Saturday, May 8, 2010

Touring Europe Without Leaving Washington

In April, skies blackened above Europe as Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed ash over an area of thousands of miles and as far away as Russia, causing the cancellation of nearly all flights to, from, and around the continent and, in short, utter chaos. Then the markets' confidence in Greece's ability to survive a sovereign debt crisis went from bad to nonexistent. European leaders eventually faced up to the existential nature of the crisis in the eurozone but contagion had already started to spread. Protests in Athens against austerity measures turned into deadly riots featuring Molotov cocktails. Then British voters delivered twin scary results for the country's economic stability and its place in Europe - a hung parliament and a Tory plurality. And the volcano has decided it isn't finished yet.

The state of Europe’s union is not strong. It is being sorely tested. Hopefully it will come through a tough couple years and be stronger than ever. On Saturday in Washington, DC, the EU was putting its best face forward, welcoming hordes of fascinated Americans and other citizens of the world into their 27 embassies plus the delegation of the EU itself for its annual Open House Day. As a theme, the embassies were encouraged to promote the EU’s relatively impressive record on alternative energy, which some took more seriously than others.

I made a day of it, and managed to exceed my own expectations, visiting seven embassies from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This was a cool opportunity - DC has upwards of 180 embassies, many with multiple buildings, packed into it, but I had only ever been inside one - that of the Russian Federation for a tribute Andrei Gromyko featuring Henry Kissinger. I began by walking down Florida Avenue towards Dupont Circle, my usual path to school, but kept going on Florida until I reached the cluster of embassies west of Dupont and east of Rock Creek. This is home to a third of the EU buildings as well as the delegations of a couple more countries which would like to be in the EU (Turkey, Albania, Moldova, which shares its building with one of my favorite restaurants and classy bars, Russia House). My friend Phil had worked in the US embassy in Estonia last summer and we met outside that cozy corner embassy at the intersection of Florida and Massachusetts and 22nd Street, across the street from Luxembourg’s ridiculously oversized palace, along with his girlfriend Ulla from Austria. The Estonians still had their front door locked and seemed surprised to see us at 10:15. They also lacked a stamp for the “passport” on the Open House Day brochure, as it was apparently in New York. A filmstrip showed pictures of Estonia’s nature and wildlife. This is a lovely, charming and beautiful little country (the EU’s fourth-smallest by population), I was there in January in Tallinn for two days and nearly dropped out of graduate school to take a job at the hostel. Estonians are quiet but friendly. Designer clothes by Reet Aus made from recycled materials, including a blouse decorated with little moose, hung in the corner. Photographs displayed the late President of Estonia Lennart Meri with Boris Yeltsin, Vice President Al Gore, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and legendary diplomat George Kennan, who worked at the American embassy in Tallinn in the 1930s. We picked up booklets like Minifacts About Estonia 2009. Did you know the national stone of Estonia is limestone?

Next up was Greece. I had a vague idea of touring the PIIGS, the peripheral economies that the market is so worried about, plus Britain, which also had a terrible public finances problem and just had a fascinating election. I spent Thursday night in front of my computer, watching the 650 constituencies of the United Kingdom turn 11 different colors, until the Green Party won Brighton Pavilion and I decided I needed to go to sleep at about 1:30 a.m. Plus the Embassy of the United Kingdom had a fascinating description of its activities in the brochure: “Britain on Your Doorstep: The Embassy will showcase the Ambassador’s Gardens and a Bazaar highlighting the armed forces, arts, whisky, eco-friendly displays and family activities.” Much more interesting sounding than “Come visit the Embassy of Luxembourg for the day!” Plus we kept seeing people with complimentary fancy plastic displaying the Union Jack. But I sadly did not make it to the UK embassy. It does serve as consolation that both the ambassador and his deputy visited my Modern British Politics class at SAIS this semester.

Greece’s line was long, absurdly so once we left though still shorter than Ireland’s across the street, but bad enough at 10:45. The line kept going once we were inside the embassy’s basement, because the Greeks had not yet become so austere that they could not offer us delicious samples of olives, olive oil, tzatziki sauce, and cookies, along with pamphlets, maps, and raffle tickets for an Aegean cruise. Ulla got frustrated and went outside because she dislikes olives and perhaps Greece. I enjoyed the snacks and a few minutes of traditional Greek dance before moving on outside. I am partly of Greek extraction myself (it may well account for my family’s wiliness) and visited in 2003. I would like to return someday. My sister Anna went last year and made it to our ancestral island of Nissiros, right off the coast of Turkey south of Kos. By her account, it’s the only Greek island where the women have big thighs instead of long beautiful legs. It comes from climbing up and down the volcano, which started going off around the turn of the century, driving most of the population into the arms of America.

