This is kind of a love story. Keep that in mind.
This is a story about a woman and a city.
That woman is me. That city is London.
I’m not from London.
I’m from Omaha. Nebraska. It’s in the middle of the United States. No, not near Alaska – although they sound similar. Just right there in the middle. No, no mountains. Yes, we have electricity and running water. Um, Warren Buffett is from here? Oh, about half a million people.
I was brought up on The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by the accents and the culture. It doesn’t make me unique, I understand. Nevertheless, that fascination, love, and appreciation only grew over time.
Even after years of FRIENDS and Sex and the City and dying to move to New York City. I never thought I’d actually leave Omaha. I love Omaha. My friends always complained about how boring it was and how they couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here. I always just sat back and kept my mouth shut. I fell in love with London. You can’t help who you fall in love with. Or in this case, where. I’m just so convinced that this is where everything is going to happen for me.
Mom has been in Mary Kay all my life. Every year, we would take a family vacation to whichever city held Mary Kay’s seminar. I had family in Texas and Pennsylvania, so those were also frequent trips. Traveling was just something we did every year.
My grandparents always traveled. They also were investors and had the foresight to set aside money for my brother and me. Our schooling was paid for before we were old enough for pre-school. This also meant that we had the money for things like youth group trips or exchange programs.
The summer after my senior year of high school, I got to go to Braunschweig, Germany for three weeks with my class. I enjoyed it a lot, but not as much as I should have – it was the farthest I’d ever been from home, and for the longest amount of time. Looking back, I hate how homesick I was. I knew some day I would just have to go back and do it the right way: without supervision.
When my grandma died in March of 2012, she left us some money. That summer, in the middle of a workday, I decided I was going to go to London. It was July and as much as I wanted to go sooner rather than later, I decided that going over Christmas would be the most exciting.
I’d go alone, I told my dad over the phone. He happened to be riding in the car with my brother who said, “why can’t I go?” I said, alright, well, decide quickly so I can book airfare. Being the frustratingly indecisive person he is, he groaned, “this isn’t something I can decide in five minutes!”
Why the hell not? It’ll be over your Christmas break. “Why do we have to go over Christmas?” We’re adults, our parents are recently divorced – we don’t really have a Christmas anymore, do we?
Yeah, that was one of the reasons I wanted to go over Christmas. My parents got divorced around October of 2011. To ease us through, we had Thanksgiving together – the four of us. It wasn’t Thanksgiving. The weather was too warm; we were at dad’s new house. I hated it.
Nothing felt right.
So, no, I didn’t care that we would “miss” Christmas. In fact, I knew it would feel more like Christmas in London, even on my own. The lights, the city, the snow (hopefully) – it would be perfect.
Conor decided that he would go with me, so I booked the tickets and our hotel in Paddington. Then the realization hit me that it was July and I’d just booked a trip for December. Fuck me, that’s far off.
The September 5th entry in my journal, goes as follows: “Speaking of knowing what I want now, or at least finally recognizing the pattern, what if I love London so much that I don’t want to leave? What if I want to move there? I mean, I could work for the BBC; I’ll have a masters in media psychology. I’m serious. What if I want to move to London.
What if I get there and I feel more at home than I do here?
I saw a graphic online earlier that said, ‘I may not have been born here, but I belong here.’
What if I belong there?
What if I belong there?”
My all-things-British obsession led me to BBC’s Sherlock and consequently, most things Benedict Cumberbatch. I love finding that one incredibly inspiring actor who leads you to so many new things. Cue: Me calling Dish Network and upgrading my channels to include BBC America.
Cue also: Me ordering a new MINI. I’d wanted a MINI Cooper since I was in 7th grade. My boyfriend got me a tiny yellow Matchbox MINI for my confirmation. Now I wanted this one: it was the Baker Street Edition.
The color is “Rooftop Gray” and so named for the posh street in northwest London. Home of Sherlock Holmes. It came straight from Oxford. A smart-ass, just like its owner.
The journal entry the day after I returned from my Christmas trip to London reads: “Oh my God. It was the best trip I’ve ever taken, the most fun I’ve ever had, the most at-home I’ve ever felt. I didn’t want to leave. I honestly could have stayed. Ship my stuff over. I’m good. Walking through that city was like walking through Ponca Hills – it was natural; home. I loved everything about it.”
I remember getting into the Black Cab at Heathrow and gluing my eyes to the window. There was so much to see. Even in bad traffic and an hour ride to the hotel, I was never bored. Our cabbie was hilarious and had a fantastic, Michael Caine-esque accent. He gave us quite a few tips, for example, about the fare tariff levels, and to protect our wallets.
We stayed in Paddington. We had a list of things we wanted to see, and since we were only there a week, we needed to make the most of it. We had a day shorter, even, because our flight out got delayed and we had to stay a day in Minneapolis until the next flight. So we were ready to run.
I’ll always remember the moment we saw Big Ben. We took the Central line to Westminster station. We climbed the stairs to the street. When our eyes became level with the sidewalk, I recognized familiar architecture. As we floated out from under the awning, I lost my breath. That… is Big Ben. THAT is Big Ben. That is BIG. BEN. That iconic clock tower we’ve seen our entire lives in photos and on TV; it’s right there. Right there in front of us.
We had tickets to ride The London Eye. We ate fish and chips at this pub called The County Hall Arms. I had a pint of Cumberland – naturally.
From there, we walked along the south bank of the Thames. Being the Christmas season, there was a little Christmas village/market set up in Southwark. Christmas music was playing over the loudspeakers as we weaved through the people.
Upon turning a corner, I gasped and grabbed Conor’s arm. We had stumbled upon the graffitied skate park from Sherlock. I couldn’t believe it. That’s the magic of London, for ya, I thought.
We walked past the National Theatre, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge (ahem, from Harry Potter), the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We went into the extremely beautiful Southwark Cathedral where this lovely old woman taught us all about the history of the church.
We made our way toward Tower Bridge. Crossing it was pretty unreal. It is another one of those images that you grow up seeing in movies or in books, and here we were – walking across it.
That was Sunday, our first full day there.
Monday was Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, we were going to Watford. What’s in Watford? Oh, just the Warner Brother’s Studios Harry Potter tour. “Um, holy fucking shit,” I wrote in my journal. I admit wholeheartedly that I cried nerd tears. Conor geeked out, too; though he would likely say he played it cool.
My face hurt from all of the grinning: We saw Harry’s bedroom under the stairs, the Great Hall (I mean, we walked on the actual floor of the Great Hall; we were in the actual room, for God’s sake), the boys’ dorm, the front gate, the invisibility cloak among a ton of other costumes, Dumbledore’s office, the Weasley kitchen, one of the vanishing cabinets, the Knight Bus, Number Four Privet Drive, the Ford Anglia, Diagon Alley…
We had Butterbeer, rode brooms – flew brooms? – and my favorite part: at the end of the tour, you walk into this large room where there is an equally large scale model of Hogwarts and the entire grounds. It was absolutely marvelous. It is so beautiful and detailed; and it made me teary-eyed.
That evening, we took the tube to Baker Street and walked to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, 221B. It was closed.
Chrimbo morning, we knew most everything would be closed for business, so we decided to walk around. We got Starbucks on Praed Street, then took off toward Hyde Park. We walked Marylebone until we ran into the Landmark London Hotel. We stepped into the lobby and were met with perhaps the best, most gorgeous Christmas tree I’d ever seen. Santa was there, also.
After some loitering, we took Euston Road to Regent’s Park. At this point it was a bit rainy, but the park was still beautiful. We each tossed a pound into a fountain.
It started to get dark around 4pm, so we started walking back to Baker Street. Since it was fairly early and we were relatively close to Abbey Road, we headed north.
We got so close and got absolutely drenched. Pissed off and pissed on by this English rain, we trudged, instead, toward our hotel. We were finally able to hail a cab about five minutes from it.
The hotel was having Chrimbo din din, so we changed for that. When we got downstairs, the maître d told us that they were totally booked. Visibly bummed, we went to the front desk to ask about local restaurants having some kind of Christmas roast dinner. As the desk clerk was checking on the computer, the maître d came over and said, “give us fifteen minutes and you’ll have a table.”
Our table was set with these things called “Christmas poppers.” We ordered a bottle of wine and the maître d took our picture while we pulled apart these poppers – after instructions were given. Inside were a little treat and a paper Christmas crown.
The food was amazing: roast beef, peas, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and gravy, meat pies, little smokes wrapped in bacon, etc. For dessert, they had these mini cheesecakes. Or I guess it’s called “pudding.”
When I went up to eat, the maître d said, “typically, you start with the salad…” I said, nah, I’m just jumping right in. To which he replies, “Oh! Jump away!”
After dinner, we left a tip that was as much as the meal (come on, it’s Christmas and we’re on vacation), then went to the hotel bar. The bartender looked like Nicholas Hoult and his name was Henry. He was hilarious and made us all sorts of different drinks. The best one was a Bombay Bramble.
An Italian guy sat next to us and kept buying us shots of Captain. I took them all like a motherfucking champ, by the way. Each one was in celebration of “Italiano! Americano! Capitano!”
Thoroughly hammered, we left an equally large tip and went back up to the room to Skype mom and dad. In my memory, mom and dad were together – as in, Skyping us from the same place. Apparently, this was not the case.
What I do remember is mom telling me that I didn’t look well, at which point I went to the toilet and threw up my entire evening. Later, dad told me that he had given me shit for throwing up, to which I replied, “fuck you, dad!” Still haven’t lived that one down.
On Boxing Day, I surprisingly didn’t feel the best. I was very slow-going, but that was okay, for so was the rest of London.
The tube was on strike, or something, so we took taxis everywhere on the third tariff. We walked around. We did the Hop On Hop Off bus tour a bit: rode through Trafalgar Square, passed the Duke of Wellington’s residence, saw no flag on the Marble Arch, went down Fleet Street for a quick shave, came close to Belgravia, and then hopped off for St Paul’s Cathedral.
Talk about awe-inspiring. Inside, we climbed to the Whisper Room where people claim to hear whispers. Spoiler alert – you do hear whispers.
After a bit more touring, we popped over to Madame Tussaud’s, or as the tube announcement says, “Madame Two-swords”). There, we met Justin Timberlake, Patrick Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Morgan Freeman, Kate Winslet, Dame Helen Mirren, Colin Firth, Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr (as Sherlock Holmes), Bruce Willis, Daniel Craig (hadn’t seen him since Vegas), Alfred Hithcock, The Beatles, and a few other notables. Everyone was pretty quiet; to be honest, I think they were just overwhelmed by all of the attention.
From there, we took off toward Abbey Road: Attempt Number Two. On the way, we found Number Seven Cavendish Avenue, which is where Paul McCartney lived at one time. Finally, we got to Abbey Road Studios. From the outside, it looks too small to have had some of the best music in history made. We each walked the zebra crossing.
The first thing we did on the 27th was hail a cab to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. I’m not sure what’s cooler than walking up to a London Black Cab and saying to the driver, “221 Baker Street, please.” I’ve got a case to solve, step on it.
After Holmesing it up in the museum, we headed to Buckingham Palace for Changing of the Guard (which is misleading, as I thought it would be one guard, not the guard, as in the entire guard staff). The Palace Guard band played “Hey Jude.”
Afterward, we were led around the Tower of London by a Yeoman named Slim: “If you enjoyed the tour, my name is Slim; if not, my name is Andy.” We made sure there were enough crows around to keep the city from falling, and then we took off toward the Museum of Natural History. Then to the British Museum.
This is where Conor made his fatal mistake. The British Museum closed only an hour after we arrived, so my brother tells me: “If you know of any other places we can see tonight, we should just walk to them.”
