When some one hands you a free flute of champagne, you don't ask questions. You don't say no, unless you want to offend the hosts. And especially if the person handing you the bubbly is the Director of the House of Switzerland.
Manuel Salchli was the master of ceremonies Saturday night, surrounded by Swiss officials, citizens and whomever wanted to join the party. Unlike many other national hospitality houses, the Swiss house is open to the public, a source of pride for the historically neutral country.
"Switzerland has always been a very open country," Salchli said during a formal interview last week. "It's an international country, and that's the message we want to convey to our visitors. We don't want to be something exclusive where you need 10,000 access passes to get access."
The House of Switzerland started out as a round table in a restaurant in Lillehammer, Norway, during the 1994 Olympics, and is now a slick showcase for everything Swiss. The house features exhibits on products such as Lindt chocolates (you can sample if you want and get a quick tutorial on how to make truffles) and Swiss army knives (you can purchase one if you choose), booths on the Alps and tourism (you can watch a film and plan your next visit) and, of course, the bar and lounge (you can ... well, you get the idea).
On this night — and every night throughout the Olympics — access was given to all to hit the bar for Swiss beer, Braugold and Eichhof, and the dance floor.
Although the House is located in the trendy 798 art district — home to a thriving, eclectic artist community in Beijing — the area is not known for its nightlife. Few venture out to 798 after 7 p.m., when most galleries are already closed. No matter. The bar was lively, and the crowd, a mix of Swiss, foreign visitors and locals, was getting bubbly over the bubbly.
"A Swiss party is never stiff," Salchli said with a smile Saturday night. He had just finished hosting a reception that included the president and prime minister — empty wine and vodka bottles was evidence that the reception for the state's leaders was far from a stuffy, uptight affair. There would be no formal interview tonight. There was fun to be had, and drinks to be guzzled.
Salchli would be found later on the dance floor, along with some of his staff.
The only evidence of any formality was the formal wear. But even suit and ties and cocktail dresses couldn't prevent middle-aged men and women to shake it on the dance floor. How best to describe the scene? Imagine your parents grooving to Kanye West or Prince or "Play That Funky Music, White Boy."
One man in a starched white shirt and yellow tie, the disco lights glaring off his bald head, danced like he was a contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance." He wasn't the only one. Some of the dirty dancing was dirty enough to make even Jennifer Grey blush.
But this was the Olympics, a chance for the world to come together, celebrate as one and party as one, no matter what you looked like, what ethnicity you were or which passport you held. The Swiss House welcomed every one through its doors.
"We figure it'd be nice if we have such an international house," Salchli said last week. "to use it together with the citizens of the host city and together with all the international visitors to the Games. [We want] to promote friendships, establish relationships and promote cultural exchanges."
Partying together — and free champagne — can go a long way in meeting those goals.