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A beginner's guide to smuggling

October 13, 2004

Dear [lots of names],

First things first---you can read my photo-diary about my Tour de Suisse 2004 at There are stories and photos about my grandiose bike trip with Max and Chip through Switzerland and Italy this past summer.

So it turns out they sell hagelslag[*] here after all. After having smuggled countless numbers of hagelslag boxes into the country, they turn out to sell it around the corner. Imagine my surprise when I saw not only hagelslag, but also vlokken, gekleurde muisjes, and the whole range of De Ruijter products in a store on Harvard Square. In large quantities. I practically embraced the shop owner and kissed his feet. He told me that this is how all Dutch people respond. Apparently he can barely keep up with demand.

[*]: hagelslag is the name for little chocolate sprinkles, aka "Jimmies", that Dutch people eat on their bread.

The trick, by the way, to smuggling illegal foods into the United States is simple. On the airplane you are handed a little blue customs declaration form in which you have to confess all the recent crimes you committed. In addition, you must tick a box that you're not a terrorist, another box that you're not smuggling arms, not visited a farm recently, and one box that you're NOT bringing food, fruit, meat, or insects. Now the trick to successful smuggling is to answer YES to that last question. Once the customs officer is about to bludgeon you to death, (s)he may (or, if you have a streak of bad luck, not) ask you what exactly you're hiding in that suitcase. The answer is invariably "chocolate and tea". Say this with a straight face, even if the cheese you're smuggling is so moldy that it almost opens the suitcase by itself to go shopping. "Chocolate and tea" will bring instant relief to the officer who now, with a sigh of relief, realizes (s)he doesn't actually have to open your suitcase and/or bludgeon you to death. It always works. Success guaranteed.

There's other tricks to successfully entering the United States, which has become remarkably difficult in the past few years. You know that game on the radio where you can't say "eeehhm" or "errrr" when answering a question? Getting past the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is quite similar, but with different rules of engagement. First, different phrases, and, secondly, different prizes and punishments. Essential phrases to omit from the conversation with your friendly INS officer are: "work", "marry", and "fuck you". The first two will make sure you get a one-way ticket to the place you just came from. The last phrase will probably get you a one way ticket to Guantanamo Bay. Or instant death.

And when they ask you for your fingerprint (they do), just do it. Just shut up and do it. And if they tell you to first rub your finger on your forehead (they do), then shut up and do it. Forget about civil liberties and privacy. Just give them your fingerprint, let them make that photo, and, for God's sake, stick to my mantra that I repeat to myself over and over when getting off an airplane in the United States: Do Not Mess... With The INS.

Police officers are an interesting bunch as well. A few weeks ago one of those people turned out to be hiding behind a car right when I rode my bike through a red light. He jumped in front of me and in front of two other criminals who had just committed the same felony. We were first stripped of our ID cards, and then given a $20 ticket. As it turns out, though, you can protest tickets in front of a judge, in court! And when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I've decided to take the bait and drag this police officer to court. I haven't decided yet what my defense is going to be, but I think it's going to be something like: "vel, jes, aai em frrrom Hollant, ent vie olvees raaid sroe ret laits der. In fekt, vie hef un erriaa zet is kolt "red lait distrikt" ver efferiewan koos sroe ze ret lait". Or something along those lines.

Let me return to a topic I discussed in my email of March 25, 2000. Plastic bags. I will quickly remind you how it works. You go to Star Market (now re-branded to Shaw's) and you buy your groceries. If you don't get lost in the store and you manage to reach the checkout before dehydration got the better of you, you give your stuff to the lady or gentleman and (s)he scans your groceries. Then, at some point, (s)he asks you a critical question. The question comes in several variations, in the following decreasing probability:

1. Plastic OK?
2. Paper IN plastic?
3. Paper OR plastic?
4. Would you like to have sex?

Chances are that number 4 means you didn't understand them quite right. Notice, however, the involvement of some sort of plastic in all these questions. Before I go on, I should remind you---and forgive me for repeating myself, but it's been more than 4 years now---these plastic bags suck. They suck badly. They are small, unreliable, and a disaster for the environment. Number 2 (the paper IN plastic version) means they compensate the lack of structural integrity and reliability of the plastic bag by fortifying it on the inside with a small paper bag. This, however, leaves the weakest point in the structure (the plastic bag's handles) as flimsy as before. Rarely, but not infrequently, one or both of the handles of the plastic bag rips, resulting in serious or disastrous trauma to the contents of the bag and/or your foot. Usually this problem gets fixed by putting the whole pager-in-bag construction in, guess what, another plastic bag. A computer scientist would call that replication. A normal person would call that stupid. But I digress.

Now, what most people don't know, but I do, and I'm going to tell you, is that Star Market has beautiful large paper bags with handles. But they don't tell you that. I discovered this, by accident, myself. I usually reuse the paper bags for several weeks until I use them to hold my recyclable paper and magazines that I put out on the sidewalk on Sunday nights.

This morning I decided to make a stand and end this foul malpractice. I went to the lady, let's call her Linda, responsible for overseeing the checkouts. Linda usually has conversations that go like this: "Linda, can I go to the bathroom?". "No, not yet, do it at your break in 20 minutes!". My conversation with Linda, however, went something along the following lines:

Thomer: "Hi. How are you. Can I ask you a question?"
Linda: "Sure, go ahead."
T: "It could take a minute."
L: "Maybe you should go to customer service."
T: "No, I think I need to talk to you."
L: "Then go ahead."
T: "I was wondering why the default question is 'Is plastic OK?', while you have those beautiful paper bags with handles."
L: "Well, we don't always have the paper bags with handles."
T: "Why is that?"
L: "Because people don't use them."
T: "Maybe if you suggest the paper bags more often, people would use them more often."
L: "We instruct our cashiers to ask 'paper or plastic'".
T: "I think most people think of the paper bags, without the handles, you use to put inside of the plastic bags when they consider the paper vs. plastic choice. Honestly, I think most people don't know about your wonderful large bags with handles."
L: "Well, it's up to the intelligence of the bag packers to point that out to the customer."
T: [silence]
L: [silence]
T: "That doesn't leave us in a reassuring state of affairs, does it?"
L: "No, I guess not."
T: "Is it possible you re-train your bag packers to point out the paper bags with handles to the customers?"
L: "I don't think so."
T: "Well, thank you. I tried."
L: "Have a nice day."
T: "Thank you. You too."

So I'm not sure what the point is, but maybe I'm trying to tell you that my forecast for the upcoming elections isn't too cheerful.

I've stopped being too stressed about work. I try to work normal hours and enjoy some free time in the evenings and weekends. Even though that doesn't always work out, it sometimes does. I spend a lot of my free time cooking my piano and playing decent meals. My house is still beautiful and wonderful as ever. You should come and visit.


Copyright © 1994-2016 by Thomer M. Gil
Updated: 2004/10/13