May. 25th, 2009

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Last Thursday I went up to the American Embassy to get my shiny new journalist visa. For those not familiar with this part of the world, the Embassy building is on Grosvenor Square on a plum plot in the middle of Mayfair, a couple of blocks south of Selfridges and about five minutes walk from Bond Street. It is also without a doubt one of the ugliest buildings in London; all bad Sixties modernism and crowned with a big bronze eagle that looks like a hood ornament.

But while the building is not all that hot aesthetically, the interior is quite something. It clearly hasn't had much of an update since the Sixties; lots of low desks and wood and soft shades, think Mad Men crossed with Tracy Island, and the walls are covered with a great number of very arresting National Geographic-style photos.

These bear a look, as they are fantastic and IMO should properly be in an exhibition. They are all colour, in those slightly faded, vivid hues that pictures from 30 or 40 years ago have, and depict various tourist hot-spots and things of interest. There's Vegas from the air before the Strip got built up, Niagara before it got surrounded by tat, boats zipping over the Everglades, buffalo roaming, big capacious cars drawn up at a viewing point overlooking the Grand Canyon, ladies with Jackie Kennedy hats, earnest 'children of all races' shots with the black kids sporting afros and big flares, while the white kids looking like they stepped out of a casting call for The Wonder Years. It's like a little trip back in time while-u-wait.

The waiting is a bit of a bitch. There's a line of windows such as you'd find in a bank or the booking hall of a large station, and every so often an earnest voice calls out a number and a window. That morning the queue was moving quite zippily along. There were about 40 waiting for nonimmigrant visas and about eight or nine waiting to actually emigrate. I handed in my forms, my passport and my odd-looking regulation photo, then had my fingerprints taken at two different windows, before going to a third window for my interview.

This is the bit that I'd been expecting to be quite difficult, but it was actually disappointingly easy. I'd half expected to be held at gunpoint by two marines in a padded room while a broad-browed immigration official made me recite the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner backwards, instead I got 'Brad' (about 6'6", blond buzz-cut military type), who asked me what my company did? I bored him for 30 seconds about publishing, name-dropped Variety and New Scientist, and then got told (politely) that my visa was approved and I could now bugger off.

I have a feeling that they may now think I'm a staff writer for New Scientist, but that can't be helped. At any rate, I can now do journalism in America without being thrown out, so that's nice.

In a happy twist, the company that is to courier my passport back to me - the usually dismally bad Secure Mail Services - is clearly being held to American standards of customer service, and the three to five business day waiting period is in fact considerably shorter.

All told, a quick and pain-free experience, so something somewhere is now bound to go horribly wrong. Fingers crossed, eh?

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