Happy belated Thanksgiving! I hope everyone had a lovely holiday. I took Friday off, so we could have a nice long weekend. And we also took advantage of this being a strictly American holiday and dropped our son in nursery school so we could participate in a special event.
I’d wanted to do this before we even arrived in London, so on Thursday I was ecstatic to be able to attend the Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the American community in London. And I wasn’t disappointed.
My hubby and I got there rather early, so we had time to stop off at Starbucks for some pumpkin spiced lattes and a cranberry and brie Panini for breakfast. Then we walked over to the cathedral and stood in a relatively short and quick moving line.
Once inside we found a couple empty seats in one of the many rows of metal chairs that had been lined up for the occasion and settled ourselves beneath the dome. We later heard that there were almost 2,000 people in attendance, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.
We were then treated to several songs by a local choir, which unfortunately were rather muddled due to the cavernous echo of the place, but the organ was clear and powerful and sounded like something out of Phantom of the Opera. There were readings by different members of the community, a moving service by a local American pastor, and a few remarks by our Ambassador.
But the best part was just being able to spend an hour together sitting and soaking up the atmosphere. We admired the tasteful use of gold filigree in the art from one side of the ceiling to the other, noted the symbol of crossed swords and the cathedral coat of arms. At one point we confirmed that most of the fantastic paintings above our heads weren’t actually paintings at all but amazingly detailed mosaics.
After the service they opened the American chapel in the east end of the building, and we were allowed to pass through and get a close up look at the memorial and some of the stained glass windows.
The entire experience was wonderful. I fully intend to do it again next year if we can. And if we stay in Europe, I wouldn’t mind making it a holiday tradition. But I guess we’ll just have to take it one year at a time and be thankful for the opportunities we have at the moment.
We were able to witness a very special event this week…the Ambassador’s Credentials Ceremony. Every ambassador from every country, no matter how big or how small, has to at some point officially present their credentials to the host government.
Here in the UK, that means that Queen Elizabeth sends a horse-drawn carriage to the embassy to pick you up and bring you to Buckingham Palace. You are then granted a short 20-minute audience with The Queen herself, after which you are returned by carriage to your embassy.
In 1886 there were only six ambassadors in London, with 37 other countries represented by ministers. Now there are 147 Foreign Missions.
Today at least half of our massive embassy turned out to applaud the Ambassador and wave him off as he was whisked away to the palace. When he returned, we all toasted and celebrated in the lobby with a bit of champagne. A very nice start to the holiday season!
Ever since we found out we were going to London, and a fellow OMS turned me on to the Living Social London website, I’ve been perusing it off and on looking for fun ideas for restaurants and things to do on the weekends. If they’re discounted, even better.
The other day I was looking for some Thanksgiving weekend outing ideas and came across a deal for the lovely little French restaurant on the edge of Grosvenor Square that I walk by every day on the way to work called Truc Vert. It had always just looked like a cute little corner café, but apparently it’s a full on restaurant.
So imagine my delight when Living Social popped up with a three-course-meal-for-two deal for the price of one. I promptly made a reservation, and my hubby joined me there for lunch today. So I thought I’d share a few of the details.
First of all, never try to squeeze a sit-down lunch in a London restaurant into 60 minutes. This is only the second time I’ve formally eaten out during the work day since we’ve arrived, and both times took an hour and a half.
As for Truc Vert, the restaurant itself is cute and relaxing with a kind of country-kitchen feel to it with plain wood tables covered in white butcher paper. Not huge, nothing in London is, but not cramped either.
Their menu is usually online, but the one that’s up right now is a few days old and did not match the one we had today, so I can’t give you the fancy specifics. But I can give you the gist of what we ordered.
Another note on the menu, it’s kind of a mess. The starters, mains and desserts are lumped into three sections, but they’re not labelled as such, so it might take a minute to figure out what they are. Then there’s additional information running down a left column, kind of a notes-in-the-margin style, that lists some quiches, cheese, meat, random cake flavors, and some, but not all, of the salads…the rest are wedged in with other side items between the mains and the desserts.
Anyway, once you have that sorted out, you can order your food. I went with a goat cheese, artichoke, aubergine and avocado salad for my appetizer; a veal steak with sautéed spinach and fried potatoes; and lemon soufflé for dessert.
