Thursday, December 12, 2013


I had meant to post the details of my most recent experience moving internationally with a pet when I first arrived in Ireland, but the cat's subsequent disappearance meant I had other things on my mind at the time. The full tale of my bureaucratic misadventures is a bit long in the telling, so I'll keep it short. Here, in invoice form, are the components of a successful feline relocation:

Vet visit and rabies titer testing - 800,000 GNF ($114)
Titer test analysis - 85 EUR ($111)
Vet visit and Guinea/EU health certificates - 40,000 GNF ($6)
Flight Conakry to Paris (Delta/Air France) - $250
Pet fee at Novotel in Paris - 15 EUR ($20)
Flight Paris to Houston (Delta/Air France) - $290
Vet visit for comprehensive checkup with rabies revaccination and flea/tick meds - $208
International fax to send flight approval request (It's pretty hard to find a place that does international faxes these days.) - $10
Vet visit and health certificate (for domestic flight) - $58
Flight Houston to DC (United) - $274
Vet visit and health certificates (for international flight) - $200
Overnight mail to send health certificates to the USDA in Richmond for approval - $28
Emergency redo of vet visit after the first EU health certificate turned out to be on an outdated form - no charge
Saturday delivery overnight mail to the USDA for the correct form  - $38
USDA certification - $38
Return overnight mail (arrived the day before departure) - $28
Panicked international phone call the day before the flight to check on flight approval certificate (had been approved weeks ago but never sent to me) - $36
New pet carrier bought at the airport cargo terminal on departure because United wouldn't take the one I had because it opened on the top (though they had no problem with it on the previous flight) - $75
Flight DC to Dublin (United) - $589
Airport pickup and health inspection on arrival in Dublin - 230 EUR ($317)

Because I'm worth it
Total cat relocation expenses: TWO THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED NINETY AMERICAN DOLLARS plus untold hours spent researching regulations, waiting on hold, making appointments, schlepping him places, etc., and way more emotional distress than I had bargained for from multiple things going wrong under tight deadlines despite my very best efforts to prevent that from happening. And with the exception of a $500 stipend for general moving expenses (which you get whether you have pets or not) I paid for all of this and did all of the legwork myself. Can you tell I love my cat?

The crazy thing is that this is by no means an extreme or even unusual Foreign Service pet moving experience. A friend of mine moved her very large dog from Malawi to Guinea, with several adventures on the way including an overland stretch from Sierra Leone. Another colleague relocated a HORSE from Estonia to Ireland, and is sending it to New York next while she goes to Pakistan. I'm afraid to ask how much that's going to cost. And the FS blogosphere has countless other tales of international moves with cats, dogs, parrots, and so forth, each with their own unique complications. Moving internationally with pets is stressful and expensive but we do it anyway, because our pets are family. As awful as it is to bring them with us, it would be ten times worse to leave them behind. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Philanthropy for Touchy-Feely Soft-Hearted Romantics

Here we are again, the holiday giving season. Last year I wrote a little post about how to make sure your charitable gifts turn into positive action: Philanthropy for Cold-Hearted Hard-Nosed Realists. Its message is simple - give money, not stuff, and give it to organizations that will use your money efficiently. Although it has been by far my most popular post ever, it seems that one single blog post isn't quite enough to end poverty and bring about world peace. Imagine that. So here's another one.

Let's suppose, just for the sake of argument, that you're not actually a Cold-Hearted Hard-Nosed Realist like myself. Maybe all this talk about research and efficiency feels distant and bureaucratic to you, the complete opposite of the warm feelings of generosity and solidarity with your fellow man that you get when you bring food to the food bank or toys to the orphanage. Maybe your gift isn't "optimal" but it feels good. Writing a check is so impersonal - you want something hands-on! I get it, I really do. And while I'm tempted to get on a soapbox and say that philanthropy is supposed to be about the people being helped, not the helper, I'll cut you some slack here. We all like to feel that we are making a difference.

Fortunately, you hands-on, personal-experience-givers are in luck, because there is actually one donation-in-kind that even Cold-Hearted Hard-Nosed Realists can heartily approve of, because it's a gift that's always desperately needed and no amount of money can buy. If you don't want to give money, GIVE BLOOD. Sit in the chair, grit your teeth through the needle, and give the gift of your own life force. There's nothing more personal and hands-on than that. And as for the effects, while donated money may sometimes go to practical, boring (but essential!) things like buying a charity's copy paper or paying its electricity bill, your blood donation goes to one thing and one thing only: saving another human being's life. Up to three lives, in fact, from a single blood donation. Check this out:

I know, not everyone can donate blood. Us globetrotters are particularly likely to fall afoul of eligibility requirements - I've been hanging around near malaria too much lately, so the Red Cross would much prefer that I open my checkbook than my vein. All the more reason for those who can donate to actually do it! So get out there, eligible donors, and start saving lives. If that doesn't fill all your desire to feel like you've made a meaningful positive contribution to mankind, I don't know what else will. Plus - free cookies!

And now, because I'm pretty sure this is actually why that last post got so many hits, here's another adorable kitten video:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Lisbon

For Thanksgiving this year I took a little trip to Portugal. Some friends from Conakry are posted there now, and my buddy Seamus* came too, so we had ourselves a proper Conakry reunion. Other members of Team Conakry were there in spirit/FaceTime. (It's strange to think that we all lived there less than six months ago - it feels far away and forever ago now.) Our gracious hosts will be known to my regular readers as the rescuers of the Kipe Compound chickens. Well, for a while anyway. They did kill and eat them a few months later, but I was out of town at the time so I was unable to document their final chapter.

But anyway, Lisbon. Before and after the traditional Thanksgiving feasting we checked out the beach town of Cascais, visited the famous monuments (and pastry shops) of Belem, wandered through the streets of downtown Lisbon, and gawked at the mountain castles of Sintra. And there was still plenty of time to sit idly in the sun and replenish my depleted vitamin D supplies. It was a bit chilly in the shade or the wind, but a nice sheltered sunny spot was just heaven. And we ate - custard tarts, garlicky grilled octopus, roast chestnuts, and cherry liqueur. Yum.

Tourism with three children under 10 in tow turns out to be a little more challenging than the footloose single sightseeing I'm used to. This weekend has given me new respect for my parents, who hauled three little girls around Europe for years. Just like our friends' kids, those little girls were also tragically unimpressed by castles. (How things have changed!) So I didn't check off everything on my list, but this trip was really more about being with friends and eating turkey and pie than seeing all the things. And besides, it gives me another excuse to head back to Lisbon someday soon. I'm looking forward to it.

*Not his real name, but he picked it out

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Pop-culture MBTI types; apparently I'm Palpatine, Draco Malfoy, and O'Brien. INTJs get no love.
In Internet grammar news, "because" is now a preposition and the period is now a sign of anger.
Looking to add some personal flair to the snacks at your next party? How about serving cheese cultured with your own skin bacteria?
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - The Comic. I have never cared for Eliot, but this makes his poetry much more relatable.
Has Wikipedia peaked?
1900s Dublin in photos
See Venice by couch, thanks to Google Street View
Fun with maps: word-origin maps and maps to get lost in

Lady Gaga gets a jazz makeover:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Things For Which I Am Thankful

Airplanes. Scarves. Cocktail cherries. Stepping out of my comfort zone. Direct deposit. DPO. Warm kitty snuggles on cold nights. Sunshine. The benefit of the doubt. Dancing shoes. Curiosity. Wanderlust. Dutch ovens. Warm welcomes. Congressional appropriations. Smithwick's. Personal growth. Professional respect. Corn meal. New friends. Old friends. Forever friends. Beaches. Electricity.   Good health for me and those I love. Boots. Tap water. Public transportation. Tea. And last but definitely not least, family - the one I was born with and the one I'm building for myself around the world. Love you guys!

