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.