My hubby had mushroom and truffle soup; a beef tornado (that we had to look up online because we’d never heard of it before) that came with a side of green beans and a fancy form of au-gratin potatoes; and he also had the lemon soufflé for dessert.
My meal was pretty good. The salad had great flavors, especially the marinated artichoke, but the goat cheese came in a little baked wheel on top of the salad that was so mild I thought it was brie. So I was a little disappointed because I actually like tangy goat cheese.
I’m usually pretty good at ordering in restaurants and have a decent idea of what most things are going to taste like. But I didn’t care for the veal at all. It was a large portion, but it was tough and tasted a bit of liver. I thought I’d read something about Béarnaise sauce on the menu, but it didn’t come with any. And the fried potatoes were basically giant French fries that I left alone so I’d have room for dessert.
My husband’s on the other hand was fantastic. It was a beautiful big soft piece of tenderloin, the beans had been lightly braised, and the creamy potatoes looked tasty.
For dessert, we both agreed that the lemon soufflé was fantastic. It came in a good-sized dish with a side of lemon foam for dipping.
But the highlight of the meal was the check at the end. The 2-for-1 voucher had cost £34 ($55 USD)…before they applied it, our bill came to £97 ($157 USD)!!! Once they applied the voucher, we paid for our two cokes (£3 each), and the 12.5% tip included for the server, for an additional £17. So in total we paid £54 ($87 USD), which is still kind of pricey for lunch…but a LOT cheaper than it would’ve been!!
Thank you Living Social!!
The Embassy puts out a biweekly internal newsletter that I always enjoy reading. The current issue had a feature about the building that we’re all currently working in that’s located in Grosvenor Square.
Since it’s an internal document, I can’t reprint any of it, but I can reprint some of the historical points already published in Wikipedia. So I thought I’d share them with you, since they are kind of interesting.
Grosvenor Square [the square itself, not the embassy building] has been the traditional home of the official American presence in London since John Adams established the first American mission to the Court of St. James’s in 1785. Adams lived, from 1785 to 1788, in a house which still stands on the corner of Brook and Duke Streets.
During the Second World War, Dwight D. Eisenhower established a military headquarters at 20 Grosvenor Square, and during this time the square was nicknamed “Eisenhower Platz”. Until 2009, the United States Navy continued to use this building as its headquarters for United States Naval Forces Europe. A statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt, sculpted by Sir William Reid Dick, stands in the square, as does a later statue of Eisenhower, sculpted by Robert Lee Dean.
The former American Embassy of 1938–1960 on the square was purchased by the Canadian government, renamed Macdonald House, and is part of the Canadian High Commission in London.
In 1960, a new and current United States Embassy was built on the western side of Grosvenor Square. This was a large and architecturally significant modern design by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the US Embassy in Oslo, but at the time it was a controversial insertion into a mainly Georgian and neo-Georgian district of London.
A large gilded aluminum Bald Eagle by Theodore Roszak, with a wingspan of over 35 feet is situated on the roof of the Chancery Building, making it a recognizable London landmark.
In 2008, the United States Government chose a site for a new embassy in the Nine Elms area of the London Borough of Wandsworth, south of the River Thames. Construction of the new Embassy of the United States in London is expected to begin in 2013, with relocation completed by 2017.
In October 2009, the building was granted Grade II listed status. The listing means that the new owners will not be allowed to change the façade. The following month, the Grosvenor Square property was purchased by the Qatari Diar investment group.
I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but I still get a kick out of this article in Wired magazine about the new US embassy being built in London. It compared it to a medieval fortress, which I thought was very appropriate considering the fact that the UK has such great medieval history.
On October 25 we took our son trick-or-treating at the embassy. Halloween isn’t as big of a deal over here as it is in the States, which surprised me a bit. They had a few decorations up here and there. And a few neighborhoods were more into it than others…probably the ones with lots of Americans.
But the embassy put on a good show. Almost every office or major hallway was decorated for the occasion, and there were probably about 75 kids under 10 when the festivities kicked off. It was a little disorganized, but that’ll happen when you have to get 75 kids into a bank of elevators. We lost our Marine escort in about two seconds, but we knew our way around, so we just continued on.
At one point I actually had to take a break though because I got so upset. One particular jerk from the political section was handing out candy in front of one of the offices, but he was wearing a ghoul mask and jumping and snarling at the kids whenever they came close. It’d be one thing if they were older kids, but these were toddlers and preschoolers.
