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

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.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Things That Have Surprised Me About America

As Ireland is pretty similar to the U.S. in most respects, adjusting to the home front hasn't been the massive reverse culture shock it was last time. However, because they're so similar, the differences I have noticed have been all the more striking for being unexpected. A brief list:

  1. Climate/control: Having spent the last two years in a place where the temperature difference between a winter's night and a summer's day just really isn't that big, now being back in Texas I am constantly finding myself too hot or too cold. Of course I had expected to melt under the unaccustomed sweaty heat of a Texas summer, but I did not expect to be so thrown off by the arctic blast of the air conditioning employed to combat it. 
  2. Free samples at grocery stores: I remembered that American grocery stores are much, much larger and more intensely stocked than their Irish counterparts, but the smorgasbord of free samples completely slipped my mind. And not just plastic trays of cubes of cantaloupe with toothpicks, but chips and salsa tasting bars and vendor reps passing out hot sausages  and sliders and doing "cooking" demonstrations to sell this, that, or the other consumer product. (Also, bags are free and people will put your groceries in the bags for you!)
  3. Stop signs: Granted, I never did that much driving in Ireland, but I don't remember there being so many stop signs all over the place. There were yield signs for when a small road met a bigger road and roundabouts for a meeting of equals. Now driving around in the suburbs I keep being ambushed by 4-way stop signs in places one (or at least I) wouldn't expect them to be. I may have accidentally missed one or two here and there. Oops. 
  4. The Internet: Yes, they have internet in Ireland, but it's not quite as developed there. Yelp is nowhere near as comprehensive and Dublin *just* got OpenTable. Now I come home to find that stores will email your receipts to you instead of printing them, you can buy coffee with your phone, and smart appliances are not just in Popular Science but possibly coming soon to my parents' house. It's like the future!*
  5. Mosquitoes: ITCHY! Time to make bug spray a habit again. 



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

All Hail the Mighty State



The above is the real actual official Texas state song. Some of you might think it's perhaps a bit over the top, especially around "O empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest." I might sometimes be inclined to agree, but not right now. Right now I'm so happy to be back home in Texas and I love everything about it.

I love the sunshine and the big blue sky. I love Tex-Mex and BBQ. I love peaches from the farmers' market and figs from a neighbor's tree. I love watching the bats come out from under the Waugh St. Bridge. I love riding around Mom's neighborhood in her golf cart. I love the grills shaped like longhorns and the flags and barn stars everywhere you look. I love drinking coffee on the back deck and watching the water birds on the canal. I love kayaking on the lake under cooling rain. I love the drowsy drone of cicadas. I love hearing people say "y'all" multiple times a day.

It's so good to be home. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Slán Go Fóill

Tomorrow I get on a plane and leave Ireland. I am feeling so many things at the same time.

I am excited to get back to Texas, to see my family and friends, who I have not been in the same time zone with for far too long. I am hungry for the tastes of home: fajitas and brisket and kolaches are so close I can smell them and I cannot wait to sink my teeth in. I am daunted by the amount of money that will slip though my fingers in the next two months. Between consumables and clothes shopping and vacation expenses and buying a car I am about to part with a phenomenal amount of cash, to my long-term benefit but short-term consternation. I am eager to get to Ethiopia, to start a new job, new chapter, new challenge, new life. I am worried that I may not meet high expectations when I get there. I am ready for some relaxing vacation time, and overwhelmed by the list of things still to do before I leave America again.

But mainly I am already pre-missing Ireland so much it hurts. The weather has been just perfect for most of the last few weeks, and it's hard to believe I won't be able to bike down to walk on the Great South Wall anymore. It hasn't really sunk in that I have had my last lobster hash at Whitefriar Grill, my last pork belly and scotch eggs at L. Mulligan Grocer. Everywhere there are ads for concerts and festivals and shows and events that I won't be here for, and it just seems wrong. It seems unreal that all those Ireland trips I hadn't quite gotten around to yet will remain undone. I have a lot to look forward to in other places, but I don't want to leave.

As one might expect from a country with a long painful history of emigration and a rich musical heritage, there are many, many sad songs about leaving Ireland. I'll take my leave with a new version of an old favorite. And unlike the emigrants of old, I can always come back someday. So for my goodbye I'll just say slán go fóill, see you later. One day, I will.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I. Hate. Moving. So. Much.

Moving is just the worst thing ever. EVER. I've done this a couple of times by now; you'd think I'd be getting good at it. You'd be wrong.

My pre-packing turns out to have been rather amateur; some important things like my checkbook (which I will need in Houston to buy a car) and my yellow card (which I will need to enter Ethiopia) are in boxes somewhere instead of in the suitcase pile where they need to be. Oops. These are not unsolvable problems, but they create extra work and stress that I could have saved myself with just a little more forethought.

