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There’s no substitute for chocolate

The fruit of the carob tree is being touted as a replacement for chocolate. ‘Carob is a wonderful substitute for chocolate. It tastes great with a chocolate-like flavor but without the health risks, additives, or contamination that comes with chocolate.’ So I went and found a carob tree – not just any old tree but one that is reputed to be over 1000 years old. And I found some of the ripe and ready brown fruit. And I tried it. And yes, it has a faint taste of chocolate but it is terribly, terribly, terribly sweet.  Despite the associated health benefits, and no matter how much it is dressed up and labelled as ‘good for me’, it will never, ever replace chocolate.

I used to work in the shadow of Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Coolock and on those rare occasions when Ireland had a sunny summer, the smell of the chocolate was a tad overwhelming. But that was as rare as a Irish suntan. When I was in  the States, and even now that I’m spending a lot of time in Budapest, the one thing guaranteed to raise my spirits and endear you to me for life, was/is a bar of Cadbury’s plain chocoate. Forget Lindt or the other fancy chocolatiers, a plain bar of Cadbury’s, preferably straight from the fridge, is one of the simplest pleasures in my life.

In my search for reasons why carob is supposedly so much healthier than chocolate, I found this interesting assertion: The seeds inside the pods were also traditionally used to weigh diamonds, which is where we get the word carat from. Who’d have known, eh? My life is now a little more complete. That said, the carob tree I saw in Xemxija in Malta is fairly amazing. The translation of the Maltese verse  with its new word – propably – is inspiring. To my mind, anything that can stand in one place for over 1000 years deserves a little credit – even if the fruit of its boughs is nicer to look at than to eat.

No one goes to Modica

When I said I was going to Modica, they asked me why. When I said I’d found a nice hotel, they looked  askance. Surely I could find a nice hotel in a city that was worth seeing. No-one goes to Modica. It’s one of those cities you pass by on the way to somewhere else – to Catania, or to Siracusa, or even to Ragusa. But no-one goes to Modica. Read more

Notes to self

I have spent the last ten days in a room with 16 people who travelled from Abu Dhabi, Austria, British Virgin Islands, Congo, Grenada, Hungary, Malta, Ireland, Libya, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Switzerland, USA, Venezuela, and Zambia. Despite our varied backgrounds, we are all students enrolled in a Master’s program in contemporary diplomacy.

That I learned a lot about diplomacy is a given. That I learned a lot about other countries and cultures goes without saying. That I learned a lot about myself is surprising.

In my first simulated diplomatic experience, I represented the Irish government and faced my first media interview. For the real me, being on stage with a microphone is one of the best legal highs I can get. I’m an active member of Budapest Toastmasters and well versed in the art of impromptu speaking; I was prepared. What I hadn’t bargained for was the relentless onslaught of questions and the merciless way in which the journalist exploited my weaknesses. He asked me to defend a recent EU study showing Ireland’s problem with underage drinking. He asked what we, as a government, were doing about it. No sooner had I launched into an explanation of our alcohol awareness campaign than he devoured me with the ferocity of a cocoa junkie who finds chocolate on a health farm.  Why were we only now taking action? Why hadn’t we taken responsibility years ago? I knew I should calmly argue my point, be firm, and give the party line. That was my job. But before I could marshal my thoughts, he changed tack. Did I think Ireland had racial prejudices?  My mouth dropped open. The speaker in me frantically searched for a hook, something on which to hang a coherent response – hell, any response! I was drowning. And then I heard myself say, quite forcefully:  Yes! Yes! The collective intake of breath in the room silently screamed: No! No! Wrong answer. But there was no going back. Note to self: Be mindful that armchair politicians rarely sit in the hot seat.

Multilateral negotiations

In the next simulation, having been summarily dismissed from the Irish Government, I found myself representing South Africa in multilateral negotiations at a working group on food security. Fourteen countries were represented, with Hungary (the current President) speaking for the EU. I had been given instructions from my Capitol regarding negotiation and defence objectives. I knew what I had to accomplish. We went through the draft agreement and made our initial representations.  It soon became clear that somewhere in the next 72 hours, each country would have to give and take. We moved from negotiating as separate states to finding strength in numbers and quite soon it devolved into a classic case of them and us: the big guys and the little guys. Semantic arguments funnelled their way politely through the Chair. I would never have believed that so much could hang on a compromise about the choice of verb. Inch by inch concessions were made. Envoys travelled back and forth between the two sides to bargain and cajole. Deals made over coffee were reneged on over tea. Nothing much had been gained. Note to self:  Compromise, like hollow-centred chocolates, may look good but often lack substance.

Bilateral negotiations

When the South African foreign ministry suggested early retirement, the next simulation saw me representing the USA, facing off against Egypt in a bilateral negotiation. This was more like it. I was in the driver’s seat; the big shot. I was already savouring the sweet taste of success.  With only two of us, it would be so much easier to come to an agreement. Again I got my instructions from my Capitol as to what I could and could not do. And once again, my expectations were far removed from reality. While I may have had might on my side, I faced intractable opposition. This time I gave away not just a couple of chocolates, but the whole box! Note to self: The ‘and’ in ‘give and take’ is there for a reason.

Unilateral negotiations

When it’s just me in the room, negotiating with or talking to myself, I do fine. No stress, no pressure, no instructions. Finally, I’d found my niche. But while I successfully negotiate with myself all day every day and have even been known to get my own way on occasion, I had to face the ugly truth. When defences are down and carelessness creeps in, when emotions leapfrog over reason and rationale, when mental acuity is diluted by exhaustion, I would gladly trade it all for a bar of chocolate.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2011