For my interview with Her Majesty’s Passport Office
April 14, 2014
… was a coffee colored dress from ASOS online, an LK Bennett cardie in royal blue (how apt) and, in an unconscious nod to my roots, a crumbly leather jacket from Manhattan’s lower East Side, once the schmatta center of the universe.
You could think of it as something old, something new, something net-bought, something blue, because I was feeling pretty solemn and ceremonial about this interview. It was the last stage of my UK citizenship process, a final test before they’d give me a passport.
I became a British citizen — a Britizen — a few years ago. It was a real business getting that done and I stalled on applying for a UK passport because that was going to be another to-do. I’d have to hand over my American passport. I’d get it back, but it was a creepy idea, the symbol of my American citizenship disappearing for an unknown period of time, keeping me caged in Britain while it was gone. I finally got round to it last month, mailed everything off: the forms, my U.S. passport, the little photograph — the one that makes me look like someone who used to be presentable before she discovered crystal meth. Two weeks later, I got a phone call asking me to report for an interview at HM Passport Office.
They wanted to conduct an identity check.
The man on the other end of the line said, “Do you understand what this is about?”
“Um, you want to make sure I am who I say I am, that I’m me?” That’s what I said, but I was thinking: You’re doing this now? Isn’t it a bit late in the day? I mean, you already let me into the club, made me a citizen. I have the certificate to prove it, the one with the big royal seal at the top of the page.
We agreed on a day and time for the interview.
The passport office is in Peterborough, about an hour train ride from Cambridge. It’s a cross-country route through the fens, which, this time of year, are in riotous bloom. Green marshes, fields of loamy earth, acres of eye-blinding rapeseed and those low, twisted trees you see in Constable paintings. Halfway there, Ely Cathedral rises majestically over a housing development and everywhere you look there are waterways – the insane and brilliant system of canals and locks that keeps East Anglia from being swallowed up by the sea.
I looked out at all this water and greenery and thought, I’m a citizen, this belongs to me as much as anyone, and it occurred to me I was probably the only person on the train thinking about that, the idea of pride of place. But that’s what it’s like when you’re an immigrant; you jump through so many hoops in order to belong that you don’t let yourself take it for granted. You’re always a little grateful, like someone who’s lucked into a great second marriage. (Not, of course, that there was or is anything wrong with my first marriage, to America; we’re still together, thank you very much.)
The man in the passport office seated me in a little booth, a countertop between us and said, what I’d already been asked over the phone, “Do you know why you’re here?” I gave him the same answer and then he got into it, a series of questions that seemed plucked out of the sky, that leapt from topic to topic: Where were your grandparents born? Where in Eastern Europe? Give me the names of the shops on either side of the post office where you mailed the passport application. Your father, what’s his life like? I kept saying, “Really? You want to know that?” and then I reminded myself, you’re not on a date with the guy, this is not the time to act mysterious, pick and choose what you want to say. Just tell him everything he needs to know.
So I did.
It got oddly emotional, because all mixed up with the bits and details dredged up from whatever wrinkle of my brain – he even asked me to describe the route I take when I bike into the center of Cambridge, every lane and alley I pass — I had to talk about why I’d come to Britain, what I’d left behind and how you go about creating an existence, constructing a world, in a new land. It turned into a conversation about the stuff of life, defining and marking it, which is actually the true meaning of ceremony.
After 20 minutes of this he shook my hand. Apparently I’d passed; her majesty had decided I was, in fact, me.
I got out of there and headed for the train station.
Peterborough is not attractive. There’s an important Gothic cathedral in the center of town, but the rest of the place has been stripped down and rebuilt according to the punishing standards of ‘70’s moderne, all flat glass storefronts and plastic signage. It’s also been pedestrianized in such a way that the main street is one long wind tunnel; the dress I was wearing turned out to be a terrible mistake, flapping wildly in the breeze and threatening to expose my undies to the general public. I had to clutch it as I ran to catch the 2:18 to Cambridge, not wanting to spend another hour in Peterborough. I managed to make it, and as I flung myself down I saw someone had left a Sainsbury bag on the empty seat across the aisle. It was full and bulging, the proverbial suspicious-looking unattended package. For the good of my country, a citizen acting in the interests of national security, I alerted the conductor. She thanked me, saying what a relief, she was really hungry. The bag contained her lunch, and she’d forgotten where she put it.
My UK passport arrived two days later, unceremoniously dropped through the letter box, the pages blank, the retina detection symbol on the front cover affirming that from now on I would enter the gates of Britain in the literal blink of an eye.