November Monkey

November’s monkey is "Border Stumblings." I’ve had the good fortune of being able to travel and cross a number of international borders over the past ten years and I have never encountered any real problems. Plenty of lineups, but no searches or questionings or inconveniences.

sharp!There were a few times, however, that could have been eventful. For example, I am in the habit of carrying a folding green-handled Opinel knife with me. I use it for peeling fruit, opening bags, picking my teeth, you name it. It is sharp, reliable, and has been my handy companion since 1993.

That knife has been with me on all of my trips. Nowadays, I’m careful to stow it in my checked baggage, as such a thing would not be allowed in carry-on bags. However, as they say; this is now, that was then.

When I went to Portugal in 1999 I took only a small carry-on bag even though my holiday lasted 18 days. My trusty knife was with me the whole time, even on the airplanes. I barely gave it a thought.

Similarly, I remember being in line for the X-ray machines at the airport in Prague, enroute to Amsterdam, in 1995. There was a delay because the trench coat-wearing geezer in front of me had a can opener in his pocket. To his chagrin, the security people wouldn’t let him take it on the plane. He finally relinquished it and moved on. My turn came, and my shiv-packing day bag went through the zapper without even a blink.

Only once was I ever busted for the Opinel. In 1997 I was at the small airport in Sydney (Nova Scotia) preparing to fly to Halifax on a small Dash-8. My handbag went through the zapper and the security lady said to me, in that Cape Breton way, "Now dear, I think you have a knife in that bag. Do you mind if I take a look?" Damn, I thought, she’s going to take away my trusty friend. Instead, she took out the Opinel, measured the blade with a ruler, and found it was a hair short of three inches. "It’s no problem, dear. It’s under the limit so go ahead and have a nice flight!"

Here’s another stumble. It is May of 2001 and I am scheduled to fly to Chicago for a conference of technical writers. It is a morning flight, quite early. I’ve just gotten back from a week’s holiday in France, and the past 24 hours have been hectic and chaotic, with little sleep. As I queue up for U.S. customs (which is located in the Airport in Montreal — you have to clear customs before you get on the plane) my foggy mind starts thinking about what I will say to the customs agent.

I recall the last non-holiday trip I had taken to the U.S. — two years earlier I had spent three weeks in Las Vegas preparing for a trade show. A few knuckleheads at the company I worked for then had convinced me to not reveal I was going to Las Vegas to work. "They’ll give you a hard time" they said. So, prior to that flight, I told the customs agent that I was going there on holiday.

For some reason that all comes back to me now, and in my fatigued state I don’t fight it. A moment later I am face-to-face with a U.S. customs agent. She asks me where I am going (Chicago) and what I do for a living (technical writer). Then she asks me the reason for my trip. "To visit friends" I blurt out. "Really?" she says. "What kind of friends?"

"Oh, you know… people" I stammer. "Work-related friends?" she asks, her eyes drilling into me. "Uh, yeah, I suppose."

"Do you know there’s a technical writer’s conference in Chicago starting tomorrow?" she asks, one eyebrow raised.

So busted.

"Uh… yeah, I guess." By now I am as red as a monkey’s butt and starting to sweat. "Are you going to the conference?" she demands. My choices are to confess that I lied and probably not get on the plane, or to play it cool and pretend it’s a coincidence. Yeah, that’s me — cool like a red-hot poker. "Well, I might, ahhh, you know, drop by or, um, you know…"

"Why are you lying" she cuts in. Uh… fess-up time.

So I tell her I am tired and it is early and I just thought it would be easier, that she would ask me fewer questions. After all, I say, it’s not like I’m going there to work. I will visit friends, I just didn’t mention the conference part.

Oddly enough, she lets me through, but not before delivering a lecture on why it is a crime to lie to customs agents, and not before making sure I understand that she could not only refuse me entry but could press charges.

I must have an honest face. Or maybe in those pre-9/11 days we just didn’t sweat things so much.