The Kabul Cinephile: Arctic

I've seen more movies in the past 5 months than I have in the past 5 years, mainly because they are all screened free here for U.S. military, diplomats and others employees.  And most of the films shown at Embassy Kabul are screened just 2 or 3 weeks after their mainstream release. I started one-sentence film reviews on my private Facebook page for friends and family but I am extending it to you, the 2 or 3 readers I have left on this blog.


"Arctic" - The one-sentence review

Beautiful silent film interrupted by moments of sheer terror that will eventually want to make you chew your own leg off, and ask for seconds, before anti-climactic ending.

Score: 2 out of 5 Afghan Carpets

Where I am, where I'm going next!


In June 2017, I started lobbying and bidding hard for PSP -- Primary Staffing Posts, which includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Sudan (sort of).  I started bidding for every job in my Consular cone.  Sadly there are way more bidders than jobs. Shockingly, every job had 20-30 bidders.  After handshakes came and went, I started broadening my horizons and considered bidding on jobs in several other cones including Political and Public Affairs. Longtime "Two Crabs" readers may recall Mr. Crab was a journalist before joining the FS.  I heard crickets for many weeks. Then out of the blue in late July 2017 I received a one-sentence email asking if I was still interested in a PA job. YES, of course I was!  That was followed by two rounds of phone interviews. I didn't hear anything again until a few weeks later when I received what's known as an "Air Kiss"...essentially an unofficial job offer in the form of an email asking if (hypothetically) would I accept the job if it was offered. Again, YES.  Finally in early August 2017, I received the official handshake, and accepted the same day.

Why PSP?  Well it's no secret that the Two Crabs have wanted to return to EUR since joining the FS.  When I first joined the Foreign Service I had a "5 Year Plan" already mapped out in my head -- I would serve my first tour in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America as I speak fluent Spanish, and then end up in Europe for hopefully the remainder of my career.  Well, it hasn't turned out that way. After 9 years in the FS, I have yet to serve in a Spanish-speaking post or in Europe.  Mr. & Mrs Crab knew if we ever wanted to go back to Europe, it would take some drastic measures and sacrifice. So after a lot of contemplation and conversations with mentors and bureau colleagues, we agreed that one or both of us would have to go to PSP.  Besides, Mr. Crab has always wanted to return to Afghanistan -- the place where I started my war correspondent career just weeks after 9/11.  Afghanistan is an extreme hardship: 35% hardship pay, 35% danger pay, 20% Special Pay to make up for the fact that we work 6-7 days a week, 12-14 hour days (as a tenured officer, I no longer receive overtime pay).  In addition, Mrs. Crab decided to remain Stateside so we also receive Involuntary Separate Maintenance Allowance (ISMA), which is a nice little bonus to help maintain two separate households during our year apart. 

I arrived in Kabul in September 2018 and I'm now four months into my year-long tour. The job is challenging but rewarding (present government shutdown aside). The quality of life is much better than I was expecting. I live in a "CHU" - Container Housing Unit, which is basically a windowless shipping container. But I lucked out with a "double-wide" hooch and even better, no roommates.  The food is good. I have a fantastic team of Afghan colleagues who never make the day boring. Many of my colleagues are "tandem" couples serving together here in this hardship environment. 

So immediately after accepting my Kabul handshake, I began searching for EUR "linked" assignments. Links are a kind of 'reward' for volunteering to serve in a PSP.  They are negotiated between DOS and the State Department union, (American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).  Sadly, "links" are quickly going the way of the dodo bird and we don't expect them to be around too much longer.  But, I lucked out.  Searching online and speaking to colleagues, I found several consular assignments in Europe that would be perfect fits...including, shockingly, my DREAM POST (more on that later).  I bid on a total of 4 links and interviewed with all four jobs.  All the interviews went quite well and I was very torn on which to pursue more aggressively.  Some of the jobs were very high profile, but the location wasn't our top pick. Some of them were in great locations, but the job was less than desirable.  This is the way bidding goes -- you compile all the jobs and study the pros and cons of each assignment.  A number of factor go into picking any job: location, the job itself, quality of life, spousal employment opportunities, crime & safety, ease of traveling to/from post, schools if you have kids, corridor reputation of the post and post leadership, etc.  

