Tag: Special Events

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Foreign Embassy Tours

Every year at the beginning of May, Cultural Tourism DC hosts an event called “The Around the World Embassy Tour.”  I have been lucky enough to go in the past, and I went again this year.  I think it is probably one of the coolest free events I’ve ever been to, with the possible exception of the Ceremony of the Keys in London.

On May 6 of this year, 43 embassies representing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America opened their doors and invited the general public in to learn more about their culture and heritage.  The European Union embassies will follow suit and host an open house on May 13.

To give you a better idea of what it’s like, I took a lot of pictures.  Our first stop was the Embassy of Peru.

Peru

Inside, we got to see beautiful Peruvian hand crafted items, sample some Peruvian chocolate, and we got to see the ambassador’s office and conference room.  Peruvian food was available for purchase both inside and outside the embassy, including Pisco sours, empanadas, and Alfajores cookies.

embassy tours peru
Some of the handicrafts in the Peruvian embassy.

Then, outside the embassy, we experienced music and Latin dancing.

embassy tours peru dancers
The dancers outside the Peruvian embassy.

From there we walked up Massachusetts Avenue, aka Embassy Row, and marveled at the beautiful buildings now serving as embassies. The Colombian embassy was ROCKING. Loud party music and bright colorfully-clad dancers attracted everyone’s attention. It also had a line of people that went down the street and around the corner. Having already gotten a late start, we decided to visit the embassies that seemed to have little to no wait to enter. Otherwise, we would have probably only seen two!

The first one we happened upon was Indonesia.

Indonesia

I am not exaggerating when I say it’s the most beautiful house I have seen on this side of the Atlantic. When we walked in, the first thing we saw was the grand entrance.

embassy tours indonesia
The foyer of the Indonesian embassy

(I don’t know about you, but every time I see a place like this, I imagine myself in an evening gown and lots of diamonds, slowly gliding down the stairs to the tune of dramatic-yet-elegant music.  No?  I’m the only one?)

As it turns out, the building is also known as the Walsh Mansion, and it Dates to 1903. At that time, it was the most expensive residence in the city, with a construction cost of $835,000.  The original owner, a Thomas J Walsh, came to this county from Ireland without a penny to his name in 1869. Over the next 25 years, he built up a small fortune through his business pursuits, then lost nearly everything in the Panic of 1893.  In 1896, he took his family to Colorado, and purchased a mine that most thought was of no value. However, it wasn’t long before mine workers struck a massive vein of gold and silver, making Walsh a multi-millionaire.

Walsh’s daughter Evalyn married into the McLean family, which owned The Washington Post.  In 1910, her husband bought the Hope Diamond for her at a cost of $180,000 (that’s $4.6 million in today’s economy).  Over time, rumors developed that the Hope Diamond had a curse on it.  Evalyn Walsh McLean’s first son died in a car accident. Her husband ran off with another woman and eventually died in a sanitarium. The Washington Post went bankrupt, and eventually her daughter died of an overdose, and one of her grandsons died in the Vietnam war. Evalyn never believed the curse had anything to do with her misfortunes.

In 1952 the government of Indonesia purchased the mansion for use as an embassy. Thankfully, they have preserved the beauty of the historic home, including this very large and ornate organ:

embassy tours indonesia
Upper part of the massive pipe organ in the Indonesian embassy.

The pipe organ’s wind system and some of its pipes were located in the basement, making this a two-story pipe organ.  I don’t know what it sounds like, but based solely on its appearance, it is impressive!

The painted ceilings and crystal chandeliers are probably very much like they were before it became the Indonesian embassy.

Embassy tours Indonesia
A doll on the mantle in the Indonesian embassy

A small glassed in walkway connected the residence portion of the house with the offices, which were more modern.  As you enter the office area, you pass by a huge gold bird, the heraldic symbol of Indonesia.

embassy tours indonesia

Our next stop was going to be the Chilean embassy, but the line was incredibly long, so we wandered up the street a little farther and found a performer outside the Korean embassy.

Korea

Just above the heads of the people gathered around to watch, we could see a man walking a tightrope while making jokes via an interpreter. There was also this little statue:

embassy tours korea

This is a Dol Hareubang, which means Stone Grandfather.  They are from Jeju, a small volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea.  Dol Hareubang is a guardian deity, and the people of Jeju erect these statues to ward off danger and harm.

