Jul 072015

Willo_SertainWillo Sertain is the founder and accordionist of Macaulay Balkan, the latest addition to Portland’s Balkan music scene, which had been, according to one active member, in need of new blood. Having seen Macaulay Balkan’s first three shows, part of the monthly Balkan Night at Atlantis Lounge/Mississippi Pizza, I can attest not only that they’re coming into their own as a band but that they’re making a difference. I chatted with Willo about her fascination with Balkan music.

American Robotnik: Where does your passion for Balkan music come from?

Willo Sertain: I grew up in the Appalachians. My mother taught me to love old places because, she’d say, every building has a story. The same goes for music.

Since I was a girl I’ve liked listening to a lot of styles and genres from all over the world. I used to be obsessed with African music, then Indian ragas, anything that sounded real.

Exposure to cultures other than your own makes you realize there’s more out there than the pop you see on TV. I think I was searching for anything that would bring out a sense of what it is to be alive, to feel my blood boil.

American Robotnik: How did Macaulay Balkan get its start?

Willo Sertain: After I moved from North Carolina to the West Coast in the early aughts, for nine years I played with the Portland-based touring band Underscore Orkestra. I learned to play a lot of Eastern European music with them.

Somewhere along the way I heard some Bulgarian and Gypsy and Serbian brass music on a compilation CD, and I remember wondering what I was hearing. It was so different, so inspiring. I listened to the disc obsessively, and I became not only passionate about the music, I wished I could play like that.

Kafana Klub and Krebsic Orkestar introduced me to live Balkan music. (Both Maria Noel and Alex Krebs are an inspiration to me.) But that’s just one night a month and I wanted more, so I started the band. It’s my love project. I get to feel purely through sound.

Lucas Warford (homemade bass instruments), Grace Young (viola), Danielle Evans (percussions), a rotating horn player, and I have been practicing since last February, and you saw our first show in April.

American Robotnik: What’s in store for Macaulay Balkan?

Willo Sertain: Compared to my main band, Three for Silver, which tours a lot, Macaulay Balkan isn’t an ambitious project. I just want us to play the music, contribute to the local Balkan music community, and share a culture that’s not part of the mainstream with other people.

Unlike with Three for Silver, we don’t write original songs. Macaulay Balkan plays our interpretation of songs from the Balkans. We want to honor the original songwriters.

At the same time, the more I learn the more I see how much more there is to learn. We aren’t purists and we don’t always play correctly. We learn from recordings. We just want to play the music the way we feel it, to get the feeling across.

I also want to work on the music, hone in on it, because it’s an expression of what’s going on in my head.

I feel we’re in this together. That feeling is contained in the music. It’s about connecting with people. On Balkan Dance Nights, people from different social groups come together, relating to and over music. I want the band to be a part of that kind of world culture, which celebrates and shares our differences.

There is some nostalgia, too, the kind I experienced looking at old buildings with my mom.

Photo courtesy of Willo Sertain/Three for Silver.

Jun 292015

Last July, when I returned from 13 months of traveling to Portland, Oregon, I found my adopted home town a different place than I had left. The place was overrun with newcomers clogging surface roads with traffic and filling vacancies in condominium buildings that had sprouted like mushrooms in desirable areas. The neighborhood bar, aptly called The Standard, I enjoyed for its divey, black-clad vibe now also saw pastel polo shirts and bachelorette parties crowding the tables. The list goes on.

Change, of course, is a natural facet of life; I had not expected the place to remain the same. I also knew that change appears to be much more prominent after an absence than when you are in the middle of it. Yet what I thought of as reverse culture shock was filling the pages of the city’s weekly newspapers and dominating conversations. The transformation that came as a jolt to me was shaking the city to the core, and it continues to do so.

New condo, Portland, Oregon, Jul 2014

The New Portland: It’s a Problem

The complaint goes something like this: Over the past decade the city has received a tremendous amount of publicity, from the (not-so-funny) IFC show Portlandia to the (all-too-serious) New York Times. Front and center have been Portland’s many quality-of-life virtues, from the creative vibe to the craft beer and restaurant scene, from low-cost of living to walk- and bikeability, from the many green splendors to the general rad-ness. The generation of Americans seeking a place to begin settling down paid attention and flocked here.

The Portland metropolitan area’s urban growth boundary limits sprawl, which results in new development having to go up, rather than out. After the Great Recession, developers launched a condo-building craze to house the new population. But, even as condos ratchet up the city’s density, the supply can’t keep up with the accelerating influx. The resulting housing shortage is pushing rental and home prices up, pushing African Americans out of traditionally black neighborhoods and artists of all ilks out of their cheap rooms, eastward where housing is cheaper, toward the derided 82nd Avenue.

Some call it gentrification: the city’s growing up, they say, maturing from punk-rock rags and tight jeans to khakis and the aforementioned polo shirts. Perhaps the hipster is going the way of the dad. Others blame greedy developers capitalizing on the trend.

Fellow Yankee, Go Home

What we can all agree on is our shared dislike of the newcomers. A divide has emerged between established transplants, roughly those who arrived before the Recession, and the new, post-Recession arrivals (I omit Portlanders born here because they seem so rare nowadays and because they’ve been through this before).

