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God bless the UK

Before leaving our apartment to meet a friend for lunch one day, I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear — comfortable but not waterproof; or uncomfortable but waterproof (this is Belgium — rain can spoil sunshine without any notice).

I tried one shoe from a pair on one foot and another shoe from another pair on the other foot. Then I continued getting ready, and forgetting about my shoes, I walked out of our apartment with two different shoes on. Not until shutting our front door did I look down and realize my near faux pas.

Those kind of moments of forgetfulness happen to me quite frequently. Those kind of moments almost cost me a trip to London.

One of the beauties of the EU is the open borders. We can drive from Brussels to France and on down to Spain and not once stop at a border check, just as if you were driving from Dallas to Louisiana to Arkansas (well, not just like it). I’ve grown so accustomed to this freedom that I never think to bring my passport along. It has no use.

Last October, the NFL staged its annual regular-season game in London. Some friends and I had secured tickets months in advance. But rather than take the Brussels-to-London train (or fly), we decided to drive to London, go to the game, spend the night and head back to Belgium the next day.

For those who failed geography, a large body of water separates Belgium from England. You can either take your car across the English Channel by ferry, or, as we chose, drive your car to a port, park inside of a train, and that train runs your car (and hundreds of others) underground across the English channel. Brilliant technology, I do say.

Everything was set up perfectly for this trip. Overnight bag; check. Mobile phone; check. Cowboys jersey and hat, check (FYI: At the London NFL game, fans wear the gear of their favorite team, not just of the two teams playing).

Passport; uncheck. Don’t need it, not with the open borders and all.

On gameday I met up with my friends — Joeri, who I’ve mentioned here; Jan, who you met here; and Koen — all three of them Belgians who happen to share my love of American football. Joeri’s a Cowboys fan and thus the smartest of the group. Jan is a Packers fan and thus is currently the happiest of the group. Koen is a Denver fan and was the luckiest of the group; his beloved Broncos were playing in the London game against the 49ers.

The four of us left Brussels before sunrise and in a few hours had arrived at the port, in northern France, where we’d catch the underground train to England. As we approached the port’s entry, I saw customs agents and other people who looked like they mean business.

At that point my heart sunk. I remembered that not all borders in the EU are open. There’s this here thing called the Schengen agreement — countries belonging to this agreement open their borders so that anyone can drive in or out without being stopped. But the UK had to be difficult. They’re not part of Schengen, so anyone entering the UK must show a passport. And mine was two and a half hours away sitting on my desk in my apartment.

Imagine trying to enter Texas through the Mexican border without proper ID. Not gonna happen. I assumed I had no chance and started thinking of ways I could get back to Brussels so that my friends could park their car on the train and get to London. I figured I’d be out at least €200 between taking a cab from the port to a train station, and then taking a train back to Brussels.

As we pulled up to the customs booth, my friends all showed their valid passports. I showed by Belgian residence permit, trying to act cool as if nothing was awry. It didn’t take more than a minute for them to call me out. They needed to see a passport.

So I told them my saga; how I’m a dumb American used to driving all around Europe without a passport (they told me countless times “that doesn’t apply to the UK”) and that I simply forgot it. I begged for entry into the UK, telling them I’m only here to watch a silly American football game at Wembley Stadium. Give me 24 hours and I’ll leave the UK as I found it — you can trust me.

After some negotiating, a customs agent told us to pull our car to the side and wait. So we waited for a bit, getting out of the car to throw the football to burn off the tension. Ten or 15 minutes later, an agent summoned me indoors.

“We don’t normally do this,” he said, “but we’re going to give you a 48-hour temporary passport. Keep this piece of paper with you at all times and don’t lose it. And if you stay in the UK longer than 48 hours, you’ll wish you never came.” Yes sir.

Just like that, I was granted permission to enter the UK even though I had no passport. Gotta love them Brits.

With a sudden feeling of relief, the four of us piled back into the car, boarded the train, and though it was only 11am, we popped the cork off a bottle of champagne (nice planning, Jan) and toasted to our trip. And just as we planned, the four of us were on our way to watch the Broncos vs. the 49ers, live from Wembley Stadium in London.

The preceding story covered just the first 3-4 hours of our trip to London, but I can safely say the remaining 21-plus hours of our trip were even more eventful. It was one of the most memorable times I’ve had in our two years here. And thanks to some merciful UK customs agents, I was able to experience it.

I hope someday I can return to Europe and go back to this annual game. Joeri, Jan and Koen: I promise when I return, I’ll make sure to bring my passport. Speaking of, aside from form forgetting that, I also forgot a camera on this trip. Thankfully Joeri supplied me with some of his shots, so enjoy:

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