Some Strange Foreign Customs

The English customs inspector stared at me in horror. "Do you know what you just did?" he demanded in disbelief. Even his moustache looked scandalized. "You bought nine bottles! Nine bottles!"

I grinned at him, unperturbed. "It’s my last flight across the Channel," I told him. "My plane is sold. So I’ll never do it again."

No lie. Since that morning 1.5 years ago, I have never crossed the English coast at Lydd, have never squeezed a rattling, lumpy plastic bag of whisky bottles into the back seat of my old Rallye between suitcase and flightbag, have never again seen that tall, dear customs inspector who told me that day he’d miss me - almost like he meant it ...

I’m writing this in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My house here is adobe brick and surrounded by a rough coyote fence, a far cry from the stone farmhouse left behind for good in southern France. The elevation of this small capital city of nearly 50,000 souls is 7,000 feet - higher than my usual flight level back in Europe. New Mexican aviation charts list do’s and don’ts for pilots visiting this high plateau country; there’s even a convenient graph for computing density altitude right on the back. Besides these hints, runways around here tend to be longer than down by the seaside, and flight instructors smaller.

There’s no way in a short space to describe the cultural shock of returning to the USA to live after 17 years abroad. But there is plenty of time to recall my European adventure - during TV commercials, while trekking across parking lots, or while driving for hours along superhighways without hardly even seeing a habitation. Most of the pilots here have never overflown water or crossed an international boundary. Some of those who have are still in jail; others have become very rich young men. Quite a few are dead.

It’s best not to speak fondly of any particular customs inspector. A reputation for human-heartedness would do his professional standing no good. Customs men are undoubtedly required to be suspicious, unapproachable, and fear-inspiring. Well, be of good cheer; after ten years of traveling about Europe by lightplane, I can honestly say that the most redoubtable customs and immigration officers are those guarding England’s airports of entry.

During those years I visited England many times and have felt myself eyed variously as a possible smuggler of arms for the IRA, of Pakistanis, of contraband, and of rabid pussycats. While no more honest than the next person, I’m surely more terrified than almost anyone of getting caught.

So I never smuggled, and my travels were always accompanied by a tranquil conscience ... right until I’d find myself standing in front of British officialdom. There, in spite of my innocence, I’d start feeling guilty. This feeling would be compounded by the absolute knowledge that I looked as guilty as sin. No matter how clean I was, it was impossible for me to project that condition convincingly when eye-to-eye with British customs or immigration.

Having confessed that I never smuggled it would seem that I’d have nothing more to write on the subject. Strangely, this isn’t the case. Today, when we fly, even as private pilots or commercial passengers, we come in close proximity to the world of police and crime. None of us ever forget those times we felt the Law breathing uncomfortably down the backs of our innocent necks.

A poignant example of this was seen on a recent TV series here. In one episode, the show’s (mostly black) high-school basketball team, invited to play in a distant city, takes its first airplane ride. As the nervous, cool, gangling, ghetto group is filing through the metal-detector archway at Los Angeles Airport, a buzzer suddenly is heard. A guard steps forward to ask the young man to come to the side. Without a flicker of surprise or chagrin, the obliging youth puts both hands against the wall and spreads his feet in the posture to be frisked. This misunderstanding can occur only when human dignity has reached its most abused level.

I used to have my nav-coms repaired at a facility north of London. On one occasion my plane wasn’t ready to fly until four o’clock of a Friday afternoon. A young English friend, wanting to attend the Monaco Grand Prix that Sunday, had asked me to let him and a friend accompany me down to southern France. We would meet at the airfield. We did. El shocko!

My stringbean friend, his long hair and moustaches flowing, was dressed in a gold-bordered, red velvet jacket and the tightest pair of Levis I had ever seen, a red heart appliqued on the zipper. His friend, whom I first saw from behind, was a tall, willowy blond wearing a mauve pants suit and high sabots. It thus came as a shock when this person turned around and I saw a thick, blond moustache.

"You’re really going to shake them up across the Channel," I said, wondering what French customs might think when they saw all this action arriving by lightplane. "They’ll take you apart with pins," I told my passengers. "I hope you aren’t carrying anything you wouldn’t want found."

They assured me they had no drugs or contraband, and I never gave it another thought.

We left Albion’s shore fairly late and by the time we reached France night was falling. The plan was to overnight in Le Touquet. Since my passengers had no desire to waste any time in France sleeping, I was the only one to bring a suitcase into the aérogare. In fact, the only clothes they had with them were on them. To my surprise, the French authorities never gave them a glance.

"Whose bag is that?" one inspector demanded, pointing at the suitcase in my hand.

"Mine," I shrugged, wondering of what interest my luggage could possibly be to anyone.

"Ouvrez-la, s’il vous plait."

"Open it?" I could hardly believe my ears. I’d never had to open a bag in nearly ten years of travels with the Rallye. My passengers were the weirdos and I was the one under suspicion. It seemed absurd.

