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Friday, October 2, 2015


Sunday was Meskel, a big Christian holiday which celebrates the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helen. This is not a story I learned in my Presbyterian Sunday school, so here's the tale as told mostly by Wikipedia:

Helen, or Eleni as she is known locally, was the mother of Emperor Constantine, of Constantinople fame. While on pilgrimage to Jerusalem she dreamt that building a bonfire would reveal the location of the crosses Jesus and the two theives had been crucified on, which had been buried and lost. This she duly did, and the column of smoke from the fire curved down and touched the ground at the place the crosses were buried. In order to figure out which of the three was the True Cross, a deathly ill woman touched each in turn until she was miraculously healed. After that the True Cross was apparently hacked to bits by religious souvenir hunters as there are pieces of it kept as relics in churches all over the place, including Ethiopia.

The celebration of Meskel is a big deal here in Addis. There's a big religious procession in Meskel Square, in the center of town. I didn't make it out there this year but I was lucky enough to get to see the practice session a few days before. Here's a short clip:

Untitled from Meredith Cheerfulstoic on Vimeo

Another key part of the festivities is the building and lighting of bonfires, called demera. There's a big one in Meskel square but also smaller ones all over the place set up by families or neighborhoods for their own celebrations. They are traditionally decorated with small yellow daisies known as Meskel flowers and set alight as part of a feast with music and dancing. I went to one with some friends and it was a lot of fun. I sampled some homemade tej, or honey wine, attempted some Ethiopian dances (much to the amusement of the assembled guests), and carried a torch to help light the fire. I love holidays!

Demera before

Demera after

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Kid on the Block


Confused yet? Me too. I'm mostly through with the check-in paperwork and getting started with actual work, or at least orientation to actual work. Meeting people, background reading, trying to figure out who's who and what's what, what's important and what it all means. What I'm going to be doing with my time for the next two or three years. 

I hate this part, the feeling like an idiot part. It's one of the drawbacks of the Foreign Service life, starting over from zero every couple of years. But it's normal, and it's temporary. I just have to read the reports and talk to the experts and push on through until the day when it all starts to come together. And to have faith that, eventually, it will. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Happy New Year!

Yesterday Ethiopia celebrated Enkutatash, the beginning of a new year. Ethiopia has its own calendar with twelve 30-day months and five (or six, in a leap year) extra days that make a thirteenth "month". They also have different calculations as to when exactly Christ died, so as far as Ethiopia is concerned we have just entered the year 2008. 

Celebrations are mainly a private family affair, but it was easy to see the preparations on every corner. Vendors sold bundles of a sweet-smelling grass to scatter on the floor, and shepherds escorted herds of goats and sheep through the city for sale as holiday feasts. All the big shops had banners up to celebrate, and I even got a nice text from the local telecom.

In keeping with tradition I spent my New Year's Day at home with my family (aka the cat). Except for an hour or so after I learned the hard way that my front door locks automatically. Oops. The first couple of weeks at a new post are always challenging as you learn to adapt to your new surroundings, but between the door incident and a small microwave-related fire a few days ago this may be my toughest transition yet. But as my father always says, it's a good thing I'm tough. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

Hello Addis! The Jabberwock and I both made it safely. There was a small hiccup with his flight reservation and for a while I was worried we might not make it, but a little "ah sure it'll be grand" at the airport saw us through just fine.

With a 7-hour time difference there's a bit of jet lag to get through. And at 7500 feet, some minor altitude sickness as well. Nothing compared to what happens in Lima La Paz I'm sure, but I can definitely feel my delicate sea-level lungs struggling to extract oxygen from the thin mountain air. I get winded from a single flight of stairs. Even just walking around feels different, harder. This must be what being old is like. I hope it doesn't last too long.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: The Amazing Old South Road Trip

Home leave is for a lot of things: eating, shopping, seeing family and friends. But the real reason FSOs have 4+ weeks of paid home leave between assignments is to get reacquainted with America after years of living overseas, to strengthen our bond with the country we represent professionally every day. To this end (and also because I enjoy it) I try to use at least part of my home leave to get out and see America. Last time I went to Yellowstone, which was awesome. This time I was buying a car to take to Ethiopia with me, so I thought why not take a leisurely drive through the South on the way to DC? And I did, with my sister Beth along for company. It was amazing.

