What To Do When You Get Detained (Our Unexpected Detour in Calais, France)

Perhaps our greatest misadventure–“One to tell the grandchildren,” the immigration officer said, “A unique honeymoon story, eh?”–was being detained, removed from the UK border back to France, and rather unceremoniously set loose in Calais. So we had a new question to ask ourselves. What do you do when you get detained?

Of course, the ideal answer is, don’t get detained in the first place. But that ship had sailed. Or rather, that bus we were on had driven away, across the border, without us. So as nice as it would have been to go back 6 months in time and apply for the work visa we didn’t know we needed, that unfortunately wasn’t an option. We had no choice but to roll with the punches and make the best of it.

Part 1: Present Your Passports

Here’s how it went down: we were on a bus from Bruges to London. It took us down through France, where we came upon the customs check. Everybody took their passports, filed off the bus, briefly showed their documents to the French agents and were waved through, filed back on the bus, drove a few yards, and filed off again, passports in hand, to be checked at the UK side of border patrol. That’s when the fun began.

I sauntered up, carefree as anything, and showed my passport. There was something quintessentially English about the customs official, with his round face and reddish hair and the way he’d say “f” instead of “th” at the start of a word. I answered his questions about the purpose of my trip–that Aaron and I were on our honeymoon. The man gestured Aaron forward from the line, and asked a few more questions. “What do you do for work in the US? Ah, actors and puppeteers? Is your show like Punch and Judy?” He cracked his first smile. But then he continued, “Will you be performing here in the UK?”

Around then, a funny feeling started in the pit of my stomach–a sense of foreboding that I tried to tell myself was my usual overactive nerves and imagination. You did your research. Fringe festivals and busking are okay on a visitor visa. The sooner you answer the man, the sooner he’ll change the subject.

He didn’t change the subject, though. We told him we were planning to perform in the Bedford Fringe Festival. He asked to see the contract. I handed it over. The silence expanded and buzzed in my ears. The official said he’d have to take our passports to the back, and find out more details about the festival, because we’d be receiving a percent of the box office earnings. Something like that–along with other things that people often don’t think of according to the officer, like receiving housing or mealsdoes count as compensation for your work, and therefore may require a special visa.

Our official found our bus driver and bid him wait–“Don’t leave until I come find you.” Aaron and I stood waiting in a corner, shifting from foot to foot and saying nothing, watching other people present their passports and pass through. When he did return, it wasn’t with good news.

Part 2: Learning about Visas

Most of my research on visas had been done when we were applying to be a street show at the Edinburgh Fringe. (Even though we were accepted, we did not end up claiming a slot: The Dragon and the Wanderer’s half hour runtime was just barely too long for a busker slot, which is 25 minutes plus your introduction. You also don’t get any set-up time on the stage, and our build takes 40 minutes. Plus, although we can play outdoors, we don’t really hold up to wind and rain, and this is Scotland we’re talking about. So it just wasn’t a good enough fit). The Edinburgh Fringe website still had great information about its visa requirements, so I used that as a baseline for my UK visa research.

My mistake was that I should have simply asked the folks at Bedford Fringe whether we would need a visa, rather than assuming that I had it all figured out. Edinburgh is a permit-free festival, while BedFringe is not. This means that different rules apply, and I had no idea about any of it.

“Unfortunately I can’t allow you to cross the border, because you will be in violation of your visa. You’ll have to come with me.” There was the verdict. Denied entry.

Still, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. “This is unexpected, I know. But there’s no permanent damage done–I’m convinced that you genuinely did not know, you genuinely made a mistake, and there was genuinely no attempt at deception.” He was very clear on this point (even a little repetitive, especially with the word “genuinely”. But I was grateful he was trying to be comforting.) “It’s in your favor that you were honest. You won’t be able to pass through today, but since I’m noting that there was genuinely no deception, this won’t have any affect on your travels in the future.” No criminal record, no ban on future entry. All in all, we got off easy.

