One month from today, I will face my largest travel challenge yet. I’m going to Italy for Terra Madre* and to volunteer on a farm, and I’m flying through London to get there. Sounds easy enough, right? It would be if I didn’t have to transfer from London Heathrow Airport to London Gatwick Airport to catch my connecting flight to Torino, Italy. Buying the bus ticket to get across town will not be a problem, either … if they’ll let me out of Heathrow.
I went to England for the first time in 1999. I was a student staying for the summer. I had a return ticket. Getting into the country was no problem, and the experience of answering border security’s questions was actually novel.
Visit No. 2 was May 2011. London was my first stop in my first round-the-world trip. I did not have a plane ticket out of the country but did have a bus ticket to Amsterdam for a week later. I was asked a lot of questions. Among them: Where are you staying? (In hostels.) How long will you stay? (One week.) What is your profession? (Freelance writer and editor–never, ever say farmer in this situation.) And they let me in.
My third visit was in August 2011. I was only passing through, staying in the country for three days enroute to Latvia enroute to Turkey. I had a plane ticket out–something very important to border security–yet they were not happy to see me again. The clearly overworked and under-appreciated border agent was sure I was coming back to England under one of the following scenarios:
1. To shack up with a significant other: She asked me three times where I was staying and did not like my answer. (“With a friend.”) I was staying with a hasher friend in London and with friends of a friend in Bath.
How do you know these people? What do you mean you’re in a running group together? How can you be in a running group together if you live in different countries? (I was not about to explain hashing.)
You do realize that, as a U.S. citizen, you can only stay in the U.K. for six months out of one year, don’t you? And leaving the country for a short period of time does not reset your length of stay? (I was familiar with all of this, yes.)
2. To live off the government:
You’re a writer? And you can afford to travel? (She’d have been disgusted if I were to describe some of the sleeping and traveling conditions I’ve experienced.)
What do you write about? (This is a trap! I can’t say farming, because then the next question is, Have you been on a farm in another country? And the answer to that is always no. Always. So I said sustainable living, which is entirely true.)
And then: You do realize that, as a U.S. citizen, you can only stay in the U.K. for six months out of one year, don’t you? And leaving the country for a short period of time does not reset your length of stay? (My answer was still yes.)
3. To stay forever: You do realize that, as a U.S. citizen, you can only stay in the U.K. for six months out of one year, don’t you? And leaving the country for a short period of time does not reset your length of stay? (Sound familiar? We actually had this conversation three times. It makes no difference that I had a plane ticket in my hand that would get me out of her lovely country in four days.)
They did let me in, thank goodness. I was the last person on my bus to get finished with the interrogation. The person I was traveling with did not think they were going to let me into England. I didn’t think so, either, honestly.
So whether they let me out of Heathrow Airport to catch my flight from Gatwick, we’ll see. I have seven hours from landing to takeoff–plenty of time, in theory, to catch a connection.
* Terra Madre is the convention of Slow Food International, an organization promoting sustainable food and farming. Terra Madre is held every two years in Torino, Italy, and this is the first year they’ve opened the event to the public. I am going with media accreditation for the magazines I write for (which are definitely not farm-related, Madam Border Patrol).