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Passport DC Adds Another Banner Year to Its Belt
by Anna Gawel
The numbers keep rolling in for Passport DC, and they all add up to another successful showcase of international culture in the nation’s capital.
Now in its fifth year, the month-long celebration in May organized by the group Cultural Tourism DC enjoyed a record participation from about 70 of Washington’s 180 embassies (also see “All Aboard! Passport DC Still Opening Doors — And Not Just to Embassies” in the May 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Passport’s signature event, the Around the World Embassy Tour on May 5, drew nearly 27,000 people to more than 40 embassies — a jump from the 22,000 who visited last year.
Another popular Passport event, the Meridian International Children’s Festival on May 9, attracted 6,000 people to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, as adults and kids alike enjoyed more than 20 interactive embassy booths where they could sample international cuisine, make traditional crafts, and learn about the diverse cultures, geography, and attire of countries around the world.
Other big attractions included Short Cut to Europe: European Union Embassies’ Open House and the National Asian Heritage Festival’s Fiesta Asia Street Fair, where some 20,000 people turned out for the outdoor extravaganza of music, food, arts and crafts.
Behind all the numbers is a clever concept that taps into the inherent allure of the city’s roughly 180 embassies, bastions of foreign culture that remain closed off to most people. Likewise, embassies have seized on Passport DC as a perfect vehicle to reach out to the community that hosts them — part of the growing recognition of the importance of public diplomacy.
Passport also offers a creative outlet for those public diplomacy efforts, beyond merely opening embassy doors for generic tours. Guests are treated to karate demonstrations, stilt walkers, sari-wrapping and calligraphy lessons, henna applications and wine tastings, along with native cuisine, performances, lectures and a host of other activities — all of which defy expectation.
“There’s this really fun juxtaposition of what we think about as international oftentimes being traditional or folk, but what we see with all of this is a lot of the exhibits and concerts and so forth are bringing forward very contemporary art and new trends and new activities,” Linda Donavan Harper, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC, told The Washington Diplomat. “You shouldn’t think about it as what a country has been, but what a country is becoming or doing now as well.”
Cultural Tourism DC is a nonprofit coalition that encompasses more than 230 cultural, heritage and community-based organizations whose members try to expose residents and visitors to the nation’s capital beyond the National Mall — and Passport fits right into that mission, shining a spotlight on parts of the world that most Americans rarely get to see.
This year’s participants, for example, included nations as varied as Argentina, Bangladesh, Brunei, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan, Mexico, Serbia, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela — not to mention the 27 member states of the European Union.
“I was here last year and wanted to come back. As always, the tour was really good,” said Alexia Rivera, who visited the Venezuelan Residence. Added Nicole Druen of Sweden: “For me it was marvelous to see where the ambassador ate and held his meetings. I loved the paintings that decorate the place.”
Here are some highlights of the various events and what thousands of Washingtonians got to experience behind embassy doors:
* Some 1,500 people visited the Embassy of Kazakhstan, which presented a wide-ranging program exploring the country’s history, modern-day achievements and unique traditions.
In addition to an elaborate jewelry and souvenir display, an entire room was converted to resemble the interior of a Kazakh “yurt,” an ancient tent-type dwelling of early Kazakhs, with day-to-day items used in their nomadic life. Visitors were shown colorful native costumes, weapons of warriors, and other historic replicas made by Kazakh artisans. Particularly striking was the “torsyk,” or traditional receptacle to keep milk and other liquids.
Another room included a photo exhibition depicting contemporary Kazakhstan, including landscapes in Astana and Almaty. To sweeten the pot, each guest was also given a bar of Kazakh chocolate made by the Bayan Sulu confectioner company.
* Paris and Berlin teamed up to provide Washingtonians with a double treat, with the French welcoming their German counterparts to La Maison Française (the French Embassy) while the German Embassy undergoes renovations. As a result, guests could choose from an authentic German beer garden or traditional French café, or splurge on both.
* More than 2,000 people flocked to the Bolivarian Hall, the cultural space of the Venezuelan Embassy that’s adjacent to the ambassador’s residence, for a day of music, dancing, children’s activities and art.
