Saturday, December 19, 2015

High Culture in Cleveland

Mid-century modern design
I'm in Cleveland this week for a family event. Cleveland is of course one of America's great tourist destinations, a true cultural landmark, as shown succinctly by this pair of tourism videos. And while we're in town we have sought out the very best of Cleveland, the height of its cultural offerings. Sure, there are museums. There's a symphony. But why see those when you can go see the house where A Christmas Story was filmed 

I feel like this is a good time to mention that I, a red-blooded American, have somehow managed to reach my early 30s without ever having seen A Christmas StoryBut I've seen enough TV ads to get the gist - sad kid in a pink bunny suit, you'll shoot an eye out, kid gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole, the leg lamp. You know, the highlights. And I'm pretty okay with that state of affairs.

The house has been restored to its movie-set state and carefully furnished and stocked to represent the set as closely as possible. I liked the 1940s-era kitchen with the wringer-washer and the icebox. And it's interactive, so one can take pictures posing by the Christmas tree with the BB gun, pulling the leg out of the crate, or moping on the stairs in any of a number of pink bunny suits and matching slippers in a variety of sizes thoughtfully provided for you. People even bite the Lifebuoy soap and lick the flagpole. (I declined.) There's also a museum with costumes and other memorabilia from the movie, including the prize of the collection, one of the actual BB guns used on set, enshrined in a special glass case. 

Kitsch for the whole family
And of course a gift shop, lavishly provisioned with all kinds of relevant kitsch. They have pink bunny suits, and sexy pink bunny suits. They have Red Ryder BB guns. There are aviator caps and bars of Lifebuoy soap. There are models of every building and scene from the movie so you can build a little Christmas Story village. And there are leg lamps everywhere. On mugs, on T-shirts, on blankets. You can buy working full-sized leg lamps, leg lamp nightlights, strings of tiny leg lamps for your Christmas tree. Things I would never have imagined anyone could possibly want except that I could see with my own eyes the happy consumers queuing up at the cash registers. 

For me the best part of the whole experience was the background story. The whole complex is essentially a monument to superfandom. The owner, not an especially wealthy guy, bought and redid the house, extremely dilapidated at the time, basically because he just really loved the movie. The man had a dream, and he made it come true. Good for him. It almost makes me willing to forgive that his plans for "improving the neighborhood" include knocking down 100-year-old houses to build a parking lot. Almost. 

So Cleveland! Keeping it classy. 

(Photo credit baby sister Laura)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The New Nemesis

Do not let this deceptively peaceful photo fool you; he's a rabble-rouser.
This is the Artful Dodger, a neighborhood cat who likes to slide under my gate from time to time and hang out in my yard, napping in sunny patches and hunting the birds who flock to my rare patch of grass and trees. When I took this picture he was clearly fresh from devouring some small animal and did not care in the slightest that I was standing right next to him as he indulged in a little well-earned food coma time.

When I first saw him I knew immediately he was going to be trouble. Any cat trespassing so flagrantly, so nonchalantly, on Jabberwocky's turf was bound to provoke his wrath. And yet for the first couple of months Jabbers seemed perfectly happy to stay indoors, much to my relief. We negotiated outdoor privileges for him in Dublin, but only because I knew that when (not if) he got in a fight I could rush him to the 24/7 kitty emergency room and he wouldn't even need a rabies shot because they don't have rabies there. When he eventually, inevitably, did get in a fight that's exactly what happened. Here in Addis the vet care is somewhat less thorough, and god only knows what kinds of diseases the Dodger and the rest of his ilk are carrying.

But the Dodger must have been teasing the Jabberwock pretty mercilessly while I was gone for Thanksgiving, because as soon as I returned my precious boy bolted outside all puffed up and ready to defend his territory, come what may! Until what came was me with a broom to beat him out of the bushes, whereupon he decided that discretion was the better part of valor and beat a hasty retreat. But now that Jabbers has fixed his mind on going outside again I know that this is only the beginning of a long and bitter war of wills, albeit one with frequent intermittent snuggle sessions. Better keep that broom handy. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

DiploSkills: Do You Speak Multilateral?

Mental Floss had a good article not too long ago on the quirks of "EU English", a variant of English with some unusual grammar and vocabulary which comes from speakers of dozens of languages in the European Union all trying to get together to make decisions. Some of the examples were new to me but many I had seen before, including at my new job at the African Union. "Planification" is a classic, sure to come up when dealing with native French speakers.

But there are other things not on the Mental Floss list that also seem to exist only in the language of multilateralism. My favorite example shows up at the end of almost every declaration by an international organization when the body announces its intention to "remain seized of" an issue. Every time I read this I can't help but imagine an entire council chamber of people simultaneously collapsing on the floor in spasms. In fact it just means "continue to pay attention to" whatever it is they're talking about. Here's William Safire on the phrase. I also like "domesticate", which in multilateralspeak has nothing to do with animals but means "adopt and implement an internationally-agreed policy in one's home country."

