Hosting a Proper Party: Diplo-Style
Updated: May 15, 2018
It’s that time of the year again – spring! In my house it means that both my husband and I have birthdays to celebrate. Typically, we pick one of our birthdays to go all out. We love to throw a good party for our new friends and embassy colleagues, wherever we are in the world.
Every year I have different ideas, and this year was going to be particularly interesting because my husband is turning 40. I have to admit that I felt some extra pressure to get it right. Fortunately, I learned a lot about hosting parties over the years.
This year’s party took quite a bit of planning because I wanted it to be a surprise, which was totally worth it because the party was a blast – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about all the things I had to do and consider, like picking the venue, guests, food and drinks, decorations, and music.
WHY I LIKE TO HOST PARTIES
I frequently organize and host parties overseas because, to a certain extent, I feel like it’s expected of me. Diplomats are assigned to big houses to live in because, the way I understand it, they are supposed to host events there.
That’s why, for example, I hosted a party for the entire diplomatic community in Montevideo, Uruguay, back in 2010. I was only 25 years old, and I wasn’t even a diplomat (my husband was), but it felt like the right and logical thing to do. At the party I held a speech in front of the diplomatic crowd in my newly acquired Spanish – kind of ballsy, if I think about it now.
Another reason I host parties is to stave off loneliness. Because of our nomadic lifestyle, we’re almost always forced to celebrate major holidays and birthdays without family. I try to fill this void by having fun with my new friends, or “surrogate family”, as we like call each other on such occasions.
I found that there are plenty of reasons to host parties if you’re looking for one; baby showers, Thanksgivings, bachelor parties, St Patrick’s, Christmas celebrations, New Years Eves, housewarmings, Mardi Gras, farewells, etc.
But, above all else, I love to celebrate birthdays. I like that they don’t come with a fixed format or theme. I like to freestyle. I also like that birthdays are personal; it’s like celebrating a year of personal growth. I rarely slow down to enjoy what I have accomplished, so this is my opportunity to really think about, and reward myself for everything I did, learned, and put up with throughout the year.
I also found that there are lots of differences between throwing parties back home and doing it abroad.
Back home, my birthday is usually a low-key affair with the same guests every time. There is no need to draft a guest list, gather email addresses, or make route maps to my house. Let alone thinking about catering, sound systems, or protocol.
Abroad, however, there is a lot more to arrange and organize. So much, in fact, that I often create a scenario to keep track of all the moving pieces.
The first item on my to-do list was deciding on the venue. I could have hosted the party in a nice restaurant, or even at a hotel bar. Both options are affordable in a country like Armenia. For example, I could have rented the beautiful Ibis hotel rooftop cafe, where the embassy’s employee association held a party last year.
But, as I mentioned, I feel somewhat obligated to use our own house for events because it is big enough. Also, I always put a lot of effort into making our house look nice and I am ready to invite people over.
The main question was: should we party inside or outside? Our yard in Armenia has the perfect size and layout for small gatherings. It easily fits 50 people, but it’s not like a big field; it’s a grass patch with three beautiful fruit trees on it. There is also a concrete patio with garden furniture and a path around the entire house, which is enclosed by a peach-colored wall. I love our outdoor space and I decided to use it.
I think garden parties are romantic. There is something about having drinks and listening to music under the vast night sky, looking at all the little lights, smelling the grass and everything that’s in bloom. It’s spring after all!
The weather was a point of concern though. It rained a lot over the past month and the weather patterns were unpredictable. On the other hand, the air appeared to be cleaner than usual and I hadn’t seen any mosquitoes.
I always feel like I should invite a ton of people for parties so the party doesn’t look empty. However, my husband feels the opposite way; he prefers small groups so he doesn’t feel obligated to talk to dozens of people. Since it’s his party this year, I cut off the guest list at 30.
The trick is to get a good mix of people together. Most of our friends are also our colleagues, but I don’t want the party to feel like just another work event. That means I have to make some hard choices – I can’t invite everyone my husband works with.
I prefer to have people from different parts of the embassy who have things in common that are not work-related. In this case, that meant people from USAID, Peace Corps, Diplomatic Security, and the Military. Most of them live in our neighborhood. I also invited a diplomat my husband has known his entire career, and another diplomat whose parties I’ve attended multiple times.
