Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dublin Love

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lessons Learned From Third Tour Bidding

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Le Weekend à Paris

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

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

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

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

Achievement Unlocked: Food Coma

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Things For Which I Am Thankful

Handshakes. Radiators. Vacation plans. Sister Christmas! Friends who inspire me to be a better person. Dishwashers. Discretionary income. Tailors. Self-sufficiency. Irish coffee glasses. Green spaces. Gastropubs. Automatic cat feeders. Visitors. Tamales. Sleeping in. Perspective. Modern dentistry. Streaming video. Human ingenuity. Showtunes. Sea spray. Karaoke. Constructive criticism, and the ability to recognize it as such. Fireplaces. Hope. Passport stamps. Comparative linguistics. Good genes. Wellies. The craic. Road trips. VAT refunds. Family who are always there for me, even if they can't be here with me.

Etc., etc., etc.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hand: Shaken!

Today I got the thing I have spent the past 4+ months obsessing about: a handshake, State Department code for a job offer for my next post. I will be going to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to work as an econ officer at the U.S. Mission to the African Union.

I'm really excited about this job. I plan to spend a lot of my career in Africa, so this is a unique opportunity to really get to know the whole continent. I've learned a lot in my time in consular work, but I'm happy to be getting back to my core function as an econ officer. I've also heard nice things about Addis as a place to live, and baby sis in Dubai will only be a few hours away. It's a win all around!

As thrilled as I am about my new assignment, I am almost as thrilled just to have the bidding process over with. It was just as long and stressful and time-consuming as everyone said it was, and the tension and uncertainty cast a bit of a cloud over the past few months of my life. But now it's done, and I can focus on spending the next 8-9 months on the things that really matter: planning for Addis and making the most of Dublin while I still can. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

After 9,000 years of selective breeding corn, peaches, and watermelon are practically unrecognizable - and much, much tastier.
Remember Spirograph? You can play with it on the internet now. But even cooler than that is Spirograph pancakes.
A semi-scholarly analysis of the costs of the damage wreaked by Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes on his poor hapless parents*
This is your brain on metaphors
One way to solve the chicken-or-egg problem? Make the egg from scratch.
Fingerprint words - a meditation on the words that make us who we are

Here's a bunch of great music videos:

The iOS Autocomplete Song - no deep meanings here, but it is pretty catchy
Give It Up - a brand new song built from random YouTube videos
99 Red Balloons played with nothing but actual red balloons. (He only used 4 though.)
OK Go has a fun new video that was filmed with a drone in Japan
And from the forthcoming Annie remake, You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

And finally, a Rube Goldberg machine powered by light:

*Yes, I know this is all in good fun, but I do have a quibble with the methodology. By mixing price estimates in 2014 dollars for given events and explicitly stated costs as given in the comic (in 1985-1996 dollars, depending on the year of the strip), the author underestimates the cost of Calvin at today's prices by failing to account for inflation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Do You Like Me? Circle Yes/No

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Pragislavapest

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Speaking Irish

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Vicarious Tourism - Ulster Road Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Consular Work, 1914

I've been learning a lot about World War One this year. This is probably for the best, as my history teachers in school were always running behind and so desperate to cram everything in before the end of the school year that they just muttered something vague about trench warfare and mustard gas before moving on to WWII. On the centenary of its beginning, The Great War has been getting a lot of attention here in Europe, with commemoration ceremonies and documentaries on TV and such.

But one of my favorite sources for knowledge on The War to End All Wars has been Mental Floss, which is running a blog series detailing the action as it happened, 100 years delayed. This week's edition includes a section on the plight of U.S. citizens living the good life abroad who suddenly found themselves in a war zone, which I find particularly fascinating as an American Citizen Services officer. 

In the words of Henry van Dyke, U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands: 
I never had any idea, before the war broke out, how many of our countrymen and countrywomen there are roaming about Europe every summer, and with what a cheerful trust in Providence and utter disregard of needful papers and precautions some of them roam! There were old men so feeble that one’s first thought on seeing them was: “How did you get away from your nurse?”… There were college boys who had worked their way over and couldn't find a chance to work it back. There were art-students and music-students whose resources had given out. There was a very rich woman, plastered with diamonds, who demanded the free use of my garage for the storage of her automobile. When I explained that, to my profound regret, it was impossible… she flounced out of the room in high dudgeon.
Having now experienced a full summer tourist season of ACS work, nothing in the above paragraph surprises me at all. One hundred years later, some of our countrymen and countrywomen are STILL roaming around Europe with a cheerful trust in Providence and utter disregard of needful papers and precautions. That's makes for job security I guess, but I thank my lucky stars that another World War seems highly unlikely to break out while I'm on duty in Ireland. (Knock on wood.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Once More Unto the Breach

Well, here we are again. It's bidding time.

