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

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


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.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Language Studies: Amharic

The primary language spoken in Ethiopia is Amharic, a Semitic language with its own special alphabet. I find myself once again cheated out of language training because my job in Addis is language-designated for French, which I already speak, kind of. The idea is that I'll be working mainly with diplomats from other African countries rather than Ethiopians so French will be more useful at the office. This is probably true, but it also means that I will have to learn the language actually spoken in the country I'll be living in on my own time and my own dime. This will be difficult. 

Me, in Ethiopia
My efforts to locate a tutor in Dublin have been fruitless. There's no Duolingo for Amharic, no Rosetta Stone. I did find a program called Instant Immersion that has an intro course, so we'll see how that goes.  However, I have already succeeded in learning my first word, a very important word, through the magic of the internet: the Amharic word for foreigner is ferengi. Yes, just like in Star Trek.

The alphabet is interesting too. Like Arabic and Hebrew, vowels are given secondary status. Unlike those languages, the vowel is always written, but as a mutated form of the preceded consonant. In practice this means that there are at least 7 and up to 12 characters for each consonant to show the vowel sound. Not just B, but ba, be, bi, bo, and so forth. Some of these characters are differentiated only by slight changes of position in the same little extra twiddles, so good penmanship will be important. Unlike other Semitic languages, it reads left-to-right.

Wikipedia tells me that the language includes some features I have found frustrating in other languages, such as the ever-popular gendered nouns and formal pronoun sets. Verbs agree not only with the subject of the sentence but with the object as well, which will add additional difficulty to learning conjugations but also means that you can express simple sentences such as "I see her" in a single word. 

I don't know how much of this I'll get through in the couple of years I'll be in Addis, but I think it's safe to say it'll be an interesting challenge.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Dublin's Best Walks

When I first arrived in Dublin there were a number of things I particularly loved about about the city, especially in contrast to Conakry. I have long gotten over the thrill of constant electricity and potable tap water (though I will miss them when they are gone), but the great walking in Dublin continues to delight me. Here are some of my favorites:

Great South Wall - This is my all-time favorite, mostly because it's so close to my house and pairs neatly with a picturesque half-hour bike ride there through Sandymount and the Irishtown Nature Reserve. The Great South Wall was built in the 18th century along the Liffey to help prevent silting from getting in the way of shipping. It's about an hour walk along the seawall from the parking lot out to the lighthouse and back again, with stellar views of the whole of Dublin Bay from Howth to Dalkey and the Dublin Mountains in the background.

Howth Cliff Walk - The best thing about the Howth cliff walk is how it's so easy to feel like you're way out in the country but actually be only a short DART ride away from home. On the far side of the peninsula there's just cliffs and sea, but the nearer side offers a charming lighthouse and some pretty views of Dublin. The full walk is a 3-hour loop all around the almost-island of Howth but there are shorter loops for the less committed. There's plenty of delicious food in Howth village for brunch/dinner/snacks on either end. I love this walk best in late summer/early fall when you can pick juicy blackberries off the bushes as you go.

Grand Canal - This one's also close to me and easy to take as a scenic diversion on the way into town for brunch or shopping. There are pretty flowers and barges and bridges and ducks and swans and a statue of Patrick Kavanagh. The docklands area where it links up with the Liffey has cool modern buildings and some decent restaurants. You can join wherever is convenient for you and walk along as long as you like before turning in and heading for downtown. Or if you're really ambitious you can walk the canal all the way to the Shannon River, but we're talking a 5-day trek here so plan accordingly.

Bray Head - The short but steep hike up to the top of Bray Head can be a bit punishing for the less athletic among us, but the views are worth it. There's a little-used path down on the south side that takes you through some more hills (especially pretty in the spring with the gorse in bloom) and then to some less official trails down to the cliff walk and thence to Greystones to celebrate your acheivement with tea and cake. Those unenthused about elevation can just take the cliffside path from Bray to Greystones (or vice versa), which is nice too and much less strenuous.

