Friday, May 27, 2011

Caught Up in the Schengen: My Dutch Deportation Interview

“You cannot be serious!”
--John McEnroe

This morning, at the airport in Amsterdam—before I had any coffee—I found myself in a secondary interview with a Dutch immigration official with the threat of deportation looming over me.  It was the last thing I expected as I began my journey home this morning.  I might have laughed if I hadn’t been so scared.  Here’s what happened.

I woke up this morning with the plan to get to the airport in Amsterdam ridiculously early in order to be extra, extra sure not to miss my flight home under any circumstances.  I woke up before my alarm even went off, zipped up my backpack for the last time, and set off.

Instead of hopping a tram to Amsterdam’s Centraal train station, I opted, symbolically, to hoof it one last time with my backpack.  I walked for approximately 30 minutes through largely desolate Amsterdam streets and arrived at the train station at 7:00 a.m. sharp.  The next train to Schipol Airport was waiting there for me.  I hopped it, and soon arrived at the airport, more than three hours before my flight.  I was in.  I was on my way home.

I checked in with United, got my boarding pass, and headed to passport control.  I stood in line chatting up fellow passengers, telling everyone and anyone who’d listen that I’d been away for close to six months and now was going home.  I was in a great mood.

Soon it was my turn.  I approached the passport booth and handed over my documents.  The officer took a long time looking through all of my visa stamps, but I didn’t think anything of it.  He then asked, with a mixture of sternness and perhaps suspicion: “When did you arrive in Europe?”

Now, looking back, this might have been the one real-world case where knowing your geography and stating the answer with precision really mattered.  But I didn't realize it at the time.  I said:  “December 10,” which is when I landed in Russia.  Because, I thought, Russia is part of Europe, right?  I mean, the map of Europe on the inside of my travel journal had Russia on it; or at least the part I visited.  Perhaps technically parts of Russia are considered to be central Asia--or maybe even "Eurasia"--but for purposes of this passport-control interview, what did it matter?

The officer then asked, “Have you been in Europe the entire time since then?”  Again, I thought for a second, and responded “Yes.”  I believe all the countries I visited were part of Europe.  I mean, I didn’t go to Asia, or Africa—the two closest or connected continents.  So, yes, I had to be in Europe the whole time, right?

The officer looked at my passport more and asked a few more questions about what countries I’d been to.  He also wanted to see my so-called itinerary.  I told him I didn’t have one.  I had only an e-ticket saved on my computer's desktop showing a flight into Russia on December 10 and one out of Amsterdam, scheduled for 11:15 a.m., a couple hours from then.

It was then that I was completely blindsided.  Another officer emerged from a side room and approached.  I was told to follow him.  I was shocked, and that's when my native Jersey-Italian voice started talking over everyone and everything in my head.  It questioned, incredulously:  Are you f@#*king kidding me with this?  

But what could I do?  I went with the officer.

He led me to a back room with plastic bench-chairs that lined both walls.  I set my backpack down, heart and mind both racing.  I said, nervously, “Is there some kind of problem here?”  The officer replied, and I quote:  “We have to check to see if you’re an illegal alien, and if so, you’ll be deported and won’t be able to return.”

What?  Illegal alien? Deported?  What in the hell is this guy talking about?

The man could see the apparent shock on my face, so he continued speaking.  He explained that under the so-called Schengen (sounds a little like "chain-gang") rules, I was permitted to stay in Schengen countries in the aggregate for a total of only 90 days in a 180-day period.  If I had exceeded that period over the past six months, I would be deported and unable to return to any of the Schengen countries.  Like, for the rest of my life.

Now I had two problems on my hands.  First, I had no clue exactly which countries I visited were so-called Schengen countries, so I couldn't even begin to calculate whether the travel guru had screwed up and unwittingly done something to trigger deportation.  Second, assuming I would be deported, my immigration-law experience told me that I wouldn't be boarding any flight that morning.  There would be lots of paperwork, and likely a fine.  I wanted to cry.

