Oil paintings, beaded jewelry, hand-carved masks, silk scarves and plenty of food turned the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center into a microcosm of global culture at the sixth annual Winternational Embassy Showcase on Dec. 6.
A record 39 embassies participated in this year’s event, ranging from Afghanistan, the European Union and Malawi, to Saudi Arabia, Peru and Vietnam. Over 3,500 people converged on the colorful midday celebration to visit an array of embassy booths that highlighted the art, food, handicrafts, trade and tourism of their respective nations.
“This event started as an idea we had to do a winter festival of traditions from around the world. It started as a very, very small event,” said John P. Drew, president and CEO of TCMA (a Drew Company), the exclusive manager of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. “Over the years, we’ve expanded and welcomed more and more embassies. And the theme kind of broadened — showcase your culture, your traditions and your countries here all in one setting. And that’s what we do at the Trade Center. We try to bring people together to promote trade, commerce and culture, so this is just a perfect offshoot of that.”
Drew added that in a time of heightened political tensions, especially in Washington, D.C., “cultural diplomacy is more important than it’s ever been,” noting that many foreigners have the impression that Americans are not particularly interested in affairs outside their borders. “In fact, we have more embassies in D.C. than we have anywhere in the world. And we’re able to basically talk about what is going on in these countries and expose people to traditions and cultures that maybe they wouldn’t read about in today’s climate.”
Mohammad Ziauddin, ambassador of Bangladesh, told The Diplomat that this is the second time his embassy has participated in Winternational. “This is a huge experience for me. People from practically all over the world are here,” he said.
“It’s just like a miniature replica of a global village, and this is the way the world should be right now — people from all parts of the world, irrespective of their race, religion, caste, creed and color, they intermingle as one people, as one race,” he added. “And this is a good thing that it’s happening in Washington, D.C., which is the capital of the United States. In fact, whatever happens in Washington, D.C., is seen all over the world, so we’re happy this is expanding, and we want to keep on participating in this event every year. And we also hope more and more countries come as well.”
Ambassador of Botswana David John Newman said he’s also seen the event grow and attract more people since the embassy began participating in it.
“We think it’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase our country, showcase our cultural activities and our food,” he said. “We’ve highlighted our hand-woven baskets, [which are] particularly famous. They’re made in the northwest of the country by the women there in certain communities in the Okavango Delta, which is very famous for safaris, but little known in terms of the baskets that are made there, so we like to showcase that.”
Other embassies featured a broad spectrum of items. The Moldovan Embassy highlighted its homemade wines, while handmade wrist-warmers and holiday decorations were on sale at Lithuania’s booth. At the European Union station, guests spun a pinwheel with the names of the 28 member states. Each country came with a trivia question and a prize if the person got the answer right. Elephant sculptures and masks made of redwood graced Malawi’s table, while elaborately crafted Islamic dresses reflected the artistry of designers from Saudi Arabia.
Many of the handicrafts on display also came with intriguing backstories. The Embassy of Turkey showcased handmade wind chimes that are meant to convey positive energy and are often given to young couples as gifts. The intricate metalwork on the chimes represents pomegranates, a critical export for Turkey that also symbolizes abundance and fertility.
Ornate jewelry and stunning beaded slippers fit for a princess were on display at Singapore’s booth, which took its inspiration from the Peranakan peoples, who descended from marriages between Chinese or Indian men and local Malay or Indonesian women. This rich hybrid of ethnic traditions produced the Peranakan style, which includes “nyonya kebayas,” a traditional blouse-dress combination punctuated by meticulous embroidery depicting roses, orchids, butterflies, bees and other designs.
The Embassy of Bulgaria touted a little-known but lucrative national industry: the production of rose oil and essential oils that are used as ingredients in French perfumes and other products all over the world. “We’re also promoting Bulgaria as a tourist destination. Tourism is quite developed in my country, and it’s an important part of our GDP,” said Bulgarian Ambassador Tihomir Stoytchev. “We have wonderful resorts on the Black Sea and in the mountains, so it’s a good combination between winter and summer resorts.”
Costa Rican Ambassador Román Macaya has participated in Winternational for the last three years. “It’s a great event. It’s a great venue, and it draws from the Washington community. It’s a community that’s well-educated and well-traveled, so it’s a good venue to promote our country, and we’ll never miss it,” he said, noting that the traditional delicacies at his booth “literally give you a flavor of Costa Rica.”
“Winternational is an exciting celebration which showcases the cultural and culinary traditions of D.C.’s diplomatic community. This festival is a global marketplace which offers flavors of various countries culture and cuisine as well as insights on their country promotion, trade and investment opportunities,” said Andrew Gelfuso, vice president of global business development for TCMA. “It is a one-of-a-kind experience for our audience to learn and mingle with ambassadors and diplomats.”
As one visitor mentioned while perusing the various booths: “It embodies what internationalism is all about.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.