S A R I S H A K U R U P
I was supposed to have an internship at Cambridge University. I had been planning it for months, 5 weeks in my mother's alma mater, working in the Psychology department, privy to how real, higher-education research takes place, living in a college house, going for early morning runs, making friends and learning to spend time with myself.
Before I came to Cambridge, my friend and I hopped around Europe for a bit: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bruges, Paris. On the my last day in Paris I wheeled my suitcase to Gare du Nord, an hour before my train--a little anxious I had come too late, but I had been writing a letter to a friend that had taken more time than I anticipated--ready to meet my mother in London. As I waited in the formidable line to have my passport checked, I listened to La Boheme on Spotify, enjoying what I presumed to be my last moments in Paris, watching tourists and Parisians wipe the summer sweat off their brows around me as they lugged around their bags and their children.
I filled out the little form they ask you to complete before you show border control your passport. Reason for visit? Internship, I wrote, undeniably proud. It was not a formal internship program, I knew that. I wasn't being paid, I wasn't filling an official position. But everyone I had talked to was calling it an internship, so that's what I wrote down.
I approached the border control officer behind the thick glass as I always do, with a wide, nonthreatening smile. Sometimes I wonder if every eighteen-year-old feels the need to do this, or it's purely because of the color of my skin that I feel like I have to make up for, prove that I'm a nice girl, not a threat.
He looked like the sort of guy who might be an extra on a second-rate BBC show. Thick British accent, unsmiling, body that clearly was once lanky but now had grown soft and pudgy in all the wrong places.
"Yes." I smiled even wider.
"At Cambridge? Do you have a letter from the university?"
I pulled out my letter and presented it to him.
"It says here you are a student visitor."
"Yes, well, it's an informal internship--not an actual program--so I can be refered to as a student visitor."
That was the start of the trouble. Despite my United States passport, meant to entitle me entry into the country, I could not be working, or else I needed a VISA. At that moment, I so wished I could turn the clock back, just five minutes, and write down "student visitor" instead of "internship." It would have been so easy, so quick. But no one had told me to refer to my position that way. Everyone had been calling it an internship, despite the informality of the post.
I attempted to explain this, but the border control agent already looked half annoyed, half victorious.
"I'm going to have to figure out a little bit more about what you're planning to do in our country," he said.
My train was leaving in ten minutes. I looked down at the watch my mother had given me before I left for the trip. It used to be hers, it glinted gold against the white light of the train station.
"Will I need to reschedule my train?" I asked, concerned.
"Look, we might not even let you into the country at all," he said roughly. He called his supervisor, who led me to a bench on the other side of the room. She looked like the kind of police officer that only exist in movies, pretty, but with a hard, angled face, bright blond hair tied in a tight ponytail, slim, muscular body.
That was the moment that my chest tightened, my throat closed up, fighting tears. I turned my phone on and off, every other minute, waiting for a text from my mother saying she had landed. Beside me, another tall, young brown boy sat, accent unplaceable but evidently Middle Eastern. He explained to another border control officer that he had been in France for a singing competition, and now he was going home to his mom in Manchester. Her small eyes squinted even smaller as she appraised him with glaring suspicion.
I was led into the sort of room you see in movies, the ones where they question terrorists in airports. I was asked a series of questions, all written down with my answers, exactly as they were said. It was an odd, out-of-body experience, the kind where you know that later, this will be a good story, and you can't wait for the moment that this moment is an anecdote from the past, and not the present.
"I understand that this is informal," he said. "I get that you are just going to help out with research, as the letter says. But the letter is written by a professor, not an agent of border control, and clearly she doesn't understand the laws. I could just stamp your passport and let you go, but I'm not going to. They really should have told you to get a VISA."
I only nodded. I have never been the sort of person inclined to question authority, especially when it dons a government badge. When I think back now, I should have. Why couldn't I go? Clearly this was an issue of word choice. I had a U.S. passport, so I was entitled entry. He knew that I wasn't going to settle there, or get work there. I had a plane ticket booked for 5 weeks out. He had the power to stamp my passport and let me go, why didn't he? Clearly I was not dangerous, not planning anything other than what I had stated.
"Did you even want this internship, or is this something your mum made you do?"
I didn't see how it was relevant but I answered anyway.
"It was me."
"Oh really? What do you want to do when you get a job?"
"I want to work in art museums. I want to be a curator."
"Well, it seems to me you should really be in Paris then. Which is good because I'm not letting you into Britian today."
I only nodded, a little shell shocked. This was the sort of thing I had only thought happened to terrorists, people with malicious intent. Not people like me.
"Do you have somewhere to stay?"
"Can your mum come and get you?"
"I don't know."
I knew that she would, but really, I didn't think it was any of his business. He had made his decision, and I didn't need to give him the emotional reassurance of knowing that despite his decision, I would be ok. What I did when I walked back into France was my life, and he had no control over it.
"Do you even understand what's happening? You don't seem very concerned," he said, brow furrowed as he waited impatiently for a reaction from me he was clearly craving.
The entire time in the windowless room--an hour at least--I had been fighting tears, barely able to croak out my answers. Clearly I was a better actor than I thought, but it was because I was trying to be polite, and professional. But all he wanted, all along, were tears.
Up until that moment I had been trying to rationalize the whole thing to myself. After all, I had written "internship." For a formal internship you needed a VISA. Maybe Cambridge had just been wrong. (They actually weren't wrong, they have had other students do informal research work and come into the country to do so before, and this has never happened.) But at that moment, as he looked at me, eyes rounded, waiting for tears, I realized that this was more than that--this was a power trip for our BBC extra.
They drew a line through the stamp on my passport, a big, ugly cross. They took all my fingerprints in rough, black ink the way they do to people who get arrested. They walked me to the French border control on the other side, handed me my passport, and put me in the elevator that I had, only a few hours ago, used to come up.
I found myself suddenly surrounded by the foreign streets of Paris once again, that engulfing, vibrant, exhausting city. Earlier that morning, in the letter to my friend, I had written:
I know that all my traveling isn't over, and given all the recent attacks in London, I'm kind of apprehensive about the next leg of my trip (I think more accurately, I am stepping into the fireworks), but suddenly I just want to stay in this city until I can love it the way the Lost Generation seemed to be able to. Surely I am missing something? Surely I did not see the part that makes it a "moveable feast."
I guess the universe has an odd way of giving you what you've asked for. My mother flew to Paris almost an hour after she landed in London, and we decided to spend the week in Paris instead. Five more days to find a way to love the city that so many artists and writers before me have loved.
Tomorrow, early in the morning, I fly home. Much earlier than intended, but I have been away for a month, and there is a small part of me that will admit that I do miss California. It's odd, the stretch of time that exists before me, now blank. I had plans, suddenly I don't. I had an internship, a new country, and now--nothing. It's disappointing, but I am trying to see it as a blank slate, something new rather than something erased.
Here's hoping I can create something worthwhile.