My son was absolutely terrified and started to cry. I’ve never wanted to hit a coworker so much in my life. And it didn’t help that the next room we took him to was full of giant fake spiders, and the floor was covered with balloons that kept popping when stopped on. I’d finally had enough when I saw him just standing in the middle of the floor shaking like a leaf. So we called an end to the trick-or-treating and went back to my office to recuperate and eat some candy.
Once I, I mean he, had finally recovered, we took him to one of the activity points, and he put stickers on a little pumpkin to make a face, and followed it up with some face painting. I was amazed that he actually held still long enough for the girl to paint a little pumpkin on him. But it sure was cute, until he wiped it off on my shirt on the bus home.
So emotional meltdowns aside, he seemed to have had a pretty good time. And everyone seemed to love his astronaut costume. All the Brits referred to him as a “spaceman” instead of an astronaut, which I thought was interesting until my hubby pointed out the fact that the Brits never had much of a space program. They had one, but it was unmanned for the most part and concentrated on satellites.
Our son got to break out the astronaut costume again the following week at nursery school and almost insisted on wearing it on the bus home as well as to the embassy the next time he came to visit.
We also continued the Halloween theme into the London Zoo. I wanted to make sure we visited the zoo at least once before it got cold, since we went through all the trouble to get our annual passes, which pay for themselves in three trips. There were a few decorations up and activity stations here and there, but the best part was the cafeteria!
They had all kinds of Halloween-themed cookies and cupcakes. And I even got to have a pumpkin tart that was like a mini pumpkin pie, which is not a common thing in the UK. I remember the Kiwis in Antarctica thought the fact that we were putting a vegetable in a dessert was one of the weirdest things.
The zoo itself was interesting and had some areas created just for kids. Our son was more interested in those than in the animals. But there was also a petting zoo, which he enjoyed, and a carousel and coin-operated rides. We also popped into the famous reptile house that was built in 1927 and used in one of the snake scenes in Harry Potter.
So the jury’s still out on whether or not we’ll do the embassy again next year, which is unfortunate. I’d like to think that’s the one place that you can count on your child having a safe and pleasant time. At least now that we know how things run, we can be a bit more decisive on which areas we visit. And he did still have a good time, which is the important part.
Happy Halloween everybody!
One of the many bonuses of life in the Foreign Service is that they pay to ship your household effects and one vehicle from post to post for you. And they also allow you to bring your pets…but they don’t pay for the pets. That’s more of a lifestyle choice than something they consider a need.
Before home leave, training and moving to London, we took out an extra credit card, and I’m really glad that we did as there were quite a few incidental costs involved in moving our cat and our car around the world that we get to pay for on our own. Here’s an idea, in case you’re contemplating the same thing.
For the car on arrival in the UK:
- $50 Ministry of Transportation safety certificate (required for registration).
- $1,100 Charges for what they’ve done to your vehicle to make it comply with UK safety regulations, ie. drill hole in bumper for rear fog light. Change all yellow lights to white. Replace one set of tires and wipers.
- $50/week The price of storing your car at the mechanics until your registration comes through and you’re legal to park on the side of the road because you have no parking at your apartment.
What we’ve paid for the cat in the last four months:
- $125 Cat on flight from Belize to Florida for home leave.
- $125 Cat on flight from Florida to DC for training.
- $300 Non-refundable flat deposit at corporate housing at Oakwood in DC, no matter how long you’re staying…could be a week, could be 6 months.
- $200 Miscellaneous vet visits in Belize and the US for health certificates and the USDA export stamp.
- $650 Cat in cargo on flight from DC to London (no in-cabin or baggage options are available for the UK).
- $550 Customs charge in London for processing your pet.
- $150 Delivery charge for your pet from airport customs to your front door. Or you can wait 3-4 hours at the airport while they process her.
The feeling of throwing your cat out of the bedroom door and shutting it so you can finally go back to sleep at 3am without her eating your hair…
Holy crap, I can’t believe it’s been a month since I posted already. I promise this doesn’t mean that I’ve lost enthusiasm for my blog, it just means that after three weeks in temporary accommodation, we’ve finally moved into our real apartment and still don’t have internet! So we’re using a crappy pay-as-you-go thing that crashes every five minutes.
And, strangely enough, we can’t get internet yet because the embassy folks that were in our apartment before us never turned off their service. So I have to send an official letter to our service provider at their corporate headquarters in Scotland (??) to have it shut off before we can start our own account.