Since I had nothing to hide except some unmentionables, I opened the bag with only a small blush. In high expectations and with obvious relish the inspector began chopping through my belongings with the sides of his hands. After a few seconds he bore in and brought something out. It was a small, plastic bag containing coriander seeds that I’d bought to plant in my garden to make a leafy chutney for curries. Looking at them in his hand, I realized they looked exactly like some cannabis seeds a friend had once given me to plant. (Those seeds had long since rotted away in a drawer with giant sunflower seeds, cantaloupe seeds, and pumpkin seeds - I hate gardening as much as smoking pot). It now occurred to me that if this inspector knew what cannabis seed looked like (a definite possibility), I might have a bit of explaining to do.

The inspector, delighted by his discovery, took a lot of convincing, especially since the seeds had no odor of any spice. But at last he accepted my theory that coriander seeds used for planting must not be like those used in the preparation of food. So he put the little bag back and started in on the side pockets while I looked on benignly. After all, what else could he possibly find?

Suddenly his face lit up and he yelped with joy. I stared in horror at what he now held up. It seems I was suffering from an allergy and was taking a series of self-administered allergy injections under doctor’s orders. What he’d found was a half-dozen disposable hypodermic needles and some unlabeled bottles and vials.

"Defendu!" he cried triumphantly. "Prohibited. The chief inspector will have to be informed of this. Just wait right here." And off he ran.

Feeling exhausted after a long and hectic day, and hungry as well, I went over to tell my passengers the bad news. One had some rather dreary information to give to me too. His Levis, the only clothes he’d brought, had split a seam. "In front." He pointed down.

"Oh, no."

It couldn’t be true. It must all be a bad dream. My eyes descended his lean figure as unwillingly as two Spitfires shot down in battle. There, to my infinite relief, I saw that underneath those incredibly tight pants he was wearing a pair of briefs. These were pale blue with small white flowers or birds. "They look absolutely part of the show," I assured him. "No one will ever notice." He agreed, and so was settled that problem.

For the next couple of hours the three of us sat perched on the customs counter like crestfallen birds, stared at curiously by dozens of passing travelers. The chief inspector, when he finally arrived at 10.30, took one look at me and as our eyes met I could tell he knew I was no criminal.

But it was necessary to play the game so as not to humiliate his underling. So we munched a few coriander seeds, united in the unfathomable mystery as to why they tasted no spicier than pebbles, and chatted about this and that. All the while my persecutor looked on from the sidelines, rubbing his hands and grinning anticipatorially. At last the chief inspector, most apologetically, asked me to pull up my sleeves. After half a glance at my unblemished arms, he told me we could go. I didn’t need to be told twice.

An experienced customs inspector or immigration officer ought to be able to tell fairly easily whether someone is hiding something or not. On the traveler’s side, he or she is usually able to tell whether the inspector is being a complete bastard over nothing at all, just to get some sick satisfaction out of harassing people, or whether he has some honest doubts. And then there are the times when outside pressures simply let things get temporarily out of hand.

I was dining in London one day with the editor of a certain aviation magazine when he mentioned that he and his wife were flying down to southern France on holiday. Why, he asked, didn’t he fly down with me in my plane, while his wife took an airliner? This would give him a chance to take some photographs and, as his wife had several suitcases of clothes, he could just put them into my airplane.

It sounded like a fun idea and so early one morning found us on a train heading for Ashford. From there we loaded his two huge suitcases and a third containing about a ton of photographic equipment, and my own bags, into a taxi. We arrived at Lympne a few minutes before the airport opened at 9 am.

I had left N4389 parked on grass in a corner of the airfield by the front entrance. It seemed the simplest thing just to unload the baggage directly from the taxi into the plane by stepping over a low fence. This we did. After that I went into the terminal to buy a sandwich for breakfast. Munching the sandwich I wandered over to customs to begin the lengthy formalities for departing England.

Entering the customs office my pleasure at seeing my favorite inspector was blurred by the fact that he was pointing his index finger at me like a pistol. "Hi," I said.

"You loaded your plane over the fence," he said, cocking the ‘pistol’ with his thumb.

I laughed. "So what else is new?" I couldn’t believe he was serious. But the finger didn’t waver as he brought it nearer his eye and sighted down it.

"You loaded your plane over the fence and Security saw you." He indicated a curtained window over the terminal where I pictured a crowd of security men staring angrily down at my aircraft.


"So now you have to bring all your baggage into this office to be looked at."

"You’ve got to be kidding," I said. "Do you realize how much stuff there is? It’s not even mine. My passenger has two suitcases of his wife’s clothing, plus a ton of camera equipment . . ." Suddenly I realized my words might not be improving the situation. "We’ll bring it all in," I nodded.

I found my passenger and told him the bad news. He was indignant. "I’ll see about this," he told me as we unloaded the plane onto a dolly and headed towards Customs.

His attitude alarmed me. I dreaded having trouble over matters pertaining to my airplane. "I wouldn’t advise arguing with him," I warned, nearly begged, my passenger. "This inspector has always treated me very decently and I wouldn’t want him to get irritated."

"I just want to ask him a few questions," insisted my uptight friend. "Look," I pleaded. "I really do want to take off for France this morning. Please don’t …"

Too late. We were walking through the door and the inspector was there waiting for us. The moment the two men set eyes on each other the vibrations grew very, very bad.