About a week or two into my bidding, I received an "air kiss" for my third choice. I decided to hold out for a day or two and reached back to my bureau for update on the other jobs.  Instead of receiving a HANDSHAKE reply. 

"Congratulations, Mr. Crab..."

 I happened to be sitting at my desk in Calgary when the Handshake email came up. It was about 5:10pm local time, and I was already late to a group happy hour where Mrs. Crab was already waiting for me. I screamed 'Woo hoo! but nobody was in the office to share my joy. Without even waiting to discuss it with Mrs. Crab, I replied within 15 seconds with a one sentence response: "YES! YES! YES! THANK YOU! YES!"  That was it.  I then printed the email, ran to the bar where Mrs. Crab was waiting and saw her and stared with a big shit-eating grin on my face. "What?" she asked. I pulled out the paper and began reading:

Congratulations (Mr. Crab)! The Bureau of Consular Affairs is very pleased to offer you a link handshake on:





Mrs. Crab screamed at the top of her lungs and began jumping up and down before I could even finish reading the sentence. I wish I had videotaped the moment I read the email!

Vienna, AUSTRIA!  Our 'Dream Post'!  

Almost everyone who joins the Foreign Service has a "Dream Post" - that place for which they would forsake all others for the chance to serve.  Vienna has been our Dream Post since Day 1. Not only is it our top post, but the job itself involves my favorite subject in consular affairs. We are beyond psyched, even though neither of the Crabs have actually ever been to Vienna!  However, we have traveled to western and central Austria many times on ski and hiking trips including to our favorite ski resort in Europe, St. Johann in Tirol (aka Sankt Johann am Tyrol). Mr. Crab plans to visit Vienna very soon. 

A bonus benefit of bidding PSP + Link back-to-back: I don't have to bid again until 2022!  When I landed the PSP assignment and Link back-to-back, my life became locked in for the next six years:

2017-2018: Completed our final year in Calgary

2018-2019: Kabul, Afghanistan

2019-2020: German language + other training, Foreign Service Institute, Arlington, Virginia

2020 - 2023: VIENNA


Above: Mr. & Mrs Crab after landing Vienna!


TwoCrabs' Best of Calgary awards


Best Local Ski Resort: Sunshine Village, Banff

Located about 90 minutes west of Calgary, Sunshine is not as large or challenging as the better-known Lake Louise Ski Resort, but it's much more laid back, with long green and blue cruisers. For a romantic weekend, we recommend staying at the hotel at the top of the mountain, accessible only by gondola (once you're there, you're there for the night!). If you plan to ski a lot during the season, but not enough to warrant a season pass, consider buying a Sunshine Super Pass. At $99, the pass will quickly pay for itself after 2 visits; every third visit is free and you will receive big discounts on other visits. And the card covers several resorts including Marmot Basin (below).


Best Destination Ski Resort: Marmot Basin, Jasper, Alberta

Honorable mention: Whitefish Ski Resort, Whitefish, Montana

Both Marmot and Whitefish are located about 5 hours from Calgary. Marmot is northwest near the end of the Icefields Parkway. Whitefish is southwest of Calgary near the twin cities of Whitefish-Kalispell, Montana so you need your passports. Thanks to their remote locations far from any major cities, both resorts have few lift lines and great powder.  


Best ski deal: Mt Norquay

Mount Norquay is a small ski resort located just outside of downtown Banff. It's face is nearly always in the shadows so it's frequently plagued by icy conditions. But you can't beat the price. They regularly have "Toonie Tuesday" deals where you pay just $2 Canadian dollars (lots of people call in sick, especially on powder days). On Christmas, they offer free admission if you dress up like a Santa, Elf or Reindeer!  We took advantage and skied every Christmas in Calgary.