Besides colleagues, I like to invite as many non-embassy friends as possible; local residents and other diplomats. It gives the party an international feel and connects people that otherwise wouldn’t have met.
In most countries I’ve lived there was a large international community, which made inviting foreign diplomats easy. I would simply invite everyone I wanted to get to know better, although I always took rank into consideration – I never invited some ambassador just for the fun of it.
In Armenia, the diplomatic community is very small and I couldn’t really think of anyone I felt a strong connection with (which may have a lot to do with the fact that I’m not working at the embassy at the moment and I have two small kids).
But I definitely wanted to invite some Armenians; we are guests in their country and I like to connect with them as much as I reasonably can. My husband has Armenian friends from the time he served in the Peace Corps here, and I also invited some Armenian work contacts we hung out with outside of work.
Still, I’m a bit disappointed to find out that, in eight months time, we’ve made few local friends. I really had to crunch my mind to think who else to invite. Then I remembered that my husband made some friends at the Ararat golf club – both local Americans and Armenians.
In the end, I invited 29 people and 22 showed up. I sent a simple invitation – personally I hate the kind of e-invite that requires you to go to another website and look around for the details. I just sent a short email asking everyone to RSVP two days in advance. I used to find it a little bit obnoxious to ask for RSVPs, but I’ve come to realize how useful it is for planning purposes.
Honestly, organizing food for large groups is not my favorite thing to do. It’s a lot to think about and I rarely feel like I really nailed it. Also, my husband and I have opposite philosophies about how to handle the food issue.
My stance is that a party is not all about the food unless it’s a dinner party. And whatever I serve should have a personal touch. After all, I eat food with my friends and colleagues all the time. If I’m going to go through a bunch of effort to make party food, it should be something special. I’m not a good cook by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a small repertoire of foreign dishes I learned to make, like Dutch bitterballs, Uruguayan asado, Indian curries, and a few Thai soups and salads.
In contrast, my husband likes to serve lots and lots of food, preferably the types that everybody eats all the time like meat, cheese, and chips. He wants to make sure there is so much food that half of it is left at the end of the party. I hate it when food is leftover – all these plates with half eaten, dried-up stuff on it make me sad.
When I do cook food for a group of friends, my husband often complements my thoughtful, but modest, spreads with things like nacho chips, cured meats, and bowls of nuts, which horrifies me because those are snacks and have no place in an adult meal.
But because this is a surprise party, there was no way I could cook without him noticing something. Even catering would have been a hassle, since cooks typically come early to set everything up. My best option, I figured, was to order food from a restaurant.
I haven’t found any good ethnic restaurants in Yerevan, so my options were limited. Armenian food became the obvious choice; my husband loves it and it’s easy to find. Even better, I knew exactly the place to go to place my order; a small BBQ place in my neighborhood where the grilled pork is particularly delicious.
I placed my order one day in advance to make sure they had enough of everything. I ordered grilled pork and chicken, beef kebabs, roasted potatoes, and heaps of grilled vegetables. I prepared a summer salad and crudités myself.
For serving, I used the pretty bowls I bought during our tour in Pakistan and our IKEA plates, plus real silverware. As backup, I had fancy plastic dinner plates from Costco, which we ended up needing.
Finding drinks is more of a challenge than you might think, at least in the countries I’ve lived so far. Outside of the US they typically don’t sell our favorite types of beer such as IPAs and wheat ales. In Armenia, you can buy either local beer or imported beer, and neither option is particularly attractive.
Instead, I decided to buy a whole bunch of growlers and bottles from our favorite local brewery: Dargett. I originally planned to buy an entire keg, but that turned out to be impossible. To cool all the beer, I bought several bags of ice (although I found out the hard way that too much ice will actually freeze all the beers).
Finding good wines is much easier than finding good beer in Armenia. There are various wineries that make excellent grape juice such as Armas (rose), Karas (red), and Voskevaz (all wines). The wine – especially the good stuff – is not particularly cheap, but it’s not overly expensive either.
