Houston, TX: Washington, DC: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:

Friday, November 6, 2015

DiploSkills: Do You Speak Multilateral?

Mental Floss had a good article not too long ago on the quirks of "EU English", a variant of English with some unusual grammar and vocabulary which comes from speakers of dozens of languages in the European Union all trying to get together to make decisions. Some of the examples were new to me but many I had seen before, including at my new job at the African Union. "Planification" is a classic, sure to come up when dealing with native French speakers.

But there are other things not on the Mental Floss list that also seem to exist only in the language of multilateralism. My favorite example shows up at the end of almost every declaration by an international organization when the body announces its intention to "remain seized of" an issue. Every time I read this I can't help but imagine an entire council chamber of people simultaneously collapsing on the floor in spasms. In fact it just means "continue to pay attention to" whatever it is they're talking about. Here's William Safire on the phrase. I also like "domesticate", which in multilateralspeak has nothing to do with animals but means "adopt and implement an internationally-agreed policy in one's home country."

Some of these quirky usages make my inner grammar nazi want to scream, but then my inner second-language learner smothers said grammar nazi with a pillow. Operating professionally in a non-native language is incredibly difficult, as I am inevitably reminded every single time I want to say something reasonably intelligent in French. Also, international organizations deal with issues that don't often come up in other venues, so if inventing a word like "actorness" helps get the job done, by all means let's have it! 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Grocery Run

All last week I was in Johannesburg for an energy seminar. I learned a lot, met some great people, and explored the city. But mostly I ate. I haven't been away from the miraculous foodscape of the first world for long enough to feel really deprived, but I knew I had to take advantage of what I had while I had it. I ate meltingly tender steak and sushi and microgreen salads. I had ostrich and shrimp and peri-peri chicken. I had an amazing 10-course tasting menu at Cube with dishes called things like "Alien vs. Predator" and "#chefslife". And thanks to the weak rand (currently 13 to the dollar) I ate like a queen and couldn't believe how cheap it all was.

The Haul
And then it was time to go home, but not before I did some grocery shopping. Just a tiny little bit. Okay, I pretty much looted the produce section and the cheese aisle. It's late spring in South Africa so there were all kinds of delicious fruits and vegetables ripe and in season. The cheese situation in Addis is pretty dire. (One point for Conakry - former French colonies can always be counted on for good bread and cheese.)  And then at the airport I scooped up a few more bottles of wine at the duty-free and a dozen beef filets (2 for $10!) and some biltong because I was in South Africa and that's just what one buys there. The zebraskin rugs were also pretty tempting, but my arms were starting to hurt by that point. One of my favorite diplomatic perks is that customs officials aren't allowed to go through our suitcases, which makes it way easier to do international food runs.

With my loot safely home, I spent pretty much all afternoon yesterday blanching mushrooms and trimming asparagus and slicing peaches, placing it all tenderly, reverently, into a ridiculous number of plastic bags, which I will guard in my freezer like a hoard of priceless jewels. I know that, someday in the not-too-distant future, I will really want some raspberries or some broccolini, and on that day I will pull the appropriate packet triumphantly from the freezer and HAVE SOME, and it will be sweet. I get excited about food pretty much all the time, but there's nothing like scarcity to make me really appreciate simple things like gouda or salad greens.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Foreign Service Christmas

I love Christmas. All of them. There's the Christmas you normally think of; there's Ethiopian Christmas, which I will discuss in detail at the appropriate time (January); and then there's Foreign Service Christmas, which I am celebrating now.

Foreign Service Christmas is the day your personal effects finally get delivered to your house at your new post. You get to open dozens and dozens of boxes all at the same time - big ones - and it doesn't matter that all of the contents are things you previously owned because you haven't seen them in months (or in the case of long-term language training or a PSP tour, years) so it still kind of feels like a surprise. Also, you're pretty much guaranteed to like everything you get because you picked it all out. At any rate, if you do open a box to find an ugly ill-fitting sweater there's no one but yourself to blame.

