Well, the family is after a long period reunited. And it took a while, but the one serious bureaucratic problem we anticipated in connection with arrival has been resolved. Here's how.
Mrs Ethnia and the Ethniette arrived Wednesday morning at 5 AM or so, I arrived to the fetching Heathrow airport to meet them, and at that point we were supposed to go to the Animal Reception Centre to pick up our long-suffering dog Lajoš (who appears to have been left without an Ethnian pseudonym; suggestions are welcome), who would be released after they finished doing whatever it is they do to helpless animals in sealed high-security zones.
This was to be the fruit of a long procedure to avoid quarantine in the UK, which is famously hostile to incoming animals. The procedure begins a year before the doggie is to enter the country. He gets certification and boosters for all of the vaccines he has received, and in an indignity meant to emulate the surveillance to which humans are subject at all times, a computer chip is shoved into his body. A blood sample is taken, and must be sent to the only laboratory in the country from which Defra will accept results (in the US, actually, there are two laboratories but the other is apparently only for dogs in active military service). A pile of papers must be gathered and certified by a veterinarian.
And then there is the travel itself. Lajoš must travel in crate that meets precise specifications, can only go on flights from a list provided by Defra, and is to be surrendered to the cargo carrier five hours before the flight. On arrival in London, he is to be taken in his crate directly to the Animal Reception Centre, where, their literature assures us, staff are on duty 24 hours to assure the health, safety and happiness of domestic animals and the people around them.
From Heathrow Terminal 4, which can be reached by tube, one can reach the Animal Reception Centre by car. If, like most people who live in central London, one does not have a car, the procedure is the following: one drags one's luggage past the point at which there are paved walks by the side of the road, and then drags the bags up some stairs to a path that runs through an overgrown meadow and leads to a narrow pavement bestride a six-lane highway. After tooling along that pavement for about 2 km, it is possible to see the building of the Animal Reception Centre, which bears a striking resemblance to the Medical Facility for the Criminally Insane outside the University of Massachusetts hospital in Worcester. On seeing the building, it becomes clear that it is on the other side of the six-lane highway and that there are no crossings. So the only thing to do is wait for a somewhat clear moment, then dash with suitcases and child in the hope of not making an involuntary appearance in tomorrow's Daily Mirror ("Stranded pooch after Ethnia family road rage squish"). Later we discovered that it is possible to take a bus from the terminal; the bus deposits you by a parking lot next to the cargo area about a mile further down the highway, which is also on the opposite side. Here there is a crossing, which leads to an unpaved strip on the other side where pedestrians are invited to slog through the muddy grass beside a shallow primordial pool which is shaped like an imitation of a river.
Pedestrians who arrive at the entrance to the Animal Reception Centre are greeted by a sign telling them that pedestrian access is prohibited. After ignoring the sign they will reach a reasonably pleasant waiting room filled with sofas and piles upon piles of interior decorating magazines. On the walls are signed photos from celebrities whose animals have passed through those doors. Most of them I do not recognise, but there is the unctuous Richard Branson with two doggies and a signed portrait of a squat Elton John. There are also vending machines where one can buy a bag of crisps or a Yorkie bar (“not for girls!”). We are signed in and instructed that Lajoš should be delivered to us within the hour.
But soon an agent appears with a problem: apparently in some obscure part of the guidelines we have been (or somebody has been) told that our Boston veterinarian's signature must be verified by the US Department of Agriculture. Since such a thing would not occur to any reasonable person and is not visible in the instructions, it was not done, and hence the Animal Reception Centre is not able to accept Lajoš's documents. The certificate will have to be issued by one of their vets. It is now 7 AM. Since the Animal Reception Centre works 24 hours a day doing nothing but processing animals, they naturally do not have veterinarians on staff (who are all these people, then?). A veterinarian drops by to visit twice a day, once at noon and once at 7 PM. We are advised to bring our bags home, and that somebody will phone us sometime after noon to tell us that our dog is ready to be picked up. Which we do.
Around 1:00 we receive a call asking us to come back to the Animal Reception Centre with Lajoš's documents. Mrs Ethnia stays at home and the Ethniette and I head off, folder of documents in hand, to make the trek once again to distant Heathrow. It turns out that they needed to resolve some confusion as to whether the computer chip that was unceremoniously placed into Lajoš was placed on the day it was placed or on the day that its number was registered. We are able to resolve the confusion immediately. By this time, however, given the time it has taken for them to call us and the time it has taken to get back to the airport, the noon vet has left. The certificate cannot be issued until the 7 PM vet shows up. They kindly point out that our paid processing fee allows Lajoš to spend 48 hours enjoying their hospitality, and that we are perfectly free to return home and pick him up the following day, or even the day after. We are determined that our dog will not spend the night at their mercies, however tender. We tell them that we will be back at 8 PM.
This leaves us with a good six hours to fill in some way or another. The time could be spent at Heathrow, revelling in the opportunity to pay £10 for beans on toast and to find out what abominations WH Smith has decided are “bestsellers.” We quickly dismiss this idea and instead arrange to meet up with Mrs Ethnia in the nearest proper neighbourhood I can think of. Which is how we came to spend our afternoon in Hounslow.
Now, I have absolutely nothing against Hounslow, and in fact it seems like it is a perfectly fine place. There are many discount clothing and furniture stores, as well as some lovely outlets for electronic goods. There is a shop where everything costs a pound, and if we had been inspired we could have got a very good deal there on those metal balti dishes which are ideal for serving food that has to be hot at the table. There is also a quite good Lebanese restaurant, where the friendly staff served us a delicious dinner at a more than reasonable price. There is a bakery where they fill their cannolis with Nutella, an innovation that pleased the Ethniette a great deal. The only bad thing I can say about Hounslow is that the only two times I have been there in my life it was because of some mishap involving transportation that was expected to happen but did not because of bureaucracy, and that if this sort of mishap does not occur again, as I certainly hope, these will remain the only two times in my life I have been in Hounslow. It is entirely possible that this sentiment is misplaced and that it reflects poorly both on Hounslow and on me.
In any case, our brief and unanticipated sojourn into Hounslow tourism completed, it was time to return to the inviting Heathrow cargo area. At around 9 PM we finally did receive Lajoš, who was happy and seemed no worse for wear despite his long imprisonment. By 10:30 PM he was off the tube and merrily sniffing the ground by the fast food stands where people wait for buses at Finsbury Park station. At 11 PM, a mere 15 hours after landing in a crate in the UK, he was at home enjoying the smells of Muswell Hill.
Englezi: Lajoš has arrived in your country. One day he will rule you all.