I left Phil and Ulla at Starbucks and joined other friends, Cory and Ben, in the line at the Portuguese embassy. This line wasn’t so long but it was slow. Then again, Portugal’s embassy isn’t so huge as Greece’s. It is quite nice, and the Portuguese were formal about it. We entered in groups for a three step tour. An overstressed mother yelled at us for cutting in line, which we didn’t, and told us not to do it again. The military attaché, an officer of the Portuguese Air Force, brought us into a small room where we were shown a video about Portugal’s substantial use of alternative energies. We walked by a painting of the country’s original ambassador to the US, who was such good friends with Thomas Jefferson that he lived at Monticello for a few months. The current ambassador, João de Vallera, greeted us all personally in his office, where he talked about the historically excellent relations and economic linkages between our two countries. On his desk was a copy of the Financial Times and Cory spotted additional material about understanding the EU economy. Portugal is being targeted by the speculators, a bit unfairly, as the weakest link in the eurozone after Greece. The country simply does not grow that fast, with low productivity growth exceeded by higher wage growth, although its public finances are not terrible. I hope Portugal doesn’t get screwed by the crisis. I spent a lovely week in Lisbon in spring 2006 and have a love for the country, that city, and its food. We got to sample mini pastéis de nata, wonderful custard pastries that are great with coffee, and a drop of port wine, which is one EU export which I purchase multiple times a year.

The day was hot but windy, and my eyes were being continuously attacked by specks of dirt and plant matter. The lines for the shuttle buses between the embassies were very long, which is why we decided to skip the UK and take the Metro to Van Ness and visit the Slovak embassy. Central Europe – Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – are based much further to the north than the rest of the EU, in another cluster of chanceries which also includes Israel, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, and the United Arab Emirates. It appeared that there was a long line for Austria and no line at all for Slovakia (it turned out that the line was for the shuttle bus). But Slovakia was nice, children in national dress handed us helpings of dumplings and sauerkraut, a traditional band played, arts were on display, and the backyard had a Friends of Slovakia Wall of Honor. I had my picture taken with it, as a friend of Slovakians (and housemate of one of them). Slovakia’s best friend, however, is US Steel, which was honored on about half of 50 or so plaques. We went back for more dumplings. Slovakia had limited tourist information – mostly about its skiing – and not much about alternative energies. Robert Fico’s government has decided not to close old nuclear plants near the Austrian border that Slovakia was supposed to shutter when they gained entry to the European Union. Austria was not pleased.

With plates of dumplings and sauerkraut in hand, we moved on to Austria, where we surprised by the lack of the line. Given what the people downtown were experiencing, we had clearly made an enlightened decision in coming to spend our time with Central Europe. However, there might have been one good reason Austria had no line – they were already out of strudel. But I didn’t mind, because there was still free wine, free coffee, free information on master’s programs in History of South-Eastern Europe and free tourist publications about hiking in Tirol, which has many gorgeous mountain landscapes and women.

The bus line was still endless, so we followed a bevy of chattering Fräuleins back towards Connecticut Avenue, where Cory left us to go read at his restaurant before his shift. Ben and I continued on foot down the hill to the edge of Rock Creek Park, where the Hungarians and Czechs have embassies on Spring of Freedom Lane. Outside the Hungarian embassy lounged a number of fine specimens of the Kuvasz, a beautiful white Hungarian dog, and the Vizsla, a less beautiful in my opinion but apparently also nice Hungarian breed. Inside we saw displays of lace and china, and a couple performed a Hungarian dance in traditional dress. The couple then offered to teach the dance; I was more interested in the goulash and wine but at this embassy you had to pay for the food. Perhaps wisely, given that Hungary has been the subject of an IMF rescue since 2008.

We walked back up the hill to the Czech campus. Young women in traditional dress greeted us at the entry, we moved through the building without spending much time with the modern Czech designs on display to get the free beer – a generous full glass of Pilsner Urquell rather than an ounce of booze like most samples today. We sat on the sunny hill with many others, drinking our afternoon beers, and watched a cluster of red, white and blue balloons escape into the sky. We just missed getting to go up the path to tour the ambassador’s residence as a woman put a chain across the gate as the clock struck 4.

Enough European embassies for the day, I suppose. I took the Metro home with several pounds worth of tourist pamphlets and informational booklets wrapped inside my jackets and passed out on the couch. If I’m still in Washington next May, I will definitely embark on another day of touring the embassies of the European Union. As long as the European Union is still here then… (don’t panic, it will be).

Penguin Revolutions

The blog has a new title, and I will be finished with graduate school in 5 days, essentially, so you should be hearing more from me. The Penguin Revolutions is what some dubbed the January 2009 protest that led to the ouster of Ivar Godmanis' government in Latvia in February, the first government to fall in our global financial crisis. The prime minister had told citizens to huddle together to get through the economic turmoil, as penguins huddle together for warmth to get through the cold winter. They followed the instructions, huddling together outside the parliament and throwing snowballs and cobblestones through windows.