Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., is not normally an open-arms kind of place. The gates are high, the doors looming and ominous. Security guards discourage the uninvited from dropping in.
All that changes one day a year, however. On the second Saturday in May, Massachusetts Avenue hosts European Union Embassies’ Open House. “Experience the best of European culture without the jet lag!” promises the brochure.
Wherein lies the only problem with EU Open House day: It’s intensely popular, and lineups are long. Outside the Embassy of Greece – an imposing 35-room mansion built in 1906 by a mining tycoon – the line stretched south for a block when I arrived, and two blocks when I left a couple hours later. Portugal, Ireland and Italy were the same, though at least outside the Irish Embassy they had a ceilidh band playing jigs and reels under the blazing sun.
But where a country’s brand profile diminishes even slightly, I learned, lineups shrink. My strategy: go east, as in Eastern Europe. Estonia takes three minutes to enter and is a charming place, with its delicate winding central staircase and staff in linen with flowers in their hair. Croatia the same, liveried in ornate Eastern bloc chic, all chandeliers and stained glass and ormolu clocks. And Slovenia, just off the main drag on California Street, had no lineup at all to enter the marble-slabbed, mid-1960s box that used to house communist Yugoslavia, where a staffer informed me that Slovenia has the highest cliff on the Adriatic as well as the Planica ski jump, which was the highest in the world for a while but sadly no longer is. He also gave me a personal copy of a cookbook composed of recipes from Slovenian families in Ohio and Pennsylvania, though I must note this contained a recipe for Cream Cheese Pineapple Dip, which I’d say owes more to Lancaster County than Ljubljana.
What these eastern embassies prove, happily, is that EU newbies try harder. They give out wine and goodies. They chat you up. They flirt a little. And yes, every girl from Eastern Europe is indeed as pretty as an elderflower, just as every lad is handsome and wears a traditional costume that may or may not but probably does involve sheepskin and high-waisted leather pants.
Still, it’s the non-EU action on EU Open House Day that steals the show. Make your way to the Islamic Center at 2551 Massachusetts Ave. NW and you’ll find the Muslim Women’s Association bazaar, consisting of Turkish, Bahraini, Bangladeshi and Palestinian women setting up shop in the shady arcades and sehan (courtyard) at the heart of the complex. Arts and crafts, yes. But also food, glorious food.
“What country are you representing?” I ask one woman whose table is laid out with platters of dolma and shredded chicken with pine nuts, a vat of hummus and a stack of kofta meat skewers.
“I’m representing myself, but I’m from Egypt,” she says, capturing nicely the Islamic-American spirit of the gathering.
That kofta was superb, with a hint of garlic and heat, cumin and clove. But so too were the tahini and the cucumber salad, the Palestinian chicken, the Turkish meatball sandwich, the Bangladeshi samosa with fiery green chili sauce, each flavour distinct, tangy and absolutely fresh. I fed stupendously for 12 dollars and wandered back out into the sunshine, then walked back around Dupont Circle and past the Irish Embassy, where the ceilidh band was still kicking up its heels. My people are from the little Irish village of Abbeyleix. Perhaps I should have gotten in that line. But they would understand. I’d been to Egypt and back already that morning and needed a nap.
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