My last two rounds of bidding were for what are known as "directed tours." This means that the list comes out, you express your preferences through one mechanism or another, and then an assignment panel will choose your next post. You may not always be happy with the results, but at least the process itself is relatively quick and straightforward: from the day the list comes out to the day you know your fate is a little over a month, so you can just get it done and move on with your life.

This time, as a fully-fledged tenured officer, it's time to put on my big girl pants and bid with the grownups. This process is more like applying for a regular job: the list comes out, you research the positions, send in resumes, have interviews, get references, and try to figure out who you know who knows somebody with the pull to get you that dream job. A special code has grown up around the process to describe the intricacies of this mating dance: 360s, core bids, fair share, handshakes, air kisses, shoot-outs. The whole procedure takes over three months at a minimum, and can be much longer if you aren't successful in landing a job in the first round.

As usual with bidding, I am excited, and I am not excited. It's always a thrill to think about where I could end up next, and there are some jobs on the list that seem like they could be really great options for me - if only I can snag one. Everyone I've talked to seems to have their own thoughts and strategies for midlevel bidding, but no one has ever characterized the process as being anything short of hellacious. And since my last competitive job-finding process (5 years ago, before I joined the FS) did not go particularly smoothly, I am worried I may wind up somewhere I don't really want to be, doing something I don't really want to do. The only guarantee is months of stress and uncertainty while it all gets hashed out. *sigh*

But I don't really have a choice about it, so let's do this thing!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

The Tree of 40 Fruit - very cool, but somehow he passed over the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Maybe next time.
The CIA style guide - solid writing tips with just a 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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Aran Islands

I may have given my Irish exploration exploits short shrift this year. My international vacations all got posts - with fancy slideshows, no less - but I haven't even mentioned my visits to the Hill of Tara, to Waterford, to Clonmacnoise, and so forth. I have actually been making decent progress in my quest to see Ireland recently, with more exciting weekend trips in the works over the summer.

This last weekend, for example, I went to the Aran Islands, some rugged but beautiful islands out in Galway Bay. I had tried to make a day trip  to Inishmor, the largest island, last fall on my Galway visit, but the howling gale shut down the ferries and I was forced to go to Connemara instead. How tragic. This time the weather was lovely, perfect for cycling around and looking at things.

What is there to see? Lots of cows for starters, beautiful coastal views and some dramatic cliffs on the western side. And then there's Dun Aengus, an Iron Age ring fort backed up to the highest cliff on the island. Archaeologists think it's around 3100 years old, built by some mysterious ancient tribe no one really knows much about. The great thing about spending a night or two on the island is that you more or less have the run of the place once the day trippers leave around 5:00, so I got to have a the whole site entirely to myself for a good half hour or so. Try that at Stonehenge.

But my favorite thing may have been the Worm Hole, a natural rectangular pool carved into the rock and filled with seawater from below. Getting there requires a pretty long walk with precarious footing guided only by the occasional spraypainted mark on the rocks, but the walk itself is well worth it for the incredible scenery, dark grey rock punctuated by the bright lime green of some kind of seaweed-like plant that ekes out a fragile existence between seawater splashed up in storms and rainwater trickling down from the cliffs above. My photos are all washed out and don't even come close to the vividness of the colors in reality, but I tinkered with the saturation on some so you can kind of get the idea.

After two days on a bicycle I was happy enough to get back to my comfy office chair, but it was a great trip. Ireland never ceases to amaze. 

Monday, June 16, 2014


I have a confession. It is a shocking confession to make. I know I may well be PNGed for this, but I can live in silence no longer. For the sake of my own sanity, I have to get this off my chest:

I cannot stand James Joyce.

Dubliners bored me, but at least I finished it. I struggled my way through the first half of Ulysses and gave up when I could take no more. Finnegan's Wake is utterly ridiculous; I decided to read in it college so I could be "sophisticated" and didn't even make it through the first PAGE. I mean, really. After all that I haven't even looked at Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I don't expect it would change my mind.

Dublin as a city is very much attached to Joyce. There's a bust of him in St. Stephen's Green and a statue just off O'Connell Street, fondly known to locals as the Prick with the Stick*. He has not one but two museums devoted to him - one in North Dublin and one in Sandycove - while all the other Irish writers (and there are many) have to share one between them. There are endless tours of Dublin featuring places from his life and writings, some of which have been converted into shops selling Joyce-related paraphenalia.