Best Brewery: Last Best Brewing, 607 11 Ave SW

Longtime readers know Mr. & Mrs. Crab love good beer. When we first moved to Calgary in 2015, there were less than 5 breweries due to some antiquated local laws. The laws were relaxed in 2016 and suddenly overnight there were literally dozens of new breweries sprouting up in and around Calgary. We've been to many of them, but our favorite remains Last Best. Not only do they make our favorite beer but their food is great too (most breweries in Alberta do NOT serve food). Their bar staff is also extremely friendly and knowledgable about their beers.


Favorite SpeakEasy: Betty Lou's Library

Calgary is obsessed with speakeasies - hidden, prohibition era-style bars serving up cocktails and live music. Some guests show up dressed in 1920s flapper dresses and Zoot suits, but not required (although we do recommend dressing up more than your average bar. Business casual at least).  Betty Lou's is hidden in the basement of an apartment building, with the entrance behind a fake bookshelf. Reservations are a must, when you will receive your secret password to gain admittance. Finding these speakeasies are half the fun!


Favorite Pizza: LDV

When Two Crabs first moved to Calgary, we were placed in temporary housing above a Subway sandwich shop in the cute little neighborhood of Bridgeland. The smell of fresh bread was a nice wake-up call. But the best part of living here was across the street; LDV Pizza. It's name derives from the former restaurant here, La Dolce Vita. LDV has a real wood-fired oven, serving up real Italian-style pizza with thin and crispy crust (most pizza in Canada is "Chicago style" with thick crust that we really can't stand).  LDV also has one of our favorite Austrian beers on tap, Stiegl.


Best Brunch: Dairy Lane Cafe

We went to this place frequently as it was less than 2 blocks from our house. Excellent eggs Benedict's and mimosas. All their food is fresh, real farm-to-table with regularly rotating menu. Honorable mention to their sister restaurant, Blue Star Diner, in Bridgeland.


Best Steakhouse: Chuck's Steakhouse, Banff

Alberta is Canada's Texas. It's all about beef and oil in these parts. And nowhere will you find a juicier more delicious, perfectly-cooked steak than Chuck's. Located in Banff, about 1 hour west of Calgary,


Best Poutine: Kensington Brasserie

Poutine is Canada's stable snack - french fries covered in gravy and cheese curds. What makes Kensington's poutine a standout is it's cooked in duck fat. Pure heaven. Their adjoining "Container Bar" is a great place for an evening drink in summer.


Best neighborhood bar: Kensington Pub

Located in Calgary's hip Kensington neighborhood, Kensington Pub stands out among the many bars for its laid back atmosphere and great British pub grub like Yorkshire pudding and Shepherd's Pie. Lots of English Ales on tap.


Most unusual bar: The Barn

Located inside the West Hillhurst Community Center, you would never know this place even contained a bar. We passed by it for many months before realizing there was a bar inside this indoor ice rink. The bar is located on the mezzanine level of the ice rink, with great views of the action below. Say hello to our friend Stacy the server.


Unusual day trip: The Great Canadian Barn Dance

Run by the Kunkel family for generations, this family-run farm hosts weekend dances and live music concerts. You can camp on site as we did. It's about 90 minutes south of Calgary.


Favorite Hike: Nihahi Ridge (aka Nahini Ridge), Kananaskis

Located about 45 minutes west of Calgary, Kananaskis Provincial Park -- known locally as "K-Country", is just as beautiful as Banff National Park but only a fraction of the visitors. This gorgeous hike begins at "Forget-Me-Not Pond", a popular picnic area. The trail begins easy and becomes more moderate near the top as it traverses the spine of Nihahi Ridge, leading to million Canadian dollar views.


Best outdoor event in Canada: Calgary Stampede

The 10-day Calgary Stampede epitomizes the city.  Part county fair, part theme park, part music festival, the Calgary Stampede is a celebration of Canadian western lifestyle and hospitality. During the 10 days of Stampede, locals (including US Consulate staff) don Western wear. Businesses offer "pancake breakfasts" on the streets, served up by local dignitaries.  If you plan to go more than once, buy the "season pass" that gets you park admission everyday during the festival.


