Saturday, March 5, 2011

Visiting the US Embassy in London

Last week I had to take Christopher Robin and Cupcake to the US embassy to renew their passports. Surprisingly, the visit was pleasant, certainly better than my trip to the Texas Department of Public Safety for a new drivers license about five years ago when someone pickpocketed my wallet shortly after we moved to London.  (The day of the pickpocketing, Yasha missed his flight to Chile, I think, to talk to Barclay's because they wouldn't even let me report my cash card stolen, much less request a new one.  He's the only one they would talk to, and he was about to be on a plane for 12 hours.  The new Barclay's card didn't come for days.  I had to use our Amex, which of course arrived by the next morning, for many of our initial charges, thereby rendering a chunk of our US income to the UK.  But I digress.)

The Embassy building is a prime, and ugly, example of brutalist architecture.  The huge gold eagle on top doesn't help.  I'm partial to our national bird.  This one is garish.  Hopefully the new building will be nicer.  The embassy is moving to Battersea.  We aren't welcome at our current location.  My original May 2007 letter home  on that topic is at the end of this post.  

We arrived at the embassy about 10 minutes before our scheduled appointment time, which wasn't enough time.  Security at the embassy is a few layers deep.  Before you get to the outbuilding where the metal detectors live, you have to register with some embassy worker under a tent, who has a list of the people who have appointments for that day.  That screener also looks through your bags and takes electronics and keys and like--things that they're going to make you leave and security area--and puts them in a baggie.  Then you queue up in order to go through actual security. 

The security outbuilding has warning pictures on the door.  I wish now that I had taken a picture, but my phone was already bagged up and taking pictures of security at the US Embassy is not exactly advisable.  The first picture--I'm not joking--is 'no bombs and guns.'  It is a picture of a firearm and one of those cartoon, round bombs with the little fuse on top, plus a little timer on the side.   Once inside and chatting with some other Americans, we wondered what in the world the diplomats were thinking.  Anybody knows that you can't bring guns or firearms to an embassy.  Anyone who intends to bring guns or bombs to an embassy is not going to be deterred by a cute little warning sign on the front door.   It might have been the dumbest warning I've ever seen, and as an American I'm used to common sense/CYA warnings.  (M&M once told me she loves going to pharmacies in the US read the warning labels on medications.   I told her those warnings are even funnier when you see some of the pharmaceutical television commercials during which they have to do voiceover warnings.  Here's a real one.  Spoofs are popular too.  But, again, I digress.)

Once in security, you must turn in all of your electronics.  That is common procedure in courtrooms, and I should have thought of it before the taxi ride.  I only brought iPods to entertain the children. I thought of it on the taxi ride on the way, but it was of course too late to go back and get nonelectronic entertainment.  Turns out it didn't matter as the waiting room has great toys and Americans are usually up for a chat with a stranger.  

After security you go into the passport office and you take a number. You do have to make an appointment in order to go to the embassy, but that's only to stagger the times the people arrive.  You don't actually have an appointment with an embassy officer at the appointed time.  That probably was the most annoying part of the visit.

Once in the waiting room, it was like being at home, complete with an assortment of Target clothes and gear and swiping and signing when paying for the renewals with a credit card.  (In the UK credit cards have CHIP and pin.  You plug your card into basically a handheld ATM and enter a 4 digit pin at the prompt.)

All in, we were at the embassy for about two hours, which for two children's passports didn't seem so bad, especially considering I had forgotten Yasha's passport to go with his affidavit.  (Both parents have to attend for passport applications for minors.  If one parent cannot attend, you have to have a special notorized form.)  The officer found Yasha's passport in her system, so it wasn't a problem.  

The children had a great time.  The embassy has a good play area in the waiting room.  Cupcake and Christopher Robin played with an assortment of other American kids with British accents.  When we were finished they did not want to go.  I had a nice time as well.  Since the room was full of American expats with little to do but wait, striking up conversations about living in London and various goings on back home was easy.  A sweet 10 year old even gave me some suggestions of book series that Christopher Robin might like.  

This might sound crazy, but our trip to the US Embassy was fun.  

As mentioned above, here is my email home from May 2007 regarding TexMex outside Texas and the location of the US Embassy.  

Yasha took me out to a Mexican restaurant last week. It is always risky eating Mexican outside Texas and certainly the Southwest, but this place had a good rep and, when you live overseas, you develop a cumin deficiency.  Sometimes you just have to risk it.  Anyway, to Café Pacifico we went.  I am not making this up—I could have ordered papaya and lobster quesadillas with mango cream or sweet soy duck quesadillas.  Or perhaps I fancied salmon tacos?  Brie was on the menu somewhere.  Yes, the runny French cheese with the waxy rind.  Those are just the abominations that I could remember.  Yasha had a ‘rita that any “band geek could put to shame.” (Yes, I married a band geek.  My hubby marched in high school and SMU. At least he didn’t go to band camp… “This one time at band camp…”) 
In more important news: the residents of Mayfair have managed to get the US Embassy to move.  It is relocating to Kensington or something.  This article will give you an idea of what happened.  I had no idea this was going on, part of my not seeing anti-Americanism because, as I’m increasingly finding, it is pervasive among elites but not in the general population. (Mayfair is more elite than general population.) By the way, the reference to the Tube with no A/C—it gets incredibly hot down there in the summer.  Most regular folk think that it is an engineering impossibility to bring A/C there.  I didn’t know that there was a way. 
Goodbye, Grosvenor Square

Apparently, the Kensington rumor was just a rumor.  If you are interested, here are some more links: 
There isn't much at Nine Elms.  Perhaps we are less concerned with posh nosh than with security for all involved, embassy personnel and locals.  Considering too, how the residents of Mayfair felt about us, perhaps we were trying not to incur any more ire, which might pressure us to move again.  
Friends in Battersea tell me that there is a lot of tunneling going on in the area.  The rumor swirls around underground escape routes.  


Sarah said...

The embassy is quite garish isn't it? I would love a job there though, hear they have great benefits! lol.

Do you have a twitter?

KimberlyJ said...

Just came across your blog through The Future ExPat. I plan on making the big move across the pond and need all the insight I can get. Looking forward to your future posts and catching up on some of your older ones.

AHLondon said...

@Sarah, the building is downright ugly. The new one looks a little better, though that is no feat. On, I have a twitter acct but never use it. I can't do the 140 character limit. My husband and brother think this is very funny.
@KimberlyJ, welcome. Are you the gal in the long LDR? Big move coming in the fall? You have visited a bunch, right? And are you doing London?