Over the course of 2 weeks I drove my spunky new car Ruby more than 2,000 miles with stops in New Orleans, Natchez, Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Asheville, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and many smaller breaks along the way. I danced to a swing version of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." I saw an alligator eat marshmallows. I toured Native American ceremonial mounds. I ran my fingers through the water at the Civil Rights Memorial. I felt the rain dripping off the Spanish moss on the live oaks in Savannah. I stood on Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. I soaked in a hot tub surrounded by forest. I bought buckwheat flour ground on a restored frontier water wheel mill. I heard a hymn played on stalactites. It was amazing.

And I ate. Oh god, did I eat. Shrimp and grits. Biscuits and gravy. Po'boys and hush puppies. Bread pudding and buttermilk pie. Pancakes and hash browns. At least three varieties of barbecue.  Fresh peaches dripping with sweetness. Fried chicken until I could burst. Modern haute cuisine and traditional fare. Fine dining and "meat and three" from styrofoam boxes. It was amazing.

If you but mention the words "road trip" to me I will tell you all about it in enthusiastic and *exhaustive* detail, but if you don't have time for that check out the map with some of the places we went and things we saw along the way. It was, in case you haven't gotten it yet, amazing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Tastes of Texas

There are many things I've been enjoying about being home in Texas, but the food is definitely one of my favorite parts. Here are some things I've been eating lately:

Mixed fajitas with all the trimmings from Pappasito's

Grilled figs wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with goat cheese and jalapeños, by me and Mom

Meltilicious cabrito from Hugo's

Kolaches: the ultimate breakfast pastry, from Mornings Kolaches

Dr Pepper bread pudding from The Hay Merchant
Burn-your-fingers-hot tamales from Hot Tamales
Cupcake sundae from Crave
The best BBQ I've ever tasted, from Killen's

Spring rolls and peanut sauce from Huynh
Not pictured:  fried asparagus with crab from Perry's, souvlaki sandwich from Niko Niko's, deluxe enchiladas from Chuy's, fried avocado tacos from Torchy's, smoked pork loin by Dad, and so, so much more. God I love Texas.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Things That Have Surprised Me About America

As Ireland is pretty similar to the U.S. in most respects, adjusting to the home front hasn't been the massive reverse culture shock it was last time. However, because they're so similar, the differences I have noticed have been all the more striking for being unexpected. A brief list:

  1. Climate/control: Having spent the last two years in a place where the temperature difference between a winter's night and a summer's day just really isn't that big, now being back in Texas I am constantly finding myself too hot or too cold. Of course I had expected to melt under the unaccustomed sweaty heat of a Texas summer, but I did not expect to be so thrown off by the arctic blast of the air conditioning employed to combat it. 
  2. Free samples at grocery stores: I remembered that American grocery stores are much, much larger and more intensely stocked than their Irish counterparts, but the smorgasbord of free samples completely slipped my mind. And not just plastic trays of cubes of cantaloupe with toothpicks, but chips and salsa tasting bars and vendor reps passing out hot sausages  and sliders and doing "cooking" demonstrations to sell this, that, or the other consumer product. (Also, bags are free and people will put your groceries in the bags for you!)
  3. Stop signs: Granted, I never did that much driving in Ireland, but I don't remember there being so many stop signs all over the place. There were yield signs for when a small road met a bigger road and roundabouts for a meeting of equals. Now driving around in the suburbs I keep being ambushed by 4-way stop signs in places one (or at least I) wouldn't expect them to be. I may have accidentally missed one or two here and there. Oops. 
  4. The Internet: Yes, they have internet in Ireland, but it's not quite as developed there. Yelp is nowhere near as comprehensive and Dublin *just* got OpenTable. Now I come home to find that stores will email your receipts to you instead of printing them, you can buy coffee with your phone, and smart appliances are not just in Popular Science but possibly coming soon to my parents' house. It's like the future!*
  5. Mosquitoes: ITCHY! Time to make bug spray a habit again. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

All Hail the Mighty State

The above is the real actual official Texas state song. Some of you might think it's perhaps a bit over the top, especially around "O empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest." I might sometimes be inclined to agree, but not right now. Right now I'm so happy to be back home in Texas and I love everything about it.

