Be grateful for the official welcome, buddy

WASHINGTON DAYS

It wasn't until right at the very end of a trip to Montreal a couple of weeks ago that I came across the first plausible argument in favour of independence for Quebec. Canada, I discovered, is a colony of the United States.

After I had checked in at Montreal Airport for my flight home to Washington I had to go through immigration control. I unsuspectingly handed over my passport to a uniformed woman behind a high white desk. I had 20 minutes before the departure of my flight, so I was not unduly concerned - if a little surprised - at the time she was taking to establish my bona fides.

This was the Commonwealth after all and my short Canadian visit had provided a civil, easygoing respite from the harshness of the United States.

"There's something wrong here," the woman said. Before I could remonstrate she ordered me to step into a glass-enclosed sin-bin where "a supervisor" would submit my credentials to further examination. I would have said: "But what's the problem? I'm leaving your country, not entering it, and anyway, I'm British, dammit, and we allow you people to carry the picture of the Queen on your currency." Or words to that effect.

But then I realised my mistake. The woman was wearing a "US Immigration and Naturalization Service" badge on her white shirt. She was American! The Canadians had stooped to the indignity of allowing an outpost of the most loathsome species in US officialdom to be established on their own sacred soil. "Vive le Quebec libre!" I muttered under my breath.

Americans have their own views as to which branch of the federal government is most deserving of contempt. Some say it is the FBI; others the CIA; others the income-tax collectors. But I, as a foreigner, have long viewed immigration officials with special distaste.

Years of ungracious encounters have taught me to view them as humourless robots programmed to judge you guilty until proven innocent, to convey a sense that it is a colossal privilege to be allowed into the country they patrol.

Anyway, there I was , waiting for a man with metallic forearms to complete his interrogation of a French-speaking Canadian who had a return ticket home but no visa. My plane was leaving in 10 minutes. The officer turned to me, hands on hips, and barked: "Sir, will you sit down?" I glanced at a row of plastic seats. "Look, I have a plane to catch ... " "Sit down!" "I don't want to sit down." "Look, if you don't sit down this minute I'm gonna call the RCMP!" Which meant the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

I sat down, reflecting that the Canadians had retained some semblance of national pride after all and that, perhaps, this was not the time to be standing up for my rights. My plane was leaving in five minutes. He beckoned me over, glanced at my visa and discovered there was nothing wrong with it. Reluctantly, he handed back my passport. I ran down an interminable corridor to my plane only to discover it had been delayed by half an hour.

Which was a relief but did nothing to deter me from building up a volcanic head of resentment as I stood at yet another immigration queue, in Miami airport, last weekend. Again I had a flight to make, a connection to Washington.

When my turn eventually came I slapped my passport down on the desk, opened a magazine and started reading it. These people crave respect. Well, they weren't going to get it from me. After a while I glanced up and noticed that the officer was shaking her head. "This is weird, really weird", she said. "What d'you mean? This is a perfectly legitimate visa - stamped on my passport by your own government!" "This is weird, weird," she intoned. Then she pressed a button and a red light came on over her head.

A male robot from an adjoining booth stepped into the fray. "Look, buddy," he spat. "We can keep you here all night if you like." "Look, buddy," I spat back. "I pay your salary. I'm a non-voting American tax- payer and I've got a plane to catch."

He was enraged. He wanted to hit me. These people think they're gods. Well, as far as I'm concerned they're civil servants and all I want is civil service. I told him as much. He looked at my visa. "It's OK," he mumbled. "Let him through." I snatched my passport and stormed off with a "Jesus Christ!" He ran after me. This time I really thought he was going to hit me. I stared him down, turned and walked away, savouring my victory.

A petty victory, I reflected on the flight to Washington. I had been rude and I felt bad. If you're reading this, buddies, I'm sorry. You were only doing your job. It's not your fault if human kindness is not on the curriculum at the INS training course. But, as you Americans say, I was mad as hell and I just couldn't take it any more.

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