I measure out my Sundays in radio shows. It’s Only A Game, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, Car Talk: NPR drones throughout lazy mornings reading the paper, afternoons jotting in and out of the garden while yelling upstairs to tell my son to get off the computer. In the evening, I like to cook something that requires lots of chopping and hours of simmering. WCPN stays on, but the world it brings into my house changes. Suddenly, the announcers speak foreign tongues, and Polka-inspired nationalist music replaces indie rock clips. “Oh crap, it’s ethnic night,“ I think to myself. Instinctively, I reach out to change the station. Then I stop myself. Why not spend the next few hours not knowing what people are saying?
The Lithuanian hour, the Slovak hour, the Hungarian hour and the Ukranian hour: Sunday nights on CPN end my week by reminding me of Cleveland’s immigrant roots. The programming is a mix of nostalgia and contemporary news about the home country. Inevitably there is a church dinner advertised. Lots of what is aired is lost on me, though The Sounds of Britain and Ireland flatter me by speaking in the one language I can follow fluently.
Like the radio playing while I focus on how many cups of onions I need, the city’s Eastern European population slips into my background. When I describe why I like living in Cleveland to non-Clevelanders, I mention the new urban gardens, restaurants with patios in Shaker Square, the orchestra, the low cost of living. And then, as we keep talking, I dial back to discuss the city’s history, the pierogis and all that.
Monday morning through Sunday afternoon, my Cleveland offers few overt reminders of the city’s Eastern European population. Everyday Cleveland to east-sider me is defined by trips to Heinen’s, school carpool lines and walks around the Shaker Lakes. There is some local color in these routines—Heinen’s is a local family business, the drive to school takes me through three different cities in 10 minutes, and the walk, of course, grounds me in my environment. I root for the Browns and the Cavs (I’m not much of a baseball fan, alas, but I try to get to Jacob’s Field–yes, copyeditor, I mean to say Jacob’s Field–once a year). But each of these daily city routes take me past Ukranain churches, Hungarian clubs. The city’s Eastern European population forms the infrastructure of my Cleveland.
image from Slovak Institute, Cleveland
What I do not know about the history of Cleveland’s Slovak, Ukranian, Hungarian and other communities is vast. There is still a Lithuanian newspaper being printed here. The Slovak Institute in Buckeye offers residents a chance to research their family history and the history of their immigrant experience. The Irish? Well, of their pubs I have some knowledge. I do not learn much from my Sunday nights, but I do remember how much I do not know.
I am Jewish, and of Eastern European descent. The city’s east-side Jewish community is part of my everyday Cleveland. But this is a city full of sects, and mine does not intersect with these (to go further into this topic would be to introduce politics and prejudice, perhaps, which are not my purpose here). This is another reason why I stop myself from turning the station when the news shifts to Lithuania, where my grandfather was from.
What I am saying here is that the Sunday night ethnic programming on WCPN is charming. I cannot understand it, would not feel comfortable at one of the church dinners advertised, and in its focus on old country traditions and avoidance of contemporary goings on in former Soviet republics, it is overly nostalgic. But it stitches the city together for me. It brings me away from the D.C. politics and the hipster jokes on the earlier Sunday programming, away from the racial politics of the latest flash mob debates in Cleveland Heights and away from the stagnant unemployment numbers manifest in the For Sale signs and closed up storefronts I pass on my walks around town.
Escapist, historical, incomprehensible. I do not understand why what I call Ethnic Night on CPN (and other similar programs on other local stations) still airs. But I know why I listen.