Venturing: The cow and the wine

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2011 in Opinion

Venturing: The cow and the wine

A French cow (specifically, a bull).  Photo by the author.

by David D. Platt

I like to travel from time to time, obliging me to encounter the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies supposedly devoted to protecting us civilians from terrorists. Every time I come back from a trip, it seems, I have a story to tell.

The most recent emanates from a trip to France a friend and I took in late September and early October. While overseas we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast on a farm in Alsace – a charming place that in addition to rooms featured a small restaurant and, of course, a farm with fields of corn and a barn full of cows. “Bucolic” would be the term for the place and it suited us well even if the bathroom wasn’t perfectly clean.

We spent two nights on the farm, and one morning we walked out to the barn where one of the cows (actually a bull) was munching hay from a big manger.  Janice, my friend, reached through the slats and patted his head. I took a photo, the animal munched on, and we left for the day.

Twenty-four hours later we boarded an Air France flight in Strasbourg, bound for Paris and then home. The bull was forgotten, or so I thought. We underwent the usual inspections – x-rays of our carry-on luggage, passing through a metal detector – and passed into Strasbourg’s ample departure lounge, where we each spent our last Euros on two bottles of French wine at the Duty Free shop. Swaddled in their Duty-Free plastic bags, the bottles went into our backpacks. Intent on our upcoming flight home, we forgot about the bottles too.

We changed planes at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, never passing out of the security system, and eventually boarded a flight for Boston. Strapping ourselves into seats in this plane’s ample cabin, we were handed little cards to fill out for U.S. Customs in Boston. The questions were what you’d expect: had we purchased anything of value overseas? Did we have anything to declare?  I made note of the wine and a few small presents I’d bought, and so did Janice. All pretty simple – until we reached the question that had clearly been inserted in the Customs form by a different agency or agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Centers for Disease Control: had we had any contact with farm animals while overseas? I checked “no” on my card and thought no more about it. Janice, a more honest person than I am, checked “yes” and prepared to explain how she’d patted a French cow.

“Don’t do that,” I said at the time. “They’ll send you to Guantanamo.”

“But I did pat the cow,” she insisted. “I’ll explain.” I prepared to say goodbye to her at Logan Airport as agents led her away in handcuffs.

We flew on to Boston, landing in late afternoon. At Logan Airport we trudged through long lines, carrying our backpacks, to the Customs desk. Janice went first: “What’s this?” she was asked when the agent spied the box checked “yes.”

“I patted a cow,” she told him. He sighed and made red marks all over the card. From where I stood a few feet back I was sure he was summoning other authorities to take her away. In handcuffs. For a long time. But then she was free to go, and I was next. “Did you pat the cow too?” he wanted to know. No, I told him, adding that I had taken a photo of the critter in question. And then I did my part to threaten nation’s integrity: he asked me if I’d brought in any food, and I replied that I’d bought a couple of bottles of wine that were in my backpack. “Liquids!” he expostulated. “How did you get them aboard?” I’d bought them after we’d been through security, I said. At the Duty Free, along with everyone else getting on our flight. Where was I supposed to carry them if not in my backpack? I suppose I could have told him I’d considered drinking them before boarding, but not being a serious drunk and being a prudent sort of person when it comes to dealing with government officials, I didn’t say anything more. Besides, the bottles were for my sons’ birthdays and I wanted to deliver them in person. So I held my tongue.

The Customs guy delivered a short lecture about security, to the effect that the reason the U.S. has so much trouble protecting itself is that foreigners don’t understand; they sell bottles of liquids (fine French wines, to boot) to people about to board planes that fly across the Atlantic, etc. etc. He really said that.

It all reminded me of the time I sailed into a U.S. port (Rockland, Maine) from a foreign port (Yarmouth, Nova Scotia), tried to check in with the U.S. Coast Guard and was sent on a round-robin of phone calls that included two offices in Portland and one in Houlton, each of which wanted nothing more than to get rid of me.  One officer told me to “stay aboard,” despite the fact we’d already moored the boat, rowed ashore and my crew had all left in their respective cars.

As I told my fellow crewmembers after that particular adventure, it was certainly lucky we’d shed our turbans before I made that phone call!

Do I feel more secure than I did before they set up all these agencies to protect me? You bet.


David D. Platt edited the old Maine Times and then Working Waterfront.

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