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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Consular Work, 1914

I've been learning a lot about World War One this year. This is probably for the best, as my history teachers in school were always running behind and so desperate to cram everything in before the end of the school year that they just muttered something vague about trench warfare and mustard gas before moving on to WWII. On the centenary of its beginning, The Great War has been getting a lot of attention here in Europe, with commemoration ceremonies and documentaries on TV and such.

But one of my favorite sources for knowledge on The War to End All Wars has been Mental Floss, which is running a blog series detailing the action as it happened, 100 years delayed. This week's edition includes a section on the plight of U.S. citizens living the good life abroad who suddenly found themselves in a war zone, which I find particularly fascinating as an American Citizen Services officer. 

In the words of Henry van Dyke, U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands: 
I never had any idea, before the war broke out, how many of our countrymen and countrywomen there are roaming about Europe every summer, and with what a cheerful trust in Providence and utter disregard of needful papers and precautions some of them roam! There were old men so feeble that one’s first thought on seeing them was: “How did you get away from your nurse?”… There were college boys who had worked their way over and couldn't find a chance to work it back. There were art-students and music-students whose resources had given out. There was a very rich woman, plastered with diamonds, who demanded the free use of my garage for the storage of her automobile. When I explained that, to my profound regret, it was impossible… she flounced out of the room in high dudgeon.
Having now experienced a full summer tourist season of ACS work, nothing in the above paragraph surprises me at all. One hundred years later, some of our countrymen and countrywomen are STILL roaming around Europe with a cheerful trust in Providence and utter disregard of needful papers and precautions. That's makes for job security I guess, but I thank my lucky stars that another World War seems highly unlikely to break out while I'm on duty in Ireland. (Knock on wood.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Once More Unto the Breach

Well, here we are again. It's bidding time.

My last two rounds of bidding were for what are known as "directed tours." This means that the list comes out, you express your preferences through one mechanism or another, and then an assignment panel will choose your next post. You may not always be happy with the results, but at least the process itself is relatively quick and straightforward: from the day the list comes out to the day you know your fate is a little over a month, so you can just get it done and move on with your life.

This time, as a fully-fledged tenured officer, it's time to put on my big girl pants and bid with the grownups. This process is more like applying for a regular job: the list comes out, you research the positions, send in resumes, have interviews, get references, and try to figure out who you know who knows somebody with the pull to get you that dream job. A special code has grown up around the process to describe the intricacies of this mating dance: 360s, core bids, fair share, handshakes, air kisses, shoot-outs. The whole procedure takes over three months at a minimum, and can be much longer if you aren't successful in landing a job in the first round.

As usual with bidding, I am excited, and I am not excited. It's always a thrill to think about where I could end up next, and there are some jobs on the list that seem like they could be really great options for me - if only I can snag one. Everyone I've talked to seems to have their own thoughts and strategies for midlevel bidding, but no one has ever characterized the process as being anything short of hellacious. And since my last competitive job-finding process (5 years ago, before I joined the FS) did not go particularly smoothly, I am worried I may wind up somewhere I don't really want to be, doing something I don't really want to do. The only guarantee is months of stress and uncertainty while it all gets hashed out. *sigh*

But I don't really have a choice about it, so let's do this thing!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

The Tree of 40 Fruit - very cool, but somehow he passed over the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Maybe next time.
The CIA style guide - solid writing tips with just a soup├žon of snark. I love it.
Weird things hanging out in space: bonsai tree, flower arrangement, geckos joining the 50-mile high club. Still no sperm whales, petunias uncertain.
Why I'm always in the slowest checkout line: this article says it's all math, but I'm pretty sure I'm cursed.
Here's what your favorite alcoholic beverages look like under a microscope.
You know something's really catching on when people feel a need to start regulating it. For example, robots.
Sudoku comic strip
"Secrets of the Creative Brain" - a fascinating longread on the blurry lines between creativity and mental illness
SmartyPins - a new game for everyone who's bored with GeoGuessr
The fine folks at Wired have outdone themseleves this month with their Absurd Creatures of the Week. Check out the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko (yes, that's its real name); the lamprey, a marine parasite/medieval snack with a mouth like Shai-Hulud; and a shrimp with weaponized bubbles almost as hot as the surface of the sun. True facts, y'all.

