Immigration Officers and the Meaning of Existence

Old cottage on Inis Meain

I wasn’t expecting trouble when I passed through immigration at the Dublin airport. I’m American, I’m privileged, and I look like I spend a lot of time reading indoors.

I was the second person standing in the non-EU control line. The person ahead of me was a young guy who wasn’t wearing any shoes. Earlier, an Indian Sikh questioned him about it; turns out he’d been going barefoot in public for a long time.

The Irish immigration officer serving the line was a young female. She didn’t like something about the young man’s documents. He probably had a student visa—maybe it was expired. Their discussion lasted 15 minutes. This was the slowest moving immigration line I had ever experienced.

Finally, she allowed him to pass, and he left abruptly and in disgust. She had retained his documents.

Then I approached. I was wearing shoes, so I figured I was safe from scrutiny. At first, her questions went as expected, and she spoke to the passport.

“What is the purpose of your trip? [Vacation.] How long are you staying? [Two weeks.] What is your destination? [Aran Islands.] Do you have friends or family there?” [No.]

Full stop. She looked up at me.

“Nobody you’re meeting for the holidays?”


“Do you have a return ticket? [Yes.] May I see it?”

I took out my file folder of travel documents and passed over my itinerary.

“Where are you staying?”

“A privately owned cottage.”

“And how did you find this cottage?”


She was even more vexed than before.

“But you said it was privately owned. How could you find it online? Don’t you see how you’re contradicting yourself?”

I tried to explain I only meant that a private individual owned it, but that person did not actually live there. Rather, he rented out the cottage.

“So you paid for this?”


“Show me the receipt.” This was the first time I’d ever been asked for such extensive documentation of my travels, and I’ve traveled every continent except Africa and Antarctica.

“All I have is an e-mail exchange with the owner.”

“Let me see it.”

“It’s on my computer.”

I had to remove my laptop from my backpack and pull up the correspondence. I held the laptop at chest level so she could see the exchange through the fiberglass barrier.

“What’s this person’s phone number?”

“I don’t know, we only communicated online.” I could hear her response before she formed the first word.

“You rented a cottage after finding it online, don’t have a receipt for your payment, and haven’t talked to the owner.”

“I have the phone number of the caretaker.”

“Let me have it.”

I gave her the name and number of Bartla, who I had yet to meet or speak to, but lived next door to the cottage.

She tried calling, but no one picked up. I wondered on what grounds she could refuse me entry. Plans too bizarre to be believed? Danger to self? Mental illness?

She turned her attention to some of the print-outs I’d handed over in the meantime, with the owner’s orientation and instructions about reaching the island and the cottage.

“What do you know about the Aran Islands?”

“Only what I’ve read.”

“So you decide out of the blue to come to Ireland over the holidays, not the mainland even, but a remote island. You’re traveling alone, you don’t know anyone, and you’re staying by yourself in a place you’ve never been. Why?”

Looking back, there are so many answers I could’ve given. Perhaps if I simply said I was a writer working on a novel, or that I was taking a spiritual retreat, she would’ve felt like it all made sense. Or maybe I should’ve told her I wanted to put family and friends at ease by visiting a stable country after my experience in Thailand.

But why this place, at this time—and not some other?

It felt like a classic Alan Watts Zen question: Why do you exist as you, instead of as someone entirely different? How is it you came to be?

The existentialist aspect to the question was perhaps not what the immigration officer intended. And I gave a weak, one-word reply:


As ineffectual as my response seemed even to myself, she backed off, aside from asking how I meant to support myself financially for 2 weeks. (Ha, doesn’t she know every American carries several credit cards!)

She finally raised her stamp. As it thunked down on my passport, she said, “You know, we’re looking out for your safety, too.”

I departed down the corridor to pick up my luggage—which was delayed and didn’t arrive until the next day—and wondered about safety. Many friends and family told me to have a great time, plus: “Be safe.”

I’m reminded of a Chekhov quote: “Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Traveling alone is by far the safest thing I do.