Also, the good news is that diplomats are extremely polite guests and tend to bring almost as much booze to a party as they drink. So in theory, I only had to buy enough booze for my family and me. Still, I made sure I had at least 15 bottles of wine (5 white, 5 red, 5 rose) chilled and ready to go.
In terms of nonalcoholic drinks, I kept it simple; water, sparkling water, sodas, and juice. As far as I knew, nobody I invited was pregnant or a non-drinker, except for one Armenian friend for whom I always keep a box of tomato juice in my cupboard.
I didn’t go overboard on special drinks either. My experience is that if you offer a mixed drink or some rare tequila or whiskey, people either drink none of it or they drink so much of it that you inevitably run out of it early.
I’ve made the mistake of using my cocktail-making skills to prepare things like mojitos or scroppinos for all the guests, only to find out time and again that it was a lot more work – and much less fun – than I anticipated. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again, but this time I chose to set out a small selection of rum, vodka, and cognac (a friend is bringing whiskey).
Party music is yet another thing my husband and I tend to disagree on. I prefer to use my most upbeat Spotify playlist to make sure the party feels energized. My husband, on the other hand, favors alternative and soft rock or worse – ballads from eighties.
To avoid any problems – and really amp up the party mood – I got some professional help. I only knew one DJ in Armenia (the one I saw playing at the Ibis hotel party I attended) and I didn’t even have his contact information. But after I tracked down his cell it only took a single text message to confirm the date, fee, and general playlist. We agreed on playing “lounge music” as well as some more upbeat music in case people wanted to dance.
The most important element of a party, to me, is creating the right atmosphere. Obviously, nice people and good music are crucial for a good atmosphere, but so are lighting and seating.
I noticed that, if I don’t carefully plan out where everyone should be, people tend to congregate in the kitchen, where they stand around under the TL lights. Instead, I much prefer a setting where everyone can mingle easily.
Between the trees in our garden, I arranged small and medium-size tables with a couple of chairs around them, like at an outdoor café. I didn’t have enough tables, so I borrowed some from the Embassy (along with 30 outdoor chairs) and I ask a couple of friends to lend me their tables as well.
I placed flameless candles at the tables along with small bowls of chips. I hung Christmas lights in all the trees, which I bought at a local market – the kind where few expats go – called Petak. I couldn’t do a test run to make sure the lighting was good (since it’s a surprise party), but it turned out beautifully thanks to my tall brother-in-law who put them all up.
CAKE & GIFTS
Even though I love birthdays, and make a big deal out of them every year, my husband is always somewhat embarrassed to celebrate his. I’m sure he’s expecting some kind of party to mark his 40th, but I still think he’s going to be self-conscious about it, so I didn’t want to make a big hullabaloo out of the cake or the gifts.
I simply ordered a chocolate cake from the local supermarket that was going to be dessert. I wanted to put 40 small candles in it before bringing it out but, as I more or less expected, I totally forgot to serve the cake altogether and found it hogging all the fridge space the next morning.
I didn’t want to give gifts at the party so I decided to wait for the actual birthday (which will be later) to give my husband a big gift I’ve had in mind for a while.
PLANNING FOR THE UNEXPECTED
As it turned out, it did rain on the night of the party. My weather app had been predicting it all along, but I simply didn’t want to believe it. I was going to have my garden fest no matter what. On the other hand, I had prepared for potential bad weather by cleaning up and decorating the adjoining basement area and making sure there was atmospheric lighting (It’s my thing!).
The rain started out mildly when we were eating dinner, but thankfully everyone ignored it. After people finished their food, my friend (and Zumba instructor) and I started to dance and pretty soon everyone was dancing in front of the DJ table. After an hour or so the rain started again, but everyone continued dancing.
Throughout the evening, until around midnight, almost everyone danced. I hadn’t expected it at all, but it was awesome. As we danced the intensity of the rain increased, and some people got soaked, but at some point it only added to the fun. We hid under the trees for a quick drink or a brief chat, but we mostly just danced and jumped until we got too tired to move.
FINAL COST OVERVIEW
To my surprise (and pleasure), the party ended up being cheaper than anticipated. It helps a lot that Armenia is a relatively cheap country, but it’s probably also due to my Dutch genes (we tend to be frugal).
Here’s the final cost breakdown:
Food & snacks $216
Drinks & tableware $232