Some of these quirky usages make my inner grammar nazi want to scream, but then my inner second-language learner smothers said grammar nazi with a pillow. Operating professionally in a non-native language is incredibly difficult, as I am inevitably reminded every single time I want to say something reasonably intelligent in French. Also, international organizations deal with issues that don't often come up in other venues, so if inventing a word like "actorness" helps get the job done, by all means let's have it! 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Grocery Run

All last week I was in Johannesburg for an energy seminar. I learned a lot, met some great people, and explored the city. But mostly I ate. I haven't been away from the miraculous foodscape of the first world for long enough to feel really deprived, but I knew I had to take advantage of what I had while I had it. I ate meltingly tender steak and sushi and microgreen salads. I had ostrich and shrimp and peri-peri chicken. I had an amazing 10-course tasting menu at Cube with dishes called things like "Alien vs. Predator" and "#chefslife". And thanks to the weak rand (currently 13 to the dollar) I ate like a queen and couldn't believe how cheap it all was.

The Haul
And then it was time to go home, but not before I did some grocery shopping. Just a tiny little bit. Okay, I pretty much looted the produce section and the cheese aisle. It's late spring in South Africa so there were all kinds of delicious fruits and vegetables ripe and in season. The cheese situation in Addis is pretty dire. (One point for Conakry - former French colonies can always be counted on for good bread and cheese.)  And then at the airport I scooped up a few more bottles of wine at the duty-free and a dozen beef filets (2 for $10!) and some biltong because I was in South Africa and that's just what one buys there. The zebraskin rugs were also pretty tempting, but my arms were starting to hurt by that point. One of my favorite diplomatic perks is that customs officials aren't allowed to go through our suitcases, which makes it way easier to do international food runs.

With my loot safely home, I spent pretty much all afternoon yesterday blanching mushrooms and trimming asparagus and slicing peaches, placing it all tenderly, reverently, into a ridiculous number of plastic bags, which I will guard in my freezer like a hoard of priceless jewels. I know that, someday in the not-too-distant future, I will really want some raspberries or some broccolini, and on that day I will pull the appropriate packet triumphantly from the freezer and HAVE SOME, and it will be sweet. I get excited about food pretty much all the time, but there's nothing like scarcity to make me really appreciate simple things like gouda or salad greens.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Foreign Service Christmas

I love Christmas. All of them. There's the Christmas you normally think of; there's Ethiopian Christmas, which I will discuss in detail at the appropriate time (January); and then there's Foreign Service Christmas, which I am celebrating now.

Foreign Service Christmas is the day your personal effects finally get delivered to your house at your new post. You get to open dozens and dozens of boxes all at the same time - big ones - and it doesn't matter that all of the contents are things you previously owned because you haven't seen them in months (or in the case of long-term language training or a PSP tour, years) so it still kind of feels like a surprise. Also, you're pretty much guaranteed to like everything you get because you picked it all out. At any rate, if you do open a box to find an ugly ill-fitting sweater there's no one but yourself to blame.

It's all for me!
I am especially delighted by this Foreign Service Christmas because I've been getting by from suitcases and the welcome kit for six weeks now, which is a personal record. Everything so far has arrived undamaged and in one piece, even my piñata! I am only slightly disappointed that the delivery I thought was my UAB (air shipment) and my HHE (general personal effects) turned out to be my UAB and my consumables shipment instead. That means that most of my stuff remains firmly in the clutches of Ethiopian customs for an undetermined period of time. But it's okay, because tonight I can celebrate with a frosty Purple Haze and sleep in my very own sheets, and tomorrow morning I don't have to get up early and feed the cat because his autofeeder will do it for me. This is much, much better than my situation this morning. I am happy.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wenchi Crater Lake

My first trip outside Addis was an embassy-organized excursion to Wenchi Crater Lake, about 4 hours' drive from the city. The caldera of an extinct volcano now has a lake in the middle with waterfalls and hot and cold springs, and the views are lovely. Almost 30 of us went on a 5-hour tour down from the rim of the caldera, around through a lush spring-fed valley, across the lake to an island in the middle with a monastery on it, over to the other side of the lake for lunch, and back up top to head home.

There were horses available for most of the way (except a tricky section where the road was washed out) but I walked the 10 km down to the lake. If a six-year-old could do it, so could I, and it's tough to take good pictures from horseback. Up was a different story: at this point in my altitude adjustment I can handle one flight of stairs without falling apart but two is still a challenge, so I was not about to try a 1.5-hour upward climb. Not that my unathletic self would have tried it at sea level either. Yay for knowing my limitations!

The scenery was lovely, dramatic and green from the end of the rainy season. I learned some things about the local area too. The springs there are the source for Ambo, a popular water brand named for the nearest town. Over 2000 people live in and around the crater growing barley and ensete on the steep slopes. A great trip!

Friday, October 2, 2015


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

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

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

Untitled from Meredith Cheerfulstoic on Vimeo

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

Demera before

Demera after

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Kid on the Block


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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: The Amazing Old South Road Trip

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Tastes of Texas

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

Mixed fajitas with all the trimmings from Pappasito's

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

Meltilicious cabrito from Hugo's

Kolaches: the ultimate breakfast pastry, from Mornings Kolaches

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

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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Things That Have Surprised Me About America

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

All Hail the Mighty State

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

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

It's so good to be home. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Slán Go Fóill

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I. Hate. Moving. So. Much.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


The movers came, and the movers went.

