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February 2009

The road to the Foreign Service, redux

From Mr. Crab: So we came home from Austria and I found an e-mail from the State Department waiting for me. The first word of the letter: "Congratulations!"  So I've now passed the QEP and have advanced to the last and final big hurdle: the dreaded Oral Assessment. I took the OA in June 2008 and the results were disappointing: I missed the cutoff passing score by 0.20 points.   I'm feeling pretty good about test this time, especially now that I know what to expect. Let the studying begin...

St. Johann in Tirol, Austria

St. Johann in Tirol, Austria, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

The Two Crabs are back from our third annual Alpine Ski Trip, this time to Austria (our last trips were to Selva Val Gardena, Italy and Meribel, France). St. Johann is, hands down, our favorite new resort. It's much more relaxed, laid back and cheaper than Meribel with a cute little car-free downtown zone. And the mountain? Wonderful! it might be boring for you hot-dog black diamond skiiers, but for us intermediates, it was paradise. According to one guidebook, St. Johann has the highest ski hut density of any resort in Europe. We spent the week just skiing from ski hut to ski hut, stopping for a pint or our new favorite Apres Ski drink: hot chocolate & Baileys. More photos posted on Flickr!

In praise of: Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge at night, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

This is my favorite structure in London. It's probably also the most mistaken bridge in the world. Tourists regularly refer to this structure as "London Bridge." Well, yes, it is a bridge in London. But it's not called London Bridge. This is TOWER BRIDGE.

Although it looks fairly old, it's actually pretty modern by London standards. After an 8-year construction project, Tower Bridge was officially opened on 30 June 1894 by future King Edward VII. It was built because of the need for a new bridge in East London.

Tower Bridge is a drawbridge and was originally opened for tall ships like tea Clippers returning from the Far East on their way to the now-defunct docks in the Poole of London. The old docks in this area have since been converted into luxury condos. Today, the bridge is still occasionally opened for visiting tall ships and Royal Navy vessels that often dock alongside the HMS Belfast ship & museum. For nearly 100 years, the drawbridge was operated by steam-driven engines until it was modernized in 1974. 

Pedestrians can cross the bridge on either side of the road. The towers also contain a museum. For £6, visitors can climb the north tower, walk across the two top girders and descent down the south tower.

For the record: London Bridge is a flat, ugly, nondescript modern bridge located just west of Tower Bridge. London Bridge was the original crossing over the River Thames. It was once covered with wooden houses and shops that routinely burned, hence the old nursery rhyme, "London Bridge is Falling Down."

Big red eye

London Eye, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

The great thing about London in winter is that you pretty much have the entire city to yourself -- hardly any tourists, no crowds, you can get a table at a pub and take some great photos without jostling for vantage points! We've hosted and played tour guide for four visiting American friends in the past two weeks. Winter is the perfect time to visit London. Not to mention that airfare is dirt cheap right now. Tickets from Washington or NYC are running about $450 ROUNDTRIP!

In praise of: NyQuil & other great American drugs

Mr. Crab is sick. Not just a little under the weather. We're talking full-blown flu. I feel horrible. 101F temperature, sore throat, congestion, cough, weakness, the works. And I'm taking it very badly because I'm RARELY sick.  Lots of whining and complaining on my end, but Mrs. Crab has been doing a fantastic job nursing me to health. Not only do I feel miserable, but I'm bored out of my mind!

NYQ_ColdFluLiquid_lg  This illness got me thinking about the differences between over-the-counter drugs in the US vs. UK. The first day I got sick I went to the chemist (American English translation: 'pharmacy') and asked for the strongest drug they had. I was given "Night Nurse."  This stuff is crap. It hasn't helped much at all. I didn't even bother going to the GP (American English translation: general practitioner, or 'doctor') because they always say the same thing: "Take some paracetamol."  My fellow Americans, it took me a year to finally realize what paracetamol is -- it's acetaminophen, better known to us as Tylenol. Lame.  I tried another British drug called Beechams. It's also crap.  And doctors in the UK are not very sympathetic. When I suggested a certain drug, the doctor responded: "You Americans, you always want to pop a pill for everything." 

Well guess what, he's right. American over-the-counter drugs are light years better than most stuff we've found in Europe.  And there's about 10 times more choices as well. Last week, a friend visiting us from the states brought me the real deal: NyQuil and DayQuil. I don't know why they don't sell this stuff in the UK because it is a miracle drug. Within 15 minutes of taking NyQuil, I was out light a light. I've slept 12 hours a night for the past week on Nyquil-induced comas. I was surprised to learn that the main ingredient in NyQuil is acetaminophen (paracetamol) but it also has a few extra kicks like antihestimines, which knock you out and then some. I also miss TheraFlu and similar products.

On the flip side, some drugs that are prescription in the US are freely available OTC in the paracetemol with CODINE!  And Claritin and Zyrtek were over-the-counter in the UK years before they were available OTC in the US.