I rubbed my hands evilly and checked my map for North Gower Street. There, we visited where they film the exterior of 221B Baker Street in Sherlock. I had only recently begrudgingly decided to give Sherlock a go after seeing it pop up constantly on Netflix. Here I am, three months later, standing on Sherlock’s television doorstep. I straightened the knocker and we walked on.
Next on my list was St Bart’s Hospital. On the way was King’s Cross Station. I was pretty certain we had missed the train to Hogwarts, but it wouldn’t hurt to check out Platform 9¾. Unfortunately, being Muggles, we couldn’t get past the bricks.
Winding through the streets, we turned a corner and there it was: We found St Bart’s. We found the actual St Bart’s. Conor watched, confused, as I stood where Sherlock fell, and then shrugged his shoulders when I stood where John stood, shouting, “he really wouldn’t have seen anything!” It was all very weird. For both of us, I’m certain.
The next day, we left.
By the end of the week, I knew for a fact that London is where I belong. This is where I will live. This is the next place I will call home.
I walked into my apartment and felt out of place. It felt weird being back. It felt like I was somewhere else. Upon returning home, I was London-sick.
That feeling lasted for about two weeks. It lessened over time, but the drive to return didn’t.
It was the only thing on my mind. I had to get back there. I had to spend more than a week there. I had to know if I could do it. I had to know if I was strong enough.
I fell into a routine of work, home, sleep, repeat. I felt so directionless. It’s like Moriarty says in Sherlock: “’Stayin’ Alive! It’s so boring, isn’t it? You’re just …. staying…” It was the same thing every day. I loved my job, but I was ready to get to London.
I felt like my life was on hold until I could get over there. I knew it shouldn’t. I just knew that everything I would be doing until I go would be in preparation for my trip, whenever that may be.
I practically lived on the United Kingdom Border Agency website – scouring the pages for options. I figured I would go for six months. That, I thought, would be a true testament to my independence.
I’m an introvert to the core and have never minded being alone. In fact, I normally prefer it. I hate to admit how many hours and days I could, and have, spent on my couch, watching entire series on Netflix. Or how I have always finished novels the same day I started them. I know my friends likely don’t understand me when I say I’m too exhausted to go out. I probably have just spent the previous night or few days with people nonstop. It’s as though I truly exert myself. Going to London on my own for months, or years, sounds heavenly.
At some point, I had gotten on a roller coaster.
There are times when things just feel right. It’s the signs you actually noticed. The potential outcome that seems so perfect that it makes you nervous. The sequence of events that might have occurred differently yesterday.
I had left a note on my boss’s desk saying I needed to talk to him. I was psyching myself up to ask him about a leave of absence for London. I knew he would be supportive, but for some reason, I felt sick to my stomach.
Turns out I was just sick, so I went home shortly after I left him the note.
The next day, I got an email from him about a deal he was handing to me: someone from our global relocation business was buying a house and I was assigned to do the closing. After a few emails back and forth, I asked if he had gotten my note. He said he would come talk to me.
I wasn’t sure how to approach the situation, if I should just come right out and ask without any pretense (I’m the queen of pretense). I ended up throwing the question at the end of a stream of whys and hows. I could tell I caught him off guard, but he said he would look into it for me and get back to me.
I then said, it’s funny that I should get this deal from someone in our relo department and here I am asking about going to London. To which he replied, “you know, I think we have an office in London.”
I doubt very much that I hid my astonishment/excitement. I understood that the news I might receive would be that we had an office in London at one time and now it’s gone, but I was determined to be positive.
I had to smirk at the fact that if I had not gone home sick the day before and had been able to talk to my boss about the visa, that would have been the end of the conversation. But because he had told me about that deal the next day, I was able to make that connection.
Everything happens for a reason, and God is one mysterious planner.
Then I was reminded why they tell you to expect the unexpected. But I’ve never understood that advice. If you expect the unexpected, you’re causing the unexpected to become expected… so either you “expect the expected” or it just cancels out entirely. So, “expect nothing” makes more sense. /rant
What I mean is, soon my boss got back to me about the leave of absence. I was then faced with a scenario that I had not anticipated. I blame naïveté.
If I were to leave for an extended period of time, such as six months, I would have to resign from my position as they would not be able to hold it for me. When I came back, I would be able to reapply.
Again, for whatever reason, this option had never crossed my mind. I kept thinking, “leave of absence,” not “quit and have to figure it out when I return.” It was a bit discouraging, but it was not about to stop me from going.
Also, as it happens, we used to have a London office, but have it no longer. I figured.
It hit me that this seems to be timed so stupidly. I hadn’t been at my job a year yet, but in the time I’d been there, I had become the main person for specific departments and files, I had built great relationships, etc. Thinking about those things made me feel guilty about going.
Then I would remember: I’d be following my dreams, making my dreams a reality. I have the supreme fortune to be able to make this decision and I felt so strongly about doing it. I knew if I didn’t go, I would be a bit of a shell. It would be that missed opportunity I would feel forever.
I had never wanted anything so badly.
With some time on my hands, I had decided that instead of staying in a hotel for such a long time, I would do an extended-stay flat. Why the hell didn’t I think about doing that sooner – renting a flat from an actual Londoner? I had always loved that about the movie The Holiday with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet. That little English cottage was adorable.
I wouldn’t live in an English cottage in the countryside; however, I would definitely live in a flat in the city.
I planned to have my visa application turned in by the end of February. I figured with my documentation, there shouldn’t be any reason for me not to be approved. I was on pins and needles, regardless; I was just completely impatient. I wanted to book my plane tickets and rent a flat.
I would have started packing then if I could have.
Application finally submitted, I had to head to the Department of Homeland Security to submit some documents and do biometrics. I was totally nervous. The week had been horrible and I just knew something would go wrong.
My anxiety wasn’t all for naught. I got to the place early and checked in. After about an hour of waiting, and then some more waiting, the man came out of the office and called the only other person in there. Being Canadian (we had spoken a bit), she suggested that I go before her because my appointment was before hers. The man had already pulled up her information, so he took her anyway.
Shortly thereafter, he came out and asked me if I was sure I had an appointment. My heart sank.
Why yes, I had signed up before I showed up; why else would I be there?
After some driving back and forth across the street to print this damn piece of paper, I got my fingerprints taken and another woman signed off on my passport. I was told to mail everything to the address on the sheet.
I filled out all of the paperwork and gathered the documentation necessary for the process. I shipped it off in a FedEx envelope to New York – the US Embassy. The website said it would take a few weeks. This was March 1st, so by the beginning of April, I should know something; by spring, I should know how I’ll spend my summer.
Since I had spent Christmas in London, I thought it would be great to spend summer, the beginning of autumn, and my birthday in the wonderful city. Then, at least, I would have a taste for the seasons.
In the mean time, I started looking for extended-stay flats, as I wasn’t keen on spending six months in a hotel, and I would end up spending just as much money in the end. Plus, I truly wanted to feel like a local, not just a visitor. Walking out onto the busy London streets after locking my own front door would be perfect. I could already picture everything in my head.
I got something back from the UKBA a bit too quickly. I panicked at first. Oh my God, have they denied me right off the bat? What will I do? As it happens, quite embarrassingly, I had failed to send my passport because I wasn’t aware that I needed to do so. I thought that was the point of filling out all of the information online and then further doing the biometrics at the local Department of Homeland Security – they ‘verified’ my passport there and gave me a sheet to include with my application. I had repressed that stressful day’s memory until now. Let’s just say, I thought something like the Department of Homeland Security would be a bit more organized.
So, I frustratingly resent all of the documents, this time including my passport, and sent up a prayer that the next thing I see from the embassy is a congratulatory letter. Or at least a ‘hey, you’re good to go.’
To bide my time, I watched seasons two through seventeen of Top Gear UK. Talk about Brit-bingeing, Jesus Christ. I was so pissed off that I’d finished so quickly. (I can even hear the boys snickering at that one). But, really: fast cars, adorable men, and English accents – what’s not to like? I felt especially akin to Richard Hammond – he’s a sarcastic little shit, like I am, but mostly it was the way that he gets emotionally attached to cars and talks about them like they’re people. I’ve always been like that.
Among the Top Gear, I watched a shitty movie where the main character has a phobia of connecting flights. Not being left behind, but getting lost, having to rush, the uncertainty, etc. Later, a guy she’s seeing asks her about it and she says that she’s afraid of being in between things. “I just hate being in between things,” she says. It’s so goddamn accurate. I hate it. I felt like I was waiting for the next thing, the next event, the next adventure.
I was in an airport waiting for my connecting flight and the layover is atrociously long, agonizingly mundane, horribly redundant. I was waiting for my connecting flight and it’s taking forever for the stewards to call boarding. I had double- and triple-checked my boarding pass to make sure I had my seat memorized, but it didn’t matter because I still had so much time that I would be checking it again when I queue up.
I loved my job, the people I worked with, my apartment, my alone time, my ability to be a lazy ass, time spent with friends and family, all of it. But…
I was still stuck in the airport. Life has brought me here, and I had to wait for it to take me there.
It was a bit maddening. I’m not a very patient person. (Understatement).
Time can be so short and yet so long – such a short amount of time, there was, between then and when I would hopefully leave, and yet it felt like an eternity.
I thought I should look at my time as an opportunity to focus on …something… and work on my patience.
But that’s the thing: I don’t use my time wisely. I fill my time with everything else I want to do and wait until the last minute to get to work.
And I didn’t want to be in between things.
And so I waited for my cuppa and my acceptance letter to the UK.
Unfortunately, I got neither.
The letter I received explained that I was being denied a visitor visa to the UK and that they would ship everything back to me with a “detailed notice explaining why [my] application was refused.”
I thought I had it in the bag.
I thought, positively, maybe it’s because an American can travel in the UK for up to six months without a visa… Yeah, maybe that’s why they rejected me – because my visa would be redundant.
I prayed that was the case. My sails had lost what little wind they had.
I was going to go, regardless. I couldn’t not go. It was imperative that I did this.
My classmates had emailed me about doing some sort of barbeque in Boston before graduation. I didn’t even know when graduation was – we were supposed to finish the program in August, but physically walk with everyone another time. It looked like commencement was June 2nd. We were invited to walk and would receive a sort of dummy diploma, I figured, until we actually finish. I had always planned on going to graduation (sentiment), but getting a false sense of completion was going to be annoying.
I had planned on jumping the pond on May 27th, but I was then faced with a better plan.
June 1st, I would fly to Boston with mom, dad, and Conor – we would enjoy some sights, enjoy the barbeque, go to graduation in the morning, enjoy some more sights and then have a nice dinner together to celebrate. The next morning, June 3rd, I would hop on a plane to London and my family could fly back to Omaha.
At least I had a purposeful date in mind and I could start making arrangements. That is, if the “detailed notice” didn’t tell me to stay my Yankee ass home.
Now that I had some wine back in my sails, I ran aground.
I got the “detailed notice” from the UKBA regarding The Decision.
The key points included:
– I am single with no children.
– I had only been at my job for 10 months with no expressed plans to return to it.
– I had only been in my apartment for about the same amount of time.
– It is not clear from my application “what family [I] have in the US or what [my] domestic circumstances are.”
– They are “not satisfied that [I] have sufficient ties to the US which would prompt [my] timely departure from the UK” nor are they satisfied “that [my] reasons for going to the UK are those of a short term visitor” which they previously state are “tourism and travel.”
In conclusion, I had not provided “compelling reasons to return to the US within six months.”
