Parties With an International Vibe

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 17, 2008

Over the years, I've feasted on conch in Barbados, danced the polka at Oktoberfest in Germany, done shots of vodka in Ukraine, attended an art opening in Mexico and listened to classical musicians perform in China.

And I've done it all without leaving the District.

There are many reasons I love Washington, and one of them is the easy access to international programs thrown by the embassies and cultural institutions that call the city home. But if you fall squarely into the 21-35 age group, you may notice that many of the embassy events are targeted to a slightly older demographic.

That's beginning to change, thanks to the French and Swedes in town. When Sylvain Cornevaux became the deputy director of the Alliance Francaise, a French language and cultural center, last year, he noticed a lack of young people at the Kalorama venue that serves as its headquarters. He came up with the idea for Soiree Carte Blanche, a happening that would involve happy hours, films, DJs, spoken-word poets, live music, dancers or magic shows.

"The idea is to reach out to a new audience," Cornevaux says, "and not just Francophiles but an international audience, to show them that French culture is still alive, and it's modern. It's not just [singer Edith] Piaf and Versailles."

On a recent weeknight, guests of the Alliance Francaise were arriving at Hillwood mansion in upper Northwest, where they could tour the museum, wander the grounds, dance to a DJ, watch short French films and, of course, mingle over wine ($6 a glass, champagne $8) and cheese.

The first of the Soirees Carte Blanche took place in the embassy's headquarters, but now include gatherings at the Phillips Collection and Hillwood. Constants have included DJ Herve, who spins everything from lounge music to Daft Punk, and an iPod DJ battle, where two participants try to wow the crowd with their own three-song playlists. The winner gets French lessons and other goodies.

Ignacio MirĂ³, from Argentina, and his wife, Adriana Gonzalez, from Colombia, came because "it looked different from what would usually be associated with a cultural institution," MirĂ³ explained. The couple, both 32, enjoy the electronic dance music and the cocktail-party-like scene. "This is very cool," added Gonzalez, as a French clown in white pancake makeup wandered through the crowd.

A return to the Phillips is in the cards for Nov. 20, with tours of "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, A Work in Progress" and some surprises, says Cornevaux. (In May, when a Soiree was held at the Phillips, it included a breakdance performance, so you never know what might happen.)

Meanwhile, that same evening, denim-clad hipsters were crowded into the gleaming House of Sweden "After Dark" party on the Georgetown Waterfront, grooving to DJs on the rooftop deck, listening to indie rock by the Gothenburg-based band Division of Laura Lee in the foyer and perusing a new exhibit of landscape photographs in the gallery. Earlier, models wearing hot Swedish label Nudie Jeans were strutting their stuff on a runway.

It's a safe bet there hasn't been an embassy party like it for a while.

The House of Sweden has hosted concerts and cocktail parties since it opened in 2006, but the House of Sweden After Dark parties, which debuted in February, really put the building on the map.

The first event proved to be far more popular than the hosts expected. Lines wrapped around the building before the doors opened. Some guests waited hours without getting in. The next two ($20-$25 for tickets) sold out in advance.

The next one is scheduled for December, and its theme is St. Lucia Day. The House also throws free concerts with Swedish-based musicians. So many people turned up to see indie singer-songwriter Ane Brun, she did a second concert so that everyone waiting in line could be accommodated.

"The best way, I guess, to reach the young professionals is through music and arts. People come here and learn something more about Sweden and our culture, and that's what we try to do," says Linda Tocchini-Valentini, House of Sweden marketing coordinator.

"It's always very cool," said Kelly Furlong, an IT sales manager who was dancing to music in the foyer. She'd been to a previous After Dark party but said she enjoyed this one more. "The fashion show was very unique, and I thought it was awesome because there was a band upstairs and a DJ downstairs, so there was something no matter what kind of music you like."

On the rooftop, guests were taking in views of the Rosslyn skyline and sipping Svedka vodka cocktails while listening to the Hej Hej DJs mixing Swedish pop and rock songs. Alex Krasnikov, 36, who was at the earlier Alliance Francaise party, just moved to Washington to teach marketing at George Washington University. "As a newcomer, it's important to find a crowd with which I can connect," he explained. "I like to go to this kind of event, dance and hear bands and music."

Meanwhile, the embassy tries to schedule as many concerts with visiting artists -- rock, classical or otherwise -- as it can. "We're pushing Swedish culture and music in the U.S., so we feel it's the perfect venue," Tocchini-Valentini said. Looking around the House of Sweden, I saw a few hundred people who would agree.

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