Best Dressed
Joyce even has his own special day: June 16th is Bloomsday, the day in the life of Leopold Bloom as chronicled in Ulysses. On Bloomsday (and the whole weekend before) fans of Ulysses hold marathon readings, stage performances of events from the book, eat Irish breakfasts with kidneys just like Bloom, and retrace Bloom's path through Dublin dressed in Edwardian clothes. Like you do.

As much as I dislike Joyce's work, I love Bloomsday. A whole city-wide literary celebration! And it's not all stiff reverence: the highlight of the event (for me at least) was Romping Though Ulysses, a Rocky Horror-style showing of the 1967 Ulysses film complete with props and heckles and a costume contest. I have no desire to ever see that deadly dull movie without a crowd of people making animal noises and throwing paper planes, but with those things it was excellent! Now I just need to find a city with a fun multi-day festival for a book I actually like, and move there. I'm not holding my breath.

*Dubliners love to give their statuary irreverant rhyming nicknames. In addition to the Prick with the Stick there's also the Hags with the Bags near the river, and a statue of Molly Malone has a variety of racy titles inlcuding the Tart with the Cart and the Trollop with the Scallops. (It rhymes if you say it Irishly enough.) More on this phenomenon here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Telling It Like It Is

A few weeks ago I joined one of our public affairs officers to talk to a grad school group about the Foreign Service. I don't usually do many of these things, but they specifically wanted to hear about American Citizen Services, so off I went. I was coming from some particularly trying days at the office. We had a number of tricky cases and difficult customers all coming in at once, and I was feeling a bit frazzled. This might have showed a little bit in my presentation. I didn't have a meltdown or anything, but the words "tedious" and "frustrating" may have escaped my lips. These are not words one generally uses in a sales pitch.

But as I was skulking off back to work afterwards, feeling a little embarrassed about my extemporaneous venting, one of the students from the presentation saw me. She came up, shook my hand and said, "thank you for telling it like it is." I guess they had heard the sales pitch before.

Oh, there are tons of things I love about my job and about the Foreign Service life. Seeing the world, the sense of purpose, meeting interesting people, job security, etc. It's a pretty long list, and one I find persuasive enough that I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing with my life. But yeah, just like everybody else, I have moments when I hate my job.

Sometimes it's just really boring, doing the same thing over and over. Sometimes things don't work like they're supposed to, which is incredibly frustrating when you need to get something done in a hurry. Sometimes I really want to do something and am thwarted by one arcane rule or another, which makes me feel like a failure. And my current position is a customer service job, which brings its own challenges. Most of our clients are lovely, but I do get literally screamed at from time to time. And I just have to stand there and take it because screaming back is unprofessional and counterproductive.

A long time ago a friend linked to an article - I can't find it again, but wish I could - which suggested thinking about your perfect job not in terms of what rewards you hope to get out of it, but what kinds of suffering you are willing to endure in the process. Everyone more or less wants the same things from a job: a solid and steady income, an opportunity to make a positive difference, recognition for a job well done, and so forth. But the hardships people are willing to suffer can be radically different.

For example, I am unwilling to put up with handling bodily fluids or being locked in a room with 30 hormonal teenagers for 8 hours a day. In this way I am different from my friends who are nurses or teachers. Those friends probably think I'm nuts for being willing to move halfway across the planet every couple of years, but that I will do. I will also suffer through the occasional tedium, frustration, and tantrums of bureaucratic life (oh, and suits, I hate wearing suits) because in the end those things are not that big a deal to me, and the rewards are much, much greater. But that doesn't mean the bad stuff doesn't exist.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Things that are better with cats #564: fine art
The jackalope - not quite as fictional as you had thought
Whiskey-flavored pigs. Because bacon isn't tasty enough already?
Hilarious photos of the World's Best Father (except mine of course) and his 3-year-old daughter
And here's another great photo series: Everyday Astronaut
New lab-created organism has 6 DNA letters instead of 4.
The volcano that changed history
Foodies - a very short story
Play the 30th anniversary edition of the HHGTTG text-based game here. Prepare to die. A lot.
The Leidenfrost effect - making water do weird things
Walk in someone else's shoes with the 20-Day Stranger app. I am intrigued by this, but also kind of freaked out.
And here's a cat playing Jenga:

Monday, May 26, 2014



heading towards
the twin chimneys,
a two-horned snail

-- Anatoly Kudryavitsky

One of the more controversial features of Dublin's skyline is a pair of striped exhaust chimneys out in Ringsend, part of an oil-burning power plant that closed in the '70s, though the building lingers on. In a city where 10 floors makes a "skyscraper" (and there aren't that many of those), anything as tall as these things definitely stands out. The chimneys are one of those love-it-or-hate-it features of Dublin, with some people decrying them as a hideous eyesore and others defending them as a cherished local landmark. I fall firmly on the "love it" end of the spectrum. Maybe it's a side effect of an upbringing surrounded by chemical refineries (they really are magical all lit up at night y'all) but I have something of a fondness for industrial installations, and I like these a lot. Living on the southeast side I see them every day, unless low clouds block them from view. I look for them when I fly into Dublin, because they say "home" to me.

