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November 2008

Thanksgiving in London

Thanksgiving in London, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

For the first time in three years, Mr. Crab was actually home for Thanksgiving and not traipsing around the world as usual in South America or Baghdad. I had neither the time nor the energy to cook a real turkey dinner, so we decided to go out for Thanksgiving. Fortunately, many London restaurants now host traditional Thanksgiving dinners to cater to the 50,000+ American expats in London. Some places, like Bodean's, even show NFL games. Unfortunately, we waited until the last minute. Practically every place in London was sold out. That's how we ended up at the Chicago Rib Shack last night.

Chicago Rib Shack (CRS) is located in West London in the posh Kensington neighborhood, around the corner from the famous Harrod's department store. When we got there, we were surprised to find the place decked out in all things Americana. The basement of the restaurant was covered in American flags and streamers and all guests were given a little vinyl American flag upon arrival. The stereo was BLARING American rock & pop music plus theme songs from American shows like "The A-Team" and "Magnum P.I."! Apparently, the British managers of the restaurant thought Thanksgiving was some sort of patriotic holiday like the Fourth of July. Oh well. Kudos to them for trying!

We were joined at dinner by one of Mrs. Crab's British coworkers, and we spent the evening giving her a crash course in Thanksgiving 101. The set meal dinner included a so-so hunk (not slices) of turkey wrapped in bacon, delicious stuffing, yummy honey glazed carrots, so-so garlic mash potatoes, broccoli and green beans, roast potatoes, cranberry "salsa" and for desert, one of the best pumpkin pies I've ever tasted. (Our British friend, who had never tasted pumpkin pie before, took one bite, described it "interesting," then pushed away the plate!) The CRS has an extensive menu of American beers including Anchor Steam, Brooklyn Lager and Goose Island IPA. Overall, I give the food 3 out of 5 stars.

The restaurant was packed with Yanks, some (ok, us too) singing along to the cheezy songs like Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero" We finally had to explain to our kindly Brazillian waitress that, no, Thanksgiving does not normally involve blaring rock music in the middle of dinner that was so loud it was impossible to hold a conversation. Afterwards, maybe, but not during dinner! At least not any Thanksgiving I remember! I thought she would be offended, but she was so sweet she turned it lower and even changed the CD and put on a bit of Christmas music. So big points for customer service.

Overall, I don't think I'd eat out for Thanksgiving again. Next year, if we're still here, I intend to host & cook a proper American Thanksgiving dinner party. RSVP now!

What credit crunch?

On Saturday the Two Crabs took a field trip to Shepherd's Bush neighborhood in west London to check out the new Westfield Shopping Center, the largest urban mall in Europe with more than 300 stores from 15 countries including Zara, Gap, Marks & Spencer, Topshop, Tiffany & Co., North Face, Timberland, House of Fraser, Armani, H&M & Next. The third level is still under construction and will soon include a posh movie theatre that serves food & drinks.

The best feature is the building's architecture: light, airy, wide corridors, numerous huge bathrooms. it looks more like an airport than a shopping mall. Unlike most European shopping centers that are outdoors or in a tiny rundown building, this is a proper American mall. The signs even point to "restrooms" -- not "toilets" or "WC," the standard phrase in Europe. The food court looks more like modern boutique restaurant, with stalls serving international cuisine including British meat pies, Indian, Italian, Greek & Sushi. Touch screen information kiosks help you find your way. Even more unusual in Europe: customer service. Helpful attendants are stationed at every entrance and information kiosk, handing out maps and ready with directions. Security is quite tight; several suited Secret Service-type guards with earphones and hand mics were posted outside stores and pacing the halls.

The mall is currently decked out in decorations for Christmas. The center courtyard of the mall is dominated by Santa's winter wonderland, though it looks more like Superman's arctic lair!

And perhaps most shocking of all: Westfield is open until 10pm on weekdays, and 11pm during Christmas season...most department stores in the UK are closed by 7pm! Finally, a proper American mall in London!

Cashing in on Obama-mania

Cashing In, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Mr. Crab covered the World Travel Fair in East London today. First, the event was jam-packed with industry professionals and potential tourists, so the travel industry appears to be faring well in this credit crunch climate. Second, I happened to walk by the Kenya Tourism Bureau booth and was greeted with posters of President-elect Barack Obama being used to promote tourism to his father's homeland. Think Obama is getting any royalties from this use of his image!?


Person under train, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

This is a common cause of delays on the London Underground -- "Person under train." Train and Tube engineers refer to these incidents as "one-unders." They don't mince words here, unlike on the Washington DC metro where you hear excuses like "medical emergency!"

The road to the Foreign Service, take 2

Departmentseal2From Mr. Crab:

  Before I became a journalist, my other dream job was to join the U.S. Foreign Service. For those unfamiliar, the Foreign Service (FS) is the diplomatic corps of the U.S. State Department, representing US interests abroad. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) spend the majority of their career overseas at one of the 265 U.S. Embassies or consulates around the globe.

The path to becoming an FSO is not easy. The entire process can take a year or longer including several exams and other hurdles including a big commttment of time and money.

The first major hurdle to becoming an FSO is the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), previously known as the Foreign Service Written Exam. In December 2007, with my journalism career flailing and the future uncertain, I took the exam on a whim. Other than skimming over the U.S. Constitution, I did not study at all.  I passed.     The next step is the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), in which a panel of mystery people examine the entire package of those who passed the exam including test scores, resume, recommendations, background, skills, and other mystery assets.  I passed that too, and was invited to take the day-long oral exam in Chicago, which is officially known as the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA).  I 0.2 points.

After several months of soul-searching and "what-ifs", I decided to try again. With the journalism industry in complete upheaval, and the election of Barack Obama to the White House, I'm even more determined than ever to join the Foreign Service. So, here I am, back at Square One. If you flunk any part of the FSO process, you have to start from the beginning.

So early Wednesday morning -- just a few hours after Obama's historic election victory -- I was back at the U.S. Embassy in London to re-take the exam. The exam was essentially the same format as the test I took last year except for one huge difference: IT WAS FRACKING EASY!  This test was 10x easier than the test I took last year.  Some questions were so ridiculously easy that I actually laughed out loud during the exam, on par with "Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb."  I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. (Note: All test-takers must sign a non-disclosure agreement which prevents us from discussing specifics of the test).

Unlike last year, I actually studied for the FSOT a little bit this time ...for one week.  I prepared for theFSOT by reading "Don't Know Much About American History;" re-read the U.S. Constitution and memorized the amendments; reading the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Washington Post on a daily basis (which I do anyway), downloading and taking the ACT FSOT practice test, taking the FSOT practice tests on (which contains several glaring mistakes) and playing the Traveler IQ geography games on Facebook! That's it. I think I kicked arse, especially on the English Comprehension section. Now comes the hard part: waiting 6 to 8 weeks for my test results.

If you're considering taking the FSOT, the only piece of advice I could give is: be well-read. Read, read and then read some more! The test covers a huge range of subjects including American and World history, current events, geography, economics, math, management, computer skills, English & grammer, anthropology, pop culture and more. The test is completely random and unpredictable -- think "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or "Jeopardy!"  In fact, it's so broad that ever-changing that it's almost impossible to study for, which is why I feel that studying for weeks and months like some folks do is a complete waste of time. You either know this stuff or you don't. Anyone who paid half-attention in high school and reads a daily newspaper could pass the Foreign Service exam. Now the Oral Exam, that's a different matter.

Stay tuned!