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!