I’m sorry, what? In other words, the fact that I am a natural-born citizen, have lived in the same town for twenty five years, I lived in the same house for twenty two years, have worked since I was sixteen years old, have both of my parents and my brother here in town, my grandma an hour away, my aunt, uncle, and cousins an hour away, another aunt, cousins, and now, second cousins just a couple states away, my beloved MINI Cooper, my money, my apartment, my job, my friends, my livelihood… Nearly one hundred percent of my life and its history is here, not only in the United States, but in the same fucking Midwestern town. These aren’t enough? This isn’t a sufficient enough tie to the US? They were afraid I would never return if they gave me a visa and allowed me past their border.
Okay. No, they’re right. I’ve got nothing to even tempt me to want to come back.
It sounds like they would allow me to go if I were married with kids, a house, a yard, and a picket fence – because then it would totally make sense to up and abandon my responsibilities for no more than six months. Got it. I’d work on that.
Bit of a setback, so say the least. Actually, it was more like a blow to the chest. This nation that I’ve fallen insanely in love with, one I’ve dreamt of visiting for so many years, one, whose cultures, music, film, television, language, accents, and overall Britishness has invaded my life, is now telling me that I won’t be able to spend much time there. I was heartbroken. Not to wax so much poetry, but I am familiar with unrequited love and this felt like the same damn thing.
I was rejected. So, after a few days of moping about, I decided to go at it a different way. How about finding a job over there?
Another setback – not only did my current employer not have an office over there, but to get a job in the UK, I would have to find an employer who could first prove that they needed me above any UK native, and then apply for the work visa to get me over there. There was a shortage list of people they needed for whom they would make an exception, but seeing as it included engineers, IT geniuses, and nurses, I was knocked out of the running before the race even began.
I could have appealed the decision, yes. But, I had already been let down once and although I claim to have fairly thick skin, I don’t take rejection all that well and I beat myself up over shit too often.
I tried to stay positive. If I am anything, it is that I am a fatally eternal optimist. Always getting my hopes up, and always too high.
One day, I was on Twitter (not that it’s different than any other day) and I noticed a tweet to do with Mr Cumberbatch. He was about to produce and star in a short film over in London. Not only that, but they were crowdfunding the entire thing. Being such a fan and also understatedly passionate about all things film, I decided to participate.
I can’t remember exactly what the perks were because for some reason, I wasn’t thinking in terms of the total that I ended up giving. Either way, I was just proud and excited to be a part of it.
The crowdfunding campaign ended, having gone almost four times over their goal, and I was ready to see where this film would go.
After being rejected for the visa and getting over my bout of disappointment and annoyance, I sought some unofficial counsel with my family’s attorney’s partner who specializes in immigration law. I so desperately wanted to know how I can still chase this dream or if I was shit out of luck.
He said what happened to me is what happens to a lot of people trying to enter the US for an extended period of time. I should have presented stuff like my birth certificate, more information about my family, more work history, a letter stating my intent to return to my job (which is what I thought the whole “leave of absence” explained), etc. Well, it would have been nice to know that or at least find those directions somewhere in the visa process. All it really said was, if you’re a visitor, turn in your passport, a letter of leave of absence from your job, proof that you’ll be able to afford your stay, and proof that you intend to return home at the end. Which is what I did. Which got me nowhere.
This is why people hire immigration attorneys to do this shit for them.
But then what would I learn?
Anyway, the advice I received was to travel to the UK for a shorter period of three to four months: that way, it doesn’t look as suspicious, or whatever the hell it looked before, and I should be alright as long as I bring proof of my plan to return to the US. I figured I would bring a copy of my lease, my car payment letter, a letter from work saying I was okay for a leave of absence, and a few other random things. Righto. I had some hope again. It wasn’t the six months that I wanted, nor was it the birthday in London that I wanted, but it was London nonetheless.
My new plan was to take off from Boston after graduation, head to London June 3rd with the following things in hand: a round trip ticket (returning to the US on or before September 2nd), a letter from my employer stating my intent to return shortly thereafter, a copy of my newly renewed lease for my apartment, a copy of my car payment statement (see, immigration, I wouldn’t abandon my treasured MINI Cooper), a list of every single family member in the US that I can think to list (even the ones I wish weren’t family), a copy of my lodging accommodations with specific check-out date, and whatever other scrap of information that I think might convince them that I plan on jetting out of their beloved country when my expiry date comes due.
I had, and I was frightened to admit it, faith and hope restored in this trip. Work would be happier to have me gone a shorter time, I would be home for my birthday (not that I wanted to spend it in the US necessarily), and I should still have enough time to see all the things I want to see, as well as get a tan from standing in the English rain.
I was starting to get anxious – was I seriously going to do this? Holy shit. I had never done anything like this. I couldn’t wait to get over there and document my experiences.
My friend suggested that I rent Richard Hammond’s flat – as she knew he keeps one in London while he’s working. I’m sure his wife wouldn’t mind him having a young, single, American woman who’s interested in cars and fast-driving sharing his space while he’s away from home. Solid idea.
I was back to the Internet, looking once again for an extended-stay flat. I found the perfect one in Kilburn, Northwest London. It was so perfectly me. It was quite close to an Underground and Overground station, but more importantly, a Starbucks.
A mile from Abbey Road. Honestly couldn’t have been more… me.
I inquired, I began the funding process, and soon I had myself the perfect flat in London for three months: June 5 to Sept 2. Ninety days of awesome.
I found my flight. I got everything organized, and told work that I was off across the pond. I couldn’t believe it was going to happen. Maybe not the way I had originally planned, but at this point, I couldn’t complain. The countdown began.
My mind was racing about, picturing being there. Staying in “my own” flat, going for runs in Hyde Park, walking around the neighborhood and everywhere else, taking the tube, getting groceries from local grocers, meeting people at the pub, taking thousands of photos, having new friends over, traveling throughout England, becoming a local, meeting a nice Englishman and getting married and buying a cottage in the English countryside. Whoops, got ahead of myself.
People couldn’t believe I was doing this, let alone going on my own. I figured it wouldn’t be much different than being over here – in the sense that I’m alone all the time. Over there, I’ll be able to go exploring. If I get bored, if I get lonely, I’ll be forced to go out and do something and meet people. All I would have to do is strike up a conversation with someone, which I do all the damn time. I’ll get to go to concerts and the theatre, maybe run into some famous folks. Who knows.
Soon after all the bookings were made, I received an email from the short film’s production company. It began, after a heartfelt thank-you, “The scene in which you will be acting as a supporting artiste is…”
I’m sorry, hold on, “supporting artiste”… An extra? Since when was this a thing? My heart a-flutter, I carefully read the rest of the email. “You will be needed on the night of June 5th.”
June 5th. Why was that date so familiar? Oh God, you devil; that will be my first night in London!
Everything was falling into place. I was ready to go. I was at the point where so many things were going right that it was scary. I hate that feeling.
I bought about four pair of Oxfords and some Hunter rain boots. My feet were definitely ready.
People kept asking me what I was going to do while I was in London. The question was always posed as, “What are you going to do there?” Like it’s unprecedented that I would go to a foreign country or that once I got there, I’d have nothing to do. I always wanted to ask, what does one do while in a different place or foreign country? In fact, I did rebut with that a couple times and the answer was always the same that I give anyway: “sight-see.” Well, no shit, Sherlock.
One question I hadn’t been asked was, “what will you do the first day?” It would take a while to get through customs and then get to the flat. What will I do?
Whatever the fuck I want.
And be an extra in a movie.
I had the distraction of my work goodbye party. We were all going to my favorite bar in Omaha, Brix, where there’s a drink named after me. The party was actually the week before my last day, which I found a tad awkward. Typically, the goodbye party is where everyone is free to say what they always wanted to say, but never could because it would create for a tense environment. I would still be there another week, so…
I thought about making a speech, giving everyone a pass so that they could go ahead and say what they’ve always wanted to say to me and I would promise not to A: tell human resources, nor B: hold it against them for five days. I hoped I wouldn’t get a response along the lines of, “thanks, ‘cause you’ve been such an annoying dick to work with!”
Luckily, I didn’t.
I made sure that I had a week between my last day of work and when I left for Boston/London. I knew I would procrastinate packing and I also knew that I would want a few days to be lazy before I had a few months to be lazy.
I’ve never had a desire to get to know my neighbors in my dorm or the two different apartment buildings in which I’ve lived; and yet, I was incredibly excited to meet the people on my street in London. I wanted to be one of those people who leave the stoop and by the time I got to the corner, I would be greeted by someone. I was going to talk to people everywhere I went. I do that anyway, but something about London just made me want to meet everyone.
At the very least, this was going to be an amazing experience that I would never forget.
My last day of work was tough. I actually didn’t want to leave. I can’t adequately describe the cognitive dissonance I felt walking away from such a wonderful place.
Then again, a good cure for that dissonance was thinking about not working for three months. It was the beginning of my three-month weekend.
It was unfortunate, but Boston was already being overshadowed by London. I had never been there, nor had my family, and yet I couldn’t be bothered. I was already so focused on my first night in London that any preceding events were only stressing me out.
Somehow, I got packed and ready to go in time. That last day, after I had finished the last of my cleaning, I staggered around my apartment in disbelief. It was a strange feeling, knowing I wouldn’t see this place for three months. It was especially strange since we were going to Boston first. I barely slept a wink that night.
We flew to Boston as a family. I tearfully told my parents that I was so blessed that we could all travel together. Yes, they’re divorced, but they’re civil, if not friends. It really meant so much to me that we could do this and I knew there wouldn’t be any arguing or tension. We even joked about having them room together and I’d take the other room with Conor.
That first night, we had the barbeque with my class. It was surprisingly awesome. I hadn’t met any of these people before since we are an online class; but it was like we had all known each other forever. Dad did the grilling and played some guitar for everyone; I could have stayed there forever. Just kidding, I had to jet off to London.
The next day, graduation was long, but insane. I walked across stage to a mispronounced last name. Let’s be honest, if ii sounds like ē in “skiing” and “Wii”, then one would think it follows the same rule in Friis. But whatever. I was handed a big-ass sheet of cardstock: my conferred degree. It was post-dated for August 31st, so that meant I actually needed to finish the program.
For one of my classmates, it was his first actual graduation ceremony, and the fourth of his degrees. As we walked across stage, the president of the school put the regalia over our heads. It was so official. We were the first media psychology class to graduate through MSPP, and one of the first in the world. Nay, in history. I will try not to let that go to my head. Much.
But, really, the first. I mean, come on.
The day after, they all flew back to Omaha. I was sad to see them go, but I knew I would be seeing mom in about a month when she came to visit. Once they left, I took to the streets of Bah-stahn. I had to go into Sprint to upgrade my phone and set up an international plan, and ended up being helped by a Husker fan.
I wandered down to the pier and saw some landmarks. Boston was absolutely gorgeous, but I was ready to go. On June 4th, I left Boston behind for greener gardens.
The flight to London flew by. I had my first ever English cuppa. Hot tea had always grossed me out and I had always equated it with being sick. Never have I been so wrong. I took it with milk and sugar. It was brilliant.
Upon arriving at sterile, grey Heathrow on June 5th, I approached the border with a bit of anxiety, but mostly excitement. I was prepared with my documents, my smile, and my nicest demeanor, because, let’s face it, I’m sure these immigration officers have their fair share of assholes and entitled travelers to deal with on a daily basis. I was going to be this officer’s easy go: the nicest one of his shift. The wham-bam-welcome-to-the-UK-ma’am.
I was not. Not in the slightest.
What are you doing here – how long will you be here – have you ever been to the UK before – what brings you back – do you have a return ticket – how much money did you bring with you – do you have proof of funds?
Proof? No. “Why not?” I, uh, didn’t think to bring it? “Why wouldn’t you think to bring it?” Well, I can’t really explain it – I just didn’t think it would be necessary. “Why wouldn’t it be necessary?” We’re going around in circles now.
