Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Oriental Calling

Embassy Row in the snow, fine Italian wine and the Cold War thawed with vodka


Keeping Warm on Embassy Row
With the constant demands of diplomacy today, the new Congress and the New Year, diplomats no longer have the luxury of taking long winter vacations to some sunny spot. But many still enjoy a quick getaway to lift their spirits. After training for six months, both the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the U.S. Flavio Espinal and his colleague, OAS Ambassador Roberto Alvarez, successfully ran the Miami AIDS Marathon in late January, each raising over $3,000 for the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington.


Do You Know Embassy Row?
As spring approaches, the trick is to find time to exercise. Somehow, these busy diplomats make room in their non-stop schedules to keep fit.

· Austrian Ambassador Eva Nowotny and her husband Thomas - an avid captain who can't wait for winter's end - head for the Chesapeake to sail

· Morocco's Ambassador Aziz Mekouar and his competitive wife Maria Felice play golf together whether they are here at the Chevy Chase Club or at home, sinking enough "birdies" to win tournaments

· Sweden's Gunnar Lund keeps fit running, biking, hiking, skiing and kayaking on the Potomac. He also plays tennis on his own court. Brookings' Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state, is his biking buddy

· Russia's Yuri Ushakov, so passionate about playing tennis he added a private court to their Chesapeake dacha, is thrilled his grandson is taking lessons

· Ecuadorian Amb. Luis Gallegos and his wife Fabiola play tennis on their neighbor's court every morning at 7:30, weather permitting

· Slovenia's Samuel Zbogar, Norway's Knut Vollebaek and the Dominican's Flavio Espinal love to run not only to stay lean and healthy but to think through tough diplomatic decisions

Despite heavy rain, over 14,000 participants showed up for the event, which coursed from the Bayside through Miami Beach and back. After the race, Espinal was on the run again: "I spent five to ten minutes with my legs in ice, showered, had a quick lunch and hurried to the airport to catch a plane to the Dominican Republic since I had a meeting I couldn't miss the following morning at 8."

Slovenia's Samuel Zbogar always has two extraordinary reasons to attend the International Red Cross Ball each winter. His host, Palm Beach's Robert Tomsic, is one of Slovenia's most successful businessmen - he has 40 companies worldwide. "He's a wonderful man and a great role model for all Slovenians," said Zbogar, "And, Donald Trump, who flies all of the diplomats back and forth on his jet, has a Slovenian wife, Melania," whose parents also attended the ball this year.

Many Washington envoys are credentialed to Latin American or Caribbean countries as well as the United States and plan their visits to these hot lands in the winter. "My husband is credentialed to Jamaica," says hard-working Rima Al-Sabah about their recent trip south, "So we were working most of our trip."

Some flew south for good in late January, leaving cold, blustery Washington for hot, sunny climes. Brazilian Ambassador Roberto Abdenur, 64, retired from diplomacy after a distinguished career in protest to Brazil's current foreign policies. As he and wife Maria-Izabel were packing their bags for Rio, they promised news soon of their new careers.


Why Not be Your Own Sommelier?
Italy's Lila Castellaneta is now an honorary sommelier, thanks to the Associazione Italiana Sommelier's 35,000 members worldwide and their international president Terenzio Medri, who flew in from Italy just to present her with a handsome silver and gold tasting cup. Signora Castellaneta will host an intensive two-month wine appreciation course at her residence that will be offered again this fall in English. This is the first time the sommeliers have given this course on the East Coast.

A wine-tasting reception sponsored by Virginia's Barboursville Vineyards followed. Barboursville, started by the Italian Zonin family 30 years ago, is their only American vineyard. This Northern Italian family has 12 vineyards in Italy and has been making wine since 1821.

Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta, who "used to stomp grapes with my feet in our family's vineyard," gladly handed over sommelier duties to his wife. "With global warming, Leila might consider starting her own vineyard at Villa Firenze.... That would give me a nice retirement in Washington."


