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Last week, after less than a week of waiting, I got my visa issuance number from my recruiter. The next step was to submit my application to the Korean embassy in London. I decided that I would go down to hand it in in person. This would allow the staff to see it first and let me know if there was any problem (for instance, I wasn’t sure whether I should also hand over my old passport with my previous visas in it) – and I would be able to see friends while I was there. I considered staying down in London so I could pick my passport up when it was ready, but it seemed likely that it would take the full five working days or longer to process (a British friend from Korea advised me that that was likely – he’d received his only shortly before he was due to leave the country) and London is expensive.

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the BBC coverage of the US presidential election (elections to Congress weren’t covered in much detail). Americans got it right again – making up for electing George W Bush twice. Given that various Tea Party Republicans were voted out and liberal policies approved in referenda, I wonder whether Mitt Romney might have done a lot better if he’d been allowed to present himself as the moderate he supposedly really is. I eventually went to bed at 7am, meeting my sister and her kids on the way as they got up. I was able to rise again at the not unreasonable hour of midday.

The following night, I was in bed at about midnight and up again at five o’clock in order to get a 6:35 train to Manchester and an 8 o’clock coach to London (the outbound trip cost just £9 with National Express and the return £12.50 – which somehow managed to add up to £29.50 along with insurance, booking fee and so on).

The Korean embassy is on Buckingham Gate, just off Victoria and a short walk from Victoria Coach Station. The coach arrived at 13:20, so I got lunch from the Subway at the shopping mall adjacent to the railway station and arrived at the embassy just after 2pm, when they re-opened after lunch. The woman on duty at one of the windows inside told me assertively that the visa section was closed. I suggested to her that I could just hand my documents in, but that was unacceptable. As soon as I had this conversation, I realised that I’d been in exactly this situation some years ago, probably in 2008.

It wasn’t a problem though – except that my passport would be returned to me that little bit later and it would make planning my flight out that little bit trickier – I had time before my return coach in the morning to come back. I turned my thoughts to getting to my hostel down in the Isle of Dogs – the south-pointing peninsula bounded by a big loop of the Thames that is the location of Canary Wharf; it’s geographical feature that’s been familiar for many years because of the title sequence of EastEnders. I realised I’d forgotten to bring either of my Oyster cards with me, so, reasoning that I had plenty of time, I decided to walk.

I thought it might take a couple of hours – it took three. I got there a little after five o’clock, having walked along the north bank of the Thames for various parts of the way (and taken a few pictures of the attractively cloudy sky), and was starting to worry about meeting my friends on time (although we hadn’t actually set a time).

The Great Eastern Bestplace Inn turned out to be quite a pleasant place – very pubby downstairs, clean and whitewashed upstairs. Better still, my bed was £11.99 – half price. The shower, on the other hand was terrible: weak and uncertain in temperature.

I got the DLR and Tube back up to our rendezvous point in the general vicinity of Leicester Square. Drew met me as I was reading and drinking tea at McDonalds. We headed out shortly towards the big Odeon cinema, which has been our meeting place on more than one occasion – then headed back because Colin had gone to McDonalds looking for us.

Colin always has the information on where to eat, so we allowed him to guide us to an Indian restaurant. My Goa murg and mushroom rice was very tasty, but – shockingly – I couldn’t finish because I was getting a bit full. The meal came to around £55 for the three of us. Afterwards, we went to a Costa for coffee and more chit-chat. I introduced Drew and Colin to the pleasures of the Korean flower cards game, Go-Stop – or a simplified version thereof.

Then it was time to say goodbye for another lengthy period and we headed to our respective homes.

In the morning, I checked out of the hostel after a complementary breakfast of cornflakes, bread and jam and tea. Well – I left, anyway. There were no keys, only door codes, and I’d already paid, so there was no actual checking out to do. There was no one on the reception desk, so I couldn’t even tell them, ‘I’m checking out now.’

I returned to the embassy shortly before 10 o’clock. I went to the passport window, where there was a young woman on duty (not the same woman as the day before) and, before the word ‘Hello’ had barely passed my lips, she snapped, ‘Visa window open at ten o’clock. Take a ticket and wait over there.’

