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Life UK: The Home Office and Me

I travel for work.  It’s such a throwaway phrase.  Lots of people travel for work.  At 8am  on a Monday, the Blue Line train at 7th Street Metro in downtown Los Angeles is dense with the Proletariat.  At 5.40pm on a Friday afternoon, the London Underground at Paddington is a swarm of human migration as workers and tourists disregard each other in close proximity.

I travel INTERNATIONALLY for work. Oh.

One imagines airport lounges, continental breakfasts, and casual browsing of duty free shops.  A passport serenely produced from a well organised carry-on satchel and labelled luggage not weighing more than 23kg.  One does not, one cannot imagine the god-forsaken bureaucracy of moving one’s person from one nation to another for the purpose of work.

In this episode of The-Home-Office-and-its-Regulatory-Actions-Against-Private-Individuals, I had at this point, been working for several months to register another life event with the government.  I had gotten married but in doing so had not become a highwayman, a criminal of international interest, or a lizard person from outer space (though my husband might contend with that last point).  Rules are rules and forms needed filling in, supporting documents obtained; identity verified by someone qualified; and all posted by recorded delivery to the Home Office, for a small fee.

I travel for work and I work largely because that human activity is required for keeping oneself fed and sheltered.  The Home Office, in politely quick response assured me that they aren’t ogres and if I simply ask nicely, I could have my travel documents returned to me whilst my case was being considered.  For a small fee.

Work was calling.  Flights had been booked, accommodation arranged, and remuneration agreed.   I sent the Home Office a polite email, requesting my travel documents. Of course, was the reply.  No problem. Weeks went by and with no promise through my letter box, I followed up with a phone call to a premium contact number, set up to deal with such enquiries, for a small fee.  Ah yes, your file. It’s definitely somewhere.  Passport not come to you? Curious.  No, no it will definitely be with you.

Weeks continued to pass and I began to worry now about losing work. My emails were now greeted with autoresponses and my phone calls, now accruing a small fortune to be paid to my telecoms provider, only followed cold or dead trails.  We were now days away from my planned travel and no passport.  With less than a week to go, I finally received that longed for communication:

Your document has been dispatched.

Well, naturally as I had prepaid for and provided first class premium return delivery, I expected it the very next day or perhaps the day following.  Three days passed and the day before my planned travel I had all of the desperation and quiet desperation of a caged tiger.  Reluctantly, I began to make phone calls to my employers to inform them, admittedly unfairly late, of my probable absence.  Nonetheless, I paced at my front door like a frantic errant soldier.

My husband arrived home from work, feeling desperately sorry for my situation and through his experience with delivery driving, was confident that my passport would be at our local Post Office Depot the following day. The day of my flight.

Through communication channels not open to the public, I organised with a sympathetic soul at the Post Office that I would arrive at 5.30 am to collect my passport before taking a taxi to London Gatwick airport.  The day arrived and I packed my bags with unreasonable optimism and with my long-suffering husband, set off for the Post Office.  The document had indeed arrived but locating it took some doing and with nothing more to be done, my husband wished me luck before setting off for work.

Passport in hand and hope not lost, I waited for a taxi that was only 10 minutes away they assured me.  Twenty-five minutes passed.  Twenty-seven minutes.  Twenty-nine.  Thirty-two.  The taxi pulled uncertainly into the unlikely pick up point.  I ran to the car, hefted myself into the backseat and barely and barely suppressing a scream breathed,

‘Gatwick airport please.’

Of course there was traffic.  The driver made polite conversation and, noting my distress, joyfully told me that everything happens for a reason and it’ll all turn out alright.  I pretended to believe him as the taxi pulled into the airport with minutes to spare before boarding. I was going to have to run.  Again with the running. I hate running.

Some twenty minutes later, having cleared airport check-in, border control, and airport security, with burning lungs and an all but broken spirit, I met my travel companions as they were boarding the plane.  Our gig was either that night or the following but that is a detail that I can’t remember.

 

 

The Border of Brown and Girl

Morocco. Until I stood on the edge of a ring road in the UK, holding a sign saying, ‘Hitchiking to Morocco’, I could not have told you that it was in Africa.