After I moved here in 2004 I heard complaints about immigrant Californians driving up home prices. In other words, young professionals have been coming here for a while now. We just may have reached a tipping point.

But now I am one of the complainers. At a networking gathering the other day, I helped a spirit of camaraderie develop around the table when us, established nonprofit professionals commiserated about the new Portland. Ever since my return last year, at my favorite places I’ve frequently caught myself thinking, “Who are these people?”

Taking Responsibility, Taking Portland Back

Few older transplants blame themselves. Had we collectively not created a city that others find attractive, we’d have nothing to talk about. Each and every person who moves here alters the place. I did when I moved here and so has everyone else who has made this great city home.

The same goes for immigration to the U.S. Some like to complain about America that’s disappearing before their eyes as the new arrivals change its fabric. But we are all immigrants. Complaining about the changing Portland and new transplants, of whom I am one, is no different than complaining about new America and immigrants, of whom I am one, too.

And so, I have decided to quit complaining. I will no longer berate the change I helped bring about. Instead of glaring at that new boxy building, I will relish biking under the trees lining the street and through the invisible clouds of flower fragrances, even as I fail to avoid the scantily-clad hordes of bicyclists converging on the Naked Bike Ride. Instead of giving a stink eye to ‘those people,’ I will quaff that new microbrew like it was my last one. And I will remind myself that The Standard and its cheap booze is still only two blocks away. Besides, they now have a Thursday all-night Happy Hour for patrons with an Oregon drivers license.

Jun 252015

This report is cross-posted on the Where Is Your Toothbrush? blog.

* * *

When I moved to the U.S. in 2003 I was skeptical about microbrews. Having been raised on Czech/Slovak lagers of the pilsner variety, the various production of the burgeoning Oregon craft brew industry exceeded my palate’s tolerance level. It took me years—until I started brewing my own beer in 2012—to begin enjoying IPAs, for example. Once I got into ales, pilsners became something of a spurned lover. A major reason for this was the paucity of pilsners I enjoyed (you tried, Southern Oregon Brewing Na Zdraví Pilsner and Hopworks Urban Brewery Lager, but dice). Somehow, I felt, local brewers could not get the pilsner style right and I pretty much gave up the search.

Until this year. In a span of months, I’ve stumbled upon four most excellent and inspiring Oregon pilsners.*

No. 3 best Oregon pilsner: Heater Allen Pils and Baerlic Eastside Oatmeal Pilsner (tie)**

Two excellent pilsner discoveries in three days? In Portland it’s possible.

A pit stop at Green Dragon last Saturday on a walk through inner Southeast Portland ended in a special reward: Heater Allen Pils. I’d been meaning to try this brew for a long time but was always hesitant to shell out for the fancy-looking bottle it comes in. A single sip of this Oregon pilsner, made in McMinnville, at a picnic table on the back patio of this local standby (50+ beers on rotation at any one time) and I was transported to a IV. Price Category pub, i.e. dive, somewhere in Holešovice, a Prague suburb. Drinking this crisp, cold brew on this hot afternoon was like traveling back across the ocean and in time without leaving my current home town.


By contrast, the Baerlic Eastside Oatmeal Pilsner, from Southeast Portland, got me feeling like an explorer as I enjoyed it at another Portland beer connoisseur standby, the Belmont Station. The brewers didn’t just get the style right, they found a way to improve on the style by using oats in the grain bill, which lend the brew a chewy, homey quality, not to mention a near-perfect head despite the barkeep’s proclivity, very common in the U.S., to avoid pouring too big a head lest the customer complains of getting cheated on volume. The new, unique combination sent me to unknown realms of golden abundance more effectively than any Czech or Slovak beer commercial.

No. 2 best Oregon pilsner: Occidental Brewing Bohemian-Style Pilsner

Because four out of five trips in town I make by bike, St. Johns feels far away. It’s not the physical distance—St. John’s is only about 10 miles from where I live. The distance is mental: there simply isn’t time or reason to go there during the work week.

But on weekends, St. Johns becomes a North-Portland destination within the city limits. I looked up breweries in the area and found Occidental Brewing, which focuses on German-style beer sold under a brand identity that reminds me of old American sports-team logos. The gently-sloping ride ends on a sharp downhill leading to Cathedral Park beneath St. Johns Bridge, Oregon’s most beautiful span. Though the taproom is tucked in the corner of a one-story industrial-warehouse building, inside is heaven. Some shared tables offer a perfect setting for the Bohemian-Style Pilsner. This is how a beer should taste halfway through an easy bike trip on a sunny spring day. It is a standalone reason to visit St. Johns.

No. 1 best Oregon pilsner: Buoy Czech Pils

Buoy Czech Pils started it all. Lindsay and I were spending the Presidents Day weekend in Astoria, Oregon, where we visited a new taproom of Buoy Brewing, located in an old pier warehouse with views of the Columbia River and a window in the floor to watch sea lions among the pillars. It was a warm February day, and the beer list so impressive I had a hard time deciding. I have no clue what led me to pick the pilsner, a style I was still skeptical of at the time—a sudden spurt of a traveler’s adventurousness, perhaps, or I just misspoke. But the first sip transformed my world: where the later Oregon pilsners inspired various travel fantasies, this first one was a revelation. A true Oregon pilsner is possible!

