Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ethiopia: St. Patrick's Day Charity Ball

Heading into a big party weekend, I was unfortunately dealing with another gastrointestinal problem.  My condition, while not dire, was not especially comfortable, and I decided I would rather stay home than go out.

I backed out of parties on Thursday and Friday night, and I cancelled lunch appointments for Saturday and Sunday. The one thing I did not scratch off my calendar, however, was the St. Patrick's Day Charity Ball on Saturday night.  The biggest reason for this was the cost.  I still felt like crap, but I didn't want to lose the 1,300 birr (about $72) I had paid for my ticket.  Plus, much like Oktoberfest, the St. Patrick's Ball is one of the biggest parties of the year in Addis.

No dress code was specified for the ball, so I decided to honor St. Patrick with some green.  Specifically, I paired a striped green shirt with black pants and a grey jacket.  I thought my outfit looked pretty cool until about two minutes before my car arrived.  At that moment, the green shirt suddenly seemed tacky.  It was too late to do anything about it, though, so I loaded up in the car and headed toward the Sheraton.

As we drove along, my driver marveled at how he had only seen me previously on one occasion in the six months I had been working in Ethiopia.  This tidbit wasn't so amazing to me, however, considering the huge motor pool we have at the Embassy.  There are more than 60 drivers, I think.

We also discussed where I might go after I finish my assignment in Addis Ababa, and then things got awkward.

"Did your wife move in yet?" the driver asked me.

"I don't have a wife," I replied.

"Really?  Why not?" he pressed.

"I guess I haven't found the right person yet," I answered.

"Yet?!?" he gasped. "You need to start taking it seriously!"

He then went on to lecture me for several minutes about the necessity of marriage.  He kindly explained how it's written in the Bible that man should not live alone and how it's everyone's duty to raise a family and how a man outside of marriage is only half a person and blah, blah, blah...

I didn't think my marital status was any of his business, but, on the other hand, I do appreciate a good rant.  I  let him continue his sermon uninterrupted, and I dutifully nodded along.

Sadly, though, we soon reached the Sheraton, and I had to bid the Reverend Dr. Driver farewell.

The doors to the ballroom were set to open at 7:30 PM, and I had arrived about 15 minutes too early.  I wasn't the only early-bird, however, and when I went to wait in the Office Bar, I ran into several friends.

After one drink, we moved over to the ballroom.

The St. Patrick's Ball is hosted by the Irish Embassy, and the embassy staff were working the check-in tables.

When I presented my ticket to the Irish lass at the desk, she was most complimentary.

"I love the shirt!" she exclaimed in her Irish accent.  "Thanks for making the effort!"

Maybe the shirt wasn't so bad after all.

As I mentioned earlier, there was no dress code specified for the ball, so it was basically anything goes.  The styles in the lounge ranged from tuxedos and formal gowns to jeans and polos and mini-skirts.  I'm sure he was just too fashion-forward for me, but one man even looked like he was wearing pajamas.

The ticket included admission to the ball, of course, but also dinner, unlimited drinks, and entry in the raffle.

I approached the bar with my little group of friends, and I started with a Guinness   This was not the right choice for my stomach.  It was so dense and bitter, I could only manage half a glass.

I decided that a gin and tonic would be more appropriate.

Nearly all of the ball's sponsors were alcohol companies, Gordon's gin among them, and there were banners all around the room promoting booze.  The Gordon's signs featured a big photo of a gin and tonic with the words, "Enjoy Gordon's gin and tonic".  So, ordering a G-and-T seemed like a no-brainer.

There was, however, one small snag.

"We don't have any tonic," the bartender told me.  "How about a gin and Sprite?  It's very delicious."

To be technical about it, they didn't even have Sprite.  He was saying Sprite while holding a bottle of 7-Up.

I took a gin and 7-Up, but the lack of tonic was astounding to me.  As I already mentioned, there were signs for gin and tonic everywhere.  Beyond that, what self-respecting 4- or 5-star hotel runs out of tonic?

The gin and 7-Up was too sweet, but it was good enough.  I choked it down.  ha ha.