"I’d like to know what rule requires that persons leaving England have their baggage looked at," said my passenger.

The inspector immediately quoted him chapter and verse, volume, section, paragraph and line.

"Great," I said. "That’s all we wanted to know. Isn’t it," I added in a meaningful aside to my passenger.

"No," said this apparently foolhardy chap. "I want to understand this. Are you telling me that ... ?"

I watched in growing apprehension as the confrontation continued. Both men seemed to have grown ten centimeters taller, and both were bristling. If things got any worse between them we wouldn’t be taking off that day for France.

"He doesn’t know what he’s saying," I told the Customs man. "He’s quite mad. Please just ignore him."

The inspector turned to me and said very kindly, "Don’t you have a flight plan to file?"

"Yes," I said miserably, thinking how easily flight plans can be annulled, and take-off permission denied.

"Then why don’t you go along and file it while I have a little chat with this gentleman?"

"All right."

Feeling in despair I turned to slink out. As I was going through the door I heard the inspector saying to my passenger, "And now, sir, what did you say your name was, and where do you reside?"

Pale and faint I filed the flight plan. While doing so I saw the two men, looking grim, pass in front of the window on their way to my aircraft. A few minutes later they walked past in the opposite direction. Both were laughing in a most friendly way. I nearly sank to the floor in relief.

Apparently all my passenger needed was some convincing that what was happening to us was legal and logical, and the customs man and ‘security’ needed only to be assured no hanky-panky was being perpetrated on HM Government. Everybody was finally convinced and a short while later N4389 took to the air, destination France.

While there are the good guys in customs and immigration, there are also the heavies, who really get you down and cause distress for no apparent reason except their sick pleasure. It is not unusual to run into one of these latter at English airports of entry.

I arrived one day at Lydd exhausted after a long, difficult flight from southern France. It was getting late and I still had to pick up a VHF from a repair facility before flying on to my destination. There was no one in customs, so I rang the bell. After about ten minutes three men entered and a moment later an inspector arrived and began to process them.

I politely pointed out that I’d been waiting for some time and was in quite a hurry to reach my destination before dark. Very rudely the inspector agreed to take me first, if the men would give their permission. They did, as they were in no particular hurry. I was also informed by the inspector that nothing would stop him from having me empty my plane for inspection, if he so wished, and that I had no business being in a hurry. After customs I went on to immigration, but through a window could see the customs man talking in back with the immigration men. Undoubtedly as a result of this my passport was not looked at for several more minutes, at which time I was told I was needing a certain paper and would have to return to customs to get it. This took another endless wait. Back at last in immigration, nearly in tears from exhaustion and frustration, I was asked what my purpose was in coming to England.

Now this is a question one often gets, but it always comes unexpectedly and I never know how to reply. I usually would fly to London after saving up a bunch of reasons: electronic repairs, haircut at my favorite hairdresser’s, to visit friends, and above all the fun of flying on detaxed fuel. But when asked, I could never come up with a single idea except the feeling that wouldn’t anyone visit England given half a chance and a Rallye Commodore?

Whatever I managed to stammer that day, the immigration officer stamped my passport with permission to visit England for one month instead of the usual six months. This didn’t bother me as I only intended to stay a few days, but even then, given the circumstances, I had the feeling he was doing me some dirt.

My next visit to England was not made in my Rallye. The weather was unflyable for small aircraft that day, but since my father was going to be briefly in London I had to get there. At the last minute, unable to take off from Cannes, I hitched a ride in a twin belonging to some businessmen who were kind enough to give me a lift. Convenient as it was, I hardly had expected anyone to take a complete stranger across an international boundary, for obvious reasons, and felt uncomfortable thinking that they might have second thoughts that I might be a smuggler or worse and so regret their impulsive generosity.

After a fine flight we arrived in Southend. The pilot and businessmen were quickly processed. Then came my turn. Why, immigration wanted to know, had the last person to stamp my passport allowed me only one month?

The heads of my companions turned towards me in horror. My papers were obviously not in order. What creep had they been transporting, for what nefarious purpose? What trouble might this bring down on them?

"You go on." I told them. "Don’t wait for me." They handed me my suitcase and went out, exchanging glances.

I turned back to the immigration officer, brimming with indignation.

He flipped once more through my passport. "Why do you come to England so often?" he asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

I’d reached the end of my patience. "Because it’s there," I snapped.Needless to say, I didn’t get into London until much later that afternoon ...

* * *

A few weeks ago in Santa Fe I was issued a new passport. It is small, blue and trim, not like my large green passport of yesteryear in which an accordion of extra pages had been added to accommodate the dozens of English stamps.

The next time I visit London will be out of New York by commercial carrier, landing at Heathrow instead of Lydd. I’ll hand my new, clean passport across to the immigration officer. He’ll flip through it.

"What is the purpose of your visit?" he’ll ask, looking at me suspiciously.

"Tourism," I’ll reply easily, smugly.

I know he’ll not believe me, but there won’t be a damn thing he can say or do to scare me. N4389 will not be parked outside.