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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adventures

I have never considered myself to be an adventurous person. I am generally risk-averse. I stay home a lot and do boring things like reading books and watching television. I'm not into extreme sports. I disapprove of motorcycles. I do not have tattoos. I'm very happy to have my steady government job with a steady government paycheck; the thought of trying to make a living freelancing or starting my own business terrifies me. I have a will and a power of attorney and an emergency fund, in case. I make plans and backup plans. I don't really do spontaneity. Not only do I not live on the edge, I don't even live within shouting distance of it, and I like it that way.

But recently I had a conversation with a new acquaintance that made me reassess my claim to a life of dull predictability. We were discussing my fondness for travel and he asked me if there was anywhere really weird I wanted to go. I asked what he meant by "weird", and the example he gave was Iceland. I have actually been to Iceland - it was a lot of fun and I'd love to go back. And while Iceland certainly is a unique place, the thought of visiting another EU country only a few hours away does not seem to me to be a particularly "out there" thing to do. I somewhat frequently get on planes and go, alone, to places where I have never been, may not know anyone, and don't speak the native language. This does not strike me as a big deal, but some people apparently find this shockingly unusual and courageous. Adventurous, if you will.

And then of course there's the whole Foreign Service thing. When I mention having lived in West Africa for a few years most regular, non-globally-nomadic people react as if I said I had been living on Mars. And I suppose, for most people, the two prospects are both so tremendously unlikely that it almost amounts to the same thing. But moving around the world is a thing that I do now, and a thing that a lot of my friends do, so it's started to seem kind of normal. Not when I think about it rationally, but it just feels that way. And this is something that might possibly be considered by a not-insignificant number of sensible, logical people to be kind of an adventure.

And who am I to argue with that? Perhaps I should pay more attention to the adventures I do have and appreciate them for what they are.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Do You Like Me? Circle Yes/No

Bidding. It's almost over, and I can't wait until it is.

Bids are due tomorrow, and after that there's nothing to do but wait and see how it all works out. Until it does all work out one way or another my mental state can perhaps best be compared to that of a wallflower quivering in a corner of a crepe-papered middle school gymnasium, worried that no one will ask her to dance. It'll be another month or so until real job offers start being made, which is a long time to quiver.

In fact this whole procedure has been deeply reminiscent of the awkwardness of middle and high school dating. I have pursued my crushes with (I hope) adequate ardour to convince them of my interest, but (again, I hope) not so much as to seem desperate, because that's never cool. I have done the bureaucratic equivalent of sending my friends over to talk to that cute guy for me, in the form of asking people to weigh in for me with decision-makers they know. I have agonized over polite, functional emails, trying to figure out if Job X likes me, or if maybe they LIKE me like me, but maybe not as much as they like that blonde cheerleader? And every time someone calls or doesn't call, emails or doesn't email, I drive myself nuts asking what does it meeeeeeeean? This is not good for my mental health.

Friends and colleagues have tried to be supportive and reassuring as I (and hundreds of others just like me) go through this painful process, but the reality is that this is a very competitive bidding season. On a purely numerical basis the chances of not being asked to dance - even by that guy with the face full of pimples and two left feet - are higher than usual, and I am deeply concerned about it. I have had some expressions of interest lately that have done wonders for my peace of mind, but I can't really relax until I have an honest-to-god job offer. Just one more month to go.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Pragislavapest

Yes, I know the combo names are kind of ridiculous but I just can't help myself. Last week I went on vacation (again!) to Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. I had friends to visit in the latter two, and I had just heard amazing things about Prague and always wanted to go. It was a great trip.

Prague lived up to all the great things I had heard. It really is a singularly beautiful city. Imperial grandeur, fairytale charm, baroque opulence, art nouveau intricacies, gothic heights - it's all there, with a sparkling river and scenic hills to set everything off to best advantage. Just lovely. I went on a marathon 4-hour walking tour, ate an incredible meal at La Degustation, and heard an organ recital in the splendor (and amazing acoustics) of St. Nicholas Cathedral. I also took a day trip to Kutna Hora, a former silver mining town now known mostly for the Sedlec Ossuary, a small chapel elaborately decorated with human bones. Definitely a sight to see.

Bratislava turns out to be a pleasant little place. There's not much in the way of big tourist attractions, but you can see the crown and the cathedral used for the coronation of generations of Hungarian kings and emperors. Bratislava was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary before it was moved to Budapest and still retained its status as the coronation city. I learned a lot about Slovakia while I was there, though starting from an admittedly low base. Another thing I loved? It's so cheap! I had a delicious and satisfying meal with two half-liter beers for 10 EUR, which wouldn't even have covered the beer in Dublin. Got to love that.

