When You're Not Welcome
Visiting Spain, Switzerland, and France from Italy had been as easy as travelling within Italy itself. No passport control or immigration officers to bother with—hooray for the European Union! I thought England, an EU member, would be the same, but this country goes by different rules.
On the plane I learned that, being American, I had to fill out an entry card. Once we arrived at Gatwick Airport, they divided us into ‘EU’ and ‘Rest of the World.’ Since our plane had come from Bologna, as opposed to North America or Asia or elsewhere, only a few of us were doomed to walk to the separate, non-European entry port. As we entered the room, I saw signs everywhere exclaiming it was illegal to hit an immigration officer. Hm, this reminder is necessary? Oh yes.
The immigration officers grilled us as if we were on trial. Mine accused me of overstaying my welcome in Italy and trying to skirt the system by coming to England for a week, thus I had to explain Italy’s citizenship process to her. Then she grilled me about where I was staying in England. For the most part, I’ll be staying with Elke in Newcastle, but the only address I had on hand to write on the unexpected entry card was the one where I was couchsurfing in London that night. Yeah, explaining couchsurfing to an immigration officer is…avoid it if you can: ‘What’s this person’s name?’ ‘Sam…Sam Childers?’ ‘Is he your boyfriend?’ ‘No.’ ‘When was the last time you saw him?’ ‘Um…never.’ I explained that he had been verified by the couchsurfing site, had references, etc. (Update: Sam was a creep and I should have listened to that officer). The officer then asked to see how much cash I had in my wallet, and if I’d been Ukrainian or Russian, she would have tried deporting me for being a sex worker. The officer was also ticked because I didn’t have my return plane ticket printed yet.
After writing lots of notes on my entry card, she let me in the country because, quite frankly, she didn’t have anything on me. She might have thought I was an irresponsible idiot, but that’s not a crime, and if I’d wanted to lie to her, surely I would have come up with a saner sounding lie than my truth, which she found so sketchy. She disliked the sound of couchsurfing and the fact that I didn’t carry a three-ring binder containing my itinerary, but I didn’t do anything wrong. In the end, she marred my passport with a black stamp saying that I’m not eligible for work or public assistance and I have to get the hell out of here in one week. OK, fine. I left the airport to learn that the subway workers were on strike. Grand. Welcome to England!
Though this country did not exactly welcome me with open arms this time, I still love London. After making it through immigration (more below), everyone here has been fantastic. I’m already in Newcastle with Elke, one of the world’s best hostesses, and I’m looking forward to some tea and scones, walks through the countryside, and Indian food, to be honest : )