Etc., etc., etc.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Winter is Coming

Or, as far as I'm concerned, it's already here. The sun is keeping office hours, rising just before I go in to work and departing abruptly half an hour before I do. It's dark. It's cold. Not all that cold, objectively - so far it barely scrapes freezing, even at night - but for a warm-weather girl like myself it's bad enough. Except for a brief excursion to Iceland last January and some time in Germany in February I haven't really had to deal with winter in several years, and I expect it'll be a rough slog. There's a big difference between spending some playtime in a winter wonderland and having to drag yourself out of a warm bed to trek to work in darkness and sleet, just like the day before, and the day before that. Ugh. I am so not looking forward to this.

I'm not caving in just yet though. Winter's going to have to work harder than this to break me down. I'm stocking up on hats and scarves and mittens. I'm discovering - or rediscovering - tried-and-true winter coping mechanisms, like furry boots, extra-strength moisturizer, and hot toddies. The dutch oven I got for my birthday is quickly becoming my kitchen MVP as I fill it almost every weekend with assorted soups, stews, and braises. Take that, winter!

And there are some compensations. Ireland has winter, but it also has Christmas. I adore Christmas, and the lack of festive atmosphere my last two Decembers in Guinea hit me hard. But in Dublin the lights are up, the carols are playing, and everything smells like cinnamon. I love it. I'd love it more if Starbucks had peppermint mochas instead of those silly orange ones, but I suppose living abroad, even in Ireland, requires some sacrifices.

EDIT 12/10/13: Starbucks DOES have peppermint mochas, they just weren't advertising them. Yay! Christmas win!

Monday, November 11, 2013

As Gaeilge

As one of my new hobbies I am taking an Irish language class. This has no real practical utility for me at all. The odds of my ever meeting a person who speaks Irish but not English is spectacularly low, if such a rare and special unicorn even exists. Even in Ireland it's only the third most common language spoken, after English and Polish. There's an interesting documentary series about a guy who tries to tour Ireland speaking only Irish, and he has a rough time of it. The State Department doesn't test in the language, so no promotion fodder there. The most direct job-related benefit I get out of it is that it makes it slightly easier for me to figure out how to correctly pronounce the crazy Irish names I have to call on a loudspeaker on a daily basis. (Favorite example so far: Caoilfhionn = KWAY-lin. Seriously?)

The language itself is perhaps the most baffling I have been exposed to so far. The underlying structure is more Latinate than I had expected, but there are several quirks that I am certain exist for no other reason than to make things more complicated for me personally. Some examples I have encountered:
  • Irish has no words for "yes" and "no" - you have to use the positive or negative form of the verb in the question you're responding to. So the answer to "are you hungry?" is "I am." or "I'm not."*
  • There are completely different sets of number words depending on whether you are listing numerals, counting things, or counting people. 
  • There are no fewer than four different forms of the word for "year" depending on how many you're talking about. 
  • Irish uses the vocative case, which means that people's names are sometimes pronounced (and spelled) differently depending on whether you're talking to them or about them. 
  • The pronunciation generally is just ridiculous. We have yet to be given a full rundown on the system, but the sound of any given letter is highly reliant on what other letters happen to be next to it. This makes me long for the phonetic simplicity of Arabic - you have to learn what sound each squiggle makes, but once you sort that out you're golden. Irish also uses some throaty sounds very similar to the ones that gave me trouble in Arabic. 

I'm only taking two hours a week, and it's a conversation-focused curriculum so seven weeks in we haven't conjugated a single verb yet. This is kind of frustrating for me since I'm actually really interested in the grammar, but I'm also enjoying the relaxed pace and the lack of looming exams, an inevitable feature of all my previous language learning experiences. There are no stakes here - no grades, no deadlines, no need to cram it in and get to post on time. It's just something to do for fun, and if it stops being fun I'll stop doing it. It's kind of freeing like that.

* The actual construction is more like "Is hunger upon you? It is/It's not", but you get the idea. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Recyclable?

Ireland as a whole is much more environmentally conscious than the United States (with the exception of a few scattered hippie enclaves). My house has a programmable heater you can set up on a timer. The water heater has a switch that lets you determine how much hot water you want it to make. (Though on the other hand, my kitchen sink has different knobs for hot and cold water, so once you get a temperature and water pressure you like you have to keep the water running or you'll lose it forever.) And then there's the trash. I have not one, not two, but three big official wheelie bins that the truck picks up: general waste, mixed recycling, and compost.

I want to do my part for the environment so I have purchased three trashcans for my kitchen and do my best to sort my waste appropriately. But sometimes I just can't figure it out. A paper towel soaked in balsamic vinegar - compost, recycling, or neither? It's paper, which I would normally recycle, but usually that's dry, like newspaper. Does the vinegar make a difference? Presumably it would compost as well, but does it matter that the paper is bleached? Can I recycle a cardboard box that's still covered in packing tape? Aluminum foil doused in olive oil and chicken juices?

A visit to the pick-up company's website sheds no light on these problems, but it did inform me I'm not supposed to give them hazardous materials, like glass. But glass is recyclable! And what else am I supposed to do with empty jam jars and wine bottles? It's so confusing! But at least I'm trying.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Good news for Disney: 500 new fairy tales discovered. There's got to be a few more princesses in there somewhere.
The latest from the Nature Is Crazy Files: lethal lake turns animals to stone
How the world looks to cats. Cool, but they forgot to mention that to my cat I look like a walking sack of kibble in a maid's uniform.
A history of "cool". Cool.
Need a jigsaw puzzle with purpose? Help archaeologists reassemble a medieval monument.
Chemistry sets are so 20th century. Today's kids can make cyborg cockroaches.
Chickens eaten at fancy NYC restaurants also ate at fancy NYC restaurants. Part of me thinks this is ridiculous, and part of me thinks it's awesome.
Jokes for nerds. I think #47 is my favorite, though many are pretty good.

Super impressive:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Galway and Points West

We just had a three-day weekend in Ireland, thanks to a bank holiday. I love bank holidays - it's a holiday that doesn't have to be (or pretend to be) about veterans or Columbus or anything else but an extra day off work. I took the opportunity to go to Galway and see some of Ireland's west coast.

Galway is smaller than I thought it would be - a university, a handful of pedestrian streets full of pubs and shops selling rings and sweaters, a river, and some coastline. Galway is a much more nautical place than Dublin; though they both have harbors and seagulls and things, you can tell the ocean means more somehow in Galway. And the seafood, as you would expect, is fantastic. You can exhaust the city's attractions in less than a day, unless you want to test out every pub, in which case you'll be there for weeks. (That might not be a bad plan.) It's a cute town though, and makes a nice base for day trips to the surrounding area.