What are you going to do while you’re here – where are you staying – do you have any friends or family here – do you know the person from whom you’re renting – did you sign a lease – are you married – who do you live with back home – what will you be doing here – how much money did you bring – why didn’t you bring proof of funds?
It sounds like I’ve just accidentally repeated questions, doesn’t it? I’m not exaggerating – this is how the questioning went. Except, I can’t accurately portray the fact that there was only about a second’s pause between each question, which means I wasn’t fully able to answer any one question in full.
My mouth was completely dry. I could hardly answer when I ever got the chance.
Eventually, after another rapid-fire barrage of questions, I was told to sit down on a bench over there. I was so nervous. I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Then I was called back up to answer the same questions for someone else. They also asked me about my visa denial. I explained that had I known I didn’t need the visa in the first place, I’d have never applied for it – it was a mistake on my part. Why did you come over here after being denied? Groan.
I was so flustered. I don’t claim to be eloquent, but I could hardly form sentences. I felt like I was being interrogated for a murder. I was hot and sweating.
I had to go back to the bench to wait a bit more. Then the two officers came over and said we were going to get my bags. Fuck. I’m going home. This is it: they’re sending me home. Oh my God. What am I going to do? The flat. The film. The money. The time. Oh my God.
We grabbed a trolley and my three bags and went into a room with stainless steel tables.
Put your bags up here. Okay, sure, no problem. Open them. Okay, sure, no problem. Empty your purse. Okay, sure, no problem.
While one went through my clothes and shoes, the other went through my carry on and purse. I didn’t mind the search until he started reading through my journal.
Yeah, he read through my journal.
Do you really need to do that? “Uh, yeah, I do.”
I told him, you’re not going to read anything interesting – probably just whining about my latest breakup, as I shrugged in a what-the-fuck-do-you-think-you’ll-find sort of way.
Sorry, I didn’t journal about how I was apparently planning on trying to pull one over on the UK Border Agency.
Finally, the one asked me to close up my suitcases and the other said I could put everything back in my purse. He stamped my passport and wrote something in it. He said, “I’m stamping this for six months, but I want you to leave, when you’re supposed to, in three.”
Yes, sir; of course, sir; that’s why I have my return ticket for three months, sir, because that’s when I’m planning on leaving, sir.
He handed it back to me and I shook both of their hands, saying, “I really appreciate it, thank you so much for doing your job.”
I meant it, but I also meant, “thank you for wasting your time traumatizing me while you could have been focused on people who might actually be entering this country to remain illegally.”
As I slowly and shakily pushed my trolley toward the exit of Heathrow, I attempted to keep myself from hyperventilating. I jumped in the first Black Cab I found and cried as we pulled away.
The poor cabbie was very sweet in hearing my story and said he has been treated like that at the US border when he and his family came over for a funeral. It made me feel fractionally better knowing others get put through the ringer.
This time, the ride along the M4 wasn’t as exciting as it had been over Christmas. This time, it was all I could do to keep from collapsing. I couldn’t even appreciate the familiar sights of the car dealerships and chimney smokestacks.
I had gotten into London around 720am and texted the landlord saying I should be there around 9 or 10am. At about 1pm, I land on the doorstep.
The flat was just as beautiful and perfect as the photos. There was a flurry of explanations of amenities and here’s how you turn the radiator on and you have to use these two keys to get into the building, and then he was off. I was left alone in London, officially.
I knew since I would be busy and out late that night, I should go Boots straight away to get my toiletries and then pop into Marks and Spencer for a few groceries. Both shops were right at the end of the street, on the High Street.
Utterly exhausted, I lugged all of my findings back to the flat and took a nap.
When I woke up, I had a few hours to get ready and make my way to the meeting place for filming. I was a bundle of nerves then. Naturally, I went through about three different outfits before deciding on all black with a tan jacket. I moved my wallet to my black, studded clutch and headed toward Kilburn Park Station.
At Liverpool Station, found the assigned meeting place for transportation and had a seat. I didn’t see anyone else. Well, I was a bit early, so that’s okay.
Soon, this blonde gal asked me in an Australian accent, “um, are you here for the film?” YES, oh, thank God. We were both very relieved to have someone else around. Where was everyone?
A half hour went by and we considered having a beer at one of the pubs nearby. Just as we were about to give up and go home, much to our dismay, we decided to walk back around the other side of the station. Lo and behold – there’s a group of people. Women mostly. That must be it.
Leave it to a Yank and an Aussie to show up last.
Hours later, I’d done my part and arrived back at the flat. Floating on air/head in the clouds/what-have-you, that was me. Not only did I get to meet one of my heroes – one of the best actors today, I officially acted as an extra in a short film. On my first night. In London. As dad said, “It’s all downhill from here, baby!”
Although, that wasn’t the case at all. That night at filming, I immediately bonded with that Aussie, who, as it happens, was staying in London as long as I was. She was there with her twin sister working on a documentary. We exchanged numbers that night and I remember thinking, as she got in her cab just before I got in mine, I really hope she follows through in texting me to hang out.
After a day of unpacking and getting situated, I went on a six-hour walk around north London. I started at the flat, went through Queens Park, past Abbey Road Studios, wound through the neighborhoods to Hampstead, then down to Regent’s Park. By that time, my feet felt like they were on fire. I took the tube home and had a beer while I soaked my swollen feet.
I went down to the Marble Arch area and through Hyde Park, ignoring the people on Speakers’ Corner. I walked through the Buckingham Palace area – past Downing Street, found a pub called The World’s End (even before I became obsessed with the film).
I went into the MINI Park Lane dealership a couple times. I had to stare at the amazing technicolor MINI on the showfloor. It was situated right in front of the scene in the original Italian Job where Michael Caine shouts about blowing the bloody doors off.
I’d take a side street off of Regent Street and find myself at a dead end, being forced to go down another side street and then another. That was the best part, though: getting lost. Finding places maybe other tourists don’t see because they don’t stray from the beaten path.
In London, I could walk a mile and miss even more than I notice. Back home, I could walk a mile and not even leave my neighborhood. Two days in and I was already loving this.
I loved that I could tell one neighborhood from another by the bricks in the building or the iron in the gate. My favorite were the ones with the washed and faded brown brick for the three or four upper levels with a cream base, wrought iron balconies and railings for the stoop, greenery and flowers in the window boxes, black doors.
The immense detail in just about every square inch could keep my eyes busy for hours. Then in the middle of a completely regal-looking building from 1763, there’d be a KFC or Chipotle.
The road layout. My God. I’m so used to my grid system in Omaha, I was constantly getting turned around. Even when consulting a map. Now, that might just be my being directionally challenged, but I couldn’t believe the twists and turns and a street name would change around a curve. London always kept me guessing.
Educated by Top Gear UK, I marveled at the classic and modern cars everywhere. I saw so many Bentleys and Rolls Royces, they were like Fords to me after a while: a dime a dozen. I almost ran into more than a few people on the street, craning my neck to watch a Corvette Stingray pass.
I would slink down Savile Row, trying not to be conspicuous as I drooled over the smart suits, thinking about the guys I knew back home who lived in jeans and t shirts. On the really hot days, I would head to Regent Street where places like Burberry would leave their doors open, air conditioning blasting onto the sidewalk.
I spent my days walking the streets for hours or lounging in the flat, enjoying the view of the seemingly out of place palm tree out the window. I didn’t have an agenda and I liked it that way. I watched everyone rushing through the underground stations and felt like I should be picking up my own pace; then I remembered that I didn’t have anywhere to be. It was quite a strange feeling.
I found myself at a mall’s pub one day when a drunken Irishman sat down at my table. He claimed to be a member of Hell’s Angels. Before he went out for a smoke, he hugged me and kissed my cheek for a socially inappropriate length of time. I took that opportunity to escape to a Starbucks across the street.
Most of the time, I felt quite like a local. I wandered, but I was never aimless. I got myself pocket wifi hotspot (a must-have) so that I could iMessage and use Google Maps wherever I went. I got really good at navigating the tube and actually enjoyed riding it. I just sat there, played solitaire on my iPod, and listened to music while everyone hurried to and from work.
I was anonymous. I passed unseen through the streets and into the dark cinemas, into Costas and Starbucks, into Tesco and M&S, into plays and musicals. I was alone and entirely independent. I was so desperate to stay.
After chatting to my new Aussie friend a bit, she told me that she had tickets to the Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead Heath. She was able to get a ticket for me, too. I took the tube to Hampstead and started up the hill to the heath. In my dress with a slit most of the way up my thigh. In thatched Oxfords. In the rain. Walking on the mangled sidewalk along the main road. Amazingly, no one stopped his Mercedes to give me a ride.
At the art fair, I met the Aussie’s twin sister. Immediately, we were buying up glasses of wine and navigating the maze of the fair. I found a mixed media piece of Beatles art, so of course, I had to have it. Later, a man on stilts dressed as a lobster told me I had beautiful hair as I got a couple photos with him.
I spent my mornings, or I should say afternoons, as that’s when I would wake up, having a cuppa in bed with the ten foot windows open and a bit of Netflix. I found my favorite Starbucks in Covent Garden. It really was a TARDIS of a Starbucks.
I found Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill near Parliament.
I giggled at the Cockfosters announcement on the Piccadilly Line every time. Every. Time.
One night, I made my way down to where they filmed The Graham Norton Show. I was given a number and told to queue up. I ended up behind these two older gentlemen who, of course, started talking to me. (I really must get that invisible sign on my forehead removed). Anyway, we were told that they were overbooked, so some of us might not make it in. These two old guys and I joked around, I repeat, joked around, about getting a pint if we don’t make it in.
Well, naturally, one of them made it in and the other didn’t. Now I was stuck with the one who didn’t, who turns to me immediately and asks, “how about that pint?” I sighed internally, I really just wanted to go home at this point. When he asked if I had anywhere in mind, I pointed near the Thames. Mainly because I knew there would be plenty of other people around, and I was more familiar with the area.
Not that I was afraid I was going to end up starring in Taken 3, but regardless, I didn’t know this guy.
We ended up at The Prop Store, a pub near National Theatre. He bought me a couple beers and told me about his divorce, his four kids, his place in Canary Wharf. He invited me to visit him at said place if I’m ever in the area. Sorry, I just remembered I’ll never take you up on that offer, but thanks very much anyway.
He gave me his business card and put my number in his phone. Well, my old number. (If you’re reading this, sir, I’m sorry; but clearly you were old enough to be my father or grandfather). I mean, 20 years my senior is probably my hard limit. (And you surpassed that a decade or so ago). Sorry.
One night, I found myself at my local pub, The Old Bell. Some old regular started chatting me up and told me I was very beautiful and that life will be very easy for me because of that. I told him I respectfully disagreed and he said, “well, if I wasn’t 100 years old, I’d ask you out.” I appreciated his approach.
I got asked directions quite often. That really made my day when that would happen. I must have looked the part. I must have looked like I knew where I was going. I must have looked like a Londoner. Every time, I would open my mouth and when the people heard my flat accent, I could watch them visibly recoil in surprise. The best part was being able to actually direct them to where they wanted to go.
Thanks to Twitter, I was able to find out about all sorts of things going on in the city. One day, I saw that City Lit was having a guest speaker for a free class. Peter Anderson was going to be talking about his graphic design and branding. This is the man who made the intro to shows like Sherlock and Doctor Who; this is the man who brands cities like Amsterdam. Look him up.
By the halfway mark, I found myself already feeling depressed at the thought of leaving. I had spent my days roaming around the city, drinking beer, seeing movies, not to mention seeing remarkable things and people. Oh, and doing homework.
I felt lost, but at the same time right where I needed to be.