Right next door to Korea was the Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan

I’ll be honest.  I don’t know much about Kyrgyzstan, other than that it’s a relatively new country.  It was a very enlightening visit.  First, I learned that Kyrgyzstan shares a border with China. As we made our way through the embassy and looked at the displays, I learned that many people of Kyrgyzstan live in yurts.  We saw scarves and slippers and multiple other woolen items, beautifully made. But their talents do not end there. I thought this painting was just adorable:

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

They were also offering shots of a cognac from their country. Nearby, these lovely ladies in traditional native costumes greeted and posed for everyone.

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

Haiti

The Haitian embassy was all about art.  Every room we entered had beautiful, brightly colored paintings done by Haitian artists. The one hanging over the fireplace was especially striking.

Embassy tours haiti

And in the back of the house, just before we stepped outside, we saw a beautiful collection of bottles covered in sequins.  Then we exited the house and stepped out onto a gorgeous patio. The biggest wall had an arrangement of metal decorations that was pretty incredible.

Embassy tours Haiti patio

There were tin lanterns hanging all over the place, with designs of dragonflies, and other small animals.

By this time the event was coming to a close, so we started walking back toward the Metro station.  On the way, we passed a stunning display outside the Guatemalan embassy.

Embassy tours Guatemala

 

The white parts were rice, and we guessed that the colored bits were dyed sawdust.  From a distance, it looked like a rug.

After that, we followed the sound of music until we happened upon the embassy of the Dominican Republic.  There were people everywhere – some were in line for food but quite a few were dancing.  It was such an awesome display of living in the moment, anyone watching couldn’t help but smile.

I cannot recommend the Around the World Embassy Tour enough. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about other cultures and see some magnificent art and architecture.  If you’re ever in D.C. on a Saturday in early May, check it out!

New Year’s Eve Celebrations Around the World

New Year’s Eve Celebrations Around the World

Peru – What They Wear

When I was preparing for my trip to Peru, I read that they have some pretty unusual New Year’s Eve traditions.  For starters, they wear yellow underwear (yellow is the color of good luck).  Peruvians wear these yellow undergarments inside out until midnight, then changed to the right way once the new year begins.  Other Latin American countries have similar traditions focused on wearing new, brightly colored underwear.

New Year's Eve Lucky Underwear Tradition in Peru
Suerte is the Spanish word for luck.

Other Peruvian New Year’s Eve traditions (and believe me, there are plenty!) include eating 12 grapes under the table, running around the block with an empty suitcase (to assure good luck in traveling), placing a coin in each shoe (to bring wealth), throwing a coin over your shoulder to get rid of the previous year’s poverty, and many more.  There are literally dozens of unusual traditions/superstitions for this holiday in Peru, which got me wondering what people do in other countries to celebrate.

The Philippines – What They Eat

In the Philippines, bringing in the new year is a noisy affair. In addition to a celebration with fireworks, people in the Philippines thump pots or pans repeatedly and blow car horns in order to drive away any evil spirits. The goal is to make as much noise as possible. But that’s not the only tradition. There is also “Media Noche,” a night of feasting and drinking with family members on New Year’s Eve.  The feast contains no chicken or fish because those foods symbolize famine.  Twelve round fruits (usually serving as the table’s centerpiece) are eaten at this feast.  Other dishes include sticky rice to strengthen the family bond and pancit (long noodles) to bring good health and long life.

Philippine New Year's Eve feast traditional celebration
A typical media noche feast

Sweden – What They Recite

Swedes view the beginning of a new year as a magical time, when people try to foresee the future. One way of telling your future was to pour molten lead in water and then interpret the shapes that were produced. Another was to toss shoes. If your shoe landed with the toe pointing towards the door, it meant you would move away or even die during the year.  Another tradition states that one should not to carry anything out of the house, as this signifies discarding happiness for the rest of the year.

Just before midnight, Swedes  at the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm recite the following poem written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Turkey – What They Buy

Turkey holds a special lottery on New Year’s Eve, so buying lottery tickets is an annual tradition for many. In addition, many people will sprinkle salt on the doorstep at midnight to bring peace and abundance to their home or business.

