*Story time, no photos, we weren’t allowed to have our cameras*
Mikel and I had our plans for the next few months in the UK lined up. I emailed the family we were going to be staying with first to let them know what time we would be arriving, around 9pm. This alone worried me because we weren’t being picked up, we were given directions to her house in a neighborhood in south London, 15 minutes walk from the last stop on the northern line (out in the booneys). When we arrived at London Stansted I was relieved to see the “all other passports” line had about 4 people, while the EU passport line had well over 100. I quickly got up to the border control and he asked the typical questions of why you are entering, where are you staying etc. I’m not sure if it was because of the end of a long travel day, or what, but I had my head screwed on backwards talking to him. I only spoke a sentence before he picked up his phone to have someone else question us. They didn’t like the lack of paperwork or permits we had for volunteering. He said it didn’t matter if we were babysitting a family member for a day, it still isn’t allowed, paid or unpaid.
At this point they held our passports and we were ushered into a waiting area next to the counter for further investigation and told it would be “just a few minutes” (that statement became the theme of the night). We sat there for about an hour while other people who had been sent there came and went, all of them with complete looks of shock on their face when they learned we were from America….wondering what could have possibly gone wrong. Eventually we were told to get our luggage and make our way to the next room to be “interviewed separately” (interrogated). I quickly connected to wifi before our bags were taken again and emailed the family to let them know we were having issues entering but I will try and keep her updated.
“But don’t worry, he said. You will have a refreshments and will be just a few minutes”
First we were put in separate rooms for about 20 minutes and waited to be patted down/searched. Then we were allowed to be together again in a different room where you wait to be interviewed. We weren’t allowed to have anything, not even a pen to write. They had refreshments such as the most foul sandwich I have ever eaten, chicken, mayonnaise, and sweet corn. The major bonus here was a flat screen TV with stacks of DVD’s, so I popped in “Hitch” for some uplifting entertainment.
I must mention that during this entire process I am completely beside myself. Feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt for potentially ruining our entire trip, not knowing our outcome, if we were going to be sent back to Amsterdam or back to the states. I had no idea and the anticipation was killing me, I already have anxiety and this sent it into overdrive. If not for Mikel’s extremely relaxed demeanor, and not being even the slightest bit upset with me, I would have for sure been hysterically crying.
We waited 3 hours for the interviews, but before that they took us to search our bags. The lady searching mine was questioning everything I had in my bag as if I were trying to smuggle drugs into the country. We went over all of my vitamins and counted each and every coin or dollar I had in the most painfully long way ever:
“What is this white one?”
“It’s magnesium…it says on the bag too”
“What is this orange one?”
“Day quil, it’s cold medicine”
“Can you spell that for me?”
This went on forever. I have a lot of vitamins and headaches meds. She also found my personal journal and told me she was going to take it to read for evidence (WTF are you kidding me??)
Meanwhile, Mikel is next to me laughing with his immigration officer, chatting it up about places they have been and want to travel to. What the heck! Do I look overly suspicious or something??
After this we were taken to get finger and palm prints, and then I was taken in for interviewing. This part of the process was actually the quickest. She showed no emotions, didn’t look at me once but just asked questions and wrote them down. She asked me very basic but also very detailed questions, all surrounding the family we were staying with, their jobs/names/kids etc. A lot of them I did not even know considering we had never met them. Mikel’s interview took half as long and he said she only asked him a couple of questions, again, why am I getting the bulk of this abuse?
She told me they would now make a decision, but, “it will just be a few minutes.”
3 hours later, around 1 am, she pulled Mikel out to talk and told us we would not be allowed access because of the nature of the volunteering. They had our flight booked for 7 am to Amsterdam and finally I could feel a sense of relief knowing what our fate was. The girl next to me had to wait in the room until 8pm the following day to be sent back to Russia, so, we felt kind of lucky. We slept on the benches in the waiting room until the morning. We were then escorted by four immigration officers to the airplane. We passed all other passengers and first class boarders, which was equal parts humiliating and convenient.
In total, we were detained for 13 HOURS. I finally got wifi again at Amsterdam airport and had two emails from the family, worried about our whereabouts and hoping to hear from us very soon. I felt so bad, I had to cancel many visits and potentially let quite a few people down.
These felt like the longest and worst hours of my life, but it could be a lot worse. In fact, because of this incident I decided to do some more research into our visa rules and realized we didn’t fully understand our 90 in 180 schengen visas. If we had gone to the UK without an issue, we would have re-entered the schengen zone later not having realized our days hadn’t reset and very well could have over stayed our visit by 30+ days, facing worse consequences. Now that I am fully aware of where and when we need to be places, we are back on track. However, I am slightly traumatized from the experience and am looking forward to our next city and being in one place for a while. Stay tuned!