I'm sure most of you have already seen and loved this, but if not, enjoy it now:


Sunday, July 27, 2014

My Dublin Fives

I'm coming up on the halfway mark of my time in Ireland (already!?) and I'm ready to render my verdict on Dublin. Last time around I did a top ten love/hate for Conakry, but that was really a bit much, so I'm going to stick with five from now on.

Top Five Things I Love About Dublin:
  1. English - Being posted in an English-speaking country is SO EASY. My French wasn't bad, but it wasn't good enough that using it didn't add at least a little extra level of difficulty and stress to every single interaction. Irish English and American English have some differences and communication isn't always seamless, but it's still so easy it almost feels like cheating.
  2. Easy Travel - God bless Ryanair. Sure, flying with them can be less than pleasant sometimes, but they will get you direct to dozens of great places in Europe and nearby for a non-exorbitant amount of money. I can just pop over to Latvia for a weekend, nbd. Travel within Ireland is easy peasy too. Having a car is probably the best way to see the country as a whole, but buses and trains will get you a lot of great places too. 
  3. The Food - When I heard I was moving to Dublin people said "I hope you like beef stew and potatoes and greasy fried stuff, because that's all there is." They were so, so wrong. Dublin is totally a foodie town. Yes, there is beef stew and potatoes and fried stuff, and a lot of it is excellent, but there's also great produce and sushi and Thai food and French wine bars and all kinds of other delicious dining options. Grocery stores have everything. EVERYTHING! (Except queso fresco and fresh tomatillos, but what do you expect?)
  4. Places to Go and Things to Do - Dublin is a compact city but there is always a lot going on. Bars and clubs and sports events and concerts and art shows and live theater and all kinds of classes and whatever else you could want to spend your free time on, it's all here. They even have roller derby! If you aren't filling your every waking non-work hour with some kind of event or activity it's only because you choose not to. 
  5. Car-Free Lifestyle - I have always considered a car a necessary evil. They are expensive to buy and maintain and are always causing trouble at inconvenient moments. I don't have one here, and I love it. I live a 15-minute walk to work, 10 minutes to the grocery store. Downtown is accessible via foot, bicycle, taxi, or multiple public transportation options. The only reason a kidless person like myself really needs a car is for road trips outside of Dublin, and just for that it's simpler and cheaper just to rent. (Or find a car owning-friend who wants to go too!)
Top Five Things I Hate About Dublin:
  1. €€€€ - Things are so expensive here. €5 for a pint at the pub, €10 or more for a cocktail. A decent meal out with a glass of wine can easily come up to €40-50 a person. Groceries are expensive. Dry cleaning is expensive. All those fun activities are expensive. Life is expensive. Getting paid in dollars but spending in euros does not help with exchange rates like they are. I make a decent salary so I'm hardly living in poverty here. But I'm also not stashing away extra money like I was in Conakry, so if there's something you're trying to save up for, don't try to do it in Dublin. 
  2. The Weather - When I first started planning this post, rolling up my sleeves in the sunshine, I thought it would be churlish to complain about the weather in Ireland. The next day, huddled shivering under my biggest umbrella, I changed my mind. It rains. Frequently. It gets windy and cold, and the cold wind blows the cold rain into your face no matter what waterproofing precautions you try to take. Even when it's warmer, it's never quite as warm as I want it to be. It is indecent to need to wear a coat in July. Send me back to the tropics!
  3. The Darkness - Winter in Dublin is not so bad, all things considered. It doesn't get super cold. It was way milder here than it was in DC last winter, for example. But it gets DARK. From about November to March the sun doesn't come up until after I'm already in the office and sets before I leave, and it's usually pretty cloudy and/or raining in between. I didn't realize exactly how much the constant darkness was affecting me until I went to Brazil in February and was drunk on sunshine for the first couple of days. 
  4. Unexpected Social Barriers - Post reports I read about Dublin before coming often mentioned that it was hard to break in to Irish social circles. I was sure this was poppycock; I may have been wrong. It's not that I don't have any friends here, but for whatever reason I have found it significantly easier to bond with other expats (and not just the American ones) than with the Irish. This is not the end of the world, but it is disappointing. 
  5. Weird Public Transportation - My car-free lifestyle would be a little easier if Dublin's public transportation made a little more sense. If there were more light rail lines and if they actually connected to each other (which I know they're working on). If there were a train to the airport. If buses showed up on time. If there were enough buses at peak hours to accommodate demand. There are few things as demoralizing as standing dejected in the rain as a long-awaited but full bus whizzes by without stopping, splashing a puddle onto your shoes for good measure.
There are so many other things I love about Dublin - the pubs, the music, the parks, the river, the bay - and I'm discovering more all the time. I know it's going to be so hard to leave this place, but at least I have one more year to enjoy it while I can! 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Friends in High Places