Do this, not that

The city of Banff is indeed one of the most beautiful towns in Canada. Unfortunately, it's been completely taken over by package tour groups and tour buses clogging the roads, especially in the summer.  Their New Year's Eve festival and fireworks was one of our favorite events (stay at the YWCA for cheap and clean rooms downtown). When you go to Banff, go on a weekday or shoulder season to avoid the crowds. Better yet, avoid Banff and make the trek to Jasper instead. Jasper is what Banff was 20 years ago. A quaint little town with cute restaurants and shops. Our favorite restaurant in Jasper is Downstream.  Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve, meaning all light pollution is regulated. Jasper hosts the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which has attracted celebrities such as George Takei of Star Trek and Bill Nye the Science Guy.  (Below: Icefields Parkway, the road connecting Banff and Jasper, with many glaciers visible from the roadside).


Canada: Redux

I've been horrible about blogging, mainly because I just don't have the time and it seems like blogs are so 2012. Does anybody care or read blogs anymore? I rarely do.  But, I thought I'd blog today because it's on my to-do list and also because I've been home sick with the flu for the past 3 days and getting really bored.  I'm long gone from Canada. I'm actually in Afghanistan now.  But here's some photos of some of my favorite places seen from Calgary:


Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in March


Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in March



Downtown Calgary in the Fall.


Lake Louise Ski Resort, with Lake Louise visible in the distance.


Sunshine Ski Resort


Waterton National Park


The U.S.-Canadian border. No walls, no fences, no hedges. Just a clearcut in the forest and simple stone obelisk with "USA" written on one side and "Canada" on the other. Glacier National Park, Montana, USA is to the left (south) of this obelisk and Waterton National Park, Alberta, Canada is to the right (north). 



Snow festival castle in Yellowknife, NWT


Tuktoyuktuk, a small fishing village on the Arctic Ocean, Northwest Territories - well above the Artic Circle.


Flying above the MacKenzie Delta toward Tuktoyuktuk. The delta is the second largest in the Western Hemisphere after the Mississippi Delta.


Formerly the end of the road in Inuvik, NWT. The road has since been extended all the way to Tuktoyuktuk in the Artic Ocean.


Tuktoyuktuk, a small fishing village on the Arctic Ocean, Northwest Territories - well above the Artic Circle.




Today, Afghanistan held its first independent elections since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. This week, dozens of voters and several political candidates were killed by Taliban attacks across the country, including at least 10 voters and 5 policemen in a suicide bomb attack at a polling station here in Kabul this afternoon. Afghans are literally dying or putting their lives at risk just to exercise their right to vote or run for office.

Meanwhile, barely 40% of eligible Americans will even bother to vote in November 7 midterm elections. Voting is easier than ever now - 34 states and D.C. have some form of "No Excuse Early Voting" program, and another 3 state allow you to vote by mail. Our state of Colorado even allows residents overseas to vote absentee entirely online.

According to Freedom House, citizens of less than half the countries on Earth (45%) have the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections. Please remember that before you come up with some lame-ass excuse why you can't or won't vote. #Shameful #YouCanChangeThis #RegisterAndVote

In praise of: Canadian healthcare

One of the perks of our job in Canada is access to Alberta Healthcare. This is the second time we have been covered by universal healthcare, or "socialized medicine" as conservatives call it pejoratively. We were covered by British National Health Care System (NHS) when we lived in London for five years. Every province in Canada has it's own provincial health care system, 15 in all -- plus Veterans and Aboriginal health care programs.  In the almost three years we have lived in Canada, we have never seen a bill after leaving the doctor.  Every penny of routine health care is covered. True story: Mrs. Crab had to visit the emergency room last year after a bike accident. Her treatment included Xrays, Cat scan, ultrasound, pain medications, IVs and a semi-private room -- and the only thing we paid for was $4 for parking! Had this happened in the United States, my Foreign Service Benefit Plan (administered by Aetna) would have charged me 10% copay of at least $250.  

