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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Malta

Another year in Ireland, another 4-day Easter weekend. (Yes, I'm a little late posting. Deal with it.) This year I spent my long weekend in Malta. I had never really thought about Malta as a tourism destination (or at all really) until last year when suddenly everyone I knew was going there and having a great time. So I went and had a great time.

Easter weekend was a great time to go: the country is very Catholic, so there's a Good Friday parade with guys dressed up like Roman centurions, but it's also highly dependent on tourism, so the bars and restaurants stay open. The food was great, the wine was cheap, and the sun was shining. Perfect.

It was a bit chilly for swimming still but the ocean views were fabulous. The water was just such a lovely blue, and the porous limestone has allowed for the creation of some cool caves you can see by boat tour and the incredibly dramatic Azure Window, below. It would have been nice to have some more time to get some hiking in and really explore, but I'm still glad to have seen it.

There's also a lot of history there, which I like because I'm a nerd. The highlights for me were the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra ruins, the remains of Neolithic burial/temple sites. They were built around the same time as Newgrange, a similar monument here in Ireland, and like Newgrange are also aligned to the rising sun on the solstices and equinoxes. The swirling decorations reminded me of Newgrange too, but more ornate. (To be fair, the Neolithic Maltese were working in limestone while their Celtic counterparts had to hack through granite.) I also enjoyed St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, a Baroque explosion of a church built by the Knights of Malta. The Knights have a fascinating story, which I only learned because I decided to go to Malta.

In short, it was a delightful weekend, marred only by the accidental acquisition of an awkward sunburn. Time well spent.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


How can I not miss this?
As I move past the 3-months-left mark, the idea of my actually leaving Dublin starts to feel more and more real. And while I am looking forward to home leave and starting a new chapter in Addis, the swift approach of my departure date has really put into focus all the things I love about Dublin. The almost impossibly good spring weather has intensified this effect, with the (relative) warmth and sunshine providing endless opportunities to get out and see the city in its very best light.

I have entered into a kind of pre-nostalgia phase, where I feel obliged to enjoy everything extra hard because I know I won't have the opportunity much longer. Having brunch with friends, walking in the park under the cherry blossoms, watching the swans on the Grand Canal, glimpsing my favorite Dublin landmark in the distance, I feel like I should be sucking every last possible bit of happiness out of every single Dublin experience while I still can.

Of course, this doesn't actually work. In fact, the end result is to make me less happy, both by putting extra pressure on the events of everyday life not to be simply pleasant but AWESOME, and actually making me feel sad that I'll be leaving soon a dozen times a day. But I don't know that there's anything I can do about it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On the Line

At the beginning of the month I switched from American Citizen Services to Visas, where I'll be for the rest of my tour. March to May is J1 season, our busiest time for visas. Thousands of Irish college students are getting ready to spend the summer in the States, waiting tables at Irish bars in Boston or Chicago, or renting out beach umbrellas in Ocean City or Santa Barbara. And every last one of them needs a visa to do it.

I did visa interviews as part of my consular year in Conakry, but this is very different. There's the volume for starters: in Conakry I barely did 50 a week, but I'm now hitting around 150 a day. It's so much TALKING. Every day for the first week or so I didn't want to do anything after work but lie quietly in a dark room and decompress. Outside of the J1s Dublin also sees a much greater variety of visa applicants than we got in Conakry, which means you really have to know the whole range of visa regulations front to back.

This was all a little overwhelming at the beginning, but I'm starting to get into the flow now I think. Dozens and dozens of J1 interviews back to back get a little repetitive, but the applicants are all so happy and excited about the great summer they'll be having in America that I can't help but be happy and excited for them too. The fact that I'm planning my own American summer - a few weeks in Texas and an Old South road trip - doesn't hurt. I may even come across an Irish accent or two at the beach in South Carolina, and I'll know I helped get them there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Paddy's Day

Looking back over my blog posts from last year, I noticed that I had completely failed to write about St. Patrick's Day. Allow me to correct that shocking oversight.

No one loves St. Patrick's Day like Americans
Last year I celebrated like a tourist. I went into town and saw the parade, a nice event but small and subdued compared to what goes on in Chicago and New York, even when augmented by some American marching bands. And I went to Temple Bar. Well, I stood on the very edge of Temple Bar, the cobbles sticky under my feet from a weekend's worth of spilled beer. I surveyed from a distance the teeming mass of intoxicated revellers as a trio of teenage girls staggered past through a puddle of vomit, leaning on each other as they struggled to stay upright at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I decided that was quite enough of that and headed home. 

This year I'm celebrating like a Dubliner by having nice lie-in, indulging in a relaxed brunch, and staying as far away from the city center as possible. With Paddy's Day on a Tuesday this year a lot of people took Monday off as well and used the opportunity to get out of town, out of the country even, and leave Dublin to the visiting Americans who think drinking 7 euro pints of Guinness in a jam-packed pub is great craic. I'm still in town though, and having a great St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival just 10 minutes from my house, blessedly free both of overpriced Guinness and of trashed teenagers.

