The girl looked at me, blankly. "A white coffee? Is that like a coffee with white chocolate?" I looked at her, equally blankly: "No, it's like a coffee with milk in it." Suddenly, George Bernard Shaw's witticism began to make sense: Britain and America are indeed two countries separated by the same language. My flight across the Atlantic to begin grad school at Penn -- see, I'm picking up the lingo already -- was largely uneventful. I was surrounded by the requisite screaming baby, the young child who thinks "kick me" is written on your seat back and the idiot Brit who refuses to stay in his seat; which part of "fasten your seat belts" doesn't he understand?. We are not a nation who travel well. And I felt sorry for the US Airways stewardess who had to explain three times in excruciating detail how to fill out the customs declaration. I wonder if I still got something wrong -- the nice inspectors at Philadelphia International insisted on searching my bags. They gave up when they found my Complete Works of Shakespeare and 300 tea bags. I was clearly just a harmless British eccentric. Mindst you, I had already had to persuade the INS that I was harmless. Applying for a U.S. visa is a lengthy -- if potentially entertaining -- paper chase, involving sending endless piles of documentation back and forth across the "pond." The last form was my favourite. Sorry, favorite. It contains a string of questions designed to catch out stupid criminals and the criminally stupid: Are you entering the U.S. with the intention of drug trafficking or committing an act of terrorism? Will you be bringing illegal immigrants into the country? (Incidentally, the infamous requirement to state any affiliation to the Communist Party was recently dropped.) The final question -- this is the clincher -- asks if you have ever committed an act of genocide. Oh now come to think of it, there was that one time... Underneath, in small print, the INS comments: "Answering yes to any of the above questions does not automatically invalidate you from receiving a visa, but you will be called to interview". With the men in white coats, no doubt. The international student advisor at Penn's excellent Office of International Programs had to fend off a series of panicked e-mails from me on this subject. Finally, and with remarkable restraint, she told me that British citizens usually have no problems with my type of visa. "Unless you are a particularly sinister character, you should be fine at immigration," she said. I spent three months practising not looking sinister and made a special effort at the photo booth, with the result that I look slightly stoned on my visa picture. But hey, they let me in. It's not like the Old World. Thanks to the European Union -- and despite appearances to the contrary, Britain is in it -- I should be able to travel around the 15 member states without showing my passport. The reality is still somewhat different. At Berlin's Tegel airport, on several occasions, the guard has openly laughed at my passport photo -- OK, I was 13 when it was taken, and having a bad hair decade. French immigration officials checking passengers leaving the Eurostar --the train that runs through the Channel Tunnel -- delight in demanding the passport of anyone who is so laden with bags that it will take considerable time and energy to find their little red booklet. Don't get me wrong: Britain is no better. Last summer, the U.K. Passport Agency installed a new computer system, which promptly crashed, leaving a huge backlog of applications. People even missed their holidays. However, a new scheme to give passports to pets was implemented without a hitch. The document, in case you were wondering, certifies that the animal cannot have contracted rabies abroad and thus exempts the little darling from our draconian quarantine regulations. A sad testimony to what many have long suspected, that the British care more about their animals than other people. So, with my visa in order, my I-something-or-other form stamped and a friendly (if slightly bemused) wave from the guy who had searched my bags, I was let loose on Philadelphia. And although I still say "cheers" instead of "thank you," "chips" for "fries" and "lift" for "elevator," at least I can now order a "tall cafe au lait."Comments powered by Disqus
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