Houston, TX: Washington, DC: Dublin, Ireland:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hay Festival

I used my most recent long weekend to fulfill a long-held wish: a trip to the Hay Festival in Wales. Once referred to as "the Woodstock of the mind" by Bill Clinton, the Hay Festival is a 10-day event of lectures, concerts, workshops, book signings, and other events held every year in Hay-on-Wye, a sleepy little town on the Welsh/English border. Known as "the town of books," Hay has dozens of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops, and its population increases 40-fold at festival time as the hordes of bibliophiles descend. This year I was one of them.

It was pretty much Meredith heaven. Some of the big-name events were already sold out by the time I got my tickets, but I still managed to see great speakers on topics as varied as Jane Austen, oscillating chemical reactions, an Indian princess suffragette, medieval Arab folktales, and improv Mary Poppins. And in between there were gourmet organic fair-trade food trucks, a whole town of bookstores full of treasures to peruse, and everywhere people reading and talking about books. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. And the weather was unusually obliging for Wales, which helped.

The two days I could be there were not nearly enough, not by a long shot. And as much as I'd love to become one of the devotees who goes to the festival every year, it would be a bit of a hike from Addis. But at least I got to go have the experience while I'm more or less in the neighborhood, and now I have a fat stack of exciting new books to read to keep the joy going for another couple of months. I'm so glad I went.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Referendum

The big news in Ireland these days is a referendum on gay marriage coming up on Friday. Both sides are campaigning hard: with less than a week to go until the vote there may not be a single streetlight in Dublin without a referendum poster on it, if not two or three or six.

Despite the apparent parity in the photo to the left, on the whole Dublin is Yes territory. Like most urban areas in Europe, Dublin is full of 20- and 30-somethings who are more likely to approve of gay marriage, and they are showing their Yes pride in dozens of ways: with signs on lampposts and in shops and restaurants and homes, with murals, with pins and t-shirts, with rainbow manicures and drag queen brunch. This being Ireland, the Yes campaign is bilingual, so there are plenty of signs out there urging people to Vótáil Tá (which kind of means "vote yes" but not exactly.)

While looking at the streets of Dublin might make you think Yes will take it in a cakewalk, No has stronger support in rural areas and some big heavyweights behind it, such as the Catholic Church. The Irish Government and all the major political parties have officially backed the Yes vote, though party membership seems divided on the issue and I don't see people voting against their conscience just to follow the party line. Recent polls show Yes ahead, but with a decreasing lead. I don't think anyone knows how this is going to go. But close races are more exciting, even for outsiders like myself with no stake in the outcome.


EDIT 5/26: The ayes have it! The people have spoken, and gay marriage is now legal in Ireland. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Edinburgh


Last weekend was a bank holiday weekend, so I decided to take a little trip to Scotland. I hadn't been to Edinburgh since I was eight or nine, and didn't remember much about it except that they had a KFC there, which at the time I hadn't seen in years and was really excited about. While I'm in the area, I figured it was time to make some new, slightly more grown-up memories.

The main tourist attraction is Edinburgh Castle, which cost 24 fucking dollars to enter and was, you know, a castle. (Two years in Europe and I'm getting jaded about castles again.) It was a large and historically significant castle at least, and had some shiny crown jewels in it. And the views from the top were nice. More my speed in the historic attractions department was the Real Mary King's Close, a tour of homes and alleyways walled up in the 17th century to serve as the foundation for a city building. It was cool to get a glimpse of what daily life was like for normal people instead of just kings and queens. And then there's the Scotch Whisky Experience: I was dubious when I saw the Haunted Mansion-style ride with cars shaped like whisky barrels, but it turned out to be a really interesting and educational tour, complete with tasting of course. I also enjoyed just walking around town, through the tiny medieval alleyways and broad Georgian avenues.