What was my home just this morning is now a hollow shell, haunted by the shades of things no longer there. Ghosts of paintings hang on empty nails. Memories of books rest on empty shelves, their outlines still traced in the dust. I swerve to avoid the cat scratcher that is no longer in the hallway. Closet doors hang agape as if to show off the nothing within. The living room - white walls, white ceiling, white furniture - has seemed to double in size with nothing left to look at but the sheer blank space. Cat fur tumbleweeds roll across the newly rugless floor, adding a lonely ghost town flavor of their own.

I sleep in a bed redressed with thin welcome kit sheets and a duvet too long for its cover. It is not my bed anymore. Post-shower I dry off with scratchy too-small welcome kit towels. I eat a pathetic takeout dinner with a flimsy welcome kit fork and sip tea from a nondescript welcome kit mug, both pulled from the plastic tub that squats where my butcher block table used to be. These things are not my things. I do not like them, and they do not like me. 

My meagre remaining possessions - two suitcases worth, and a carry-on - are dwarfed by the palpable emptiness around them. I feel suddenly like a squatter, camping out in a place that doesn't belong to me. Because it doesn't belong to me. I just made a home here for a while, feathering a little nest in among the rented house and the government-issue furniture. And now my nest is in 99 cardboard boxes on their way to the port, to Antwerp, to Djibouti, to Addis. 

I really am leaving. This isn't my home anymore. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dublin Underground

With my departure date increasingly imminent I've been using my dwindling weekends to revisit favorite haunts and to check off some last items from my Dublin bucket list. One of those, which I visited last weekend, was St. Michan's church in Smithfield. It's one of the oldest churches in Dublin, founded in 1095, but the building has been rebuilt and remodelled a number of times. The current incarnation is not much to look at. Cromwellian and crumbling, it's mainly bare wood beams and cracking plaster.

The main draw is the crypts underneath the church, which you can only visit on tours held at very limited hours, which is one reason it took me so long to do this. One of the vaults holds a set of four spontaneous mummies, at least 600 years old but still with skin and clothing intact under the shroud of centuries of dust. The weren't specially preserved like Egyptian mummies, and in the damp of Dublin no one is entirely sure why these corpses resisted decay. Some theories involve the thickness of the crypt walls providing a constant temperature, the limestone sucking up moisture, and natural preservatives from the leaves of the oak forest that used to stand there somehow permeating the bodies. But no one knows for sure.

They've been a tourist attraction since at least Victorian times, when hardcore Romantics in search of thrills and chills could descend unescorted into the crypts and see the mummies by the flicker of candlelight. Even now, with a tour guide and electric lighting, the gaping jaws of the mummies and the piles of dusty caskets are pretty damn spooky. The guide said the vaults of St. Michan's were one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker's Dracula, and I can well believe it. Taking photos in the crypts is not permitted, but there are a couple on the website if you want to take a look.

One mummy, known as "the Crusader," (though not old enough to really have been one) has one hand propped up a bit, and it became traditional for visitors to give him a hearty handshake. He's lost a couple of fingers since then so handshakes are no longer encouraged, but if you're bold enough and your tour guide is in an accommodating mood you can brush his hand lightly, a gentle hello across the centuries. This I duly did, and any lingering tingle in my finger was, I'm sure, entirely psychosomatic.

If this sounds a little too intense you can always stick to the crypts in Christchurch, which hold a mummified cat and rat. The story goes that the cat chased the rat into a pipe of the church organ, where they both got stuck. (Presumably this was a little-used note, as they both must have been there for quite some time before anyone noticed.) They are both now immortalized under glass for the enjoyment of gawking tourists.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Things I Will Never Understand About Ireland

