My first run-in with the UK Border Force was purely bad luck. Of all the officers working the customs window, fate filtered me to a grade-A jobsworth.
I’ve been through customs quite a few times. Some countries seem more lax than others. Perhaps that’s the language barrier or maybe just the lowered concern for immigrants running rampant throughout their country. But when you’re visiting a country with a shared mother tongue and a constant fear of being overrun by immigrants, you (try to) enter with two strikes as there is no room to play the “lost in translation” card.
After surviving the standard hour-long bus ride to catch a Ryanair flight, I arrived to Stansted airport from Zadar, Croatia fifty shades of red from having too much fun in the sun lounging near the Adriatic for three days. Sun burn aside, I was excited to see my girlfriend.
I approached the next available customs official with my documents at hand.
“When do you plan on leaving the UK?” asked Mr. Jobsworth.
“Maybe in a few days. I don’t really know. I’ve kind of just been making up my schedule as I go,” I smugly replied.
He didn’t quite understand the concept of traveling with no set itinerary and making last-second decisions on where to head next. In hindsight, neither did I.
“And where will you be staying during your time in the UK?” he suspiciously followed up.
“I’ll be at my girlfriends.” Wrong answer.
I said the magic word: girlfriend. As I mentioned before, I already had two strikes against me but the fact that I would be staying with a British national who could potentially fund my open-ended stay in the UK was all the official needed to hear to assume I would be a leaching immigrant trying to sneak my way into his country for good.
Mr. Jobsworth asked me a series of questions, trying to find a hole in my story—the story that I was a student and had to at least return home by the end of summer for school. While this might have been stretching the truth a bit—I had already graduated the year prior—I did just complete my TEFL Certification, so I guess I was kind of a student.
The lid really blew off my story when they pulled me in the back and searched my bags. They found what they were looking for.
“So if you are just traveling, why are you carrying copies of your CV?” a second official asked.
Ooops. Busted. Sort of.
“You see, I just completed a TEFL course, and since I’ve been traveling, I don’t always have guaranteed access to a printer so I need to make sure I’m prepared,” I lied.
“It says on your CV that you graduated university last year. Why did you say you had to return at the end of summer to attend class?” I guess I got the customs officials who flunked out of detective school.
“In America, we have this thing called Junior College. Anybody can attend classes as long as they pay the fee. They offer various courses for further training. I plan on taking a media course,” I thought on my feet.
Now I can write an entire post on how semantics snowballed this situation out of control from the differences in British and American education, but suffice to say, the customs officials couldn’t comprehend why I would need to return to my “course” if I had already graduated.
I continued to plead my case; I simply wanted to visit my girlfriend then I would be off on my way again, out of the country in four to five days, tops—maybe. Why else would I have spent so much money on a rail pass that had a month left of validity?
The officials reached a point where they were punching above their weight class. I was sent to the back room—the detainment center—while the head official reviewed my case.
All my belongings were seized; phone, wallet, passport. I was put in a room that resembled a daycare center. The T.V. was broken and the bookshelf offered nothing more stimulating than The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I picked up a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records 2004.
I read the words but they didn’t translate. All I could think was the last thing the head official said to me before entering the detainment room: “Be prepared to fly back to Croatia.” By the way, the next flight was 22 hours away. It seemed like I was going to learn quite a few world records that were set in 2004.
Four hours later and three hours after being bored of The Guinness Book of World Records, the head official entered.
“Well I have good news and bad news” …
Good news first, you prick, I thought.
“Good news: we are allowing you to enter the UK.”
Holy shit, I pulled it off. I talked my way out of not being deported.
“Bad news: we’re only allowing you a special four-day visa.”
I couldn’t care less. After all, I was planning on leaving in four days anyway. Only now I had to actually leave in four days. Again, plans are just plans until you actually do something about them.
My possessions were returned to me, along with my passport with a massive crossed out stamp over the initial entry stamp. This was conveniently right next to my “special” visa penciled in that it was only valid for four days. I guess I was flagged in the system. Maybe that’s why I had to give archaic ink finger prints.
I didn’t know at the time, but that crossed out visa stamp would cause more of a headache than the last five hours I endured trying to get through UK Customs at Stansted Airport.
Six days later, I finally left the paranoid United Kingdom … sort of like I had planned.