Cultural immersion is a large part of what makes traveling to a foreign country so rewarding, but you can take in the culture (and the language!) before you even set foot on a plane. We asked foreign ambassadors in Washington, D.C. to pick the book and film they believe first-time visitors to their country should consume before they arrive. Their choices range from the very popular to the relatively obscure, but they all offer a good starting point for travelers who long for a truly rewarding experience.
We have created a digital guide to the picks of these foreign ambassadors, which we will continue to expand upon as more foreign ambassadors contribute. This list can serve as both a resource for readers to learn about other countries and a cultural guidebook for travelers.
Without further ado, here are the picks for each country (in alphabetical order). Some choices include commentary from the foreign ambassadors themselves.
Note: “H.E.” stands for His or Her Excellency, the official title for foreign ambassadors to the U.S.
Happy reading and viewing!
Foreign Ambassadors’ Picks
H.E. Wolfgang A. Waldner recommends:
- Book: * The Tobacconist * (2012), by Robert Seethaler
- Film: * The Third Man * (1949), directed by Carol Reed
“The Tobacconist (translated into English by Charlotte Collins) is set in 1937 just before the German occupation. It follows 17-year-old Franz, who moves to Vienna to become the apprentice in a tobacco shop. Its quiet wisdom and sincerity resonated with me very deeply.”
“The Third Man, the British noir from 1949, feels as fresh as ever. Shot entirely on location, you see the city [of Vienna] in ruins and split up into French, American, British and Russian sectors with spies and suspicious officials everywhere. The catchy film score, performed by Anton Karas on a zither, sets the perfect tone.”
H.E. Elin Suleymanov recommends:
- Book: * Ali and Nino * (1937), by Kurban Said
- Film: *Ali and Nino * (2016), directed by Asif Kapadia
Ali and Nino recounts the love story of a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and Christian Georgian girl in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku from 1918 to 1920.
Ambassador and Permanent Representative H.E. Kunzang C. Namgyel recommends:
- Book: * Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan * (2006), by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck
- Film: * Travelers and Magicians * (2003), directed by Khyentse Norbu
Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan is a blend of personal memoir, history, folklore, and travelogue, creating a portrait of the Himalayan kingdom.
Travelers and Magicians is about Dondup (Tsewang Dandup), a Bhutanese official infatuated with American culture, who is bored with life in his tiny village and dreams of visiting the United States.
H.E. David MacNaughton recommends:
- Book: * With Faith and Goodwill: 150 years of Canada-U.S. Friendship * (2017), edited by Arthur Milnes
- Film: The selection of films from National Canadian Film Day’s Top 150 (which includes * Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner * and * My Uncle Antoine *)
“On the occasion of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we suggest the newly-released book, With Faith and Goodwill: 150 years of Canada-U.S. Friendship, edited by Arthur Milnes. It is a beautiful collection of speeches, photographs and essays from Prime Ministers and Presidents that express our shared history (from Sir John A. Macdonald and Andrew Johnson to Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump).”
“For the movie, we recommend browsing National Canadian Film Day’s Top 150 sampler, which provides a list as diverse as the country itself.”
H.E. Juan Gabriel Valdés, one of the foreign ambassadors for Chile, recommends:
- Book: * La casa de los espíritus * (1982), by Isabel Allende
- Film: * No * (2012), directed by Pablo Larraín
“La casa de los espíritus depicts the recent past and memories from a landowner’s point of view, and his daughter’s, mingled with social and political issues of the 1970s.”
“No, an outstanding political film from Pablo Larrain based on true events in Chile in 1988, depicts when ‘We The People’ voted against former dictator Augusto Pinochet in a national referendum.”
H.E. Juan Carlos Pinzón recommends:
- Book: * One Hundred Years of Solitude * (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez
- Film: * Colombia magia salvaje * (2015), directed by Mike Slee
One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo, Colombia.
Colombia magia salvaje is a documentary film about the wildlife of Colombia, one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.
H.E. Lars Gert Lose recommends:
- Book: * Smilla’s Sense of Snow * (1992), by Peter Høeg
- Film: * A Royal Affair * (2012), directed by Nikolaj Arcel
“Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a fictional mystery set in Copenhagen. It is a book that touches on issues such as Danish culture versus Greenlandic and the related issues of language and identity.”
“A Royal Affair is a historical movie based on a true story. A young queen (Queen Caroline Mathilde), who is married to an insane king (King Christian VII of Denmark), falls secretly in love with the king’s physician (Johan Friedrich Struensee), and together they start a revolution that changes Denmark.”