Like most universal health care programs, Alberta Healthcare does have its limitations. It doesn't cover everything, and the wait times for specialists can be twice as long as in the United States, so some Canadians pay out-of-pocket for supplemental health insurance. The average Canadian earning $100,000 (about $78,000 in U.S. dollars) will pay about 35% of their salary in provincial and federal taxes, compared to about 25% rate for a U.S. citizen earning the same. But the differences are partially offset by the fact that the average American spends $10,000 in healthcare costs per year including premiums, copays, etc. The other downside is Canada has a severe shortage of healthcare professionals, forcing the country to bring in doctors and nurses from other countries, most notably the Philippines. 

170517-designatedsurvivor Whether Universal Healthcare could ever become a reality in the United States remains to be seen. The most challenging issue would be the sheer size of such a program. Canada only has 35 million people, and the UK has 65 million people, compared to about 326 million U.S. residents. But on the flip side, the U.S. has never made a real attempt until the Affordable Care Act. 

Canada has had universal health care since 1966, but it dates back even further to 1947 when Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister who as premier of Saskatchewan introduced the first provincial health care program. (US-Canadian Hollywood trivia: Douglas is the father of actress Shirley Douglas, married to Donald Sutherland, who are the parents of Kiefer Sutherland, who plays an accidental President of the United States on "Designated Survivor"). 


When history repeats itself

Condensed from "A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS" by Jennet Conant:

 New fears about the nation's security had gripped the public. The tone of political debate in Congress grew sharply partisan and bitter, with the Republicans making the most of charges of Communist infiltration of the Truman administration. ... Even more troubling than the hardening of ideology was the vicious Red-baiting of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. ... McCarthy's Red scare became a real cause of concern, alarm even, to State Department Personnel. He had made the overseas information agency one of his targets and had vowed to root out "security risks." Hoping to appease McCarthy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had dismissed a number of high-level diplomats and had warned that anything less than "positive loyalty" from Foreign Service officers was "not tolerable at this time." 

Paul had seen only trouble ahead. Rumors about where McCarthy's tactics of intimidation - the book burning and finger-pointing -- might lead had spread like wildfire through the diplomatic community. Paul was unnerved by McCarthyism and considered the senator to be "a desperately dangerous, power-hungry, fascist-operating bastard. Eisenhower appears to be trying to save the Republican Party at the expense of the country," he wrote to his family in March 1945.

Julia and Paul had watched with sinking hearts as one after another of the career of Foreign Service Officers they had served with in China, among them some of their closest friends, had been forced out while still others quit in disgust. Anyone who had departed from the official line in the Far East, or had the temerity to write a critical report, was being labeled un-American. ... "Quite a number of people were just ruined," recalled Julia. ... Writing to her sister, Julia confided her misgivings: "After the events of hte last few years, I have entirely lost the nobility and esprit de corps. I feel, actually, that any moment we might be accused of being Communists and traitors."

Paul was informed that he was the subject of a State Department Special Inquiry, an official investigation into his character, reputation, and loyalty. Friends, relations, employers, and associates -- from the distant past to the present -- had been tracked down and interviewed." 

As soon as he received a copy of his clearance, Paul wired Julia: Investigation Concluded Successfully for Me. ... No apology was forthcoming, nor did he expect one." 

Europe Vacation, part 2

The Two Crabs are back in the Great White North of Canada after a 3 week trip through Europe that took us to Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria. 

A few more snapshots of our trip.

St. Johann in Tirol, Austria:


Groningen, Netherlands:



Frankfurt & Munich, Germany:



Greetings from Europe, Part 1


Above: the beautiful cliff side village of Positano on Italy's Amalfi Coast.

The Two Crabs are currently on vacation in Europe -- our first time back here in over 3 years. One of the great pleasures and benefits of this job is we have made friends all over the world. Our first stop was Naples, Italy to visit our friend and supervisor from my previous post. She's one of the best consular officers I've ever met so naturally I consider her a mentor. Our next stop was the Netherlands to visit with some old friends from our previous lives. 

