Not that I’m a total angel, either—I’ve definitely had my moments (mostly in my late teens/early twenties) that make me look back now and say, “Whaaaaaat was I thinking?!”
Adulthood, expat life and teaching have brought out a more outgoing version of me. But, at my core, I don’t think I’ve ever fully shaken that timid, over-the-top obedient child I once was. I was the one voted “Most Likely To Be A Librarian” in the class yearbook. Every. Single. Year. I don’t think people knew me well enough to vote any other way.
Throughout childhood I spent a lot of time at the local fire hall with my best friend at the time. (Her dad was a volunteer fireman.) She invited another friend to join us, once, and I was so shy that the girl finally came over, poked me in the arm (not in a mean way—she was just genuinely curious) and asked, “Are you mute?”
My biggest fear was disobeying an adult. When Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the front door with pamphlets, I’d be stuck there for as long as they were willing to preach. There was no chance I’d excuse myself. Too rude. Not only did I answer all their questions; I scheduled follow up appointments for the next day.
My vigilance extended to the television.In the early 1980’s we had five channels and I watched a lot of PBS. The network tried to raise money through these Pledge Drives, and the announcer would look out from the TV and encourage all the kids watching to ask their parents to make a donation. I remember actually feeling stressed when my parents said “no.”
At school one of my teachers took advantage of my goody-goody nature. She sometimes had me accompany “troublemakers” down to the office, and make sure they didn’t run away. (As a teacher, now, I’m stunned someone would do this. First of all, what was I supposed to do if these kids took off? Run after them? Take them down? Also, come on. I can’t imagine this duty made me any friends.)
If I had a dream or even a thought that seemed wonky, I confessed it. I even asked permission to go to the bathroom. There’d be times where we were out at a friend of the family’s house and I had to pee—I mean, I’d literally be at the stage where I was grabbing myself and hopping—but I’d always rush over to one of my parents and ask if I could go. It just seemed wrong to leave a room without a parent’s approval.
I guess that’s understandable at a friend’s house, but this happened at home, too. My mom finally looked at me, utterly perplexed. “Sarah, you don’t have to ask permission to use the bathroom. When you have to go, just go.”
As far as I remember, the only time my inner criminal surfaced was when my mom asked it to come out.
There was an incident when I was six or seven years old, and my mother kneeled down so we were the same height. “Why don’t you ever do anything bad?”
She asked a valid question.
“Go do something bad,” she suggested.
To this day, I don’t know what possessed her to say that. She must not have expected me to leave the room and seek out crime just because she’d suggested it.
Oh, but, I did. That’s the kind of kid I was. She’d asked something of me to and I took that seriously. So, I found a quarter, went outside, and scratched SARAHB3 in big letters on the hood of her car. Then I called her outside to take a look. (The B3, incidentally, was because I was one of three Sarah’s in my class at the time, so on all my worksheets I had to distinguish myself with the 3.)
I don’t think I got in trouble. Honestly, I don’t have much memory of the moment my mom saw her car. But, if I’d gotten in trouble I can promise you I’d remember. It would have torn me apart. Needless to say, my mom has not asked me to do anything bad since then, and I’ve made an honest effort not to. (Within reason.)
And, yet, I have a mug shot. Who woulda thunk?
My first visa “incident” was back in 2006 when I walked up to a customs desk in London, Heathrow. I’ll never forget this day for loads of reasons, starting with the fact that as soon as the passport officer saw me he sucked in his cheeks and puckered his lips. (Which, I’ll confirm, is not the usual reaction I get when going through Customs.)
He pretended not to see me and just stood there, fish facing. I waited, smiled. He kept going. Eventually I held out my passport in a timid you-don’t-have-to-take-this-if-you-don’t-want-to gesture (because it’s human instinct to suddenly feel ‘guilty until proven innocent’ when presented to a country’s entry or exit. To this day, the closer we get to our turn at the passport check, the more my husband and I start acting like we’re straight off of Barney.)
The officer shook his head as if to snap out of it and laughed.
“Oh! Sorry—it’s been a long day. After a while, you just need to make a fish face.”
