I am standing at the desk of an immigration officer at London’s Heathrow airport. The man flips through my passport.
“And what is your business here?” he asks, not looking up.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
It took a while to put that down on official forms. I usually put editor, and then sometimes I put journalist. To says you are a “writer” still feels like too much of a brag, like you are daring the world to call your bluff.
The man looks up. “A writer.” He says the word with a bit of music. “And what have you written which brings you to our fair shores?”
“I wrote a memoir, and it’s being published in the UK, so I’m coming here to meet the publisher.”
This grabs the attention of the middle-aged woman with glasses who has been shuffling through paperwork beside him. “A memoir, eh?” she says, looking me up and down. “But you’re so little.” I think she means young, but then again, I have been working out.
I explain that it’s a book about my troubled relationship with drinking, and more generally, about women’s relationship to alcohol. “Oh that’ll be good over here,” says the guy, and the woman beside him nods. “No shortage of women drinking,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“I have an idea for your next book,” says the guy, putting aside the passport now and leaning in, “and I hesitate to bring this up, because I don’t want you to go through another ordeal, but then again, you’re a writer, which means you enjoy unusual experience. But you know what would be a good subject for your second book? Women who have total breakdowns after the end of a relationship.”
I tell him I have some field experience with that one.
“Depression,” he says, his eyes going wide. “A real problem with depression here.”
“The heavy drinking is related to that,” I say. “It feels like it helps, until it doesn’t.”
He tells me how England has changed. It’s a pressure culture now, one defined by work and accomplishment. Gone are the Sundays at church, lazing around with the family. People can’t figure out how to relax. They’re estranged and isolated. Over in mainland Europe, he explains, you can still find that slow unspooling of the day. But in London, people are always going. Shopping, texting, rushing to work.
“Sounds like a toxic American export,” I tell him.
He nods. “Everything toxic from America drifts over here eventually,” he says, “and I wish we could just shove it back.”
The world may be rushed and too anonymous, but you can still find connection in the most unlikely places. He stamps my passport, and the two of them bid me farewell and best of luck with my book. And I move on to the baggage carousel, and into a city I’ve never been.