Buoy Brewery, Astoria, Oregon, April 2015Buoy Brewery, Astoria, Oregon, Apr 2015

Giant cargo ships passed by while people waited hours for a table (we got lucky arriving during a lull) and sea lions barked underfoot. I was having the best pilsner of my American life—cold, crisp, hoppy with just the right bite—wanting to stand on the chair, nay, climb up to the roof and yell the fact for all to hear. But the beer was just so good I kept it it to myself.


When we passed through Astoria in May, on the way to a weekend in Long Beach, Washington (look out for a future blog post), our waitress introduced me to her coworker, a very busy Czech bartender named Milan. While the USNS Comfort hospital ship glided toward the Pacific Ocean, we chatted in our respective languages, two former compatriots in love with our new homeland and its beer. The pilsner experience in Oregon just doesn’t get better than that.


* In all fairness, the ranking does not necessarily reflect my preference, it just follows a reverse chronological order of tasting, No. 3 most recently, No. 1 way back in the winter when this new pilsner chapter of my Oregon craft brew life began.

** These two pilsners are tied because, well, who wants to be Number 4?

Dec 172014

Every migrant knows in his heart of hearts that it is impossible to return. Even if he is physically able to return, he does not truly return, because he himself has been so deeply changed by his emigration. It is equally impossible to return to that historical state in which every village was the center of the world. The one hope of recreating a center now is to make it the entire earth. —John Berger in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

Dec 072014

Emigration does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but also, undoing the very meaning of the world and–at its most extreme–abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd. [T]o emigrate is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments. —John Berger in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

Nov 232014

After encountering several important differences in the basic aspects of American life—think inches and gallons—I found it reassuring that the hour here has sixty minutes, the day twenty-four hours, and the week seven days. Then I found the American week starts on Sunday. Being the first day after the weekend, my week has always started on Monday. There’s a reason for Saturday and Sunday being called the weekend; as the week’s final day, Sunday is reserved for rest before another work week. In my Slovak mind, the sequence of […] Continue reading >

Nov 132014
Through Other Lenses: American Robotnik Readings for November 2014

From Around the Web “Conservatives Are Driving Americans Away from Religion” by Claude S. Fischer, Boston Review, October 15, 2014 — Self-explanatory. “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” by A.O. Scott, The New York Times Magazine, September 11, 2014 — “[I]n doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” “9 Reasons We Should Abolish Tipping, Once And For All” by Hunter Stuart, Huffington Post, October 17, 2014 — A follow-up to my two-part post on tipping. “Think There’s a Lot of […] Continue reading >

Nov 112014

A case could be made that they would have been better off melting into the landscape as no doubt many now forgotten did, adopting native tongues, stories, places to love, ceasing to be exiles by ceasing to remember the country they were exiled from so that they could wholly embrace the country they were in. Only by losing that past would they lose the condition of exile, for the place they were exiled from no longer existed, and they were no longer the people who had left it. —Rebecca […] Continue reading >

Oct 292014

In the United States citizenship and nationality are one and the same thing. You are automatically American if you are born on the U.S. territory or if you are born to American parents anywhere. You can also become American by reciting the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony. As an immigrant, you can be born to parents of any nationality, anywhere in the world, and speak any language, but if you meet the formal requirements of citizenship, including publicly declaring the subscription to a set of ideas, enshrined […] Continue reading >

Oct 212014
The Twin Peaks Project: The Strange and Twisted Dream of Twin Peaks Nostalgia

This blog post is part of a series of essays by writers and other artists about the influence of Twin Peaks on their work. Writer Shya Scanlon is collecting the essays in the Twin Peaks Project. *** Nostalgia is the immigrant’s permanent condition. Faced with the uncertainty of the unfamiliar present, not to mention the unknowable future, he turns to what he knows: his own past. Perhaps it was just a natural extension of the nostalgic condition when a couple of years ago I set out to write a […] Continue reading >

Oct 132014
Writing About Immigration Experience: "A Demolition"

Earlier this year I submitted a personal essay to Oregon Quarterly magazine’s 2014 / 15th Annual Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest. The look back at my immigration experience shortly after coming to the U.S. won first prize. You can read the original in the Summer 2014 print issue of Oregon Quarterly or online here. I reprint the essay here with permission of the magazine’s editor, Ann Wiens, and at the end I include two reader responses. A Demolition 7:41 a.m. I park Sam’s old Ford pickup on the near side […] Continue reading >

Oct 092014

Memory is potent…for almost any immigrant. As you scramble to piece together your future in an unknown environment, you only have the past and its customs to guide you. But the past and its customs are increasingly murky and useless. Faced with an unknown future, we retreat to the past for its safety. An inability to assimilate to their new homes—to abandon memories, language, traditions is the charge most often lobbed at immigrant communities. For immigrants, solitude and the trap of memory are central conditions. If our memories are […] Continue reading >