In the afternoon before we took the midnight crossing to Gibraltar, we hitch partners sat on the balcony of our youth hostel in Algeciras and gazed out over the water at Africa. We planned the next leg of our journey by rumour: crossing at the Spanish territory of Ceuta was easier to get to but it was reported that queues were long and the border guards aggressive. The crossing at Tangiers was more straightforward but the city was dangerous to foreigners. Students like us had been threatened with throat slitting to cough up inflated gratuities from multi-lingual hustlers who materialised out of nowhere to ‘help’ negotiate hotel fees.

We crossed on rough seas to Tangiers. Filthy, exhausted, underfed and exhilarated, we huddled on the deck of the boat – on the adventure of our lives.

Tangiers was everything we were told it would be to foreigners: confusing, dangerous,and terrifying. I emptied Spanish pesetas out of my purse into demanding hands and pleaded with my travel partners to do the same. We ate mouldy naan bread and pot noodle from our rucksacks that night and the following morning and then got the first bus to Chefchaoen.

Chefchaoen looked and felt like heaven by comparison.

<<. Excerpt from diary 4 April 1999

For fear of the camel man, I’d missed the early rise of the moon.  Early this morning I struggled up the sand dune.  Walking along its steep side instead of the rim which might shift and give beneath me, sending me tumbling down to the bottom.  It was so hard and it seemed certain that I would fall.  A few feet ahead of me, I saw W’s footprints.  If I could just reach those…

Near the top, too tired to catch J and W and my feet so full of sand they scarcely fit my feet, I settled down.>>

The travel dust began to settle from my mind and looking around me, I realised that I was I a country of people who all looked like me. With my afro curly hair bunched under a baseball cap, I was regularly mistaken for a local girl. Well, local-ish. Where was I from? America, I answered. But your parents? They’re Arabs, no? You’re South American?

I was thrilled. This was true travel: to slip incognito into a foreign space on the other side of the world. To blend in – observe from the inside. Only, I lacked language. At this time, I spoke neither French nor Arabic. As a tourist, I consistently occupied public spaces where the women were segregated by absolute colour lines: the brown ones sold goods, did henna art, swept doorways. The coffee drinkers, the orange juice buyers, were foreign- and white. I was both and neither. I alternately blended in and alarmingly conspicuous.

It made sense that my time and place there was to be on the cusp of a tragic love affair: the English language student in Chefchaoen, home from university for Eid. We had met for several cups of coffee to discuss idioms. He ran after the bus when I left. There was the Berber boy in Tondra Gorge who showed me how to wash my clothes in the river. He showed me around the village, showed me how to treat my eyes and nose with water for the hayfever I suffered, and wove me a camel from Palm fronds. He took me home for lunch with his parents. He joked with the village girls that I was his new wife. Married themselves,they joked over their washing whether the sex was any good. We were all so young.

Then there was the truly terrifying night in the Sahara Desert in the dunes of Mezrouga. They called themselves camel men and tried their luck with the Western Girls. I was adviced by a couple of Spanish girls to bed down in my sleeping bag early. I followed the advice with good reason. He came in anyway uninvited. I spoke Spanish, and so did he. I implored that I was religious. I had kept my hair covered. I’m religious I said again. He backed out and I went to bed in the clothes I’d worn on the long journey to that tourist oasis in the desert. I’d ridden by camel and sleeping in a camel’s wool tent, my Western senses, accustomed to heavily perfumed soap sensed nothing as I slipped into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

Midnight on the Austrian Border

German text provided in collaboration with Zaránd Schuller

 

I had been drifting in and out of sleep. I knew we were near the Austrian border as my husband had been excitedly narrating each leg of the journey. We were making the traditional yearly family pilgrimage to Hungary and my husband was overjoyed to at long last bring his new bride across the threshold of the family summer home.
Only, I wasn’t such a new bride. Our toddler son slept in his car seat and my belly stretched, already heavily pregnant with a new baby. I didn’t find the journey easy – at least there are lots of public toilets on the European continent and they’re nearly always clean. We were on a lonely stretch of road, the landscape shapeless against the headlights. Out of nowhere, lights flashed behind us.
Calmly and without comment, my husband brought the car to a halt and rolled down his window as the police approached.