Part 3: The Process of Detainment

This was true in multiple ways. We got our stuff off the bus and waited on a bench behind the officials’ booths for a few minutes. Our guy even gave us the WiFi password so I could shoot a quick email to the folks at Bedford, because once we were placed in detainment, we wouldn’t have access to our phones.

When they did bring us into the detainment room where we would wait to be processed, it was one at a time, though the room itself was shared between us, two other Argentinian girls who had been on our bus, and a man who came in after us with a very impressive thick black mustache. They patted me down before letting me in, and asked if I was healthy, if I was on any medications, and what my religion was. They recorded it, which I found curious, but inside the room were posters saying that holy books and prayer mats were available on request. They told me that while in detainment, they were charged with my care–I was their responsibility until they let me out. They put tags on our belongings which went on shelves outside the door (including anything in our pockets), gave us some papers, and showed us into the room.

And while they did all this, they were kind. They asked if I was all right, they smiled. They showed us that coffee, tea, and snacks were available inside the room, and if we wanted a hot meal, all we needed to do was ask (though I was far too nervous to be hungry). There was a restroom and a television set to a track and field match in the room as well. I was grateful for the distraction. The only thing crying out that this waiting room was in reality a detainment center was the fact that it was locked from the outside.

Eventually our official came back in, and continued giving us a much easier time than we could have had. Rather than taking us into separate rooms to be interviewed (or, quite possibly, interrogated), he simply wrote his representation of the day’s events in detail, and had us sign that it was correct, so that later there could be no accusation of misrepresentation, no legal trouble. He signed it too, and dated it, and showed us the way the lines at the bottom of the page had been crossed out, so that nothing could be added after the fact. He even took us in to be fingerprinted together instead of one at a time, and assured us it wasn’t for a criminal record, it was just within their own system, to identify that we are the people his particular report refers to.

Part 4: Thoughts You Have While Locked in a Room

After that it was back to the waiting room. I felt terrible about messing up the visa. But I felt even worse about how strong the urge had been to lie or withhold information–to say that we weren’t performing in the UK, or that there would be absolutely no compensation. I’d been tempted to say those things even when I thought we had the correct visa, based on nothing but a growing feeling of fear. I was ashamed of that, and also of my instinct to exaggerate my cluelessness, helplessness, innocence. It was, of course, true that I hadn’t known, and that I was scared. But I let it show, and I let it show on purpose, and I don’t particularly like that about myself. I don’t want to manipulate a situation to use other people’s pity as a solution to a problem. I want to own my shortcomings, face them, and learn to overcome them rather than avoid them.

I was also struck by our extreme privilege. The two other women from our bus were taken out of the room, one at a time, for long periods of questioning. Was it just luck? Had we just gotten the right officer? How much of our ease was because we were white? All I know is, if I felt scared even while I was being treated with nothing but kindness and respect, I can only imagine the horror that detainment–or even just the idea of detainment–must be for so many people who are regarded with suspicion from the outset. People who are seeking asylum, or refugees, or just folks going on vacation with a different skin color or way of dressing or accent. It strikes me as an awful catch-22. If I felt the fear-soaked impulse to lie or get defensive, how strong would that urge be for someone if they’re worried about being instantly judged as a threat? And then, on the customs officers’ part, they’re doing a difficult job, and if they’re met with defensive or withholding behavior, they wouldn’t be doing that job if they let the person through. Of course there’s no excuse for institutionalized abuse and prejudice. Down at the individual level, though, I can see how this fraught cycle could just perpetually feed on itself.

These were the thoughts I was immersed in inside the detainment room when the police came to escort us out. Technically, UK border patrol is on UK soil, so we had to be officially removed from the country and escorted out by French authorities. The French police put us in their car, drove us a couple hundred yards, put us in an empty cell for all of two minutes, and then one of them led us out on foot, through some gates and some high fences topped with barbed wire. He hardly spoke any English. He pointed across a wide parking lot and said, “Bus stop. You go there.”