I have learned an awful lot about Ireland in the last two years, especially considering the state of woeful ignorance I was in before I arrived. However, there are still some things about this place I still do not, and probably never will, fully understand.
  1. Separate Hot and Cold Water Taps: this plumbing arrangement is perfect for those times when, while washing your hands, you want to inflict third-degree burns on one of them and frostbite on the other. In other words, NEVER. Who thought this would be a good idea? And now that we've all learned through painful practical experience that it is in fact NOT a good idea, why are sinks still set up this way? Speaking of plumbing perplexities, this brings us to:
  2. The Immersion Heater: There's this strange contraption in my house, as in all houses in Ireland, called the immersion. I am given to understand that it works in some kind of symbiotic relationship with the boiler system that heats the rooms, and that I can use it to augment my hot water supply in times of need without wasting too much extra energy. Great. But the precise settings and lead time needed to do this effectively vary with the temperature of the house, the phases of the moon, Ireland's current standings in the Six Nations, and possibly some other variables I have not yet discovered. I do take some comfort from the fact that Irish people also seem not to have fully figured this one out.
  3. Brown Sauce: Any order of chips (not crisps) at a pub or not-too-fancy restaurant will inevitably come with a red packet of ketchup and a mysterious brown packet that says, simply, "brown sauce." What is this brown sauce? It is, self-evidently, a sauce that is brown, but where does it come from? What is it made of? There are never any ingredients listed. The packet does not encourage any inquiry into the origins or composition of its contents. You're just supposed to dump the stuff on your chips and eat it without asking any nosy questions you may not really want to know the answers to. 
  4. Country Speed Limits: When navigating precariously down a steep, winding, intermittently-paved country lane that is just wide enough to barely squeeze one car through and yet is still somehow a two-way street, it is not uncommon to see a sign sternly warning that you must not exceed 80 kilometres per hour (50mph). No one in their right mind would be taking that tenuous track at even half that speed, so it hardly seems worth the effort of putting up signs. And yet, there they are.
  5. Catholicism: Having been raised mainstream Protestant, there's a lot I don't know about the theology and practice of Catholicism, and my occasional casual encounters with it often leave me baffled. I was recently introduced to St. Medard when a coworker buried a statue of him in order to prevent rain on her daughter's wedding day. (It didn't work.) My Irish grandmother once told me that it's St. Joseph you're supposed to bury, upside down, but that's to help sell a house. Attending a performance of John B. Keane's Moll occasioned some frantic intermission googling to figure out what on earth a "mass card" is and why the priests' housekeeper in the play was selling them on commission. (It's a request for a priest to say mass for a particular person, and selling them is apparently now frowned upon.) Catholicism is so ingrained in Irish culture that I keep bumping into references to it that make me say, "wait, what?" 
  6. Ah Sure It'll Be Grand: In my experience, the Irish have a deep-rooted pessimistic streak, always expecting something to go wrong. Good times never last and bad times never end. If it's not raining today then it'll rain tomorrow, and if it is raining it'll keep on raining, you know yourself. (Of course, given how often it rains in Ireland, this is usually true.) They are also some of the most optimistic people I have ever met. This contradiction is perfectly embodied in "ah sure it'll be grand", the ultimate Irish saying, which you can find emblazoned on mugs, Tshirts, and a zillion other things available for purchase on every street in Dublin city center. Sometimes baseless but almost never disputed, it means, in short, that while the situation may be going arseways somehow it'll all work out all right in the end, so it will. As a full-on dedicated pessismist I don't know that I'll ever quite get the hang of this.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Today is the 5-year anniversary of the day I adopted my precious kitty Jabberwocky. Or he adopted me, whatever. I don't know that I've ever told the whole story of how we got together, so I will do so now.

I was seized with a burning desire to adopt a cat after the death of my previous kitty, a Siamese who technically belonged to my mother but really bonded with me. And I knew I would be joining the Foreign Service soon, and I wanted someone to be excited when I came home from work. A cat seemed easier than a husband.

So I did some googling and found the Virginia Siamese Cat Rescue Center. These people are serious about cats. There was an extensive application process. I had to give character references; they did call the references. Next there was a phone interview, during which we discussed my previous pet-owning experience and my ability to appropriately care for a feline companion. They had some concerns about the whole FS situation, but I was eventually pre-approved.

Pre-approved means you can check out the website and make inquiries about individual cats. Then you have another phone interview with the kitty's foster parent to determine whether you are a good fit for this particular cat. Weeks went by and I got nowhere. One cat had allergies and needed to have good vet access. Another one I liked was six, which was thought to be too old to adapt to my "extreme lifestyle." One freaked out after more than 10 minutes in a carrier. My prospects were not looking good. And then I found The One. That's his kitten photo on the right. How's that for adorable?

His Excellency, Diplocat Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
The Jabberwock was picked up as a stray at about 9 months old, abandoned by his previous owners, and would have been euthanized if the rescue center hadn't had space for him. On the way to his foster home the car he was in got in a pretty serious accident. His carrier was flung to the back of the van and basically destroyed, but he emerged unscathed and completely unfazed by the experience. By god, this was a Foreign Service cat.

And now he's my Foreign Service cat. We've lived in 3 countries together so far, with #4 coming up this fall. He's been through 3 transatlantic flights, a 2-week walkabout, and some interesting veterinarians, and come through it all like a champion. And he really does get excited when I come home from work. He's the perfect kitty for me.

Coincidentally, June is National Adopt a Cat Month, so if you have a feline-shaped hole in your life that needs filling, consider looking for your new furry buddy at a shelter or rescue organization. Then you too can be as happy as Jabberwocky and me.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Language Studies: Amharic

The primary language spoken in Ethiopia is Amharic, a Semitic language with its own special alphabet. I find myself once again cheated out of language training because my job in Addis is language-designated for French, which I already speak, kind of. The idea is that I'll be working mainly with diplomats from other African countries rather than Ethiopians so French will be more useful at the office. This is probably true, but it also means that I will have to learn the language actually spoken in the country I'll be living in on my own time and my own dime. This will be difficult. 

Me, in Ethiopia
My efforts to locate a tutor in Dublin have been fruitless. There's no Duolingo for Amharic, no Rosetta Stone. I did find a program called Instant Immersion that has an intro course, so we'll see how that goes.  However, I have already succeeded in learning my first word, a very important word, through the magic of the internet: the Amharic word for foreigner is ferengi. Yes, just like in Star Trek.*

The alphabet is interesting too. Like Arabic and Hebrew, vowels are given secondary status. Unlike those languages, the vowel is always written, but as a mutated form of the preceded consonant. In practice this means that there are at least 7 and up to 12 characters for each consonant to show the vowel sound. Not just B, but ba, be, bi, bo, and so forth. Some of these characters are differentiated only by slight changes of position in the same little extra twiddles, so good penmanship will be important. Unlike other Semitic languages, it reads left-to-right.