Denmark – What They Watch

In Denmark, New Year’s Eve festivities are kicked off by a short speech from the queen – a tradition that has been in place since 1880.  Once Her Majesty has concluded her remarks, a meal with an entree of boiled cod is served.  For desert, there is a towering stack of marzipan rings known as kransekage.

After the meal, Danes may watch an 18-minute film called “Dinner for One.” The sketch presents the 90th birthday of upper-class Englishwoman Miss Sophie, who hosts a celebration dinner every year for her friends Mr Pomeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby and Admiral von Schneider. The problem is that Miss Sophie has outlived all of her friends, so her equally aged butler James makes his way around the table, impersonating each of the guests in turn.

The crucial exchange during every course is:

James: The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie: The same procedure as every year, James!

By the end of the dinner, James is severely inebriated, having consumed 16 glasses of wine. Miss Sophie, who has herself had four rounds of wine, still appears sober; she tells the very drunk James that she wishes to retire to bed. Hand in hand, they head to the staircase and recite the closing lines of dialogue:

James: By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie (delightedly): The same procedure as every year, James!
James (slyly): Well, I’ll do my very best!
dinner-for-one denmark New Year's Eve traditional program
A scene from “Dinner for One”

Japan – What They Hang Up

In Japan, there is no shortage of New Year’s traditions.  As the calendar turns from one year to the next, they laugh in an effort to ward off evil spirits.  Buddhist temple bells are rung 108 times to keep away evil forces.  The traditional Japanese New Year dinner menu features boiled seaweed, mashed sweet potato with chestnut, fish cakes, sweetened black soybeans, and simmered burdock root. Shimenawa are lengths of rice straw rope normally used for ritual purification in the Shinto religion. At New Year’s these shimenawa are hung at the entrances of Japanese homes.  They ward off evil spirits and indicate the sacred areas where gods descend.

Shimenawa Japan New Year's Eve Tradition Celebration
Shimenawa

Germany – What They Say

You won’t hear anyone in Germany say, “Happy New Year,” but rather “Guten Rutsch”to wish everyone a good slide into the new year.  Likewise, December 31 is not known as New Year’s Eve.  In Germany it is Silvester, the saint’s day for Pope Silvester, who died on that date in 335 AD.  On a superstitious note, having laundry hanging on the clothesline at the start of the new year supposedly brings bad luck.  Like their Danish neighbors, the Germans are also fond of pouring molten lead into cold water and watching Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve.

Panama & Ecuador – What They Burn

In many Latin American countries, such as Panama and Ecuador, effigies of politicians, pop culture figures, and other icons of the year are burned as part of a New Year’s Eve bonfire.  The effigies represent the old year and burning them is meant to drive off evil spirits for a fresh start to the new year.

New Year's Eve effigy bonfire ecuador panama latin america tradition
A bonfire made of effigies.

Belarus – What They Feed the Roosters

In Belarus, the New Year’s Eve traditions seem to focus on marrying off the single ladies. In one, a pile of corn is placed before each woman, and a rooster is set before them. Whichever pile of corn the rooster approaches first reveals who will be the first to marry. In another game, a married woman hides certain items around her house for her unmarried friends to find.  The woman who finds bread will marry a rich man, while the one who finds a ring will marry a handsome man.

These are just a few of the countries with New Year’s Eve traditions, superstitions, and celebrations different from our own. I think it could be interesting to travel for New Year’s.  After all, celebrating the holiday in a different country could inspire you to start new traditions of your own here at home!

Beyond Ruby Slippers: Travel for the Wizard of Oz Fan

Beyond Ruby Slippers: Travel for the Wizard of Oz Fan

If you’re a fan of the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, you can plan an amazing road trip to visit related sites.

In Chicago, visit Oz Park.  Take a stroll through the park and you’ll be greeted by statues of the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and everyone’s favorite, Dorothy & Toto.

rsz_oz_park_scarecrow_statue
Scarecrow Statue, Oz Park, Chicago

If you’ve spent any time on Pinterest, you may have seen a pin about an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park in North Carolina.  Well, it was a theme park, and it is in North Carolina, but it is not abandoned.  The Land of Oz is a privately owned property that is under 24 hour surveillance. Those caught trespassing  will be prosecuted.  Fortunately, it is open to the public at various times throughout the year.