St. Patrick's Day is a strange holiday, the national day of Ireland but celebrated more intensely elsewhere, in places like America and Australia where Irishness has meant more for being few among many, and where St. Patrick's bringing Christianity to Ireland started to be less about Christianity and more about Ireland. (The thing about banishing the snakes is a myth, since there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with.) The transition from Catholic holy feast day to secular national holiday was pushed through mostly by emigrant populations overseas; there weren't regular Paddy's Day parades in Ireland until the 1970's, when they were adopted from the celebrations Americans had been holding for a century. St. Patrick's Day was even a dry holiday for decades in Ireland with pubs legally forced to close, as odd as that seems looking at celebrations now.

Nowadays the Irish government regularly spends St. Patrick's Day abroad, using it not as a time to celebrate with their own citizens but to promote Ireland elsewhere as an investment and tourism destination. This is especially true in America, where every year the Taoiseach uses his national day to go to Washington and present the President of the United States with a bowl of shamrock. Here in Dublin a lot of the celebrants are not Irish themselves but come from other places to be Irish for a day, even as the Irish barricade themselves in their houses or hit the road to spend their national day somewhere, anywhere else. Not just the Irish national day, it's the Irish international day, both more and less than you might imagine it to be.

But despite my cosmopolitan veneer (and intolerance for wasted teenagers) I still am a tourist deep down and I love a holiday for any reason, so here's a toast to St. Paddy's Day and Ireland and leprechauns and all that jazz. Sláinte!

Sunday, March 15, 2015


This weekend I went out to Shannon Airport to help out with a CODEL (Congressional Delegation, for those not up on the lingo). It was my first one and it was a good learning experience, especially since I will likely be handling several delegations of various kinds in my next assignment. This was a quick one and it went pretty smoothly so there's not much to say about it. In fact, the most notable thing about this trip was the pit stop halfway there, at the Barack Obama Plaza.

Some background: when Obama was running for President the first time, an enterprising historian did some research and discovered a genealogical link on Obama's mother's side to a family from Moneygall, a village of  all of 300 people in the middle of Ireland previously famed for absolutely nothing. As part of his Ireland tour in 2011 President Obama honored this connection by paying a visit to Moneygall, which was the most exciting thing to happen there pretty much ever and is forever commemorated in the big service station that was opened on the M7 outside the village last year.

In addition to a gas station, a Supermac's, and a Tim Hortons, the plaza features a visitor center with exhibits on Obama's Moneygall ancestors, Irish emigration generally, and the Presidential visit. Best quote: "My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O'bamas, and I've come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way." There's also a convenience store where you can buy the usual snacks and drinks as well as Irish Obama-themed souvenirs.

Just one more example of the enduring Irish-American connection, popping up even in places you wouldn't expect.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Old Dog, Old Tricks

So, it's been a while since I've posted. With the joy and excitement of Sister Christmas Dublin and then NYE UAE I was a bit busy, and then the January doldrums got me and there didn't seem to be much to say. But it's February now and spring will be coming soon, ish, and I'm getting back into the world again.

In addition to scheduling more social engagements I'm taking a couple of classes to dust off some old skills of mine that may have gotten a bit rusty. My new job at the African Union will require me to speak French again, but after two years of disuse my parlayvoo is not quite what it once was, to say the least. Fortunately the Alliance Francaise offers half-price classes for diplomatic staff, so I've signed up for a conversation class to get that pulled back together for the fall.

I've also started taking an Irish fiddle class, which represents the first time I've picked up a violin since I quit playing in a huff back in high school. After 15 years even the muscle memory is gone and just holding the instrument again felt awkward and alien. Despite my previous experience, at the first class my attempts at turning noise into music were no less squawkily hesitant than those of the other students trying for the first time.

But it's been three weeks now and some of the old tricks are starting to come back to me a little, though I'm also still making beginner's mistakes like brushing extra strings. I'll work that out in time, I'm sure. Building the finger calluses back up will take a little longer. I'm actually really enjoying it though, despite the awkward squeaking, in a way I never thought I would when I was 16 and the violin was the bane of my existence. (Although to be fair, a lot of things were the bane of my existence when I was 16.) Hooray for new old hobbies!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dublin Love

I was perhaps a bit harsh on Dublin after getting back from Paris, where the gothic spires and sweeping boulevards may have turned my head a bit (as they were designed to do). But no sooner did I return to Ireland than this fantastic video popped up in my blogfeed to rekindle my affections for the Big Smoke:

Ireland is a great country for poetry, and living here is slowly bringing me around to appreciate it more. Though I confess to being philistine enough to find poetry with music and pictures to be much more palatable than dry words in neat rows on a page. More of this please.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lessons Learned From Third Tour Bidding

Now that I am safely panelled and ready to start getting travel orders and so on, I feel like I can talk about third-tour bidding without calling down some sort of jinx and getting my awesome job taken away by the gods or the fates or the Needs of the Service. This was my first stab at mid-level bidding, and here's what I learned:

Bid Early - This is something everyone tells you, and it's SO true. Bids opened at the beginning of August and closed mid-October, so it sounds like you have ten weeks to play with. You do not. The more competitive jobs I bid on had a short list of candidates put together after only two weeks, and all of them had their top choices picked, interviewed, and laid out in rank order by the week before bids closed. No matter what kind of work-related or personal craziness you have going on in your life at the time, as soon as bids open you had better be making your list and sending out resumes or you will be left in the cold.

In-Cone Experience Is VITAL - For this round of bidding I was an econ-coned officer looking for an econ job, but with more consular experience than anything else. That's just how the luck of the draw and the Needs of the Service set up my first two tours. Were any of my interviewers even slightly interested in all the exciting and worthwhile things I've done in consular? Not even a teeny tiny bit. I got my new job entirely on the strength of my one year of econ experience in Conakry, and that's it. For hiring purposes the last two and a half years may as well not have happened. I have a friend who was not assigned any in-cone experience in his first two tours and he had a terrible time bidding for his third tour. He ended up sacrificing all other considerations to get an in-cone job, ANY in-cone job, because if he didn't get one now he'd be even less competitive next time, and then what?

Be Realistic - Most of the mentor-types I talked to, when asked about bidding, said some variation of "just bid on jobs you think are interesting and everything will work out." So I did. What I learned is that many of the jobs I thought were interesting were also interesting to other bidders - dozens and dozens of other bidders. Not just the plush European posts either; jobs in places most people would never consider as vacation destinations were also mobbed with applicants. As a third-tour bidder you are either a freshly-promoted 03 or still an 04, and you're competing against others like you, but also against people who have one or multiple 03 tours under their belt already. Those people have way more experience than you and are going to be more competitive candidates for highly-sought jobs. So temper that advice above and bid on jobs that interest you, but make sure at least some of them are also jobs you realistically think you can get. If all of your top choices have tons of bidders and posts haven't shown much special interest in you, it may be time to lower your expectations and look at the list with fresh eyes. You may one day get to Paris, but probably not on your third tour.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Le Weekend à Paris

Les pingouins de Paris vous souhaitent un Joyeux Noël
I went to Paris last weekend, because I could, and to visit a friend from Conakry who lives there now. We had a lovely time shopping at Christmas markets, going to museums for free, browsing used books, devouring delicious snails (well, one of us did), drinking the richest, thickest hot chocolate ever, and just walking around appreciating the city. I forget sometimes how beautiful some other cities are because I live in practical, workaday Dublin, with its flat mud-colored Georgian rowhouses, squat '70s office blocks, and streets and streets of identical duplexes. Dublin certainly has its charms, but oh, Paris!

I also confirmed that my French is total shite after two years of disuse, so after Christmas I'll have to trot my derrière down the the Alliance Française and start whipping it back into shape. My French, that is, not my derrière, though after the coming Christmas delights (and the HUGE box of chocolates I bought this weekend) that may need some improvement as well.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

If You Want Something Done Right, You Have to Do It Yourself

I had an unusual Thanksgiving this year. On Wednesday the embassy had the annual Thanksgiving lunch, catered by a local restaurant. It was good food and good craic, but not quite what I'm used to at home. And then on Thursday I went to a friend's house for dinner, where I was promised both food and entertainment in the form of a deep-fried turkey. When the oil had failed to reach frying temperature by 10:30pm we gave up and feasted on stuffing and green beans and Doritos and muffins and pie. A good time was had by all, but a traditional Thanksgiving meal, not so much.

My Thanksgiving dinner needs unsatisfied, I did the only sensible thing. After six hours at work on a Saturday watching paint dry in the service of our consular section remodel, I stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up a few things. Four hours later, I had this:

Achievement Unlocked: Food Coma

Yes, I cheated, just a little bit. I cooked a chicken instead of a turkey, because there's only one of me and because I was not about to wait on a frozen bird. And I bought the squash and the bacon pre-cut, because you can do that in Ireland. I did have to roast and peel the chestnuts for the green beans though, which was a pain. For dessert I was forced to make do with leftover apple tart, because my dulce de leche pumpkin pie needed time to cool. So I ate some for breakfast this morning, because I'm an adult and I can do whatever I want.

Breakfast of Champions
Thanksgiving is now officially, successfully, complete. This means it's time to track down a tree, hang the stockings, turn on the carols, and start getting ready for Christmas!