An embassy is a most interesting place. Typically relegated to the sterile back streets of national capitals, they tend to only burst into the collective consciousness at the centre of dramatic and unusual news stories – Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and Julian Assange’s confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London spring to mind. Yet there is something particularly curious about these places that sit at the intersection of two states, which due to the peculiarities of extraterritoriality, exist in a sort of jurisdictional limbo, oddly removed from their surroundings not only physically, but legally.
In recent years, I have begun to deliberately seek out embassies while travelling. A walk around a diplomatic district becomes a visit to a sort of live gallery of national psyches run wild on the well-to-do streets of national capitals the world over. Their dressings of pomp and decorum are often undercut, upon closer inspection, by the bemusing, quirky and mildly alarming. Presented here is a selection of the most intriguing.
There are a few necessary ingredients that make for a good embassy to visit.
First and foremost, an embassy must naturally represent its home country.
Exhibit A: The Belgian Embassy in Beijing. A small detail can make a big difference. Here, a fairly nondescript embassy block is transformed into a cultural ambassador with the simple addition of a portrait of Tintin in The Blue Lotus, a respectable effort at finding a China-Belgium link which probably represents the pinnacle of their cross-cultural relations. Nice going Belgium.
Across the road from the Belgian embassy, we find a scale model of the Michelin Man, unceremoniously chained to a tree. A veiled message to their French neighbours up the road perhaps? The language of diplomacy can be abstruse at the best of times.
Meanwhile, the Australian embassy in Beijing presents more of a study in crusader-inspired defensive architecture than an exercise in open diplomacy, complete with anti-vehicular moat along one side. Though its concrete form appears to physically represent a xenophobic national psyche, points must be granted for the rare Tim Tams sold at a nearby overpriced corner store that presumably only caters to homesick diplomats.
The North Korean embassy in Berlin, alongside black-tinted vehicles parked out the front, proudly displays images of the Supreme Leader himself strolling over sun-dappled garden bridges and travelling in magnificent convoy behind a phalanx of police motorcycles. Heartwarming.
Sometimes the representations of home are less deliberate than are intended. The Cuban embassy in Buenos Aires presents a wonderfully detailed example of colonial architecture reminiscent of the buildings of Old Havana, though regrettably also transplants the mould that typically accompanies them.
A good embassy must also be open and welcoming.
In the Fijian embassy in Beijing, the bustling staff of one kindly took time out of her busy schedule catering to the needs of the no doubt sprawling Fijian diaspora in China, to provide me biscuits and a complimentary bottle of Fiji Water.
Similarly, the eagerness of the Kazakh embassy in Riga, Latvia, to lavish me with travel brochures seemed surpassed only by their surprise that someone had actually wanted to come in.
Finally, a good embassy needs a certain X-factor, something uniquely ‘embassy’ that speaks to the randomness and absurdity of an international system built on occupying fancy houses in other countries’ capitals.
The Australian embassy in Buenos Aires reveals to the curious that it was once home (for 29 days) to Albert Einstein. Not the most spectacular claim to fame but suitably quaint.
Finally, we come to the honorary Ethiopian consulate in Helsinki. Opened by order of a magnificent brass plaque; closed by the power of the humble post-it note. If ever there were a more apt illustration of the fragility of international diplomacy, I am yet to hear of it.
So, while our borders may be closed and all outbound flights cancelled, head down to Canberra and take a stroll around the embassies of Capital Hill some time. There may be more to discover there than you expected.