Expat life ~ celebrating la fête nationale Suisse in Washington, D.C.

One of my absolute favourite thing about living in Washington, D.C. is getting to know people not just from every state in the United States but also from all over the world. With 176 resident embassies in the city, and the World Bank, the IMF and countless other international organizations you can make friends from around the globe without leaving the district. Over the weekend, I got to meet a lot of Swiss and learn a lot more about Switzerland when I attended the Schweizer Bundesfeier celebration thrown by the Swiss Club of Washington, D.C. at the Embassy of Switzerland on Saturday.

Every August 1st, some 8 million people around the world celebrate one of four holiday: the above mentioned Schweizer Bundesfeier, Fête nationale, Festa nazionale… or Fiasta naziunala depending depending on which part of Switzerland they are from and which of its four official languages they speak. The holiday commemorates the Federal Charter of 1291 which unified the then 3 Alpine cantons into the foundation of modern day Switzerland. Despite growing up in the country next door , I must confess I didn’t know much about how my neutral neighbours celebrate their national holiday. Here’s a few things I learned…

The celebration at the Swiss Embassy was one was one of the most family friendly one I’ve ever attended. It’s not an official event thrown by the embassy but rather one that is hosted on the grounds of the embassy. Let’s talk about these grounds. Who knew the Swiss Embassy has such expansive grounds? I guess anyone who’s ever attended the infamous Swiss Soiree probably knew that. I’m still hoping to get an invite some day… I’m also dying to check out the Hemingway bar tucked inside the Cuban interest section (update: with the recent opening of the Embassy of Cuba in Washington, the Cuban interest section at the Swiss Embassy is no more.) We’ll see which invite comes my way first… though probably neither 😉 Anyway, Switzerland is clearly a small but mighty (wealthy) country, with the Embassy to show it. The afternoon garden-party on Saturday kicked off with alphorns (also known as the Alpine Horn) and took place for the most part on the grounds between the embassy and the Ambassador’s residence, which occupies a modern charcoal color concrete and sand-blasted building.

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Many of the guests brought their own lawn chairs or picnic blankets and just hung out around the embassy while children went to play in the pool or took rides on carts pulled by gorgeous (and huge!) Swiss dogs. There was traditional music, yodeling, dancing and Fahnenschwingen (hope I spelled that right!) And of course, there were sausages, and beer and wine. We tried two different beers, Schloss Eggenberg hopfen konig, which is actually Austrian, and an Erdinger Hefe-Weizen, neither one of which it turns out, was actual Swiss (they’re Austrian and German respectively.) The wine, on the other hand, was Swiss! I loved sharing a bottle of Amigne Valais AOC with one of my favourite wino, mlle Lisa C. In case you’re wondering, Amigne is a rare grape grown only in the Valais region. Valais is  Switzerland’s largest wine-producing area, in the upper Rhone Valley, where most of the vineyard sit on terraced Alpine slopes. Ambassador Manuel Sager, who will be returning to Switzerland very soon and was wearing a bright red Swiss shirt over his checkered collar shirt, treated us to a different wine for the wine toast after the Swiss national anthem and the speeches, but I didn’t get the name of that wine. The wine toast was nice, of course. But, you know, we toast with bubbles only where I’m from…

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But the highlight of the whole event for me was the lampion parade and the bonfire. How the Swiss embassy got a permit to light a huge bonfire in the middle of the city, I am not sure… but Höhenfeuers are typical of the national holiday celebrations in Switzerland and I loved the whole experience. Children were provided with paper lanterns with a lit candle inside (another fire hazard I was surprised to see…) and paraded down to the bonfire led by flutists. In Switzerland the bonfire would have been followed by fireworks but it was quite enough excitement just with the huge bonfire to be honest…

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If you’re in Washington, D.C. next August 1st, I recommend you look up the Swiss national holiday celebration organized by the Swiss Club of Washington, D.C. especially if you have children, but not only. I had a great time with Lisa learning all about Schweizer Bundesfeier. And while I didn’t win round trip tickets to Zurich during the raffle, as a French person I left the embassy feeling quite secure knowing that  yes, Switzerland may have the upper hand in chocolate, watches, tennis players and, apparently, bonfires… but we beat them 5-2 during the World Cup and still make better wine 😉


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