I had planned to visit the Aran Islands while I was in the neighborhood, but strong winds from a storm in Scotland closed the ferry and scrapped that plan. Instead I took a bus trip to the Cliffs of Moher, where I got some lovely photos but almost got blown over several times by winds powerful enough to pull sea spray straight up the 200m cliff face, and, I feared, to rip my ears off my head. I also learned, in several wet spells over the weekend, that my rain gear isn't quite as waterproof as I had thought. Oops. Another decent day trip from Galway is a tour of Connemara, a wild and woolly land with nothing but peat bogs, rocks, and sheep. Those things make for some pretty breathtaking landscapes though.

So it was a damp and windy weekend, but well worth the trip. I hope to be able to go back again one day and see some more of Ireland's Wild Wild West, on a slightly more relaxed itinerary next time.

Monday, October 21, 2013

So, How's Work?

Blogging about work can be tricky. The State Department has a very broad-brush personal social media policy, which requires clearance on anything "of official concern" to the Department. No one really knows exactly what that means, so to avoid accidentally crossing any invisible lines many of my colleagues restrict their blogging to discussing hobbies, posting vacation photos, and telling stories about the cute things their kids have done lately. In short, talking about anything and everything except being a Foreign Service Officer. I can't say I blame them, but I do think it's a shame. When I was looking at joining the Foreign Service I was disappointed by how hard it was to find out about the work, so when I started this blog I made a conscious decision to talk about my job, to the degree I felt comfortable doing so and still getting to keep it.

Well, I'm not talking about my job much these days. This is because there are two parts to American Citizen Services work - the Boring Part and the Interesting Part - and neither of them has a place on the blog. The Boring Part, which takes up the majority of my time, is routine bureaucratic paperwork stuff. I sign things. I click buttons. I put little barcode stickers on forms. There's nothing to say about it because it's boring. The Interesting Part of ACS work is what happens when things go wrong. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes members of vulnerable groups like children and the mentally ill end up needing a little extra help. Sometimes the people coming in are just normal adults who have made Poor Life Choices and would like our help dealing with the consequences. But all of them are American citizens with privacy rights, and while this part of the job can make for GREAT stories, they aren't stories I can put in my blog.

I'll still try to talk about work a little, when I can, but it won't be often. However, just consider that missing a few juicy blog posts is a small price to pay for the confidence that no consular officer is going to splash your Poor Life Choices all over the Internet. We'll just let you do that yourself on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


For a few weeks after the cat came back from his little adventure he seemed perfectly happy to be back to domestic life, but lately the wild has been calling. He is bored with safety and comfort and wants a little excitement again. He does seem to have had enough of BASE jumping, thank god, and now prefers to make his escape by barreling out the front door when my hands are full. Little bastard.

One of the key entertainments outdoor life offers is the opportunity to encounter and challenge his nemesis. This is an orange tabby stray I have decided to name, for convenience, Abraham deLacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley (AdLGCTO'M). I hesitate to call him an alley cat - alleys are hard to come by among the tree-lined boulevards of Ballsbridge - but he is footloose and fancy-free, living by his wits in the big city, er, suburbs. Jabbers hates him.

The marmalade menace certainly seems to hang around the house a lot. One time he even dared to flirt with me - ME, the exclusive property of the Jabberwock - mewling and acting adorable in an attempt to get me to feed him, to divert Jabberwocky's precious resources to the benefit of this interloper, this nobody. This is behavior up with which Jabbers will not put!

He ran out on me this evening when I got home from work, which shocked me. I was so certain he'd never risk being away from home at suppertime, but this was a matter of honor. Half an hour later I heard His Highness' distinctive "go away or I will fight you" yowl and poked my head out the front door to see my Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, all puffed up and strutting like a BAMF, ready to show the upstart who was boss around here.

At which point I promptly scooped up my beamish boy and bundled him back in the house. Because *I* am boss around here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Shutdown. Kind Of.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you are probably aware by now that the U.S. federal government entered a new fiscal year yesterday, but that Congress hasn't given it any money. Outcome: government shutdown. Kind of. Mostly, but not entirely.

The State Department is still operating, thanks to some budgetary wizardry I don't entirely understand involving multi-year funds, and will continue doing so until we run out of money. And when will that be? No one can really say for sure. But in the meantime we are still coming to work, still doing our jobs, and still getting paid, though I wouldn't exactly describe it as business as usual. My paycheck is safer than most, since my salary is financed not by tax dollars appropriated by Congress (when they can be bothered with such mundane tasks) but by fees paid by passport and visa applicants, "and since consular operations are fee-funded, there’s a significantly less chance of a furlough occurring for those departments."

So that's great news for me, and also for all the American citizens in Ireland who might have their passport stolen or otherwise need my help between now and whenever Congress gets its act together. It's not so great for more than 1 million of my fellow federal employees who are coming in to work every day and doing their jobs for the benefit of the nation so they can get paid back...someday, later, eventually, once Congress pulls itself together and does its job. And then there are another 800,000 who are legally prohibited from doing their jobs until Congress decides to govern already and who may never get paid at all.

I know a lot of people in both categories, and I worry for them, especially with the Washington Post predicting an extended shutdown before this thing gets worked out. They still have bills to pay. And from my weird little paycheck-in-a-shutdown Twilight Zone I have what you could call survivor's guilt. There, but for a quirk of funding mechanics, go I. But there's not a lot I can do to help. It's not up to me to fix this. It's up to a particular group of 535 bickering children representatives democratically elected to govern the nation in the best interests of its people. I find it difficult to believe that current events are truly reflective of that mission.

But this is all very depressing, so in an attempt at levity, here's a furlough card for all my friends staying home for the duration. Imagined by me and brought to life by a clever friend of mine with skillz.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Wired did a food issue, packed with geeky sciencey foodie articles you should totally check out.
For more (but very different) food reading, see this exhaustive assessment of fast food burgers (part 2, part 3, part 4)
Inside the Punderdome 3000, a competition for people who are way wittier than me.
For my fellow itinerant bookworms, two new ways to keep your reading habit portable: Kindle MatchBook, which helps you recreate your physical library in the cloud, and Oyster, the Netflix of books.
Or maybe just try smaller books?
Microsoft Word Problems
The best of @unitedairlanes, a fake customer service twitter feed that expresses how we all feel about flying.

I know you've all probably seen this already, but if you somehow missed it that sad situation ends now:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Bombing Bonding

Back when all signs pointed to imminent U.S. airstrikes in Syria (which was not even two weeks ago but feels like forever), it seemed like a good idea for my sister Laura to get out of Beirut for a little while. So she hopped on a plane and came to stay with Big Sis in Dublin. She was the very first visitor to the Inn at Cherrycourt (aka my house), and I expect to see rave reviews on TripAdvisor. I mean, what other B&B comes complete with Rock Band, jellybeans, and a ridiculously affectionate cat?

I took advantage of having a guest in town to not cook and to go try out a bunch of restaurants I had been meaning to visit. When I first found out I was coming here multiple people told me Ireland was a good place for stew and fry-ups but not much else. I am pleased to report that this advice could not be more wrong. Dublin has plenty of great food. From the cassoulet at The French Paradox (where Laura somehow charmed the owners into offering us not one but two free rounds of champagne) to the upscale pork belly at The Pig's Ear, to the Victorian sponge cake at Queen of Tarts, we ate very well indeed.