H.E. Eerik Marmei, one of the foreign ambassadors for Estonia, recommends:
- Book: * The Man Who Spoke Snakish * (2007), by Andrus Kivirähk
- Film: * Lotte and the Moonstone Secret * (2011), directed by Heiki Ernits and Janno Põldma
“The Man Who Spoke Snakish is an exploration of alternative history by a well-loved contemporary author.”
“Lotte and the Moonstone Secret is a positive children’s movie. In Estonia, the kids can visit the Lotte theme park!”
H.E. Kirsti Kauppi recommends:
- Book: * Moomin * books (1945-1959), by Tove Jansson
- Film: * Tale of a Forest * (2012), directed by Kim Saarniluoto and Ville Suhonen
“The Moomin books were originally written as fairy tales for children. Their philosophic nature is universal and makes the books enjoyable for people of all ages and from all backgrounds. The carefree and friendly Moomins provide a warm-hearted reading experience, and are also an essential part of the childhood of every Finnish kid.”
“Tale of a Forest is a stunningly beautiful and entertaining documentary about Finnish nature, its importance to the Finnish people, and the mythological beliefs of the ancient people of Finland.”
H.E. Peter Wittig recommends:
- Book: * Tschick (Why we took the car) * (2010), by Wolfgang Herrndorf
- Film: * Good Bye Lenin! * (2003), directed by Wolfgang Becker
“Tschick is about two 14-year-old boys, both social outcasts, one from a bourgeois background, the other a Russian returnee, who “borrow” a car, take a road trip, and develop an unusual friendship.”
“Good Bye Lenin! is THE movie about the Fall of the Wall. Close to the facts, and yet very funny (in a German way!).”
Foreign ambassadors for the Greek Embassy in Washington, headed by H.E. Haris Lalacos, recommend:
- Book: * Freedom and Death * (1953), by Nikos Kazantzakis
- Film: * Zorba the Greek * (1964), directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis
Freedom and Death is about the rebellion of the Cretans against the Ottoman Empire in the year 1889.
“Since 2017 is declared as Kazantzakis year, we would like to suggest the iconic film Zorba the Greek, which is based on the eponymous book by Nikos Kazantzakis.”
H.E. Geir H. Haarde recommends:
- Book: * Independent People * (1934), by Halldór Laxness
- Film: * Sigur Rós: Heima * (2007), directed by Dean DeBlois
Independent People is the story of sheep farmer Guðbjartur Jónsson, generally known in the novel as Bjartur of Summerhouses, and his struggle for independence.
Sigur Rós: Heima is a music documentary about Sigur Rós’ return to Iceland in the summer of 2006, to play a series of free, unannounced concerts for the people of Iceland.
H.E. Anne Anderson recommends:
TransAtlantic tells the intertwined stories of Alcock and Brown (the first non-stop transatlantic fliers in 1919), the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845/46, and the story of the Irish peace process as negotiated by Senator George Mitchell in 1998. The book fuses these stories with fictional narratives of women spanning the course of two centuries.
Once is a modern-day musical about a busker and an immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin, as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their love story.
H.E. Navtej Sarna, one of the foreign ambassadors for India, recommends:
- Book: * Freedom at Midnight * (1975), by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
- Film: * Monsoon Wedding * (2001) directed by Mira Nair
Freedom at Midnight describes events around Indian independence and partition in 1947-48, beginning with the appointment of Lord Mountbatten of Burma as the last viceroy of British India, and ending with the death and funeral of Mahatma Gandhi.
*Monsoon Wedding( is a dramatic film depicting romantic entanglements during a traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi.
H.E. Audrey Patrice Marks recommends:
- Book: * Selected Poems * (2003), by Louise Bennett
- Film: * Cool Runnings * (1993), directed by Jon Turteltaub
“Selected Poems, written by iconic authority on Jamaican folklore, the Hon. Louise Bennett Coverley, O.M., O.J., M.B.E., Hon. D.Litt. – affectionately called ‘Miss Lou’ – captures the Jamaican dialect in a humorous and compelling way, providing unique and invaluable insights into the Jamaican culture and what it means to be [Jamaican].”
