This weekend I zig-zagged across Europe, visiting Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, Italy, Denmark, and Belgium in just six hours.
How did I do it, you ask?
It’s a little thing called the EU Open House. All the European Union embassies in Washington, D.C. (plus Croatia, who will officially join July 1!) were open to the public. And we’re not just talking a tour of the embassy. Most embassies went all out. Many of the larger, more well-known countries (think Italy, UK, Belgium, Ireland) gave away freebies (ranging from bags to beer!), while even the smaller countries had samplings of traditional food and drink. And of course there was lots of music, dancing, and funky traditional clothing!
A few tips if you plan on going to the EU Open House (or Passport DC) next year:
- Wear comfortable walking shoes! I was practically limping by the end. No matter what, you’re going to have to do a lot of walking. And while there are shuttles, they seem to always be pretty full.
- Be prepared to wait in line. I volunteered with @EUintheUS as a social media reporter for the event, so I was able to bypass some of the lines INTO the embassies. But man, were some of those lines LONG! Certain more popular embassies (like Belgium and Italy) had crazy long lines just to get in, and even once inside required more waiting in line if you wanted to enjoy any of the free samples (gelato and espresso at the Italian Embassy, chocolate and beer at the Belgian Embassy).
- Show up early, and plan ahead. You really need to get there right at the beginning (10 a.m.), and if you want to hit up any of the big embassies (Italy, UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland) you should probably head there first. As the day goes on, the lines only get longer and longer. If you have a route or priority list in mind, this will also help.
- Keep up to date on the goings-on through social media. Part of my focus as a social media reporter was to be a resource for people on where the lines were shorter, when different things were going at each embassy (i.e. Romanian lessons from 10-11, wine sampling at Slovenian Embassy at noon, folk dancing at Latvian Embassy at 2, etc.). I even found out a few great things watching the Twitter feed. I was going to skip Belgium, but free Leffe was hard to pass up. And I knew I couldn’t make it to the Netherlands, but it was going as a top priority on next year’s list from the tweets I saw! If you have kids this is especially helpful, because we really tried to tweet where the best activities were for them (pasta arts & crafts at the Italian embassy, bike riding and games at the Danish embassy, etc.) Watch that #EUOpenHouse hashtag on Twitter!
Now, on to my own experience. I focused my time on the “blue” line (the EU Delegation broke down the embassies into a few different shuttle lines based on their location), which went along Embassy Row. Unfortunately, even with much planning it would be difficult to explore embassies on more than a couple different lines. Which means, I’m already planning to hit up somewhere different next year! I heard great things about the Dutch embassy (a club/lounge-like feel with free Heineken and Dutch waffles?!), but I can’t say I was disappointed by any that I did visit.
Here’s a quick summary:
Latvia was a great first stop on my whirlwind European tour. The embassy is on the smaller side, and there were no lines (as opposed to Ireland, just down the street!), but I had no trouble talking to the Latvian representatives in the embassy. These two ladies, for example, were happy to talk to me about what the traditional Latvian dancing costumes they were wearing. (Interesting fact: the “crown” the girl on the right is wearing is a symbol that she isn’t married.)
Next stop: Romania, which was conveniently located next to Latvia. Again, it wasn’t at all crowded (of course, these visits were also early in the day), and there was a lot of opportunity for interaction. They had Romanian language classes in one room, which I thought was a cool idea. Later in the day they also had dancing, which I was lucky enough to catch as I was walking by the embassy again at the end of the afternoon.
I’m not sure what it was about Slovenia (I guess it’s the whole being-the-only-country-with-LOVE-in-its-name), but I really enjoyed visiting their embassy. It was a cultural smorgasbord, with so much going on. There were costumes, singing, dancing, food samples, cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and more. One of my goals was to try to visit the embassies of countries I hadn’t been to and that I didn’t know much about. I made a point especially to visit Latvia and Slovenia because (I am ashamed to admit), I sometimes get them confused with other countries (namely, Latvia/Lithuania and Slovenia/Slovakia). I wish I could have visited all four, but given the time, I figured I should at least get to know one country in each “pair” — and get to know Slovenia, I did. It is definitely high on my list of countries to visit next time I’m in Europe.
After spending so much time indoors, Denmark was truly a fresh of breath air. A short hike up the hill from the Italian Embassy, the Danish Embassy feels like a little forest escape. There were trees all around and the birds were singing. There was also a huge outdoor area with a host of fun activities for kids and adults alike! Inside, you could even play bingo! My only strange complaint: I waited a bit in a line to get inside one of the buildings, thinking it was for something of interest, only to later discover it was just the line for the bathroom. Oops!
The experience at the Belgian Embassy was certainly a unique one. After waiting in a long line to get into the embassy, you are ushered into another line that zig zags through the embassy. In other words, you shuffle along in a line from room to room, where you receive your free goodies and move on. (There are a few rooms with cultural things along the way, but many people skipped them because they didn’t want to lose their place in line.) That being said, many people were quite happy with their free box of chocolates, free reusable bag from Brussels Airlines, free samples of various Belgian snacks, and free Leffe beer upon exit!
All in all, the EU Open House is definitely a worthwhile experience. It was worth the drive down to D.C. for sure! I had a lot of fun learning new things about different countries’ cultures — more than I expected! I admit, at first I thought, “Oh, Europe. I’ve been all over Europe, what new things can I learn?” But in reality, there is a lot I don’t know, especially about some of the smaller countries. If you’re planning your visit to the Open House, I highly recommend taking the time to visit some of the more eastern European countries. There’s a lot to learn, and those embassies tend to be a little more focused on educating visitors about those cultural aspects.
No matter how you spend your time, you will certainly enjoy the atmosphere. There’s an excitement in the air and it’s great to see so many people out and about. You’re sure to make a few new friends!