Once a year, on two successive weekends, embassies in Washington, D.C., open their doors to the general public.
The free events at more than 50 embassies are wildly popular, attracting upward of 200,000 people who are curious to peek inside and make contact with the customs, music, food, dance and art of faraway cultures.
Many embassies are in palatial historic mansions along the tree-lined streets of D.C.’s most exclusive upscale areas. Blocks-long lines form early. Neither tickets nor reservations are required.
Usually held in May, the first weekend features non-European embassies; and the second weekend includes European Union embassies. The fun, educational events are co-sponsored by DC Cultural Tourism and Passport DC.
The first weekend I chose embassies of exotic countries I have not yet visited, starting with the Saudi Arabia embassy. Although security there was rather “tight,” Saudi representatives were extremely friendly and gracious, and the presentations were first-class. Like several other embassies, the Saudis featured a photo booth, where visitors could try on traditional Saudi clothing, and have a photo taken. There were art exhibits, food and a film on recent Saudi programs to feature accomplishments of Saudi women within their cultural structure.
Apropos of female entrepreneurs, the taxi I hailed toward my next stop at the Qatar embassy reception (also beautifully done) was driven by a woman: Mulu, a native of war-torn Eritrea, whose happy outlook on life included joining me inside the embassies.
“I see these open house signs on the embassies every year, but I didn’t know it was free,” Mulu exclaimed.
She volunteered to chauffeur me as we “chummed up” as friends, eating yummy treats and enjoying the music, dancing, art and films at more embassies including the opulent 1906 Beaux Arts Uzbekistan Embassy whose original owner perished on the Titanic in 1912. I also visited the Albania and Azerbaijan embassies. Kazakhstan’s embassy was closed, but guests could tour outdoor exhibits including a nomad’s tent.
Mulu and I could never find the Oman embassy at the address given.
The second weekend I had time to visit only the gigantic, sprawling United Kingdom embassy, which featured presentations on the then-upcoming royal nuptials; live Shakespeare performances on the terrace; and, of course, jaguars and rose gardens.
An added benefit of “touring the world” was being inspired by Mulu who said, as a refugee in the late 1990s, she walked for two weeks over several hundred miles from Eritrea to Khartoum Sudan, and eventually came to America where she found work.
“My outlook on life remains always positive,” she said.