The power station has an interesting history too. Known as the Pigeon House after the storehouse-keeper who set up a shop and restaurant there for hungry travellers coming off the ships at the seawall in the 1700s, the site has since hosted a hotel and a fort in addition to the power station. The first power station there was built in 1903 and is still standing, as are parts of the other buildings, though long abandoned and slowly falling apart. A few years ago photographer Donal Moloney broke in and made the following video, which shows the decaying building in all its eerie splendor:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Jordan

Yes, I went on vacation again. Europe is great for that; it's relatively quick and easy to get all kinds of places. Such as, for instance, Jordan. Jordan, like Ireland, is a small country with an incredible wealth of historical sites and jaw-dropping natural beauty. The color palette is a bit different though.

I crammed quite a lot into my ten days. I rode in an Ottoman-era train. I experienced the apparent repeal of the laws of physics in the Dead Sea, and then got a mud wrap and a massage. I got up close and personal with a coral reef in Aqaba. I scrambled over Roman ruins at Jerash. I rode a camel.

And there was Petra of course, where I had a whole day to hike around and play Indiana Jones. Everyone makes a big deal about the Treasury, and it IS impressive. Even having seen the pictures, glimpsing it at the end of the canyon still sent a chill up my spine. But there's so much more to the city! The place is huge, caves and carvings as far as the eye can see. Just the official highlights can eat up hours, but it's also pretty easy to go off the map a bit and do a little private exploring.

However, the best part of my trip was probably the day I spent in Wadi Rum. Almost as soon as I arrived it starting raining, torrents of water and marble-sized hail for a good 20-30 minutes. And when it was over waterfalls had appeared in the mountains where there was only rock before, and a rushing river appeared where there had been nothing but sand. That was special. And then the sun came out with a nice cool breeze, and the air was so clear with the dampness holding the dust down. Perfect conditions for six hours of walking in the desert with only a Bedouin guide and a scruffy canine sidekick. It was so peaceful, and the scenery couldn't be beat.

It was not a cheap vacation by any stretch of the imagination - Jordan's entire economy is built on squeezing as much cash as possible out of visiting tourists, and they have it down to a science by now. So worth it though! Every time my inner pennypincher started getting whiny another wonder turned up to take her breath away.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

The best of this year's WP Peeps diorama contest. Politics and current events always get high marks, but "Everyone Peeps" got ROBBED!
For information-seekers in a hurry, TL;DR Wikipedia
Dublin history - the 1875 Liberties Whiskey Fire. Choice quote from a newspaper article at the time: "Four persons have died in the hospital from the effects of drinking the whisky, which was burning hot as it flowed."
Shakespeare's plays in 3-panel comic strips
The cubicle: innovative office design gone horribly wrong.
Are pets people?
Inevitable Game of Thrones content:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Latvuania

I made use of a 4-day Easter weekend (thanks Irish Catholics!) to go visit a friend in Riga, Latvia, and added a stop in Vilnius, Lithuania, because why not? It's right there. I had an amazing time. The weather was uncharacteristically perfect, for one thing - 70 degrees and triumphantly sunny - as if to try to convince me, a notorious winter-hater, that living in the Baltics for a few years would be a great idea. I was not fooled, but I was happy to take advantage of the opportunity to wander around without a coat on and hang out in sun-drenched beer gardens. Vilnius and Riga both turned out to be great wandering cities, more old-world charm and less depressing Soviet brutalism than I had expected. Riga also has a stunning art nouveau district just made for architectural appreciation strolls.

I also saw a former KGB prison, complete with torture cells where prisoners had to stand on a platform no bigger than a dinner plate or fall into icy water below. I went to an open-air ethnographic museum and learned to dye Easter eggs the traditional Latvian way. And I visited the Republic of Uzupis, an arty neighborhood in Vilnius with its own president and constitution. I was most struck by Article 10: everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat; and Article 13: a cat is not obligated to love its owner, but must help in time of need. Evidently you can get a passport stamp by presenting the appropriate visa (i.e. a smile!), but the ministry of tourism/immigration office/souvenir shop was closed for the weekend. Tragedy! I'm still kicking myself for missing out on that unique piece of passport bling.