I had been to Regent’s Park a number of times, mainly to lay out and catch the sun from an unusually warm and sunny English summer.
I loved Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, New Bond Street, and Regent Street. I could see myself living down on South Bank or Embankment.
I could also see myself living in the Regent’s Park area.
I loved Canary Wharf. Wow, what an area. So modern and reflective, what, with the buildings’ glass and the water. For Father’s Day, I went to a Motorexpo there.
I’d seen Westminster Abbey, yet never went inside. Every time I decided I should go to a service, I would sleep past noon.
I walked Shaftesbury Avenue looking for where Ron, Harry, and Hermione disapparated. I believe I found Irene Adler’s place in Belgravia. I definitely found Shaun’s, Ed’s, and Pete’s house from Shaun of the Dead. I also walked by the (now demolished) Winchester Pub from the same film. I found Ben Franklin’s London flat, Jimi Hendrix’s flat, and his neighbor, Handel’s. I had been by Royal Albert Hall. I’d been by the Gherkin and the Shard.
I found a wonderful pub with chandeliers down by London Bridge.
I saw “A Strange Interlude” at National Theatre. I mainly got tickets because the lead character was called Nina, played by Anne-Marie Duff. The play was set in America, and when it was over, I was shocked to hear the British accents in the audience. It was like I’d forgotten where I was during the play.
I saw Rebecca Hall behind me at the bar at The Shed while I was there to see Andrew Scott in Seawall.
I got to tour the BBC Television Centre off of Regent Street. I totally nerded out for that. It is such a beautiful place. I saw a Dalek, the iconic BBC Microphone, got to see where they record some radio dramas, and more importantly, got to go into Radio Theatre where they recorded “Cabin Pressure” in front of a live audience. Being at the Beeb was lovely and I didn’t even want to walk out of the plaza.
I became obsessed with Marks and Spencers’ strawberries and whipped cream. Later I became obsessed with their casalinga tomatoes and mozzarella. I drank beer like it was water. Then again, it was only 3.8% APV, so it might as well have been.
I was absolutely falling in love with London. I loved the accents, the architecture, the history, the culture, its beauty, its fashion, its atmosphere, its pubs, etc. The men dressed sharply and called me “love” while the women wore whatever they want and were so naturally beautiful. I felt so very comfortable there. I felt freer. Freer to be who I am.
Loneliness wasn’t an issue, nor was homesickness. I was getting As in my classes and was even thinking about applying for a second masters program at a school there. I was never bored – I could always go out exploring or see a movie.
I’d met friends and celebrities, but no lovers. That was okay, though, because England sort of became my lover. She didn’t ask much, but she gave a lot.
Mom and her boyfriend came to visit me for a week. The day they got there, they said they wanted fish and chips. I knew I’d take them to The County Hall Arms. We took the Bakerloo Line south to Embankment station. We got off the train and I prepared to walk them toward the exit when inspiration hit me. “Actually, we’re gonna hop on the Central Line and go another stop over!” I yelled, as I pulled them toward the next train.
We got out at Westminster and made our way to the exit. I grabbed mom’s hand and ran her up the stairs to the street. Her free hand flew to cover her mouth when she saw it. That was my favorite moment of their whole visit. Being able to introduce her to Big Ben.
We walked around South Bank, went by St Paul’s; I showed them where Conor and I had stayed in December; we popped in the British Museum; we went to the Tower of London and had a Beefeater tour; we went across Tower Bridge and up in the London Eye. We went up to the View from the Shard.
On the Fourth of July, I discovered (thanks to Twitter) that there was a food truck line-up in Canary Wharf and there happened to be a classic American car show right next to it. I thought that was pretty damn American, and it was a beautiful day. That night we saw Man of Steel. On the tube ride home, a Henry Cavill look-a-like sat across from us. Mom used her creeper skills to get a photo of him. It must be hereditary.
We saw “The Bodyguard” and walked into the Savoy. I took them to Abbey Road so they could see the studios and do the zebra crossing. We went to Hampstead Heath for a picnic and heard The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park.
They said I was such a good tour guide that I should open up a chaperone service in London. Honestly, everything I had planned just so happened to work out.
After they had gone, for lack of anything better to do on a Monday night, I saw The Who at Wembley Arena. It was fucking fantastic. Between the copious amounts of beer, flattery by the guards, and awesome music, I think I was in tears the entire time. Just an extraordinary experience. An awesome band called Vintage Trouble opened for them – I kept waiting for a bad song so that I could go get another beer and it just never happened. I ended up downloading their album right there in my seat.
When my friend Jo stopped in London on her way to Bristol, we went to the European premiere of The World’s End in Leicester Square. Talk about surreal. I saw so many of my heroes: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright; the beautiful Rosamund Pike and Louise Brealey; Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, David Walliams, Jimmy Carr, Jason Isaacs, Bill Bailey. Walking out toward Trafalgar Square, we saw Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller filming Elementary. Quite the star-studded evening.
Jo and I went to Watford to see the Harry Potter studios. I cried nerdtears all over again. We had a Sherlock Saturday where we took the tube to Baker Street and saw the Sherlock Holmes statue, went by 221B, then on to North Gower. We went to St Bart’s and had a nerdfest. As we were sitting there, where Sherlock fell, nerdily enough, this tour group showed up and started talking about why it’s a point of interest. Facepalm and don’t mind us, we’re just waiting for the bus…
That night, we went to Zizzi’s, one of my favorite restaurants, and had pizza along with a couple bottles of California rosé. From there, we proceeded to wander around Southwark and Embankment until 3am. It was gorgeous seeing the Thames at night with all the lights reflected. We even found stairs down to the sand. Of course I had to put my toes in the Thames.
That was the first time Jo and I had actually met. We had been talking since December and finally got to meet in person. Crazy how those things happen.
Jo invited me to Bristol to see where she’s from and also to meet her daughter and parents. I took the train from Paddington Station – first class, inexpensive and worth it. I loved riding in the train, it was very relaxing.
I got to Bristol and met Jo’s daughter, then her parents – who are absolutely darling, by the way. We set off in the rented Sluggish Marshmallow Babushka (aka a white Fiat 500) and she took me through Chipping Sodbury where JK Rowling grew up and went to school, then to Castle Combe where they filmed part of War Horse, then on to Portland Square where they filmed part of Sherlock. After the tour, it was back to Bristol proper for a pint with a view of the suspension bridge over the gorge.
The next day, she took me through to Symonds Yat and Herefordshire. I could definitely live somewhere like Herefordshire. It was really quite nice to get out of the city and see some true English countryside. We went through the Forest of Dean, where they filmed part of Harry Potter.
On the last day, we went to the Roman city of Bath. It is an astonishingly beautiful place and I hope I can go back someday to spend more time. Unfortunately, I had a train to catch back to London, so we didn’t get to stay long.
When I got back, I took about a week to catch my breath – being “on” 24/7 for mom and her boyfriend and then going straight to Jo in London and then Jo in Bristol had worn me out. In a good way. But it was the most concentrated amount of activity I’d done since I got there. Well, I was exhausted.
I was having a hell of a time narrowing down the topic for my masters capstone project. I knew I wanted to do something with American and British television. I took this idea to the Waterstone’s on Oxford Street. I started upstairs with the psychology books and made my way down the three floors. By the main floor, I asked the cashier’s desk if they could hold the fifteen books that were killing my arms. I managed to then find five more books.
At this point, I decided another masters program was going to be too much too soon.
Lugging twenty books in three linen Waterstone’s bags was not enjoyable, so I found the Montague on the Gardens hotel. Which had a bar and a garden. Perfect. While resting my aching shoulders and drinking a few pints of Stella, I saw (on Twitter: surprise, surprise) that there was an art exhibit at the Ivy Club. I wasn’t familiar with the artist, but I was fairly close, so I decided to go.
I felt strange walking up to the door, but the doorman let me right in and sent me up in a glass elevator. I was very grateful to have worn a relatively dressy outfit that day. I walked up to the bar and set my heavy bags down so that I could order a drink. I got to talking to some good-looking gentleman about why I was there, no, I didn’t know the artist, oh, he did, there are twenty books in the bags, yes, they’re heavy. Then he asked the bartender if I could put my bags behind the bar. (I said “gentleman”).
Turns out he was there with his wife, go figure. So I made my way around the Schoony exhibit.
Quickly, I discovered that my portable wifi device had died. There was a DJ in the corner, and I knew he would have a power strip. I walked over and asked if I could buy him a drink in exchange for use of one of the power outlets. He said he got his drinks for free as a perk of working there, but I could use the power outlet anyway.
One thing led to another, and I spent the next three to four hours co-DJing this event. I stood there scrolling through his iTunes and then gesturing to him to move a song into the queue. When I had seen him do it enough, I started doing it myself. A couple times he would get a phone call, so I’d start messing with sound effect buttons on his board. People were coming up to me and telling me how great the music was and asking how long we’ve worked together.
At around 2am, the party was over and I made my way to the street. Quite a ways away, I realized I’d left my goddamn books. Great. I thought about going back for them, but I was exhausted. I focused on hailing a cab.
Every. Single. One. Had a fare. I started on a side street, then made my way to a busier street, then made my way to another busy street. Nothing. At some point, a strange man came up to me and tried to talk to me while I had my headphones in. I humored him with a smile and laugh as I walked on down the street.
Then, was right beside me again asking me why I didn’t want to talk to him. I said, I’m just trying to get home, and walked away.
He disappeared and I kept looking for a cab. Suddenly, he was next to me again. “Why don’t you want to talk to me, huh?” I’m just trying to find a cab. “What?” Because I don’t want to. “Is it because I’m black?” You’re really going to make it about race? “What did you say?” I said, if you’re going to make it about race then it doesn’t matter what I say. “Well, why don’t you want to talk to me? Is it because I’m black?” Oh, for fuck’s sake.
At that, I walked across traffic to the other side of the street and right up behind this group of people. I got very close to a blonde girl and said quietly, I’m so sorry, I’m not a creeper, I’m just trying to get away from that man – he’s bothering me.
In a split second, she had whipped around and exclaimed, “Oh, THERE you are!” and gave me a massive hug. It seemed to last forever in my ever-grateful mind. She then whispered, “don’t worry, I think he’s gone now.”
He was. They walked on. I was alone. A free cab showed up and I hailed it. I couldn’t believe I’d just met my guardian angel and she was gone just as quickly. Mystery savior, whoever you are: Thank. You.
That was the only time I ever felt unsafe. I walked everywhere by myself, didn’t matter what time of day or night. I never felt like I was in any sort of danger. Even after the man who thought I was a racist because I wouldn’t entertain him at 230am, I was never afraid on the London streets.
(For the record, it wouldn’t have mattered if he were purple – don’t come up to me in the middle of the night in the middle of the street and start harassing me).
On August 31st, I wrote: “Preparing to leave London is like preparing to rip off a part of me. It sounds stupid because I’ve only been here for three months, but the people I’ve met, the things I’ve done, the places I’ve been…
I’ve never once been homesick. Because this is home.
And I’m going to do everything I can to get back here.”
On September 2nd, I wrote: “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go. All I’ve done for the past week is cry off and on about leaving. This has become my home. I feel like I’m leaving home. I know I’ll be back. It’s just… It’s not knowing when exactly and how long in between that distresses me. I’ve grown so much here. Learnt so much about myself.”
I had all of my bags packed and lined up by the flat’s door. I had checked and re-checked every nook and cranny of that place to make sure I had everything. The laundry was done, the dishes were clean; I logged out of Apple TV. Everything was ready to go. Except me.