Wikipedia tells me that the language includes some features I have found frustrating in other languages, such as the ever-popular gendered nouns and formal pronoun sets. Verbs agree not only with the subject of the sentence but with the object as well, which will add additional difficulty to learning conjugations but also means that you can express simple sentences such as "I see her" in a single word. 

I don't know how much of this I'll get through in the couple of years I'll be in Addis, but I think it's safe to say it'll be an interesting challenge.

*EDIT: turns out it's pronounced more like "ferenji", but close enough. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Dublin's Best Walks

When I first arrived in Dublin there were a number of things I particularly loved about about the city, especially in contrast to Conakry. I have long gotten over the thrill of constant electricity and potable tap water (though I will miss them when they are gone), but the great walking in Dublin continues to delight me. Here are some of my favorites:

Great South Wall - This is my all-time favorite, mostly because it's so close to my house and pairs neatly with a picturesque half-hour bike ride there through Sandymount and the Irishtown Nature Reserve. The Great South Wall was built in the 18th century along the Liffey to help prevent silting from getting in the way of shipping. It's about an hour walk along the seawall from the parking lot out to the lighthouse and back again, with stellar views of the whole of Dublin Bay from Howth to Dalkey and the Dublin Mountains in the background.

Howth Cliff Walk - The best thing about the Howth cliff walk is how it's so easy to feel like you're way out in the country but actually be only a short DART ride away from home. On the far side of the peninsula there's just cliffs and sea, but the nearer side offers a charming lighthouse and some pretty views of Dublin. The full walk is a 3-hour loop all around the almost-island of Howth but there are shorter loops for the less committed. There's plenty of delicious food in Howth village for brunch/dinner/snacks on either end. I love this walk best in late summer/early fall when you can pick juicy blackberries off the bushes as you go.

Grand Canal - This one's also close to me and easy to take as a scenic diversion on the way into town for brunch or shopping. There are pretty flowers and barges and bridges and ducks and swans and a statue of Patrick Kavanagh. The docklands area where it links up with the Liffey has cool modern buildings and some decent restaurants. You can join wherever is convenient for you and walk along as long as you like before turning in and heading for downtown. Or if you're really ambitious you can walk the canal all the way to the Shannon River, but we're talking a 5-day trek here so plan accordingly.

Bray Head - The short but steep hike up to the top of Bray Head can be a bit punishing for the less athletic among us, but the views are worth it. There's a little-used path down on the south side that takes you through some more hills (especially pretty in the spring with the gorse in bloom) and then to some less official trails down to the cliff walk and thence to Greystones to celebrate your acheivement with tea and cake. Those unenthused about elevation can just take the cliffside path from Bray to Greystones (or vice versa), which is nice too and much less strenuous.

Malahide Castle - This one requires some monetary investment to get the most out of the experience, but it's well worth it. Buying a ticket to the castle (interesting in its own right) also gets you in to the lovely gardens and grounds, home to an incredible array of plants from all over the world. There's a magnificent 300-year old cedar, gorgeous flowers everywhere, and even a pair of peacocks to add to the glamour of the scenery. And if you get bored with parkland and gardens you can always wander down to the village and the coast for some pretty seaside views.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hay Festival

I used my most recent long weekend to fulfill a long-held wish: a trip to the Hay Festival in Wales. Once referred to as "the Woodstock of the mind" by Bill Clinton, the Hay Festival is a 10-day event of lectures, concerts, workshops, book signings, and other events held every year in Hay-on-Wye, a sleepy little town on the Welsh/English border. Known as "the town of books," Hay has dozens of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops, and its population increases 40-fold at festival time as the hordes of bibliophiles descend. This year I was one of them.

It was pretty much Meredith heaven. Some of the big-name events were already sold out by the time I got my tickets, but I still managed to see great speakers on topics as varied as Jane Austen, oscillating chemical reactions, an Indian princess suffragette, medieval Arab folktales, and improv Mary Poppins. And in between there were gourmet organic fair-trade food trucks, a whole town of bookstores full of treasures to peruse, and everywhere people reading and talking about books. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. And the weather was unusually obliging for Wales, which helped.

The two days I could be there were not nearly enough, not by a long shot. And as much as I'd love to become one of the devotees who goes to the festival every year, it would be a bit of a hike from Addis. But at least I got to go have the experience while I'm more or less in the neighborhood, and now I have a fat stack of exciting new books to read to keep the joy going for another couple of months. I'm so glad I went.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


The big news in Ireland these days is a referendum on gay marriage coming up on Friday. Both sides are campaigning hard: with less than a week to go until the vote there may not be a single streetlight in Dublin without a referendum poster on it, if not two or three or six.

