29 August 2009

Good Old Fashioned British Hospitality

Travelling on mainland Europe was great. It’s land full of culture, history and food, but, as I boarded a bus bound for London Town, I have to confess I was looking forward to getting to England. If for nothing else, for the feeling of heading for a place where I might fit in a bit better. A place that spoke my language (more or less). And a place where saying “I’m from Australia” wasn’t accompanied with an inherent feeling of “what the hell are you doing here?”

They call England the mother land, and while I think of Old Blighty as something more like a great-grandmother land these days, it was strangely comforting to know I was heading back to the Commonwealth, where a weary continental traveller could take his ease among friends before the long journey home.

“Ugh. You haven’t even filled out an immigration form, have you?”

This was my first taste of English hospitality, as I greeted the staff at the border security office in Calais, just before the entrance to the channel tunnel.
“Um… Can I have an immigration form please?” was my slightly aback-taken reply.
“Here. You really need to be better prepared than this. Go away and fill this out, then come back and see me.”
It was a fairly rude sort of introduction, but I knew it was just a long day. Once I could show him my passport and reassure him that I was just a passing traveller and not a threat to national security everything would be alright.

“Right, now let’s see here. You’re Australian?”
“That’s right.”
“And you’re seeking entry to the UK for a period of 5 days?”
“That’s right.”
“And where are you staying during that time?”
“With my aunt in Oxford.”
“In Oxford?”

I started to notice the officer’s rather annoying habit of repeating everything I told him as a question, just to make sure I was aware of how unreasonable my responses obviously seemed to him. It was at about this point that I started to suspect things might not be going quite according to plan.

“And what is your aunt’s address in Oxford?”
“I don’t actually know. She’s picking me up form the bus stop.”
“Oh she’s picking you up, is she?”
“Yes.”
“And you’re staying with her until the second of September, are you?”
“That’s right.”
“And do you have your tickets for that flight with you now?”

Of course I didn’t. The people of a more sophisticated country might have realised that no-one uses print-outs of their tickets anymore because it’s unnecessary and it wastes paper and the internet is so much more convenient. But here in England, they did things the old fashioned way, apparently.

“So, then, do you have any proof of your departure date, a booking card or something?”
“Not on paper, but if I can have access to the internet, I can show the booking online, if you like.”

I couldn’t have access to the internet. Either it was against protocol, or they don’t have it in England yet.

“So this flight is booked for Tuesday evening, is it?”
“Yes. About 10 o’clock from memory”
“Which airline is it with?”
“Qantas.”
“And you don’t have any proof of this?”
“… No. …”
“How much money do you have with you?”

Now things really went downhill. My pay from the summer camp was pretty much all gone, so I had been getting rid of as many Euros as I could, so I could withdraw money in Pounds when I got to London, rather than pay a stupid commission getting Euros converted. All told my wallet contained…

“Two Euros and seventy five cents”.
“Two Euros Seventy?” The officer stopped looking at me like I was a potential threat and started looking at me like I was a complete idiot.

“Okay. Do you have any luggage on the bus?”
“Yes. I have a suitcase and a rucksack.”
“A suitcase and a backpack? Alright. They’ll have to come off the bus, I’ll need to detain you for questioning.”

So that’s what we did, and now my day really started to get fun. I’d never been detained by the police before. We went out to the bus and got my stuff off. The bus then left without me, so things were really looking up.

The first thing that happened was that my luggage was all locked away in a big cage, while I was searched for firearms on my person. They didn’t find any, so after asking me to leave my belt with them so I couldn’t hang myself with it, they escorted me to a glass-walled room and locked me in.

I should point out at this point that the staff who looked after the holding cell were much nicer than the officer who sent me there. They made sure I had food and a hot drink, and I was made comfortable. Well… comfortable apart from the fact that I was locked in a glass-walled room somewhere outside Calais.

After a short wait the officer returned and escorted me to an interview room, where he proceeded to ask me all the same questions he had asked me out the front, only this time he wrote my answers down instead of repeating them back to me. After all this, apparently he still didn’t believe me, so he agreed to call my aunt to confirm. I had to leave the room while he spoke to her, presumably so I couldn’t tell her the answers to the officer’s questions before he had a chance to ask them. It was good to know that there was at least a little bit of sanity to be found in the facility; it would all be cleared up soon.

After my aunt confirmed my travel plans, I was taken back to the main office to collect my bags. I was looking forward to getting out of that damn office and getting on with my journey on the next available bus.

But it wasn’t to be. Actually I was collecting my luggage ready for a full bag search. My luggage and I were taken into another small office and locked in, and I was made to take every last thing out of all my baggage and tell the officer what it was and where I got it. I don’t know what they were looking for, but they didn’t find it, so I packed it all back into the bags while the officer stood by and shook his head in annoyance at how long it was taking. Then the luggage went back in the cage, and I went back into the glass room.

Half an hour or so later the officer returned and took me down the hall to another room to be fingerprinted. Yep, fingerprinted. I’m not sure why, but I suppose if I ever try to do something mischievous like ‘catch a bus to London’ again (not bloody likely, I’m here to say), Interpol will be on the case.

So after all the hoops had been jumped through, all the necessary confirmation made and all the ink washed off my fingertips, the officer finally returned with the final paperwork and informed me:

“As I am not satisfied you have the financial means to return to Australia, and as you have not provided sufficient proof of your intention to return to Australia within the required time frame, I am denying you permission to enter the United Kingdom.”

“You’re denying me permission to enter?” I asked disbelievingly, more to give the stuffy clipboard monkey a taste of his own medicine than to request clarification.

And that was that. After incarcerating me for two hours, searching me and my bags and fingerprinting me on suspicion of ‘trying to go to England’, the British Border Patrol rang up their friends at the French Border Patrol who came and collected me in a big white van and then dropped me off at a bus stop just outside Calais at half past five in the evening. I had no accommodation, no real idea where anything was, and no idea how to speak French.

And that was my experience of all that England has to offer. Nothing but a complete load of bollocks.

Far from home (far from home?)




Garry with 2 Rs
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