I'm sure it's a coincidence, but in the last two weeks of international travel the two rudest people I've met have been British women. First was the hotel clerk in Belize and in a close second the woman at passport control yesterday at Heathrow.
It started out normally enough. She asked me where I was headed. Edinburgh. Purpose? The festival. How long would I be staying there? 10 days.
This was all perfectly curt and proper. Then she asked for my return ticket.
"I don't have it printed out yet."
"It's an electronic ticket," I say, thinking that would explain it. It doesn't. I add, "I have the flight number and date, do you want that?"
"You don't have anything printed out?"
"It's an electronic ticket," I restate. It's all I can muster to explain my lack of a printout. Weren't electronic tickets created specifically to eliminate the need to have a piece of paper in your hand?
"No one told me I needed to print out my return ticket."
"No one should have to tell you, it's common sense."
Common sense? To print out a boarding card for a flight ten days from now? Not buying it.
"I've never had to print out a return ticket before."
"Well you're traveling internationally and it's common sense."
There's that common sense argument again.
I counter with, "I just went to Belize last week and I didn't need to have my return ticket printed out." Which is in fact true, and last time I checked U.S. to Belize is 'international.'
"You're in the U.K." she says emphatically.
See what happens? You treat me like I'm stupid and you get sarcasm.
Neither one of us says anything for a moment.
Finally she asks, "do you have the information on where you'll be staying?"
"Yes, a hotel in Edinburgh. I have the confirmation number."
I dig into my bag and pull out my calendar. I open it up and look at today's date where I've written down my hotel info.
"You just have it written down?"
"You don't have anything printed?"
Again with the printing! How is something I print out at home better than a confirmation number I have written down? Is my HP inkjet printer now capable of printing official international documents? (mental note, print up some Swiss bonds when I get home).
"Well, I didn't know and I don't have a ticket printed so where can we go from here?"
"There's no where to go, I have nothing to show how long you're going to be staying or when you'll be leaving."
Believe me, I won't stay in this country any longer than I have to if this is an example of British charm. At this point I think I may actually be denied entry into the U.K.
"Is there internet service here so I can go online and get what you need?"
"There is but it's in the terminal."
"How else could get you the documentation you want, maybe I could go to the American Airlines counter and have them print out my return itinerary?"
She stammers at my offers to resolve the situation, which makes me think this is more about making me feel uncomfortable than enforcing a strict You Must Hve Printouts rule.
She shakes her head and stamps my passport.
"Thank you," I say. But, still aggravated by the experience I add, "if it's my first time traveling in the U.K. then it's not common sense to know what you need here."
"That's a matter of opinion," she says haughtily.
"Well, thank you for sharing your opinion," I say mostly to myself as I pick up my bags.
"Your most welcome" she throws back at me as I zig-zag through the maze of stanchions to the next stop in the gauntlet of international travel, all of which were a lot easier than her.
Perhaps she radioed ahead, "stupid American coming through. He doesn't have anything printed out! Watch it! "
At least she didn't ask about the 3 kilos of hash I had stashed in my suitcase.