And I ate! The Baltics seem to be big on pork and potatoes and garlic, and I love all those things. One night in Riga my friends took me to the aptly-named Garlic Pub; there was garlic beer, garlic bread, garlic spreads, garlic main dishes of all kinds, even garlic desserts! My garlic receptors may have been blown out by the time I got to the main course, so I barely tasted the garlic in my cheesecake. The garlic coffee seemed like a step too far. Aside from the garlic I was also introduced to black balsam, a potent herbal liqueur best mixed with something sweet; and sea buckthorn, a fruit that looks and tastes a lot like a kumquat but isn't one. And I got to add beaver to the list of strange animals I have eaten. (I should keep an actual list somewhere, as I'm starting to lose track.)

Anyway, Riga and Vilnius both exceeded expectations. Check them out sometime!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Poetry of Place

Maintaining its UNESCO City of Literature status, every year in April Dublin holds an event called One City, One Book, which aims to get the whole city reading the same book at the same time, a book which is somehow connected with Dublin. This year's selection is If Ever You Go: a map of Dublin in poetry and song. I'm a little late to the party, I know, and not usually a poetry fan, but I picked up a copy yesterday and have already found a lot to like. The poems are arranged in the book geographically, spreading out from the Liffey, so you could easily bring the book with you on a wander and dip into it for little scene-specific poetry snacks as you go.

My favorite discovery in the book so far concerns the Guinness Brewery. I still have not been converted into a Guinness drinker, but this poem made me giggle so I just had to share it:
The Fall
The Garden of Eden (described in the Bible)
Was Guinness's Brewery (mentioned by Joyce),
Where innocent Adam and Eve were created
And dwelt from necessity rather than choice; 
For nothing existed but Guinness's Brewery,
Guinness's Brewery occupied all,
Guinness's Brewery everywhere, anywhere –
Woe the expulsion that succeeded the Fall! 
The ignorant pair were encouraged in drinking
Whatever they fancied whenever they could,
Except for the porter or stout which embodied
Delectable knowledge of Evil and Good. 
In Guinness's Brewery, innocent, happy,
They tended the silos and coppers and vats,
They polished the engines and coopered the barrels
And even made pets of the Brewery rats. 
One morning while Adam was brooding and brewing
It happened that Eve had gone off on her own,
When a serpent like ivy slid up to her softly
And murmured seductively, Are we alone? 
O Eve, said the serpent, I beg you to sample
A bottle of Guinness's excellent stout,
Whose nutritive qualities no one can question
And stimulant properties no one can doubt; 
It's tonic, enlivening, strengthening, heartening,
Loaded with vitamins, straight from the wood,
And further enriched with the not undesirable
Lucrative knowledge of Evil and Good. 
So Eve was persuaded and Adam was tempted,
They fell and they drank and continued to drink
(Their singing and dancing and shouting and prancing
Prevented the serpent from sleeping a wink). 
Alas, when the couple had finished a barrel
And swallowed the final informative drops,
They looked at each other and knew they were naked
And covered their intimate bodies with hops. 
The anger and rage of the Lord were appalling,
He wrathfully cursed them for taking to drink
And hounded them out of the Brewery, followed
By beetles (magenta) and elephants (pink). 
The crapulous couple emerged to discover
A universe full of diseases and crimes,
Where porter could only be purchased for money
In specified places at specified times. 
And now in this world of confusion and error
Our only salvation and hope is to try
To threaten and bargain our way into Heaven
By drinking the heavenly Brewery dry. 
-- Fergus Allen

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Where the History Comes From

There's a great quote by Irish columnist Earle Hitchner that I think of all the time when I'm travelling in Europe: "The difference between England and America is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way." It's true for Ireland too, except with 161 km. When I was in Co. Meath a few weeks ago for a wedding the hotel staff thought I was nuts for driving 30 WHOLE MINUTES just to see a castle. (Totally worth it.)

Even in Europe a centenary is a big deal. 2014 marks the centenary of the start of WWI, and the whole continent is holding all sorts of commemorative events. A few months ago Taoiseach Enda Kenny and UK Prime Minister David Cameron made a joint visit to Irish and UK WWI sites, which was also a big deal given the long history of prickly relations between the two countries.

But then I happened to see a banner the other day that really made the first half of that quote ring true: in 2014 Ireland is also quietly celebrating the millenary of the Battle of Clontarf, when Irish High King Brian Boru (temporarily) united the tribes of Ireland to break Viking power in Dublin. I'll say it again: the MILLENARY. One THOUSAND years. What was going on 1000 years ago in the territory that would later become the United States? We have no idea. Stuff, probably. But no one wrote it down, so we don't know. The Battle of Clontarf got written down, so we do. We even know what day it was: April 23.