Ireland loves Garth Brooks. Earlier this year, Garth announced his intention to kick off his comeback tour here in Dublin in August with two shows at Croke Park Stadium. They sold out like lightning, so the organizers bumped it up to three, then to five, and those sold out too. That's 400,000 happy country music fans. (To put that in perspective, that's equal to almost 10% of Ireland's population.)

All was well and good until last week, when it turned out that they only had permits for three shows, and the Dublin City Council denied applications for the other two based on noise and traffic concerns expressed by residents in the area, who have already been subjected to more concerts than the city promised. So then there were three shows. But Brooks and the local promoters pushed back, saying there would be five shows or no shows, and the city council didn't budge, and then there were no shows. That's 400,000 angry country music fans.

But that's not the end of the story. Mexico's ambassador offered to serve as a mediator, and a group of residents from the stadium area tried to get President Obama involved (though the White House was not interested). The debacle was discussed in the Dail, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives, with some members demanding passage of emergency legislation to save the concerts. That hasn't happened, but then the Taoiseach - the prime minister, Ireland's head of government - personally stepped in to try to salvage things and bring Brooks back. (It's not like there's anything else important going on, like maybe a cabinet reshuffle?) His solution: five shows in three days, with two converted to matinee performances. But Garth said no! THE DRAMA!

No matter how this ends up, no one can doubt Ireland's commitment as a nation to country music, all the way to the top. And here's everyone's favorite Garth song (in all its early 90s glory), just in case all the Irish fans end up needing to chase their blues away:



[Update 7/15: Even a pro-Garth protest march over the weekend couldn't save the day - all shows cancelled.]

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Independence Day, Dublin Style

Last Friday was the 4th of July, my first in Dublin. U.S. Embassies all over the world have Independence Day events, though they vary in size and style depending on the size of the embassy, the resources available, the tastes of the ambassador, and local conditions in the host country. In Conakry we held our 4th of July party in May to escape the worst of the summer monsoon. The event itself was a cocktail party for maybe 200 guests, differing from other such diplomatic events primarily by the national anthem performance at the beginning and a triumphant shower of red, white, and blue confetti at the end. We also had a booth where guests could take a photo with a cardboard cutout of President Obama, which proved very popular.

Post-game with the Dublin Bluegrass Collective
Things are a little different in Dublin. As in the previous four years, this year's event was a 3,000-guest extravaganza held on the grounds of Deerfield, the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador. The place is huge, big enough to comfortably fit a football field in the backyard. This is handy because the main focus of the event is an American flag football game, with teams made up of a motley mix of embassy staff and professional rugby and Gaelic football players. The official game ball was delivered to the field by a parachute team jumping from a plane overhead. There was a halftime show and a post-game show. There was also a KidZone full of face painting and video games and bouncy castles. And food and drinks of course: burgers and corn dogs and popcorn and cotton candy and coffee and beer and bourbon, all American-sourced, naturally. It was An Event. I didn't get many photos, but there are tons on the embassy Flickr feed if you're interested.