Budapest was my favorite of the cities I visited on this trip, hands down. It's not as charming as Prague but more imposing, with plenty of atmospheric decayed grandeur - something I particularly love. The best thing I did there was to devote several hours to a relaxing soak in the Gellert Baths, a majestic art nouveau bathing house on the Buda side of the river with a domed and colonnaded indoor pool, one of the first ever wave pools, a series of thermal pools in different temperatures, and all kinds of things. I could have stayed all day. The two days I had there was nowhere near enough time so I'll have to go back, one of these days.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Speaking Irish

One more thing I did during the Ulster Road Trip was to take my Irish out for a spin at a sleepy pub in rural Donegal. My all-of-40-hours of Irish classes turned out to be just barely enough for me to successfully order and pay for drinks as Gaelige, have an EXTREMELY basic conversation with the sweet elderly Irishmen straight out of central casting who occupied the barstools, and impress the pants off the British couple staying at our B&B who happened to witness my performance. I was very proud.

But even aside from this achievement, after just over a year in Dublin I have noticed that I am starting, slowly, inevitably, to adopt the local dialect of English, which has a distinct character shaped largely by the characteristics of Irish Gaelic. I am more apt than previously to answer questions with full sentences - "I do"; "I am"; "I won't" - instead of yes and no, a local quirk arising from the Irish language's total lack of such useful affirmations and negations. I have been known to refer to someone as "your man" on occasion. The first time the words, "ah, you'll be grand" - THE classic Irish phrase - emerged from my lips I felt like I was being possessed by some kind of Paddy poltergeist, but it's coming more comfortably now.

Some things I haven't quite picked up yet. My ability to pronounce "th" sounds - a phoneme Irish lacks - remains intact, despite being surrounded by people who think "tree tirty" is a good time for tea. I have not (as far as I can tell) adopted the local obsession for progressive verbs, where "I'll see you" becomes "I'll be seeing you" and "I just did..." turns into "I'm after doing..." My Gaelic grammar is insufficiently advanced to determine if this is an Irish feature imported into English, but I'd bet money that it is. And if I ever start ending every single sentence with emphatic repetitive phrases you'll have to extract me from Ireland by force for my own good, so you will.

But I have not quite another year left in Ireland, plenty of time to get used to saying things like "fillum", "deadly", and "feck", just in time to go back to America where my hybrid Hiberno-American English will seem even weirder than it does here. Feck, it's grand, y'all!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Vicarious Tourism - Ulster Road Trip

After a summer of hard work I was delighted to spend last week on the road with my friend Lorelei* seeing what Ireland's northern coast has to offer. This turns out to be fascinating history, scrumptious food, and jaw-dropping scenery.

We drove up from Dublin to Belfast, where we saw the Peace Line and the murals from the Troubles, and the Titanic museum. We went to Derry, where you can still walk the medieval walls all the way around the center of town, and they have murals of their own. We saw the Grianan of Aileach, the ringfort that served as the seat of the O'Neill clan. We wandered through Carrowmore, a huge collection of passage tombs and other Neolithic ceremonial constructions.

We did some nice walks, in Glenveagh National Park and along the Slieve League cliffs. Giant's Causeway was one of the highlights of the trip of course. We took a few hours to walk part of the cliff trail along the coast before getting to the main site, which I highly recommend. The rock formations at the causeway are outstanding of course, but the sweeping coastal views are better a little further away and completely missed by the tour bus crowd.

We went sea kayaking off the coast of Donegal, stopping to jump off some well-positioned rocks just high enough to feel weightless for a fraction of a second on the way down before splashing into the Atlantic. I loved this, but Lorelei was not so enthused. We relaxed in baths of hot seawater and a particular kind of seaweed, a local spa speciality. We ate, we drank. We spent a lot of time in cute tea shops and slightly musty oh-so-Irish pubs.

But a lot of the best parts of the trip were just leisurely driving through rural areas to nowhere in particular and admiring the views: charming fishing villages, dramatic cliffs, and boglands covered in heather and sheep. I finally experienced the essential Irish road trip experience: waiting for sheep to clear off the road so you can continue on your way.

It was a great week, everything I had hoped for. Now I really want to drive the southwest coast as well before I leave, if I can squeeze it in along with all my other vacation plans. Less than a year left!



*Not her real name, but she got to pick it out. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

 The rules of adjectives you follow without even knowing they exist
Measuring the speed of light with chocolate
Next time you're in Hawaii, try not to think about how those white sandy beaches are made of fish poop
Why it's so hard to catch your own typos
What makes a word "real"?
An unpublished chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory "deemed too wild, subversive and insufficiently moral for the tender minds of British children."
500 years of female portraiture in three minutes

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!