ell, it’s official. Queen Elizabeth and I have finally come to a parting of the ways. And so it seems only fitting at this time to say farewell and look back at my six-month sojourn in that “green and pleasant land” of my grandfather’s birth. An essay about what I learned of life in England and Wales during my time there is soon to follow. But first, a bit of background and some well-earned grousing about the manner of my leaving:
Those who have followed my Tale of Woe are aware that, after coming to England last fall on a winter sabbatical to complete my third novel (which I happily did), I got the wild hare to buy yet another yacht and sail it around the world. This plan was all well and good, the only problem being that the six months of leave expressly granted to me as a tourist to remain in the UK (as clearly stamped on my passport) was due to expire on April 12, whereas some very necessary repair and refurbishing of the vessel by a British boatyard was not due to be completed until the end of April. Moreover, the season during which it is considered safe to cross the often treacherous Bay of Biscay on the way to the Canary Islands—my first port of call—does not begin, in the eyes of sailors much more seasoned and expert in matters of weather than I, until May 1.
So, being a lawyer charged with the duty to obey, not flout the law, I did what no normal person in his right mind would do: I dutifully left the UK on March 31 to come to France for a one-week holiday, then presented myself with my passport again at the border on April 7 with a polite request to re-enter the country and remain there, legally, for the few weeks necessary to pick up my new boat and go. I did this rather than simply overstay my visa by a piddling few weeks during which British authorities would have been neither interested in my affairs nor any the wiser about them. As proof of my bona fides, I presented to the UK Border Control officer at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris the bill of sale for the boat and a letter from the British yard stating that I had hired them to perform repairs expected to be completed by May 1 for my departure from the country on a passage to the Canary Islands at that time. On the form presented to Border Control, I asked for leave to return to the UK for up to two months, through June 7, in the unlikely event repairs took a little longer than expected or weather did not permit a departure precisely on May 1. This nefarious conduct of mine, I was to come to learn, is what passes for criminal intent in the eagle eyes of the British Border Control.
After being removed from the queue of passengers waiting for the Eurostar train bound for London, I was taken to an interrogation room where I was asked, in that decidedly suspicious and accusatory tone unique to law enforcement officials, a series of questions about my “activities” in the United Kingdom for the past six months—questions about where I had lived, the people with whom I had associated, whether I had ever sought to use the National Health System, how I had supported myself, and why I had not returned to the United States in all that time. I answered these questions politely and truthfully, to wit: that I had lived as both a renter and a guest in private homes and hostels in London and Wales, spent that time writing a novel, had not taken a job or a dime of the British taxpayers’ money, and was supporting myself from my own savings on a well-deserved world tour after a thirty-two year career as an attorney licensed by two state bars before which I remain in good standing.
After my interrogation I was asked to present myself to French authorities who, at the direction of the UK border control guard, frisked me and ransacked my wallet and my luggage—presenting, with suspicious glances to the border guard, credit card receipts for the escargot I had eaten during my crime spree in Paris. One item retrieved from my wallet was a business card I recently had printed up in the humble expectation it might help me sell a book or two. “Michael Hurley, Author,” it said, with an email address, my website, and the UK number of a mobile phone I had purchased in London to be able to call friends and family from overseas inexpensively. With this “evidence,” I was to learn, the UK Border Control had discovered my secret plot.
I was informed that I was being “detained” under some unknown provision of British law, after which I was taken to a room where I was fingerprinted and presented with a written decision by the border control, to be placed on record under my passport number, that in the judgment of my interrogator I did not intend to leave the UK on a sailboat but rather to reside there permanently and illegally, for which purpose I had conceived the brilliant strategy of leaving the UK and coming to France, presenting myself to border control, and inviting them to discover my scheme.
An hour later I walked out of the Gare du Nord in a daze and found my way to a local hostel, where I have remained for the past three weeks—enjoying some extra time in Paris as best I can, under the circumstances, while trying to coordinate the logistics of a major ocean voyage by email and telephone. When the repairs to my boat are complete, a hired captain and crew will sail the boat across the English Channel to meet me in Calais. From there I will venture out into the busiest shipping lane in the world, alone, on a two-thousand mile passage aboard a boat I will have never had the opportunity to sail before, without setting foot again on British soil. May God help me.
And so it is surely with good reason we hear that the government of Great Britain is struggling to make ends meet, my friends. I would guess that several trainloads of indigent migrants looking to flail themselves onto the breast of that country’s social welfare system have passed through Gare du Nord undetected these past three weeks, while Border Control can boast of a perfect record in keeping American yachtsmen and the money they would seek to inject into the British economy safely away.
But as with every hurdle in life—and to be fair, this hardly qualifies as much of a hurdle at all—we learn something about ourselves and the world in which we live. For most of my adult life I have been safely ensconced in the American upper middle class, with an income that placed me in the top five percent of the population. I have a college degree and a law degree. My children went to private schools and expensive summer camps. I belonged to private country clubs and yacht clubs and took expensive skiing and sailing vacations, staying in high-priced hotels in places like Aspen, New York City, the Bahamas, and Martha’s Vineyard. Most of my friends were and are people just like me. I represented the interests of large corporations as a partner in a major law firm, and I have been responsible for a payroll employing many people who themselves were safely ensconced in the upper middle class. I have never been charged with a crime, and before I could qualify as a member of the bar in Texas and North Carolina I had to undergo an extensive investigation of my character by the FBI during which employers, friends, and neighbors going back to my teenage years were interviewed. So it was fairly laughable to me that a gate officer with the UK Border Control could reach the conclusion she did.
Except that she wasn’t laughing. And soon, neither was I.
It is a sobering and distressing thing not to be believed, not to be trusted—to have our honest and good intentions given the most sinister and unflattering interpretation possible. And yet this impoliteness is something that many who are not safely ensconced in the upper echelons of polite society experience every day and come to expect as normal. Until you experience it yourself in some small way and are unceremoniously lumped in with a segment of society with whom you would otherwise have almost nothing in common, it’s hard to understand how it must feel.
While (my British friends would say whilst) I was living in England and taking my time there for granted, I once watched a British TV show featuring real-life encounters with border control. Episodes showing foreigners being interrogated by crafty agents and thwarted in their attempts to illegally work in or enter the UK were offered as a form of entertainment to the British public. I found the show horrifying and remember thinking so at the time. The imbalance and abuse of power was stark. Here were mostly low-income, uneducated Eastern European migrants, some struggling with English, who were looking for a means to support themselves and their families, being not just questioned but fairly taunted and bullied by agents relishing their power and their superior command of the language and the situation. The lack of humility and compassion made me embarrassed for Britain. There was a kind of ugliness about it. I felt uneasy watching it, and so I turned it off. A few weeks ago in the Gare du Nord Station, this show was turned back on for me, and I found myself in a starring role.
We would do well to have more compassion for those who find themselves on the periphery of the safe places where most of us live our lives. Welcome to the stranger and compassion for the traveler are traditions and values sadly lost amid all the shouting about immigration and refugees and borders. One of the most memorable lessons of my travels as a pilgrim and a nomad across 500 miles of the Camino in Spain was a verse I read written on a wall in Castrojirez. It said, simply, that the great illusion of our time on Earth is the notion that “I am here, and you are there.” The truth is, we are all in this together, all waiting on the same border, all travelers eager for a better life, a bit of comfort, and a place called home.