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.