(Originally written is Oct, 2006)
So we’re at the airport in Rome ready to catch our much anticipated flight home, while fretting the idea of three flights, two layovers, and a taxi drive with a total travel time of about 20 or so hours. We decide that next time we go international, we’ll spend the extra cash to get a more direct route. We haven’t slept in two nights because of bed bugs and a dirty room with two twin cots separated by a side table and we’re both grouchy as hell.
All trip we’ve been wanting to get some Italian meats and cheeses to take home for ourselves and our friends, but we didn’t want to carry them around in our backpacks everywhere for two weeks. Suddenly we happen upon an airport store that provides just what we’ve been looking for and we decide to take advantage of the opportunity. While we make our selections, I wonder what the rules are in bringing this kind of stuff to the US with us. I know there’s certain restrictions when it comes to alcohol, ciggies, medications, high dollar art and jewelry, fruit, etc., and I’m sure there’s something I should know about meats and cheeses.
As I’m signing away a small fortune in cylindars of salame and vacuum packed chunks of parm on yet another credit card slip, I ask the cashier if she knows anything about it and she says she doesn’t, but she thinks you’re not allowed to take meats in. David and I look at each other with a question mark as the cashier takes my signed slip, hands over the goods and say’s “Grazie” (pronounced grah-tsee-yeh) with a dismissing smile. What’s done is done, and so begins a day of stewing and worrying for David.
It’s funny seeing David in what he truly considers a compromising situation. You would think that we were trying to smuggle narcotics into the country. I began to get bombarded with questions, “Do they not allow this stuff? What should we do with it? Should we not carry it on? What will happen if they find out we have it?”, to which my answer was always, “I don’t know. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine.”
The funny part of it is that David has a background that isn’t exactly squeaky clean, having had the silver bracelets attached behind his back once or twice. His old age has made him much more aware of the consequences, and rightfully so. Combined with his extreme worrying habit, it makes for a long ride home.
I, too, have a small collection of silver bracelet experiences, and have no desire to break any laws these days, but what’s the worst that can happen? We discuss the possibilities.
One scenario is that we arrive in US customs, they search our bags, find the stash and confiscate it, which is the one I opt for. We’d be out a bunch of cash and the customs officials would have a hearty appetizer spread on their lunch hours. Or, not only do they confiscate the goods, but maybe they interrogate us, maybe fine us, maybe hold us in custody for hours, start a file, get our DNA, charge us with a felony, put some emergency warning in a vast computer system that notifies transporation employees and authorities all over the world that a known meat and cheese smuggler is in their midst… David, take a nap.
Our two and a half hour flight from Italy to Amsterdam leaves us unscathed with the goods carefully resting in the overhead compartment. As we head for our connection, the topic comes up again. This time, I map out a plan to try to alleviate any further concern… Look, we fly from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. That’s where we have to pick up our checked bags, go through customs, and then recheck our bags to San Diego. When we get our bags, we’ll go off to the side, put the goods into the bags and recheck them. They’ll probably go through without getting searched and it will be smooth sailing. David brings up the idea that they may have dogs who will be able to smell it. I laugh and we discuss the worst case scenarios again.
To me, this is not a big deal. I assure David that I brought beef jerky back from Thailand once without incident. We get on our next flight heading for Minneapolis and settle in for 9 hours of sitting upright in 11A and 11B, where David refuses to put his seat back for a little more comfort because he doesn’t want to annoy the guy behind him. David hates it when people put their seat back in front of him. It eliminates his ability to sit with his knees upright forcing his legs to dangle into the aisle, which he then has to move every time the “don’t ask me for anything extra” flight attendents or the occasional passenger walking to the WC (water closet) needs the aisle space.
As with any international re-entry into the US, you are provided with a customs card you must fill out declaring anything you are bringing into the states that was acquired in the country you came from. I opt to fill it out since I know one of the questions the form asks is, “Are you bringing any food?”, and then a signature means you are declaring that everything is true and correct on the form. David would see that and start with the worrying again and he wouldn’t want to sign his name on such an official form if he wasn’t telling the whole truth.
