Sometimes when you think you know what’s happening next, something else happens.
I was settling in to life in Oxford, planning to join the cooperative supermarket, arranging to let a room off the Cowley Road (a neighborhood I’ve been calling the “Brooklyn” of Oxford), and filling my social diary with cream teas and four pound pints of lukewarm ale with friends new and old.
But first, I skipped over to Frankfurt for the world’s largest book trade fair. Frankfurt’s not the most amazing city. Very difficult to find a decent meal. But the Fair – featuring 7,000 exhibitors and more than 286,000 visitors – was pretty cool.
Also stayed through airbnb with the cool people of protoguide in their arts cooperative in Offenbach – the “Brooklyn” of Frankfurt.
After a week of walking the trade fair floor, searching for decent meals, and being amazed at the fact that I didn’t understand a single word of German (and that perhaps I understand more French than I thought), I was ready to go home to that little island where I understand most of their words and can appreciate their simple cuisine’s embrace of localism.
A pass across the UK border is required first of course, which aside from the time I had a student visa, I’ve always found to be a rather traumatic experience. Unlike me, immigration authorities don’t like one-way tickets, community generated accommodation, or freelance/project-based/remote employment.
I knew my reentry would be complicated and had concocted an elaborate narrative involving old friends with new babies and cheap one-way tickets to crumbling Eastern European capitals that I had no intention of ever using. Ultimately, though, I decided to keep my story simple and true which is normally supposed to be a good idea. . .
. . . except when you don’t have a flight booked back to America, just returned from a trade fair, and are employed on a freelance/consulting basis.
The UK Border Agency doesn’t like that irregular truth one bit, and since I don’t really like official paperwork, I got pulled aside and put in a holding pen with some Croatians, a Nepalese, and a Libyan while the UKBA tried to figure out how to categorize my visit. Over six hours, while I sat in a small- but long white, flourescent-lit room with one big window looking into the adjacent guards room, and all-I-could-eat/drink packaged sandwiches and vending machine coffee, the UKBA searched my bags (praise to be Allah I didn’t have my Koran with me), read my diary, and presumably googled me?, maybe read this blog? that’s what I’d do.
After they catalogued my “biometrics” I have no idea really what they did for six hours while I sat in the holding pen and exchanged contact details with my new Nepalese friend who has promised to host me if I ever make it to Kathmandu. Were they acquiring new information or just using the evidence of my diary? Was my case waiting in a long line to be reviewed by a single person or being passed around for review by multiple officials? I still have no idea what the process looks like and I think that’s a human rights situation which should be addressed.
Meanwhile, the Libyan asked me what I was in for. When I returned the question. He said, “It’s bad,” which I thought was a good time to ask the guards for another cup of tea and move to the other side of the room.
Around midnight (after landing at 17.30) just as I was starting to snuggle with my paper blanket on the metal bench, I was summoned. My fate had been decided.
My entry to the UK had been refused. Because I did not have a flight back to America and because my diary implied I was planning to settle in Oxford for an indefinitely long period of time, they were obligated to send me away. I was booked on a flight back to Frankfurt at 9.45 in the morning.
They also were sure to be clear with me that I was being “refused” rather than “deported” which apparently is better. I can go back if I want, but need to have a good story.
Once back in Frankfurt, I made some phone calls and ended up with a ticket back to Boston. My nerves were in no condition to attempt to cross another border other than the one that was expected to take me in. The flight would, of course, pass through London, where I was naively surprised that I was pulled aside for every “random” security check. Those biometrics must be powerful.
And so I’m back in Salem, where I’m prepping to do the next thing, once I figure out what it is.