Land of Oz NC
Land of Oz theme park in Beech Mountain, NC

In Wamego, Kansas, there is the Oz Museum, which features a collection of over 25,000 Oz artifacts. Since the founding of the Museum in April 2004, several other small businesses with the Oz theme have opened, including the Oz Winery and Toto’s Tacoz. On the first weekend of October, Wamego holds its Annual OZtoberFEST, an Oktoberfest-type celebration with an Oz theme that typically features Hot Air Balloon Rides, Tallgrass Brewery Beer Garden, the Yellow Brick Road Bike Ride, and a local stage or music production.

Oz Museum Wamego Kansas
The Oz Museum, Wamego KS

A visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will afford you the opportunity to see one of the original four pairs of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the movie.  (Size 5!)

Ruby Slippers
Ruby Slippers, National Museum of American History, Washington DC

Chittenango, New York is the birthplace of Wizard of Oz author Frank Baum, and also the home of the All Things Oz Museum.  According to the museum staff, “All
Things Oz is more than a tribute to a book series; it is a fascinating trip through the life of its author, his wife, Maud Gage, and all the many experiences that shaped his imagination and his world.”  The museum also coordinates a yearly Oz-stravaganza festival.

All Things Oz Museum
All Things Oz Museum, Chittenango, NY

Visit Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and you will see not only the stars for Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bloger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Frank Morgan (The Wizard), and Billie Burke (Glinda), you can also see the Munchkins’ star, which was added in 2007.

Munchkins Star
Hollywood Walk of Fame

After visiting the Walk of Fame, head over to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where you will see a memorial to Terry the Cairn Terrier, known to most of us as Toto.

Toto Memorial.jpg
Toto Memorial in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery

When you’ve finished touring all of these great locations, remember to click your heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home…”

Bucket List: A Light Festival

Bucket List: A Light Festival

I’m not being specific here, because there are light festivals in several different countries and I don’t really care which one I see because they all look pretty fantastic.

The first light festival that I learned about was the Light Festival of Ghent, Belgium, which is held every three years.  The last one was held at the end of January/beginning of February 2015.  The next one is set for 2018.  (Plenty of time for me to save up for a trip there!)

rsz_light_festival_ghent

But I have lots of other choices, too.  There’s Lumiere in England.  It’s held in the city of Durham every two years, and always in the winter.  The next one will be in 2017.  (They recently held on in London as well, but I’m not sure if that one will be a recurring event.)

I_Love_Durham_lumiere

In Singapore, there is iLight Marina Bay, which just became an annual event and is generally held in March.

iLight Marina Bay Singapore

In the Dutch city of Eindhoven, the GLOW Festival is held every autumn.

glow eindhoven

Every December there is a light festival in Kobe, Japan, as well.

rsz_kobe-luminarie-christmas-lights-20

And these are just a few!  It seems most countries that have these festivals hold them in the winter months, which is pretty brilliant, because that’s the time when we have less sunlight, fewer holidays, and tend to become… well, sort of depressed, if I’m being honest.  How amazing it must be to go into a brightly lit city that sparkles in a multitude of colors against the night sky!   Wouldn’t you enjoy going to one of these festivals?

The Scottish Walk Parade – Alexandria VA

The Scottish Walk Parade – Alexandria VA

Every year, generally the first weekend in December, Alexandria VA hosts a Scottish Walk Weekend and Parade. The weekend includes a variety of events from a home tour to a marketplace to a “Taste of Scotland” that features a Scotch tasting menu and, of course, Scotch whiskey.