“Guten Abend, alles in Ordnung?”
“Guten Abend , ihre Reisepasse bitte”
“Nicole, the passports please”
“Hier, Zarand Schuller, Nicole Johnson und Peter Schuller, unser Sohn”
I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I instinctively tensed up – my legs pressed firmly together, my face expressionless. I had nothing to be frightened of. My papers were in order, we were on our first family holiday – what could this mean?
My husband, a natural polyglot, seemed to be enjoying speaking German. He was good at the details; filler words and conversational pauses. His easygoing manner was infectious and the border officer let a small chuckle escape.
“Wohin fahren Sie?”
“Oh, wir sind in Urlaub, wir fahren alle nach Ungarn, von England”
“und warum fahren sie nicht auf der Autobahn?”
“Ah, der Autobahn ist langweilig, ich fahre lieber auf Landstrasse, viel besser”
We really were out in the sticks. My compromised bladder needed regular toilet breaks and I didn’t fancy a midnight stroll for a bush on this, long-forsaken German-Austrian border crossing. We needed to get going. I mean, what did they want to know?
“Also gute Reise”
“Wiedersehen!”
The conversation stopped abruptly and the officer stepped away from the car. My husband rolled up the window and said nothing. We sat in silence as the officer got back into his car and we heard the low hum of the engine as it slowly drove away.
‘What was that about?’
‘He wanted to know what we were doing out here in the middle of the night.’
‘I thought there weren’t any border check points in Schengen.’
‘Every country has the right to reinstate their borders should they feel the need arise.’ He said it matter-of-factly, without passion or criticism. Like he always does.

Becky’s In Trouble At The Border

So, there I was in the Secondary Questioning area of the U.K. Border (again). It was getting a bit boring now and I sat in the hard plastic chair, trying to keep my expression neutral and my body relaxed.

My exercises in emotional detachment were interrupted by the sound of crying – no, weeping and yes, praying. There, just 4 feet away from me sat Becky on a mountain of luggage. I remember her blonde hair, tucked up in a messy bun, her face swollen, contorted, and cherry red from sheer panic. Becky didn’t stand a chance and I knew it. Still, I knew the comfort of a familiar accent and I decided to give her the company of one girl in trouble to another.

She stopped hollering at God and told me the story. It was love alright. They couldn’t have been older than their early 20’s. Cross-border romance and they’d spent all their money on plane tickets; the spare change had all gone now and she’d decided she’d give it all up for love. She’d given up her apartment, temporarily sheltered her dog and cat until -ugh. I wasn’t going to tell her that she had no hope in Hell of emigrating her pets. I mean, what did I know? Maybe her boyfriend might win the lottery and be able to pay for the papers and the quarantine, oh, never mind.

The point was, she was sat on top of an enormous pile of luggage. Upon her detention she was asked, was she moving here to the UK? Um, yes? Um, no? I mean, who the hell makes lifetime plans to declare at the border of a country when you’re like, 20? It was fairly obvious from the ramshackle assortment of luggage that she’d packed her bags for love and planned to figure it all out later – eventually.

But now they had her passport. They were talking removal (better than deportation, honey). She’d be put straight back on a plane back to Iowa – or Delaware, then she’d pick up all that baggage off the baggage carousel and figure out where she was going to go next after spending that refunded apartment deposit on a one-way ticket to London.

That’s why she was shaking. No, she wasn’t being sent back to a war zone but the reality of being left jilted, unemployed, homeless, and penniless at the moment she’d given it all up for love was the stuff of First World nightmares.

Just then a UK Border agent came out with my passport – a blue one, like Becky’s.

‘You’re free to go,’ he said.

I stood up and looked back at her.

‘Good luck.’
‘Bye,’ she sniffed.

**If we’d had social media back then, I would have totally friended her on Facebook and shared her ‘GoFundMe’ page to get her apartment back. I wouldn’t have contributed of course because there still isn’t a border crossing insurance policy I can buy. It’s a bloody expensive racket, I can tell you.

Running Into Johnsons

I never remember their first names -does it matter? I meet them and they’re Johnsons like me. They’re musicians, and they’re brown and each of them had crossed back accross the Atlantic Ocean, as paying passengers on planes, from whence our common ancestors travelled as captives.