I also took a day trip south to see Hadrian's Wall. It's not much to look at these days; apparently it used to be up to 16 feet tall in places, but between some sinkage and centuries of being pillaged for building materials only the width of the wall distinguishes it from any other field boundary. But I was there. I saw it. More impressive was Vindolanda, the remains of a Roman fort and the village that grew up next to it. Again, it's not much to look at, basically just wall foundations and paving stones. But among the detritus found at the site were fragments of messages written on thin strips of wood, still legible almost 2000 years later. They cover all kinds of mundane aspects of life at the edge of the Roman Empire: routine military reports, inventories, shopping lists, a care package, a birthday party invitation. Technology may have come a long way in the last two millennia, but people don't seem to have changed much.

On the minus side of the trip, pretty much everything was eyewateringly expensive. I also blame my day tramping around the Northumbrian countryside in the cold and wind and rain for the sore throat that has me stuck at home this weekend self-medicating with hot whiskeys. But on the whole, entirely worth it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cupan Tae

Tea is kind of a big deal in Ireland. Sure, Dublin has a coffee shop on every corner, from the ubiquitous Starbucks clones to boutique spots catering to the hardcore coffee nerds, but tea is still the quintessential Irish hot beverage.

Families have been torn apart in the Barry's/Lyons wars for total tea supremacy, but there are also innumerable tea shops selling every style and combination of leaves-in-hot-water humanity has ever imagined. (I'm partial to the Tom Crean blend from Clement and Pekoe myself.) The Irish tea obsession is best personified by Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper on Father Ted, the show everyone tells you to watch if you want to understand Ireland. She always has tea at the ready, and "no thank you" is simply not an acceptable response.


I decided early on that I should buy myself a tea set as an Ireland souvenir, but I never found one I really liked. Meanwhile I acquired an assortment of mugs to drink my tea from, so a full set began to seem unnecessary; I started looking just for teapots, but nothing caught my fancy. Until now:


The teapot is entirely ordinary, albeit with a handy built-in tea filter. The real treasure is the tea cozy, which was personally hand-knit by Pauline McLynn, the actress who played Mrs. Doyle. It guarantees that, no matter where I am in the world, my tea will always be as Irish as tea could possibly be. And woe betide the misguided soul who dares refuse a cup.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Area Studies: Ethiopia Edition

I'll be arriving in Addis in less than five months, but I have to confess my knowledge of Ethiopia is still pretty slim. For my first post I had nine months of training time to devote to devouring every piece of information I could find on Guinea (which wasn't much).  Moving to Ireland I managed to get a fair bit of reading done before I arrived. This time around I've been using my free time to do other things, like squeezing every drop of joy out of Dublin and - let's be honest here - watching television. Getting my money's worth out of the old Netflix subscription. I know, I know, I should get on it and actually crack those books on Ethiopia I got for Christmas.

However, I have managed to pick up a few interesting facts about the country I'll be calling home for the next two (or maybe three) years, which I will share with you now.
  1. Practical matters: Standard European plugs, and they drive on the right side of the road. The currency is called the birr and trades at around 20 to the dollar. You can basically only exchange them in Ethiopia. 
  2. Addis is 2300 metres above sea level, which means you can look forward to future posts on the challenges of high-altitude baking. Also, high-altitude breathing. As basically a lifelong coastal dweller this is going to be quite an adjustment for me. On the bright side, it's too high for mosquitoes so I can skip the anti-malarial meds this time. Yay!
  3. Ethiopia was never successfully colonized by any of the European colonial powers; Mussolini came the closest but only held it for 6 years. It was instead ruled until the 1970s by a succession of emperors claiming descent from the first emperor, Menelik I, said to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The last emperor, Haile Selassie I, is worshipped by Rastafarians as the second coming of Christ.
  4. There are a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia. One I am particularly looking forward to seeing is a site at Lalibela composed of 11 stone churches carved straight out of the rock.
  5. Contrary to what Steven Spielberg would have you believe, the Ark of the Covenant is not in a crate in a giant government warehouse but in a tiny town called Aksum in northern Ethiopia. It's watched over by a specially appointed guardian, who is the only person ever allowed to see it. Too bad, though that policy significantly reduces the risk of accidental instant skeletonification and turning to dust.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Malta

Another year in Ireland, another 4-day Easter weekend. (Yes, I'm a little late posting. Deal with it.) This year I spent my long weekend in Malta. I had never really thought about Malta as a tourism destination (or at all really) until last year when suddenly everyone I knew was going there and having a great time. So I went and had a great time.