After 5 days in bed I'm finally starting to feel human again, but the bad news is we've run out of NyQuil. Dear mom, please send American drugs!

Mastering the Foreign Service exam

State_Department_Seal(UPDATE: Since originally writing this post, I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment - FSOA - in April 2009.  I received Final Suitability and was placed on the Register in November 2009. In January 2010, I received and accepted an invitation to join "THE LEGENDARY" 152nd A-100 Class.  We graduated A-100 in April 2010, with Secretary Clinton herself administering the Oath of Office. I am now serving at my first overseas post.) 

Longtime readers of this blog will know that Mr. Crab has long dreamed of joining the U.S. Foreign Service (FS), and is now about 1/3 of the way through the hiring process.  The "Foreign Service exam" is a bit of a misnomer as it's actually a series of tests and background checks, all of which you must pass to advance to the next level. The entire process takes about 9-12 months (or longer) from the day you complete the online application until the day you are admitted to "A-100" -- the Foreign Service Orientation Course,  a sort-of boot camp for Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).   The first major hurdle is the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), more commonly known by its previous name, the Foreign Service Written Exam.  

I've taken and passed the FSOT twice, in October 2007 and November 2008. The first time, I did not study at all. The second time I studied ... for about two weeks. I passed easily the first time, and with flying colors the second go. IMHO, the new FSOT is not that difficult.  You don't need to be a genius, have a photographic memory or hold an advanced degree to pass this test.  My own educational background is limited to a BA in communication and minor in American History.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no educational, foreign language, or foreign travel requirement to join the Foreign Service. 

The pass rate of the FSOT written exam is about 40-45% (Source: Diplomat-in-Residence course, Washington, April 2009), nearly double the pass rate of the pre-2007 exam. But it's still a very competitive process. Even though the pass rate of the written exam is higher, the number of people who advance to the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) is still the same. That's because the numbers of candidates are whittled down during the mysterious Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), so only about 25% of people who start the process are invited to the Orals.  At the end of the day, only about 3-5% of people who start the process will eventually make it into the U.S. Foreign Service.  Good luck!


"Mr. Crab's Two Cents on Mastering the Foreign Service Officer Test."

--READ A DAILY NEWSPAPER. I can't stress this enough. I recommend The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian (UK) and The International Herald-Tribune. You don't need to read it cover-to-cover, but you should be aware of what the heck is going on in the world. Sorry folks, but the New York Post, TMZ and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart don't count.

--Read a news magazine. Some people swear by The Economist, which I personally find rather dull. I prefer Time and Newsweek and even the occasional Vanity Fair article. But you should read something that delves a little deeper into issues than the daily newspaper. 

--Read and know the U.S. Constitution. Learn all the Amendments to the Constitution. You don't need to memorize it word-for-word, but you should be able to immediately know, for example, that slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, that the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, etc.  I create little memory tools. For example, let's take the 18th Amendment: 18 was once the legal age for drinking in the United States but has since been changed to 21; The 18th Amendment instituted Prohibition, which was later repealed by the 21st Amendment. Get it? 

--Read and understand the Declaration of Independence.

--Join the Yahoo FSOT study group! This has been INVALUABLE. I learned more from my virtual study mates on Yahoo than from any single source.

--Know simple math. I am absolutely HORRIBLE at math. I never got beyond Algebra II/Trig in high school and never took an econ class in my life. But you don't need to be Stephen Hawking to answer the FSOT math questions. If you can balance your checkbook and know your multiplication tables, you'll probably do just fine. Know how to convert fractions into decimals and figure our percentages. Know how to exchange U.S. Dollars into foreign currencies and vice-versa. Familiarize yourself with the metric system. Learn how to translate Celsius into Fahrenheit or how many kilometers are in a mile. Know the difference between Mean, Median, Mode and Range. (Mrs. Crab's helpful reminder she teaches her student: Mean kids are AVERAGE, a median strip lies in the MIDDLE of the road, mode is short for models and fashion models are POPULAR).

--Read "Don't Know Much About History" by Kenneth C. Davis. No joke, it actually helped me answer a question on the last test!  

--Read "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know", which covers a variety of topics from the Bible to American pop culture. Pay special attention to the chapters on World History, U.S. History, World Politics and U.S. Politics.

--Be able to identify countries on a world map. Know what countries border each other. If you're a map and geography junkie like me, simply absorb the National Geographic World Atlas. I also found the "Traveler IQ Challenge" app games on Facebook extremely helpful!

--Know basic management and economic theories. Read the CliffsNotes on Economics. If you have an old econ or business textbook, even better. Go through the basics. Disclosure: I have never taken a single business or econ class in my life so I probably got all those questions wrong. But remember, there is no penalty for guessing.

