I knew I was in trouble with Agent #3293 at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 the moment she turned her eyes to me.
“Greeted” would be far too kind a description for the way she looked at me. Cold eyes, “fish eyes” I call the lifeless orbs that assessed me. She started right in.
I see you overstruck all these letters on the form. Were you bored?
No, my pen was running out of ink so I tried to make it clearer.
For the next 20 minutes her questioning became more probing, more edgy, and more judgmental as I felt myself slipping from the status of a 59-year-old guy traveling to the UK to meet up with his British-born wife to a “person of interest” in the global quest to assign guilt and responsibility.
She breezed past the openers (“where are you coming from,” “how long will you be here”, etc.) and, seemingly intrigued by something missing or present in me, got to work.
You are a writer. Who do you work for?
So you don’t work for an organization?
So you’re freelance (she wrote freelance on my declaration form). What do you write?
Just about anything. Speeches, public relations, news, opinion, features.
What do you write about?
Just about anything. (Thinking: where am I? Myanmar?)
Do you have a specialty? You must have a specialty.
As I said, just about anything.
What is the last thing your wrote?
A remembrance of a friend who recently passed away.
Is it online?
So you don’t have a specialty?
You said religion?
No, I did not.
Her tone became more accusatory, more aggressive. I was on the defensive, tired after a sleepless overnight’s flight and annoyed at being treated like a criminal. I guess it showed, though I said nothing to reveal my angst or provoke her further.
Now things got really interesting.
Sir, you seem agitated. Is there a reason why these questions are bothering you?
Yes. I am tired. It’s been a long day, and I have never been subjected to this kind of questioning in all my years of traveling. So yes, I am concerned.
You are at border control. How do you think I am treated when I enter the US?
She shifted gears.
When are you leaving the UK?
Where are you going?
To house sit in another place.
Do you have a flight out of England?
(Forgetting that Gabi had made a reservation). No, I don’t. We haven’t planned that yet.
You must be able to produce an itinerary to exit the UK, otherwise you will be delayed.
Hold on. Now I am being threatened with detention at Customs because I do not have an exit itinerary? In all my travels (except China and India, and there it was only a perfunctory requirement) I have never been required to produce proof that I wasn’t really a terrorist or a squatter seeking to take advantage of an unsuspecting host country, and that I truly planned to move on. As if I’d choose the UK if such a quest should be mine.
Here? At customs?
Why? I’ve never been asked to produce an itinerary for my exit, and we haven’t booked that yet.
(I paused and remembered that Gabi had indeed booked a flight to France).
Oh, wait. I apologize. My wife did book a flight.
You must provide me with an itinerary.
I don’t have one. It’s online.
Well, you must produce it. Do you have a phone?Yes, but I don’t have a UK sim card yet.
(Expressing what I can only describe as contempt) We have free wifi.
I accessed the email and showed it to her, which clearly showed a Luton-Nimes flight.
Where is this flight going?
(Pointing). There. To Nimes.
Where is that?
Where in France?
Near Marseilles. (At this point she wrote numerous comments on the back of my declaration form about my travel plans and other answers I provided to her questions)
What is your wife’s name.
What’s her date of birth?
Where is she now?
In London, waiting for me to arrive.
Why did you go to the US.
To attend the funeral of my friend.
(She expressed no condolences, no reaction at all, in stark contrast to the other border guards – notably, the US – who expressed sympathy for my loss.)
It was clear to me that I was at the hands of a border guard who had had a nasty experience entering the US and was bent on taking it out on me. Maybe I represented all she loathes: someone who is traveling the world, unrestrained by a job I despise or a life that I resent. Maybe she hates men, or Americans, or maybe simply American men.
Whatever her bias, it became obvious that I was the target of her disdain.
And I was powerless.
Part of me wanted to say, “Know what? You can take the UK, the border rules, your attitude and lousy job, and shove it. I’m turning around, buying a one-way flight to a friendly country and will spend my time, money and energy in a place as far from people like you as possible.”
That’s what I thought. What I said was quiet, calm, respectful, mindful that with the flick of her wrist she could have me into Secondary Inspection and in for a very, very long day.
My crime seems to have been complete honesty in answering her questions.
So you don’t have a job?
I am a writer, as I said.
And you don’t have a home.
No. I had a career in the States, retired and moved to Cambodia for nearly four years, and now my wife and I are traveling.
Why isn’t your wife traveling with you?
I left France so I could attend my friend’s funeral, and she remained at the place where we were house sitting.
Why were you in France?
To house sit.
Where do you live in the US?
As I said, I do not live in the US at the present.
You must have some things. Where are they?
I have a storage unit in Massachusetts with some personal belongings.
But you have no home address.
And you have no home in the US.
That is correct.
She was running out of queries and I could see in her face that she was weighing her options, making a decision. She took one more shot at me.
Your passport is very full. There are a lot of visas.
Yes, as I said, we have been traveling. It’s been a lot of fun.
She glared at me.
She stamped my passport, and without so much as a wave or a greeting from her I had been granted entry into the UK.
But I remain unsettled, angry and unwilling to accept her treatment.
I am a writer. It’s what I do, so I’m writing about the experience. But I’m also a respectable US citizen who has been abused at the hands of an inappropriate and aggressive border guard, so I’m taking the case to the UK Border Protection’s complaints department.
We’ll see where this goes, but I am asking for a review of her questioning (I have it all recreated to the best of my ability and memory, in writing) and a formal reprimand of her for her unacceptable behavior.
I wonder what has happened to a world where this sort of treatment is more commonplace than any of us would imagine or wish. A quick Google search reveals tons of complaints just like mine.
I remember the smile from the border guard in Chongqing, China, upon our arrival there, and his halting English welcoming me to the Peoples Republic of China.
And I missed it desperately.