I love the sunshine and the big blue sky. I love Tex-Mex and BBQ. I love peaches from the farmers' market and figs from a neighbor's tree. I love watching the bats come out from under the Waugh St. Bridge. I love riding around Mom's neighborhood in her golf cart. I love the grills shaped like longhorns and the flags and barn stars everywhere you look. I love drinking coffee on the back deck and watching the water birds on the canal. I love kayaking on the lake under cooling rain. I love the drowsy drone of cicadas. I love hearing people say "y'all" multiple times a day.

It's so good to be home. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Slán Go Fóill

Tomorrow I get on a plane and leave Ireland. I am feeling so many things at the same time.

I am excited to get back to Texas, to see my family and friends, who I have not been in the same time zone with for far too long. I am hungry for the tastes of home: fajitas and brisket and kolaches are so close I can smell them and I cannot wait to sink my teeth in. I am daunted by the amount of money that will slip though my fingers in the next two months. Between consumables and clothes shopping and vacation expenses and buying a car I am about to part with a phenomenal amount of cash, to my long-term benefit but short-term consternation. I am eager to get to Ethiopia, to start a new job, new chapter, new challenge, new life. I am worried that I may not meet high expectations when I get there. I am ready for some relaxing vacation time, and overwhelmed by the list of things still to do before I leave America again.

But mainly I am already pre-missing Ireland so much it hurts. The weather has been just perfect for most of the last few weeks, and it's hard to believe I won't be able to bike down to walk on the Great South Wall anymore. It hasn't really sunk in that I have had my last lobster hash at Whitefriar Grill, my last pork belly and scotch eggs at L. Mulligan Grocer. Everywhere there are ads for concerts and festivals and shows and events that I won't be here for, and it just seems wrong. It seems unreal that all those Ireland trips I hadn't quite gotten around to yet will remain undone. I have a lot to look forward to in other places, but I don't want to leave.

As one might expect from a country with a long painful history of emigration and a rich musical heritage, there are many, many sad songs about leaving Ireland. I'll take my leave with a new version of an old favorite. And unlike the emigrants of old, I can always come back someday. So for my goodbye I'll just say slán go fóill, see you later. One day, I will.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I. Hate. Moving. So. Much.

Moving is just the worst thing ever. EVER. I've done this a couple of times by now; you'd think I'd be getting good at it. You'd be wrong.

My pre-packing turns out to have been rather amateur; some important things like my checkbook (which I will need in Houston to buy a car) and my yellow card (which I will need to enter Ethiopia) are in boxes somewhere instead of in the suitcase pile where they need to be. Oops. These are not unsolvable problems, but they create extra work and stress that I could have saved myself with just a little more forethought.

Meanwhile, I leave Ireland for good in two days and I feel like I am making zero progress on all the little things that need to be done before I get on that plane. I packed out last week, but found out today that my air freight shipment is overweight and needs to be altered or paid for. Yesterday I took the cat to the vet and got his health cert, and in so doing discovered that I have every single piece of paper related to his health and moving history EXCEPT his most recent rabies vaccination cert, which is of course the one I need. His vet in Houston made me a new one but they can't get it to me because they don't have a scanner, so Mom has to go pick it up and email it to me. I love you Mommy! I got my house cleaned today at outrageous expense to be nice for the new tenants, but now I have to figure out how to pay the cleaners since they don't take credit cards and I closed my Irish bank account last week. All of these things are supposed to be checked off my to-do list by now but for one reason or another they remain stubbornly unchecked.

Not panicking, not quite yet, but definitely feeling a little overwhelmed. Does it get better? By the next move, or the move after that, will I have enough skill and experience for things to be smoother, calmer? Or, as I expect/fear, is it total chaos every single time? Can I at least hope to reach some kind of moving zen state, where having to get my orders amended AGAIN no longer drives me to distraction? Remind me again: WHY do I do this every 2 years?