Friday, October 28, 2011

Say what?

Well, what do you know... there was a presidential election in Ireland yesterday! And I had no clue.

I suppose you could say that this fact speaks volumes about my civic engagement and interest in my new home. I would argue, though, that it has much more to do with my consumption of Irish media (or lack thereof).

First, we have no television. We haven’t owned one since Hurricane Katrina wiped out ours 6 years ago. No radio, either.

I tried reading the newspaper a few times since I arrived last month, but never made it far, finding the news to be incomprehensible or astoundingly provincial. Instead, I have been relying on the NPR website for my news (in my defense, I have been making a special effort to read the stories about the Euro-zone bailout. But it’s just so bo-o-o-ring).

The election was there on the periphery of my consciousness. We’ve seen signs, and I’ve read the odd headline, but was all so low-key that I had no idea the election was near. After all, in the U.S., on the day of the election stores would be loudly proclaiming their Election Day Sales; the McDonald’s would probably be selling Big Macs festooned with little American flags; no one would get any work done because they’d be glued to the web, refreshing the page every minute to see the changing vote counts and colourful state maps. Here, it was just a normal day like any other, apart from the fact that people went into their polling station (or whatever it is they do here) and turned in their ballot.

Now, don’t ask me who is actually president, my interest in the subject hasn’t extended so far as for me to actually find out. I’m told it’s the balding little man with wild, white hair fringing his head. I think it’s the guy that Jorge thinks looks like a Princess Bride character. Maybe I'll go online and look it up.

Or maybe I'll check Facebook instead. Lunch hour is only so long, you know.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Exploring, part 3

After two weeks without an apartment, we changed tactics, and decided to rent a car for the week so that we could drive around and get to places that were further afield (ironically, we ended up renting the first place we looked at that week, which also happened to be 5 blocks away from the hotel where we were staying. Go figure.) Even though we didn’t end up doing too much apartment-hunting after all, it was great to have the car, for, uh…well…IKEA runs. And weekend getaways, of course.

On our next weekend trip, taken just after we picked up the car, we went to a seaside town on the outskirts of Dublin called Malahide. There is a lovely, well-preserved Norman-era castle there, which was occupied by a noble family right up until the 70s. In fact, the name of the last owner was…wait for it… Lord Milo!

However, halfway through the castle tour Jorge started patting his pockets rather desperately, looking for the car keys. Yes indeed, just four hours into rental car ownership, my dear husband lost the keys. And of course, he didn’t lose them inside the house; no, he lost them somewhere along the 20 minute walk we took through the very spacious park around the castle.

Fortunately, the kind soul who discovered them lying on the path took them back to the parking lot, unlocked the car, looked for the blinking lights, and left our keys inside the car (thank you Good Samaritan, wherever you are!)

Jorge, not content to let me relax, ever, decided then to play a prank and convince me that the person who returned our keys had then stolen the I-Pad from the glove compartment in return, which sort of marred my joy at not having to walk home. He didn’t have the heart to keep up the scam for long, though. Needless to say, we no longer keep valuables in the car, and I hold the car keys when we go out.
In all the excitement, however, I didn’t take a single photo. Sorry.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Exploring, part 2

After our grey, wet day South of Dublin at Glendalough, we decided to go in the opposite direction, up North to County Meath.

Our destination was a place called Newgrange, which is a prehistoric site built several thousand years ago. There is a complex of tombs which are buried under very carefully constructed mounds, each rock placed so precisely that the cavern inside is perfectly watertight. To get to the tombs, one must walk down a narrow, dark tunnel. Once a year, on the winter solstice, the tomb is illuminated by a single shaft of light pouring down the corridor (if the sun comes out at all, that is). Stonehenge has got nothing on this place.

The most beautiful detail for me was the stone work. The site has been carefully reassembled with the original stones (the whole place was buried for millennia until, naturally, one day a cow farmer came along and dug in just the right place (and I mean that literally - he just happened to start digging immediately over the entrance to the tomb). The front of the tomb, which faces the sunrise, is walled with bright white stones; as you wander around the outside, more and more black rocks are mixed in, until you get around the back, where all the rocks are black. This is the shadow, you see. Incredible.

Needless to say, it was a pretty remarkable place. Jorge was extremely impressed that a) I took him someplace so cool in our first weekend, and b) I managed to find the place eventually. You see, my internal GPS seems to be in need of a bit of a tune-up these days. We spent a lot of time in the first two weeks we were here driving in circles, turning into one-way streets the wrong way, and bickering. Now I just leave the navigation to Jorge, and keep my mouth shut when he gets us lost, because inevitably, we turn up right where we intended, with no clue how we got there (I refer you to the previous post for that little magic trick).

