It's a lovely day today, but I am closeted in a darkened room, behind drawn shades, preparing myself for the big encounter. On Thursday, I have an appointment to see someone at the local field office of the Immigration Service.
I'm now pretty clear what the problem is: it's the love-hate relationship the whole planet has with Americans. Everybody on the planet hates Americans, but they would all love to be one: they all want to come and work in America. If they can't work, they want to come as a dependent relative, so they can then change their status and get a job. Or they come illegally, and then find a way to change their status and get a job. Or they come on a visit, then find a way to change their status and get a job.
There are some people who just want to come and have a look, and they're allowed up to three months. And there are some who want to do a bit of business, and they're allowed six months.
Right! So that's everybody, OK?
No, sir, please sir, there's me, sir, please sir.
What do you want, then?
The first requirement of any American visit is the visa. If you're a Brit, and you have a machine-readable passport (We nearly all do, now. They're the ones with all the chevrons along the edge of the page with your picture on it.) then the Americans will waive the visa requirement if you're trip is for less than 90 days. I was hoping to stay much longer, maybe a year.
Which saw me, late last October, on the 11.41 to London Victoria, the first step on my great journey. The step I thought would determine whether it was a journey at all. I was heading for the US Embassy to get my visa organised.
I'd followed the instructions at www.usembassy.org.uk to schedule (they say skedule) a Visa Interview. I'd filled out the Electronic Visa Application Form, and printed it out. I'd printed out my appointment letter and fee receipt. I'd gathered all the suggested information to prove I could support myself while I'm there, that I had no intention of working, and that I had a home and family in Britain to which I would be returning. There was such a lot of stuff that I was fatalistic about having forgotten something and having to do it all again (including paying). I remember checking and rechecking, although it was too late, since I was on the train.
As we got past Lewisham, I remembered the stories of a family from there who got thrown off a Spanish plane for excessive drunkenness. I guessed excessive drunkenness was pretty normal on Spanish planes. In fact, I remembered all those business flights to the US, and recalled that drunkenness seemed pretty normal on all planes. So I thanked my lucky stars Iwas going on the Queen Mary. I was already committed to that bit.
Then we passed Brixton, and I remembered lodging there with a colleague when I first came to London. Her partner (we rather primly said 'boyfriend' in those days) was an American, and the curtains in my room were an American flag, cut in two, so they only made the flag when you closed them.
I walked up through Mayfair to Grosvenor Square. On South Audley Street, I spotted a Blue Plaque with the name 'Charles X'. I thought it odd that an American Black Power leader would live in South Audley Street, and so it proved, because when I got closer, the plaque said 'Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France': probably not even related to Malcolm X at all.
The first sight of the American Embassy showed how fortified it now is. And there was the unsettling sight of London 'bobbies' (dressed in their 'tourist' outfits, with helmets) carrying side-arms and machine guns. There was a long queue waiting to get in. When I got inside, there was a long queue waiting to have their documentation checked so they could join the queue. My documents passed muster. They took my finger prints. And finally, I got in the queue.
After all that dispassionate, brutal systemisation, I finally got to meet a real flesh-and-blood American. The consular officer was a nice bright young woman, who was very interested in my trip, and hoped I enjoyed it. We had a very pleasant conversation, as I almost always do with Americans, and she told me that, of course, I could have the appropriate visa. This would be secure-couriered back to me in a week or so. Then she handed me back to their brutal system again: "Of course, the Immigration Officer where you land will have the final word on how long you can stay." she said, "They usually allow six months with this kind of visa. Be sure to have your plans and things ready to show him, so he knows it will take longer. But don't be tempted to ignore the limit he sets, because, if they find out, you will be deported and never allowed back in again." This effectively meant I wouldn't know if I could make the trip until I stepped off the boat in Brooklyn; which was not good news.
The variety of passports on show through all the queuing added weight to the view that everyone in the world wants to go to America. I suppose, given the huge numbers, and security risks they suffer, they don't do so bad dealing with it. But they do it, as you would expect any government to do it, by categorising everyone, and issuing the front line officers with a set of rules to follow. And at Brooklyn, a rule was duly followed: "port policy", he said, gruffly, and I got the allotted six months for the category into which I had been squeezed. My pleas were lost in the tide of people pushing me swiftly downstream from the immigration desk.
Now I've stopped for a week, and have the support of some real, live Americans. We've found the local Immigration Service "field office", and we've made an appointment. Now it's the darkened room and the cold compresses.
If this doesn't sort it out, the next step is to appeal for help to the local Senator. I hope we avoid this, because Minnesota is presently unique in having only one Senator (all states are supposed to have two). This is because they failed to elect one at the last election. The election here was so close, that it's still going on! The process of recounting, and the admissibility of some votes, is going from court to court to court, as the process here requires. In a result reminiscent of Formula One qualifying, the sitting Republican got 41.9841% of the poll, trailing to the Democratic challenger's 41.991%. In actual numbers, the difference is about 200 votes in a total of about 3 million. The Democratic majority in the Senate is still two votes short of preventing filibusters, one of the most powerful weapons the minority has, so the Republicans are, not, surprisingly, dragging their heels every inch of the way.All of which means Senator Amy Klobuchar must be a bit busy right now. But who knows: maybe she could do with a bit of light relief.