I met this man in the South of England, _________ Johnson. He was playing the piano and singing in a pub hotel where my family was having lunch. His strong, rich voice rang out with a familiar resonance. A resonance which reminded me of the passage of offering plates and waving fans bearing pictures of brown-skinned families knelt in prayer.

My brain instantly filtered out the strong British accent with which he greeted me and, anticipating that I had, on another rare occasion met another Afro American immigrant, I blurted, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ I immediately felt sheepish when I noticed his back stiffen and the short intake of breath. Well, actually he was from another town just down the motorway. I wish I could remember but the blood rushed in my ears with my mistake, his British accent now very obvious.

‘Nicole, eh?’ he said when I introduced myself. ‘That’s my daughter’s name.’ He went on to explain that he had a sister in American somewhere. His family had emigrated from the Carribbean when he was a child and the siblings were parted: he to the UK, she to Canada. Yes, he’d heard she was in America now.

‘We could be related!’ He said.

Very nearly impossible, I thought ruefully. The Johnson branch of my family had been in California for at least 4 generations. To my knowledge, I have no relations connected to the Carribbean.

Some years earlier, I’d run into another Johnson. This one was from America like me and he’d settled in Paris, where I was studying at the time. I used to go to his Sunday afternoon covers session in a little bar in Saint-Michel. He used to call me ‘little sister’ and together, we shared the inside joke that there were songs in his set that were covers of Black American television theme tunes. No one would ever know.

We weren’t relations either.

Going Home (Songbird)

He’d brought me to the airport. He’d done that. His mother had phoned the night before – spoke to him, not me. She was worried that I’d gone back – to him and not back to my country. No, no, I’d be at the airport in the morning.

I’d packed – not too much. Okay? I’ll be back. Just need some time. I’d already moved out for a bit, to work. Wasn’t supposed to work that many hours, being a foreign student – oh well, it was temporary, temp. I was just a temp. I bought a plane ticket.

Two bags should do it. My high school graduation luggage. A gift from my grandmother. Unloaded, he walked me in. Which airline? Which terminal? Which desk? I’d gotten the day wrong – it was yesterday. I smiled weakly, he wouldn’t be angry now – see? I wasn’t leaving now.

“Not to worry, we can put you on another flight. Just go to gate —.”

I walked through to departures. I don’t remember if I said good-bye. It was like a dream. Slow motion and silent. I saw no faces. Heard nothing on the plane for 11 hours.

I arrived in Los Angeles to no one waiting.

#Feetslowmedown

¡Ayuda!

It was in the middle of the night in a deserted part of the outskirts of Tarifa. I’d matched my rotten luck with a Cornish student I’d met, panhandling for spare change outside the ferry port in Gibraltar. Exhausted, filthy, and low on cash, we’d shared a packet of biscuits and tried for 13 hours to hitch a lift North. We’d only managed to get as far as Tarifa, which by my reckoning was 28 miles back in the wrong direction.

When night began to fall, we were nowhere and stranded quite finally, at least until the morning brought a bit more traffic.  We found an abandoned petrol station to shelter behind for the night. Although it was April, the temperature dipped to 13 degrees C and it was very uncomfortable despite passing the whole day outside in the sun.  Richard Quick generously offered me a length of his aluminium blanket but I declined it and went for a wander.  There was no way I was going to get to sleep.

I walked around town, searching for signs of life.  I’m not sure exactly what I was looking for.  Conversation? A cup of coffee? Any kind of break from the cold and agonising fatigue that begged me to sit down and rest.  I found a doorway to shelter from the chilly wind that started to blow in from the sea. The doorway offered little shelter and no respite.  I crouched down and pulled my arms around me as the wind continued to blow through my jacket. What was that? A distant voice, a man’s voice carried on the air. It was screaming.

‘¡Ayuda!’

Help.

I held still.  I didn’t know what help the voice needed  but if it found me, I might also need help from whatever had started that screaming.

‘¡Ayuda!’

There it was again. I thought about Richard Quick, curled up in his aluminium blanket, inexplicably asleep behind a petrol pump.

‘¡Ayuda!’