Guests were greeted by women wearing the traditional dress of the Venezuelan plains region — a skirt with stripes of yellow, blue and red like the national flag — and took guided tours of the official residence, where they viewed works by famous Venezuelan artists such as Armando Reverón, Manuel Cabré and Héctor Poleo.
As part of Passport DC’s spotlight on notable women artists to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Venezuela chose to honor Belén Palacios, an Afro-Venezuelan woman who dedicated her life to preserving the traditional bamboo-made percussive instrument known as the Quitiplás.
Visitors also sipped on a refreshing traditional drink made of sugar cane called papelón con límon, while children and adults helped to decorate the Cruz de Mayo (or May Cross), a wooden cross that is adorned with flowers in thanks for blessings received during the year.
* Apple strudel, Austrian Meinl coffee and wine was on the menu at the Austrian Embassy, where visitors enjoyed the sounds of Austrian folk music duo Liab und Schneid and met with embassy staff, including the consul general.
* The Czech Embassy provided an action-filled day featuring Renaissance swordfighters, ladies-in-waiting, and the queen herself as visitors learned about castles and other filmmaking locations in the Czech Republic, the land where Oscar-winning director Miloš Forman and numerous U.S. films hail. There were also children’s choirs singing folk songs and the Rockville City Police presenting stunt dogs in action, topped off by Pilsner Urquell beer and the Czech liquor Becherovka, as well as savory goulash and pastries.
* The Danish Embassy also mixed entertainment with education by letting visitors jump into the saddle of a two-wheeler to test their bike-riding skills while learning more about the Danes’ love of bicycles (and entering to win a trip for two to Copenhagen, known as the bike capital of the world). Mikael Colville-Andersen’s photo exhibit “Monumental Motion” also vividly illustrated how the bicycle plays an integral role in Copenhagen life.
In addition, guests could participate in the embassy’s “Select Sport” penalty-kick competition to win an official 2012 UEFA European Football Championship ball, while learning more about the Danish presidency of the EU, its involvement in Afghanistan, and innovative Danish companies such as Novozymes and Miltek.
Meanwhile, children could play with LEGO or get their faces painted.
* Likewise, the Brits had activities for the young, and young at heart. Guests could tour the ambassador residence’s symmetrical garden with its double stairs and paths leading to the rose garden and lawns, which are surrounded by trees, several of which were planted by members of the Royal Family. They could also hear about British business opportunities while enjoying traditional British food, drink and music, with whisky tastings by Macallan and fare from Union Jack’s Pub.
For the families, there was face painting, workshops on how to play soccer, cricket or golf — and even how to make a tiara. Children could also write congratulatory messages to Her Majesty the Queen for her Diamond Jubilee.
* But when it came to entertaining the little ones, nothing could top the International Children’s Festival on May 6 held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and organized by the Meridian International Center and its partners.
At the free all-day educational event, children took festival “passports” to each embassy booth to receive their stamps for traveling the world. They were also able to join a variety of dance, music and comedy groups from around the globe on stage for interactive performance lessons.
“We are absolutely delighted to be able to host the International Children’s Festival which brings the diversity of the world to all of Washington, D.C.’s communities,” said Ambassador Sharon Wilkinson, senior vice president and deputy of the Meridian International Center. “The nation’s capital is home to more than 170 embassies of countries around the world and the festival offers a unique opportunity to connect those countries to our children in a fun, interactive way.”
This was the sixth consecutive year that Meridian International Center has organized the International Children’s Festival but the first time it was held at the expansive Ronald Reagan Building. The festival is a highlight of Meridian’s educational outreach programming, known as the LiveLocal/ThinkGlobal Network (meridian.org/lltg), which brings the center’s myriad international resources to the community so that everyone — from young students to senior citizens — can learn about cultures, traditions, ideas and societies from around the world.
From top to bottom photo:
Among the 40 embassies that opened their doors for Passport DC’s Around the World Embassy Tour on May 5 was the Egyptian Embassy, which showcased handmade jewelry, sculptures, historic artifacts, authentic cuisine and other activities. Even Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, second photo from top, got in on the act.
Photos: Courtesy of the Embassy of Egypt.
Among the highlights at the International Children’s Festival — held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and organized by the Meridian International Center — were young Indonesian dancers from the Rumah Gadang Group USA and Irish step dancers with the Neill James School of Irish Dancing.
Photos: Kaveh Sardari