By the Battle of Clontarf Ireland had had written records for 700 years. Though that's no great shakes compared to other ancient civilizations, it still seems like a long time to me. And for even older history there's the buildings: Newgrange, which I saw and was amazed by, is approximately 5200 years old - older than the Pyramids. And there's a place called Listoghil in Co. Sligo that's even older than that, one of the oldest buildings in the world.  Clontarf is peanuts compared to that.


Monday, April 7, 2014


I got tenured this weekend! Hooray! I actually found out about it informally on Saturday morning through all the congratulatory messages on Facebook, since they sent the official cable out from DC last thing on Friday afternoon. Whose idea was that? Then I discovered that the cat had chewed through my Blackberry charger AGAIN (he doesn't approve of working in off hours), so I didn't get official confirmation until Monday morning. But it's for real!

Tenuring means that I am off probation: State has looked at what I've accomplished over the last three years and decided that, yes, Meredith really is a capable, competent Foreign Service officer and we want to keep her. There's no raise, no promotion, and my job doesn't change; in practical terms all it means is that I am eligible to compete for promotion in future boards, and I can't get paid for overtime any more. Bye bye comp time! We had a good run, but those days are over. In non-practical terms, it's a relief to have this milestone safely passed, especially since we've been expecting the cable for a month now. Just about everyone gets tenured eventually, as it's designed to be less of a competitive cull than an emergency fail-safe to get rid of any obvious non-performers who somehow got hired. But I'm happy to have that box checked.

One thing I did on my first day as a tenured officer was make the completely boneheaded rookie move of skipping over an application while transmitting, so I did a whole file of them with the wrong barcode stickers before I noticed. Doh! Smooth move, I thought, really earning that trust. But they didn't tenure me because I make idiot mistakes; they tenured me because I catch them, and then care enough about bureaucratic minutiae to sit there with scissors and tape for half an hour until everything matches up like it should. Conscientiousness!

Tenuring also means that I now have just over a month to complete my first grown-up EER, on the DS-5055 for tenured officers, which places a lot more responsibility on me to detail my accomplishments as opposed to my supervisor. A month sounds like a long time, but it's not. I have to write my bit, my boss has to write his bit, HIS boss has to write his bit, and then a panel has to review it and I have to make changes based on that review. Every other tenured officer at post is doing the same thing at the same time, so it takes a while. Better get started!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

DiploSkills: Cocktail Coordination

While diplomats do not spend as much time at fancy cocktail parties as stereotypes may suggest, they are an integral part of the profession. The embassy hosted one this evening to close out our annual economic conference. This year's theme was Smart People for a Smart Economy, focusing on how government, business, and educators can work together to build tomorrow's leaders and innovators. The cocktail nibbles were provided by Good Food Ireland, an organization that cultivates and promotes high quality, artisanal, sustainable Irish food. And let me tell you, it was amazing!

The best part of cocktail parties is, of course, FREE FOOD, especially when it's as good as tonight's was. (Yes, sometimes I still think like a college student.) The most daunting part - except for trying to mingle with a room full of strangers - is juggling your food and drink in such a way as to be able to partake of both without dropping anything. Sure, you can hold your plate in one hand and your glass in the other, but that leaves zero hands left to shuttle tasty bite-sized snacks from the plate into your mouth, where they belong. And god forbid you need to pull out a business card at any point in the evening (spoiler alert: you will). One seemingly unbreakable rule of cocktail parties is that there are NEVER enough tables, so you'd better be able to hold everything at once if you want to eat. Fear not! It can be done! Here's how:

Hold your left hand out palm up, and slot your wine glass between the index and middle fingers. Curve the fingers just enough to hold the glass securely. Not drinking wine? Put whatever you're drinking in a wine glass anyway, as a stemmed glass is key for this maneuver.

Balance the plate on the inside of your forearm so that the heel of your hand is just inside the ridge on the bottom of the plate. This helps keep the plate from sliding down your arm or off your arm to either side. Bring your thumb up to rest against the lower rim of the plate for extra stability.

With all your victuals secured with one hand you now have your right hand free to eat food, drink wine, shake hands, procure business cards, or take pictures of the food and drink in your other hand. You know, whatever. A few words of caution: this gets harder if you overfill the plate or the glass or both, so don't go overboard. You can always go back for more. This gets harder the more glasses of wine you drink, so take it easy there tiger. You must also repress the temptation to gesticulate wildly, or at least keep it to just the one hand.

