Once again, I find myself in a precarious situation. No longer a legal resident in the Netherlands, still certain I don’t want to return to the United States to live, and yet without a clear basis to establish myself somewhere new, I currently fall between borders. And that’s both figurative and painfully literal.
A few weeks ago, I stood in line at the UK border. I felt my heartbeat, counted every step forward, and, despite the cool temperature outside, I found it impossible to cool off in the stuffy room.
It was about 4:30 am. As I made my way through the long, winding immigration line, I tried to maintain eye contact with the coach that was waiting for me and about thirty other passengers. It was parked among countless other busses, trucks and cars – everybody making their way across the border from France to the UK, seeking permission to board the ferry that would take us into the country.
I was traveling by bus from the Netherlands, where I briefly visited to present at a conference and check in with a few dear friends. Although it’s relatively cheap to fly between the Netherlands and the UK, the bus is even cheaper. And the last few times I entered the UK at an airport, I was met with near interrogations about my rights to visit and remain in the country. So, I figured I would try my luck traveling by bus, stating my case to immigration officers at a different border who might be more chill.
The eleven-hour bus ride began in Amsterdam. As we made stops in the Hague and Rotterdam, more passengers boarded. We were a reasonably diverse group, including individuals and families of all ages, nationalities and ethnicities. One thing we probably all had in common: not rich. Apart from an obnoxious bus driver and a young boy who boarded in Rotterdam and apparently remembered his loud video game but forgot his headphones, the bus ride was agreeable. I did some work on my computer, watched one or two Netflix downloads, then slept as we drove through Belgium and into France.
The bus driver woke us with bright lights and a mellow announcement, “Alright ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to reach the French border. So, try to slowly wake yourselves up. You’re going to have your passports checked on the France side, then make your way over to the UK side. They might want to go through your bags. You never know. But for now, just take your passports with you.”
For the first time on this journey, my anxiety kicked in. I scurried to find my phone and quickly downloaded a copy of the plane ticket I recently purchased that would take me from the UK to the US about two weeks later. If the UK immigration officers had any doubts about the validity of my nearly expired tourist visa, I would assure them I had no intention of staying in the country beyond my brief welcome. Without proof of this ticket, they might suspect I would overstay. Technically, I had everything I needed to justify my entrance into the country. But my circumstances were shaky, which could have been the reason my high-pitched voice shook when I asked the man sitting behind me, “Do we need to take our bags?”
We quietly left our bus, entered a small room and joined a short line at the French border. Before I could open my passport to the photo page, the French immigration officer was already calling me up to check its validity. And as quickly as that happened, she silently nodded and returned my passport. I walked back outside just long enough to see customs officers and a drug-sniffing dog approaching our bus. Our driver stood nearby to direct them to the luggage area. Almost immediately, I was shuffling into another slightly larger room. The vibe was different, the line was much longer, and nothing seemed guaranteed. We had entered UK territory.
My mind raced between thoughts of my expiring tourist visa and that drug dog who might smell the recently used weed pipe in my bag. I might be detained at this border for one, maybe even two reasons.
Wait, why didn’t I take a plane?
So, here’s the gist. When my Dutch residence permit was about to expire last year, and my mom was beginning to recover from cancer treatments in the US, my life between the two countries began to feel less rooted. At the same time, I fell in love with a man who lives in the UK. At first, I made frequent trips to the UK, mainly as a stop between the Netherlands and the US, as I went back and forth pretty often. After a while, it made sense to spend more time there to get established in the country. While I did freelance work, I could make moves to establish my business while also applying for traditional jobs. I was open to options that would allow me to move there permanently.
While in this transition, before having the right to live and work in the country, my US passport granted me a six-month tourist visa in the UK. Over a twelve-month period, I could spend a maximum of six months in the country. I could go and come as frequently as I wanted. I just had to keep track of the total number of days/weeks/months I was there.
By the beginning of August, my sea of options and opportunities had dissolved into a puddle of rejections and bad news. Although I expected to find a long-term solution for my residency by this time, I still had no plan in place. When I counted the days based on the stamps in my passport, I only had about three weeks remaining for my tourist visa. Depending on how you counted and where you stood, and maybe even whether you took a plane or a bus, I could maybe argue for another week or so. But regardless of the way you looked at it, by the time I returned from this last visit to the Netherlands, I would be pushing the limit.
The last two or three times I arrived in the UK, the airport immigration officers asked tons of questions. They began to take notes and spent increasingly more time typing information into their mysterious files. So, if there was a time for them to finally pull out a calculator and calculate the days I was in the UK, I knew it would be the next time I re-entered the country.
What happens if they say my time is up?
The immigration line inched forward. Occasionally, people were taken aside and escorted into another room behind mirrored walls. They were all black and brown. Officers shouted things like, “wait here!” and “is this your bag?” When people from my bus reached the front of the line, I started rehearsing what I would say. I knew I would have to explain why I was returning, what I planned to do there, how long I planned to stay and if I understood I was at the very end of my right to be in the country. If they argued my time was already up, I was prepared to pull out a calendar and calculator.
Around five am, I faked a cheerful, “Good morning!” to the immigration officer. Out of the three officers working, I was pleased to get him because he seemed the least tense. As expected, he flipped through my passport multiple times. He asked me the typical questions, and then a few unexpected ones, like, “Why did they stamp it here with a blah blah number?” He even left to consult with the neighboring officer about the blah blah number that was stamped in my passport.
I listened to the officers discuss me and poke through my passport, while I’m certain I became visibly sweaty. I didn’t understand what they were confused about, but I jumped to retrieve my phone when I heard the other officer ask if I had a ticket to leave the UK. Although I struggled to access the phone with my sweaty and shaky hands, finally I presented my ticket, zooming into the date to prove I would leave in less than two weeks. At that point, he didn’t care about the specific number of days, he was just happy to know I would be gone soon.
“Alright,” he said. “Go ahead.”
Suddenly my fear seemed inflated. I was lucky to be granted a few more days – a slight reprieve to do some packing and soul-searching before leaving the UK for an extended period. Although I’ll continue to pursue other visa options from the US, I might not be able to return until January. That burden aside, matters could be much worse.
I returned to the bus to find it parked in line for the ferry to the UK, with no dogs waiting to arrest me. After the driver did a headcount, he made an announcement: “Well, everybody, that took longer than expected. We missed the ferry and will have to wait an hour for the next one. And we also lost one passenger at the border. It happens sometimes. Sit tight.”
This border crossing stuff. It’s not a game.