Easter weekend was a great time to go: the country is very Catholic, so there's a Good Friday parade with guys dressed up like Roman centurions, but it's also highly dependent on tourism, so the bars and restaurants stay open. The food was great, the wine was cheap, and the sun was shining. Perfect.

It was a bit chilly for swimming still but the ocean views were fabulous. The water was just such a lovely blue, and the porous limestone has allowed for the creation of some cool caves you can see by boat tour and the incredibly dramatic Azure Window, below. It would have been nice to have some more time to get some hiking in and really explore, but I'm still glad to have seen it.


There's also a lot of history there, which I like because I'm a nerd. The highlights for me were the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra ruins, the remains of Neolithic burial/temple sites. They were built around the same time as Newgrange, a similar monument here in Ireland, and like Newgrange are also aligned to the rising sun on the solstices and equinoxes. The swirling decorations reminded me of Newgrange too, but more ornate. (To be fair, the Neolithic Maltese were working in limestone while their Celtic counterparts had to hack through granite.) I also enjoyed St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, a Baroque explosion of a church built by the Knights of Malta. The Knights have a fascinating story, which I only learned because I decided to go to Malta.


In short, it was a delightful weekend, marred only by the accidental acquisition of an awkward sunburn. Time well spent.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pre-Nostalgia

How can I not miss this?
As I move past the 3-months-left mark, the idea of my actually leaving Dublin starts to feel more and more real. And while I am looking forward to home leave and starting a new chapter in Addis, the swift approach of my departure date has really put into focus all the things I love about Dublin. The almost impossibly good spring weather has intensified this effect, with the (relative) warmth and sunshine providing endless opportunities to get out and see the city in its very best light.

I have entered into a kind of pre-nostalgia phase, where I feel obliged to enjoy everything extra hard because I know I won't have the opportunity much longer. Having brunch with friends, walking in the park under the cherry blossoms, watching the swans on the Grand Canal, glimpsing my favorite Dublin landmark in the distance, I feel like I should be sucking every last possible bit of happiness out of every single Dublin experience while I still can.

Of course, this doesn't actually work. In fact, the end result is to make me less happy, both by putting extra pressure on the events of everyday life not to be simply pleasant but AWESOME, and actually making me feel sad that I'll be leaving soon a dozen times a day. But I don't know that there's anything I can do about it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On the Line

At the beginning of the month I switched from American Citizen Services to Visas, where I'll be for the rest of my tour. March to May is J1 season, our busiest time for visas. Thousands of Irish college students are getting ready to spend the summer in the States, waiting tables at Irish bars in Boston or Chicago, or renting out beach umbrellas in Ocean City or Santa Barbara. And every last one of them needs a visa to do it.

I did visa interviews as part of my consular year in Conakry, but this is very different. There's the volume for starters: in Conakry I barely did 50 a week, but I'm now hitting around 150 a day. It's so much TALKING. Every day for the first week or so I didn't want to do anything after work but lie quietly in a dark room and decompress. Outside of the J1s Dublin also sees a much greater variety of visa applicants than we got in Conakry, which means you really have to know the whole range of visa regulations front to back.

This was all a little overwhelming at the beginning, but I'm starting to get into the flow now I think. Dozens and dozens of J1 interviews back to back get a little repetitive, but the applicants are all so happy and excited about the great summer they'll be having in America that I can't help but be happy and excited for them too. The fact that I'm planning my own American summer - a few weeks in Texas and an Old South road trip - doesn't hurt. I may even come across an Irish accent or two at the beach in South Carolina, and I'll know I helped get them there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Paddy's Day

Looking back over my blog posts from last year, I noticed that I had completely failed to write about St. Patrick's Day. Allow me to correct that shocking oversight.