We also did a lot of walking, which was probably for the best given all the delicious calories we were eating. The highlight of her visit was probably our trip to Howth last Saturday. Howth itself is a charming little fishing village with a long seawall that's good for a stroll (bring a scarf, it's windy!) but the main draw is the walking trails over and around the Hill of Howth, along the top of cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea. The weather was perfect, the views are tremendous, and it doesn't take long to feel like you're miles from anywhere when you're actually still in Dublin. Make sure to bring enough water though - we were unprepared and learned the hard way that 14oz of water between two people is nowhere near enough for a 3-hour hike. Oops.

By the end of the weekend it was pretty apparent that any airstrikes that may or may not happen were not going to happen in the immediate future, so we both went back to real life on Monday. Too soon. But just a few days was enough to move Ireland from "meh" to "must" on Laura's travel to-do list, and she's planning to come back in the spring. Or the next time we almost bomb Syria, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bacon: A Lament

I am a big fan of breakfast food. However, I am not a big fan of waking up any earlier than the last possible minute that will allow me to roll out of bed, bathe, dress, primp, and still make it to work on time, so I only get my eggs and pancakes on the weekends. I love a nice oozy Eggs Benedict or a pile of French toast, but the crowning glory of any breakfast plate is, of course, bacon.

As a mostly Muslim country Guinea was not big on bacon, so when I lived in Conakry I paid $10 a pound for premium applewood-smoked bacon smuggled in frozen from Wisconsin, and it was worth every penny. In Ireland availability is not a problem. But as nice as it is to now live in a place that loves and cherishes bacon as it deserves, something is lost in translation. Even though I should know better by now, when I see "bacon" on a menu I can't help but think of crispy strips of succulence, only to be disappointed when the inevitable floppy rasher appears on the plate.

Irish bacon and American bacon are not the same. I almost wrote that they are completely different animals, but they are both pig of course. They are both salt-cured, frequently smoked, and usually fried. But American bacon is sliced from pork belly, while Irish bacon comes off the pig's back. It's leaner, meatier, more like ham. It does not crisp up into delectable ruffles when fried. It just lays there, limply steaming. You eat it with a fork and it chews instead of crunching, like well-cooked bacon ought to do. Yes, it's still salty porky tastiness, but it's not what I wanted!

Apparently you can get American-style bacon here, known as "streaky bacon." I'll definitely look for it, but as an integral part of Irish cuisine I feel like I should also learn to appreciate the rasher on its own terms. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Killarney

I took advantage of Labor Day weekend to go on my first non-Dublin excursion. I picked Killarney, home of Ireland's first national park. I was happy with my choice. This bit of Ireland looks kind of Scotlandish, with a series of lakes tucked between steep and rocky hills. In addition to the lovely scenery the park also includes a Victorian mansion, a medieval castle and a ruined abbey, so I got to geek out on some history while I was at it. I am a total sucker for informational plaques.

The weather was almost obscenely good. Not too hot, not too cold, and blazing sunshine almost the whole time. I got sunburned. In IRELAND. But it was perfect weather for walking around in nature, which was great since I ended up doing a lot of that. The park has great nature trails; I saw some red deer, ate blackberries straight off the bush, and stood on a 300-year-old bridge with the wind in my face and felt vibrant and alive.

On Sunday I saw the famous Gap of Dunloe, a picturesque glacier valley. You can drive there, or you can take the scenic route like I did: a 1 1/2-hour boat ride across the lakes, a pretty steep climb up to the Head of the Gap, and then a gorgeous trip through the gap itself. I decided to cycle it, and quickly discovered the initial ascent is not for amateurs. After a couple of tries I gave up and pushed the damn thing all the way up, and I was far from the only one. Totally worth it though, because the way down is fantastic. The views are just beautiful, and once you get over that first hill you can almost coast all the way back to Killarney. Watch out for pedestrians though - the older ones in particular are inattentive and slow-moving, and the way they complained about my cheery little bike bell interrupting their contemplative reveries you'd think they'd rather be run over. Just saying.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Medical science just keeps getting crazier and crazier. Now men can make eggs, women can make sperm, and cats can get blood transfusions from dogs.
Speaking of mad science, the world's first lab-grown beef burger has had a taste test. The verdict? "dry and a bit lacking in flavor."
Oldest depiction of the Americas found on globe made of ostrich eggs
"How Not to Move to Argentina" - a tale of bureaucratic hell. Having been on both sides of similar (though not nearly as bad) situations, I sympathize.
A field guide to uncommon punctuation
A video game about writing and typography about music inspired by a book. Next up, dancing about architecture?
I told myself I'd skip the Game of Thrones content this month, but I couldn't resist. So here's the Game of Thrones-inspired food blog and how to recreate the GoT ladies' hairdos. My look is really more of an Arya though.

Cool timelapse film of European landmarks at night:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


George Bernard Shaw once said that Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language. I am finding that this goes double for Ireland. After years of living in Francophonia I am used to struggling to communicate, but there's something especially jarring about having trouble getting simple ideas across while speaking one's native tongue. Living in Dublin is bringing a whole new level of "...what?" to my life.

Some of this is vocabulary. Now, I am familiar enough with British English in general to know all about brollies and wellies and the cookies/biscuits/scones and fries/chips/crisps confusions. But then the are the Irish quirks I did not previously know about, like that "gaff" means "house," the many and varied uses of "craic," and that if you ask someone for a ride instead of a lift you are in fact saying something along the lines of "wanna fuck?" That's an important one to know.

Some of this is accent. Some of the thicker Irish brogues are nothing short of impenetrable to my untutored American ears under the best of circumstances, and exponentially worse in crowded bar conditions. The accent problems go both ways though: bus drivers never seem to understand where I want to go on the first try, and bartenders always make me order twice. This is despite the fact that I know my bus stop is "Shrews-bree" and not "Shrews-berry", and that I am aware that the W in Smithwick's is silent and pronounce it accordingly. I'm trying here, I really am. You could even say I'm making a go of it. But somehow the twang always gets in the way.

I know some of this will get better with time. I'll get used to the local accents and the local slang, and my new habitat will slowly become more comprehensible. But there are still millions more Irish out there who I have not yet encountered, just waiting to meet me, listen to me speak, and reply, "...what?"

Friday, August 16, 2013


For the last few days the cat has watched in wonderment as I performed a variety of mundane household tasks. I feel like I should have an old-timey circus poster:

SEE Meredith iron!
WATCH her move laundry from the washer to the dryer
MARVEL as she empties the dishwasher!

And for the GRAND FINALE,
a feat NEVER BEFORE ATTEMPTED on this stage

Meredith will SCOOP THE CAT LITTER!!!

The reason for Jabberwocky’s astonishment is simple: for the past two years, fully half of his short life, these tasks have been handled by my housekeeper. Now with a reduced income stream and my return to First World labor prices I have to take care of my own house again, and the cat finds it unspeakably weird. So do I.

I’ve never been much good at the domestic arts. I subscribe to Lackluster Housekeeping, which features such articles as “A Little Dust Never Killed Anyone,” “Know Your Mold: Scrape It Off or Throw It Out?” and “If Laundry Falls on the Floor and No One’s There to See It, Does It Make a Mess?” Don’t get me wrong – I like things to be clean, I just don’t want to be the one responsible for making or keeping them that way. And when you combine my natural aversion to housework with being very out of practice at all things cleaning, the end result is not pretty. Just keeping up with the laundry and the dishes has been struggle enough, let alone attempting advanced housekeeping maneuvers like vacuuming and cleaning the sink. And I got all my boxes delivered on Wednesday, so the whole house is pretty much a disaster area.

