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Smithsonian Folklife Festival

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July 1, 2014

Behind the Scenes at the Festival Hotel

A celebration in the hotel at the end of the first week, bringing together Chinese and Kenyan music performances. Photo by Isabella Gatti

A celebration in the hotel at the end of the first week, bringing together Chinese and Kenyan music performances. Photo by Isabella Gatti

Even though the Folklife Festival is already halfway complete, people have only recently stopped arriving! In the past week, I’ve made six trips to airports and train stations, ferrying participants and presenters to the hotel.

A group of around forty Kenyans arriving at Dulles airport, and my first experience as a travel aid. Photo by Isabella Gatti

A group of around forty Kenyans arriving at Dulles airport, and my first experience as a travel aid. Photo by Isabella Gatti

I experienced the excitement of picking up large groups of Chinese and Kenyan participants from Dulles International Airport, the stress of waiting for three detained Kenyans, and the bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye to a group of Siletz Native Americans who I met at the 2013 Folklife Festival.

Here at the hotel, things are lively to say the least. Participants decked out in full regalia frequently make their way out of the revolving doors to catch vans and buses to the National Mall. Our office is always buzzing, too. In a space made for two beds, a TV stand, and probably four individuals, we have managed to squeeze three desks, two computers, bundles and stacks of papers, and usually considerably more than four people.

As we tend to the participants’ daily needs, it doesn’t seem that there is any method to the madness—but there is. We organize as we go, and we think on our feet as situations arise. My supervisors work tirelessly (literally, they stay up till 3 a.m. hard at work) and are committed to solving people’s problems and making events run seamlessly.

This whiteboard in our office features a Chinese Character of the Day. Many people have come by to contribute to it, and we are learning new vocabulary every day! Photo by Isabella Gatti

This whiteboard in our office features a Chinese Character of the Day. Many people have come by to contribute to it, and we are learning new vocabulary every day! Photo by Isabella Gatti

Though the participant staff is serious about our work, we are still able to make time for some laughs, short Chinese lessons, and conversations during our evening socials. Participant Eric Wainaina shared with me how he is interested in seeing Chinese and Kenyans literally and figuratively “share a stage.” The two groups interact not using language but through music and sometimes rhythm and dance.

The participant staff at the hotel has an extremely behind-the-scenes job, but it is so much more than caring for hotel-related needs. We demonstrate the hospitality of the Smithsonian and sometimes America as a whole. What we do can be considered a large component of the supporting foundation of the Folklife Festival, and I am beyond proud to be a member of this cornerstone team.

Isabella Gatti is interning with the participant staff. When she is not running around the hotel, you can find her on the National Mall (also running around). 

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