knows in the end? I would definitely love to come back!
I had an amazing weekend and I enjoyed so much to be surrounded by so many great artists, to be able to leave everything behind and just focus on fantastic literature for two full days.


Back in San Francisco it was not easy to fight myself back into my worklife reality although it was great to see my colleagues. It also helps that when I look out of my window I do not see my terrace at home in Munich or even worse - the other wing of the office building in Dornach but THIS:





My "Room With a View"


Stay tuned - more fun to come :)

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