The Samuel Jackson quote came to mind: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
I couldn’t sleep. I was going to get up around 8am to finalize everything and get to the post office. Had to ship a box and small suitcase home (full of mugs and shoes). At around 4 or 5am, I was still up and everything was ready to go. I decided to get a few hours of sleep, couldn’t hurt; I would sleep on the plane. I woke up on time, go the box and suitcase shipped, made my last Kilburn High Road Starbucks trip. Essentially, I spent the morning trying not to cry and neurotically checking and further re-checking everything.
I was going to have a cabbie friend I’d made take me to the airport, but his cab ended up breaking down a day or two before. I was planning on being distracted on the journey to Heathrow – chatting away and probably shedding a few tears in the comfortable silence of a friend. Now I was to be stuck with a stranger and didn’t feel like talking at all. He was very nice, though. He had stylish sunnies and a die-cast model of a London taxi on his dash. We chatted a little bit, but I mostly stared wistfully out the windows, watching familiar streets slip away. As we got on the M4, I couldn’t help but think that I liked the view from the opposite lane – the one heading into London.
Checking in was painless, even the part where I had to pay for my fourth bag. I had my last London Pride with a sandwich and headed for my gate. On the plane, I had a couple glasses of champagne and texted my family to let them know we were about to taxi. The sweet steward, David, was pretty confused when I asked him to help me turn my seat into a sleeping bench. It was a 230pm flight after all. I popped a melatonin and hoped to wake up to the landing announcement. Somehow, with three alcoholic beverages and a sleep aide, I managed to wake up after only a few hours. I spent the rest of the flight attempting to sleep and watching Star Trek Into Darkness.
I got back to the States on Sept 2nd. I had flown out of Boston as that’s where my masters graduation was on June 2nd. So to Boston I return. I make it through our border in under a minute, only suffering a bit of abuse about whether Nebraska has running water or electricity. So, nothing out of the ordinary. As this was the time before the Toronto International Film Festival, I opted to drive from Boston to Toronto after my flight, instead of further maneuvering (what was now) four huge suitcases onto another aircraft. And frankly, I was tired of flying.
I had actually missed driving. Actually, I had missed driving my MINI Cooper. My rental car was some ‘90s-looking-but-probably-brand-new Nissan… and it was an automatic transmission. My left foot couldn’t figure out what the hell to do at first – wanting to be on the brake pedal instead of at rest. Still, it was fun to be back behind the wheel of a car after three months of riding the tube or train. I had been so excited to get away from the dumbass drivers out there. Being able to turn the music up and roll the windows down is only somewhat doable on the Underground.
I made the drive to Toronto in about seven hours, arriving at 4am. I only suffered a bit more abuse regarding Nebraska (this time about our football team) upon driving through the Canadian border – all good-natured, of course. I slept for a couple days and watched The Office UK for the first time. Jo, living near Toronto, came to town for TIFF and brought me a couple London Prides. That’s a true friend.
After a week of film premieres and wandering around downtown Toronto, not to mention consuming quite a bit of room service, I fought my (very heavy, all overweight, in fact) bags onto a plane back to Omaha. My arms and back were sore for three days.
Walking back into my apartment after three months of being in London was depressing, to be honest. Here I was, back here. And to do what, exactly? I had a week to do my masters capstone project, but what about after that? Especially when it took me such a short time to do the paper, after all.
I had my topic and about twelve books, but needed journal articles as references, too. Naturally, I started doing all of that on Thursday. The project was due Sunday. Friday was highlighting information I could use. Saturday, I typed everything up, everything that I had highlighted. Sunday, I started cutting things down and actually writing. I’ll admit that I underestimated labor time a tad, so I asked for a few extra hours.
I was given a few extra days, but made sure to have it in by Monday at 5pm. Along with my 25-slide PowerPoint.
I wrote my masters thesis on the Americanization of British television and its psychological impact on British identity – appropriate and right up my alley. Now, I’ve got my masters degree up on the wall. I’m jobless. And because I wrote a bit about Doctor Who’s quintessential Britishness in my thesis, I found myself binge-watching the reboot. Or Brit-binging, I guess it would be.
I felt like I was in the waiting room again, you know, in limbo. Just on another layover. A longer one, this time, I guess.
Suddenly, one night in the middle of a Dalek battle, I got an email from the production company. The release party. And when is the party? Two days after my 25th birthday. Well. If that wasn’t mean to be, I don’t know what was.
By the next afternoon, I had a hotel for a week and a flight to and from London. I couldn’t believe it was so soon. To be honest, it was a bit frightening for some reason. Maybe my instincts are better than I thought.
Time passed entirely too quickly, and soon the night before my October 23rd flight was upon me. I couldn’t sleep, and because I was hooked on following The Doctor in the TARDIS, I procrastinated packing my bag until about 3am. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. I got everything together and laid down for a four hour nap. I wasn’t flying until 550pm that evening but I wanted to make sure I found the perfect shoes for that party. And, boy, did I.
The first flight was on a puddle-jumper and although I thought seat 1A would be a cracking good one, I think I would have been warmer in the cargo hold beneath the plane. No matter. I made it to Houston and followed two very handsome (and unfortunately married) pilots to my next gate, at a bit of a run, because I only had 45 minutes. I went from being frozen to death to sweating and out of breath very quickly. But I made it.
I was seated next to a nice English man from Yorkshire. He was quite chatty as the pilot made some daunting announcements. The first being that takeoff was delayed due to someone deciding at the last minute not to fly (I checked my tray table to make sure the little knob wasn’t faulty – you know, like in ‘Final Destination’ – it wasn’t, phew); he then said that due to the freak passenger, they had to do a sweep of the plane for any… (ellipsis added due to dramatic and uncomfortable pause the pilot actually took) situations; and finally, that our flight would be shorter than expected – good news. Not the best goddamn thing to say after telling us that someone, who could be a nut job or a medium, asked to disembark, causing a subsequent search of the plane for bombs or God knows what, but hey, now the flight will be drastically shorter. My inner monologue attempted to joke about it, but I decided to say something to the Man upstairs. Something along the lines of, “come now, it’s my fucking birthday weekend.”
So, off we went. The flight wasn’t full and I had a completely empty middle row next to me. I kindly told the chatty Yorkshireman that I was going to move, but it was nothing personal.
My next instinctual moment was when the flight attendant offered me a London Pride, only to turn around and tell me that they hadn’t actually taken delivery on any. He pacified me with a free Bud Heavy and later a free Heinekin. I’m sure they’re free anyway, but it was neither here nor there at that point. I drank those while reading through and marking up a script for a movie on which I will be a producer. It made me look very interesting and mysterious, I imagined – of this, I have no doubt. Soon, though, I was drowsy, so I put up the armrests and sprawled (much too generous a word) across the three seats. I slept on and off for the rest of the flight.
The Yorkshireman and I walked to customs together and joked about how he will make it through so much more quickly than I will. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing.
The line wasn’t too long at all and soon I was face to face with an immigration officer. She asked me what I was doing there and for how long. Do I have a return ticket? Yes. What hotel am I staying at? How much money did I bring with me? What will I do while I’m here? Have I been to London before? All very routine. Until it wasn’t.
The interrogation started. Do I have proof of my funds – why am I back so soon – what did I do for three months this summer – why didn’t I bring proof of my funds – what am I actually doing here again – why don’t I travel somewhere else – why wouldn’t I want to spend my birthday with my family (my personal favorite) – how did I get the money I have – why did I get denied a visa – why did I come after being denied a visa – did the immigration officer this summer know about the visa – what happened at the border this summer – why did he let you in – what did he tell you – what was the short film – how did you find out about it – could you have a seat on that bench, please?
Fuck. The bench again.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, but I just told myself that last time it was reviewed and after some major annoyance and minor emotional trauma, I was on my way to the hotel. This time, she came back and said we were going upstairs for some more questioning. I thought, okay, a bit more thorough than last time because last time was pretty damn thorough.
We get my bag and go upstairs to this custody office. I get dropped off there with the custody officers and the first thing is a search. Of me, now. Well, I skipped ahead. Downstairs, after retrieving my bag, it got searched. And my things were inventoried. Then upstairs, they searched me. I got nervous at first because the young, female officer walked over with latex gloves. Much to my relief, none of my clothes had to come off. Well, save for my boots.
From there, I went into another room and was fingerprinted and had my photo taken. Boy, was it a mug shot. Completely awful photo. The two officers doing my biometrics were very nice and one seemed rather surprised at my cooperation.
I was offered water and gladly accepted it. The officer who got it for me explained that there was a water machine in the main part of the office and I could help myself. I also gladly did that.
After going over some of my basic information with another female officer, the young gal took me, my bag, my purse, and my carry on down the hall. They had to lock up my things, including my phone, because it has a camera on it. Then I could sit in the waiting area. It was a smallish room with green benches and a TV. Upon further inspection, there were toys and snacks. I told the gal how excited I was that there were toys and she excitedly responded with, “AND coloring books!” Okay, this won’t be so bad. Watch a bit of TV while they scrutinize my answers and off I go. The gal told me that if I was hungry, they have hot meals as well as sandwiches; the drink machine is free and has tea, coffee, juice, and water; and if I wanted to take a nap, there were pillows and blankets. I was nodding along appreciatively until that last bit when I came to a screeching halt. “Sorry, exactly HOW long will I be here that I’ll have time to take a nap?” She told me that sometimes it could take a while and it’s not first-come, first-served. Much to my dismay. Nevertheless, I was the only one here. Stiff upper lip in place, I settled in to channel surf.
I made camp in the waiting room and attempted to flip channels. At least the TV would ease my nerves a bit. Television is normal and comforting. Unfortunately, it was only one channel and the same awful Australian soap opera episode was seemingly on repeat. I actually memorized some of the lines.
After a while, I went back out for what would be the first of about ten cups of tea or water. A younger male officer was giving my young gal shit for being old and almost thirty. She said, “I’m only 25!” At this point, I had to intervene. I looked at the guy and said, excuse me, I turn 25 this weekend and it is NOT almost thirty. He seemed a bit taken aback and quickly shut his mouth. From then on, this gal and I were in cahoots. I had an ally.
Four hours, and miraculously a nap, later, I ventured out to the office again to ask my gal if I could check my phone. I hadn’t texted my parents since I landed and I knew for a fact that they would wonder why. She took me down to the room where my bags were, and sure enough, I had about nine missed texts and a few missed phone calls. I quickly typed out a mass text to mom, dad, and Conor: “You’re never going to believe this, but…” and sent it out. I added an “I love you” and threw my phone back in my bag.
It was honestly very difficult to be without my phone for so long. It was a security blanket much like being able to watch TV.
We went back to the office and I retreated back to the lounge area. Soon, it was six o’clock and shift change. My young gal left, and so did the older male officer. He had stopped me at the drink machine earlier to tell me that I shared a birthday with his cousin, and that he’s a Scorpio, also. We joked about how Scorpios are stubborn and have some negative qualities, but we certainly aren’t like that. Replacing him was an older woman and a younger guy. She asked me if I was alright and if I was hungry. She talked me into a ham sandwich, even though I was not at all hungry. I only managed half of it.
I somehow fell asleep on the shitty green bench and was woken by a woman calling my name. I’m never called Christina unless it was by my grandmas or professors. This new immigration officer wanted to interview me. I seemed to have a bit of a sleep hangover or was in a daze having been woken, but I wanted to get a move on with this process. She asked me many of the same questions and wrote down my answers, but when she asked me more about the short film, I watched her draw a line through the rest of the paper as if to signify that the interview was over. I knew in that moment that I was done. She followed that gesture with saying that I had just admitted to working on a visitor basis and therefore breached the visitor agreement. I said, well, yes, I’ve admitted that from the start as that is one of the things I did while I was here this summer, and the officer who interviewed me this summer knew that as well. But, I wasn’t paid for it…
“It doesn’t matter if it’s paid, unpaid, or voluntary.” Okay, but it wasn’t even voluntary – I essentially paid for the opportunity, I bought the opportunity. But it didn’t matter. I could tell she was finished with me. She had me look over and sign each page of the interview and said she would be with me shortly.