I’m not expecting much in the way of sympathy here. I can hear you all rolling your eyes and laying the sarcasm on thick. “Oh, POOR Meredith has to do things for herself like a normal human being again. How AWFUL.” I know I probably deserve that . But housework is HARD, and I DON’T LIKE IT, and this is my blog so I can complain about it if I want. So there. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Cat Came Back

Two weeks to the day after his spectacular escape, the Jabberwock returned. I looked up from watering the basil plant I am trying valiantly to keep alive (for a change) to see him casually prowling around the backyard. By the time I got the door open he had migrated to the neighbors' yard, which I had to coax him out of with kibble. It was harder work than I had expected. He actually ran away from me at one point, the most unkindest cut of all. I think he had been enjoying the carefree rootlessness of the alleycat life and was reluctant to return to the confines of domesticity.

On the other hand, this cat is a definite fan of reliable meals, and the Chase It Down And Kill It Yourself Or Don't Eat Diet was clearly not meeting his ideal of comfortable living. He also prizes his dedicated Pet The Cat Time, which occurs at a contractually-obligated minimum of twice daily when at home. That itch is pretty hard to scratch in the wild. So after a minute or two of existential struggle he sacrificed freedom for security, which also comes with featherbeds and laser pointers and occasional nibbles of gourmet cured meats. He purred himself to sleep last night on one of the aforementioned featherbeds, so I don't think he's too terribly unhappy with his choice.

As you can imagine, I am delighted and relieved to have him back. To share my joy I am pleased to bring to your attention The Cat Came Back, a short animated film about a man with the complete opposite problem to the one I had. I've also had the song it's based on stuck in my head for the past two weeks. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The New Girl

One of the many unique aspects of the Foreign Service life is the constant change. Every 2-3 years you pick up and start over, new place, new job. Which means that every 2-3 years at least you will be the new kid in the office. I hate being the new kid. For me it's one of the hardest things about the FS. I really like feeling competent in my job, and it hurts me to show up in a new place and be suddenly at sea. Where's the bathroom? How do I get more pens? Who are all of these strange new people and how will I ever remember all of their names? It's completely normal and expected, I know, but it still makes me feel stupid sometimes. I hate feeling stupid.

Even having done consular work before only buffers this effect slightly, because every embassy has slightly different procedures and conditions. The workload here is very different from my last post: in a day Dublin does more visas than Conakry does in a week, more passports than Conakry does in a month, and more emergency passports than Conakry does in a year. You get different kinds of clients too. Ireland is on the Visa Waiver program, so most people don't need to apply for tourist visas.  This means that you end up processing a much higher percentage of other kinds of visas I didn't see as many of, like student and work visas. On the ACS side, you see a lot more American tourists here, whose consular needs are very different from people living permanently overseas. My previous experience is certainly coming in handy, but there's still a lot to learn. 

After two weeks I'm starting to find my footing, which is reassuring. I know that in a few months I'll have fewer questions and more answers, and feel like I'm at least halfway competent in my job. But in the meantime I still have a lot of questions to ask. 

Monday, August 5, 2013


I had a post all ready to go about the insane amount of money it cost me to relocate the Jabberwock from Conakry to Dublin - $2,690, if you're curious - but how it was all worth it because I love my kitty and am so happy to have him with me in Ireland. However, this post is now OBE, as the ungrateful little beast has run away.

I'm still not entirely sure how he made his escape, though my best theory involves a fairly death-defying leap from a second-story window to a none-too-sturdy bush/tree in front of my house. As there are no shattered cat remains around anywhere I assume his Houdini impression was successful and he headed off to have a few pints, hear some fiddle music, chase some tail, and otherwise partake in the local culture. At first I held onto hope that he had found some new hidey-hole inside the house, but when he failed to turn up for breakfast the next morning there was no question about it: the cat was gone.

This was a week ago. He hasn't come back. I've done what I can do - put up signs, placed ads on some missing pet websites, registered his chips with the local SPCA, walked around looking for him myself - so there's not much left but to wait and hope for the best. According to a study conducted last year by the ASPCA, around 74 percent of lost cats are eventually returned to their owners, so the odds are good. But in the meantime the waiting is hard. He's only been gone a week, but it feels like forever. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

When the cranium-implantable Google Brain comes out (summer 2020?) this is what it will look like.
If you feel icky about having something implanted in your head, just have it implanted in someone else's head and then have that head transplanted to your body. Because we can do that now.
To help scratch that Game of Thrones itch while you're waiting for the next book/season, here are the characters Simpsonized and the Houses corporatized.
If you haven't tackled the books, here's some incentive: even more evidence that reading is good for you.
Let's look at famous people's passports! (SFCO - Safe for Consular Officers)
Olive oil - good for salad dressing and preserving historic buildings.
Next time you're feeling obscene, read this article on the swiftly changing nature of profanity.
A gem from The Onion: Fox Books Files for Bankruptcy

This movie does not exist, but it SHOULD:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Welcome to Ireland!

Jabbers and I and all of my suitcases have safely arrived in Dublin. Accomplishing that - especially the cat bits - turned out to be a trial (on which more later), but it's behind us now and we can get on with the pleasant task of getting settled in our new home.

Our new townhouse is super cute and well situated, and will be a delight to live in - once I get the hang of it. The house has a surprising number of Irish quirks that will take some getting used to. For example, on the first day I called my sponsor in a panic because I had locked myself INSIDE the house. Turns out the little knob on the lock slides up and down, you don't turn it. I also took some very cold showers until GSO explained the intricacies of the hot water system. Irish law forbids electrical outlets in bathrooms (too many electrocutions), so my hair won't ever be quite right until I can get an outlet and a mirror close enough together to straighten my hair without constantly running back and forth. But these are small things. I can't wait for all of my stuff to get here so I can make the place my own.

As if to celebrate my arrival Dublin is having its finest summer in decades - blue skies, sunshine, and temps hovering around 70 Fahrenheit. HEAT WAVE! No, seriously, this is a heat wave here. I could be wearing short sleeves, if I had packed any, which I didn't. But I'm making the most of the good weather, spending the weekend walking around getting acquainted with the city I will call home for the next two years. 

First of all, WALKING. Oh my god. It's so wonderful to live in a city with paved roads and sidewalks and so many interesting and worthwhile places you can get to on foot. It feels quite civilized. This morning I joined a walking tour of foodie hotspots (thanks Amy for the recommendation), so I now know where to get chocolates and cheese and quinoa and oysters and a variety of other delicacies that will make my next two years more delicious. There were a number of Dubliners on the tour who were also making good discoveries and were thrilled to give me advice on places to go and things to do while I'm in Ireland. Everyone here is so friendly! 

I still have to sort out phone service and home Internet and a million other things so it will be a while before I feel quite at home, but so far everything is off to a good start. It's going to be a good tour. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: The District

The big stinker
I wouldn't call myself a tourist in DC, exactly. I've lived here before so I know my way around, mostly, and I understand how to walk on the left side of Metro escalators and stand on the right. I haven't given the White House more than a passing glance and I haven't been to a single museum except the U.S. Botanic Garden, where I waited in line in the wilting sun to see (and smell) their blooming corpse flower. This giant phallic plant hoards energy for years - sometimes decades - saving it all up for one powerful blooming burst of heat and the stench of rotting meat to attract every pollinating dung beetle for miles. I apparently missed peak stinkiness though, sadly; I definitely caught a whiff of something foul but it may just have been the crowd of very sweaty onlookers.