It's all for me!
I am especially delighted by this Foreign Service Christmas because I've been getting by from suitcases and the welcome kit for six weeks now, which is a personal record. Everything so far has arrived undamaged and in one piece, even my piñata! I am only slightly disappointed that the delivery I thought was my UAB (air shipment) and my HHE (general personal effects) turned out to be my UAB and my consumables shipment instead. That means that most of my stuff remains firmly in the clutches of Ethiopian customs for an undetermined period of time. But it's okay, because tonight I can celebrate with a frosty Purple Haze and sleep in my very own sheets, and tomorrow morning I don't have to get up early and feed the cat because his autofeeder will do it for me. This is much, much better than my situation this morning. I am happy.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wenchi Crater Lake

My first trip outside Addis was an embassy-organized excursion to Wenchi Crater Lake, about 4 hours' drive from the city. The caldera of an extinct volcano now has a lake in the middle with waterfalls and hot and cold springs, and the views are lovely. Almost 30 of us went on a 5-hour tour down from the rim of the caldera, around through a lush spring-fed valley, across the lake to an island in the middle with a monastery on it, over to the other side of the lake for lunch, and back up top to head home.

There were horses available for most of the way (except a tricky section where the road was washed out) but I walked the 10 km down to the lake. If a six-year-old could do it, so could I, and it's tough to take good pictures from horseback. Up was a different story: at this point in my altitude adjustment I can handle one flight of stairs without falling apart but two is still a challenge, so I was not about to try a 1.5-hour upward climb. Not that my unathletic self would have tried it at sea level either. Yay for knowing my limitations!

The scenery was lovely, dramatic and green from the end of the rainy season. I learned some things about the local area too. The springs there are the source for Ambo, a popular water brand named for the nearest town. Over 2000 people live in and around the crater growing barley and ensete on the steep slopes. A great trip!

Friday, October 2, 2015


Sunday was Meskel, a big Christian holiday which celebrates the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helen. This is not a story I learned in my Presbyterian Sunday school, so here's the tale as told mostly by Wikipedia:

Helen, or Eleni as she is known locally, was the mother of Emperor Constantine, of Constantinople fame. While on pilgrimage to Jerusalem she dreamt that building a bonfire would reveal the location of the crosses Jesus and the two theives had been crucified on, which had been buried and lost. This she duly did, and the column of smoke from the fire curved down and touched the ground at the place the crosses were buried. In order to figure out which of the three was the True Cross, a deathly ill woman touched each in turn until she was miraculously healed. After that the True Cross was apparently hacked to bits by religious souvenir hunters as there are pieces of it kept as relics in churches all over the place, including Ethiopia.

The celebration of Meskel is a big deal here in Addis. There's a big religious procession in Meskel Square, in the center of town. I didn't make it out there this year but I was lucky enough to get to see the practice session a few days before. Here's a short clip:

Untitled from Meredith Cheerfulstoic on Vimeo

Another key part of the festivities is the building and lighting of bonfires, called demera. There's a big one in Meskel square but also smaller ones all over the place set up by families or neighborhoods for their own celebrations. They are traditionally decorated with small yellow daisies known as Meskel flowers and set alight as part of a feast with music and dancing. I went to one with some friends and it was a lot of fun. I sampled some homemade tej, or honey wine, attempted some Ethiopian dances (much to the amusement of the assembled guests), and carried a torch to help light the fire. I love holidays!

Demera before

Demera after

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Kid on the Block


Confused yet? Me too. I'm mostly through with the check-in paperwork and getting started with actual work, or at least orientation to actual work. Meeting people, background reading, trying to figure out who's who and what's what, what's important and what it all means. What I'm going to be doing with my time for the next two or three years. 

I hate this part, the feeling like an idiot part. It's one of the drawbacks of the Foreign Service life, starting over from zero every couple of years. But it's normal, and it's temporary. I just have to read the reports and talk to the experts and push on through until the day when it all starts to come together. And to have faith that, eventually, it will. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Happy New Year!

Yesterday Ethiopia celebrated Enkutatash, the beginning of a new year. Ethiopia has its own calendar with twelve 30-day months and five (or six, in a leap year) extra days that make a thirteenth "month". They also have different calculations as to when exactly Christ died, so as far as Ethiopia is concerned we have just entered the year 2008. 