--Put away your "Red State" and "Blue State" mentality.  Be able to defend a viewpoint that is a direct OPPOSITE of your own belief. This will come in handy in the essay question of the exam. If you're going to read partisan blogs like The Huffington Post or National Review, read BOTH, not just one or the other. Remember that when you're in the Foreign Service, you may be asked to defend U.S. policy that conflicts with your personal beliefs.

--Brush up on grammar rules of English expression. Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White. For my fellow journalists, the Associated Press Stylebook is also quite helpful.

--If you haven't written in a while, practice writing essays. Scan the newspaper for a current hot topic (abortion, capital punishment, the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, etc.), pick a viewpoint and write a one-page typed essay that defends your viewpoint with clear, succinct examples (i.e. the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, current events, recent legal cases or other precedents you might have heard about in the news, etc). You are not graded by your position. If you believe that public schools should teach children that humanity originated from Xenu the galactic warlord, that's fine and dandy as long as you can defend that position with sane logic and specific examples and do so within 30 minutes.

--Learn to type fast and accurately. Sadly, typing is a lost art form that is no longer taught in schools.  If your typing skills are limited to "hunt & peck" or smart phone thumb texting, it's time to brush up on your typing speed. This will come in handy during the biographical and essay portions of the FSOT.

--Know basic computer skills. You should know how to use Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint for starters. The FSOT is administered on a standard PC. Sorry Apple fans, but the majority of government work is done on PCs.

--Know and understand social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Skype, WhatsApp, and whatever new popular app is out there. Even if you're not a fan, and especially if you're one of those folks who absolutely refuses to register for Facebook, you should have a basic understanding of how it works -- ESPECIALLY if you are PD-coned.  Facebook and other social medium are how young people across the globe communicate today, and most US Embassies now have their own Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube pages.

--Purchase and download the official FSOT Study Guide and take the sample test. And take it under timed conditions in a quiet setting. This will give you a good idea on your strengths and weaknesses.

--Consider joining and using Twitter. Why? Because the limited number of characters (140) will be good training for the biographical section of the FSOT. The answers on the Bio section are limited to about 300 characters, so Twitter will force you to condense your writing style. Also FYI, the State Deptartment has several official Twitter accounts worth following including Dipnote.  Most US embassies abroad also Tweet!

--Read "Career Diplomacy" by Kopp & Gillespie. This is more a necessity for the oral exam but it's also a good book to know what you're getting yourself into!  Two other good books in this category are "Realities of Foreign Service Life, Vol. 2" and "Inside a U.S. Embassy".

The day before the test, do NOT study. Take a day off and RELAX. Go watch a movie. Go for a walk. Go out to dinner, but don't stay out late. Get a good night's sleep. Wake up early. Eat breakfast, even if you're not a breakfast person. Don't be late. Wear what's comfortable -  unlike the orals, there is no dress requirement for the written exam; I took the test at US Embassy London and wore frayed jeans and my lucky George Mason University sweatshirt!  Most of all, have fun!  If you enjoy board games, puzzles, crosswords, sudoko, pub quizzes, Trivial Pursuit and other mind challenges, go in with the mindset that the FSOT is just a mind game...albeit with a much bigger prize at the end for the winners! The Foreign Service is not just a's a way of life!

Best of luck!

London's Winter Wonderland

London snowstorm: 2-2-2009, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

So this morning, the Two Crabs woke up to about 5 inches of snow on the ground. It was the biggest snow fall in London in 18 years!

It's now been snowing off-and-on for 24 hours, part of a one-two punch of snow storms. The first storm came from Russia in the east and delivered the majority of our snowfall. After a brief lunchtime respite, we got hit with smaller snow showers from France. More snow is expected tonight. All told, we got 6 inches of snow in our neighborhood and it's not over yet.

And I thought Washingtonians were wimpy about snow. The entire British capital came to a standstill today. All London buses came to a halt, as did most overground trains and airports. Roads were clogged. We never saw a single snowplow -- or "gritter" truck as they cal them here -- in our neighborhood. Not surprisingly, all schools in town were closed. And Mrs. Crab is off tomorrow too!

As I mentioned before, it RARELY snows in London. And despite the fact that we've known about this storm for several days, Londoners were just not prepared for the snow.

Unfortunately, Mr. Crab is home sick with the flu and fever. But after overdosing on DayQuil, I felt sufficiently well enough to venture into the snow and take a couple of hundred photos. The image above was even posted on CNN iReport!

Click on the Flickr icon at the top right for more photos of today's snowy day in Londontown!

London Snowstorm - Feb. 1-2, 2009

London is currently in the midst of its biggest snowstorm in 18 years! We're up to seven inches so far, and no end in sight!

Many people might not be aware that it rarely snows in London. Our weather is a lot like Seattle. It rains a lot, though usually just a drizzle. But the temperature rarely falls below freezing. Our winters are normally cold and wet, about 34 Fahrenheit. Today is a unique day indeed! More photos to come...