I never knew the name of The Place. But it was about a twenty- minute drive from Gatwick Airport. The neighborhood seemed quite lovely, with its rows of brick houses with large protruding windows and neat rose gardens, just the way I had pictured England all my life.
I was twenty-one years old and had just graduated with a degree in English from the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires. I had a crush on Prince Charles when I was four and my great-grandfather, Leonard, was English. I was certain that my command of the English language, my family background, and my appreciation for Charlie and The Beatles would guarantee me a warm welcome to the UK.
Why didn’t anybody tell me that in this country it was wrong for a foreigner to express a desire to work? Sure, I would have needed a work permit, but I could easily get one. Right? My Italian and Spanish grandparents had all worked in Argentina. Old Leonard had been a businessman in Bolivia. Nobody cared if they came from somewhere else.
But the blonde immigration officer with the boyish face didn’t understand. He wanted to know how much money I had and how long I wanted to stay. I told him I had an open ticket valid for a year and five hundred dollars to my name, which had been wired to a bank in London. It didn’t occur to me that I could have carried my assets in my pocket. Then, when the young fellow asked me if I intended to work in the UK, I answered something like: “I’d love to.”
Immediately, an older guy and a woman appeared and whisked me to a room upstairs, where they proceeded to open my suitcase and dump all its contents on a table. They asked me if I knew anybody in the UK and I told them I had a few friends, one of whom worked at the Spanish Embassy in London. Examining every scrap of paper in my possession, the two agents tried to decipher every suspicious word. “What does this mean?” asked the guy, pointing at the phrase “sociedad en comandita por acciones.” “Acciones?” I asked. “Actions?” he enquired. I realized they were now thinking I was a terrorist. “In this case it means shares,” I explained.
It was useless. The two agents decided they would put me on a plane back to Buenos Aires first thing in the morning. I refused. There was no way I would let anybody decide my future. “I want to go to Madrid,” I said.
A chubby driver, who spoke cockney, drove me to The Place, as I tried to figure out how I was going to cash my five hundred dollars. There must be a way to transfer it to a bank in Madrid, I thought. Little did I know that all the banks in Argentina would be closed for a week, due to President Perón’s death.
The facility where I spent the night was clean and there were a few other undesirables like me. I was the only white person and the only female.
The crisp paper sheets rustled, as I tossed in bed that night. I cried and prayed and pictured my college friends waving good-bye at Ezeiza Airport. Finally, I wiped my tears and stepped onto the cold tiled floor. In the dark, I reached for the door and realized it was locked from outside. I knocked as hard as I could. The door opened and a guard showed me the way to the bathroom. Luckily he didn’t follow me.
As I was waiting for my plane the next day, my friend Monica rushed into the terminal. She gave me a big hug and handed me an envelope with money and instructions for my next destination.
I stayed at a cheap hotel in Madrid for one night and called Ana, whose sister-in-law worked with Monica in London. Without knowing me, Ana took me in and I stayed with her for three months, while I worked at the Argentine Embassy. At the end of my stay in Madrid, I was finally able to cash my five hundred dollars. I bought a ticket to London.
On the ferryboat, I met Bill, a big Irish guy, whose kind words of support helped me face a new immigration officer. This time I was allowed to stay in my great-grandfather’s country for six months.