Despite the apparent parity in the photo to the left, on the whole Dublin is Yes territory. Like most urban areas in Europe, Dublin is full of 20- and 30-somethings who are more likely to approve of gay marriage, and they are showing their Yes pride in dozens of ways: with signs on lampposts and in shops and restaurants and homes, with murals, with pins and t-shirts, with rainbow manicures and drag queen brunch. This being Ireland, the Yes campaign is bilingual, so there are plenty of signs out there urging people to Vótáil Tá (which kind of means "vote yes" but not exactly.)

While looking at the streets of Dublin might make you think Yes will take it in a cakewalk, No has stronger support in rural areas and some big heavyweights behind it, such as the Catholic Church. The Irish Government and all the major political parties have officially backed the Yes vote, though party membership seems divided on the issue and I don't see people voting against their conscience just to follow the party line. Recent polls show Yes ahead, but with a decreasing lead. I don't think anyone knows how this is going to go. But close races are more exciting, even for outsiders like myself with no stake in the outcome.

EDIT 5/26: The ayes have it! The people have spoken, and gay marriage is now legal in Ireland. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Edinburgh

Last weekend was a bank holiday weekend, so I decided to take a little trip to Scotland. I hadn't been to Edinburgh since I was eight or nine, and didn't remember much about it except that they had a KFC there, which at the time I hadn't seen in years and was really excited about. While I'm in the area, I figured it was time to make some new, slightly more grown-up memories.

The main tourist attraction is Edinburgh Castle, which cost 24 fucking dollars to enter and was, you know, a castle. (Two years in Europe and I'm getting jaded about castles again.) It was a large and historically significant castle at least, and had some shiny crown jewels in it. And the views from the top were nice. More my speed in the historic attractions department was the Real Mary King's Close, a tour of homes and alleyways walled up in the 17th century to serve as the foundation for a city building. It was cool to get a glimpse of what daily life was like for normal people instead of just kings and queens. And then there's the Scotch Whisky Experience: I was dubious when I saw the Haunted Mansion-style ride with cars shaped like whisky barrels, but it turned out to be a really interesting and educational tour, complete with tasting of course. I also enjoyed just walking around town, through the tiny medieval alleyways and broad Georgian avenues.

I also took a day trip south to see Hadrian's Wall. It's not much to look at these days; apparently it used to be up to 16 feet tall in places, but between some sinkage and centuries of being pillaged for building materials only the width of the wall distinguishes it from any other field boundary. But I was there. I saw it. More impressive was Vindolanda, the remains of a Roman fort and the village that grew up next to it. Again, it's not much to look at, basically just wall foundations and paving stones. But among the detritus found at the site were fragments of messages written on thin strips of wood, still legible almost 2000 years later. They cover all kinds of mundane aspects of life at the edge of the Roman Empire: routine military reports, inventories, shopping lists, a care package, a birthday party invitation. Technology may have come a long way in the last two millennia, but people don't seem to have changed much.

On the minus side of the trip, pretty much everything was eyewateringly expensive. I also blame my day tramping around the Northumbrian countryside in the cold and wind and rain for the sore throat that has me stuck at home this weekend self-medicating with hot whiskeys. But on the whole, entirely worth it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cupan Tae

Tea is kind of a big deal in Ireland. Sure, Dublin has a coffee shop on every corner, from the ubiquitous Starbucks clones to boutique spots catering to the hardcore coffee nerds, but tea is still the quintessential Irish hot beverage.

Families have been torn apart in the Barry's/Lyons wars for total tea supremacy, but there are also innumerable tea shops selling every style and combination of leaves-in-hot-water humanity has ever imagined. (I'm partial to the Tom Crean blend from Clement and Pekoe myself.) The Irish tea obsession is best personified by Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper on Father Ted, the show everyone tells you to watch if you want to understand Ireland. She always has tea at the ready, and "no thank you" is simply not an acceptable response.

I decided early on that I should buy myself a tea set as an Ireland souvenir, but I never found one I really liked. Meanwhile I acquired an assortment of mugs to drink my tea from, so a full set began to seem unnecessary; I started looking just for teapots, but nothing caught my fancy. Until now:

The teapot is entirely ordinary, albeit with a handy built-in tea filter. The real treasure is the tea cozy, which was personally hand-knit by Pauline McLynn, the actress who played Mrs. Doyle. It guarantees that, no matter where I am in the world, my tea will always be as Irish as tea could possibly be. And woe betide the misguided soul who dares refuse a cup.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Area Studies: Ethiopia Edition

I'll be arriving in Addis in less than five months, but I have to confess my knowledge of Ethiopia is still pretty slim. For my first post I had nine months of training time to devote to devouring every piece of information I could find on Guinea (which wasn't much).  Moving to Ireland I managed to get a fair bit of reading done before I arrived. This time around I've been using my free time to do other things, like squeezing every drop of joy out of Dublin and - let's be honest here - watching television. Getting my money's worth out of the old Netflix subscription. I know, I know, I should get on it and actually crack those books on Ethiopia I got for Christmas.

