Skip links


Around the World in Four Hours: International Cottages

Posted At: April 23, 2013 10:00 p.m.
by Haley Clemons

You don’t need a passport to travel the world. In one afternoon, I learned that Denmark invented Legos, mythical trolls can be found in Norway’s forests and Austrian hot chocolate is indisputably the best. With no luggage in hand and no ticket in my pocket, my voyage began on the outskirts of Ukraine. It wasn’t long before I waved goodbye, and the aroma of Irish cream and coffee beckoned me forward. Luckily, the Emerald Isle was only a few steps away.Trolls of Norway

The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, nestled within Balboa Park of San Diego, Calif., is a four-hour adventure that leads participants through 32 different nations and ethnicities by way of atmosphere, food and genuine artifacts. The rich history of each country comes to life as visitors flock from cottage to cottage, experiencing the atmosphere and diet of locals from each land. Every Sunday between noon-4 p.m., the cottages open their doors in the name of “goodwill and understanding” and “peaceful coexistence.”

There is little room for cultural stigmas as sightseers enjoy learning about the unique cultures within each ornamented cottage, sampling foreign dishes. Mary McDermott knows the value of the messages that HPR holds dear. She has been involved with the International Cottages since 1990 through membership in the House of Ireland, and educates visitors about HPR’s mission.

“It is a sharing of culture. Culture is defined by the food, art, music, history and language of a country,” said McDermott, 2nd vice president of HPR. “An appreciation of our diversity is displayed and fostered. We stress that a common thread of humanity binds us together.”

The House of Ireland greeted me with “One Hundred Thousand Welcomes” in a memo hanging above the fireplace. It read, “The Irish Cottage bids you Céad Mile Fáilte.” I instantly felt like a local.

I had no problem handing over my $2 donation to the volunteers of the Irish Cottage. The soda bread and tea were much appreciated on my trip across this miniature version of the world. “Volunteers who open the cottages to the public welcome any donations to help maintain and run the cottages,” McDermott said.

After scarfing down my Irish fare, I looked to the square connecting the cottages and was overwhelmed by the sights and smells that loomed in the air. It was, again, time to travel to a new country.

580518_4422691557670_769712440_nAs I strolled into the Cottage of Germany, I became fixated with the bold statements of “Deutschland” and colorful knickknacks lining the walls. The warm San Diego light streamed through the cottage windows as I made my way to the volunteers who were busily baking in the back of the room.

“We make it homemade,” one volunteer said, as he placed whipped cream on top. I quickly learned that the only way to one-up a portion of German Apple Strudel is to have it served by a man in lederhosen, bearing a big grin and a thick German accent.

McDermott explained to me how this level of authenticity was possible. “We have members who are from the native country [working in the cottages],” McDermott said. “The volunteers are first/second generation or have no lineage, but do have a love and connection to that particular country and its traditions and expressions.” Along with authenticity, a sense of community and teamwork are fostered.

“The cottages exist by members and the public donating their time and resources,” said McDermott. “The members decorate their cottages and have an administrative structure within each cottage, consisting of a house president, vice president, treasurer, secretary and board members. The exact structure will vary from house to house.”

In addition to administrative tasks, volunteers of HPR educate the community about “understanding, tolerance and goodwill between all races and nationalities.” This message was shared with me in unique and powerful ways during my four short hours in Balboa Park.

As I walked into The House of Israel, HPR’s mission became more apparent. I sampled a Bureka, a cheese-stuffed pastry snack, and listened as Israel’s cottage volunteers began to speak of the accomplishments and beauty of the country. In glass casing along the wall of the antiquated room were examples of Israel’s contributions to the scientific community, including a pen that could foil a bomb and a “Pillcam” that records endoscopies. The cottages gave every nation a chance to showcase its beauty and integrity. With each passing moment, my eyes were opened to a new understanding of each country.

The visit awakened my inner globetrotter and I searched for excuses to come back. HPR members quickly gave me the inspiration I needed.

“The House of Ireland offers Irish language lessons on Thursday nights,” said McDermott. “They also teach a history class every first Monday of the month.”

“The House of Puerto Rico offers cooking classes once a month and musical instruction on playing a ‘Cuatro’ – the traditional instrument played in Puerto Rico,” added Rosario Camacho-Reyes, president of HPR. She has been involved with the HPR International Cottages since 1989 through membership in the House of Puerto Rico.46447_4422693797726_864099214_n

This is only a small sample of what is offered from the 32 countries. For example, the House of England holds Jane Austen meetings, while The House of Scotland has its Pipe Band practice on Mondays and Gaelic lessons on Thursdays. Depending on the specific culture, visitors can find dancing lessons, cooking classes and interest meetings worth any traveler’s time, but the opportunities don’t stop there.

“Twice a year, in May and December, the HPR International Cottages host two major civic events: the Ethnic Food Fair and the December Nights Festival,” said McDermott. “The Ethnic Food Fair is held Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend and features ethnic food, drink and entertainment from all of our national groups and lasts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. December Nights is held on the first Friday and Saturday in December, again featuring ethnic food, drink and entertainment inspired by winter holidays from around the world.”

“On December Nights we have crowds of 300,000 alone visiting the park museums and International Cottages,” Camacho-Reyes said. I was already planning my winter getaway trip.

I had stumbled upon a San Diego gem. Camacho-Reyes enlightened me on how to help spread HPR’s message. “Each cottage has its own website,” she said. “There is also an official House of Pacific Relations International Cottages website (, which connects visitors to all of the cottages.” The websites list all of the possible activities and individual histories of the cottages that HPR represents.

In the House of Israel, nearly every sightseer had one thing in common: they all knew the meaning of shalom. With this in mind, I knew that Israel was the perfect place to end my journey, as shalom means hello, farewell and, most importantly, peace.

Visitors do not have to search far to find the significance in HPR’s mission. It is hidden in the name. The word “Pacific” means something different than the wayfaring context that it suggests. Pacific means “intending to make peace.” Surveying the crowd, watching participants laugh and share stories, was more rewarding than spending time in an expensive hotel room. It was an experience with a purpose.

The crowds hauled their satisfied stomachs to the cars waiting in the nearby parking lot, the hustle in of cottage square returned to a lull and I was back in California. Hidden in hectic Downtown San Diego, in historic Balboa Park, is a chance to see the world, a foodie’s culinary dream and an opportunity to promote ideals of peace.

Return to top of page