Tuesday, August 7, 2012

#10. Don Your Lederhosen in Jasper

I had many surprising experiences in Jasper, a city of about 15,000 in southern Indiana. I climbed a 235 foot belltower, saw the weirdest magic show of my life, slow danced to the voices of multiple retirees, attended a polka mass and ate delicious Hispanic food in the middle of a German festival.

Strassenfest, Jasper's 34th annual four day German festival, brought me to the small town. As soon as I drove within the city limits, I knew this was a big deal for the area. Dozens of homes and businesses were decorated with German flags and several city blocks were roped off for the occassion. The remainder of the town seemed very quiet; it was as though all activity outside of Strassenfest was temporarily put on hold to enjoy the communal festivities.

Strassenfest decorations in front of Jasper's Courthouse
And rightfully so. The event lineup was impressive, lasting from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and ranging from a Nutcracker Suite ballet performance to polka and chicken dance contests in the Bier Garten. Thousands of festival-goers enjoyed carnival rides, complimentary caricatures and outdoor music performances in the town square.

 The festival had many non-German elements, but I decided to start my Strassenfest with a tour of St. Joseph Catholic Church. The Church's founder, Fr. Joseph Kundek, was instrumental in building Jasper's German heritage. In the 1830s, Fr. Kundek placed ads for Jasper in newspapers around Europe and in cities like Cincinnati with strong German communities, according to an article by the Indianapolis Star. Soon after, immigrants from the German regions of Baden and Bavaria flocked to the town.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

St. Joseph is not only integral to the heritage of Jasper, but also to its architecture. The church is stunning, with green vaulted ceilings, jewel-colored stained glass and soaring pillars. The exterior is beautiful, but the interior is literally awe inspiring.

Volunteers led tours into the bell tower through a series of wooden staircases and ladders.

On the way to the top, I climbed past ringing bells and clock faces until reaching a room with windows offering a nearly 365-degree view of Jasper and the surrounding Dubois County.

View from belltower

In addition to the bell tower tour, I attended a polka mass at the church. I attended Catholic schools for 13 years and my family goes to Mass every week, so I am very familiar (and oftentimes bored) with the music played; I was interested to see what a polka mass could offer-- unfortunately, not much. Several polka songs were played but even this could not make mass entertaining. I know this isn't the purpose of mass, but a part of me was still hoping for more.

The mass may have been somewhat disappointing, but the food was not. For lunch, I had weinerschnitzel (breaded veal tenderloin sandwich) and sampled my boyfriend's mini bratzel (bratwurst on a pretzel bun topped with sauerkraut and mustard) served with German potato salad. Both were hearty and unhealthy and tasty, making them perfect fair food.

bratzel with German potato salad
Weirdly, the best food I had at Strassenfest was Hispanic. Pupusas (corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans and pork) and chicken tacos were washed down with horchata (sweet, cold drink made of rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon) and made for one of my favorite meals in recent memory.


Music was plentiful, as well. Three stages hosted continual rotations of performers singing German folk music, beloved oldies and punky girl rock. The Talentspiel (Talent Show) was especially popular and provided both hits and misses. The winners were a tap dancing duo, but the most memorably strange entrant was the magician.

Tap dancing winners
A man in his early 20s dressed in dark clothing came on stage to creepy music commonly heard in janky carnival horror rides. Without speaking, he grabbed a tablecloth and lifted the cloth and table into the air and hoisted it around. Still silent, he set down the table and grabbed something metal from the table. He then ate some of the metal and looked expectantly at  the crowd. The crowd, unsure of what was happening due to the lack of narrative, sat silent. He then took the metal object out of his mouth and ate another metal object and repeated his previous expectant look. Still, the audience sat silent. This was his act. The music stopped and he walked offstage to scattered, confused applause.

floating table
In spite of this bizarre act, the Talentspiel went on to recover its upbeat nature. But I have to give the magician credit for being bold enough to enter his very out-of-place act into a traditional town talent show.

The unexpected finds at Strassenfest, like the dark and confusing magic act in the midst of a lighthearted talent show and killer Hispanic food amongst German stands, are what I will remember most about my visit. Who knows, maybe naechstes jahr I will find myself there once again.

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