After about 30 minutes, they opened the doors to the dining room.  We all filtered in and found our tables, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that in the whole dining room my seat was the absolute closest one to the bathroom.  Score!

At the tables, bread was waiting on the bread plates.  Since it was already after 8:00, everyone was hungry, and people started eating the bread straight away.  One of the people on my side of the table took the bread plate on her right (which is incorrect, I think), and the rest of us followed suit.  Then someone on the opposite side of the table started eating the bread on his left (which is correct), and the people on that side followed suit.  Caught in the middle of these competing approaches, one colleague ended up with no bread at all.  There was, of course, an extra plate of bread for her on the opposite side of the table, but she insisted she didn't want it.

There were approximately 600 people at dinner, and the dining room was understandably chaotic.  When they first opened the doors, some people took their seats.  For many others, however, the cocktail hour had simply moved locations.  People were still moving around and talking, and in many cases quite loudly.  This became a problem when it was time to get the show started.  The emcee, an Irish woman, repeatedly called for people to take their seats.  Unfortunately, the din of the crowd, coupled with an anemic microphone, left the emcee completely neutered.  She tried getting the crowd seated for 5 or 10 minutes, but her pleas were falling on deaf ears.

Finally, they started the formal program despite the uncooperative crowd.

The emcee announced something that I couldn't understand, and then music started playing.  People across the room quickly rose from their seats.  It was the national anthem.

After the song concluded, the room was finally quiet and the emcee made another announcement.

"Please remain standing for the Irish national anthem," she requested.

After this announcement, there was some momentary confusion.  People all around were whispering, "Didn't they just play that?"

The first song had been the Ethiopian national anthem but being unfamiliar with either song and having not heard the announcement, many people were left scratching their heads.

Once the national anthems were finished, everyone sat down, and the Irish ambassador took the stage. He started out by telling us that he was the last obstacle before dinner was served, but that we needn't worry because he would be brief.  We've all heard that before.

Then he congratulated everyone for getting tickets since the event had completely sold out within two days.

The ambassador was soft-spoken with a thick accent, so along with the weak amplification system and the background noise of the crowd, he was harder to understand than the emcee.  He started his remarks by trying to teach us an Irish greeting.

Translated it was something like this: "God be with you."

And our response was: "God and Mary be with you."

And his response to our response was: "God and Mary and St. Patrick be with you."

"As you can see," the ambassador quipped, "Irish greetings can quickly become a litany of the saints."

Unfortunately, most of us non-Irish people were not doing justice to the Irish language, and our responses sounded nothing like what the ambassador had taught us.  Oh well.

After the greetings, the ambassador moved to the meat of his speech.  There were still people talking (someone at the next table was even rudely singing, "Frosted Lucky Charms, they're magically delicious..."); waiters were coming in and out; and there was a lot of traffic to the bar and the smoking area.  Try as I may, I couldn't focus on the remarks at all.  I glazed over and in about 20 minutes, the speech was done.

Hear, hear... it was time for the food!

The first course was Killarney salmon with mayonnaise, and it was pretty good.  It was a salmon salad served on a bed of cucumbers with a boiled egg.

I ended up eating two because my friend Louise doesn't eat seafood, and I volunteered to help her out.

My table-mates were aware of my intestinal issue and of my desire not to move around too much, so they generously hooked me up whenever they went for a refill at the bar.  On my second gin and 7-Up refill, my friend Don was handling my order.

When he returned with the drink, he brought along some bad news.

"I'm sorry," he told me, "but all they had was tonic.  I hope that's OK."

There was no need for apologies; this news was most welcome.  Apparently enough people had complained that the Sheraton staff had procured some tonic from one of their bars or restaurants.

My friend Kathy raised a toast at my good fortune.  "Praise the Lord..." she began.

        "...and pass the ammunition!" I finished.

We both had a laugh.  Sometimes a 1940's saying is just what the doctor ordered.

While I was celebrating my drink, my friend Brooke, who was about three chairs over, was lamenting hers.

"This is just awful," she groaned.

Of course we had to ask her what she was drinking.

Well, she had ordered a Jack and Coke, but unfortunately, neither of those products was a sponsor of the event, and neither was available.