I was a university student, an American ‘study abroad’ student.  It was Easter holidays and all of my wealthier American counterparts were ‘interrailing’ on pre purchased Interrail passes where with great delight, they had all set off on European backpacking adventures before the start of the summer term.  I’d just about managed to buy the rucksack and learned the one word that would set the open sky as my shelter for the duration of the term holiday: l’autostop. As in, hitchike.

Getting as far as North Africa was more or less straightforward (mostly) but coming back was proving nigh on impossible as I was, at this moment, likely to be stabbed and left for unidentified remains in a border town in Europe. No, I was being silly. Of course I had identification.

‘¡Ayuda!’

I couldn’t tell if the voice was moving because the blowing of the wind and the echo of the empty streets distorted the sound.  I thought, ‘Well I’m either going to be murdered or I’m not!’ and jogged nervously back to the petrol station.

I found Richard Quick still sound asleep despite the elements and certain calamity around us. There was no help or protection to be hoped from this stranger I’d met hours before but it calmed me somewhat to think that whatever doom or salvation the immediate future would bring, at least I wouldn’t face it alone.

Run For The Border

The morning started before daybreak. My mobile phone alarm woke me and for a few minutes longer, I lay still in the king size hotel room bed. I showered as quickly as I could bear it; standing beneath the wide rainfall shower head from which the water of precisely perfect temperature fell neither too harshly nor too softly. I wrapped a plush white towel around me and wandered back into the bedroom to switch on the media player of my Sony Walkman phone. The sounds of Nouvelle Vague gently filled the room as I dressed and brushed my wet hair back into a low ponytail.

There was a knock at the door. It was room service with the breakfast I’d ordered the night before. I wasn’t really hungry but it was going to be a long day and it was likely to be the most substantial thing I would eat. I thanked the porter, ‘Shookran,’ I took my tray and newspaper and set them on a stand at the foot of the bed. The spell cast by Nouvelle Vague was broken by the pale glow of approaching daylight just visible now from behind the window blind. I opened it now and took in the shadows of the buildings – a Dubai skyline.

I switched on the television news and sat down to eat my Eggs Florentine. I’d had it the morning before in the restaurant and it was delicious.

The band members were to rendezvous in the hotel lobby. Still groggy and muddled from the gig and after party that night, there was a confused row. The accounts hadn’t been settled, the event organiser would answer neither the door nor the phone, the taxis were waiting, and we were due to be on stage in Portugal that night.

‘Everyone just hand in your credit cards and we’ll sort it out later.’

I didn’t move.

Voices were raised now, the stress was building and the sun of another 40 degrees Celsius day was beginning to fill the lobby. They weren’t going to let us leave. We had to leave.

At last, he was located. Our host, breathless and annoyed, in his dressing gown, purse in hand. As the card reader cleared the expenses of rooms, food and drink, our bags were magicked into the waiting taxi van.

We made it in good time to the airport after all – our flight was delayed. There was nothing to be done but wait. Some phone calls were made. Yes, our connecting flight to Munich was delayed. Any other way to get us to Portugal in time? Maybe. Tight squeeze. We had to go through passport control, we were flying in from outside of Europe of course. No flights? One? We might not make the show. Best hope we made our connecting flight. There was nothing else for it.

As our plane began the descent into Munich airport, the reality of the time was felt by all of us. Are you ready to run?

Oh my god. I don’t run.

We fought like an angry mob to get off that plane: a motley crew of musicians with unevenly developed social skills and moderate physical fitness.

We can make it! Run! Run!

I swear we looked like Scooby Doo and the gang, bags flapping, arms flailing through the arrivals hall to border control. Not a one of us spoke German and someone howled, ‘We have to make our connecting flight!’ A calm member of airport staff gently informed us in perfect English that we would be dealt with if we just joined the back of the –

‘NOOOO!’

The keyboardist and the other backing singer took no notice of the polite German and elbowed past the waiting passengers. This band has to get on a flight to Portugal right now they informed the mildly alarmed border guard. With no other visible expression of excitement, he beckoned for the passports of the company. In chorus, a stack of burgundy UK travel documents were piled under the plexiglass and quickly handed back as their owners set off running again.

I performed the same staccato movements with my own blue passport, poised to run as it was quickly handed back.

