Every year, those of us posted at Monocle bureaux around the globe make the pilgrimage to Midori House for the annual Christmas party. This means that each year a handful of us must shine our shoes, zip our formal attire into garment bags and fly for at least six hours to get to our base in London. It’s a nice tradition and it’s good to feel welcome in a city that to many outsiders can feel a little cold.
When we land at Heathrow – tired and mildly hung over from the lack of sleep and wealth of free drinks – we shuffle up the jet’s aisles, garment bags in hand, ready to take on the English morning. But first we have to cross the UK Border.
I usually don’t think too much about this as I do it fairly often in a year. I’d say I have become quite adept at scurrying past my fellow passengers in the hope that I might beat a growing queue and be through customs within 10 minutes. I walk up to the kiosk, have a friendly interview with the officers and then I am soon on my way to the Heathrow Express. At least, that’s how it usually goes.
Given all the times I have been through customs without any issue at all, I assumed that doing it this time during the festive period would perhaps mean more leniency and good will from UK customs – but this was not the case. As I stood at the kiosk, having handed over my passport and landing card to a rather stern-faced guard, I expected the usual “How long is your stay?” If the conversation was going to unfold similarly to previous times we’d have a perfectly friendly interaction, exchange smiles and I’d get the final “Welcome to the UK.”
“Why are you here?” asked the woman in an unforgiving tone. “I’m here for the holiday party of my employer,” I answered – sure that this was a sufficient response. She paused and looked at me in a slightly perplexed manner. “What’s a holiday party?” she responded. In that moment I realised why she might not understand this. “I forget that we have ‘holiday party’ drilled into us in the US – we’re made to think it’s more politically correct to say that instead of ‘Christmas party’. It’s more inclusive that way,” I reply. At that point she just looked at me as if I was speaking down to her, extolling the virtues of political correctness.
Needless to say it didn’t go over well. At this point she decided that it was time to scrutinise every stamp in my passport. “When was the last time you were in the UK?” she asked, thumbing each and every Heathrow page. “How long were you here?” she continued. She then paused and looked at her computer screen for what seemed like hours. In my head I began to run through all the possible scenarios, the worst being me having to be forced back on a seven-hour flight to the US.
She then slowly opened her inkpad and slammed the immigration stamp into it. With another slam she stamped my passport and promptly handed it to me with a suspecting look on her face. Without even thinking I began to say, “Happy holidays.” But, before I could finish I stopped. “Merry Christmas,” I said. Lesson learned.
Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle.