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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Where the History Comes From

There's a great quote by Irish columnist Earle Hitchner that I think of all the time when I'm travelling in Europe: "The difference between England and America is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way." It's true for Ireland too, except with 161 km. When I was in Co. Meath a few weeks ago for a wedding the hotel staff thought I was nuts for driving 30 WHOLE MINUTES just to see a castle. (Totally worth it.)

Even in Europe a centenary is a big deal. 2014 marks the centenary of the start of WWI, and the whole continent is holding all sorts of commemorative events. A few months ago Taoiseach Enda Kenny and UK Prime Minister David Cameron made a joint visit to Irish and UK WWI sites, which was also a big deal given the long history of prickly relations between the two countries.

But then I happened to see a banner the other day that really made the first half of that quote ring true: in 2014 Ireland is also quietly celebrating the millenary of the Battle of Clontarf, when Irish High King Brian Boru (temporarily) united the tribes of Ireland to break Viking power in Dublin. I'll say it again: the MILLENARY. One THOUSAND years. What was going on 1000 years ago in the territory that would later become the United States? We have no idea. Stuff, probably. But no one wrote it down, so we don't know. The Battle of Clontarf got written down, so we do. We even know what day it was: April 23.

By the Battle of Clontarf Ireland had had written records for 700 years. Though that's no great shakes compared to other ancient civilizations, it still seems like a long time to me. And for even older history there's the buildings: Newgrange, which I saw and was amazed by, is approximately 5200 years old - older than the Pyramids. And there's a place called Listoghil in Co. Sligo that's even older than that, one of the oldest buildings in the world.  Clontarf is peanuts compared to that.


Monday, April 7, 2014


I got tenured this weekend! Hooray! I actually found out about it informally on Saturday morning through all the congratulatory messages on Facebook, since they sent the official cable out from DC last thing on Friday afternoon. Whose idea was that? Then I discovered that the cat had chewed through my Blackberry charger AGAIN (he doesn't approve of working in off hours), so I didn't get official confirmation until Monday morning. But it's for real!

Tenuring means that I am off probation: State has looked at what I've accomplished over the last three years and decided that, yes, Meredith really is a capable, competent Foreign Service officer and we want to keep her. There's no raise, no promotion, and my job doesn't change; in practical terms all it means is that I am eligible to compete for promotion in future boards, and I can't get paid for overtime any more. Bye bye comp time! We had a good run, but those days are over. In non-practical terms, it's a relief to have this milestone safely passed, especially since we've been expecting the cable for a month now. Just about everyone gets tenured eventually, as it's designed to be less of a competitive cull than an emergency fail-safe to get rid of any obvious non-performers who somehow got hired. But I'm happy to have that box checked.

One thing I did on my first day as a tenured officer was make the completely boneheaded rookie move of skipping over an application while transmitting, so I did a whole file of them with the wrong barcode stickers before I noticed. Doh! Smooth move, I thought, really earning that trust. But they didn't tenure me because I make idiot mistakes; they tenured me because I catch them, and then care enough about bureaucratic minutiae to sit there with scissors and tape for half an hour until everything matches up like it should. Conscientiousness!

Tenuring also means that I now have just over a month to complete my first grown-up EER, on the DS-5055 for tenured officers, which places a lot more responsibility on me to detail my accomplishments as opposed to my supervisor. A month sounds like a long time, but it's not. I have to write my bit, my boss has to write his bit, HIS boss has to write his bit, and then a panel has to review it and I have to make changes based on that review. Every other tenured officer at post is doing the same thing at the same time, so it takes a while. Better get started!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

DiploSkills: Cocktail Coordination

While diplomats do not spend as much time at fancy cocktail parties as stereotypes may suggest, they are an integral part of the profession. The embassy hosted one this evening to close out our annual economic conference. This year's theme was Smart People for a Smart Economy, focusing on how government, business, and educators can work together to build tomorrow's leaders and innovators. The cocktail nibbles were provided by Good Food Ireland, an organization that cultivates and promotes high quality, artisanal, sustainable Irish food. And let me tell you, it was amazing!

The best part of cocktail parties is, of course, FREE FOOD, especially when it's as good as tonight's was. (Yes, sometimes I still think like a college student.) The most daunting part - except for trying to mingle with a room full of strangers - is juggling your food and drink in such a way as to be able to partake of both without dropping anything. Sure, you can hold your plate in one hand and your glass in the other, but that leaves zero hands left to shuttle tasty bite-sized snacks from the plate into your mouth, where they belong. And god forbid you need to pull out a business card at any point in the evening (spoiler alert: you will). One seemingly unbreakable rule of cocktail parties is that there are NEVER enough tables, so you'd better be able to hold everything at once if you want to eat. Fear not! It can be done! Here's how:

Ta da!
Hold your left hand out palm up, and slot your wine glass between the index and middle fingers. Curve the fingers just enough to hold the glass securely. Not drinking wine? Put whatever you're drinking in a wine glass anyway, as a stemmed glass is key for this maneuver.

Balance the plate on the inside of your forearm so that the heel of your hand is just inside the ridge on the bottom of the plate. This helps keep the plate from sliding down your arm or off your arm to either side. Bring your thumb up to rest against the lower rim of the plate for extra stability.

With all your victuals secured with one hand you now have your right hand free to eat food, drink wine, shake hands, procure business cards, or take pictures of the food and drink in your other hand. You know, whatever. A few words of caution: this gets harder if you overfill the plate or the glass or both, so don't go overboard. You can always go back for more. This gets harder the more glasses of wine you drink, so take it easy there tiger. You must also repress the temptation to gesticulate wildly, or at least keep it to just the one hand.

Now you're all set to be a cocktail party pro!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Lots of language links this month!
Ballad of a WiFi Hero: a modern epic
When humans die out, cockroaches will rule the Earth. What takes over when the cockroaches kick the bucket? Tardigrades.
Game of Thrones Season 4 starts April 6! Here's a 9-minute recap of the last three seasons, if your memory is fuzzy. And for the bookworms, here's a chapter from Book 6: The Winds of Winter!
Aesop's lesser fables
IBM's Watson is bored with Jeopardy and taking up cooking instead.
How can the U.S. Government save $400 million a year? Change font.

How big is the universe? I'm still not sure I can really grasp something that big, but this helps:

How Big Is The Universe? from Beakus on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Art Imitates Life. Poorly.

I recently read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, about a boy named Theo who survives a terrorist attack on a New York museum and walks out with a priceless masterpiece, which becomes the central focus of his life as he grows up and gets him into some seriously hot water later on. I thought it strained credulity in a few places and I was a little disappointed with the ending, but it was well-written and a good read overall. I also read this article about the book (no spoilers), in which the author details the uncanny similarities between the adult Theo's life and his own, and marvels at how perfectly Tartt captured the details of his particular line of work: dealing antique furniture. Quite to my surprise, towards the end of the book I also found my own very specialized trade in print. However, I was less than thrilled with Tartt's rendering of American Citizen Services.

Stranded in Amsterdam under unsavory circumstances, Theo calls the U.S. consulate and has a four-page conversation with a staff member, presumably a consular officer, about getting a replacement for a lost passport. It starts about halfway down page 711 if you have the book, or if you want to read this section in Amazon's Search Inside feature. Go ahead, I'll wait. (If you stick to pages 711-714, there are no significant plot spoilers.)

Where to begin? No, an adult does not need to present their birth certificate to renew a passport, or a driver's license or a Social Security card, though it's certainly helpful if they have them. In some cases we can process an emergency passport without any ID at all, if you had everything stolen but the clothes on your back. There's no such thing as a "passport waiver" in the sense she seems to be using. There's no chip missing from a temporary passport that would keep you from using it to travel to the United States. THAT'S WHAT THEY'RE FOR. And it absolutely does not take ten working days to process an emergency passport. We can crank one of those babies out in as little as half an hour if you have all your forms filled out and bring in everything you need the first time. I've had someone come in for a passport at 9:00am and make her 11:00am flight from the airport across town. She was pretty happy about that.

Tartt did get some things right. We will ask for a police report (though it's not mandatory) and you'll need to fill out an affidavit telling us what happened to your passport. And except for very rare, extremely serious emergencies, no one's coming in to the office to make you a passport on Christmas Day. To be fair, it did turn out to be pretty critical to the plot of the novel that Theo NOT be able to get a new passport that day, but I still would have liked to see just a little more accuracy about the process. As great as it is when a novelist gets part of your life right, it can be grating when they get it so wrong.

Friday, March 14, 2014

My First Irish Wedding

Not a bad place to nurse a hangover
This weekend I was my sister Laura's +1/chauffeur to her friends' wedding in Co. Meath, about an hour outside of Dublin. It was quite a hooley, as they say. For the occasion the couple rented out Ballymagarvey Village, a 19th-century manor house now converted into a hotel and event venue, very posh. Despite the classic Irish setting the wedding had a very modern globalized feel: the bride is Irish and the groom is Lebanese, so there was definitely some culture clashing going on. The best example I can think of is the two mothers' attire: the bride's mother wore a very proper ensemble that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Queen, with a fancy coat and matching hat. The groom's mother wore a flowing asymmetrical mauve dress studded with rhinestones, and she accessorized with hair extensions. They both looked lovely, but you'd never have guessed they were going to the same event.

But it's a wedding, and we were all there for the same reason: to wish the new couple every happiness and to drink heavily. Irish weddings do not skimp in the alcohol department, and this one was no exception. Pacing and hydration are very important! Despite some minor cultural differences, over the course of the very boozy weekend we learned that Irish bros and Lebanese bros can get happily smashed together and act like idiots in perfect harmony. World peace!

Gettin' jiggy with it
Some additional Irish flair was provided by dance performances at the reception. The first was a little Riverdance-style step dancing performance, very nice, but not unusual. The second was a group of senior citizens who performed and led the assembly in a series of folk dances while wearing weird straw cones over their faces. WHAT? These were straw boys, which the internet tells me is a wedding tradition from the northwest of Ireland, where the bride's family is from. Evidently they started out as party crashers preserving their anonymity with interesting headgear, and over time have by now morphed into entertainment troupes for hire, as strawboys' presence at a wedding is supposed to bring the couple good luck. Originally exclusively young men, the straw boys seem to have aged along with the tradition as folk dancing has fallen out of favor with today's youth.

One of the dances they did with the wedding guests was called the Siege of Ennis, which is apparently at least vaguely familiar to many of the Irish guests though the foreigners had no clue. (Not the Siege of Venice, which is what I thought I heard at the time, and which I imagined would be an extremely difficult place to besiege.) You can see it performed below, though this weekend's version looked way less organized and way more fun.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Brazargentinaguay

I have never been fond of the cold and dark, so almost as soon as I knew I'd be coming to Dublin I started thinking of ways to escape winter. Fortunately, one of the great things about the Foreign Service is having friends all over the world, and at any given time a good number of said friends are likely to be in warm sunny places. I persuaded two friends, one in Rio de Janeiro and one in Montevideo, to let me come crash with them for a few days last month. And because I wasn't going to go all the way to South America for a few days here and a few days there, I added in some solo travel time in Argentina for a a 16-day vacation extravaganza. It was fantastic.

I did a lot of things on this vacation. There was hang gliding and molecular gastronomy and hiking and a boat ride under waterfalls and museums and shopping and parties and a Carnival parade. Of all of this awesomeness Iguazu Falls may well have been the highlight of the trip: I spent almost three days there and never stopped marveling at the beauty and the sheer power of all that water. I HIGHLY recommend it.

I did a lot of nothing on this vacation as well - long luxurious hours on the beach drinking out of a coconut and watching the waves turn from aqua to teal to seafoam green as they rolled in to shore. As fun as all my activities were, the nothing time might have been the best part. I didn't realize exactly how much I had missed the sun until I walked out of the airport in Rio and was suddenly immersed in it. For days I was almost delirious with joy, drunk on sunshine as I put down a base tan and cranked out some vitamin D. I am truly made for the tropics.

Now that I'm back it might be time to start planning next year's winter escape. This was definitely a good idea.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Anonymous FSO does a great AMAA on Reddit. I had thought it might be fun to do one of these, but I'm glad someone with more insight and experience than my lowly second-tour self stepped up first. Kudos!
Speaking of FSOs, here's a great article on American Citizen Services
Have a hard time knowing when to contact your friends in other time zones? XKCD can help.
From the Art Meets Science Files, here's a portrait of Stephen Fry made from his own bacteria.
Also, what musicians can tell us about dyslexia
The psychology of fonts
Facebook of the Dead: a thoughtful essay on how we handle death online and why it matters.
Why do we do things now we know will hurt us later? Because we think of our future selves as strangers.
What qualified as a frightening dystopic future in 1908? A (detailed and hilarious) bar full of women.
So excited for the next season of Game of Thrones! Here's the trailer and a featurette for Season 4 to get you in the mood.

FAO Schwartz employees class up the joint with a little Bach. Who says kids don't like culture?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

On the Road Again

This week I had the chance to mix things up a little with a 3-day consular outreach trip to counties Kerry and Cork. While the day-to-day demands of consular work keep me in the office most of the time, we took advantage of a mid-term break in the Irish schools to take our show on the road.

While most adults can renew their passports by mail, by law all minors must appear in person with their parents before a consular officer. For our clients this normally means piling the whole family in the car or on the train, traveling several hours to Dublin, and possibly paying to stay overnight if there's not enough time to get there and back in a day. Not the most convenient thing in the world. So, at least once a year, we head out to one of the more distant parts of the island to take applications, do notary services, and answer questions for our American citizens. The consular officer comes to them for a change. It was a whirlwind trip, and I think a very successful one. We got a lot of work done and everyone was very pleased to see us. I only wish we had the time and the staff to do these more often.

In addition to being my first consular road trip, it was my first time driving on the left side of the road. I was more than a little nervous about this, but it turned out not to be as big a deal as I was afraid it would be. When there are other cars around you can use them to figure out where you're supposed to be, and when there aren't any other cars around it doesn't much matter. The hardest part for me was sitting on the right side of the car; all of my instincts on where mirrors and shifters are were completely wrong, and I kept drifting left in the lane because I'm so used to being on the other side. Driving a giant boat of a sedan did not help, especially on Kerry's narrow winding roads. But in 12 hours of drive time I only clipped a mirror once, so I'm willing to call that a win.

Now that I know I can drive in Ireland without unduly endangering myself and others, I'm thinking of taking more road trips for fun. The downside of all this productivity was not really getting to see anything but paperwork, hotel rooms, and vague blurs of passing scenery through the windshield: a shame, because there's so much more worth seeing.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pesce out of Agua

We're taking a little break from my usual inane descriptions of life in Dublin, because I'm on vacation. In South America! Looks like I picked a perfect time to go, because the news out of Ireland is all flooding and gale force winds, while I've been sipping cocktails on the beach under perfect cloudless skies. My life is so hard. There will be pictures later for those of you who have interest in such things.

It occurred to me today that this is the first time in ages I've been on vacation someplace where the official language is something besides either French or English, or functional enough to make it seem that way. (That's right Iceland, I mean you.) It's been interesting. I speak no Portuguese aside from the obligatory obrigada. While it's hard to spend your youth in Texas without picking up any Spanish at all, I've never taken a class in it. I speak waitress Spanish, which essentially consists of nouns related to food and serving (la carne, los cubiertos), a small range of verbs in first person singular present tense (necesito, quiero, tengo), and an assortment of words not appropriate for polite company. I can also count to ten.

So I'm currently making my way through Brazil and Argentina with my pathetic grasp of Spanish, not infrequently mixed up with the smattering of Italian I learned a few years ago for grad school, and failing that, either French spoken Spanishly or words that sound like they belong to one Romance language or another but that I probably just made up on the spot. It's ugly, but it's mostly getting the job done.  Thank god for that. Communication is good. Even just crossing the Brazil/Argentina border and switching into Spanish has been such a relief - even if my speaking still sucks at least the comprehension is better. And when it all falls apart there's usually someone around who speaks English, the Most Useful Language in the World.

I have nebulous plans for a number of Eastern European trips to tackle while I'm living in the neighborhood, though after this experience I don't know how I'll manage in a linguistic environment where I don't even have two words to rub together. I guess there's always pointing and hand gestures, and probably English too.