I appreciated his humor so much I almost went in for a hug and a little bit of a cry. It had been a rough day of travel. Let’s see. For one thing, I had to pay five hundred Euros just to get my luggage to England.
Everything I needed for the year filled two full sized suitcases, a smaller suitcase, and a carry-on. I’ll admit that I brought a lot of books. Because, you know, God forbid I be out of arm’s reach of One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Things They Carried for an entire year...in an English speaking country…with, presumably, English book stores.
My five hundred Euro blunder was that, instead of heading straight to England, I planned a stop over in Heidelberg, Germany for two weeks. From Buffalo to Frankfurt it only cost twenty-five dollars to check in the extra luggage. I happily paid and parked myself in Heidelberg cafes, the woods, and along the Neckarwiese. The flight to England was set for two days before the course began.
In Frankfurt, the U.S. Airways representative raised an eyebrow when she realized I intended to check in three suitcases and carry on a fourth. But, she remained impassive, let me load them up on the conveyer belt, weighed them, pressed some buttons on her computer keyboard, and regarded me, coldly. Right away, I didn’t like her. She seemed like the type of person whose last job involved old school psychological testing with electrical shocks.
“You do realize you’re going to exceed the baggage weight allowance with all of this?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m expecting it.”
Ah, Germans, I thought. All serious about an extra twenty-five Euro fee. Getting the best possible deal really is a cultural thing. To this day we pretty much have to order our local travel agent to let us come in and pay for flights we’ve reserved. They’d prefer we keep them ‘on hold’ indefinitely—right up until the day we fly, if possible. There’s just always the chance the price could drop five Euros.
She shrugged. “I’m afraid you are fifty kilos over the maximum weight allowance. It costs ten Euros per extra kilo. So, to check all of this in will cost you five hundred Euros. Will that be on your credit card, today?”
“Wait. What? Five hundred? But…why?!”
She repeated the line about fifty kilos, verbatim.
“I don’t understand. It should only be twenty-five dollars. I paid twenty-five inBuffalo to check these in…”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s because that was an international flight that you took. This is a European domestic flight. You have a lower baggage allowance.”
I was so dumbstruck I couldn’t speak.
She typed something, looked up and behind me, paused. “I’m sorry.”
She was clearly not sorry. She was in a hurry. She wanted me to nod, take out my credit card, charge five hundred freaking Euros on it and then move on as quickly as possible so she could continue with the next person.
I was not rich. Not by a long shot. That was almost half of the spending money I had for first semester.
The representative did not bother to offer any suggestions on how to solve the problem. Instead, she batted back reasons why everything I scrambled to come up with was impossible. She shook her head “no” before I even finished wording my questions. What if I ship everything over, instead? Is there a post office in the airport? There is. But, your flight departs one hour from now and that won’t leave enough time to go through security. Can I reschedule my flight so I have time to ship these things? She sighed and did a search. There’s a flight on Thursday morning. That would be the earliest we could reschedule you and it will cost four hundred Euro to book. My course starts on Monday, though. I really need to be there for the first day. She didn’t respond. Does the airport have a storage facility of any kind? Yes there is. Okay. Ah, but. Wait. Who would be willing to drive out here, pick it up, put it in boxes and mail it? Hmm. I paused to think, and we stared at each other. Can I try to get rid of some things, maybe? That’s up to you.
But, these were all of my earthly belongings. I couldn’t think of anything I’d be willing to get rid of.
So, I tried to focus of the adage my dad says any time a family member wipes out, financially: “Hey–money comes and goes.”
A simple thought. It doesn’t really mean much. But, in financial crisis mode (and I’ve been there enough times) there’s something comforting about assigning money the value and stability of feathers, or M&M wrappers, or soap bubbles.)
Then I imagined my mom’s key lines of comfort—“It’s all just a blip on the radar screen” and “Give yourself a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the back,” before handing over my credit card.
Still. That transaction made me feel pukey the entire flight, and for the first time in my years of plane travel I had trouble enjoying my complimentary red wine. Which says a lot.