It's a little strange being back though. Old stores and restaurants have closed, and new ones opened in their places. My old stomping grounds around 14th Street are getting increasingly chichi. I no longer automatically know, as if through a sixth sense, the time, place, and misery level of the inevitable Metro track work. My geography has gotten a little bit fuzzy; I still have enough of the "local" aura that people constantly ask me for directions, and usually I can help, but sometimes I'm not quite sure. I too am only passing through.

However, in lieu of participating in such classic DC tourist activities as visiting the Capitol and standing in the ridiculous line at Georgetown Cupcake (my cupcakes come from baked & wired), I've been getting things done: going to meetings, getting my badge renewed, and sorting out paperwork in preparation for the big move, which happens TOMORROW. Wow, that was fast. I've also been forced to keep up a hectic eating and drinking schedule in order to see as many of my DC pals as possible while I'm in town. My life is so hard, I know. Highlights include, but are not limited to: fiery Thai at Little Serow, a gluttonous brunch at Farmers Fishers Bakers, and a porcine feast at The Pig. Yum. I've always liked DC and it's been a pleasure to be here this trip, paperwork notwithstanding. And now for something completely different - next stop, DUBLIN!

My DC - the Dupont Circle farmers' market. There's sweet corn! And blueberries! And peaches! And...

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Today is my ten-year blogging anniversary. This blog here is just shy of the three-year mark, but I started my first one back in college. You can read my first-ever post here if you like, but I must warn you: it's not worth the click. In the pre-Facebook era, a LiveJournal blog was de rigueur among the twentysomething pseudointellectual set, at least at my school. All my friends had one so I got one too. I don't think any of my college friends have blogged for years now, but somehow I kept finding things to say. And ten years later, here I am, still flinging words at the Internet. I think we can officially call this a habit.

As I've mentioned before, autobiographical blogging requires a certain amount of narcissism, so thanks for putting up with that. On the other hand, in this age of selfies and reality TV narcissism is so hot right now, so maybe I'm just in tune with the zeitgeist for a change. How novel. But seriously, thanks for reading.  Extra thanks for those who comment, and extra super duper thanks to those who have sent fan mail. I live for that stuff. Positive feedback is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard, year after year, on approximately a twice-weekly basis. Behold, the power of compliments.

Hallmark tells me that the appropriate gifts for a ten-year anniversary are either tin/aluminum or diamond jewelry, so I'll be watching the mail expectantly for my Tiffany earrings and Reynolds Wrap. Here's to another ten years. 

Vicarious Tourism: Vero Beach

After an exciting but exhausting week at Yellowstone I was ready to take it easy for a while. Fortunately the next thing on the agenda was a few days of relaxation in Vero Beach, Florida, where my grandmother has a condo with beach access. I hadn't been to Vero since I was a kid, and I was surprised to find that the sleepy beach town I remembered had transformed into a much more upscale sleepy beach town, the kind of place where frugal multimillionaires shop at consignment stores and order the early bird special. There are more restaurants now, and better ones, and all kinds of dangerous cute little boutiques.

I did do some serious shopping while I was there - I spent a small fortune at the outlet mall - but mostly I spent long, leisurely hours at the beach: reading in the sunshine, watching the waves roll in, going for long walks along the shore, ogling the diver boys out looking for shipwrecked treasure, immersing myself in aquamarine. I strolled the boardwalk at night with an ice cream cone, hoping to glimpse a sea turtle coming up to lay her eggs. I never did catch a turtle but the nests were everywhere, each neatly roped off, catalogued, and labeled by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. I ate delicious meals with my mother and grandmother, reminiscing and gossiping about real estate. It was just what I needed.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ten Tips for High-Season Yellowstone

Going to Yellowstone in the high season can be chaotic. It's hot. It's crowded. Here are some tips to help optimize your vacation. Some of this advice we learned from experience, but the rest is from our own personal Yellowstone oracle: the checkout lady at Albertson's in Jackson who managed to ring up our groceries and drop some serious wisdom at the same time. She was right about everything.
  1. If you want to have any hope of staying in the park itself you need to book MONTHS in advance. I tried six weeks out and there was nothing available. You can still have a great trip staying outside the park, but it's a lot more driving.
  2. Don't forget your water bottles and keep a couple of gallons in the car for refills. It's hot. It really is, even if the low humidity seduces you into thinking otherwise.
  3. A wet bandanna around your neck is a great way to keep cool, but make sure it's 100% cotton, not a synthetic that will dry quickly.
  4. It also gets pretty chilly at night, so don't forget to bring a fleece.
  5. Invest in a pair of sunglasses with maximum UV protection and polarizing lenses - your eyes will thank you. I had no idea how crap my normal sunglasses were until a morning on the river left my eyes squinting and burning even with them on. 
  6. For the photographers out there, a polarizing lens will help keep the glorious colors from washing out in your pictures.
  7. To see the main attractions without getting mowed over by buses full of tour groups go early in the morning or later in the evening. You'll have a much better experience.
  8. Get off the drive-thru circuit and try out a trail. Only half a mile from the main attractions the crowds thin out dramatically and you get a much more personal experience with the park. We went horseback riding in a more remote corner of the park and saw other people only three times in the space of four hours.
  9. If you have never been on a horse before, a four-hour ride is WAY TOO LONG. Try two. 
  10. If you'll be doing your own cooking do your grocery shopping in Jackson. Stores in the park and in Gardiner and West Yellowstone are expensive and tilted more towards souvenirs than practicalities. 
And a bonus tip: Put a Reese's peanut butter cup in your s'mores. You're welcome. 

Vicarious Tourism: Purple Mountain Majesties

Continuing my very busy home leave, I just got back from a week touring Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks with my sister Beth and my friend Amelia*. I had been hearing for ages about how beautiful this area of the country is but I had never managed to make it there until now. Having been, I can say with confidence that all the glowing praise you've ever heard about Yellowstone and its environs is completely underselling the place. The geysers! The waterfalls! The thermal pools and terraces! The canyon! The dramatic mountain views! We could have spent twice as long there and still not even scratched the surface of the park. The wildlife was pretty incredible too - where else will you see bald eagles soaring on an updraft or find a wild bison trotting down the street just a few yards from your car? And the stars! I've never seen so many! You can see the Milky Way and everything, quite a change from the five stars you get in the suburbs.

And there's so much to do. We hiked in the Tetons and rafted the Snake River. We rode horses in Yellowstone and soothed our aching muscles in a hot spring in Montana. We learned all about Buffalo Bill and celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks and a rodeo in Wyoming. (Miraculously, my sparkly pink pedicure made it through the trip intact.) And there were still so many things - mountain biking, paragliding, tons more hiking trails - we would have loved to do but just didn't have the time for. Maybe next time.

Beth is the photographer of the group so her shots are course much better than these, but in a place like this where every photo is a postcard even I couldn't screw it up that badly:

I need to go back one of these days - a week was nowhere near enough. But after our week of frenzied activity I need a vacation from my vacation! Good thing I'm going to spend the next week laying in the beach in Florida.