Posted in Travel.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JaneFriedman, Jeanne V Bowerman. Jeanne V Bowerman said: RT @JaneFriedman: Now relaxing in Ireland but was nearly refused entry when immigration thought my plans were wacky: […]


I really admire you for travelling by yourself so much. I've always been to wussy to do it. Sounds like your destination is a wonderful place, and I hope you post more about it over the next couple of weeks. Have a lovely time!

Lisa M. Stiles

Love that answer. Bonus points for wearing shoes. 🙂 Enjoy the Aran Islands!

Terry Odell

Have sent this on to my daughter who lives outside of Belfast.


Wow. The Belfast immigration officers were always pretty nice to me (especially when I hand them my passport open to the UK visa page). Maybe she was new and was really trying to find _someone_ she could say “NO” to? Glad you made it!


Oh my, Jane. Of all the countries, I'd have thought Ireland would have been one of the most travel friendly. What power this little gal seemed to feel during her interrogation. Perhaps she knew your luggage was delayed… perhaps her supervisor told her to stall… perhaps she thought she was doing you a favor by making you grateful to be rid of her, and to only have the delayed luggage as the issue. As you can tell, I'm grasping for anything to offer that sounds even remotely positive about the experience. And as you can see, I'm failing miserably. Here's… Read more »

Carolyn Cordon

Cute. I don't suffer from wanderlust, I love being right here, at home. Loved your story tough – I like to travel with other people via their words.


I'm living vicariously through you, Jane, as I read this. Well done and good for you! I'm a fellow female traveler/writer who loves to travel alone just as much as I love to travel with friends/loved ones. But for me to do so over the holidays is an adventure I've yet to experience. I suppose I'm still too hung up on the notion that spending Christmas alone is 'wrong', although the rational part of me says that's balderdash. HAVE FUN, and thanks for sharing!

Terry Petersen

My husband and I have always found coming back into the country more of a hassle than leaving it. When we came back from Alberta in July I was in a hurry packing and put my shampoo in the wrong suitcase. Darn! Jay sent a text to friends and told them I'd been detained, arrested, made an explosive out of what wasn't an explosive. On any level. At least we made our flight on time. Barely.


It's stories like this that remind me why I always remind you to “Be safe.” 😉


I just remembered an experience I had a few years ago. I spent a lot of time travelling around Canada in 2006, so I went through a lot of airport security stations, some of them in Canada's largest cities. I never had a single incident the whole time, except for once… Ironically, it was the very smallest airport I frequented – the regional airport in Deer Lake, Newfoundland – where I encountered the most suspicious staff. I was pulled aside and actually patted down in front of all the other passengers. It was done by a woman (I'm female too),… Read more »

Robin Mullet

I also get wanderlust, and Ireland is one place I would love to wander. I applaude your solitary trip – I am not much for “tours”. Lots of fodder for your pen!

Nancy Parish

Great post! Jane. When I was asked that question as I arrived in Toronto, I made the mistake of saying that I was there to work. It was true, but that was not a good response. I was detained for a bit. I did get a free Lasik type procedure on my eyes that visit so it was worth it! Enjoy your holiday.



Hi! This is such a great post! I told my English friend, Danny, about your ordeal. He wants me to let you know that, if you were an EU citizen, you would have breezed through the line! Oh well… what's life without a bump or two? lol. I hope you are having a great time in Ireland!


Wow….I go to Ireland (land in Dublin) every year for the past 10 years ALONE as a single woman who is in her upper 40's now. Without exception I have never been treated the way you have. Normally it's asking me the nature of my stay, how long will I be there and then there's a smile and a stamp of the passport.Last year I happened to go through Belfast (first and last time!) and I got the treatment that you received in the Republic of Ireland. You'd think I was a criminal or something! Goodness, Im just a normal… Read more »


[…] I returned home Monday night from a 3-week holiday in Ireland. (Read previous entries on this trip here and here.) […]


[…] I returned home Monday night from a 3-week holiday in Ireland. (Read previous entries on this trip here and here.) […]