Once upon a time, now long ago, I made a mistake regarding my immigration status in Canada. Not, you understand, one of those euphemistic ‘mistakes’ that people spend their later lives atoning for; merely something entirely legal but fundamentally ill-advised (or more precisely, critically unadvised), which resulted in my situation being temporarily ambiguous, and later, supposedly, retroactively clarified. Somehow, however, it also resulted in a flag being put on my file, which results in my being subjected to a full interview with the immigration officer whenever I enter Canada, despite the fact that I have lived here most of my life. Such is the background to my tale.
A few weeks ago I went to a conference in Barcelona with my friend and colleague who, it chances, now lives in The Valley (that valley) and who, while she speaks several languages, does not number Spanish (or for that matter Catalan) among them. Not speaking Spanish (or indeed Catalan) myself, we decided to combine our two ignorances into one larger one, and both booked flights via JFK airport in New York, with the idea that we could travel together and share our disorientation on arrival. And this in turn necessitated flying with Delta Airlines, the second of a pair of bad notions, as you will see.
Come the designated day, I betook myself to Dorval Airport (which I refuse to call Pierre Elliott Trudeau because I never did understand what everybody saw in Mr. Trudeau—and as far as I can tell, the airport is yet in Dorval) at the appointed hour minus the recommended getting herded around like a sheep delay, and there, for a change, matters proceeded quite smoothly. The check-in staff almost knew what they were doing, and gave me nearly the right paperwork. The first and least serious rank of security people were cheerful and polite (not to mention cute and perky) and passed me through without fuss. Knowing the routine this time (having flown to the States for another conference but recently), I switched my white coloured card (persons requiring a visa) for a green coloured one (persons from visa-waiver countries), unless it’s the other way around, filled it in, and went to the US border guard. Why Canada tolerates having US border guards on its soil I will never understand, but perhaps it is in the nature of a gesture of apology for when we burned the White House down (yes!) in the War of 1812. But that is by the way.
The US border guard himself was a decent sort, cheerful, faintly apologetic for the proliferation of procedures that has resulted in us needing a passport and an immigration card and a customs declaration and a fingerprinting and a photograph—and soon, we are told, a microchip, a cheese, a beagle and a verandah—just to change planes in a country that they think is fantastic but that the rest of us would perhaps rather not visit. I sometimes think that Americans don’t understand how to take death and destruction in the nature of sport, even as they promote it as a way of life. But that, too, is by the bye.
Past the immigration people were the security people, a rambunctious crowd of francophone Africans who jollied us along with exhortations to save everyone trouble by not letting the beepy thing go beep and extollations of the joys of the X-irradiation of shoes. And thence I passed along the infinite corridor (not that corridor, another, different one) to the Halls of Boredom, where one waits and waits and waits. At least, in this modern world, there is overpriced coffee to be had in these locations. But still; one waits, and one waits, and one waits.
After much waiting and further, additional waiting, an announcement was made that there was a slight technical difficulty with the aircraft, which would occasion some supplemental waiting. Which waiting was waited, for perhaps half an hour. After which a second announcement was made, to the effect that the aircraft had a slight oil leak, and that through the application of additional waiting, all would be made well, and the flight would depart. Further waiting was then made, for perhaps another two hours, at which point a third announcement was made, this time that, through the slight leak, all the oil had leaked from the plane, and it was thought that, by and large, it would be better if the plane did not depart at all, but that alternate arrangements would be made for the transportation of the passengers, without further waiting. Which, while a bad thing, seemed very much better than the worse thing that might very well occur if the jet engines seized up at 20,000 feet, and I believe we could all appreciate this point.
So everyone in those halls of boredom leapt to their respective feet and proceeded to the little desk where two harried representatives of Delta Airlines spent twenty minutes attempting to figure out how to place all the waiting passengers on the zero alternative flights, and not getting very far at it at all. At which point they gave up and announced that two people could not possibly process all the people from the flight, and asked us to go back to the Delta check in desk, there to be rebooked.
This process involved going through the door marked ‘do not pass this door,’ up three flights of stairs, along the infinite corridor (not that corridor, another, different different one) to the Canadian border post. For in passing the US border post, despite not having left Canada, we had left Canada.
Since we had not in fact left Canada, everyone was passed through to the luggage hall promptly—except me, for I have a flag on my file.
So I was sent to have an interview with the immigration officer, and the immigration officer asked me where I lived, so I told him, and asked me where I had been, and I said I hadn’t, and asked me what the status of my citizenship application was, and I said that I didn’t know, because I didn’t. And he asked me why I didn’t know, and I said because the immigration department is mind bogglingly slow and haven’t sent me any mail for many months, and he said, but they do have a website, and I said well I guess they do, and he said, ok, go home and find out how your application is coming, ok? Because then you’ll know. So I said ok, and he sent me through.
At which point I passed through to the luggage place, where nobody knew what was happening with our luggage, and waited half an hour for it to appear. But appear it eventually did, so then, with luggage (literally and figuratively) in tow, I went upstairs to the Delta desk, there to get rebooked.
Upstairs at the Delta desk I found all the other people from our flight, along with all the people for another flight, waiting in line for a desk staffed by two people—a vast increase in service capacity from the two people who were insufficient to serve us at the other end of the airport, as I am sure you will appreciate. But after a further delay of a mere hour or so, I reached the front of the queue, there to be told that the next flight for New York was the same flight as the flight that had just not flown, only tomorrow, and that I should go home and come back then. And they offered me a voucher for a taxi. By this point, I should mention, I was becoming quite concerned about the fact that my colleague was still expecting to meet me in New York. But looking at my watch I realised that, due to the utter inadequacy of my purported connection at JFK, her plane from the West Coast was still in the air. So I further asked the lady at the desk if a message might be sent to her, saying that I was to be delayed by 24 hours and, if my calculations were correct, and if I went straight from the airport in Barcelona to the conference, I should still be able to arrive during the coffee break on the first morning of the conference. And after several tries at dictating a message and one at writing it out longhand, the words were typed, the button was pressed, and the message was transmitted.
So that done, I went to the taxi rank where all the taxis stood, but there were none of them. So I waited and waited and waited until finally a taxi arrived driven by a man who spoke nor English nor French, who could not read street numbers, and who drove me around and around and around. Yet ultimately, by dint of waving and hollering and writing of notes, I succeeded in navigating him to my home. Discovering, at this point, that I was paying him with a voucher and that he would get paid no extra for all his excursions, he took my luggage, threw it in the gutter, and drove off.
It was at about this point, I think, that my phone rang, and it was my colleague, asking where I was. I was at first confused, having thought that this had all been explained to her by the airline, but said that I was still in Montreal, and that I would nonetheless be in Barcelona for coffee on the first day of the conference. She was upset (as indeed I was upset) that this was not working out at all as planned, unhappy, as I became unhappy once I appreciated the circumstance, that the airline had not in fact made any perceptible attempt to deliver my message, and unenthusiastic about arriving in Barcelona on her own. But what can one do?
And then her plane to Barcelona left, so I checked on the status of my citizenship application (still not even listed on the website, processing time now given as fifteen months), and went to bed.
Such was the first day of my trip not to Guatemala.