And check it out - the first family photo I think we have taken in about 6 months!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Exploring, part 1

I am happy to report that we are now settled into our apartment. After looking at plenty of duds, we found a nice litte townhouse, 10 minutes walk from my office, a few blocks away from several grocery stores and other shops, and with a swimming pooll down the block where Milo can take lessons. It has plenty of closets, a shower with decent water pressure, and a full-sized fridge. And best of all, the landlord wanted someone to do a short-term lease, so we dont have to worry about losing our deposit once my contract is up. So all in all, we got pretty much everything we wanted.

We've already made two trips out to IKEA to stock up (although luckily the partment also came furnished, and had many of the household items we needed) which was probably the highlight of the week last night. What can I say, we are big Swedish meatball lovers in this family.

In our very rare spare time, we have been trying to get out a bit and see a litte of the country. We're starting close to home, then planning to take a few long weekends to go further afield. While the good news is that overall the weather in Ireland has been better than expected, the bad news is that on the days we do manage to make it out of the house, it always rains. Except this last weekend; it was beautiful - and then of course I forgot my camera. Oh well.

Here are some photos from our first excursion, to a 6th century monastic settlement called Glendalough. It's located in Wicklow National Park, an area of beatiful, heather-covered moors and stream-cut valleys. I got us deeply lost on the way there, but there is something oddly magical about Ireland - we always end up where we are supposed to be, having no idea on earth how we managed to get there. Jorge tested it one day and went out for a drive with the kids, deliberatly trying to get lost, and inevitably he ended up blocks away from the house.

If Jorge looks a little strange, it's beause he's trying to look at the camera while at the same time watch Milo out of the corner of his eye. But it's the best photo I've got.

If you look closely you can see Dean's two little teeth poking out!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Random thoughts on blogging

Hello? Anybody out there? In honor of my completely gutted readership, I thought I’d share some of my latest thoughts on blogging for the scant few of you who still bother to come to this site (and yet never comment on ANYthing. Lazy slobs.)

1) I took a long sabbatical from blogging, I know. To tell you the truth, after 5 years in Malawi, I was beginning to feel like I just had nothing good to say anymore. Malawi is still a lovely country, don’t get me wrong. I’d live there over, say, Chad or the Central African Republic any day. But things have been on a gradual decline for the past year, and it was sad to see. I’ve already written about the fuel shortages, of course, and the protests. But I didn’t write about the concerns over governance, the way the government seemed to be increasingly intolerant of criticism, sometimes taking out full page ads in the newspaper, explaining point by point why a) they have never made any mistakes at all, ever, and b) the opposition are idiots.

However, this blog has never been about politics (although every day I am finding it increasingly difficult to restrain from mocking the Republican Party), and as a humanitarian aid worker, I can jeopardize my own ability to work in a country by saying the wrong thing, so mum was the word. I feel conflicted about my silence however; isn’t it my duty to speak out when I see something unjust?

2) I never wrote about this one: I got Twittered. Tweeted?

It was the day of the protests in Lilongwe, and someone (cough cough government cough) had managed to shut down all the radio stations. Nyasa Times had reportedly been hacked. At any rate, there were no readily available news source. So for the first time, I turned to Twitter. For the rest of the day, I refreshed, read, and repeated.

Then I read something curious. Someone tweeted about a blogger named Gwyneth who worked in Public Health in Malawi. “Wow!” I thought “There’s another Gwyneth working in public health in Malawi? And she has a blog too! What are the odds?” And then it occurred to me – the odds were actually something like 6.7 million to one. They were talking about me.

I clicked through the link, and found my own blog post, written just a couple hours earlier, posted on the African news website All Africa. At first I was quite proud. But then I thought of how the government had announced it would be monitoring Facebook, and Twitter, and blogs, with the implication that those found writing negative things would face consequences. I briefly considered removing my post, but then I read my post again, and I was proud of what I had done. I decided to stand by my words.

3) Call me na├»ve, but I only recently realized that prospective employers Google their job candidates. Since my contract in Malawi was coming to an end, I have been steadily job-hunting over the past few months. Not long after a job interview a few months ago, I discovered that someone had found my blog by Googling me. Unfortunately, they were able to find me because a certain friend made the indiscretion of referring to our last names on this blog. I will punch him the next time I see him, but seeing as the guy is like 250 pounds, I don’t think I’ll do much harm.

But here’s something you should know, Mr. or Ms. Prospective employer. I see you. I know you’re out there, looking for me. I can now what you’re up to too.