Meanwhile, I leave Ireland for good in two days and I feel like I am making zero progress on all the little things that need to be done before I get on that plane. I packed out last week, but found out today that my air freight shipment is overweight and needs to be altered or paid for. Yesterday I took the cat to the vet and got his health cert, and in so doing discovered that I have every single piece of paper related to his health and moving history EXCEPT his most recent rabies vaccination cert, which is of course the one I need. His vet in Houston made me a new one but they can't get it to me because they don't have a scanner, so Mom has to go pick it up and email it to me. I love you Mommy! I got my house cleaned today at outrageous expense to be nice for the new tenants, but now I have to figure out how to pay the cleaners since they don't take credit cards and I closed my Irish bank account last week. All of these things are supposed to be checked off my to-do list by now but for one reason or another they remain stubbornly unchecked.

Not panicking, not quite yet, but definitely feeling a little overwhelmed. Does it get better? By the next move, or the move after that, will I have enough skill and experience for things to be smoother, calmer? Or, as I expect/fear, is it total chaos every single time? Can I at least hope to reach some kind of moving zen state, where having to get my orders amended AGAIN no longer drives me to distraction? Remind me again: WHY do I do this every 2 years?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Denesting

The movers came, and the movers went.

What was my home just this morning is now a hollow shell, haunted by the shades of things no longer there. Ghosts of paintings hang on empty nails. Memories of books rest on empty shelves, their outlines still traced in the dust. I swerve to avoid the cat scratcher that is no longer in the hallway. Closet doors hang agape as if to show off the nothing within. The living room - white walls, white ceiling, white furniture - has seemed to double in size with nothing left to look at but the sheer blank space. Cat fur tumbleweeds roll across the newly rugless floor, adding a lonely ghost town flavor of their own.

I sleep in a bed redressed with thin welcome kit sheets and a duvet too long for its cover. It is not my bed anymore. Post-shower I dry off with scratchy too-small welcome kit towels. I eat a pathetic takeout dinner with a flimsy welcome kit fork and sip tea from a nondescript welcome kit mug, both pulled from the plastic tub that squats where my butcher block table used to be. These things are not my things. I do not like them, and they do not like me. 

My meagre remaining possessions - two suitcases worth, and a carry-on - are dwarfed by the palpable emptiness around them. I feel suddenly like a squatter, camping out in a place that doesn't belong to me. Because it doesn't belong to me. I just made a home here for a while, feathering a little nest in among the rented house and the government-issue furniture. And now my nest is in 99 cardboard boxes on their way to the port, to Antwerp, to Djibouti, to Addis. 

I really am leaving. This isn't my home anymore. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dublin Underground

With my departure date increasingly imminent I've been using my dwindling weekends to revisit favorite haunts and to check off some last items from my Dublin bucket list. One of those, which I visited last weekend, was St. Michan's church in Smithfield. It's one of the oldest churches in Dublin, founded in 1095, but the building has been rebuilt and remodelled a number of times. The current incarnation is not much to look at. Cromwellian and crumbling, it's mainly bare wood beams and cracking plaster.

The main draw is the crypts underneath the church, which you can only visit on tours held at very limited hours, which is one reason it took me so long to do this. One of the vaults holds a set of four spontaneous mummies, at least 600 years old but still with skin and clothing intact under the shroud of centuries of dust. The weren't specially preserved like Egyptian mummies, and in the damp of Dublin no one is entirely sure why these corpses resisted decay. Some theories involve the thickness of the crypt walls providing a constant temperature, the limestone sucking up moisture, and natural preservatives from the leaves of the oak forest that used to stand there somehow permeating the bodies. But no one knows for sure.

They've been a tourist attraction since at least Victorian times, when hardcore Romantics in search of thrills and chills could descend unescorted into the crypts and see the mummies by the flicker of candlelight. Even now, with a tour guide and electric lighting, the gaping jaws of the mummies and the piles of dusty caskets are pretty damn spooky. The guide said the vaults of St. Michan's were one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker's Dracula, and I can well believe it. Taking photos in the crypts is not permitted, but there are a couple on the website if you want to take a look.

One mummy, known as "the Crusader," (though not old enough to really have been one) has one hand propped up a bit, and it became traditional for visitors to give him a hearty handshake. He's lost a couple of fingers since then so handshakes are no longer encouraged, but if you're bold enough and your tour guide is in an accommodating mood you can brush his hand lightly, a gentle hello across the centuries. This I duly did, and any lingering tingle in my finger was, I'm sure, entirely psychosomatic.

If this sounds a little too intense you can always stick to the crypts in Christchurch, which hold a mummified cat and rat. The story goes that the cat chased the rat into a pipe of the church organ, where they both got stuck. (Presumably this was a little-used note, as they both must have been there for quite some time before anyone noticed.) They are both now immortalized under glass for the enjoyment of gawking tourists.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Things I Will Never Understand About Ireland