Now you're all set to be a cocktail party pro!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Lots of language links this month!
Ballad of a WiFi Hero: a modern epic
When humans die out, cockroaches will rule the Earth. What takes over when the cockroaches kick the bucket? Tardigrades.
Game of Thrones Season 4 starts April 6! Here's a 9-minute recap of the last three seasons, if your memory is fuzzy. And for the bookworms, here's a chapter from Book 6: The Winds of Winter!
Aesop's lesser fables
IBM's Watson is bored with Jeopardy and taking up cooking instead.
How can the U.S. Government save $400 million a year? Change font.

How big is the universe? I'm still not sure I can really grasp something that big, but this helps:

How Big Is The Universe? from Beakus on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Art Imitates Life. Poorly.

I recently read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, about a boy named Theo who survives a terrorist attack on a New York museum and walks out with a priceless masterpiece, which becomes the central focus of his life as he grows up and gets him into some seriously hot water later on. I thought it strained credulity in a few places and I was a little disappointed with the ending, but it was well-written and a good read overall. I also read this article about the book (no spoilers), in which the author details the uncanny similarities between the adult Theo's life and his own, and marvels at how perfectly Tartt captured the details of his particular line of work: dealing antique furniture. Quite to my surprise, towards the end of the book I also found my own very specialized trade in print. However, I was less than thrilled with Tartt's rendering of American Citizen Services.

Stranded in Amsterdam under unsavory circumstances, Theo calls the U.S. consulate and has a four-page conversation with a staff member, presumably a consular officer, about getting a replacement for a lost passport. It starts about halfway down page 711 if you have the book, or if you want to read this section in Amazon's Search Inside feature. Go ahead, I'll wait. (If you stick to pages 711-714, there are no significant plot spoilers.)

Where to begin? No, an adult does not need to present their birth certificate to renew a passport, or a driver's license or a Social Security card, though it's certainly helpful if they have them. In some cases we can process an emergency passport without any ID at all, if you had everything stolen but the clothes on your back. There's no such thing as a "passport waiver" in the sense she seems to be using. There's no chip missing from a temporary passport that would keep you from using it to travel to the United States. THAT'S WHAT THEY'RE FOR. And it absolutely does not take ten working days to process an emergency passport. We can crank one of those babies out in as little as half an hour if you have all your forms filled out and bring in everything you need the first time. I've had someone come in for a passport at 9:00am and make her 11:00am flight from the airport across town. She was pretty happy about that.

Tartt did get some things right. We will ask for a police report (though it's not mandatory) and you'll need to fill out an affidavit telling us what happened to your passport. And except for very rare, extremely serious emergencies, no one's coming in to the office to make you a passport on Christmas Day. To be fair, it did turn out to be pretty critical to the plot of the novel that Theo NOT be able to get a new passport that day, but I still would have liked to see just a little more accuracy about the process. As great as it is when a novelist gets part of your life right, it can be grating when they get it so wrong.

Friday, March 14, 2014

My First Irish Wedding

Not a bad place to nurse a hangover
This weekend I was my sister Laura's +1/chauffeur to her friends' wedding in Co. Meath, about an hour outside of Dublin. It was quite a hooley, as they say. For the occasion the couple rented out Ballymagarvey Village, a 19th-century manor house now converted into a hotel and event venue, very posh. Despite the classic Irish setting the wedding had a very modern globalized feel: the bride is Irish and the groom is Lebanese, so there was definitely some culture clashing going on. The best example I can think of is the two mothers' attire: the bride's mother wore a very proper ensemble that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Queen, with a fancy coat and matching hat. The groom's mother wore a flowing asymmetrical mauve dress studded with rhinestones, and she accessorized with hair extensions. They both looked lovely, but you'd never have guessed they were going to the same event.

But it's a wedding, and we were all there for the same reason: to wish the new couple every happiness and to drink heavily. Irish weddings do not skimp in the alcohol department, and this one was no exception. Pacing and hydration are very important! Despite some minor cultural differences, over the course of the very boozy weekend we learned that Irish bros and Lebanese bros can get happily smashed together and act like idiots in perfect harmony. World peace!

Gettin' jiggy with it
Some additional Irish flair was provided by dance performances at the reception. The first was a little Riverdance-style step dancing performance, very nice, but not unusual. The second was a group of senior citizens who performed and led the assembly in a series of folk dances while wearing weird straw cones over their faces. WHAT? These were straw boys, which the internet tells me is a wedding tradition from the northwest of Ireland, where the bride's family is from. Evidently they started out as party crashers preserving their anonymity with interesting headgear, and over time have by now morphed into entertainment troupes for hire, as strawboys' presence at a wedding is supposed to bring the couple good luck. Originally exclusively young men, the straw boys seem to have aged along with the tradition as folk dancing has fallen out of favor with today's youth.

