Editor’s note: Longtime Santa Monican Charles Andrews is traveling across Europe in a camper van for one year, with his family
Very. Nearly. Busted. By immigration. Very nearly banned and sent home.
Where did this happen? Morocco? Slovakia? Slovenia? Formerly Franco Spain? Formerly Communist Poland? Until-recently-still-Communist Albania? War-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina? Montenegro? Macedonia? Vatican City? (Did they know we haven’t been to mass lately or confession for a few decades?)
We’ve been to all those countries and more, 27 nations and probably 60 to 70 border crossings, in the last nine months.
Most border crossings have been a big nothing. Since we’ve been cruising around the European Union (plus Morocco), there’s usually not even anyone there at the border, just a “Welcome To” sign and that cute blue EU logo with the gold stars.
It’s been a disappointment to us. Where’s the excitement of entering a new nation? The first encounter with a uniformed representative, a new language, anticipation of new landscapes and customs?
And where are the passport stamps? It used to be that your passport was like a diary, earning worn pages jammed with distinctive black insignia and exotic languages or even alien alphabets, speaking in shorthand page after page of the checkered trail of your journey abroad. THE official document to evoke memories and testify yes, I was there.
But this time our passports betrayed us. They clearly revealed what date we entered Europe, and the fact that we were still there more than 90 days later. That’s not allowed.
Does that surprise you? Didn’t you think an American could travel around Europe without any restrictions, certainly for more than 90 days?
It didn’t surprise us at that point, exactly, though I weakly feigned ignorance to the border officer. In the last stages of four years of research and planning for this family adventure, I encountered the Sch_ _ _ rule. (I’m not naming it because I don’t want a Google by some bored customs person somewhere to result in our names on a scofflaw list.)
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. We’re not allowed to travel in European Union countries for more than 90 days in a 180-day period? Why hadn’t I come across this heavy little piece of information before? After all we went through to arrange a campervan for a year, to put all of our affairs in order, to finally get tenants at the last minute for our Santa Monica condo for that exact one year period, now the whole thing is going to be shot down because of this?
Further research allayed my panic and fears. Mostly. I mentioned it to my wife and daughter but played it down because every place I found a reference to it from individuals who had traveled, they dismissed it — don’t worry, it’s never enforced, never even brought up unless you’re a “suspicious character” (Muslim entering from a “dangerous” country). White folks from Santa Monica need not even think about it. Contemptible racism, but in this case a saving grace for us.
So when the customs official at the ferry to Dover, England started asking a lot of questions, and the questions got more detailed and personal (“Where are you going after you leave England?” and “How are you paying for this trip?”), I was a little slow to catch on that she had an agenda, that this was a crisis point and had to be managed delicately. I was beginning to chafe at the nature of the questions and for a brief moment thought of responding in a knee-jerk, I’m-a-free-American way: “None of your business!” But didn’t, got wise and a lot more conciliatory because this was serious and this woman was tough.
“You can be banned for 10 years from Britain, you know,” she sternly informed us. “That happened to a man here this morning. You could be banned for life.” Pleading ignorance only got me another stern admonition, especially when she found out I was a journalist. “You of all people really should know better! Don’t you find out about the rules of a place before you go there? What do you think would happen to me if I went to your country and overstayed my limit? I’ll tell you: I’d be thrown out instantly, and not allowed back.”
Properly censured and very thankful to have dodged the bullet, I was left with an odd feeling of how did that happen to us? We’re Americans, a family. We’re not dangerous, or even suspect. Of course that was a gut reaction, ignoring what I know about decades of bombings in Europe and our own home-grown terrorists (Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, too many defiant murderers of physicians).
When I mentioned the incident to my friend Nigel, a successful film producer who lives outside London, his reaction was, “Well, you’ve never been through U.S. customs, have you? They can get quite personal and confrontational. When I was younger and a bit scruffier, they were even worse.”
Yes, the world has changed, but I was reminded that it was never what most naïve Americans thought it was, either. So when you pack your bags for your extended European visit, don’t forget to include perspective, humility and up-to-date information.
You can follow the Andrews family’s daily blog at anandrewsadventure.blogspot.com