*Not her real name, but she picked it out.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Travaasa Austin

Yes, this is Texas
After two years of sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and watching my hardship pay pile up I decided I was allowed to have a little splurge, so on Friday my friend Kellie and I headed out to the Hill Country for a weekend of indulgence at the Travaasa Resort just outside of Austin. Austin has a number of resort hotels, but the others I looked at were either more family-focused than I wanted or were very high-end retreats for the bored and botoxed of Texas' ritziest neighborhoods to pass the weekend comparing juice cleanses and bitching about their husbands. I was happy with my choice. While not exactly cheap, Travaasa is more of a fancy summer camp for grownups; there's yoga and facials, but also a variety of more exciting activities like archery, crafts, cooking lessons, and a mechanical bull fitness class (yes, really).

Scenery from a morning stroll
By the time Kellie and I arrived a lot of the more interesting classes were full (book ahead if you can!), but that turned out not to be much of a problem. At Travaasa you can fill your time with fitness classes and your stomach with gourmet vegan cuisine, or you can lay around doing nothing much and eating ribeyes and chocolate cake. We chose the latter. Seven months pregnant and temporarily freed from the demands of a very cute but energetic four-year-old, Kellie was more interested in soaking up the tranquil atmosphere than anything else on the agenda. Sure, we caught a demonstration on how to make grilled margaritas and learned how to two-step, but mostly we just lolled by the pool, admired the scenery, savored the excellent meals, girly bonded, and sighed contentedly. It was a delightful weekend.

The view from our balcony

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I've Come to Look for America

I've been back for almost a week now, spending some quality time with the parents, running errands, and readjusting to the US of A. It's great to be home, but I am certainly experiencing some reverse culture shock.

One of the things I found most unexpected on returning to the Land of the Free is, paradoxically, how many rules there are. Take driving. Driving in Guinea is a complex activity but has almost no rules. There are no street signs, no traffic lights, no lanes, no speed limits. You drive in whatever part of the street seems best to you, in the manner and at the speed of your own choosing. You have to pay very close attention to the cars and pedestrians around you, but you need give no thought whatsoever to whether you are allowed to go or stop or turn at a particular time or place. In America the "allowed to" part of driving is a huge deal. Maybe I *can* turn left from where I am, but am I *allowed to*? Only if I'm in the designated left-turn lane and I have a green arrow. I notice it most in driving, but the preponderance of rules shows up in other areas as well; sometimes it seems like you can't do anything here without showing ID and filling out some forms.

Another thing that shouldn't surprise me but does anyway is how big everything is, and how much of it there is. Buildings, cars, vegetables, you name it. Venturing solo into a SuperTarget I found myself a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of consumer goods available; I stood, paralyzed with indecision, before an astonishing variety of deodorants that claimed almost half an aisle before grabbing one almost at random and getting out there as fast as I could.

There are little things too: forgetting it's okay to drink tap water, still worrying about malaria every time I get a mosquito bite, occasionally trying to speak French to black people (who think I am INSANE). But on the whole I'm getting the hang of it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Goodbye Guinea!

So this is it, my last day in Conakry. I'm all packed up, I'm ready to go. In a few short hours I'll be leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again. I cannot truthfully say that I hate to go. I had some good times here in the last two years but there were hard times too, and I am looking forward to a nice long vacation and then starting my new life in Ireland. But still, even now with suitcases in hand, the reality of leaving Guinea for good still hasn't quite sunk in. My house will no longer be my house; my office will no longer be my office; my boss will no longer be my boss. I know this, but it doesn't feel real. I haven't exactly fallen in love with this place, but it's grown on me.

Despite the trash fires, the intermittent electricity, and the occasional weekend on lockdown - perhaps in part because of them - this has been a good tour for me. I got a lot of great experience and made some valuable mistakes without messing anything up too badly. I learned a lot about what it means to live the Foreign Service life, made some friendships that will last a lifetime, and saw up close a fascinating time in a part of the world most people never see or hear much about.

I arrived in the heady days following Guinea's first successful presidential election. Spirits were high, investors were pouring in, and the country was preparing to take its fledgling democracy to the next step by holding legislative elections. Guineans were starting to imagine a new, brighter future. As I depart investors are pulling out, and the legislative elections - long promised and much debated - are still in the works. Many Guineans' early optimism has acquired a tinge of bitterness and cynicism as this democracy project has turned out to be more challenging than originally expected. I very much hope that in the long run the time I had in Guinea will turn out to be just the awkward growing pains of what eventually turns into a vibrant, peaceful, profitable, democratic nation. After decades of repressive autocratic rule Guinea still has a chance to truly fulfill its promise. Even if I can't be here to see it happen in person, I'll be watching.

I have heard it said that Conakry is the kind of post where you cry when you get there and cry when you leave. I'm not usually the tearful type, but I will certainly bid Guinea a fond farewell. And now, on to the next adventure!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ugh, Moving

I am an experienced mover. By my calculation I have moved no less than 15 times in my life, not counting all the toing and froing from college dorms. So far. Granted, for many of those I was just a kid and for the majority of them I was not the main responsible party. But I am certainly not unfamiliar with the process of packing up, picking up, and starting over somewhere else. I like to think I am pretty good at it by now.

You might think it gets easier with practice. You might also think that moving State-style would be a piece of cake. After all, there are people to arrange all the packing and shipping and ticket-buying for you. You don't have to pay for any of it. At packout time you don't even have to lift a finger to put a single item into a single box; you can just sit back in a lounge chair with a nice cold lemonade while the moving company does all the work. How tough can it be?

First of all, it may well get easier with practice, but moving is never less than a giant pain in the ass. And yes, State has does people who will arrange some things for you. But who arranges the arranging? You, the person moving. It is your job to track down who exactly is responsible for processing your travel orders and calling up the movers and booking your plane tickets, and then to make sure that the people who are supposed to do these things actually do them, correctly, and in a timely fashion. It is not always entirely obvious who is in charge of what and how you can reach them. Things also have to be done in the proper order, but it's up to you to figure out what that order is. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just do it all yourself.

And packing? On a lounge chair with lemonade? Not unless you don't care if all of your stuff goes to the right place or gets there in decent condition. In real life there are hours and hours devoted to packout before the movers arrive, prepacking some of your stuff and dividing your earthly possessions into piles depending on which shipment it's going in, or if you're bringing it along in a suitcase. And then once the movers arrive it's bedlam, as you rush around trying to keep an eye on three people at once, making sure the movers don't pack your wine glasses under your rock collection or throw any embassy-owned furniture into the mix. (The exact same stuff will be there waiting for you in the next place.) I was pretty impressed with the movers though; those guys rolled through my house like Katamaris, packing everything in sight, but it looks like things are well wrapped and should survive the voyage. I hope.

Now that the insanity is over my house feels weirdly empty. I think it's worse than when I moved in before my stuff arrived because then the house was just another new place and now it's home. Home, but stripped of everything that's mine except three suitcases and a few upgrades I'm leaving for the next occupant. And the cat of course, who spent two days hiding under the bed while the moving was going on, but seems to have recovered now that his ordeal is over. Little does he know this is only Stage 1.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


As the exodus of embassy staff from Guinea gathers momentum, the new arrivals are also starting to trickle in. It's fun to talk to them and see Guinea through their eyes, the way I saw it two years ago. I wrote a lot more cultural commentary pieces when I first arrived because everything was new to me; those posts gradually trailed off as I got acclimated and the things that had been unique and interesting - the roads, the money, the electricity (or lack thereof) - just became part of everyday life, hardly worth mentioning.