And my next blog post is likely to be titled “Why I am the most awesome employee EVAH.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

A place to call home

So, we are back in the hotel. House-hunting is hard work here. Every morning I go through the listings, make a note of any suitable places, e-mail Jorge the numbers and addresses, and go off to work. When he gets time (that is, when the children allow him 10 minutes of peace, which is rare) he calls around and tries to make appointments for viewings. People only show apartments in the evenings, which I suppose works great for working professionals, but for parents of a baby and a preschooler with early bedtimes, it’s not ideal.

Most of the places we have seen so far have been very small. A room listed as a “double” generally means “we squeezed a double bed in there, and you will have just enough room to scoot around the edge of it and flop into bed”. We have seen “single” rooms which could have been Harry Potter’s room, i.e. The Cupboard under the Stairs. The two places we’ve seen that had a little more space were either run-down or in a neighborhood likely to get us mugged. Ah, and did I mention that the "refrigerator" in most of these places is in actuality a mini-bar?

Finally, we pushed up our budget a little, and looked at two places tonight. The first was a winner right away. It's very close to my office and in a neighborhood with lots of shops and restaurants. There's plenty of storage space and good-sized bedrooms. We told the owner we’d take it, and we could move in tomorrow. But he hemmed and hawed, and told us there were other people coming to see the apartment. Jorge was a little perplexed. “That’s fine, don’t turn them away, but we’ll take it. We can bring you cash tomorrow.” At first we wondered if he was looking for tenants perhaps a wee less…brown (and no funny accents) but gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe someone else called to book a viewing before us.

The next place we looked at was literally two blocks away, and also nice, but smaller, and all on one floor (we’d like a townhouse so we can sit in the living room and chat without keeping the kids awake). But I suppose beggars can’t be choosers anymore, so we also said we were interested.

So maybe some light at the end of the tunnel at last. Just five minutes ago, the owner of the townhouse called and said we are second on the list, so our second theory may have been correct after all. Tomorrow we go to see two more places, and may arrange a few more viewings after that. So we are very, very hopeful that by the weekend we will have a place to live, and can finally unpack our bags!

- Breaking newsflash - Just found out, we got the place we wanted. Cross your fingers that all goes well!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fashion (hell) week

When you work for a job that sends you off to difficult places like remote African nations, one of the things that is always covered in your induction is how to deal with culture shock. I always brushed these sessions off, because I don’t think I’m terribly affected by culture shock. My feet hit the Seattle airport, and the next thing I want to do is go to Target. If you ask Jorge, of course, he claims that I have spent the last week glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, overwhelmed by all my options every time we enter a shopping center or department store. But don’t you listen to him, I’m doing just fine, thankyouverymuch.

There are definitely some things that it takes a while to adjust to, every time we move back and forth, though. And this time, it is the fashion. Either fashion is completely hideous right now, or Irish women are hideously unfashionable. Either way, I am completely perplexed by people’s choices in clothing.

It started in the Amsterdam airport. I thought it was a fluke when I saw my first pair of hammer pants. But then not five minutes went by, and I saw another pair, and this time in a hideous floral print. Floral hammer pants. My God, what has this world come to?

Apparently in the 6 months I was off in Africa, someone decided that the 80s, skin-tight jeans, and cut-off shorts were all due for a comeback. Apparently this person was not alive in the 80s, or they would know how horrible it all was the first time around.

Remember when you had to lay down on your bed to zip up your jeans? I caught a woman a couple days ago who couldn’t squeeze her cell phone into her pocket.

And the cut-off shorts… [shudder]. I could understand if your jeans were accidentally shortened in some kind of horrible industrial accident, and you couldn’t afford to buy new ones – but actually paying for booty shorts and then trying to winterize them with black tights…no. I cannot forgive you that, my friend.

Irish women also seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that one can actually wear black tights with anything. One particularly egregious example was a woman wearing a white floral skirt, white shoes…and black tights.

Today I found myself walking home behind a woman in an unbelievably short dress (over black tights, of course), and thinking, not for the first time, “but where are her pants?” I realized that life in Africa has left me very conservative when it comes to fashion. For me, wearing a tank top in public is like going out in your bra. Leggings (especially when your ego will not allow you to buy the size that actually fits, leaving them stretched out and translucent) to me are the same as walking around in only panty-hose. I tried to go shopping the other day, but found everything to be either too tight, too ugly, or much too short.

It figures. I’m finally in a developed country, for once not pregnant or recently post-partum, feeling great about my body, and ready to shop…and I can’t find anything I would be willing to spend money on. That is life’s way of telling me to save my pennies, I guess.