I missed most of the excitement as I was on shuttle bus duty for the first half of the festivities; a party like this doesn't throw itself. It was certainly on a whole other scale from any embassy event I've ever been to before, but it was still fundamentally a work function and I wasn't that excited about it. But I brought my friend Sean, who's not a diplomat and doesn't do this for a living. I go out to the residence semi-regularly, but he'd never been before and saw it with fresh eyes. For me the party - though fun in its own right - was something I was compelled to go for work; for him it was a sought-after invitation to an exclusive event he would never otherwise get to go to, and an occasion to make all his other American friends jealous. Perspective!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

You say Grenayda, I say Granahda: or, always triple-check your tickets.
Roast chickens in costumes. I love this mostly because it reminds me of Amelia Bedelia.
An approach to global food supply challenges that is ancient and innovative at the same time: domesticating new crops
The cost of every wedding in Game of Thrones. Fun fact: all of them together cost less than Will and Kate's.
Vermeer painted like a photograph: how it might have been done.
Making lemonade from lemons, or amazing photos from a wildfire on your wedding day.
Harvard has a book bound in human skin.
Business; friendship; betrayal; typography.

Tons of great videos this month, so I'll just give you a list:

OK Go has a fun new one-take video packed with optical illusions.
Hugh Jackman, LL Cool J, and TI rap the opening song from The Music Man.
Weezer's drummer catches a frisbee mid-song. That's talent.
"Dear Kitten." This is a Friskies ad, but I still really like it.
Figuring out the whole "second cousins once removed thing." Or you can just not care about anyone beyond your more immediate family, which has always worked well for me.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Aran Islands

I may have given my Irish exploration exploits short shrift this year. My international vacations all got posts - with fancy slideshows, no less - but I haven't even mentioned my visits to the Hill of Tara, to Waterford, to Clonmacnoise, and so forth. I have actually been making decent progress in my quest to see Ireland recently, with more exciting weekend trips in the works over the summer.

This last weekend, for example, I went to the Aran Islands, some rugged but beautiful islands out in Galway Bay. I had tried to make a day trip  to Inishmor, the largest island, last fall on my Galway visit, but the howling gale shut down the ferries and I was forced to go to Connemara instead. How tragic. This time the weather was lovely, perfect for cycling around and looking at things.

What is there to see? Lots of cows for starters, beautiful coastal views and some dramatic cliffs on the western side. And then there's Dun Aengus, an Iron Age ring fort backed up to the highest cliff on the island. Archaeologists think it's around 3100 years old, built by some mysterious ancient tribe no one really knows much about. The great thing about spending a night or two on the island is that you more or less have the run of the place once the day trippers leave around 5:00, so I got to have a the whole site entirely to myself for a good half hour or so. Try that at Stonehenge.

But my favorite thing may have been the Worm Hole, a natural rectangular pool carved into the rock and filled with seawater from below. Getting there requires a pretty long walk with precarious footing guided only by the occasional spraypainted mark on the rocks, but the walk itself is well worth it for the incredible scenery, dark grey rock punctuated by the bright lime green of some kind of seaweed-like plant that ekes out a fragile existence between seawater splashed up in storms and rainwater trickling down from the cliffs above. My photos are all washed out and don't even come close to the vividness of the colors in reality, but I tinkered with the saturation on some so you can kind of get the idea.

After two days on a bicycle I was happy enough to get back to my comfy office chair, but it was a great trip. Ireland never ceases to amaze. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bloomsday

I have a confession. It is a shocking confession to make. I know I may well be PNGed for this, but I can live in silence no longer. For the sake of my own sanity, I have to get this off my chest:

I cannot stand James Joyce.

Dubliners bored me, but at least I finished it. I struggled my way through the first half of Ulysses and gave up when I could take no more. Finnegan's Wake is utterly ridiculous; I decided to read in it college so I could be "sophisticated" and didn't even make it through the first PAGE. I mean, really. After all that I haven't even looked at Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I don't expect it would change my mind.

