Jaci Stephen: 'What was the nature of my crime? A heavy suitcase packed with books'

Way Out West
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The Independent Online

You wait half your life for a man in uniform brandishing a powerful weapon to appear, and suddenly three come along together.

I returned briefly to Europe last week, where the details of my trip have been somewhat eclipsed by the problems I had getting out of France and the subsequent problems I had getting back into the US.

Having lived 48 hours as a sort of Tarmac orphan, passport at the ready but unable to go anywhere, I discovered that 12 inches is a long way in travel.

The world may be getting smaller, but when you're standing at A, desperate to get to B, and only 12 inches separates you from your destination, B might as well be on the moon.

My crime? A heavy suitcase packed with books.

Nothing about me, I am sure, indicated that I was going to be Semtex catch of the week, as I arrived at the Eurostar customs.

Apart from smuggling in a box of Oxo vegetarian stock cubes last time I returned to the US, my activities in this area are rather limited.

Personally, I blame the Alsatian. I am quite at ease with small dogs, but not whacking great sniffing ones, threatening to eat my Apple MacBook Air laptop, and the gun-toting customs official must have sensed my unease.

Now, in my Linguaphone French course, the customs man – le douanier – is rather a nice chap, who takes a shine to a young woman called Valérie. "Le douanier," it says, "il admire Valérie" (translation: he wouldn't mind giving her one, there and then, over the conveyor belt). I've always thought it was a bit sexist, but whatever it was that old Valérie had, I wished she could have passed it on; but "Le douanier ... il déteste Jaci" was clearer much nearer the mark.

He told me to lift my case and put it on a table over half my body height. I have a long-standing shoulder injury that makes it impossible to lift practically anything, and told him so.

"You don't lift, you don't travel." I pleaded for help. "Non," he said, and would not budge on the matter. I started to cry. "No point crying; you are going nowhere." So, we were stuck: me, case, man with gun.

Eventually, a tiny female member of staff assisted, and I was almost on my way. The officer opened my case, took out Dr Raj Persaud's book, The Motivated Mind, threw it back, and told me I could go. Maybe he thought that I was so motivated that it was not beyond the realms of possibility that I could grab his gun, shoot the lot of them, and still have time to eat the entire supply of croissants in the Frequent Traveller lounge. Again.

I thought that would be an end to my day of customs hell, but there was more to come when I reached the US some hours later. Although I have a visa that allows me to come and go freely, man number two with gun was having none of it. He sent me to even more sinister man number three with gun, who wanted to see everything – and I mean everything – in both my cases.

Why were they so heavy? (There's a dead Alsatian in one of them; why do you think?) Was I carrying any food? Er, no. Apart from a couple of boxes of herbal tea for various digestive conditions that I thought it best to keep quiet about. Not that I would need them, as my bowels were now well and truly working without recourse to outside assistance.

But it was the books that really interested him. He too alighted upon The Motivated Mind, with Dr Raj Persaud's picture on the cover. Now, Raj is a very handsome man, and someone I used to work with in TV, but suddenly he had the look of an accomplice about him.

I am now safely back in the US, and at the moment can remember very little of my trip. I do, however, recall visiting a friend's house in Paris and walking up the Champs Elysées, where I saw an old man holding a very small penis, urinating beside a tree.

I confess to knowing the size because I stopped briefly, just to remind myself what a penis looked like (we're talking a long time here, give or take a magazine or two). It didn't do much for me, I'm afraid. Twelve inches may be a long way in travel, but even a man with a gun couldn't get me to hang around for two.

To read more of Jaci Stephen's blog LA Not So Confidential, go to LAnotsoconfidential.blogspot.com