There was one other person ahead of me – a courier, judging by his high-visibility jacket. Once the visa window opened and this guy had finished he handed me the next number ticket (he must have taken two by mistake) and I handed my stuff over to the young Korean chap manning the counter. When I asked, he indicated I didn’t need to submit my old passport. There was a moment of humour when he passed me my yellow plectrum that had got stuck inside my passport when it had been in my pocket. He looked over my documents, I paid £80, got a receipt and that was that. I didn’t actually ask again (I’d already spoken to someone on the phone two or three days earlier) how long it would take, but a notice on the window made it clear I should expect it to be five working days (to which I added another day for it to be posted).

Afterwards, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks, got a coffee and on the internet, realised at nearly eleven that I had a coach to catch in half an hour, so off I went.

I outlined my progress to my recruiter in an e-mail, but as it was pretty much already the weekend, I didn’t hear anything back and haven’t so far. The worst thing that’ll happen is that they’ll book me a flight and I’ll be forced to miss it because I don’t have my passport, then I’ll arrive in Korea later and the school will have to get someone to cover any class time I miss.

We’ll see what happens next weekend.

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Having successfully, though narrowly, avoided being sick on the aeroplane to Gatwick, I felt somewhat better by the time we disembarked. Going through Immigration was a breeze for me – there were no queues to speak of and the officer just glanced at my passport before allowing me through. Habiba had no such luck.

We screwed up when it came to preparing for this border crossing. Travelling between European countries was incredibly easy, even the non-Schengen ones, and we partly forgot to makes sure to be ready for the UK and partly didn’t realise it would be more difficult. As a result, Habiba didn’t have any of the print-outs for her onward travel with her.

As I waited in the area behind the desks, I could see and partly hear Habiba getting more and more upset. I moved closer to try to overhear what was going on, but the officer evidently noticed Habiba’s glance and turned around and told me to move away. After another few minutes, the officer left his post to talk to me and ask about our plans; he explained that we had no evidence that Habiba wasn’t going to disappear in the UK and live and work here illegally – with a British boyfriend, this was, apparently, a greater risk.

After this, the officer allowed Habiba to enter the country, although with some sort of flag connected to her passport that would tell future British Immigration officers what had happened.

We collected our bags, Habiba bemoaning the unfairness of her treatment, and headed to the railway station to catch a train to London Bridge. From there we went to the Tube Station, bought Oyster Cards, went a couple of stops along the Jubilee Line to Canada Water and walked to Colin’s place. I made friends with Colin, and also Drew and Pete, when I lived in London in 2007 and joined Pete’s roleplaying game. Colin kindly agreed to put us up for a couple of days and it was great to see him and spend some time with his partner Sally and cherubic young son, Alex.

The following morning, I was feeling worse. Habiba went to a nearby Tesco and got some supplies, including headache pills. After taking a couple each of a couple of different types and resting for a while, I started to feel a bit better. We ventured out and I took Habiba to have a look around Camden Lock and Stables markets – which she loved.

Then we headed a little bit further north to Hampstead and walked through the Heath for a bit (I hardly ever walked from Hampstead High Street to Hampstead Heath, so I wasn’t sure of the way; I have a good sense of direction, though, and I knew which way to head, so we got there by a reasonably direct route). We went from the pond by South Hill Mansions into the middle somewhere and head south again to Parliament Hill. From there we walked to Belsize Park Underground Station, with a diversion via Mansfield Road – where I used to live.

I was pretty tired by this point. Nevertheless, we headed to Leicester Square to meet Colin and Drew to have dinner – Japanese noodle soup at Wagamama – and watch a movie – The Avengers. The former, in my poorly state, didn’t strike me as the height of deliciousness; the latter, despite being expensive and shown on a rather diminutive screen, was a lot of fun. And, of course, it was great to see Drew again and hang out with him and Colin.

The next day, I was feeling better, but we didn’t get out and about until the early afternoon. At which point, I took Habiba on a tour of London. We took the Tube to London Bridge (Habiba wanted to know if it was falling down, falling down, falling down) and walked by the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, along the Thames to St Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern, where we got a coffee and ate our packed lunch. Then we continued along the South Bank to the Millennium Eye, Westminster Bridge, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, up to Trafalgar Square and finally through St James’s Park to Buckingham Palace.

The following morning, we said goodbye to Colin as he left for work, hung out with Sally and Alex briefly before heading to Victoria Coach Station to get the 11:00 National Express coach to Bath and our next host – another Alex.

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