So, a fish face welcome to my new adventure was appreciated. It made me a bit willing to put the morning behind me and start fresh in Old Blighty. It was good juju.
The customs officer flipped through my passport. “What brings you to England?”
“I’m doing a Master’s degree here.”
“Oh, really? Where?”
“At Royal Holloway University of London.” I loved saying the name in its entirety.
“Brilliant! And how long will you be here?”
“A year,” He repeated. He kept thumbing through the pages, many of which (I noted with pride) were covered with stamps. During my study abroad program in Heidelberg we used to ask the train conductors to stamp the pages and build up our collection.
“What will you be studying?”
“Ah, something marketable!” He winked. “Just teasing. That’s great!”
He continued to look through my passport for a minute before closing it and using it to give the podium a little knock. “And, where is your student visa? Am I missing it?”
He opened my passport back up, flipping through the pages.
“Student visa?” I leaned forward to look at my passport with him.
My mind had gone strangely blank, and I wasn’t even quite sure what he was talking about. Student visa…student visa…student visa.
“I actually don’t need one for this course?”
There was a hint of doubt in his expression, but he still looked like the most relaxed Customs officer I’d ever come across, waiting to hear what I had to say.
“I’m only here for a year. So, once I get to Royal Holloway the school takes care of it for me. We have to go to the embassy, I think? It was on the web site. Here’s all my paperwork…”
I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a blue folder filled with everything I’d received from the university and printed out from their web site. There was the acceptance letter, a sheet with the address and check-in instructions, a suggested packing list, financial aid information, and everything else I thought I might want to refer back to.
The customs officer paged through it. He made little popping sounds with his lips.
As he looked, I found that my mind was strangely blank when it came to what was going on with my student visa. Had the school actually said they were going to take care of it for me? That was the case when I studied for a semester in Heidelberg. Once we were in the country, Schiller International University helped us get all of that sorted. It worked the same way with Royal Holloway…right? Why was this all feeling so uncertain? Why didn’t I have a clear answer to something as important as a visa, for the love of God?
“It was on the web site,” I repeated. “I read that I don’t need to secure a visa before starting the course… I already have an acceptance letter, obviously, and my accommodation. I’m staying in Gowar Hall…“
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. He nodded and haphazardly shuffled my paperwork together before sticking it back in the blue folder.
“Okay, ma’am if you don’t mind I’m just going to sort out a few more people in line behind you. Is that all right? And then we’ll get you taken care of. If you could have a seat over in one of those chairs right there, I’d really appreciate it. It will only be a moment.”
Everyone who passed by had noticed the glitch in protocol and stared at me, trying to pretend they weren’t staring at me. I saw my favorite German word, Schadenfreude, in all of their faces.
As I waited, the familiar combo pack of panic and realization set in. I’ve experienced it many times. It’s a blood rush to the face, along with the brain synapses finally reaching back in time to gather and connect important threads of information. It’s like the time I accidentally injected quadruple the amount of Gonal I needed in to my abdomen during fertility treatments. It was only after I started to feel a bit insane that I found myself asking, Wait…was I supposed to take the whole vial worth?
When the customs officer returned he had a small, white piece of paper in his hand
“Okay, ma’am. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come with me. Since you’ve arrived planning to stay in the country for one year and don’t have a student visa, we have to detain you.”
He took two of my suitcases and asked me to follow him back out through the terminal. Most of me was in shock, and the rest was trying to acclimate to the fact that I was no longer in charge of my own actions. That, right there, is the most intense feeling I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t know where I was being led. Nor did I have a say. An hour ago I’d been eating honey mustard pretzels and drinking Shiraz on an airplane, totally free. Now, I’d been handed over to someone else.
We passed a restroom and, badly needing a toilet, I asked if I could go. (Childhood, all over again.)
He hesitated and said, “Normally I wouldn’t be able to let you out of sight.” But, he led me over and said he’d wait outside with my luggage. “Just make it quick.”
I went as quickly as I could and I remember washing my hands and seeing other people just hanging out at the sink, talking. Such a simple thing—to be able to go to the bathroom unaccompanied. And yet, I now had a guard waiting for me, outside. The only way I can describe it is to say that I didn’t feel like a part of the world, anymore.
