I-House, Your House

Sixty countries will participate in this year's Edith Coliver Festival of Cultures.

When she took her post as program director for UC Berkeley’s International House in 1990, Liliane Koziol had ambitious plans for the place. She wanted to highlight a whole range of cultures in a way that wouldn’t ever appear pre-packaged or museum-ish. More specifically, she wanted to dredge up a few good ideas from the past that, for one reason or another, had been lost by the wayside. One of them was I-House’s annual Spring Festival, which first appeared in the 1930s. Historically, it consisted of an evening performance from 7 to 9 p.m., which evidently wasn’t enough to sustain the tradition. As of Koziol’s arrival, Spring Fest — now called the Edith Coliver Festival of Cultures — had been dormant for about thirty years. She revived it in 1991, with the help of a few friends from her home country of Madagascar. “It started very modest,” Koziol said. “Ten booths in a little room. They were all my friends.”

Over the years, Spring Fest broadened its scope. It now runs for a full day with wall-to-wall performances, up to seventy booths, and around sixty countries represented. Student organizations drive much of the entertainment, and often have weird, offbeat ways of displaying national pride. One year, a group of Scandinavian students wanted to create a sauna because “steaming” is an important part of quotidian life in Scandinavia. The Italians once screened a series of auteur films to show off their movie industry. Not to be outdone, the British students decided to represent their country by recreating Brighton Beach. They brought tea, cucumber sandwiches, and buckets of sand. Koziol can remember other instances in which she has transformed parts of I-House into Little Japan, or a Buddhist Temple. “We’re a residential and programming center,” she said, “so we can represent everything from Bhutan to Mongolia to Madagascar.”

With so many different ideas, Spring Fest has the potential to get pretty diffuse. But Koziol takes care to come up with a theme each year, and hew to it as much as possible. Usually, she organizes the event around a featured culture. In 2008, it was Egypt. Last year, it was the Sufi tradition of Islam. This year, she plans to put Mexico in the spotlight, since Spring Fest 2010 coincides with the bicentennial of Mexican independence. Thus, I-House ceded its entire balcony floor to Mexican student organizations, who will bring Mayan handicrafts, ceramics, beadwork, jewelry, baile folklorico, piñatas, and, of course, regional cuisine. That’s only one aspect of the event, which will also include a room dedicated to “the Zen wisdom of life in Japan.” (It includes calligraphy, tea-making, Noh dance, and flower arranging.) Koziol says that by making the festival as variegated and interactive as possible, she’s living up to the founding principle of I-House. “The subtitle of this fest is ‘Rituals of Life,'” she explained. “So I wanted people to have hands-on experience of things — not just a unique, quaint culture that they see there.” The Edith Coliver Festival of Cultures takes place as part of Cal Day on Saturday, April 17, at International House (2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley). 11 a.m.-6 p.m., free. 510-642-9460 or IHouse.berkeley.edu


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