I have learned an awful lot about Ireland in the last two years, especially considering the state of woeful ignorance I was in before I arrived. However, there are still some things about this place I still do not, and probably never will, fully understand.
  1. Separate Hot and Cold Water Taps: this plumbing arrangement is perfect for those times when, while washing your hands, you want to inflict third-degree burns on one of them and frostbite on the other. In other words, NEVER. Who thought this would be a good idea? And now that we've all learned through painful practical experience that it is in fact NOT a good idea, why are sinks still set up this way? Speaking of plumbing perplexities, this brings us to:
  2. The Immersion Heater: There's this strange contraption in my house, as in all houses in Ireland, called the immersion. I am given to understand that it works in some kind of symbiotic relationship with the boiler system that heats the rooms, and that I can use it to augment my hot water supply in times of need without wasting too much extra energy. Great. But the precise settings and lead time needed to do this effectively vary with the temperature of the house, the phases of the moon, Ireland's current standings in the Six Nations, and possibly some other variables I have not yet discovered. I do take some comfort from the fact that Irish people also seem not to have fully figured this one out.
  3. Brown Sauce: Any order of chips (not crisps) at a pub or not-too-fancy restaurant will inevitably come with a red packet of ketchup and a mysterious brown packet that says, simply, "brown sauce." What is this brown sauce? It is, self-evidently, a sauce that is brown, but where does it come from? What is it made of? There are never any ingredients listed. The packet does not encourage any inquiry into the origins or composition of its contents. You're just supposed to dump the stuff on your chips and eat it without asking any nosy questions you may not really want to know the answers to. 
  4. Country Speed Limits: When navigating precariously down a steep, winding, intermittently-paved country lane that is just wide enough to barely squeeze one car through and yet is still somehow a two-way street, it is not uncommon to see a sign sternly warning that you must not exceed 80 kilometres per hour (50mph). No one in their right mind would be taking that tenuous track at even half that speed, so it hardly seems worth the effort of putting up signs. And yet, there they are.
  5. Catholicism: Having been raised mainstream Protestant, there's a lot I don't know about the theology and practice of Catholicism, and my occasional casual encounters with it often leave me baffled. I was recently introduced to St. Medard when a coworker buried a statue of him in order to prevent rain on her daughter's wedding day. (It didn't work.) My Irish grandmother once told me that it's St. Joseph you're supposed to bury, upside down, but that's to help sell a house. Attending a performance of John B. Keane's Moll occasioned some frantic intermission googling to figure out what on earth a "mass card" is and why the priests' housekeeper in the play was selling them on commission. (It's a request for a priest to say mass for a particular person, and selling them is apparently now frowned upon.) Catholicism is so ingrained in Irish culture that I keep bumping into references to it that make me say, "wait, what?" 
  6. Ah Sure It'll Be Grand: In my experience, the Irish have a deep-rooted pessimistic streak, always expecting something to go wrong. Good times never last and bad times never end. If it's not raining today then it'll rain tomorrow, and if it is raining it'll keep on raining, you know yourself. (Of course, given how often it rains in Ireland, this is usually true.) They are also some of the most optimistic people I have ever met. This contradiction is perfectly embodied in "ah sure it'll be grand", the ultimate Irish saying, which you can find emblazoned on mugs, Tshirts, and a zillion other things available for purchase on every street in Dublin city center. Sometimes baseless but almost never disputed, it means, in short, that while the situation may be going arseways somehow it'll all work out all right in the end, so it will. As a full-on dedicated pessismist I don't know that I'll ever quite get the hang of this.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Kittyversary

Today is the 5-year anniversary of the day I adopted my precious kitty Jabberwocky. Or he adopted me, whatever. I don't know that I've ever told the whole story of how we got together, so I will do so now.

How could I resist?
I was seized with a burning desire to adopt a cat after the death of my previous kitty, a Siamese who technically belonged to my mother but really bonded with me. And I knew I would be joining the Foreign Service soon, and I wanted someone to be excited when I came home from work. A cat seemed easier than a husband.

So I did some googling and found the Virginia Siamese Cat Rescue Center. These people are serious about cats. There was an extensive application process. I had to give character references; they did call the references. Next there was a phone interview, during which we discussed my previous pet-owning experience and my ability to appropriately care for a feline companion. They had some concerns about the whole FS situation, but I was eventually pre-approved.

Pre-approved means you can check out the website and make inquiries about individual cats. Then you have another phone interview with the kitty's foster parent to determine whether you are a good fit for this particular cat. Weeks went by and I got nowhere. One cat had allergies and needed to have good vet access. Another one I liked was six, which was thought to be too old to adapt to my "extreme lifestyle." One freaked out after more than 10 minutes in a carrier. My prospects were not looking good. And then I found The One. That's his kitten photo on the right. How's that for adorable?

His Excellency, Diplocat Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
The Jabberwock was picked up as a stray at about 9 months old, abandoned by his previous owners, and would have been euthanized if the rescue center hadn't had space for him. On the way to his foster home the car he was in got in a pretty serious accident. His carrier was flung to the back of the van and basically destroyed, but he emerged unscathed and completely unfazed by the experience. By god, this was a Foreign Service cat.

And now he's my Foreign Service cat. We've lived in 3 countries together so far, with #4 coming up this fall. He's been through 3 transatlantic flights, a 2-week walkabout, and some interesting veterinarians, and come through it all like a champion. And he really does get excited when I come home from work. He's the perfect kitty for me.

Coincidentally, June is National Adopt a Cat Month, so if you have a feline-shaped hole in your life that needs filling, consider looking for your new furry buddy at a shelter or rescue organization. Then you too can be as happy as Jabberwocky and me.