“Shortly” meant another few hours, of course. She came back and took me into a small room just off o the lounge and as I was sitting down, she said, “so, we’ve decided to deny you entry this time.”
I’m pretty sure I simply said, okay. I don’t really recall. She handed me the paper explaining the reasons behind it, and then told me there wasn’t a direct flight out of Heathrow that night, but they had scheduled me one in the morning. Because there were no more flights that night, I would be staying in the detention center overnight. I was jolted back into the conversation at those words. I again said, okay.
I went out and asked if I could get my phone to call my parents. The young male officer took me to get my phone and told me as long as I sit out in the office with them, I could make as many calls as I needed. I was so grateful for that. I called mom. I called dad and asked for a ride home the next day. I even laughed when dad shouted, “what pricks!” Then I called my brother.
I was doing just fine until he said, “we’ll just have to make it up big time for your birthday.” I tearfully took a few moments before telling him, “definitely.”
I hung up and looked at the woman officer. “Damnit,” I said, “leave it to my brother to say something sweet while I was doing so well holding it together.” She cooed an “aw, honey” and then we got to talking about my birthday. Turns out, she is a Scorpio, and the younger male officer has an October birthday along with his two brothers. That, of course, got us all laughing about how busy his folks were around New Years and Valentines Day. He groaned at that.
I had also called the hotel to tell them I wouldn’t be coming. Which reminds me, I need to contact Hotels.com to see about getting any of my money back… Probably neither here nor there now.
Then I sat there and hooked up to their wifi so I could iMessage some folks. The male officer put Nat King Cole. Turns out he is very much in love with his wife of 21 years. He didn’t look nearly old enough to be married that long. The older woman said she has five kids, with the oldest being 28. She definitely didn’t look old enough for that. It was nice. Sitting there, listening to their work banter and Nat on the iPhone. It was almost as if I was just waiting in the reception room of an office building, biding time with the secretaries until my appointment.
I had to go back into the lounge when some new people came in and had to be searched. I laid down, but couldn’t sleep – there was a family in there now with a terrible two year old.
Not long after, a man came in and introduced himself. I’m shit with names, if that isn’t already apparent. He said he would be driving me to the detention center. He said that, although it looks daunting and like a prison from the outside, it isn’t one. I acted disappointed when he answered “no” to both of my questions: will I get an orange jumpsuit and will I get handcuffs?
Before I left, the woman with five children asked me if I had gotten enough to eat and then shook my hand. We joked about maybe seeing each other in the morning, since they are on until 6am. I also shook the hand of the man with the long marriage, they told me to take care of myself; and with that, I headed out with my drivers. It was about 9 or 10pm at this point.
On the way out of the airport, I made sure to point out to the drivers that the graphic of the stickman with the planes landing and taking off “behind” him definitely looks like a man with moose antlers. They both laughed and I told them that they would never unsee that. I also told him about the Dodge Viper symbol that looks like Donald Duck upon turning it upside down.
It was about a ten-minute ride to the detention center in the most rickety minivan. Once at the center, we had to go through about four security checkpoints before I could actually get out. The guy opened my door while the other driver went inside to check in. Again, my memory fails me, but we had a great conversation. What I do remember with great pride is that he was so happy to be able to have a conversation with someone for once. Whether it’s the language barrier, or the people are belligerent, it’s a luxury he usually doesn’t get.
I shook his hand and said thank you before I was lead into the check-in area of the detention center. It was a huge ruckus with about ten employees chattering away and laughing – shift change, it was explained to me. I was searched for about the (I’ve lost count at this point)th time, and then the nurse saw to me. I tripped her up just like I did with the lady at the front desk by saying my birthday was “ten, twenty six, eighty eight.” I forgot the format and was met with confused looks both times. She weighed me and I told her it sounds much better in kilograms. She laughed. She asked if I needed to see the doctor and I said no, so she sent me back out to the front desk. A woman said they were going to lock up my bags for the night, so I should get what I needed for a shower and bedtime. She crouched down to my bag with me and asked quietly why I had been denied. When I told her, she said under her breath, “arseholes!”
I made sure to tell everyone along the way that I appreciate how thoroughly the border agents do their jobs and that I know that’s what they’re doing. Like the old police officer standard goes, “I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them.” That’s all that was going on here; it’s just unfortunate that I was witnessing it firsthand.
Why was I witnessing it firsthand? Why was I being penalized? For what was I being penalized? I had asked the mother of five at the office if I could speak to someone about what this all meant. The lady who interviewed me came back upstairs and I asked her if I was banned from ever coming back. Not that I’d come back next month, but what if I want to come back in a year? She said that I wasn’t being banned, just denied entry this time. I asked what I would need to do when I did come back. She suggested that I apply for another visitor’s visa. That way, I wouldn’t get all the way to the border to be denied again. I said, okay, well when I got turned down for the visa before, it was for insufficient ties to the US, which is frankly bullshit, and they said that it was because I was unmarried and had no children and no mortgage. She said, “I hate to say it, but we would feel better about letting you in if you were married with kids.” I said, okay, so I’m being penalized for being single with no kids and an apartment? She told me she wasn’t trying to penalize anyone, but unfortunately, it would just look better if I had those ties.
That was what got to me the most – before, then, and now – I have the freedom from a job (at the moment), the freedom from the responsibilities of a marriage and from kids and from a mortgage, and because I have the money to travel for longer periods of time and often… and I can’t. But if I had a job that allowed me five vacation days a year, a husband, two kids, a mortgage, and all of the responsibilities and time constraints that come with all of that, I would be more likely granted entry. So, as soon as I can get married and knocked up – in fact, I should just marry a guy who already has a house and just get quitclaimed onto the deed, that’ll save me a step – then find a job – maybe at my husband’s business, so I wouldn’t really have to be qualified or mess with the application process – I will get right on that six month visitor’s visa. Because that would be the feasible and appropriate time, not to mention the entirely responsible time, to go off gallivanting in London, leaving my beloved family behind in the States. Hey, everyone needs a logical plan. I think I just found mine. Cut and print.
After gathering my shower stuff, yoga pants, and a London shirt (my half-hearted attempt at some sort of jab), I was lead upstairs to the floor where I’d be staying. While they checked me in up there and made me, what I lovingly refer to as, my prison badge, the lovely woman behind the desk told me I could help myself to anything in the kitchen. I settled for two pieces of toast. I still didn’t have an appetite. The lovely woman also told me that I could use the internet to check my email.
I was put in my own room, which was nice. (I say, “nice”). I was given a duvet cover, a sheet, a pillow case, and a towel. I made up my cot and then figured I would take the shower I had so longed for. The relaxing, rejuvenating, cleansing shower at my comfortable Hyde Park area hotel ended up being a ninety second rinse accompanied by some tears and a draft.
Once I was in my yoga pants and London shirt, I decided to email my folks. I constructed this hilariously depressing account of my day in custody and then prison, much like I’m doing here (hopefully).
“Well, I’ve started my tallies on the wall of my cell. They say prison is “three hots and a cot” when in fact, I have three cots in my room and have had some toast.
So the border agency is never satisfied with any of my answers and then everyone else is on my side. The people in the custody room were super nice – offering me a pillow and blanket if I wanted to nap (that scared me at first because I was like, Jesus Christ, if I have time for a nap, how fucking long am I going to be here?); the one gal was my age and this guy was giving her shit for being old so I got on her side and we sort of bonded; there was a nice officer who said I have the same birthday as his cousin and he is also a Scorpio; then there was another nice guy who played Nat King Cole on his iPhone and let me sit at his desk and call you guys; the lady who came in at the same time he did was very sweet – everyone kept asking if I had enough to eat or if I’m okay.
I did tell them that I appreciate how thorough they are and they’re just doing their jobs, but for fuck’s sake already.
I just had my prison shower. The stall is up about six inches off the ground, so the fucking stall door hardly covers anything. The water turns on by pushing a knob into the wall and it slowly (more like quickly) pops back out and shuts the water off.
My flight tomorrow is at 930am and they’re picking me up at 5am to take me to Heathrow. Looks like I’ll be seeing my nice custody officers since they’re on the 6pm-6am shift.
Don’t know what the fuck I’ll do at the airport for four hours, but I’m sure I have to sign a shitload of paperwork (again) and check in and whatnot.
Trying desperately not to cry. Also trying desperately to believe that God is protecting me from something. The wasted potential of this trip is killing me the most.
Oh, my reason for refusal: I was denied a visa, I ‘worked’ during the summer when I wasn’t supposed to (the lady said she was shocked I was allowed in at all after being denied a visa), I don’t have enough ‘ties to the US’ so that they believe that I’ll leave. I said to the lady, okay so I’m being penalized because I’m single with no kids and able to afford travel? She said, I’m not trying to penalize you, but unfortunately, yes, it would look ‘better’ if you were married with kids and a house. So as soon as I can get married, get knocked up, get a mortgage, and get a job that allows me five days of vacation a year, I’ll be sure to apply for another fucking six-month visa because that is logic at its finest.
Doubt I’ll sleep tonight. I somehow managed a nap on the hard, green seats in the waiting room and I slept a little on the plane. I’ll just sleep on the ride home. I’ll have essentially spent 48 hours in limbo when all of this is over. Yipee.
Anyway, I don’t have my phone or anything yet – but as soon as I’m checked in tomorrow, I’ll hopefully be able to charge it and whatever.
I’ll stay online for a bit and see if you guys respond, otherwise, I’ll text you before I take off tomorrow (it’ll be 3am for you guys) and then I’ll call you from Houston. Guess I can cancel that international Sprint plan… again.”
As I was sitting and waiting for a reply, I heard a woman at the front desk telling a fellow inmate that my birthday was Saturday. Someone else was having a birthday that weekend. Another October birthday. I’d truly love to know what the significance and explanation was behind all of that. I mean, what does it really say about Scorpios?
I found a horribly bad book amongst the Danielle Steeles and got in bed. I made it through a few pages when I decided to turn out the lights and shut the door. I can’t remember if I even got a chance to cry before I passed out.
Around 3am, I woke with a headache. I went out to the commons area and asked the lovely guard for some Ibuprofen. I got Paracetomol in Alka Seltzer form which tasted like salt water mixed with tonic water, and if that doesn’t sound gross enough, just use your imagination. The commons area was surprisingly nice. There were great big couches in front of a large flatscreen TV, two workout machines, a ping pong table, and a dining room table. While I choked down the awful concoction, the lovely guard – whose name I actually know – talked to me about her family. She has lived in the States, and a couple of her kids still live here. She put on a mock-Texan accent when she told me of her adventures in Dallas, and then offered me some juice as a chaser to the carbonated Atlantic.
She let me check my email to see if my folks had replied, they had. Much to my dismay, they didn’t really acknowledge my humorous account of the day. I got back in bed, and that’s when the tears came.
Nothing in particular got me started; it was just an accumulation of everything. The fact that I was exhausted, physically and emotionally; the fact that I had come all that way and now I was going right back home; the wasted opportunity of the party I would be missing; the fact that I’ll always remember my 25th birthday as the time I was held in custody at the UK border; really, a multitude of things.
By this point, I discovered that I now had a roommate. She was fast asleep, so my crying was forcibly kept silent.
