Last Monday I had a meeting in London, but delayed trains left me scrambling to get there. To make up time I got a taxi instead of the Tube, and zipped across London on a sunny day the like of which the south of England hadn’t seen for months. Along The Mall (a major street leading to Buckingham Palace, pronounced to rhyme with pal, not pall), flags hung from streetlight poles, the British Union Flag alternating with the flag of South Africa in honor of an upcoming state visit by Jacob Zuma. The driver made some remark about the British flag being a combination of the flags of the patron saints of some of the countries in the UK and even though he got it wrong—he left out St Patrick and instead named St David—that reminded me what day it was.
“Oh, right! It’s March 1. St David’s day.” It’s a sort of national day for Wales.
“No, no. Can’t be St David’s day,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody wearing leeks.”
“Sure, they wear them on their lapels.”
Now come to think of it, I had heard of this. Shakespeare mentions it, for one thing, in Henry V. The leek symbolizes Wales—it appears on the back of some pound coins—and St David is the patron saint of Wales, but I didn’t think anybody observed such a custom these days. I hadn’t encountered leeks until I came here, and while they’re great sliced into soups, they’re pretty big. Imagine pinning to your jacket a vegetable that’s half again as long as a bunch of celery and maybe five times the diameter of a single celery stalk, though in higher-end groceries you can pay extra for smaller, younger versions.
“Do people really wear leeks?” After all, daffodils symbolize Wales, too, and they’re more tractable in buttonholes.
After a pause he thought better of it.
“Or maybe they’re just spring onions.”
Whatever he said, I knew it was St David’s day, even if people weren’t wearing their vegetables, because I’ve taken the the British citizenship test for which I had to learn the patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and each of the saints’ days. The fact that someone, given the task of deciding exactly what new citizens need to know to live productively in the UK, decided to require us to learn about the patron saints, strange as it is, is one of the least odd things about the citizenship test’s collection of facts.
It all started for us when we bought a house. We’d entered the country on my husband’s work visa and had been here, by that time, five or six years without seeing any reason to change our status. But banks don’t give mortgages to foreigners who might up stakes and leave (which I don’t understand, because surely if we fled they’d foreclose, keep the house, and grab our equity—it’s not like we could abscond and take the house with us). In order to get a mortgage we had to apply for a different visa, one that gave us “indefinite leave to remain.”
That wasn’t very difficult, but it was expensive. Every step of the Journey to Citizenship (that’s the subtitle of the book you have to study for the citizenship test) comes with pounds if not hundreds of pounds of fees attached, not surprising in a country in which everything costs you, piecemeal. I’m sure the US charges for citizenship applications, too, but shelling out again and again and again seems to be to be very British; I don’t say that the British nickel and dime you, but only because we don’t have nickels and dimes here. At the chippie (fish and chips shop), you have to pay extra for the little sachets (single-serving packets) of ketchup. When you buy a Tupperware-style plastic box here, you may have to pay extra, separately, for the lid. (When I found that surprising, a British friend said “But if you don’t want the lid, why should you have to pay for it?”) By that time I, like my fellow Brits living in this nation of shopkeepers, knew to look for the hidden extras, read the small print (fine print), and be prepared to pay and pay again.
So we paid up and applied for indefinite leave to remain. If you’ve been here long enough on a visa valid for a temporary stay, and you haven’t fallen foul of the law, you’re pretty much guaranteed acceptance. We jumped through the official hoops, on one level a boring and bureaucratic process, but on another level completely mind-blowing. Now that we had indefinite leave to remain, we could, after a decent interval—something like two more years, I think it was—apply for British citizenship, something we’d never dreamed of when we moved here. We’d always thought of ourselves as visitors having a British adventure, but by that time we owned a house and two (very small) businesses, had bank accounts and insurance, belonged to clubs. And when it came right down to it, we paid British taxes but couldn’t vote on what the government did with our money, and you may recall that Americans have historically tended to be a little sensitive about taxation without representation. We now had a foot in each camp—an American past and a British present. To have dual nationality would merely reflect the facts of our new lives.
Then came word that the UK planned to change its naturalization system to something like the Australian model, in which applicants would get points for youth and health and having skills the country needs, and immigrants wouldn’t be accepted unless they racked up enough points. We decided we’d better make our case while the old system still applied, before we were deemed too old, decrepit, or commonplace in our skills to get the necessary points. And so began the real odyssey.
We had four main hurdles: getting the facts about how this would affect our American citizenship, taking the UK citizenship test, finding people to give us references for our applications, and explaining to the UK government why they should give my husband citizenship when he hadn’t been in the country the requisite proportion of the preceding five years—he travelled so much for business that he failed to meet the criterion for actually living here.
First, obviously, we wanted to know whether we could get UK citizenship while retaining US citizenship. Every American ex-pat I ran into seemed to have a different opinion, the most common being that you automatically lose your American citizenship on gaining foreign citizenship, though a surprising number claimed that you can have dual nationality as long as you do not vote in non-American elections. Neither is true.
You only lose your American citizenship if you take another citizenship with the intention of renouncing your American citizenship. Now, that’s as clear as mud, because how do I prove my intentions? Nothing in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the law can be taken for granted and common sense often doesn’t apply, so I wanted a legal opinion from someone who really knew what the US government would accept as evidence of my intention. And that wasn’t easy to find.
The internet, phone books, and Bar Association referral programs can supply plenty of American immigration lawyers, all with skill and knowledge useful for dealing with people who want to become American; it is much harder to find anyone who knows anything about people going in the opposite direction. Americans don’t generally expect that people will want to become foreigners, many being of the opinion that everyone in the world would like to be American if they could.
I asked everyone I could think of and eventually found an American lawyer who believed he could put me in touch with someone who could help. That sounded good, but my next communication from him was his invoice for $675. I had no idea we were in that ballpark, and I hadn’t agreed for the work to go ahead; I was waiting for more information, for my chance to speak with the guy doing the work about what it was I needed, but now the intermediary said I owed him, big time. My husband immediately refused, on principle, to pay.
Principle is well and good, but here we had someone who knew the answer, the only such person we’d found, but without $675, he wouldn’t spill the beans. In the end, I paid up. I received a brief stating that as long as we didn’t join the British military—no problem there—or take a job in government at a policy-making level—again, we’re on safe ground—taking UK citizenship did not threaten our status as Americans. We had a green light, then, to go to the next step: the UK citizenship test.
And there’ll I break this article. Part 2 to follow tomorrow.