Marcel and the Customs Agent
Everyone seems to think that you can find just about any information you'd ever want on The Web. Well, up to a point; still, you can only go so far with this. I have located the lyrics from well-known obscure songs from the 1920's (There goes the girl I dreamed all through school about, There goes the girl I'll now be a fool about,Ring down the curtain, I'm certain my future just passed ...-- Richard Whiting/George Marion, Jr); but what about undiagnosed phobias? There are a number of places you can go to to search for the scientific (Latin) names for rare maladies: for example, if you have a fear of raw sewage, you are suffering from seplophobia. Supposing, however, you have morbid dread that you will be left with nothing to read, that you be thrust into a situation in which you will have six hours at your disposal with nothing to do but stare at the walls. I don't know what it's called, but that's me in spades. Whenever I go on a trip, I invariably shlep along three times as much reading material as I could get to, even if I were going to be stranded at an airport during a major blizzard.
With that in mind, there we were on a plane heading from Ben-Gurion to Amsterdam, the first leg of our recent journey to The States. I had hoped to finish the last volume of Marcel Proust's À La Recherche du Temps Perdu before we left; but I still had 150 pages to read; so I brought it along and was perusing it as the plane was heading north over Europe at about 8AM Israel time. I had reached page 229, at which point, Marcel, the writer's thinly disguised alter ego, is about to enter the drawing-room of some very swanky people. He has been away from Society for some time, and when he walks in, he notices something very strange: "To begin with I did not understand why I was so slow to recognize the master of the house and the guests nor why everybody seemed seemed to have put on make-up, in most cases with powdered hair which changed them completely." Proust goes on describing his astonishment as he is introduced to people he knew so well and now hardly recognizes. "...Time, which is normally not visible, which seeks out bodies in order to become so and wherever it finds them seizes upon them for its magic lantern show." (p. 233) Marcel, you have this uncanny ability to put words in my mouth. Could anyone else have expressed why I was so dreading this trip?
Barbara had gone back to The States several times to see her mother and once to see her terminally ill aunt. Except for our ten day cruise to Greece, I had kept my two feet firmly planted in The Land since we arrived in July 2007. I'm not one of these fanatics who insist that once you're living in The Land, you may never, never, set one toe outside our boundaries even long enough to sneeze. My approach is much narrower, more pragmatic. Why would I want to be sitting in an airport at 3AM when I could be sound asleep at home? Why would I want to be sitting on an airplane at 10AM when I could be sharing my laptop with our two latest felines, Moby and Kookie?
We were originally planning a trip to The States in May to coincide with Barbara's mother's 90th birthday, but Gwen was doing poorly, shuttling back and forth between assorted hospitals and a rehab center. At one point, we were not certain she would pull through, so we advanced our trip by two months. At least that way I could have a belated 70th birthday celebration with my fraternal twin brother -- in between his rounds of chemotherapy. There was a host of family and friends we could see. One friend who was still grieving the loss of his wife who died inexplicably following an operation just before we made aliyah. Another who, after a senseless accident, was now a paraplegic. Some had lost elderly parents; others were burdened with caring for them. I had wondered how they were faring. I wondered what time had done to minds and bodies that weren't so young to begin with. We would soon find out.
Let me digress and throw in a little tip about air travel. If you're going to be stuck in an airport in Europe for more than twenty minutes, as good a place as any to be is in Amsterdam -- as long as you aren't looking for kosher food. The duty-free shops are well stocked and reasonable. If you have the time, you can get on a bus and be at any of the fine museums in the city in half an hour. Being more cautious, we chose to stay in the airport. Not to worry; there's even a museum there! Actually a gallery space, exhibiting 'Old Masters' lent from the local museums. From the sublime to the ridiculous: there is also a life-size interactive TV display in which the friendly virtual bartender will show you how to make dozens of cocktails, all using a gin-like beverage called Bols Genever. I prefer my booze straight up, but I appreciate the sentiment.
Many hours and a change of planes later, we arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington DC. Home. Or what used to be home. Or more precisely, close to what used to be home. Clutching our American passports, we avoided the agony to which foreigners are subjected when they choose to enter The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Not so fast. We had filled out the standard customs form stating that we had nothing to declare. With our turquoise suitcases -- the easier to find them on the the luggage conveyor -- and our carry-on bags, we were standing in a long corridor with lots of other people waiting to exit, when a customs official with the cutest little Beagle you'd ever want to see came walking our way. The dog got to our stuff, started sniffing, and climbed onto Barbara's backpack. Uh-oh! On the general principal that you never have too much food with you, Barbara had packed three Granny Smith apples (yes, you can get them in Israel) as part of of our just-in-case snack. She also took two cucumbers that would have rotted if left for another week in our fridge. We were well fed on the KLM-Delta flights and we still had them with us. We were attempting to bring unauthorized agricultural products into the U.S.. for which a fine of up to $500 may be imposed. Yikes! We offered to eat the apples right then and there; but that would have meant destroying the evidence. We were taken into a separate room and made to face the sternest federal official you'd never want to meet. In front of us on line was a middle-aged man, his head bowed in contrition, holding in his hands a solitary red-delicious apple cradled in a napkin. He was ready to accept whatever punishment the official would mete out: a week in Guantanamo, having to write "I will never again try to smuggle Agricultural products into the U.S." ten thousand times, or being force-fed fifty gallons of Starbucks worst coffee. He got off lightly; the woman simply confiscated his red-delicious apple and the napkin, giving him a scathing look in the process. But we....we... had three (!) apples and two (!) cucumbers. We might be members of some agro-consortium. Would they retroactively revoke our citizenship back three generations -- even for my Uncle George who fought in W.W.I? The official took our passports and proceeded to check them.. Our information was probably entered into some data-base of would-be Johnny Appleseeds, to be interrogated should we return at some future date to what used to be our home. We were finally released and allowed to go on our way. Welcome to the USA!