Part 5: What Happens After Detainment

And so it was that we found ourselves wandering into what turned out to be a shopping mall, with only a vague idea of where we were and no idea of where we were going next. Thankfully the mall had WiFi, so we looked up and quickly booked a campsite for the night and walked there along a shoulder-less highway (will the adventures never cease?) By this time, we’d reached the point of giddiness and laughter. After all, wasn’t this what we’d signed up for: new experiences, crazy stories, and expecting the unexpected?

We ended up staying in Calais for two nights. There were two options for getting things in order so that we’d be able to cross into the UK. The first option was getting BedFringe to sponsor us as workers. Apparently a sponsorship application for employees can be rushed through within hours, and would mean that we wouldn’t need a work visa of our own. Unfortunately, though, it costs a company hundreds just to apply for the license to sponsor an employee, let alone the sponsorship certificate itself. Bedford Fringe couldn’t be asked to front that money, no matter how kind and helpful our contacts there were–and they did try to look into sponsoring us. But of course, Aaron and I couldn’t afford to cover that cost either. So there was nothing for it. We had to cancel our shows.

After some amount of back and forth, we got an official email from Bedford formally cancelling our performances. We thought about trying to just do the shows for free, but further research into visas showed that even unpaid work can sometimes require a special visa. We’d already been detained once. We didn’t want to book a new bus only to be detained again…so we decided not to risk it. As our customs official sympathetically told us while he rolled our fingers on a digital fingerprinting machine, immigration law is extremely complex, and mistakes do happen.

We actually had a good time in Calais. The town itself was a bit odd–after all, it’s the place where people remain when they’re not allowed to cross the border. But we had ice cream and pastries on the beach, we stayed at a quiet, well-kept campground lined with purple flowers, and discovered a boardwalk food truck where the French-speaking workers playfully laughed at our pronunciation, and where an “Americain” sandwich is a baguette with fries inside–sometimes with meat and a sauce, but sometimes just by itself.

When we did finally cross the border into the UK, the customs official (a different one) had to pull us aside again and take our passports to check the system. I showed him our official cancellation letter, proving that we would be entering the UK as visitors and would not be in violation of that visa. Again the bus driver was told not to leave. We waited almost as nervously as last time. When he returned, he messed with us a bit before letting us through: “Well, I’ve done my best, but…”–But?!–“you can go on through.” They didn’t even stamp our passports to let us in; apparently physically stamping passports isn’t so common anymore. However, we did get a stamp for our detainment. Not exactly the stamp we would have preferred.

  • But, we lived and we learned. In summary:
    1. Ask for all the details about your visa if you’re in doubt. Make phone calls and spend hours on hold if you have to. It’s worth it to be sure you’ve got what you need. And do that WELL in advance.
      Be honest.
      Be honest. Yep, that one goes on the list twice.
      Be kind to workers–officials, but also bus drivers, service workers, literally anyone just trying to do their job. We all end up relying on each other, and it all goes better when there’s humanity and respect. If you give those things, there’s at least a better chance you’ll receive them in return.
  • There are some more lessons in there as well, some that I’m still mulling over, that I haven’t quite worked out yet. The whole experience really made me consider who I am: my place in the world, and how I use it. I’ve learned I still have a lot of growing to do to get to a place where I’m comfortable with those things–to mindfully occupy my place in the world, to use it in a way I’m proud of.
  • And of course, it was disappointing to have to cancel our first official shows. But it goes back to what we said when we set out on this trip: that we’d have to be okay with failing. Certainly this was the biggest setback we’d had so far. But we figured it out together. The solution may have been less than ideal, but we lived, we learned, and we made it through. And, we didn’t place blame, or take out our frustration and fear on each other. We tried to be there for each other. There were things to be proud of. And, as the immigration officer says, it sure does make for a unique honeymoon story.

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