While in Holland, I had the pleasure of meeting my hard-working colleagues at US Consulate Amsterdam. One of those officers turned out to be a fan of this blog and reminded me that it's been ages since I've updated this blog. Part of the reason is I've been super busy in Calgary but the main reason is pure laziness -- it's a lot easier to just update my whereabouts on Facebook for friends and family. But I forget there are many folks who aren't on FB or whom I don't personally know. So my belated New Years resolution is to try and maintain this blog better whenever I have a free moment. I'm drafting this post on a long train ride from Amsterdam to Groningen, a beautiful little city in northern Netherlands.

Incidentally, European trains ROCK. In most places in Europe, you can set your watch to train schedules and now many trains have free wifi. My biggest complaint however are train prices. The romantic notion of grabbing a EuroPass and backpacking Europe by train is long gone. It's now much cheaper to just hop a low cost airline flight. That's how we got from Naples to Amsterdam: 49 euros per person one-way! 

A few more photos of our trip so far: 


The post below was written by a Foreign Service professional, in response to proposed huge cuts at the Department of State. This post was making the rounds among FS staff for several days but now it's officially gone viral. I have no idea who wrote it, but it's worth repeating. With credit to the brave author: 

"I don't ever wish ill on people. If I were the sort of person who did, I'd wish that every single commenter who is reacting in ignorant delight to the proposed cuts to State would encounter one or several of the following:

1. not being able to get a U.S. passport in time for a vacation and missing flights/losing a ton of money
2. losing a passport overseas and being stranded, unable to get home to a job/loved ones
3. having a family member pass away overseas and having no assistance learning about the situation or planning a repatriation
4. being the victim of a crime overseas and having to navigate a foreign justice system without any information in English, nor recommended lawyers
5. losing high-paying jobs/companies in their home town due to lack of skilled workers, foreign investors, and/or any foreign awareness of the U.S. business as a customer or supplier
6. losing massive tourism dollars to their hometown hotels, restaurants, and local attractions because no one issued visas to any of the visitors who otherwise flock there
7. not being able to adopt a child from overseas and bring them to the United States
8. marrying a foreign spouse and not being able to bring them to the United States
9. not being able to have foreign friends or relatives come visit them due to no visas being issues
10. facing more, and more crowded/violent anti-American protests everywhere they travel due to lack of exposure to positive American cultural values
11. living under the real, daily threat of violent conflict with countries capable of causing us harm
12. having no credible representatives of American interests in negotiations on security, countering narcotics, fighting transnational crime, protecting the environment,keeping dangerous debris out of space, ad infinitum

Ok, seriously, I don't wish those things on anyone. Not only that, I work every single day to keep those things from happening, as do thousands of my smart, talented colleagues from across the political spectrum who could all be earning a whole lot more in the private sector.

Those of us who do this work overseas miss births, birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, and reunions to do it. We give up a spouse's lucrative earning potential and often even sense of professional satisfaction.

We work in places that are exponentially more dangerous than in the United States, whether through pollution, disease, traffic accident incidences, sanitation, food safety, lack of easily available potable water, street crime, sexual harassment, xenophobia, terrorist threats, also ad infinitum. We put on hold, or sometimes sadly lose, the supportive network of family and childhood and college friends who hold us up when we are able to be at home. We learn foreign languages and try to communicate in our daily lives, often feeling like idiots or permanent tourists.

We take on these commitments willingly and embark on the work only after we swear or affirm an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against enemies foreign or domestic. And we take our responsibilities enormously seriously.

I'm not asking for credit, or the recognition others who serve our country get. With fewer foreign service officers than professional band members than in the U.S. armed services, we have no ability to influence Congress through numbers, nor sufficient understanding of who we are or what we do. All I'm asking is that people stop blindly criticizing us and put away the shoes they're polishing to dance on our graves. Metaphorically-- if it's literal, they'll use the deaths as an endless political football to finger-point and then threaten to cut our security budgets if unrelated politicized policy goals don't go their way. Well that's just Congress, but still.

If you're reading this, I ask that if you hear people delighting in the misery of me and my colleagues, you please challenge their misconceptions. If you have questions about what diplomats do and why their jobs matter, I hope you feel like you can ask me. Your support would mean a lot to us."