Instead, Brooke was served a Johnnie and Pepsi - a different animal completely.

I was keen to try it, though, so Brooke passed it over.

"You can keep it," she said.  "I'm not going to finish it."

And so I did.  It wasn't that bad.

My friend Paul was sitting to my left, and after the first course he called the waitress over.

"Can you bring us some salt and pepper?" he asked.

The waitress assured him this was no problem, and she hurried off to the kitchen.

She returned several minutes later and presented Paul with a shaker of salt and a stack of napkins.

"Here you are, sir," she told him, "salt and paper."

Paul's salt and paper.


"Not paper," Paul replied, "pepper."

The waitress stared blankly at Paul.  We had reached an impasse.

The waitress left after a few more awkward moments of silence, and Paul flagged down the next one who passed by.  The shaker of pepper arrived a few minutes later.

Before long, the mains came out of the kitchen.  The choices were beef, chicken, and vegetarian, and I had opted for the beef - New York Gaelic Steak, to be precise.  I had high hopes for this tenderloin, but unfortunately it was dry and tough.

Where's the beef?  Here it is.

No matter, I thought to myself, they can redeem themselves with dessert.

The dessert was described as a Bailey’s Irish Cream crème brulée, but there was something not quite right about it.  The dish was basically a bland square of custard with a thin chocolate wafer on top.

"This isn't really a crème brulée," I complained to my table-mates.  "It's missing the layer of caramelized sugar [which is a crucial part of the dish].  If I'm not mistaken, I think crème brulée even translates to burnt cream."

If there was anything burnt on this dish it was barely perceptible.  Kathy, however, was keen to take up the debate.

"Crème brulée doesn't mean anything," she told me, "it's just the name of a dish."

Kathy speaks French, and I do not, but still I was inclined to argue my case.  (And I still think I'm right.)

"Just shut up and eat it before I stab you with my fork," she threatened.  She was half-joking (I think).

Meanwhile, during and after dinner, the official program continued to play out.

The first event was an Irish dancing competition.  The emcee announced the event and a few dozen people made their way to the dance floor.  Amanda, who was also sitting at my table, admitted to having studied Irish step dancing in her youth, but she wasn't willing to strut her stuff.  The prize was 6,000 birr (about  $333), but that wasn't enough to entice her.  As an American, I suspect she didn't want to outshine the Irish on their special day.  Anyhow, once the emcee was satisfied with the number of participants, the band, which Lufthansa had flown in from Ireland, started into a festive jig.  After about five minutes of fancy footwork, a winner was announced.

Next up was the Ethiopian dance competition.  To kick this off, the emcee called to the stage a professional Ethiopian dancer.  Then the band jumped into another Irish jig, and this guy danced to it in a very vigorous Ethiopian style - with plenty of shoulder flapping, chest shaking, and hopping.  This was pretty cool.

After the dancing showcase, the emcee announced that the professional dancer would be the judge for the Ethiopian dance competition, and she called for participants from the crowd.  There were many Ethiopian guests at the party, but they weren't exactly flocking to the dance floor.  So, the emcee kept pressing, and eventually the floor was filled with a lot of faranjis.

Instead of an Irish jig, they played a recording of Teddy Afro, Ethiopia's most popular current singer.

The song seemed to run quite long, but eventually a winner was crowned.  I couldn't see who it was, but my money was not on the white guys.

Several minutes after the Ethiopian dance competition, the emcee was back on the microphone.

"Is there anyone with clean underwear?" it seemed she was asking.  "Clean underwear?  Anyone at all?"

"What a curious competition!" I remarked.

Even stranger was the fact that only one guy rushed the stage.  So we had one guy out of 600 with clean underwear...  That was good for a laugh.

Maybe you already saw where this was going, but it was a simple misunderstanding.  I had not understood the emcee's accent (again), but she had been calling for green underwear.

My confusion led someone at the table to make a joke about underwear that was green, but definitely not clean - about some drawers so old they had molded and changed color.

Come on people; are we six years old or are we adults?  ha ha.