No one loves St. Patrick's Day like Americans
Last year I celebrated like a tourist. I went into town and saw the parade, a nice event but small and subdued compared to what goes on in Chicago and New York, even when augmented by some American marching bands. And I went to Temple Bar. Well, I stood on the very edge of Temple Bar, the cobbles sticky under my feet from a weekend's worth of spilled beer. I surveyed from a distance the teeming mass of intoxicated revellers as a trio of teenage girls staggered past through a puddle of vomit, leaning on each other as they struggled to stay upright at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I decided that was quite enough of that and headed home. 

This year I'm celebrating like a Dubliner by having nice lie-in, indulging in a relaxed brunch, and staying as far away from the city center as possible. With Paddy's Day on a Tuesday this year a lot of people took Monday off as well and used the opportunity to get out of town, out of the country even, and leave Dublin to the visiting Americans who think drinking 7 euro pints of Guinness in a jam-packed pub is great craic. I'm still in town though, and having a great St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival just 10 minutes from my house, blessedly free both of overpriced Guinness and of trashed teenagers.

St. Patrick's Day is a strange holiday, the national day of Ireland but celebrated more intensely elsewhere, in places like America and Australia where Irishness has meant more for being few among many, and where St. Patrick's bringing Christianity to Ireland started to be less about Christianity and more about Ireland. (The thing about banishing the snakes is a myth, since there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with.) The transition from Catholic holy feast day to secular national holiday was pushed through mostly by emigrant populations overseas; there weren't regular Paddy's Day parades in Ireland until the 1970's, when they were adopted from the celebrations Americans had been holding for a century. St. Patrick's Day was even a dry holiday for decades in Ireland with pubs legally forced to close, as odd as that seems looking at celebrations now.

Nowadays the Irish government regularly spends St. Patrick's Day abroad, using it not as a time to celebrate with their own citizens but to promote Ireland elsewhere as an investment and tourism destination. This is especially true in America, where every year the Taoiseach uses his national day to go to Washington and present the President of the United States with a bowl of shamrock. Here in Dublin a lot of the celebrants are not Irish themselves but come from other places to be Irish for a day, even as the Irish barricade themselves in their houses or hit the road to spend their national day somewhere, anywhere else. Not just the Irish national day, it's the Irish international day, both more and less than you might imagine it to be.

But despite my cosmopolitan veneer (and intolerance for wasted teenagers) I still am a tourist deep down and I love a holiday for any reason, so here's a toast to St. Paddy's Day and Ireland and leprechauns and all that jazz. Sláinte!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Heritage

This weekend I went out to Shannon Airport to help out with a CODEL (Congressional Delegation, for those not up on the lingo). It was my first one and it was a good learning experience, especially since I will likely be handling several delegations of various kinds in my next assignment. This was a quick one and it went pretty smoothly so there's not much to say about it. In fact, the most notable thing about this trip was the pit stop halfway there, at the Barack Obama Plaza.


Some background: when Obama was running for President the first time, an enterprising historian did some research and discovered a genealogical link on Obama's mother's side to a family from Moneygall, a village of  all of 300 people in the middle of Ireland previously famed for absolutely nothing. As part of his Ireland tour in 2011 President Obama honored this connection by paying a visit to Moneygall, which was the most exciting thing to happen there pretty much ever and is forever commemorated in the big service station that was opened on the M7 outside the village last year.

In addition to a gas station, a Supermac's, and a Tim Hortons, the plaza features a visitor center with exhibits on Obama's Moneygall ancestors, Irish emigration generally, and the Presidential visit. Best quote: "My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O'bamas, and I've come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way." There's also a convenience store where you can buy the usual snacks and drinks as well as Irish Obama-themed souvenirs.

Just one more example of the enduring Irish-American connection, popping up even in places you wouldn't expect.