Our first stop was this area with a long table. The customs’ officer, who finally introduced himself as John, lifted my suitcases on top.
“Now, the first thing I have to do is go through everything in your suitcases. It’s standard protocol. I’ll be asking you lots of questions and it may feel invasive. I’m sorry for that.”
John put on plastic gloves, opened up my suitcases, and pulled everything out. He wasn’t kidding—he literally pawed through and asked questions about every last item I’d packed. The things he wanted to know were general enough, like, “What are these pictures of?” and held up two black and white photos of Heidelberg. It was the type of thing that anyone else seeing those pictures might have asked; no big deal. But the fact that I was required to answer personal questions gave it all a very invasive feel. He not only wanted to know what the pictures were of, but when I bought them, who had packed them, and why I liked them. He asked about Heidelberg, of course. How long had I lived there; how and where did I spent the past two weeks? Where was my family?
It was at this point that I started to cry. The shock was starting to wear off and the reality, that I was in serious trouble and not going to be meeting the TLS agent, who was no doubt waiting for me in Arrivals, that set me off. Was I going to be arrested or something? Deported?
The man taking my prints had a Spanish accent and beautiful green eyes. He lifted up my fingers, one by one, and each time he lowered them in to the ink, it was so gentle that I barely felt the pad. Then he looked up and asked, “Is that okay?” Over and over again. For each finger. Like there was a chance my tears might be due to the fact he was manhandling my fingers, and nothing else.
When he took my mug shot, I was clutching a literal stack of green paper towels he’d handed me and had mascara, tears and snot all over my face. I wish I had a copy of that picture! Definitely a Kodak moment.
Towards the end of the process, when John was safely out of earshot, he whispered, “Don’t worry. All this ink will be washed off at the end.”
Again. Not so in tune with why I was struggling. But, nice.
After the mug shot, John led me over to a room where I had to leave my luggage and then to a holding area where I was told I’d have to stay for the time being.
John waved goodbye and shut the door behind him. From the moment he’d detained me until just then, he’d been number one my personal terrorist list. But now that he was locking me up in a room with people who had committed real crimes, I wanted to run up to the door and bang on it with both fists and beg him to let me go wherever he went.
Instead I went over to a plastic chair and sat down. The first thing that struck me was that there was no doorknob on the door leading out of the room. I was unable to exit unless someone let me out. I don’t usually get claustrophobic, but was absolutely fixated on that handless door. Again, the urge to shout for John returned. I wanted to throw myself at the door; I wanted to smoosh my face against it so I looked like a fleshy pancake from the other side.
And then there were my fellow inmates. There was an Asian woman who sat in one of the chairs, smiling at nothing in particular for the entire time I was in that room. I’m sure she was on drugs. (Later, I learned that she’d arrived in country with a stolen passport.) There was a guy who requested a prayer rug from John and spent the duration of my stay kneeling and praying. And then there was a couple sitting in an adjoining room, sectioned off in glass. They chain smoked cigarettes and laughed nonstop. They seemed to be having a great time, like this was a party or something. It was bizarre.
In fact, I was the only one in there who was visibly upset about being locked up. Never in my life have I cried for such a continuous stretch of time. There was no end to my tears. I’d deplete a store and then think about Royal Holloway, again, and how I probably wasn’t going to get to go there, and the store would fill back up to capacity.
Trying to keep sane, I focused on a low budget TV screen set on the wall, high above me. Finding Nemo played, surreally enough. Ellen Degeneres’s voice, Pixar, fish tanks at a dentist office—none of it fit. I was starting to feel like the subject of some art installation where a person who has never committed a crime is locked up and confronted by…fish.
I must have looked beyond pathetic, because a guard called me over to this little window near the entrance of my ‘cell’ and spoke to me through an opening of air holes.
“You don’t look like you belong here,” he said in a low voice. “Would you like a tuna fish sandwich?”
