Version française ici
Article later published in Matador Network as "What You Tell The Immigration Officer"
The Canadian border agent hands me back our passports along with our custom declaration. Instead of telling us to proceed to baggage claim, he tells us to stop and see the immigration agent on our way. On the custom declaration, he scrawled a big “Imm-T” in black, severe letters.
Our return trip is scheduled almost 8 months from now; I expected the Canadian border agent to want a double-check.
As a rule, when travelling through airports, I always make sure to be on my best behavior. I smile. I am compliant. I am patient. From the way I stand to the way I look around to the way I start my conversations, I always try to be a physical proof of my good intentions, because all these security checks feel like the shovels of diggers on an archeological site: you are bound to give them something to mull over, because, deep within your soul, there must be something bad, ill-intended, (sinful?) rotten.
We push our luggage through the door of the immigration office. A young woman welcomes us with a smile. I hand her our Imm-T’ed declaration.
The usual, I guess, follows. I am here on vacation. Yes, it is a long vacation: we took a leave of absence. Yes, we have enough funds; here’s our cash and account balance. Yes, we need to be back to school on September 1st. No, we are not going to teach while we are in Canada.
In the end, she asks me what exactly are our plans; what is the next stop, what is our itinerary? I stay silent for a moment. I can tell she is scanning my face. I give her a rough plan, like any backpacker would do. She sighs. Her suspicions have receded to a point where they are useless.
— “Ok, there is a choice of two different last names on each of your passports; which last name do you want me to put in my record?”
— “We’ll go by our birth names; we only use our wedding name for the French administration.”
She looks up at us: “Did you marry recently?” I nod. Her face brightens. (It’s sudden; it takes me aback. For a fleeting moment, she’s not an immigration officer and I am not an Imm-T. She’s a backpacker we met in a hostel; we are having a beer at the local pub and she is telling us about her last date).
— “Oh, congratulations!”
We leave the office, go to baggage claim, exit the airport. I have a feeling of unaccomplishment; of missed opportunity; of overlooked human encounter.
I wish I could have told her. I wish I could have smiled a bright smile and told her, excitedly, why exactly we have crossed her border. Waiting for our shuttle, I start imagining another conversation. One where I could have told her the truth about all this: that romantic travellers still exist and that immigration services still fail to give them a proper status.
I wish I would have told her: “First, I am going to stay with friends for a while and take pictures of strangers. I am a blogger; I am going to tell their stories. I am going to scan the soul of the people I meet. I am planning to merge with your country, to forget about my home country, to let go — completely — of who I am and who I am expected to be. I have read Jack London. I am planning to go to Alaska. This summer, I am planning to sleep in a van. I am planning to wash in gas stations, to grab extra portions of butter in motels and extra sticks of sugar in cafés. Given the tiniest of chances, I would hide and live happy with my wife in a secluded place we would help run for free in exchange for food and shelter. Dear immigration officer, you asked me: “What exactly are you planning to do during your vacation?”. The answer is that I don’t know, exactly. The whole plan is not to have a plan, and dream of many. Yes, I am going to wander across your country; watch people pass; drink warm coffee; gaze in astonishment at your landscapes; try each and every one of your brands of cereals for fun; read more Jack London; browse through your bookshops; decide I am not going to do anything and stay an extra night; change my plans at the last moment; book a last-minute ticket to Seattle just because I’ve never been there; pee in a Greyhound bus; write, oh…! Write.
I can’t think of better reasons to cross an ocean and a continent without necessity nor obligation. I can’t think of doing it in less than 6 months as technically required by immigration services. I am staying 8 months because this is all I have. I am giving your land all I have. I am staying each of every freaking day of my leave. I am writing the first lines of a love declaration to your land.”
The shuttle stops in front of us. I know I can’t tell her that. Ever. She is an immigration officer. I am an Imm-T. I am on my best behavior. I can produce an account balance on demand. I am a tourist on an extended stay with a return ticket.