“Cool Runnings tells the amazing story of boldness, endurance and perseverance by the first Jamaican bobsleigh team to participate in the 1988 Wynter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. ”
H.E. Pierre Clive Agius recommends:
- Book: * In the Name of the Father (And of the Son) * (2010), by Immanuel Mifsud
- Film: * Limestone Cowboy * (2017), directed by Abigail Mallia
A novella that won the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature, In the Name of the Father (And of the Son), tells the story of man reading a diary his father kept during his days as a soldier in World War II, which pushes him to re-examine the personal relationship he had with his father.
“Limestone Cowboy is a human story of a Maltese family dealing with a delusional father who is convinced that he can become Malta’s next Prime Minister.”
H.E. Henne Schuwer recommends:
Book: The Embarrassment of Riches (1987) by Simon Schama
Film: De Aanslag (1986) directed by Fons Rademakers
“The Embarrassment of Riches is a wonderful account of the mentality in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. As a Dutchman, I realize that mentality is still very much present in the Netherlands of today. Besides, if you drink your coffee on Sunday morning at one of the many cafés on the canals in Amsterdam and look around, you are transported back to the world which Schama so masterfully describes. Some things do not change.”
“De Aanslag” (The Assault) is an Oscar winning movie about the scars left by the Second World War on the Dutch population. Like any country that had been occupied by the enemy, the Netherlands had its share of heroes, resistance fighters, collaborators and fence sitters, who had to live together after the war was over. After five years of occupation, divisions ran deep in Dutch society and many struggled with their own traumas.”
H.E. Tim Groser recommends:
- Book: * The Whale Rider * (1987), by Witi Ihimaera
- Film: * Hunt for the Wilderpeople * (2016), directed by Taika Waititi
The Whale Rider is a mystical story of Maori culture. Rejected by her grandfather, Kahu develops the ability to communicate with whales, echoing those of the ancient Whale Rider, after whom she was named.
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople a national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle, who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.
H.E. Kåre R. Aas, one of the foreign ambassadors for Norway, recommends:
- Book: The * Harry Hole * series (1997-2017), by Jo Nesbø
- Film: * Kon-Tiki * (2012), directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
“The Harry Hole series is about the “anti-hero” Harry Hole, a dedicated but disillusioned police detective.”
“Kon-Tiki is based on the explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s daring quest in 1947 to prove that Polynesia could have been populated from South America.”
H.E. Božo Cerar recommends:
- Book: * I Saw Her That Night * (2010), by Drago Jančar
- Film: * Valley of Peace * (1956), directed by France Stiglic
I Saw Her That Night, a love story in a time of war, is a novel about the life — and mysterious disappearance — of Veronika Zarnik, a young bourgeois woman from Ljubljana, sucked into the whirlwind of a turbulent period in history.
Valley of Peace tells the story of a Slovene boy and a German girl, who journey from a besieged Slovene town to a valley where there is no war.
H.E. Björn Lyrvall recommends:
- Book: * Nordic Ways * (2016), by András Simonyi
- Film: * A Man Called Ove * (2015), directed by Hannes Holm
“Nordic Ways is a new anthology of essays, edited by Debra Cagan. It came out last fall and is representative of all five Nordic countries. It describes life in the North from different perspectives.”
“A Man Called Ove was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Language Film and another one for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.”
H.E. Kim Darroch recommends:
“For the book, I would choose Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Published in 2001, this is a literary tour de force, set in three time periods: 1935 England, the Second World War, and the turn of the millennium. The story is constructed around a half-innocent lie, told by a 13 year old girl, that destroys lives and shatters a family. It addresses momentous themes — love, war, the hold of the past over the present — while capturing to perfection moments from Britain’s recent past, whether an English country house summer between the Wars, or the horrors of the retreat from Dunkirk.
For the film, and with a change of tone, I’ll go for Life of Brian. I think a good, perhaps necessary, starting point for any visitor to the UK is understanding the British sense of humor — and Life of Brian is arguably the funniest British film of all time and an undisputed classic. I think it encapsulates British humour perfectly; it is impossible to imagine it emerging from any other nationality. Phrases from it have entered the English language: “What did the Romans ever do for us?” It captures the edginess inherent in the best British comedy; highly controversial at the time, and made only through a late and generous intervention by Beatle George Harrison, after the studio took fright, now more than 35 years on, it is still divisive, inspiring a Constitutional Court case in Germany in 2016. And the final song, “Always look on the bright side of life” has become an anthem for British resilience.”
Food for thought: If you were one of the American foreign ambassadors for another country, what book and film would you choose for visitors to the United States?
Header Illustration by Jana Walczyk