A perfect example of this is a movie trailer my news alerts recently brought to my attention. It's for an independent documentary called Black Out, which explores the phenomenon of Conakry schoolchildren studying for exams at gas stations and the airport because they don't have access to electricity at home:

Black Out - Trailer from HSI Short Films on Vimeo.

My initial reaction to the trailer was "well duh." Of course they do this. It's a practical (though limited) solution to a pervasive problem. It's something I see around me all the time, and hardly seems worth the trouble of making a documentary about it. However, I quickly realized that the only reason I think of this as unremarkable is because I have lived here for two years and I see it all the time. For most of the rest of the world both the solution and the underlying problem are remarkable indeed, because almost nowhere else will you find a capital city that gets this dark at night. 

None of this is to say that Guinea has lost the capacity to surprise me. I don't see that ever happening. But after two years you get pretty familiar with a lot of Conakry's quirks, and you learn to take Guinea on its own terms instead of constantly comparing it to the world you left behind.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

The future of gastronomy - 3D printed food? I find this scary and exciting at the same time.
Here's a great article on surviorship bias, with cute promotional posters for the "Department of War Math" as a bonus.
The lonely uphill struggle of the U.S. Metric Program
Need a vacation but can't leave your desk? Pump up your screen resolution and check out the awesome photography at Let's Travel Somewhere.
Alternately, play some Geoguessr. (Warning: dangerously addictive!)

The Lonely Island explains semicolons (but not very well)(NSFW):

Saturday, May 25, 2013


A few months ago I wrote that nothing strikes fear into a cat like a suitcase. I was wrong. Jabbers fears the suitcase all right, but not as much as he fears moving boxes. Slowly, over the last few weekends, a little at a time, I have been turning his little kitty world upside down. I pulled all the sheets off the extra bed he likes to hang out on, so now he has to roll all over the mattress to get it to smell right. I've moved his little cat palace to the other end of the house where the UAB pile is. And I am throwing everything into boxes and dragging them all over the place. And I haven't even gotten the suitcases out yet; I'm just putting the stuff that will go in them into a pile. 

His Highness is not pleased. He's gotten extra clingy lately, following me around on my packing rounds but taking care to keep a safe distance so he doesn't accidentally find himself packed up too. The movers come next Tuesday and then he'll really be thrown for a loop. Good thing I have an adaptable Foreign Service cat. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Roum Island

A week ago I said I had probably had my last beach day, what with the rain starting and all. I was wrong. While we've had some pretty wet spells lately, we were lucky today to have a full day of sunshine - perfect beach weather. As I was splashing around in the ocean it occurred to me that I had never really talked about the islands, which is a shame since its one of the best day trips you can make from Conakry, one I have made many times.

Conakry is a long skinny peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. At the end of the peninsula and a little ways out there are three islands that look like this: ( o ). The long skinny curvy islands are Kassa and Fotoba/Tamara, and the little round one in the middle is called Roum. Roum is where we go on weekends with the embassy boat. Did I mention the embassy has a boat? It's for emergency purposes, in case we ever need to evacuate but the roads are closed and the airport is shut down. But a boat isn't really something you can keep on a shelf until you need it, so we keep it in good order with beach trips during the dry season.

Most of Guinea's coast is rocks and mangroves, and that goes for Conakry as well. There are some small sandy beaches in Conakry proper, but so unsanitary as to be pointless to visit. Roum is different. It has some nice clean stretches of beach, far enough away from town to be out of its trash and sewage. There's a little restaurant that serves tasty seafood and chicken, as long as you order several hours in advance. And that's about it really. Sand, water, palm trees, fish, and sunshine (weather permitting). It wouldn't win any prizes against other beaches in the world, but it feels a world away from the chaos of Conakry, which is all I'm looking for. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


This evening I was just hanging out, watching some 30 Rock on my laptop, petting the cat, having a nice quiet evening at home, when disaster struck. The cat got tired of me, as cats do, and jumped off my lap to go entertain himself elsewhere. In the process he got his feet caught in the power cable. I watched, paralyzed with horror, as my precious computer leapt from my lap, spiraled through the air slo-mo Matrix style, and descended to the tile floor with a sickening crash. BAD kitty!

My precious baby is gone. The screen, while outwardly intact, has ceased to be a functioning feedback mechanism and now more closely resembles a high-concept contemporary art piece bristling with social commentary on the ever-increasing role technology plays in modern life. I'm thinking of selling it to MoMA. 

As for the rest of it, the diagnosis is uncertain. The video I was streaming actually kept running after the fall, so I have some hope that the innards are more or less intact and my data can be saved. Later I tried plugging it into my TV in the hope that the screen was the only damage, but alas, that does not seem to be the case. The few pixels that are still working now show the characteristic hue of the Blue Screen of Death. I'll pull out the hard drive and bring it home with me to see what can be done. At least I no longer have to figure out how to fit a cat and a laptop in the same carry-on bag.

I was planning to upgrade to a new laptop this summer anyway so I'm not terribly upset, but the timing is inopportune. I obviously can't just run down to the Best Buy in Conakry ville, so I'll be iPad-only until I get back to the States. I bought this thing to be my travel computer, and I guess now is as good a time as any to put it to the test. I have already decided that a keyboard might be a good idea. Hand cramp!

Sunday, May 12, 2013


I now have just under a month left a post. Sometimes this still seems like a very long time - a MONTH - especially since I have come down with a severe case of short-timer syndrome and am spending my every waking moment obsessing about home leave and Dublin. I think about these things, dream about them, so much that I wake up every morning surprised to still be in Conakry.

But really, when I break it down, a month isn't very long at all. Six more visa days. Four more ACS days. Four Country Teams. Four radio checks. Two more tanks of gas. One more big grocery trip. I may have had my last beach day already, since it started raining this week. I'm duty officer this week for the last time.

In the kitchen I've started to run out of things and not buy more, because I'm leaving soon and I won't use it. The last salsa. The last fish sauce. The consumables I've carefully rationed are finally running out. The last steak. The last Shiner. The things I have in surplus I'm starting to bequeath to deserving individuals who will survive me at post: some sweet tea vodka here, a little fig jam there, some truffle oil over here. (Yes, I own these things. Don't judge.)

And at the same time I'm racking up all of these lasts, I'm also starting to pack the first boxes. It's really starting to feel like I'm leaving.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


My home internet was out for five days last week, which was a bit of a trial. But I did what I always do when I'm bored - I cooked. A lot. I made BBQ chicken pizza with my new pizza stone. I made poached eggs on toast and cucumber salad. I took my long-owned but never-used pasta roller for a spin with from-scratch fettuccine with sun-dried tomato cream sauce. I made a fallen chocolate cake and topped it with Bailey's ice cream. I made a giant mess in my kitchen.
Fruits of my labors
I learned things. I learned that smoked gouda on a pizza is definitely a good idea. I learned that this recipe for fallen chocolate cake is actually more of a pudding than I really had in mind, but it's tasty and I think gluten-free, for those of you who deal with that sort of thing. I learned that the cat is crazy for Bailey's ice cream. I learned that kneading very stiff pasta dough is an effective full-body workout; I expected a twinge or two in my arms the next morning, but my aching abs caught me by surprise. I learned that tiny Guinean eggs do not result in the same rich yellow final product I was used to in Italy, but it still turned out okay. I learned that setting 5 on my pasta roller is still a bit too thick for fettuccine.

I learned that I am not half bad at this whole cooking thing, but then, I knew that already.