However, I have managed to pick up a few interesting facts about the country I'll be calling home for the next two (or maybe three) years, which I will share with you now.
  1. Practical matters: Standard European plugs, and they drive on the right side of the road. The currency is called the birr and trades at around 20 to the dollar. You can basically only exchange them in Ethiopia. 
  2. Addis is 2300 metres above sea level, which means you can look forward to future posts on the challenges of high-altitude baking. Also, high-altitude breathing. As basically a lifelong coastal dweller this is going to be quite an adjustment for me. On the bright side, it's too high for malaria-carrying mosquitoes so I can skip the anti-malarial meds this time. Yay!
  3. Ethiopia was never successfully colonized by any of the European colonial powers; Mussolini came the closest but only held it for 6 years. It was instead ruled until the 1970s by a succession of emperors claiming descent from the first emperor, Menelik I, said to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The last emperor, Haile Selassie I, is worshipped by Rastafarians as the second coming of Christ.
  4. There are a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia. One I am particularly looking forward to seeing is a site at Lalibela composed of 11 stone churches carved straight out of the rock.
  5. Contrary to what Steven Spielberg would have you believe, the Ark of the Covenant is not in a crate in a giant government warehouse but in a tiny town called Aksum in northern Ethiopia. It's watched over by a specially appointed guardian, who is the only person ever allowed to see it. Too bad, though that policy significantly reduces the risk of accidental instant skeletonification and turning to dust.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vicarious Tourism: Malta

Another year in Ireland, another 4-day Easter weekend. (Yes, I'm a little late posting. Deal with it.) This year I spent my long weekend in Malta. I had never really thought about Malta as a tourism destination (or at all really) until last year when suddenly everyone I knew was going there and having a great time. So I went and had a great time.

Easter weekend was a great time to go: the country is very Catholic, so there's a Good Friday parade with guys dressed up like Roman centurions, but it's also highly dependent on tourism, so the bars and restaurants stay open. The food was great, the wine was cheap, and the sun was shining. Perfect.

It was a bit chilly for swimming still but the ocean views were fabulous. The water was just such a lovely blue, and the porous limestone has allowed for the creation of some cool caves you can see by boat tour and the incredibly dramatic Azure Window, below. It would have been nice to have some more time to get some hiking in and really explore, but I'm still glad to have seen it.

There's also a lot of history there, which I like because I'm a nerd. The highlights for me were the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra ruins, the remains of Neolithic burial/temple sites. They were built around the same time as Newgrange, a similar monument here in Ireland, and like Newgrange are also aligned to the rising sun on the solstices and equinoxes. The swirling decorations reminded me of Newgrange too, but more ornate. (To be fair, the Neolithic Maltese were working in limestone while their Celtic counterparts had to hack through granite.) I also enjoyed St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, a Baroque explosion of a church built by the Knights of Malta. The Knights have a fascinating story, which I only learned because I decided to go to Malta.

In short, it was a delightful weekend, marred only by the accidental acquisition of an awkward sunburn. Time well spent.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


How can I not miss this?
As I move past the 3-months-left mark, the idea of my actually leaving Dublin starts to feel more and more real. And while I am looking forward to home leave and starting a new chapter in Addis, the swift approach of my departure date has really put into focus all the things I love about Dublin. The almost impossibly good spring weather has intensified this effect, with the (relative) warmth and sunshine providing endless opportunities to get out and see the city in its very best light.

I have entered into a kind of pre-nostalgia phase, where I feel obliged to enjoy everything extra hard because I know I won't have the opportunity much longer. Having brunch with friends, walking in the park under the cherry blossoms, watching the swans on the Grand Canal, glimpsing my favorite Dublin landmark in the distance, I feel like I should be sucking every last possible bit of happiness out of every single Dublin experience while I still can.

Of course, this doesn't actually work. In fact, the end result is to make me less happy, both by putting extra pressure on the events of everyday life not to be simply pleasant but AWESOME, and actually making me feel sad that I'll be leaving soon a dozen times a day. But I don't know that there's anything I can do about it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On the Line

At the beginning of the month I switched from American Citizen Services to Visas, where I'll be for the rest of my tour. March to May is J1 season, our busiest time for visas. Thousands of Irish college students are getting ready to spend the summer in the States, waiting tables at Irish bars in Boston or Chicago, or renting out beach umbrellas in Ocean City or Santa Barbara. And every last one of them needs a visa to do it.

I did visa interviews as part of my consular year in Conakry, but this is very different. There's the volume for starters: in Conakry I barely did 50 a week, but I'm now hitting around 150 a day. It's so much TALKING. Every day for the first week or so I didn't want to do anything after work but lie quietly in a dark room and decompress. Outside of the J1s Dublin also sees a much greater variety of visa applicants than we got in Conakry, which means you really have to know the whole range of visa regulations front to back.

This was all a little overwhelming at the beginning, but I'm starting to get into the flow now I think. Dozens and dozens of J1 interviews back to back get a little repetitive, but the applicants are all so happy and excited about the great summer they'll be having in America that I can't help but be happy and excited for them too. The fact that I'm planning my own American summer - a few weeks in Texas and an Old South road trip - doesn't hurt. I may even come across an Irish accent or two at the beach in South Carolina, and I'll know I helped get them there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Paddy's Day

Looking back over my blog posts from last year, I noticed that I had completely failed to write about St. Patrick's Day. Allow me to correct that shocking oversight.

