Many years ago travel was fun. It has become progressively less like fun, and more like punishment with every passing year. Two incidents stand out in my mind that demonstrate how things have changed.
My friend Mike was returning to the States, where he had moved. The Customs man asked to see inside his bag and found a tin of “Good Boy Chocolate Drops For Dogs”. The officer raised the tin and asked Mike what the can contained, “Good Boy Chocolate Drops for Dogs..” Mike responded, “and, what exactly, are they?” the man enquired with great suspicion, Mike repeated that they were “Chocolate drops for my pet dog;” he responded quite reasonably. The man was not happy and he asked again, “and what precisely are good boy chocolate drop for dogs?” Mike then made the fatal mistake of presuming that somewhere within the uniform lurked a human being, “I’ll tell you what officer, if you’re a good boy I’ll give you one.”
After Mike was arrested it was only a few hours before the confusion was cleared up and the innocent dog treats were returned from the laboratory.
The other two occasions were linked. Again my friend Mike was involved. We were taking our small film crew, him, me and one other, down to the Cannes film festival. We didn’t have much money so we were using my car and a rented caravan to get to the South of France and carry all our equipment. Knowing the French were very officious we were careful to obtain all the carnets and proper documentation to clear through customs. It took a few weeks of running around and filling in forms but eventually we were ready to run the gauntlet. The English customs first checked we had all the necessary papers before we got on the ferry at Dover. We then sailed and were blissfully aware of the trouble to come. On landing the French customs asked to see the various colour carnets for our film, camera and sound equipment, transport which we were able to show with great alacrity. They then asked for our orange carnet. This was the one colour in the rainbow we didn’t have. I tried, in my best French to enquire what was the purpose of this hitherto unknown carnet. I was told it was to prevent us selling our hired equipment and leaving it in France as an illegal import.
This being a Sunday it proved impossible to get anyone from the British government authorities to explain to their French counterparts that we didn’t own the equipment and would vouch we couldn’t or wouldn’t try to sell it. The French came up with a Gallic compromise. If we were to provide a Bond for about $100,000 they would forego the additional carnet. It’s also pretty difficult to obtain a bond on a weekend when you can’t reach anyone on the telephone from a French customs hall in a remote port. Much as we tried the best we were able to do was obtain a promise from friends at home that they would do as was necessary first thing the next day. In the meantime the French authorities locked our caravan up in their customs hall, which meant we had to go and sleep without our beds or food, both in the caravan, on the side of the road outside of town.
The next morning we were able to generate the bond and release our goods and we then went on to make our film. About four weeks later we were on our way home. We stopped on the road overlooking the port, determined not to suffer any more with the French authorities. We decided to wait until the last possible moment before the ship sailed and drive at top speed onto the ferry. We executed the maneuver perfectly, arriving on board with screeching brakes as the sailors were about to pull away from the harbour.
We were young, and easily impressed with our bravado as we sat in the bar and toasted our small victory. On arriving at Dover the British customs officer asked us if we had anything to declare. We answered in the negative but something made my colleague say, “except for the heroin in the lighting equipment..” before he finished with this poor joke the officer was ordering the stripping down of our vehicle. It was a great deal later before we could arrange a garage to help us re-assemble the vehicle that we were able to leave.
So travelling has long had its complications, and this remains the case. Remember the cardinal rule, don’t make jokes with the customs and immigration officer, they have no sense of humour.