And then there’s the parade. I’m normally not a big fan of parades – particularly those that take place in cold weather – but this one was a delight. Bagpipe music is one of those things that people either love or hate and I have both feet firmly planted in the LOVE camp. The parade included much more than just bagpipers, which I will get to in a moment, but for now let’s just appreciate men in kilts.

parade bagpipe band 6

parade bagpipe band 10

Even Santa was wearing a kilt and playing the pipes.

parade bagpiper looks like santa.jpg

The parade also included several dogs of different breeds. Naturally, there was a Scottish deerhound.

parade dog 2B

And this rare breed:

parade dog 4B

Modes of transportation were heavily featured, too. My favorites were a shiny red vintage Jaguar, and this:

parade carriage 2

There were some historical re-enactors there as well, with gorgeous costumes.

parade ren garb 1B.jpg

And weapons! You have to bring out your most impressive weapons to show them off every now and then.

parade really big sword 2.jpg

parade weapons 2.JPG

If you’re in the DC area in early December, make sure to catch this parade in Old Town Alexandria. Afterwards, you can shop at all the lovely stores and enjoy the small town ambiance (even though you’re not in a small town at all).

The Scottish Walk parade is held annually, generally the first Saturday in December. It, and the other Scottish weekend events, are put on by The Campagna Center, a non-profit organization that provides educational and social development programs.

How to Go Around the World in One Day

How to Go Around the World in One Day

Every year on a Saturday in May, you can travel many countries without ever leaving the US.  It’s part of a Cultural Tourism initiative in Washington DC, and it’s called the Around the World Embassy Tour.

On that designated day, roughly 40 different embassies will open their doors to curious tourists who want to learn more about their countries.  Programs vary from embassy to embassy, but may include displays, food and beverage samples, music, and travel information.

The best part of all is that the program is entirely free and open  to the public.  What a great way to experience and learn about other cultures without the expense of international travel!

The Kazakhstan embassy had mannequins in traditional garb, beautiful woven rugs on the wall, and information about business opportunities in Kazakhstan.

embassy2

Australia gave everyone a reusable shopping bag with AUSTRALIA on it .  They also gave us food and wine samples, and provided us with aboriginal music from a didgeridoo.

embassy1

Trinidad and Tobago had a steel drum band playing outside, and inside we learned about their traditions for Carnivale.

embassy4

The Mexico tour was not in the embassy itself, but in a different building.  It was stunning. There was a multi-story mural of Mexico’s history, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous tiled room where they had a woman playing the guitar.

embassy3

So, if you’re planning to be in DC during the month of May, check the Cultural DC website to see if your visit will coincide with the embassy tour.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to travel around the world in one day, too!

Hidden Gem: The Ceremony of the Keys

Hidden Gem: The Ceremony of the Keys

Every night, as has been the tradition for over 700 years, a ceremony is held at the Tower of London.

And every night a small group of visitors can witness this ceremony.  Free of charge!

If you’re lucky enough to get tickets (see booking information below), here’s what you can expect.  First, arrive prior to 9:30.  Seven hundred years of tradition is not going to be put on hold because you misplaced your ticket or ran into traffic and couldn’t get there on time.

You will be escorted into the Tower grounds and shown a few notable places — the Traitor’s gate, the princes’ tower, etc.  At exactly 9:53 pm, the Yeoman Warders will lock the main gates to the Tower.  As they are returning from that task, they will be challenged by the sentry on guard:

Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys.”
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All is well.”

Ceremony of the Keys

The group will pass through and once at the top of the stairs, the guard will present arms, followed by the Warder raising his hat.  The Warder will proclaim, “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” and the sentry will answer “Amen!”

We witnessed the ceremony on a trip to London in May of 2000 and it was spectacular.  To stand in such a large and historic place with only a dozen or so other people around, at night, and in complete silence save for the traditional spoken parts.. it was the closest thing I have ever experienced to going back in time.  If you are fortunate enough to be able to get tickets for this ceremony, do so!

An interesting bit of trivia:  The only time on record that the ceremony was interrupted was during World War II, when there was an air raid on London.  A number of bombs fell on the old Victorian guardroom just as the Warder and his escort were coming through with the keys. The shock and the noise of the bombs falling blew over the escort and the Chief Yeoman Warder, but they stood up, dusted themselves off, and carried on. The Tower holds a letter from the Officer of the Guard apologizing to King George VI that the ceremony was late, along with a reply from the King which says that the officer was not to be punished as the delay was due to enemy action.

Booking:  In order to snag tickets to this rare experience, you have to plan your trip well in advance.  Bookings tend to run 6 months or more ahead of schedule, and due to the limited number of guests who are allowed in each night, they fill up quickly. You can check availability and make your booking at the Historic Royal Palaces web site.