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

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 soupçon 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! 

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.