‘Excuse me,’ a voice said from behind me, ‘Please join the queue.’
‘But I’m with THEM!’ I panted.
‘Where is it you’re traveling to?’ the guard enquired mildly.
‘Portugal! I have to go now!’ I screeched as I helplessly watched the rest of my band gaining distance toward our boarding flight.
‘Where have you traveled from today?’
‘Dubai!’ I pleaded. I reached into my satchel and thrust my computer printed boarding pass under the plexiglass. ‘I’m going to Portugal! My voice was shrill. The guard sighed heavily, reached for his stamp, marked my point of entry into one of the empty pages of my passport, and blithely passed it back under the plexiglass.

Oh my god. I don’t run. I willed my legs to carry myself over the lost time and distance to my departure gate. I simply couldn’t go fast enough and my lungs burned. I wanted to stop, to catch my breath, to tell everyone I was too slow, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t get there. I would have cried if there was a molecule of space in my chest that wasn’t on fire. With each step my legs felt heavier, held back by an unseen force of iron that held my feet ruthlessly too close to the floor.

When at last I reached the departure gate, I found the keyboardist at the gangway, rooted to the spot. He’d been the first to arrive, as boarding was closing and stubbornly refused to get on the plan. He’d held up the flight for us.

I collapsed into my seat and waited for the painful breathing to subside. In just a couple of hours, we’d arrive in Cascais in time for soundcheck.

America to Africa

The year was 1998 and I’d gone to Zimbabwe on a mission trip. There’s a lot to say about what I did there and how I felt about it but that’s a story for another time. Getting to and from America to Africa is its own story.

The first leg of our journey was the big one: a 23 hour non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Johannesburg. It sounds long but we shared the flight with pop R&B group Dru Hill. I had great fun chatting to the support musicians who worried the flight crew with their slightly anti-social behaviour of consuming much of (if not all) of the alcohol on board the flight. You see, they had been invited to play for the birthday celebration of Nelson Mandela.

Yeah, that’s right. At the age of 21 I was onboard a flight, transporting an African American pop group to the birthday celebration of the previously incarcerated, now laudable leader of South Africa, 7 years after the abolition of Apartheid legislation.

Apartheid had finished, or so they said. We had a layover of a day and a half in South Africa before the onward journey to Zimbabwe. Having virtually no education or understanding about geopolitics and how differently people could be treated because of the accident of where they happened to have been born I was vaguely cognisant of the significance of the pale green visa sticker that was put into my dark blue American passport. It was also baffling who two teenage girls, members of our travel party were detained and prevented from leaving the airport. They looked as American as us, spoke like we spoke, dressed fashionably and attended our church. But their passports were issued from Cental America. That is to say, they were the wrong sort of Americans.

We took an airport shuttle to our hotel. I watched out of the window at the population of dark skinned workers, making their way home from Johannesburg on foot over unpaved roads.

The following day was pleasantly passed at a local shopping mall. It was clean, pleasant smelling and comfortable. Its constant upkeep was the task of an army of silent women with buckets, rags and wiper blades on broom handles.

We made our way back to their airport that evening for the final leg of our journey to Zimbabwe and departed South Africa in the pouring rain (it was late Winter). A transport brought us from the terminal to the airplane. We were of course by then reunited with our detained girls who’d passed their time confined to the airport hotel. I’d learned of a strike of disgruntled airport workers. I saw them, I watched them from my seat in the shuttle. They were Zulu, protesting on the tarmac in the rain

We finished our time in Zimbabwe (for what it was) and back into South Africa began the long voyage home to California. It’s a long voyage and this time, ours was a thirsty plane. We stopped in a pace to refuel: the Cape Verde Islands. I’d never heard of them prior to landing there and would have been completely ignorant of the latitude but for the helpful graphic on my seat’s LED screen,

We were hurried off the plane. We couldn’t understand the rush or hush imposed upon us as we were urged to walk quickly across the tarmac to the terminal. As we hurried, my friend said urgently, ‘Wait! I know this language!’ She stopped to speak to an official of some description and we were barked at to move along – quickly! But you see, this language WAS very similar to the one spoken in Central America: we were hearing Portuguese.