But, other than that, things are going swimmingly. We are loving our new and permanent place. We were in our first place for about four days, and then had to move into the second awful one for two and a half very long weeks, which kind of killed the blogging spirit. See my previous post for a full description of how I felt about it. And it had started to make me nervous! What if our permanent place wasn’t nearly as nice as we’d thought it would be??
But it is. :) It’s beautiful and spacious with new paint on the walls, new carpets and even a new love seat that’s a much more modern style than the one we had in Belize. There’s a lovely playground and high street nearby, and even the buses are nicer and less crowded.
And a few other things have improved since my last post. My computer profile finally transferred, so I can actually do some work. My hubby’s phone survived the dunking in the toilet. Our son’s giant bruise is healing up, and he seems to be enjoying nursery school…even though he’s brought home two colds in as many weeks.
And our HHE arrived on Tuesday, so we were able to begin the long process of unpacking. Our beautiful apartment is now trashed with empty boxes climbing the walls in the hallway. But the movers are supposed to come pick them up tomorrow, so that’s nice anyway. There’s not much in the way of storage, so putting things away requires a lot more planning than our last approach…throwing boxes unopened into large closets for months at a time.
We’ve been able to get out a few more times since the weather’s been pretty good since we arrived. One weekend we did the hop-on-hop-off bus tour and spent about five hours riding around the city getting off for food now and then or to use the bathroom. I’d seen some of the major tourist things on previous visits but had missed things like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Monday was Columbus Day so we dropped our son off at nursery school and had a date day. We started with breakfast at the Wolseley, followed by a stroll by Buckingham Palace and a wander through the National Gallery. We had originally planned on afternoon tea, but after about 400 years of art, we were a bit thirsty and instead found a lovely little pub called the Moon Under Water.
We stopped in for a couple beers, meat pies and chips (aka French fries). I also discovered a fun new drink that the British girls at the table next to us were all drinking. It’s called a “Strongbow and Black” made up of Strongbow cider and black currant cordial. It was very tasty.
After that we made the required tourist pilgrimage to Harrods, which was crowded and snobby, so we probably won’t be back. But I picked up a jar of rose jelly and a couple British-themed teddy bears (one dressed in a kilt and one dressed as a royal guard) for our son that I might end up keeping since he threw them on the floor when I gave them to him because they’d got a bit wet in the rain. Ungrateful little punk.
At any rate, it’s all finally coming together. Hopefully we can get the place cleaned up and sorted out soon and will finally be able to relax into our new lives.
We have finally arrived at what is our post for the next two years. And the city is still fabulous. Our sponsor picked us up at the airport, gave us a bit of information on our ride into town, and then deposited us to rest at our first of two temporary accommodations until our permanent housing is ready the first week in October.
And our cat arrived safely, if not in a timely manner. We’d paid the extra fee for customs to deliver her so we didn’t have to wait an additional three hours at the airport. But they tried to deliver her to the wrong address. So even though we arrived a little before noon, she wasn’t delivered until after 6:00pm. I figured she’d explore the house tentatively as usual, but she practically sprang out of her carrier after being in it for nearly 20 hours (we had to drop her off four hours before the flight in DC).
We arrived on a Friday, so we had the weekend to recuperate. Usually they want you at work at the embassy the day after you arrive, if not the day of, so I was happy to get a short break. We took the opportunity to head downtown and check out the small area around the Thames, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye.
Our son got to ride on a little carousel and a carnival-type kids’ car ride, and pose with a street artist dressed up as a royal guard. We also stopped into Zen Aji Canteen for lunch and watched him try to use chopsticks for the first time, which he was surprisingly successful at considering he just turned three.
This weekend we took our son to a lovely little playground in a small park attached to an old church in St. John’s Wood. Then we stopped at a French café for cider and a banana and chocolate crepe with caramel ice cream. Yummy!
So the touristy stuff was fun. But the transition hasn’t been a particularly smooth one. We had a relatively turbulent flight toward the end and our son got motion sick and threw up when we landed at Heathrow.
At work my computer profile was trapped in Belize for the entire first week, so I couldn’t access the majority of the computer programs that I needed, including our basic office calendar. I’ve also had to tutor myself on two online programs that I’d never had to use before, which was rather frustrating.