Finnish Female Folk Music
Finland, where winters are cold and dark, has long embraced the sauna, vodka and swing dancing as essential ways to keep warm and happy. But the Finns are also wild about folk music, especially the nine-member group Värttinä who have entertained their countrymen and women with inventive and passionate performances for almost 25 years.

Värttinä warmed up the night recently at the Finnish Embassy at the invitation of Finnish Ambassador Pekka Lintu and his wife Laurel Colless. "Värttinä is an example of feminine power and intensity," said the ambassador, obviously a Värttinä fan himself. Finland's female president, Tarja Halonen, is another testament to the Finnish idea of "feminine power."

Värttinä's U.S. tour celebrates the release of their 11th album, Miero. The group's roots are in Finland's Karelia region and are specifically based on local women's vocal traditions and the ancient poems known as "runos."

Together with the Indian composer A.R. Rahman, Värttinä created the music for the musical The Lord of the Rings, which premiered in Toronto in March 2006 and is set to open in London's West End this coming May.


Washington Ballet Turns Up the Heat
Noche Latina, a Latino travelogue celebrating the pulsating culture of Latin America, warmed up the night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre during February's first weekend. Infectious music and passionate dancing explored the Argentinean tango, Brazilian samba and bossa nova and the Cuban salsa. Artistic Director Septime Webre created a tribute to his Cuban homeland called Juanita y Alicia and the program also included Paul Taylor's tango salute, Piazzolla Caldera, and Nacho Duato's Brazilian Amazon rainforest tribute, Na Foresta.

To make this evening a true Latin experience, four talented Latin musical groups spiced up the night, playing on stage and in the lobby. For Balletomane Society members, the festivities continued across the street in Katherine and David Bradley's Atlantic Media offices at the Watergate. Keeping the Latin tone, the Women's Committee of the Washington Ballet held Una Noche de Vino (their third annual wine tasting) at the colombian residence with Ambassador Carolina Barco as their host in early February.


Russians Commemorate Bicentennial
Over vodka and with hearty hugs, such high-ranking Americans as Under Secretary of State Nick Burns and Thomas Graham, special advisor to President Bush for Russian affairs, joined Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and his wife Svetlana on January 30th to celebrate 200 years of Russian- American diplomatic relations.

"Many of our guests today have personally contributed to building and advancing our relationship," said the Ambassador in gratitude, suggesting that many had contracted "'Russian fever', falling in love with our history, culture, literature and traditions."

"Our countries have gone through it all - ups and downs, triumphs and crises, brotherhoodin- arms and confrontation, detente and nuclear arms race, rapprochement and Cold War and even the Alaska purchase ... We have endured everything short of a hot war."

"Today, our cooperation is carried on in a completely different environment," the sevenyear Washington veteran continued. "We are partners and true allies in a whole range of areas. This new stage is symbolized by the phone call which President Putin made to the White House right after the horrific tragedy of 9/11, extending his hand of assistance to the Americans. There is a sea of change between being Russian ambassador in 1999 and now. The level of openness is much higher and the playing field substantially wider."



Slovenian Ambassador Samuel Zbogar (center) with his wife, Maja (left) and Slovenian-born Melania Trump (right) Terenzio Medri
Slovenian Ambassador Samuel Zbogar (center) with his wife, Maja (left) and Slovenian-born Melania Trump (right), wife of Donald Trump at the International Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach, Fla. (Courtesy of Ambassador Zbogar) Terenzio Medri, President of the Associazione Italiana Sommelier, with Leila and Giovanni Castellaneta (Photo credit: Gail Scott)


Nick Burns, Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and Donald Kendall Dominican Amb. Flavio Espinal
Nick Burns, Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and Donald Kendall at the U.S.- Russian Bicentennial Celebration Dominican Amb. Flavio Espinal running in the AIDS Marathon in Miami, Fla. (Courtesy of Minerva Espinal)


Washington Ballet dancers Luis Torres and Laura Urgelles Members of the Finnish Folk Music group Värttinä
Washington Ballet dancers Luis Torres and Laura Urgelles (Courtesy of The Washington Ballet) Members of the Finnish Folk Music group Värttinä (Photo credit: Gail Scott)

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