Malahide Castle - This one requires some monetary investment to get the most out of the experience, but it's well worth it. Buying a ticket to the castle (interesting in its own right) also gets you in to the lovely gardens and grounds, home to an incredible array of plants from all over the world. There's a magnificent 300-year old cedar, gorgeous flowers everywhere, and even a pair of peacocks to add to the glamour of the scenery. And if you get bored with parkland and gardens you can always wander down to the village and the coast for some pretty seaside views.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hay Festival

I used my most recent long weekend to fulfill a long-held wish: a trip to the Hay Festival in Wales. Once referred to as "the Woodstock of the mind" by Bill Clinton, the Hay Festival is a 10-day event of lectures, concerts, workshops, book signings, and other events held every year in Hay-on-Wye, a sleepy little town on the Welsh/English border. Known as "the town of books," Hay has dozens of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops, and its population increases 40-fold at festival time as the hordes of bibliophiles descend. This year I was one of them.

It was pretty much Meredith heaven. Some of the big-name events were already sold out by the time I got my tickets, but I still managed to see great speakers on topics as varied as Jane Austen, oscillating chemical reactions, an Indian princess suffragette, medieval Arab folktales, and improv Mary Poppins. And in between there were gourmet organic fair-trade food trucks, a whole town of bookstores full of treasures to peruse, and everywhere people reading and talking about books. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. And the weather was unusually obliging for Wales, which helped.

The two days I could be there were not nearly enough, not by a long shot. And as much as I'd love to become one of the devotees who goes to the festival every year, it would be a bit of a hike from Addis. But at least I got to go have the experience while I'm more or less in the neighborhood, and now I have a fat stack of exciting new books to read to keep the joy going for another couple of months. I'm so glad I went.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


The big news in Ireland these days is a referendum on gay marriage coming up on Friday. Both sides are campaigning hard: with less than a week to go until the vote there may not be a single streetlight in Dublin without a referendum poster on it, if not two or three or six.

Despite the apparent parity in the photo to the left, on the whole Dublin is Yes territory. Like most urban areas in Europe, Dublin is full of 20- and 30-somethings who are more likely to approve of gay marriage, and they are showing their Yes pride in dozens of ways: with signs on lampposts and in shops and restaurants and homes, with murals, with pins and t-shirts, with rainbow manicures and drag queen brunch. This being Ireland, the Yes campaign is bilingual, so there are plenty of signs out there urging people to Vótáil Tá (which kind of means "vote yes" but not exactly.)

While looking at the streets of Dublin might make you think Yes will take it in a cakewalk, No has stronger support in rural areas and some big heavyweights behind it, such as the Catholic Church. The Irish Government and all the major political parties have officially backed the Yes vote, though party membership seems divided on the issue and I don't see people voting against their conscience just to follow the party line. Recent polls show Yes ahead, but with a decreasing lead. I don't think anyone knows how this is going to go. But close races are more exciting, even for outsiders like myself with no stake in the outcome.

EDIT 5/26: The ayes have it! The people have spoken, and gay marriage is now legal in Ireland. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Edinburgh

Last weekend was a bank holiday weekend, so I decided to take a little trip to Scotland. I hadn't been to Edinburgh since I was eight or nine, and didn't remember much about it except that they had a KFC there, which at the time I hadn't seen in years and was really excited about. While I'm in the area, I figured it was time to make some new, slightly more grown-up memories.

The main tourist attraction is Edinburgh Castle, which cost 24 fucking dollars to enter and was, you know, a castle. (Two years in Europe and I'm getting jaded about castles again.) It was a large and historically significant castle at least, and had some shiny crown jewels in it. And the views from the top were nice. More my speed in the historic attractions department was the Real Mary King's Close, a tour of homes and alleyways walled up in the 17th century to serve as the foundation for a city building. It was cool to get a glimpse of what daily life was like for normal people instead of just kings and queens. And then there's the Scotch Whisky Experience: I was dubious when I saw the Haunted Mansion-style ride with cars shaped like whisky barrels, but it turned out to be a really interesting and educational tour, complete with tasting of course. I also enjoyed just walking around town, through the tiny medieval alleyways and broad Georgian avenues.