I started thinking of songs I could sing in my head, because I certainly wasn’t getting back to sleep. My brain turned into my iPod. I’d think of a sad song and have to mentally skip it. I’m not sure how many full songs I got through – and when I say ‘full’, I did all the musical intros, harmonies, guitar solos, and drum fills. I just stared at the ceiling. There was a bit of light shining through the bars on the window. I added up the hours spent in non-locations.
I left Omaha at 550pm on October 23rd, I had a two hour flight to Houston, only spent an hour there, had an eight or so hour flight to London, never actually crossed the border into the UK, was held in custody and then the detention center, I have a 930am flight back home on October 25th, ten hours to Houston, four hour layover, get into Omaha by 8pm.
In flight, in custody, in detention, in flight.
I drifted off after counting my wasted hours in lieu of sheep. I was woken up around 6am and was immediately disappointed that I would miss my mother of five and long-marriage man.
The lovely woman whose name I actually know made me a cup of coffee and offered me a donut while we signed me out and waited for my escort. Turns out another girl will be leaving with me. She is going home to Nepal. The young man comes up to get us and I’m pleased to see that he’s quite cute, actually. I say my goodbyes to the lovely woman and tell her to look me up if she’s ever in Nebraska.
The cute kid (I say, “kid”) asks me why I got denied, goes, “ahh, ‘working’” and shakes his head. The check-out counter was jovial, and everyone was incredibly friendly and almost happy to be there. I asked if I could keep my prison badge for my scrapbook and everyone laughed. I hoped I could walk away and at least be the most easy-going and friendly person they would meet. What’s the point in being a douchebag in an already shitty situation. Happiness breeds happiness. It wouldn’t do to be negative.
The Nepali girl and I get searched, yet again, and loaded into an equally rickety minivan, or maybe the same one. On the ride to the airport, we get stopped at this security checkpoint and I hear the Nepali girl say, “what the FUCK?” I start laughing and we bond instantly. We share the sailors’ language and can’t understand what’s taking so goddamn long.
Turns out, she had been in prison for three months and was finally going home. I thank God I didn’t have to stay in more than a detention center and for only a short time. She was so excited to get back to Nepal. It had been five years of living in the UK for her. She couldn’t believe my reasons for being sent home. She asked how long I had been in London. “Not even a day.” “What the fuck.”
We agreed that the waiting was the worst part. If I would have been denied and turned right toward the next plane home, it wouldn’t have been near as bad. Maybe more of an abrupt shock, but at least more along the quick-and-painless route. It was hours upon hours of sitting on my ass and not knowing what was coming or even how it was coming, but then having to wait even longer for it to commence.
It was interesting driving through the twists and turns behind Heathrow, behind the huge jets and international airlines. We joked about how lucky we were because I bet no one gets to see what we’re seeing.
We finally made it to this sketchy-looking building on, what we figured was, airport property. They went through all of our things, searched us, again, and then we were back in the rickety van. Our next stop was at the actual airport, Heathrow, in the underbelly somewhere. We got searched again. I had become a professional at this point. Nepali girl and I were getting sort of bummed that we were never searched by men. I mean, let’s get something out of this experience.
A nice lady showed me where the loo was and then showed me a drink machine similar to the one upstairs. I got a water and sat down on this extremely uncomfortable-looking, yet entirely deceiving, lounge chair. I found Cash Cab on the TV and waited for Nepali to get there after her search. We sat and watched Cash Cab until another cute male officer came in to explain some things. He would be taking me to my flight. Glad I looked like absolute shit. Face all puffy with no makeup, bumming clothes, and probably not smelling the greatest. We chatted with him for a while and I complimented their drink machine. He said, “so many Americans love this thing.” I said, well, yeah – it gives you the cup, fills it for you, and even mixes tea and coffee – can’t get much lazier.
In fact, I’d love one in my apartment.
The cute officer number two left and Nepali girl asked if I had Facebook. I wrote my name down for her and she did the same for me.
Pretty soon, it was time for goodbyes. Nepali and I hugged and wished each other a safe flight.
The cute officer number two walked me upstairs and we came out somewhere in the middle of the terminal. People were looking at me strangely, I figured it was because I had my suitcase with me – which at that point should have been checked; but in retrospect, I’m sure it was because I was being escorted by two custody officers. Maybe.
We got to my gate and he checked me in. Someone took my bag to put it below the plane. I asked if I could charge my iPhone while we waited and I was allowed to do so. I always asked before I did anything. I didn’t want them to think I would take liberties. Cute officer number two explained that at a certain point during the flight, a flight attendant would hand my passport back to me. I hadn’t even thought about it until just then, but I had been without my passport since the moment I initially handed it over at the border. It was explained that if they were to give it back to me now and then twenty minutes into the flight, someone threw a fit and we had to land while still in the UK, I could deplane with my passport and potentially flee. Honestly, it seemed a bit melodramatic, but I’m guessing it’s happened before and therefore, there’s reasoning behind it.
Very quickly, it was time to board. I was escorted to the plane pretty much before anyone else – preferential treatment to those being sent home. I was seated between two Americans in almost the same row I was able to lie down on during my flight to London.
I tried to sleep, but mostly I was afraid of falling asleep on the shoulder of the woman to my right. I ate most of my plane food and realized that all I’d had to eat for the past two days was either airplane food, toast, or a donut. Gross.
The best part of the flight was when the captain announced our descent into Houston. Mere seconds after he finished, a flight attendant’s arm appeared across me – handing me back my passport. Inside the passport was my letter of denial and my next boarding pass. It was all rubberbanded together. I said, oh, thank you. I placed it in my lap and looked straight ahead with a stern face. I could see the guy to my left giving me very suspicious sideways glances. I figured I would have some fun with this.
I reached down to my landing card where I had filled out everything but the passport number. I tried as hard as I could to make it look like the flight attendant was my accomplice helping me flee the UK, handing me a fake passport during the flight along with the documents I need to escape to wherever the hell it is I’m going. I slowly, carefully wrote down my passport number, checking and double-checking – putting on a good show, like I’d never seen the thing before. I tucked everything back inside the passport, after nodding my head appreciatively at the photo and my previous stamps, and then just held onto it securely until we landed – always looking straight ahead and never making any other moves.
I could just hear their thoughts, because I sure as hell know what I would have been thinking. Oh my God, why didn’t she have her passport before? Did she lose it? No, she didn’t seem to react in the way that you would having been returned something so important… Is she a criminal? Is that a fake passport? It looks real. It says US. I haven’t heard her speak much, but it sounded American. Maybe that’s fake, too. Is that flight attendant in on it? Had I seen her much on the flight until now? Maybe someone else on the plane had it and paid the flight attendant to deliver it? Is this Con Air?
I hope I was their peculiar story at the dinner table that night.
I had asked the cute officer number two what I should say to the border agency in Houston. I mean, are they going to see the UK stamp with a cross through it and ask what the hell happened? Could they detain me for some reason? I didn’t know. He said to just tell the officer that I was denied entry for non-criminal reasons.
When I got to the US border, I got in line for this curmudgeonly-looking old guy and thought, great, he’s going to ask me all sorts of questions.
I get up there and say, good afternoon. He takes my passport and tosses aside the denial letter. He asked me what I brought back from the UK and I told him nothing because I didn’t really have a chance to shop. He asked why not; I said, well, I got denied entry for non-criminal reasons.
He doesn’t even hesitate and says, “non-criminal? Well, that’s no fun.”
I gave a relieved laugh and said, ‘right? I could have at least broken the law!’ He laughed at that. Then, as he’s stamping my passport, allowing me back home, he says, “don’t worry; we turn them away, too.”
Thank you, sir; I needed that.
In Omaha, my dad picked me up from the airport. I had a beer at his place and some beef stroganoff, then got in the car to head back to my apartment. I hadn’t even left his driveway when the tears came again. Great, I thought. Happy birthday to me.
I went to bed around 1130 that night and woke up at 2pm the next day, the 26th. Successfully sleeping through half of my birthday. I was only up a couple hours when I was tired enough for a nap. It was safe to say that I was completely wrecked.
I efficiently made my way through the five stages of grief. I was quite sad. I’d sit on the couch watching TV and I’d find myself worrying the inside of my bottom lip. I spent a lot of time pursing my lips so that I wouldn’t cry.
The woman said I wasn’t banned from the UK, but it didn’t matter. I felt that way. How could I ever go back? I’ll have to have a visa. Okay. So what if I get a visa, I get over there, and because of all this shit, they decide to deny me entry anyway? Now, won’t it be suspicious if I have a visa after being denied AND after being denied entry?
Before, I strolled excitedly and confidently through the motions of travel. Now…
Before, I gazed longingly at photos of London, dreaming of living there someday. Now… I click through them and cry while I listen to the Glasgow Love Theme from Love Actually.
I couldn’t compare the feeling to anything but a break-up.
It was that day you were so excited because you had all of these special things planned for you and your boyfriend. Everything was going so perfectly. He comes over to your house and he’s being distant. He sits you down and says you guys should talk. An hour or so later, you’re telling him you understand and hugging him once more before he leaves. You close your door and wait to hear his car door shut before you sink down and sob.
It creates a hole. Something like that. Where there was once joy and comfort, there is sorrow and despair.
Too much? I always did have a flair for the dramatics.
There is, though. It’s like hopelessness. I started thinking, well, I’ll just never go back, I guess. What’s the point in trying? What if I just get denied all over again? I could always just get a house here and settle into my life.
Just as immediately as I think those things, something jumps up and shouts, fuck that! You don’t just give up on a dream like that! This is the love of your life!
But I can’t, I whine. I can’t do this again. It hurts too much. I’m sure I can find a nice enough city in the States. Sure, it won’t have an English accent, but maybe that’s not everything.
But it’s what you’ve always longed for.
It is, isn’t it? For as long as I can remember.
I got angry. Not at the immigration officers – they were only doing their jobs; not at God – I’m sure He was only doing His. Just in general.
Maybe even a little at myself.
I should have known it wouldn’t work out. I shouldn’t have even tried to go. All the signs, in retrospect, told me it was too good to be true. The premiere being so close to my birthday. The airfare being decent and the hotel being perfect. Everything worked out too well on the day. The plane was delayed because someone suspiciously wanted to disembark.
I was too excited. I had prepared too much. I got my hopes up too high, as always. I had too many expectations. And too many too high, at that. I’d spent the night before making some simple business cards because I knew I’d be meeting some influential people. I knew for sure I’d be walking away with a contact.
I knew exactly what I was going to wear. I packed too efficiently, for absolutely the first time in my life. I’d gotten all of my errands run and on time.
I had been feeling so good about myself. Just the day before, I was driving somewhere to run a last errand and I simply had to chuckle to myself. I loved where my life was going. I loved being done with my masters degree. I loved the fact that I was going to be a producer on a friend’s film. I even loved applying for jobs because I was applying for jobs I would actually love to do. I had been working out regularly, so I felt amazing. I loved my prospects. I loved that I would be back in London so soon. I loved that I was going to have such a professional air about me and be able to come back with something.
How the mighty fall.
I felt like Gary King being confronted by his friends, telling him it’s time to go home. “You’re just jealous… You don’t have what I have: freedom. I’m free to do what I want any old time.”
And no one really understands. They sympathize. I mean, yeah, I’ve got a great story to tell, don’t I? I don’t know anyone else who’s ever been detained at an international border. I had friends calling me “International Fugitive” and I could have a laugh over it.
But no one really knows the extent of the hurt. It’s not that I’m embarrassed. It’s not that I’m ashamed. I just hurt.
Before London, I never pictured myself moving out of Omaha.
I was desperate for a job back in 2011. I finally decided to check out the armed forces. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that basic training was somewhere else.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave. I was afraid. I didn’t want to be far from home.
After London, I can’t picture myself staying in Omaha.
After two days in nowhere, I’m certainly changed.