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

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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Things that are better with cats #564: fine art
The jackalope - not quite as fictional as you had thought
Whiskey-flavored pigs. Because bacon isn't tasty enough already?
Hilarious photos of the World's Best Father (except mine of course) and his 3-year-old daughter
And here's another great photo series: Everyday Astronaut
New lab-created organism has 6 DNA letters instead of 4.
The volcano that changed history
Foodies - a very short story
Play the 30th anniversary edition of the HHGTTG text-based game here. Prepare to die. A lot.
The Leidenfrost effect - making water do weird things
Walk in someone else's shoes with the 20-Day Stranger app. I am intrigued by this, but also kind of freaked out.
And here's a cat playing Jenga:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Landmarks

Haiku

heading towards
the twin chimneys,
a two-horned snail

-- Anatoly Kudryavitsky

One of the more controversial features of Dublin's skyline is a pair of striped exhaust chimneys out in Ringsend, part of an oil-burning power plant that closed in the '70s, though the building lingers on. In a city where 10 floors makes a "skyscraper" (and there aren't that many of those), anything as tall as these things definitely stands out. The chimneys are one of those love-it-or-hate-it features of Dublin, with some people decrying them as a hideous eyesore and others defending them as a cherished local landmark. I fall firmly on the "love it" end of the spectrum. Maybe it's a side effect of an upbringing surrounded by chemical refineries (they really are magical all lit up at night y'all) but I have something of a fondness for industrial installations, and I like these a lot. Living on the southeast side I see them every day, unless low clouds block them from view. I look for them when I fly into Dublin, because they say "home" to me.

The power station has an interesting history too. Known as the Pigeon House after the storehouse-keeper who set up a shop and restaurant there for hungry travellers coming off the ships at the seawall in the 1700s, the site has since hosted a hotel and a fort in addition to the power station. The first power station there was built in 1903 and is still standing, as are parts of the other buildings, though long abandoned and slowly falling apart. A few years ago photographer Donal Moloney broke in and made the following video, which shows the decaying building in all its eerie splendor:


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Jordan

Yes, I went on vacation again. Europe is great for that; it's relatively quick and easy to get all kinds of places. Such as, for instance, Jordan. Jordan, like Ireland, is a small country with an incredible wealth of historical sites and jaw-dropping natural beauty. The color palette is a bit different though.


I crammed quite a lot into my ten days. I rode in an Ottoman-era train. I experienced the apparent repeal of the laws of physics in the Dead Sea, and then got a mud wrap and a massage. I got up close and personal with a coral reef in Aqaba. I scrambled over Roman ruins at Jerash. I rode a camel.

And there was Petra of course, where I had a whole day to hike around and play Indiana Jones. Everyone makes a big deal about the Treasury, and it IS impressive. Even having seen the pictures, glimpsing it at the end of the canyon still sent a chill up my spine. But there's so much more to the city! The place is huge, caves and carvings as far as the eye can see. Just the official highlights can eat up hours, but it's also pretty easy to go off the map a bit and do a little private exploring.

However, the best part of my trip was probably the day I spent in Wadi Rum. Almost as soon as I arrived it starting raining, torrents of water and marble-sized hail for a good 20-30 minutes. And when it was over waterfalls had appeared in the mountains where there was only rock before, and a rushing river appeared where there had been nothing but sand. That was special. And then the sun came out with a nice cool breeze, and the air was so clear with the dampness holding the dust down. Perfect conditions for six hours of walking in the desert with only a Bedouin guide and a scruffy canine sidekick. It was so peaceful, and the scenery couldn't be beat.

It was not a cheap vacation by any stretch of the imagination - Jordan's entire economy is built on squeezing as much cash as possible out of visiting tourists, and they have it down to a science by now. So worth it though! Every time my inner pennypincher started getting whiny another wonder turned up to take her breath away.