British customs hates me and probably a lot of other people

Now that I have successfully navigated the gut-punch that is international travel, and I find myself safely tucked away in Oregon for a few weeks before school starts, I thought I would get my lingering animosities out of my system.  Namely, an enormous middle finger goes to British customs.

British customs can suck it.

Here’s the thing.  This was my fourth time through customs at Heathrow.  The first time I was so ill-prepared it was laughable.  They dinged me as a terrorist because I didn’t have a full address for the dorm I was visiting, and they frisked me and went through my stuff three days later when I left the country.

Sure, my fault.

But I learned my lesson, and now I travel with a document folder that contains just about anything they could possibly ask for.  Proof of address in the states, full itineraries for travel, all locations I’m housing at, letters of introduction from my university, proof of fellowship awards, proof of teaching assistantship.  Hell, this time I even took my congratulatory, “Hurrah, you passed your exams now go work on your prospectus” letter.

I strolled up to the customs police, handed my officer my passport and landing card.

Immediately she takes issue with my passport.  “This doesn’t look like you,” she says.

I raise an eyebrow.  “Yes, I know, that picture was taken when I was 18.  It’s up for renewal in December.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t look like you now.

I just stare at her.  What the hell am I suppose to say.  The name is right, the birthdate is right, the numbers all match.  “Ok, how about I show you some updated IDs?”

Sure, she says, that’s fine.  BAM, I have my driver’s license, school ID, bus pass, ready to go.  They show the progression of my changing looks from age 21 forward.

Customs officer eyes them…looks at me…eyes the cards…”Yeah, you look really different now.”

“I realize.”

“So what inspired this change?”

I was totally taken aback.  What do you mean, what inspired this change?  Do you think I suddenly cut and dyed my hair right before boarding this particular flight to London?  Do you think I’m undercover?  In disguise?  There are a number of perfectly good reasons I look the way I do, and I don’t feel like explaining any of those reasons to this stranger.  So I tell her, “Well, ten years is a good long time to evolve a look.  When I was younger, I sang opera, and I needed long hair for the stage costumes, but I grew out of that and into myself.  I’m more me now.”

She laughs out loud.  “You sang opera?”

I’m half expecting her to ask me to prove it.  I’m dehydrated, it’s 2:30 in the morning Chicago time, I just got off a seven and a half hour flight, and I’m thinking, if she asks me to sing her a scale, I’m screwed.  They’re going to send me back to Chicago.

She moves on.  “So what do you plan to do in England,” she asks, looking at my landing card.


“On what?”

I expect this question.  They always ask me, just to see if I can really rattle off my intended project without a hitch.  I’m a little off kilter at this point, though, so I mutter something about the British asylum system from 1880-1910 and wait for her to make fun of me again.

“What for?” she asks, with a look of complete disgust.  Like, how could you possible waste your time on such a weird topic.

“It’s for my dissertation,” I tell her.

“Says here you’re a teacher AND a student.  Which one is it.”

“It’s both,”  I say.  “Look, here’s my proof of address in the UK where I’m staying to work on research.  Here’s my teaching appointment, which proves I’m a teacher.  And here is my fellowship grant, which proves I’m a student.”

She yanks the last document out of my hands.  “You can stop handing me stuff now, thanks.”

Again, I’m totally taken aback.  I thought she wanted me to prove to her that I was both a teacher and a student.  That’s what I was doing.  I stand there like an idiot while she reads through the documents.

“How much is this award for?”

I tell her.

“You can afford lodging on that?” Again with the condescension.  Apparently customs officers are just rolling in Scrooge McDuck amounts of doubloon.

I explain how I had a standby flight to offset costs and a small loan from my parents.

She hands me my pile of IDs and my documents.  Then she makes one last face at me and grimaces at the passport photo.  “Bet you can’t wait to get that updated.”

And this is where, if the world was a fair and just place, I could have flipped her off.  Instead I just walked away and started fantasizing about being filthy rich like all those first class patrons who breeze through customs without a hitch.  I guess if you wear cashmere sweaters in putrid shades of pistachio, they assume you can a) afford a trip to London, b) spend your time buying their stuff and moving money around, and then c) go back to your own country because you miss a good red steak.  I, however, am obviously a freeloading, hippie, half-student/half teacher freak show who studies worthless topics and can’t even take a good photo.

Go pound sand, British customs.

I feel better now.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

2 thoughts on “British customs hates me and probably a lot of other people

  1. It has become worse for students doing doctoral research. But it has always been a little dicey. I traveled with my SO to do research (who became my wife, and then my ex, but that is another story). She had been born in the UK, so waltzed through with a “Welcome Home.” I had my letters of introduction and my account records showing I had money to do research. I boldly announced, “I am here to do research.” That is when the trouble began. Eyes appear over the half rims. “Yes? On what?” Never mind that my subject of research was a bit Lucky Jim-ish. One is tired after flying across the ocean and does not explain oneself well (note to self – I would make a very poor smuggler for this reason). On the other hand, my friend’s father who retired in London after being exposed as a CIA man undercover (or do they ever really retire), delighted in filling out the forms and writing “Gentleman.” Because the British class system might not have a slot for researcher, but they certainly have one for that. (He never had any problems.)

    • I’m not gonna lie. It makes me feel a little bit better to know that even you struggled with customs. Misery loves company and all. But maybe we should launch a campaign to get customs officers to be nicer to researchers. Also, I can’t believe that “gentleman” is still a viable occupation. Jesus.

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