Folks keep asking me what the difference is between the Renaissance Festival and the Minnesota State Fair. The truth is, I'm really not sure. I've never been to the State Fair, so my opinion on the matter is a bit coarse. I can be fairly certain there aren't a lot of sexy, buxom ladies running around wearing corsets and leather dresses.
Nor do I expect that there are a high number of people speaking pidgin Elizabethan English, a generally hilarious pastiche of modern and pop-culture language with "thees" and "thous" thrown in for color. Maybe all I'm certain of is that RenFest is something genuine, something heartfelt and bawdy and sweet all rolled into one. I keep coming back for that. Though people stroll about with swords and leather mugs full of liquor, beer or mead, I've never seen a temper flare nor heard any unkind words spoken. Sure, there are medieval insults and cocksure barbs flung willy-nilly, but not a soul takes it to heart.
What I find is RenFest leaves one with a feeling of camaraderie -- an ever-present effort that infuses itself into every activity, straight through to the wild abandon of the drum circle at the end of the day. And perhaps it's that veritable drum party that marks the difference best of all, for there is nothing more communal about "Fest" than that sparkling point at its day's close. Tribal beats bring out the snake hips in that suede- and denim-clad MILF.
They shake loose joyful undulation in the zaftig wood sprite with tape on her glasses. They turn the shirtless Ron Jeremy-alike into a fun-crazed Pan, inciting laughter and cheering in everyone around as he storms through the crowd, gut and belly fur a-wobbling. They make the little girl dressed as a precious, wee peasant, who was sleeping on her mother's lap only moments before, rise up and cover her ears, eyes wide and mouth in a big, surprised O.
The Renaissance Festival is where the most innocent parts of your id can come out and play, where pride and social anxiety can easily be stuffed away. Perhaps I'm getting a little soggy about it all, I don't know. Some folks wait all year for the State Fair, summer concert festivals or Burning Man. For me and my kind, it's Fest. And I don't even dress up, really, nor am I big into all the historical whatnots. Sure, I know the difference between a mace and a flail, but mostly I just throw on my frog fanny pack and grab my neon pink and green squirt guns and head 3 miles south of Shakopee, my belly full of excitement at the mead and turkey leg I'll stuff into it upon my arrival.
There are several types of mead -- an alcoholic beverage made of fermented honey -- available at the Renaissance Festival, all made by J. Bird Wines of Stanchfield, Minn. Most folks go for the Egyptian variety. Other kinds are apple, raspberry, strawberry and, I've been told, an elderberry flavor that is called "Bloody Mead" and is available only one or two days out of the festival season.
But there's always that silky, musky Egyptian, infused with hibiscus, available to please my palate. It's not nicknamed "Pharaoh's Curse" for nothin'. The ritual with me and mine at RenFest is to head straight to the mead booth for a glass of the stuff. Then, we sit in the shade right there and take in whatever musical offering happens to be strumming and warbling at the time. One cup of mead finished, another is immediately purchased, and we begin to wander about.
This usually means heading directly across from the mead booth to Catskill Mountain Moccasins, where we drool over the gorgeous custom-made moccasins and mukluks we cannot afford (the muscular, swarthy salesman with the cunning smile doesn't hurt, nor do the beautiful, tanned saleswomen in leather). Then, it's two doors down to Rena's Leather to fawn over skirts and halters made of suede and purchase yet another animal tail: Will it be fox, lynx or raccoon? So far, I've got four, and really, I feel the animal tail is an under-used fashion accessory. I know I, for one, like to sport a tail year round when the whimsy strikes.
Alas, now the difficulty sets in. More mead? A turkey leg? It's decisions like this that can decide the course of the day, since one has to leave the area of the mead booth to procure that enormous, protein-rich gam of deliciousness. Thus, of course, it is generally decided to grab another cup of mead.
At this point, factions of the group have been known to separate. Some, being new to Fest, depart to peruse the wares at other stalls. Swords, faerie garlands, wax hands, drinking horns, cigars and pipes call out to the uninitiated. Others will dally at the hookah tent, sucking in sweetly flavored apple smoke for an hour or two. Still more wander off to view shows such as Tastes Like Burning (voracious, funny fire-eaters) and the Tortuga Twins (raucous, racy, R-rated live comedy). I generally opt for some snake petting and tortoise watching at the Herpetological Society (conveniently located next to the mead booth) and follow that up, finally, with the much-beloved turkey leg.
The leg is a portable beast, wrapped liberally with napkins to prevent its heat from hurting your hand and its juices from running down your arm. There is nothing quite as tastily barbaric as setting one's teeth into the crunchy skin and smoky, fine meat of a turkey drumstick. Verily.
The trek through Fest marches on, now to fetch a pickle (only a dollar!). Be sure to get a pickle; the stands are run almost universally by energetic, charismatic young men, shirtless and sporting bowties. Their jokes are eye-roll-inducing paeans to all things phallic, but if you can stop yourself from laughing and joining in their merriment, your lack of humor must be legendary.
And this reminds me -- one thing it is important to be warned of, and not forget -- your experience at the Renaissance Festival will be interactive. Nothing too involved will be expected of you, but if you are prepared to shout medieval language-oriented invectives, you will enjoy yourself all the more.
One brash lass had the moxie to suggest I hold a conversation with her before I'd gotten a drop of mead in me; I most certainly lashed out at her, yelling, "Hush, wench! I must have my mead!" across the dirt path on my way to procure said restorative. After this liquid was attained, she again besieged me; I remember not what was said, but she was indeed hushed, and I was left grinning.
Soon, the group starts to find one another again, and the afternoon wends its way into evening. The sky offers rays that gild dusty hair and skin, and conversation begins to show the weariness of four or more hours of puttering about along uneven dirt paths. The mead's vigor peters out, leaving behind a gentle feeling of hangover. Everywhere couples quietly hold hands, or wind arms around waists. Children cling to mothers and fathers, dragging the day's bounty; princess hats and wooden swords trail the dirt. Everyone is headed for the same place, gathering together for the drum jam in the clearing near the Fest's entrance.
It is there, with percussion thudding all about, that the Renaissance Festival's feeling of family is cemented. A couple we've run into all day dance with their dog Diego, and soon the woman commandeers a drum, thumping out her own rhythm. Two young, treacly sweet lovers who have also been a fixture of the day hold each other and kiss in the midst of dancing bodies, a rose in the girl's hand. My favorite pickle dude, the one with the snaggle teeth and bowtie made of dollars, ululates through the crowd, trying to sell just a few more before day's end.
And finally, just before the drumming wraps up, with one of the men walking around signaling just one more minute left, that little girl in the peasant dress stands up, pulling her fingers from her ears, and I can hear her, just barely above the din.
"Bye-bye," she says, chubby little hand waving. "Bye-bye."