Under the section asking you to list all the items you are bringing in and their dollar values. I mark that we have t-shirts, CD’s, glassware, olive oil, vineger, pesto, etc, leaving out any meats and cheeses information. I sign my name and put the form in my purse for later.
After endless hours of reading and using the IPOD to it’s maximum musical and gaming potential, the captian announces that we will begin our descent, after which the female flight attendent begins general announcements. I’m tuning her out when suddenly I hear her say, “…and please advise that you are not allowed to bring any food at all into the US with you and that includes any food you may have been served on this flight.”
What? Not even pretzels? David looks at me with that question mark again, but doesn’t say anything. I tap him on the knee, “Don’t worry.” But now, silently, I’m a little worried. Is this one of the things they’re really cracking down on? I mean, we can’t even bring bottled water onto a plane anymore, we have to take off our shoes and belts to be exray’d. What if they’ve implemented some new food thing? The rules seem to change so often and so quickly that it’s impossible to keep up… Ok, that’ll be my excuse if we get busted.
Then I remember putting on the customs form that we were bringing in olive oil, vineger and jarred pestos, which are packed in our checked luggage. She said no food at all. If they see that, it might tip them off to dig a little deeper and then not only would we be out the meats and cheeses, but all the oils, vinegers and pestos too. I casually dig out the form and my pen and begin scratching out that line, being careful not to leave any part of it legible. Over it, as if I had made some sort of mistake, I added the word jewelry. David, concerned, asks me what I’m doing and I explain that I’m alleviating any chance that they’ll want to search us. Commence the worrying again…
We disembark the plane in Minneapolis and David’s carrying the goods in question in a shopping bag. The first thing he says is, “We’re gonna lose all this stuff”, to which I proclaim, “Damn! Could you think a little more positively please! We are not going to lose anything!” Now he’s making me worry and I’m starting to actually feel the pressure. I remind myself that this is no big deal.
We round a corner into the customs area where everyone is scurrying for the shortest line to get through. Beyond the checkpoint is the baggage claim. Beyond that are more customs officials you have to walk by. David glances at me without saying anything, but I know what he’s thinking. He’s actually nervous. I reach over and grab the bag out of his hand. If we’re going to get busted, I’ll be the one carrying it and try to take some of the pressure off of him. “Let me do all the talking”, I say to him. He doesn’t say anything.
We get in line, passports and customs form in hand. Our turn. David hasn’t said a word. I wonder what is going on in his head. When confronted with these kinds of uncomfortable situations, some natural fight or flight instinct kicks in and the confident fighter in me takes over. I adopt the attitude that whatever happens is going to happen and all will work out well in the end. Just act natural… Jesus, we may as well be smuggling drugs.
We approach the uniformed and Americanly serious customs guy and hand over our paperwork.
“Are you two traveling together?” he asks taking the passports and form.
“Yes.” I answer, not offering anything else. I remind myself not to say anything more than answering specifically what is asked.
“What countries have you been in?” he asks without looking at us as he is running our passports through a machine that looks like a credit card swiper.
“Italy.” David and I answer in unison. Damn, I told him to let me do the talking.
“How long were you out of the country?” The questions are coming as though he’s asked them a million times already just in the past hour.
“Two weeks.” David and I answer in unison again. This time I look at him and involuntarily let out a nervous laugh and mumble something about us talking at the same time. David doesn’t respond. Everything’s cool, I remind myself.
Official customs guy interrupts with, “Are you bringing anything into the country that you acquired in Italy?”
“Yes, souveniers,” I reply.
He finally looks up at us, at me. “What?”
Suddenly I feel a little flustered. I can’t remember what I put on the form. I can’t remember what we bought. The words meats and cheeses are bouncing off all of my receptors quickly making their way to the tip of my tounge. I look down at the bag I’m carrying to try to remind myself what we bought. The bag has meats and cheeses in it.
“T-shirts, um, posters, um CD’s.” I blurt out. I’m suspicious of myself and I wonder if he senses that.
Then he says with full eye contact, “Do you have any meat or food of any kind?”
“No.” It comes out so quickly looking him in his eyes, I wonder if I’ve just given us away.