No one loves St. Patrick's Day like Americans
Last year I celebrated like a tourist. I went into town and saw the parade, a nice event but small and subdued compared to what goes on in Chicago and New York, even when augmented by some American marching bands. And I went to Temple Bar. Well, I stood on the very edge of Temple Bar, the cobbles sticky under my feet from a weekend's worth of spilled beer. I surveyed from a distance the teeming mass of intoxicated revellers as a trio of teenage girls staggered past through a puddle of vomit, leaning on each other as they struggled to stay upright at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I decided that was quite enough of that and headed home. 

This year I'm celebrating like a Dubliner by having nice lie-in, indulging in a relaxed brunch, and staying as far away from the city center as possible. With Paddy's Day on a Tuesday this year a lot of people took Monday off as well and used the opportunity to get out of town, out of the country even, and leave Dublin to the visiting Americans who think drinking 7 euro pints of Guinness in a jam-packed pub is great craic. I'm still in town though, and having a great St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival just 10 minutes from my house, blessedly free both of overpriced Guinness and of trashed teenagers.

St. Patrick's Day is a strange holiday, the national day of Ireland but celebrated more intensely elsewhere, in places like America and Australia where Irishness has meant more for being few among many, and where St. Patrick's bringing Christianity to Ireland started to be less about Christianity and more about Ireland. (The thing about banishing the snakes is a myth, since there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with.) The transition from Catholic holy feast day to secular national holiday was pushed through mostly by emigrant populations overseas; there weren't regular Paddy's Day parades in Ireland until the 1970's, when they were adopted from the celebrations Americans had been holding for a century. St. Patrick's Day was even a dry holiday for decades in Ireland with pubs legally forced to close, as odd as that seems looking at celebrations now.

Nowadays the Irish government regularly spends St. Patrick's Day abroad, using it not as a time to celebrate with their own citizens but to promote Ireland elsewhere as an investment and tourism destination. This is especially true in America, where every year the Taoiseach uses his national day to go to Washington and present the President of the United States with a bowl of shamrock. Here in Dublin a lot of the celebrants are not Irish themselves but come from other places to be Irish for a day, even as the Irish barricade themselves in their houses or hit the road to spend their national day somewhere, anywhere else. Not just the Irish national day, it's the Irish international day, both more and less than you might imagine it to be.

But despite my cosmopolitan veneer (and intolerance for wasted teenagers) I still am a tourist deep down and I love a holiday for any reason, so here's a toast to St. Paddy's Day and Ireland and leprechauns and all that jazz. Sláinte!

Sunday, March 15, 2015


This weekend I went out to Shannon Airport to help out with a CODEL (Congressional Delegation, for those not up on the lingo). It was my first one and it was a good learning experience, especially since I will likely be handling several delegations of various kinds in my next assignment. This was a quick one and it went pretty smoothly so there's not much to say about it. In fact, the most notable thing about this trip was the pit stop halfway there, at the Barack Obama Plaza.

Some background: when Obama was running for President the first time, an enterprising historian did some research and discovered a genealogical link on Obama's mother's side to a family from Moneygall, a village of  all of 300 people in the middle of Ireland previously famed for absolutely nothing. As part of his Ireland tour in 2011 President Obama honored this connection by paying a visit to Moneygall, which was the most exciting thing to happen there pretty much ever and is forever commemorated in the big service station that was opened on the M7 outside the village last year.

In addition to a gas station, a Supermac's, and a Tim Hortons, the plaza features a visitor center with exhibits on Obama's Moneygall ancestors, Irish emigration generally, and the Presidential visit. Best quote: "My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O'bamas, and I've come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way." There's also a convenience store where you can buy the usual snacks and drinks as well as Irish Obama-themed souvenirs.

Just one more example of the enduring Irish-American connection, popping up even in places you wouldn't expect.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Old Dog, Old Tricks

So, it's been a while since I've posted. With the joy and excitement of Sister Christmas Dublin and then NYE UAE I was a bit busy, and then the January doldrums got me and there didn't seem to be much to say. But it's February now and spring will be coming soon, ish, and I'm getting back into the world again.

In addition to scheduling more social engagements I'm taking a couple of classes to dust off some old skills of mine that may have gotten a bit rusty. My new job at the African Union will require me to speak French again, but after two years of disuse my parlayvoo is not quite what it once was, to say the least. Fortunately the Alliance Francaise offers half-price classes for diplomatic staff, so I've signed up for a conversation class to get that pulled back together for the fall.

I've also started taking an Irish fiddle class, which represents the first time I've picked up a violin since I quit playing in a huff back in high school. After 15 years even the muscle memory is gone and just holding the instrument again felt awkward and alien. Despite my previous experience, at the first class my attempts at turning noise into music were no less squawkily hesitant than those of the other students trying for the first time.

But it's been three weeks now and some of the old tricks are starting to come back to me a little, though I'm also still making beginner's mistakes like brushing extra strings. I'll work that out in time, I'm sure. Building the finger calluses back up will take a little longer. I'm actually really enjoying it though, despite the awkward squeaking, in a way I never thought I would when I was 16 and the violin was the bane of my existence. (Although to be fair, a lot of things were the bane of my existence when I was 16.) Hooray for new old hobbies!