I’m not kidding. He offered me tuna. Anyway, I didn’t particularly want one, but thanked him profusely, took it back to my seat and ate it. I didn’t even notice the mayonnaise or celery (both foods that I hate.)
Over the next few hours, John entered my communal cell several times and told me to follow him to an area with several desks and chairs. The chair I sat down on was chained to the floor. I don’t know if people have been known to pick them up and throw them?
Each time, John barraged me with what felt like the same group of questions over and over and over. What brought you to England? Why did you not bring a visa? What made you think you didn’t need one? Then he wrote all my answers down on a yellow notepad.
I struggled then and for a long time afterwards to understand exactly why I didn’t think I needed a student visa to enter England and begin my Master’s course. I went over those pre-departure weeks, again and again. Was it just a major detail I overlooked while trying to sort out financial aid? Was I misled by the website?
Well, I’ve figured it out. I don’t want to admit this, but do you know what I thought? It said on the Royal Holloway web site that people coming in from the EU don’t require a student visa.
I thought that applied to me.
Let me put this in it’s own paragraph. Since I was arriving in England from Germany I thought I was exempt from needing a visa. Seriously. That’s how literally I took the statement. It never occurred to me that they meant, ‘If you are a EU citizen, you do not need a visa to study in the UK. Forget common sense—forget that you can’t just show up in a country for a year and assume that showing your university acceptance letter is adequate permission to be there. This was my thought process.
I don’t think of myself as a stupid person. But, there are moments where I’m gullible to a point that people find freaky. I take things at face value that should never be taken at face value. Sometimes I miss gigantic cues, misinterpret things, say something intelligent one minute and then something so naïve a second later that people look at me in a are you being serious right now type of way.
This is something about myself that drives me crazy and makes me very self-conscious. But, it also creates plennnnnty of situations that are worth writing about—so I guess it’s a necessary evil?
So, how did it all work out in the end?
I was pulled in for several more interviews with the same questions asked over and over again, my answers always written on the yellow note pad.
At one point I found the courage to ask the question I didn’t necessarily want the answer to. “Am I going to be deported?”
“Probably,” John said. “I’m just waiting to hear what my supervisor says.”
His voice had never lost its genial, I’m ready to pretend to eat plankton at any time tone. I was really starting to hate him.
“If I am deported—would it be to Germany, or the United States?”
“It would be wherever you came in from. So, Germany.”
Then something else occurred to me. “If I’m sent back to Germany, would I have to pay to have my luggage shipped back over? Five hundred Euros, again?”
“Yes, you would.”
At some point, it occurred to me that I was allowed to be in the country for at least a certain length of time without a visa. I would be going home for winter break. I hadn’t bought my tickets, yet, but could guarantee I’d be going. Was there any way that I could enter the country, buy my flight home, and then apply for the visa from Buffalo before returning to England after my trip?
John talked to his supervisor about it and they ultimately decided to let me do this. I learned later that the only reason they took me up on this plan and didn’t deport me right away was that it was an abnormally busy night. All kinds of people were showing up in country without passports or with stolen visas.
Before I was released in to Arrivals, John stamped a giant W (for Warning) in my passport. He told me that I was absolutely not allowed to leave and reenter England until my Christmas trip. He also slipped me his email address.
“I could lose my job for this,” he whispered. “But send me an email when you can and let me know how you get on.”
I just about ran when John pointed me towards the terminal. It was the most liberating moment. I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge after he realizes the third ghost wasn’t going to butcher him, after all, and he gets a second chance to spread the Christmas spirit. I can’t imagine how incarcerated people feel when they rejoin the world years later.
The TLS transport service had left hours ago, of course, so I rushed to an ATM and took out two hundred pounds. I didn’t really have it in mind that this amounted to four hundred dollars. I definitely didn’t need to take all of that out. But, at that moment I needed comfort and the only thing that I felt might provide it (for whatever reason) was withdrawing most of my remaining spending money for the entire year and having it in my pocket. How incredibly wise.
I took a taxi all the way to Royal Holloway and was dropped off in the middle of the campus. Someone pointed the way, and my next task was trying to bring all my stuff to New Halls Reception. I stacked one suitcase on top of the other, and tried dragging all of it while walking backwards. I stumbled, and a wheel broke off.