Now, here’s the thing.  I had heard of something called "the Schengen Agreement" several years prior on my European leg of the 2007 tour.  I understood it to be an agreement under which people could travel freely between certain European countries without having to go through border inspection, similar to the way we can travel between, say, Florida and Georgia in America, without stopping for a border check.  And I did know a kid from New Zealand who had some kind of visa issue that concerned timing.  But he’s a Kiwi, and I’m an American.  From extensive experience, I just didn’t think any stringent rule would apply to me the way it often applies to others.  But there I was, in a backroom, being brought to my cocky and presumptuous-American knees by this inspection officer. 

I began to feel panicky.  I needed to know, right away, which way this was going to go.  I asked, breathlessly, “well, which ones are the Schengen countries?”  To which the officer responded, curtly, “there are 25 Schengen countries.”  I didn't like his tone.

To mount a defense, I opened a salvo of Schengen-country questions: is Bulgaria Schengen?  is Macedonia Schengen?  is Albania Schengen?  The officer seemed annoyed by my specific-country questions and quickly I realized this was not the right approach.  Pleading ignorance, I said, “I’m sorry.  I’ve been through a lot of borders, and this is the first I’ve heard of this.”  And, perhaps in a moment of weakness and desperation, I added, dramatically:  “If this turns out to be a problem for me getting home today, I think I am going to die.”

It was then that the officer’s demeanor softened a little.  He went to the next room and came back with a blank, white piece of paper and a pen.  He wanted to take it from the top.  I was to tell him all the countries and the dates I visited, starting from the beginning.

I opened my journal to the back and showed him that I had recorded my daily expenses every day from the day I landed in December.  So, I knew, from my notes, on what days I changed countries.  I’m guessing the evidentiary standards are pretty lax in Dutch immigration, because from that point on he took all the dates and places I called out from my "Daily Expense" chart on faith.

I went through the twelve countries visited, beginning with Russia, and ending with The Netherlands.  It was established, from the officer's notes, that only five of the twelve countries were part of the Schengen region, including Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Greece, and The Netherlands.  We then figured out the number of days I was in each of those countries.  It totaled approximately 45 days. 

So, in fact, I hadn’t run afoul of the 90-days-within-180-days Schengen restriction.  I wouldn’t be deported after all.  The officer left the room with my passport and then returned.  In it was the required exit stamp.  I was a step closer to home.

I practically ran to the Starbucks, still shaky from the adrenaline.  I’d like to say the horror of the morning ended with the price of the cappuccino in the airport, but it didn’t. 

The hits continued as I proceeded to the gate—which also doubled as security screening.  I was greeted with more grilling and a talk with a security supervisor about my trip.  For one thing, they couldn’t believe I was gone for so long, not working, and carrying nothing but an over-the-shoulder day-bag and this smallish backpack on my back.  Finally I convinced them that it was all true.  As soon as I told them I left on my 40th birthday, the security phalanx immediately stood down.  Everybody—in every country—knows that turning 40 can easily trigger something that otherwise seems out of the ordinary.   

By the time the question-and-answer portion of the security check was finished, I was the only passenger not on the plane.  I then proceeded through the Dutch version of a body scanner (which doesn’t use X-rays or take pictures) and was thereafter treated to the most intrusive pat-down I’ve ever received in all of my travels, Israel included.  I am not exaggerating when I say there was not one part of my body that this girl did not rub, squeeze or grope; for real.

But, at that point, I would have gotten down and licked the dirty airport floor if they had said that’s what it would take to get me on my flight home.  Fortunately, they let me go with just the grilling and scanning and groping.  Approximately seven-plus hours and some bad (but free) movies later, I touched down in Chicago.  

The U.S. border and customs officials welcomed me home warmly.  They even let me take a picture of my first stars-and-stripes spotting where cameras weren't technically allowed.  I emerged into the terminal and spent my first American greenbacks on a Super Pretzel. As I progressed through O'Hare, I was greeted by more flags, and more things America.  I was back on U.S. soil, with one long flight down, and one domestic flight to Florida to go.  That would be nothing, I thought, as I passed the long layover marveling at everything around me.