Every spring in Washington, the embassies of various foreign countries throw open their doors to the public. The non-European Union countries go first. The following weekend, the European countries have their turn, which they bill as a “Shortcut to Europe.”
This year, I decided to take the trip. Call me naïve, but I imagined that the tour would deliver on its advertised promise of “a rare look inside the embassies and provides a unique opportunity for them to experience the cultural heritage and national traditions of the 28 member countries.” And maybe I was also hoping for some delicious free food.
Early on May 10, I arrived at an information booth near Dupont Circle, where I received a souvenir “passport” — really an information booklet with spaces that could be “stamped” upon arrival at each embassy. How many stamps could I collect?
I learned that there would be a “selfie” contest, with two awards given. One would go to the person who photographed himself or herself in front of the most embassies. The other was for “creativity.”
Though I’d been advised by a Washington Post blog as to which embassies might be the best to hit — including Belgium (chocolate) and Spain (free tapas and wine) — I quickly realized that my itinerary would be shaped by my tolerance for waiting in a line of sweaty Americans bearing souvenir “I ♥ EU” tote bags, meant for holding free flags, posters and other goodies.
The length of the lines in front of each embassy depended on the glamour of the host country, the proximity of the embassy to downtown Washington and the freebies rumored to be available inside. Some held places in line for friends who ran ahead to scout other embassies. Ireland seemed to be the hottest ticket, maybe because it was giving out pretty green tote bags and brown bread with Irish butter, or maybe because staff members were dancing jigs on the front lawn, a prime opportunity for a creative selfie.
I skipped Portugal, the closest embassy to Dupont Circle, in favor of Estonia, in a pretty, petite old mansion up Massachusetts Avenue. There was just a five-minute wait there, but once inside, I discovered why: There was no free food, only staff dressed in colorful costumes and piles of dated promotional material with headlines such as “Estonia Can Change the World, Will It?” (Maybe, but first we must forgive the Baltic republic its comma splice.)
After five minutes there, I headed for Greece, where I waited almost an hour to be shepherded in a tight line down to a dark basement filled with tables bearing information on the Greek navy and trays of microwaved mini quiches, as well as presumably Greek doughnuts, though they tasted more Entenmann’s than Peloponnesian.
Frustrated and annoyed, I stumbled onto a side street and found Cyprus, where there were no lines and where the food — small squares of feta, stuffed grape leaves and meatballs — was delicious and free. Upstairs, several visitors sat on folding chairs and watched a video extolling the glories of Cyprus’s golf courses.
As I headed out, I was struck that this nonevent was less reflective of Europe than of Washington: obsessed with meaningless markers of status, hopelessly gridlocked and bland.
Perhaps, too, it was a fairly good reflection of a certain style of travel, not to mention living, in our age. As travel becomes increasingly democratized (a good thing), it also becomes increasingly banal (a bad thing): a series of destinations to hit, activities to perform solely so they can be documented with a selfie and posted on social media.
Despite the promises of this “shortcut to Europe,” in real travel, there are no shortcuts. If you want to have any meaningful interaction with other places and people, you’re going to have to take the long way.