He looks down and begins to flip through my passport. After David and I got married, I changed my last name to Master, including on my passport, which requires that you send it to the “passport people” for them to make the changes. But when the passport people sent my passport back to me, it was untouched on the main page with a typed amendment on the back page stating the last name as Master. This causes a lot of complication when I travel now. All my reservations are made in the name Master, but the first place anyone looks in your passport is on the main page, which never matches because it still says my maiden name. Now Mr. American customs guy is taking extra time with us because of this.
David is sweating. Outwardly, I’m acting very non-chalaunt and explaining the passport thing. Customs Guy flips over the form and sees the scribbled out line. There is what seems like an endless pause. He hands back our forms and says thank you… meaning everything’s cool. We passed. David and I casually walk away. Of course we passed. Why wouldn’t we? Now, we just have to pick up our bags at baggage claim, walk past the next set of officials, pack the headache of meats and cheeses into them and re-check them.
David carefully pulls both of our waterproof rain cover wrapped backpacks off the rotating belt and begins to walk towards the exit area. Mine, since it has all the bottled and jarred oils and pestos, is heavy and I’d rather carry it on my back. I lay it down on the ground and begin to remove the cover. David gets wide eyed and can’t believe I’m doing this. He quietly yells at me with teeth clenched that we’re almost there and why am I taking off the only layer of protection on my back pack in case any of the jars broke and are spilling out. I ignore him and continue with my task. No leaks.
We approach the next customs agent. She’s standing looking official near baggage claim collecting the customs forms. She stops a woman in front of us. The agent asks with seriousness if she has any food with her. What? Damn! What if she asks us that? This agent is standing in the open and can easily poke her head in our bag. A second later the woman in front of us walks away and the customs agent takes our form. David and I pause, awaiting the inevitable next question. I smile at her.
She looks at us and says, “Thank you”, keeping the form and then looking away to the next person.
My god! What the hell is such a big deal about bringing a few damn salami’s and cheeses home? David and I speed walk away not saying anything. I begin to quickly identify a safe spot to off load these menacing meats and cheeses into my back pack before re-checking it. I can see that there is another security check point where we have to again strip down and be Xray’d. Surely if we were to put the damn goods through there they would pull them and we would get interrogated. The cylindar shapes of the salami’s would probably look like potential bomb canisters.
I pick a spot off to the side but by no means hidden and set my stuff on the floor. David looks as me with a “What the hell are you doing” scream look. I answer his non question with “I’m putting some stuff in the back pack so we don’t have to carry it anymore.” A safe reply, I figure, in case anyone is listening. Great. Now I’m fricken paranoid and David is pissed off.
I know it has to be done. There’s no way we can put this crap through Xray. I unzip my back pack causing it to release a litte because it is packed to the seams. Shit. How am I going to fit this stuff in there? I look at David and ask him if he has any room in his. He looks at me with this “There’s no way in hell I’m opening my bag right now” look and says “No.”
I let out the automatic and uncontrollable female abrupt grunt that indicates to David that I’m pissed off and annoyed now. I decide I’m just going to have to shove it in there, even if the zippers break, and proceed to force the 10 pound bag in the overflowing backpack. I speak to myself in my head that I’m getting these god damn meats and cheeses home no matter what!
The force of my thoughts miraculously zip the backpack closed. With an annoyed huff, we both approch the rotaing conveyer belts carting bags back to the tarmac and practically throw the bags on it. Then, with a great sense of accomplishment and relief, we get in line for the security check.
After a few stubborn silent moments pass avoiding eye contact with each other, we finally meet eyes and start laughing uncontrollably. We quietly laugh at each other as we recount the worrying since we left Italy, the pessimistic attitudes, the unfounded paranoia, the worst case scenarios. Deep sighs. What time is it? Are we home yet?
The next day we woke up at 6am hungry for a big breakfast. We haven’t had eggs in weeks, since Italy’s idea of a good breakfast is a hard roll and some coffee. David hit the kitchen and whipped up some awesome grub… scrambled eggs with sun dried tomatos, Tuscan Olive loaf toast, sliced tomato with dried oregano seasoning and, of course, that god damned illegal Italian salami, straight from the boot itself. Every bite was taken with conviction.