I also took a day trip south to see Hadrian's Wall. It's not much to look at these days; apparently it used to be up to 16 feet tall in places, but between some sinkage and centuries of being pillaged for building materials only the width of the wall distinguishes it from any other field boundary. But I was there. I saw it. More impressive was Vindolanda, the remains of a Roman fort and the village that grew up next to it. Again, it's not much to look at, basically just wall foundations and paving stones. But among the detritus found at the site were fragments of messages written on thin strips of wood, still legible almost 2000 years later. They cover all kinds of mundane aspects of life at the edge of the Roman Empire: routine military reports, inventories, shopping lists, a care package, a birthday party invitation. Technology may have come a long way in the last two millennia, but people don't seem to have changed much.

On the minus side of the trip, pretty much everything was eyewateringly expensive. I also blame my day tramping around the Northumbrian countryside in the cold and wind and rain for the sore throat that has me stuck at home this weekend self-medicating with hot whiskeys. But on the whole, entirely worth it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cupan Tae

Tea is kind of a big deal in Ireland. Sure, Dublin has a coffee shop on every corner, from the ubiquitous Starbucks clones to boutique spots catering to the hardcore coffee nerds, but tea is still the quintessential Irish hot beverage.

Families have been torn apart in the Barry's/Lyons wars for total tea supremacy, but there are also innumerable tea shops selling every style and combination of leaves-in-hot-water humanity has ever imagined. (I'm partial to the Tom Crean blend from Clement and Pekoe myself.) The Irish tea obsession is best personified by Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper on Father Ted, the show everyone tells you to watch if you want to understand Ireland. She always has tea at the ready, and "no thank you" is simply not an acceptable response.

I decided early on that I should buy myself a tea set as an Ireland souvenir, but I never found one I really liked. Meanwhile I acquired an assortment of mugs to drink my tea from, so a full set began to seem unnecessary; I started looking just for teapots, but nothing caught my fancy. Until now:

The teapot is entirely ordinary, albeit with a handy built-in tea filter. The real treasure is the tea cozy, which was personally hand-knit by Pauline McLynn, the actress who played Mrs. Doyle. It guarantees that, no matter where I am in the world, my tea will always be as Irish as tea could possibly be. And woe betide the misguided soul who dares refuse a cup.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Area Studies: Ethiopia Edition

I'll be arriving in Addis in less than five months, but I have to confess my knowledge of Ethiopia is still pretty slim. For my first post I had nine months of training time to devote to devouring every piece of information I could find on Guinea (which wasn't much).  Moving to Ireland I managed to get a fair bit of reading done before I arrived. This time around I've been using my free time to do other things, like squeezing every drop of joy out of Dublin and - let's be honest here - watching television. Getting my money's worth out of the old Netflix subscription. I know, I know, I should get on it and actually crack those books on Ethiopia I got for Christmas.

However, I have managed to pick up a few interesting facts about the country I'll be calling home for the next two (or maybe three) years, which I will share with you now.
  1. Practical matters: Standard European plugs, and they drive on the right side of the road. The currency is called the birr and trades at around 20 to the dollar. You can basically only exchange them in Ethiopia. 
  2. Addis is 2300 metres above sea level, which means you can look forward to future posts on the challenges of high-altitude baking. Also, high-altitude breathing. As basically a lifelong coastal dweller this is going to be quite an adjustment for me. On the bright side, it's too high for mosquitoes so I can skip the anti-malarial meds this time. Yay!
  3. Ethiopia was never successfully colonized by any of the European colonial powers; Mussolini came the closest but only held it for 6 years. It was instead ruled until the 1970s by a succession of emperors claiming descent from the first emperor, Menelik I, said to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The last emperor, Haile Selassie I, is worshipped by Rastafarians as the second coming of Christ.
  4. There are a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia. One I am particularly looking forward to seeing is a site at Lalibela composed of 11 stone churches carved straight out of the rock.
  5. Contrary to what Steven Spielberg would have you believe, the Ark of the Covenant is not in a crate in a giant government warehouse but in a tiny town called Aksum in northern Ethiopia. It's watched over by a specially appointed guardian, who is the only person ever allowed to see it. Too bad, though that policy significantly reduces the risk of accidental instant skeletonification and turning to dust.