After years of living in America I’ve seen one small town after another fall victim to the Wal-Mart mini-mall catastrophes that seem to turn bustling little Main Streets where people shop, stroll, and visit to colourless, tired-looking places you now only transit through on the way to somewhere else. Among the many things small towns lose when they turn into bedroom communities, truck stops, or tourist traps are their annual small town celebrations. Be it July 4th, Autumn Harvest, Christmas, Moon Landing Day or whatever, a good festival is always thrown by locals and one of my favourite things about living in a small town. Prior to actually living in my husband’s hometown of Benalla, Victoria, Australia, I’d only been around during the bi-annual (or thereabouts) Christmas holiday visit. Like any holiday visit, we often found ourselves rushing to see this relative or that friend, celebrating accordingly within the designated time frame before being whisked back off to America again. This time, we’ve arrived with no limits, right in time for spring to begin in the Southern hemisphere, and what better timing! Everything is (literally and figuratively) in full bloom. Every weekend there seems to be some kind of festival or celebration – lucky me! Two weeks from now is the Epicurean Festival in the Milawa gourmet district. Next weekend is the circus that has come every year since Marcus can remember. Two weeks ago we attended the Jazz Festival in the neighbouring town of Wangaratta, and this past weekend was the annual BenallaRose Festival.
Benalla is a compact but well-supplied little town, sporting a glorious rose garden surrounded by wooded parks that buffer the Main Street from the tidy neighbourhoods beyond. The Benalla Festival is its yearly celebration of its own small-town awesome-ness. Having missed out on the invitation only wine social at the art gallery on Friday (sniff sniff), the whole Forster clan set out for our first event: Saturday’s parade. As an American, I feel I’m a bit of an aficionado in the parade department, having seen everything from the famously elaborate Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, the quirky July 4thParade in Titusville, New Jersey to the unusually long Christmas Parade in Maryville TN (in which I participated for five years in various capacities).
In that curious way of Australians, my Aussie relatives expressed concern that their parade may not be up to par. In truth, the Benalla parade had all the frills and folly of a good small town American parade (with the one exception of marching bands – since high schools have no football teams, they also have no marching bands), but a group of elderly volunteer bagpipers and drummers all but made up for that. Gliders from the local glider club buzzed the heads of the surrounding crowds at the start, followed by a line of Chinese Dragons and an enormous float of what looked like Ned Kelly with very long arms, but I found out later was just a robot. The obligatory fire trucks, classic cars, horse-drawn carriages, and school kids on homemade floats all followed suit. Lily and her cousins ate ice cream and raced to catch candy thrown by the float riders as a typically monotone announcer gave us all a play-by-play. That evening, we returned to the festival grounds for the Saturday night fireworks show. Although the pre-fireworks band left a bit to be desired (the singer seemed quite drunk and was wearing a tank top with a necktie) the kids didn’t seem to care, and danced like crazed chickens, gleefully waving their light sticks. The fireworks themselves were top-notch, and can also go down in the memory books as Lily’s first, so I was beyond satisfied with our first day.
On Sunday, the main event was the much-anticipated market and kids’ fair. I have started to wonder if Australian small towns are so into festivals that certain things eventually begin blend together. The bagpipe band from yesterday’s parade was making a second appearance in the gazebo, and many of the vendors were the same ones we had seen at the Wang Jazz Festival the weekend prior. Not that it mattered. I was happy to peruse the stalls a second time, which also allowed buying opportunities that may have been missed during the previous market. At the kids’ park, we took advantage of the free balloons and bouncy castle (Lily embarrassingly refused to exit when her turn was up), but skipped another attempt at face-painting, (which she still has some strange aversion to). For lunch, we lined up for Fair Food – sausages (or snags), slightly akin to American hotdogs but much more flavourful, served on a slice of white bread rather than the more logically shaped hot dog bun. Hamburgers were served with grilled onions and coleslaw (Yum! No crappy processed cheese here!) also on white bread rather than a bun (What’s with that? Buns were invented because they are sturdy and correctly structured for meat consumption. Silly Aussies.) Then, Lily and I shared a new treat of a spiral-cut, seasoned fried potato on a stick. (We had, of course, seen these at the previous weekend’s market and neglected to try one). We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves when, suddenly, we were attacked by a swarm of angry gnats. That sounds like a horror movie joke but it really happened! Gnat-like bugs were arriving in visible clouds, causing people to run for the cover of trees (why that works, I have NO idea) and wave their hands around like crazed monkeys. The bugs covered our clothes and committed suicide in our eyeballs and soda cans. And although it would have been nice to take another stroll through the market, we instead hightailed it home. No worries mate, I’m sure anything I might have missed will be available at the Violet Town market in a couple of weeks. But with the exception of the bugs (there are many things I can think of that can cause one to leave a public event unexpectedly – this was definitely not on the list) the Benalla Festival was exceptional, and right on target with what my idealistic self thinks a small town celebration should be.