The only thing that got me to New Halls Reception was that high caliber adrenaline that helps people lift cars with one finger. When I finally got there, I opened a door and saw four stairwells leading down. I decided to carry everything to the bottom in three separate trips. By the third trip, my arms were so tired I kicked the suitcase down the last two flights. At the bottom, I leaned everything against the wall, shook out my arms, and tried to open the door. It was locked.
“ARE YOU SERIOUS?” I yelled aloud, like a crazy person. “COME ON!”
So, I had to drag everything right back up the stairs. By the time this was done I was soaked with sweat and could barely lift my arms. I found the door, checked in, and was issued a key to my dorm room.
This was the sole high point. Gower Hall E3B03, my new home, looked like a hotel room, with a double bed, a window overlooking the soccer field, en-suite facilities, and a long desk that ran the perimeter of the window. I’d been expecting bunk beds, so this was a treat.
I began to unpack, and wondered where I could call my family and tell them that I was, however barely, alive. It was then I remembered my pocket. The rest of my money.
This day was ceaseless; there was some kind of cosmic power working against me. Was it the taxi driver? Had it slipped out as I lugged my suitcases up and down four flights of stairs? Had a student found their beer money for the semester drifting down the road? I’ll never know. But, my pocket was empty.
I wish I could say it stopped there, but it didn’t.
I found a payphone and used my credit card to call home. My parents and I talked for a desperately needed half hour. On my next credit card bill, I learned that the call had cost over two hundred dollars. Thirty minutes, four pounds (the equivalent of eight bucks) a minute—yeah.
The next day I wrote an email to a good friend/former teaching colleague of mine. In the subject line I wrote “Hell.” She actually took the initiative to read it out loud to the entire staff of teachers and they all felt so bad for me that they set up a collectionand rounded up something crazy—I forget how much, exactly, but it was a lot of money. Seven hundred bucks or so. (My future husband, Todd, contributed one hundred dollars.)
She sent it over as a money order and didn’t tell me, wanting it to be a surprise.
It got lost in the mail.
I only found out about the money order because I’d never been in contact to say thank you, so she finally wrote to make sure I wasn’t just being incredibly rude and that it had actually arrived.
I’m looking for a moral of the story, here. Is there one?
Perhaps the moral is hidden in the very last part of this story, in which I wrote to John telling him that I absolutely loved my university, had bought the tickets home for Christmas (I attached the itinerary to the email) and then thanked him for all of his help. Yeah, I don’t know why I did that either. He had me locked up.
John, in turn, asked me out to dinner. I tried to deport you, he wrote, the least I can do is take you out for dinner. I absolutely wasn’t interested in him. But, a part of me was transported back to that initial ‘walking through customs’ feeling of having to be the upstanding citizen who keeps her hands visible. So, I said sure.
We went to some fancy steak house and the conversation was bad. It was obvious to me that John had a true love of kicking people out of the country. He told me no less than one hundred stories about times that he got to do it. Even though we were out together, he gave me the impression that he considered it a personal failure that I’d been let in to England. Finally, he didn’t ask me anything about myself. Major deal breaker.
At least I’ll get a free meal out of this, which is good seeing as I don’t have any money. This might be the only time I get to go out for dinner all year.
But then I did something bizarre. At the end of our meal, I offered to pay for dinner. Did I mean it? No. I just said it because it seemed like the nice thing to say. I didn’t want to come across as expecting anything. Even though I was.
“Hey! I was supposed to be paying for this! You are stubborn. Well, if you insist.”
I had to dish out what really amounted to the rest of my spending money for the first six months of my Master’s degree for our dinner.
I suppose that there is no moral to this story. It’s just an example of what happens when you show up in a country having no idea about visas. It’s a sampler of how ridiculously clueless I can be. It’s the international criminal’s ride through London, Heathrow.
It’s the first of three times I’ve had a visa related disaster happen to me. So, I’ll consider it a game of visa baseball, and this was strike one.
Hey batta batta swing batta batta!