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Embassy Row Opens its Doors to the Public

To the average American, foreign embassies can be among the most foreboding places in Washington.

They’re often housed in big, gray stone mansions or even sleek, ultra-modern office buildings patrolled by embassy security and receiving U.S. government protection.

But that changed this month, with many national embassies in Washington opening the door to their neighbors.

Lines stretched for blocks on tree-lined Massachusetts Avenue, Washington’s most prominent boulevard of embassies.

Washingtonians were eager to get a glimpse inside normally unapproachable embassies along with a flavor of the host countries, from Argentina to Zambia.

“This is giving access to stately mansions, the closed doors that you see along Embassy row,” said Michelle Cragle, spokesperson for Cultural Tourism DC.

Outside of the annual open house event or conducting specific business such as applying for a visa, casual visitors, “can’t just walk up and knock on the door on the door and get in,” Cragle said.

This is especially true in the post-9/11 era.

“We see the embassies as a special neighborhood” in Washington, said Cragle, whose organization was behind the event.

Much like the embassy tours, this new column seeks to provide a glimpse into embassies for VOA readers.

It aims to bring you inside the marble-filled mansions, from policy meeting rooms to embassy dining rooms, along with the politics and protocol pageantry that is diplomatic Washington.

The goal is to open up the Washington embassy scene and reveal what is going on behind-the scenes.

For the initial tour, let’s take you inside the Belgian embassy and the European Union, which sponsored embassy open houses for itself and member nations on a recent Saturday.

Although the Belgian embassy is a bit off of Embassy Row, you could easily locate it by the huge lines to get a taste of a famous Belgian waffle even before entering the converted mansion.

Once inside, visitors were directed up a grand staircase to a series of rooms displaying the pride of Belgium, from chocolates to diamonds to high-tech industry.

Even the ambassador’s office door was open to visitors, though they were asked politely to “Have a look, but do not enter.”

A military display was designed to remind Americans of their recent history with Belgium, including uniforms dating back from the famous World War I battle at Flanders Field and World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

It was designed to appeal to U.S. visitors who had relatives in those epic battles. A Belgian sailor lightened up the atmosphere by joking about recruiting the visitors for basic training.

Serge Fischler was there to promote Belgium’s role as a diamond center. He was regularly asked for free samples.

“I tell them that they just missed out on the last one-- three minutes ago,” Fischler joked.

On a more serious note, he said the younger visitors ask about blood or conflict diamonds. So Fischler’s display included information on proof that his organization’s diamonds don’t come from those regions.

A trio of twentysomethings in line said they came away learning about national culture and some surprising facts, such as that famous Belgians include Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.

Also of Belgian origin are the cartoon Smurfs with a blue costumed figure on hand for popular photos.

Along the way, visitors were given products ranging from poppy flower seeds to a light-up yo-yo toy promoting a Belgian high-tech business.

Samples of Belgium’s excellent chocolate were provided, including a take home box.

Finally, those who finished running the very pleasant gauntlet were rewarded with a take home beer, another of Belgium’s famous products.

“They’re giving away a lot of stuff,” said Eric Robins.

Robins, who spent the day shuttling to embassies and had gone on another set of open tours the week before, said he was “kind of embassied-out” with visit fatigue.

But Robins said he enjoyed his varied experiences, including a chance to speak with the ambassador of the embattled Ukraine.

The event included running shuttle buses among the Washington embassies.

Many of those who were holding shopping bags with the British Union Jack or proclaiming “This Is Finland” were young adults. They could get souvenir passports stamped during the country visits.

Embassies made a special effort to reach out to younger adults digitally, as well as physically.

Visitors said they received an almost immediate response to their tweets that includes the hashtag #EUopenhouse.” There was also a competition for the best “selfie” photo tweeted from the event.

At EU offices in downtown Washington, nearly 2,000 visitors filed past exhibits for it, the European parliament and European Central bank.

They received souvenirs emblazoned with EU flag of stars on a blue background. Staff wore eye-catching heart-emblazoned t-shirts proclaiming their love of the European Union.

With the 28 EU embassies opening their doors to visitors, “it remains the largest cultural manifestation of the European Union, outside of Europe,” said Francois Rivasseau, deputy chief of the EU mission to Washington.

Visitors took a pretty tough quiz of a dozen questions on what they knew about the European Union, though there were questions about television’s “Downton Abbey” and a European in American professional basketball, as well as trade talks.

There was also a chance to pose for pictures against a photo backdrop of famous European landmarks.

But the EU event also took place against the backdrop of serious political issues.

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign for Nigeria came up as topic of conversation for visitors to the display of the European Parliament, which gives out a well-known human rights award.

Georges Pineau of the European Central Bank pointed to the situation between Ukraine and Russia.

“The fact that the Baltic States are also feeling the pressure,” he observed, “it shows that the idea of the EU is very important.”

Along with giveaways and photo opportunities, the potential for further tensions spreading in Europe was a timely way to demonstrate the relevance of the European Union to Americans.
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    Lee Michael Katz

    Lee Michael Katz is an award-winning journalist, analyst and author.

    Currently a prominent freelance writer, Katz is the former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent of USA Today and International Editor of UPI News Service.He has reported from more than 60 countries.  Katz’s expertise includes foreign policy and diplomacy, peace talks, national security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction policy, foundation grants, business and financial topics.