PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Sweden’s house sells Swedish meatballs from a cute hut for 11,000 Korean won ($10.22), then mingles them into a cup with mashed potatoes, cranberries, pickles and gravy that barges merrily over the edges. The Swiss House has a public restaurant with big tables to coax conversation between strangers, and Korean diners seem to love the Swiss cheese fondue and the raclette. Slovenia House is charming. Austria House is happening. Canada House is bustling and uplifting. Casa Italia is stylish enough to be inspiring.
USA House is private and cloistered, gives no tours and answers no questions about cuisine.
And then you probably haven’t done these Olympics until you’ve done Czech House, with its big-room public openness, its puckish playing of everything from “Macho Man” to “Maniac,” its big-wall homage to the extraordinary 1998 Czech gold medal men’s hockey team, its addictive miniature ping-pong tables and speedskating bronze medalist Karolina Erbanova turning up to walk through the crowd to the stage for a confetti shower, then operate a beer tap and serve some patrons.
Olympic houses have become part of the way to live the Olympics, with their gathering places, their expos on cultures and their Kornspitz Sandwich that lists, “Origin Meat: Bacon from Austria.” They’re full of ideas such as Canada’s Facebook Live activation area, its maple leaf that lights up a certain color whenever anyone tweets #TeamCanada or its magic door that athletes can open to reveal a television on which will appear, by surprise, a family member or friend back home. Chefs have flown in from Switzerland, the Netherlands and who-knows-what-all. Also, there is drinking.
Aim to tour a dozen Olympic houses, and you might end up just about falling exhaustedly onto the cold beach at the East Sea, close to the famed Holland House, that grande dame of Olympic houses, sitting out there separately from the other houses. Aim to see the countries exhibit their cultures, and you might walk for so long trying to find Canada House that you might see red signs in the distance and feel hope, only to learn it’s a store selling electronics or car parts.
The houses sprawl from the mountains to the sea, and they’re temporary, of course, so people don’t know how to tell you where they are. It’s possible to fail altogether to find the determined house representing Russia, that Olympic outcast. It’s possible to miss the Slovak House and sigh at that miss. It’s also possible to miss Norway’s house because Norway has no house; its citizenry observed the costs of the house in Sochi in 2014 and deemed it unnecessary, if not profligate and grotesque.
The possibilities include seeing Koreans try to imitate K-pop dance routines in a K-pop booth at the Korea House, feel wood imported from forest-rich Slovenia, hear the voices of classically trained Austrian singers wafting into the outdoor bar or hear Dutch fans gasp at speedskating fractions while knowing no people on earth gasp so knowingly at speedskating fractions. It’s possible to learn the irresistible fact that the Czech House bills itself as the “Home Of Foam” or to hear an exemplary Slovenia House volunteer, young student Maja Maze, say, “Slovenia is the only country that has ‘love’ in its name.” It’s possible to walk a good while down (and up) a hilly road in the woods, then beneath light-sculpture arches, to reach the magical Casa Italia, which is a feast of novel furniture and light fixtures and video production.
“Italia is like a content provider,” explained the director, Diego Nepi Molineris. “People want to come here and eat spaghetti. So I give them spaghetti and also a vision of Italia. . . . I want them to learn that Italy is always contemporary. Because I don’t speak about the Colosseum [in Rome]. I want to say Italy is always contemporary in art, in design, in vision of beauty, in hospitality. We want to say, ‘Italy is an eternal nation like Rome is an eternal city.’ ”
While people think of an Italy of “Caravaggio, Raphael, Leonardo” da Vinci, he said, the house has sought young Italian designers to create its accoutrements such as the backyard light sculpture. Olympics are “an expo,” he said, and this expo also has homages to 2018 Italian medalists in wood panels on the walls, and it has a “play room” with a chalkboard Lindsey Vonn signed and then Julia Mancuso signed beneath, “I’m faster than you,” and it has cappuccino.
Canada House starts with a credo of inclusion on the wall, written in Korean, French and English. It partners with Pride House International, the coalition of LGBT sport and human rights groups. It has all-gender washrooms indoors. It also sells three kinds of poutine (classic, pork-belly, chicken), plus maple syrup at its apparel store. It’s big, bustling, airy and rowdy. “Right now we’re out of stock of Molson Canadian,” said Photi Sotiropoulos of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
“Canada Olympic House is a slice of Canada in PyeongChang, and we want the house to reflect Canadian values,” he said. “One of the things that we did when we surveyed Canadians about what it meant to be Canadian — we did this as our rebranding campaign was upon us; we asked Canadians what it meant to be Canadian — and the words that we got were ‘inclusiveness,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘peace,’ ‘promotion of peace,’ and then when we took all those ideals together. We sort of realized that those ideals, those Canadian ideals, are also Olympic ideals. . . . So our rebrand is ‘Be Olympic,’ with a Canadian flag in the middle of it.”
As in all houses, athletes appear. They walk from the maple leaf-shaped bleachers down to a stage, high-five fans and join in singing “O Canada.”
At Sweden’s small house with its generally private indoors and its lawn chairs gazing upon a ski slope outdoors, the athletes do an afternoon news conference. At Holland House, near midnight, they emerge from behind a wall to roaring fans.
Holland, of course, prides itself in having started all this. It legendarily had a hut near the beach in Barcelona in 1992. By the time things got to Sydney in 2000, it was something of a rage. Now it’s polished, spiffy. It’s in the enviable and scary position of having to outdo itself. It does so. It sells out its 700 tickets at 15,000 won ($13.94). It has a ticket window (!) outside, with people stopping by to explain to the kindly Dutch attendants inside about why they know someone who put them on a list who knows someone who knows they belong inside even though it’s sold out.
Everyone wants to be that kind of place.
Korea House and Japan House sit like twin towers inside the Olympic Park, the former celebrating 2018, the latter looking to Tokyo 2020. Just outside, there’s Canada, even if it can be elusive if the wanderer either gets bad directions, whiffs on good ones or both. Somewhere nearby, there’s Russia, celebrating Russia even if these Olympics aren’t.
Some 40-ish minutes away, Austria House is kind of quirkily placed, but that hasn’t stopped people from finding it or even from saying its public area (outdoors and indoors) exceeds its ticketed area, with most houses having areas public and private (as well as relaxation areas for athletes and families). Austria House reportedly conducted some sort of snow-beach volleyball match. The court is outside. That’s a small hike down the road from Swiss House, amid things, with its bouncy outdoors, its little imitation Swiss cabin and mini hockey rink.
Forty minutes back toward the coast, near Gangneung Media Village, the windows are big and the lights are on at Czech House, where everyone is Czech except for the many who aren’t. Slovenian dudes play miniature ping-pong in their enviable colors that suggest modern-day Seattle Seahawks. A cameraman films them. At the bar, a woman sings along to “I Will Survive.” She turns out to be a volunteer from the Seattle area, Lynda Lahman, who has penned four books that include “The Women’s Guide to Motorcycling.”
Yet it’s the Olympics, and so everyone goes to the order machine and chooses maybe the good goulash and definitely the divine Pilsner Urquell. Some never intended to pay 25,000 won ($23.24) for a Czech Olympic Team ski cap yet merrily pay 25,000 won for a Czech Olympic Team ski cap.
For this moment, everyone is Czech, just as everyone can be Korean, Swedish, Swiss, Slovenian, Italian, Austrian, Canadian, Japanese, Dutch and maybe someday even Slovakian or Russian if the directions work, for this is quite some world.
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