U.S. travelers to Europe face a few small hurdles – jet lag, airline food, threat of volcanic ash thwarting or postponing their plans. But this weekend in Washington, residents and visitors were able to visit Europe without ever getting on a plane.
It’s all part of the Shortcut to Europe program in the nation’s capital. The week-long event is dotted with performances and exhibits by artists and musicians from around Europe displaying their talents and is kicked off with an Open House where 27 embassies open their doors and allow visitors to learn more about their countries and experience their cultures. The theme of this year’s event is Green Europe: Good for the Economy and the Environment. The event is free and open to everyone.
My husband and I chose to spend our time in the heart of Europe. What many of us less savvy Americans (myself included) might refer to as Eastern Europe is really considered Central Europe. We focused on four countries that not only share borders in Europe but whose embassies are close together in Northwest D.C. – Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
In Hungary, the country’s welcoming Ambassador Szombati took some time to speak with us in their lovely courtyard and said that he hoped “visitors would be surprised by Hungary.” After walking the exhibit halls detailing lace productions – showcasing intricately detailed projects that take hundreds if not thousands of hours to complete, seeing a favorite from many American’s childhood, the Rubik’s cube, which was invented by a Hungarian (not to mention that ballpoint pen, thank you for the tip Ambassador Szombati), to the warmth of the people and the food - there were pleasant and familiar surprises literally around every corner. The Ambassador also mentioned that many of the world’s top hunting and shepherding dogs are Hungarian. We were keen to agree with him as long as he would stipulate that our basset hound Riley might be the exception.
Far and away the Ambassador’s recount of the influence that a Hungarian revolutionary had upon Abraham Lincoln was the most surprising. As Americans, we sometimes assume that we hold the corner on democracy and freedom. Reading the words of Governor Lajos Kossuth when he spoke before the Ohio Legislature on February 16, 1852, saying, “All for the people and all by the people. Nothing about the people, without the people. That is democracy,” you realize that our world has been smaller than we thought for quite some time.
Ambassador Kolar of the Czech Republic was traveling during the weekend but was kind enough to share his thoughts on the event via email, saying, “As diplomats, we are guests in this country and grateful for the warm reception of the American people, our hosts. We are therefore very happy to have an opportunity to open our doors and share our Embassy and the Ambassador's Residence with the public. We hope everybody will enjoy Czech medieval music, traditional costumes, Czech design, and our beer.”
Also on exhibit at the embassy was a model of the future streetcars to be used in Washington, which were manufactured in the Czech Republic.
Next we ventured to Austria. Though there was a line at the door, solely due to the metal detector in place, we got in quickly to their grand hall which felt like an open air museum. The open floor plan and skylights made the area feel roomy despite the crowds. Downstairs they offered lots on information about Austria as well as a lesson (and sample) in strudel making. Upstairs, we caught the end of the Ambassador Prosl’s question and answer session before speaking with him one-on-one. He explained the importance of hosting such events, saying, “When you have a global world and you have two areas with similar values like the U.S. and the E.U., it is important that we know each other better and fight for our shared values.”
His sentiment was echoed by many of the visitors both young and young at heart who came from all over the D.C. area and the country to learn more about and understand the people and cultures of these E.U. countries better.
Our trip through the heart of Europe ended in the Republic of Slovakia. Though the Ambassador was unavailable, he was kind enough to share his thoughts about his country and the event beforehand. “At the Embassy of Slovakia we see the ‘Open House’ as a great opportunity to open our doors to all Washingtonians and present attractive and more tangible perspectives of Slovakia and the European Union to the broader public,” Ambassador Burian said. “Visitors shall discover that Slovakia is young, modern and dynamic state of traditional European nation of Slovaks.”
In line with the Ambassador’s comments, the embassy had a modern feel to it while offering traditional local food and music as well as the work of Slovakian artists on display.
I spoke with Lila Hart of Holiday, Florida at the Slovakian Embassy. When I asked her what piqued her interest in the country, she explained that her neighbor’s family was from Slovakia. I guess that old clichéd song is true – it really is a small world after all. The Open House program makes it feel even smaller and easier to navigate.
The Shortcut to Europe program is an interesting and informative way to spend the day while learning first-hand from experts about the countries they call home. It is the next step up from armchair travel because you get to experience a foreign land but still go home at night.
And coincidentally or not, the Icelandic volcano exploded again that day redirecting flights and closing airports in Europe making me grateful to be on the ground. But more than anything these events, and travel of any kind, remind you that when we set out to learn about each our differences what we really discover is our commonalities.