On Tuesday night our son was jumping on his bed, lost his balance and cracked his head on the windowsill. He cried so hard, and it looked so bad, that I called the duty nurse, who didn’t sound too concerned. But we still ended up bringing him into the health unit after less than a week in country.
On Wednesday we had to move into our second temporary accommodation…and the place is an absolute dump. I’m shocked that the embassy is even using the place for housing. One of the living room windows is cracked in several places, the paint on the ceiling is peeling and falling down in three rooms, the space heater doesn’t work, the base of the fridge won’t stay on, none of the heated towel racks work in either of the two bathrooms, the walls are covered in nails from the previous occupants that apparently moved out less than a week ago, and one of the mattresses is absolutely filthy. And it’s definitely not in as nice of an area as the first one. So coming home to it after a stressful day at work has been a bit of a downer.
And then to top it all off, my husband dropped his iPhone in the toilet yesterday. He’d been rushing around London all week to try to find a suitable sim card so he could have some form of communication (the phone in the apartment doesn’t work, of course) and mapping for getting around town. He finally picked something up on Friday, and now it sits in his phone in a bag of rice on the countertop where he prays it isn’t completely destroyed.
So, it hasn’t been an ideal start to this place that we’ve been looking forward to getting to for the last year. But I’m trying to remain optimistic. Our son is starting nursery school on Monday (with a shiner) and will hopefully enjoy it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my computer profile will be transferred this week, and I can be somewhat functional in my job. And we have two more weeks in this crap housing, but I’d like to think that morale will improve when we get into our permanent place and get our HHE. Then we can finally settle in, feel a little grounded for the first time in three months and really begin to enjoy the city.
Quite a lot has happened in the last couple weeks. So I will simply itemize as I go…
- Our son celebrated his third birthday (wow, only three years on Earth with so much learned and so much changed). He’s obsessed with Angry Birds at the moment, so it was AB themed with matching balloons and cake decorations. Since we’re between posts, we just had a small family affair at grandma and grandpa’s house, and he obviously blew through his afternoon nap since he was way too excited to sleep. But he seemed thrilled with the gifts and the cake and the attention. And he only once tried to bite the cake with no hands when no one was looking…shades of his first birthday when he planted his face into it and began to chew.
- I finished two weeks of Advanced Intensive European Area Studies, which was absolutely fantastic. One snarky friend had asked if I was learning to drink tea properly, but it was way cooler than that (although an etiquette class would be fun too). We spent two weeks listening to subject matter experts, who were everything from professors at Georgetown to international newspaper correspondents to directors of DC think tanks, as well as the awesome faculty of FSI, tell us all about Europe from medieval history to future of the European Union. I was so very impressed. If you’re a gov’t employee and have the opportunity, I highly recommend any of the intensive area studies classes. I hear the ones that are mixed in with language study are a little less dynamic.
- We squeezed in a few more DC restaurants with a beverage theme, including the Mad Fox Brewing Company and the Green Dragon Pub. The Green Dragon is, you guessed it, a hobbit themed pub attached to the Bilbo Baggins Global Restaurant in Alexandria. It’s been there for over 30 years and has a ridiculously massive beer menu (in a good way), not to mention great food. We’re a fan of nitrogen brewing (small bubbles are so much smoother), so we started out with a Victory Irish Stout and an Old Speckled Hen, and snacked on some Buttermilk Fried Jumbo Oysters served with a Basil-lime aioli, Portobello Mushroom Cap & Brie cheese served warm with housemade Basil pesto & sundried tomato tapenade, Duck and Shiitake Spring Rolls, sweet Ponzu and mango mustard sauces. From there we shared The Shire pizza with shredded pulled pork, caramelized onions, parmesan, goat cheese & BBQ sauce. And we couldn’t resist topping it all off with a small mead tasting. So we shared a glass of Hopped Blueberry Maple (14.6% alcohol) and a glass of Vanilla Bean (18%). The blueberry tasted a bit like watery red wine, and the vanilla bean was similar to port. But it all made for a great experience…we even picked up a couple souvenir glasses.
- We went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and got a tour of the Springfield Volunteer Fire Department. They were both very cool and very big hits with our son.
- And finally, we managed to get our cat’s US and UK vet certificates that now have to be stamped by the USDA in Richmond. We were also reminded that it’s actually somewhat rare to have a 15-lb female orange-and-white tabby. Most of them are male for some reason.
How’s that for a busy couple of weeks?!?