Dublin as a city is very much attached to Joyce. There's a bust of him in St. Stephen's Green and a statue just off O'Connell Street, fondly known to locals as the Prick with the Stick*. He has not one but two museums devoted to him - one in North Dublin and one in Sandycove - while all the other Irish writers (and there are many) have to share one between them. There are endless tours of Dublin featuring places from his life and writings, some of which have been converted into shops selling Joyce-related paraphenalia.

Best Dressed
Joyce even has his own special day: June 16th is Bloomsday, the day in the life of Leopold Bloom as chronicled in Ulysses. On Bloomsday (and the whole weekend before) fans of Ulysses hold marathon readings, stage performances of events from the book, eat Irish breakfasts with kidneys just like Bloom, and retrace Bloom's path through Dublin dressed in Edwardian clothes. Like you do.

As much as I dislike Joyce's work, I love Bloomsday. A whole city-wide literary celebration! And it's not all stiff reverence: the highlight of the event (for me at least) was Romping Though Ulysses, a Rocky Horror-style showing of the 1967 Ulysses film complete with props and heckles and a costume contest. I have no desire to ever see that deadly dull movie without a crowd of people making animal noises and throwing paper planes, but with those things it was excellent! Now I just need to find a city with a fun multi-day festival for a book I actually like, and move there. I'm not holding my breath.


*Dubliners love to give their statuary irreverant rhyming nicknames. In addition to the Prick with the Stick there's also the Hags with the Bags near the river, and a statue of Molly Malone has a variety of racy titles inlcuding the Tart with the Cart and the Trollop with the Scallops. (It rhymes if you say it Irishly enough.) More on this phenomenon here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Telling It Like It Is

A few weeks ago I joined one of our public affairs officers to talk to a grad school group about the Foreign Service. I don't usually do many of these things, but they specifically wanted to hear about American Citizen Services, so off I went. I was coming from some particularly trying days at the office. We had a number of tricky cases and difficult customers all coming in at once, and I was feeling a bit frazzled. This might have showed a little bit in my presentation. I didn't have a meltdown or anything, but the words "tedious" and "frustrating" may have escaped my lips. These are not words one generally uses in a sales pitch.

But as I was skulking off back to work afterwards, feeling a little embarrassed about my extemporaneous venting, one of the students from the presentation saw me. She came up, shook my hand and said, "thank you for telling it like it is." I guess they had heard the sales pitch before.

Oh, there are tons of things I love about my job and about the Foreign Service life. Seeing the world, the sense of purpose, meeting interesting people, job security, etc. It's a pretty long list, and one I find persuasive enough that I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing with my life. But yeah, just like everybody else, I have moments when I hate my job.

Sometimes it's just really boring, doing the same thing over and over. Sometimes things don't work like they're supposed to, which is incredibly frustrating when you need to get something done in a hurry. Sometimes I really want to do something and am thwarted by one arcane rule or another, which makes me feel like a failure. And my current position is a customer service job, which brings its own challenges. Most of our clients are lovely, but I do get literally screamed at from time to time. And I just have to stand there and take it because screaming back is unprofessional and counterproductive.

A long time ago a friend linked to an article - I can't find it again, but wish I could - which suggested thinking about your perfect job not in terms of what rewards you hope to get out of it, but what kinds of suffering you are willing to endure in the process. Everyone more or less wants the same things from a job: a solid and steady income, an opportunity to make a positive difference, recognition for a job well done, and so forth. But the hardships people are willing to suffer can be radically different.

For example, I am unwilling to put up with handling bodily fluids or being locked in a room with 30 hormonal teenagers for 8 hours a day. In this way I am different from my friends who are nurses or teachers. Those friends probably think I'm nuts for being willing to move halfway across the planet every couple of years, but that I will do. I will also suffer through the occasional tedium, frustration, and tantrums of bureaucratic life (oh, and suits, I hate wearing suits) because in the end those things are not that big a deal to me, and the rewards are much, much greater. But that doesn't mean the bad stuff doesn't exist.