I had arrived at Trudeau International in Montreal after a stint in Africa. I was tired, and happy to be home after quite an ordeal abroad. Unfortunately, I knew something unpleasant was waiting for me once I got off the plane. No, it was not my mother’s smooches, nor the inevitable post-travelling depression.
It was knowing that a line as long as the one at the Montreal Canadiens ticket counter was waiting for me at customs. (Authors note: the Canadiens are the local hockey team, and we really suck this year). Now, I don’t think this can be proven empirically, yet I really believe that in Anglo-Saxon countries (US, UK, CAN, AUS,NZ), customs are really intense, to put it mildly.
An interesting lineup lay out exists to greet travelers in Montreal, with Canadian passports in one line and other nationalities in the other. Every time I pass through, the lines are equally divided and have the same number of customs agents attributed to them. Which means that, more often than not, Canadians have to wait in line longer than foreign nationals. I thought that it was kind of weird, yet typically Canadian. (Especially after travelling to the Europe, where EU citizens breeze through checks while the rest of us linger around.)
Walking up to the agent, I hand over my passport, greeting the agent bilingually with a “hello/bonjour” in order to gain some kudos. I glance at the agent’s bullet proof vest, and I wonder if he is wearing it as an intimidation tactic, since I am pretty sure that the battery of x-rays we have been subjected to at departure would have I.D.’d a gun on one of us. I am then asked the typical series of questions, which seem to be separated in phases. First the trip, then the purpose, then on what you are bringing into the country.
I once made the mistake of writing $0 in the purchase abroad section of a Canadian customs card. The problem was that I had been living in France for a year. The agent therefore started asking very personal questions. It got to the point where he asked me where I had bought my underwear. I promptly answered that my mother had me brought some over when she had visited.
I don’t know if it is my background since I was not born in Canada or simply my particular attitude I automatically adopt whenever in face of authority, but I always get the extra treatment and get sent to another room to get my bags checked. “Sir, that is one Bordeaux bottle too many” or “this African mask is made of wood and you checked on your form that you weren’t bringing any plants in the country” ….
US customs are similar in style, although I once got a “please do behave yourself” and a wink from a cute female agent when visiting New York. However, I also once got stopped for an hour at the land border since we were doing Montreal-Boston in one day and the customs agent thought it was suspicious. Which it kind of was, but whatever.
Another time in Europe, I once arrived in Glasgow and was promptly grilled by the customs agent, and was subjected to the typical battery of questions ranging from my recent travels to giving my address while in the UK ( yacht, somewhere in the Irish Sea, do you want an update of the GPS coordinates?). I kind of always thought it unfair that EU citizens are not subject to such interrogations, while we North Americans are. Does a Canadian visiting Scotland really pose a bigger threat than a Slovenian or a Romanian?
French customs are great and I never had any problems with them. I breezed through customs at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris when coming back from Gabon and the agents there did not even bother opening up my Canadian passport to check my identity. Maybe it has something to do with the Canadian passport, although I never received any preferential direct treatment for having it. Except once, when I was in Rome’s Ciampino airport where I was greeted with a smile and a “I love Canada” in Italian.
So-called developing countries also bring their contribution to my experience with custom officials, although I unfortunately was kind of expecting to wait in line for two hours in the sweltering heat. Maybe I should have done like some individuals, who were simply identified in the line and taken by the agents so that they didn’t have to wait in line. Bribe? Contacts? I should have been more prepared. Although the wait might have been caused by one of the two lone agents processing a whole Air France flight talking on his cell phone the whole time.
These are a sample of my experiences, but I would love to hear from your experiences abroad with regards to customs and you can write them in the comment bar below!