International flavor spices up Southern charm

Ethnic festivals highlight some of the rich cultural experiences that you can find, if you take the time to look.

By Franco Ordoñez
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  • Alfredo Molimia and Zenaida Villa dance the polka with the Ballet Folklorico Mexicana de Greenville at the 2003 Latin Festival at the Mint Museum. CHRIS KEANE/STAFF

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  • 5 months with ethnic festivals

    1. September: Oktoberfest Starts Sept. 26 and continues weekends through Oct. 12. Waldhorn Restaurant, behind Carolina Place Mall; 704-540-7047;

    Yiasou Greek Festival is early in the month. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 600 East Blvd. 704-334-4771

    2. October: Taste of the World: Oct. 9. Twenty participating restaurants in East Charlotte International District. Eastland Area Strategies Team; 704-716-6600 Latin American Festival: Oct. 12. Symphony Park at SouthPark. Latin American Coalition; 704-531-3848;

    3. November: Beaujolais Nouveau celebration Nov. 21. Levine Museum of the New South; Alliance Française de Charlotte; 704-236-4863;

    4. May: Charlotte Dragonboat Festival: May 16. Location TBD but likely Ramsey Creek Park; Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce; 704-540-6808;

    5. July: Bastille Day Festival takes place mid-month. French-American Chamber of Commerce of North Carolina; 704.225.3910;

One of Charlotte’s best kept secrets is its rapidly growing international community.

Perhaps not immediately apparent like in other larger cities, but those willing to branch out a bit will be rewarded with rich cultures and tastes from almost every corner of the world.

Discover hand-made Turkish pottery, for example, or catch an African Kalimba performance, otherwise known as African thumb piano, at Pura Vida World Art – a folks arts store, café and art gallery in Plaza Midwood. Talk Paris, Berlin, and Rome at a free conversation hour in French, German, or Italian at the International House in Elizabeth.

More than 10,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students come from 102 countries and speak 83 languages.

Your neighbors could as easily hail from Chile or Vietnam as Boston or Buffalo.

“The thing that is so unique to Charlotte is that you continue to have the traditional southern charm genre,” said Andrea Lee, a board member of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, “But now you’ve added all these elements of intrigue – all these cultures from all over the world – make it so much more.”

Ever dream of being a champion Dragon Boat racer? Then don’t miss the spring Asian festival when teams of 21 – and a drummer – compete against each other in 40-foot dragon boats on Lake Norman.

The city hosts as many as 70 ethnic festivals a year, including the widely popular Yiasou Greek Festival where attendees can watch traditional dances on three stages while eating a succulent souvlaki sandwich. Try the drive-thru if you’re pressed for time.

Franco Ordoñez writes about minority affairs for the Charlotte Observer. 704-358-6180;