One of the dances they did with the wedding guests was called the Siege of Ennis, which is apparently at least vaguely familiar to many of the Irish guests though the foreigners had no clue. (Not the Siege of Venice, which is what I thought I heard at the time, and which I imagined would be an extremely difficult place to besiege.) You can see it performed below, though this weekend's version looked way less organized and way more fun.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Brazargentinaguay

I have never been fond of the cold and dark, so almost as soon as I knew I'd be coming to Dublin I started thinking of ways to escape winter. Fortunately, one of the great things about the Foreign Service is having friends all over the world, and at any given time a good number of said friends are likely to be in warm sunny places. I persuaded two friends, one in Rio de Janeiro and one in Montevideo, to let me come crash with them for a few days last month. And because I wasn't going to go all the way to South America for a few days here and a few days there, I added in some solo travel time in Argentina for a a 16-day vacation extravaganza. It was fantastic.

I did a lot of things on this vacation. There was hang gliding and molecular gastronomy and hiking and a boat ride under waterfalls and museums and shopping and parties and a Carnival parade. Of all of this awesomeness Iguazu Falls may well have been the highlight of the trip: I spent almost three days there and never stopped marveling at the beauty and the sheer power of all that water. I HIGHLY recommend it.

I did a lot of nothing on this vacation as well - long luxurious hours on the beach drinking out of a coconut and watching the waves turn from aqua to teal to seafoam green as they rolled in to shore. As fun as all my activities were, the nothing time might have been the best part. I didn't realize exactly how much I had missed the sun until I walked out of the airport in Rio and was suddenly immersed in it. For days I was almost delirious with joy, drunk on sunshine as I put down a base tan and cranked out some vitamin D. I am truly made for the tropics.

Now that I'm back it might be time to start planning next year's winter escape. This was definitely a good idea.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Anonymous FSO does a great AMAA on Reddit. I had thought it might be fun to do one of these, but I'm glad someone with more insight and experience than my lowly second-tour self stepped up first. Kudos!
Speaking of FSOs, here's a great article on American Citizen Services
Have a hard time knowing when to contact your friends in other time zones? XKCD can help.
From the Art Meets Science Files, here's a portrait of Stephen Fry made from his own bacteria.
Also, what musicians can tell us about dyslexia
The psychology of fonts
Facebook of the Dead: a thoughtful essay on how we handle death online and why it matters.
Why do we do things now we know will hurt us later? Because we think of our future selves as strangers.
What qualified as a frightening dystopic future in 1908? A (detailed and hilarious) bar full of women.
So excited for the next season of Game of Thrones! Here's the trailer and a featurette for Season 4 to get you in the mood.

FAO Schwartz employees class up the joint with a little Bach. Who says kids don't like culture?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

On the Road Again

This week I had the chance to mix things up a little with a 3-day consular outreach trip to counties Kerry and Cork. While the day-to-day demands of consular work keep me in the office most of the time, we took advantage of a mid-term break in the Irish schools to take our show on the road.

While most adults can renew their passports by mail, by law all minors must appear in person with their parents before a consular officer. For our clients this normally means piling the whole family in the car or on the train, traveling several hours to Dublin, and possibly paying to stay overnight if there's not enough time to get there and back in a day. Not the most convenient thing in the world. So, at least once a year, we head out to one of the more distant parts of the island to take applications, do notary services, and answer questions for our American citizens. The consular officer comes to them for a change. It was a whirlwind trip, and I think a very successful one. We got a lot of work done and everyone was very pleased to see us. I only wish we had the time and the staff to do these more often.

In addition to being my first consular road trip, it was my first time driving on the left side of the road. I was more than a little nervous about this, but it turned out not to be as big a deal as I was afraid it would be. When there are other cars around you can use them to figure out where you're supposed to be, and when there aren't any other cars around it doesn't much matter. The hardest part for me was sitting on the right side of the car; all of my instincts on where mirrors and shifters are were completely wrong, and I kept drifting left in the lane because I'm so used to being on the other side. Driving a giant boat of a sedan did not help, especially on Kerry's narrow winding roads. But in 12 hours of drive time I only clipped a mirror once, so I'm willing to call that a win.

Now that I know I can drive in Ireland without unduly endangering myself and others, I'm thinking of taking more road trips for fun. The downside of all this productivity was not really getting to see anything but paperwork, hotel rooms, and vague blurs of passing scenery through the windshield: a shame, because there's so much more worth seeing.