Preparing for a visit to a foreign country can often be overwhelming, with no shortage of things to learn before you go. Where should you eat? Where should you stay? What do you tip? More so than this service information, though, is a sense of cultural understanding that’s hard to put your finger on. With this in mind, language learning app Babbel asked foreign ambassadors to the U.S. to pick the book they believe first-time visitors to their country should read before they arrive. Their answers may surprise you. Note: “H.E.” stands for His or Her Excellency, the official title for ambassadors to the U.S.
“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.” —H.E. Wolfgang A. Waldner
H.E. Elin Suleymanov recommends Ali and Nino, written in 1937 by Kurban Said, which tells the love story of a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and Christian Georgian girl in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku from 1918 to 1920.
“War and Turpentine is a book about three generations of Belgians, focusing on the legacy of WWI and Belgium’s exceptional painters. Long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, War and Turpentine is the absolute companion book for any art and history lover traveling to Belgium.” —H.E. Dirk Wouters
H.E. Kunzang C. Namgyel recommends Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan, which was written by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck and is a personal memoir combined with folklore, creating a portrait of the Himalayan Kingdom.
“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.” —H.E. David MacNaughton
“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.” —H.E. Juan Gabriel Valdés
H.E. Juan Carlos Pinzón recommends 1967’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, which tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family.
“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.” —H.E. Lars Gert Lose
“The Man Who Spoke Snakish is an exploration of alternative history by a well-loved contemporary author.” —H.E. Eerik Marmei
“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.” —H.E. Kirsti Kauppi
“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.” —H.E. Peter Wittig
The Greek Embassy in Washington, headed by H.E. Haris Lalacos, recommends Nikos Kazantzakis’s Freedom and Death. Published in 1953, the novel is about the rebellion of the Cretans against the Ottoman Empire in 1889.
H.E. Geir H. Haarde recommends Independent People, which tells the story of sheep farmer Guðbjartur Jónsson and his struggle for independence.
H.E. Navtej Sarna recommends the book Freedom at Midnight (1975), which was written by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. The book describes events around Indian independence and partition in 1947-48, beginning with the appointment of Lord Mountbatten of Burma and ending with the death (and funeral) of Mahatma Gandhi.
H.E. Anne Anderson recommends Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which tells the intertwined stories of the first non-stop transatlantic fliers in 1919; the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845/46; and the story of the 1998 Irish peace process.
“Selected Poems 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].” —H.E. Audrey Patrice Marks
H.E. Pierre Clive Agius recommends Immanuel Mifsud’s In the Name of the Father (And of the Son), which won the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature and tells the story of a man reading a diary his father kept during his days as a soldier in World War II, which subsequently pushes him to re-examine the personal relationship he had with his father.
H.E. Tim Groser recommends Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 book The Whale Rider, which tells the story of Kahu, who develops the ability to communicate with whales, echoing those of the ancient Whale Rider, after whom she was named.
“The Harry Hole series is about the “anti-hero” Harry Hole, a dedicated but disillusioned police detective.” —H.E. Kåre R. Aas
H.E. Božo Cerar recommends Drago Jančar’s 2010 book I Saw Her That Night, which explores the disappearance of a young bourgeois woman from Ljubljana during a turbulent period in history.
“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.” —H.E. Björn Lyrvall
“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.” —H.E. Kim Darroch