There was also a mini-conversation at the table about what color underwear people actually were wearing.  Black and white were the most popular, so no real surprises there.

Getting back to the competition, though, one guy showed up, and a lady wasn't too far behind.

Then after a judge verified their green underwear, they got their money - quite possibly the easiest 200 bucks they ever made.

Unless this event was new for this year, I was surprised that more people who had attended in prior years had not come prepared.  Like I said, it looked like easy money to me.

After the underwear showdown, there was one final bit of business remaining: the raffle.

Don had warned us earlier in the night that he was super lucky, so we were all mentally prepared for him to win big.

The first few prizes were some weekend get-aways at lodges around the country.  They came and went, and none of us won anything.

Then it was time for the grand prize: airfare for two from Addis Ababa to anywhere in Europe (within reason, I suppose), courtesy of Lufthansa.

The emcee reached into the box, and just like a Hollywood movie, she pulled out Don's name.  It was amazing!

Sorry, I was just having a bit of fun.  The real winner was a Polish guy who was sitting across the room.  Don and the rest of us were Grade-A losers in that raffle.

The raffle marked the end of the official program, and after that the DJ opened the dance floor up for dancing.

Right about that time, our colleague Scott, who had been sitting at another table, came over and invited us to smoke cigars.  About half of us took him up on the offer, a quarter went elsewhere in the ballroom, and the remaining people headed home.

Cigar smoking is still quite popular apparently because the number of cigar-smokers on the back patio must have been 30 or 40.

As we were smoking, we continued drinking, and when we all had a round at hand, we started toasting in different languages.

"Anyone know how to toast in Gaelic?" I asked.

At this, one of my colleagues made a special point to correct me.

"FYI," she told me, "Gaelic is the language of Wales, not Ireland."

I'm not sure of her source, but after a quick check on the internet, it looks to me like Irish is the preferred name of the language, but Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are also acceptable.  Furthermore, I didn't find any references to Welsh Gaelic, although it seems there is Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic.

Anyhow, not long after I was corrected, Kathy stepped in to offer an Irish toast (in English): "To Jesus, Mary, and St. Patrick!" she announced.

Close enough.  We all drank to the saints.

Once my cigar was finished, I left the U.S. Embassy cluster and walked around.  I saw several people I knew, and on four different occasions, I was introduced by a friend to his or her friends as being the funniest person ever.  This is flattering, of course, but it's also a tough introduction to own.  Without fail, I was left standing there with some stranger expecting me to break into a comedy sketch.  I can't just turn on the good times like a light switch, though, so I ended up looking a bit flat and decidedly unfunny.

"I guess you had to be there," I would offer.  And the strangers would look at me as if to say, "how sad."

Tough crowds, I tell ya!

I did have one embarrassing moment where I "recognized" a guy from Oktoberfest, but in reality I knew him from a house party.  He was quick to call out my mistake.

I also had a portly Brit swear that we knew each other, although I'm quite sure we had never met.  I got the impression, however, that some of the other people around bought his story and decided that I was the confused one.  Damn his authoritative English accent!

I left his company and scanned the room for trouble.

According to the stories that I heard from last year's ball, it had been a true case of diplomats gone wild.  There were tales of vomiting at the dinner table, of disappearing clothes, of table-dancing.  This year, I didn't see any such shinanagins, which is sad.  A bit of mayhem is always good at a party.

Then again, maybe I just left before the party kicked into high gear.

I decided to throw in the towel around 12:45, at which time the crowd was noticeably leaner.  I had had two unpleasant bouts in the toilet, but overall I felt pretty good.  Still, I decided it was best not to push it.  I left, and the party raged on until around 4 AM I would later learn.

At the entrance to the hotel, the doorman informed me that the taxi rank had been completely exhausted and my best bet would be to try to hail a cab on the main road.

As I was walking out of the Sheraton's gate, my colleague Emily happened to be driving out.  She kindly offered me a lift, and in doing so, she probably saved me a very long walk or a very long wait.  Taxis are not that common in the wee hours of the morning.

In about 20 minutes, we had reached my house.  When I walked through the gate, my guard was standing duty.

"Great shirt!" he remarked.