Celebrations are mainly a private family affair, but it was easy to see the preparations on every corner. Vendors sold bundles of a sweet-smelling grass to scatter on the floor, and shepherds escorted herds of goats and sheep through the city for sale as holiday feasts. All the big shops had banners up to celebrate, and I even got a nice text from the local telecom.

In keeping with tradition I spent my New Year's Day at home with my family (aka the cat). Except for an hour or so after I learned the hard way that my front door locks automatically. Oops. The first couple of weeks at a new post are always challenging as you learn to adapt to your new surroundings, but between the door incident and a small microwave-related fire a few days ago this may be my toughest transition yet. But as my father always says, it's a good thing I'm tough. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

Hello Addis! The Jabberwock and I both made it safely. There was a small hiccup with his flight reservation and for a while I was worried we might not make it, but a little "ah sure it'll be grand" at the airport saw us through just fine.

With a 7-hour time difference there's a bit of jet lag to get through. And at 7500 feet, some minor altitude sickness as well. Nothing compared to what happens in Lima La Paz I'm sure, but I can definitely feel my delicate sea-level lungs struggling to extract oxygen from the thin mountain air. I get winded from a single flight of stairs. Even just walking around feels different, harder. This must be what being old is like. I hope it doesn't last too long.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: The Amazing Old South Road Trip

Home leave is for a lot of things: eating, shopping, seeing family and friends. But the real reason FSOs have 4+ weeks of paid home leave between assignments is to get reacquainted with America after years of living overseas, to strengthen our bond with the country we represent professionally every day. To this end (and also because I enjoy it) I try to use at least part of my home leave to get out and see America. Last time I went to Yellowstone, which was awesome. This time I was buying a car to take to Ethiopia with me, so I thought why not take a leisurely drive through the South on the way to DC? And I did, with my sister Beth along for company. It was amazing.

Over the course of 2 weeks I drove my spunky new car Ruby more than 2,000 miles with stops in New Orleans, Natchez, Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Asheville, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and many smaller breaks along the way. I danced to a swing version of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." I saw an alligator eat marshmallows. I toured Native American ceremonial mounds. I ran my fingers through the water at the Civil Rights Memorial. I felt the rain dripping off the Spanish moss on the live oaks in Savannah. I stood on Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. I soaked in a hot tub surrounded by forest. I bought buckwheat flour ground on a restored frontier water wheel mill. I heard a hymn played on stalactites. It was amazing.

And I ate. Oh god, did I eat. Shrimp and grits. Biscuits and gravy. Po'boys and hush puppies. Bread pudding and buttermilk pie. Pancakes and hash browns. At least three varieties of barbecue.  Fresh peaches dripping with sweetness. Fried chicken until I could burst. Modern haute cuisine and traditional fare. Fine dining and "meat and three" from styrofoam boxes. It was amazing.

If you but mention the words "road trip" to me I will tell you all about it in enthusiastic and *exhaustive* detail, but if you don't have time for that check out the map with some of the places we went and things we saw along the way. It was, in case you haven't gotten it yet, amazing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Tastes of Texas

There are many things I've been enjoying about being home in Texas, but the food is definitely one of my favorite parts. Here are some things I've been eating lately:

Mixed fajitas with all the trimmings from Pappasito's

Grilled figs wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with goat cheese and jalapeños, by me and Mom

Meltilicious cabrito from Hugo's

Kolaches: the ultimate breakfast pastry, from Mornings Kolaches

Dr Pepper bread pudding from The Hay Merchant
Burn-your-fingers-hot tamales from Hot Tamales
Cupcake sundae from Crave
The best BBQ I've ever tasted, from Killen's

Spring rolls and peanut sauce from Huynh
Not pictured:  fried asparagus with crab from Perry's, souvlaki sandwich from Niko Niko's, deluxe enchiladas from Chuy's, fried avocado tacos from Torchy's, smoked pork loin by Dad, and so, so much more. God I love Texas.