Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nematode and Other Amphibian Dangers

It's a physical law of the universe that your own customs agents are tougher on you than they are with folks from other countries. When Chantal and I lived and France and drove to Zurich to visit her aunt, getting through Swiss customs was pretty stressful, especially since we were usually smuggling in roast beef and Scotch. But coming back through into France was just miserable, and we were toting nothing then but fond memories. No matter how often we said, "Rien a declarer," we were hassled.

It's much the same now when we cross back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border. Going into Canada, the border agents simply want to know the same three questions: What is the purpose of your trip? How long will you be staying? Are you leaving anything in Canada? Last week Chantal and I drover her mother up to the airport in Montreal, and after I answered the last questions, "No," he hesitated. "You're leaving your mother-in-law, right?"

Haw. It was a rare moment of levity with a customs official, and we appreciated the laugh.

But we've had our share of dustups upon our return to the States. Our own agents are ever-vigilant for the things we U.S. nationals may be trying to smuggle back into our own country, things that are only available in Canada, like Cuban cigars, smoked meat, and socialized medicine.

One time Chantal borrowed a friend's car to drive someone to the airport in Montreal. Upon her return to the States, the customs official noticed a bag of dog food in the car.

"Where did you buy that dog food?" he asked.

Chantal, a seasoned border-hopper, knew how to talk to customs officials: answer only the question you were asked; volunteer nothing. "I didn't buy it. This is my friend's car, as I told you."

"Where was that dog food produced?" The tone was Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.

"I don't know where it was produced. It's not mine."

"If it was bought in Canada--"

"Look, if it was bought in Canada, the language on the bag would be printed in two languages, French and English. So take a look." Chantal had breeched a long-established protocol of only engaging when questioned. But she had the customs official cornered.

Nonplussed, the agent let her pass.

We had another interesting episode last week. While up in Montreal, we visited our favorite market, the Atwater Market. Autumn is a great time to go to the market, because all the fall fruits and vegetables are in, including dozens of varieties of pumpkins, apples, and flowers. The display is colorful and the foods inviting. After a cup of coffee at Premier Moisson, we browsed the shops and stalls, picking up a couple of cans of flageolet beans and some cheese. Then we saw some leeks that looked so perfect we had to get them.

Savvy travelers know that normally bringing fruits and vegetables back into the States is a no-no. We knew that, too. But we figured that since they were local produce, it would be okay. Not so. When the customs official asked what we were bringing back, the leeks were a flag. We were sent off to the side parking area to await the fruits and vegetables expert, who explained to us that we couldn't prove that the leeks had originated in Canada. They could have been flown in from Asia.

Or worse, he said, they could contain nematode. If you bombed biology in college like me, nematode is a parasitic roundworm. There are actually something like 28,000 species of nematode, but for the sake of our leeks, there were two that came into the discussion. One variety was the good variety that ate bug-hating critters like cutworm. The other was a the evil variety, called pest nematodes, that hitch rides on unsuspecting crops, like leeks, and spread themselves around, killing crops. Invoking the false binary so often used when good and evil are allowed into the discussion, the customs agent explained that they had to destroy the leeks in order to save them. It was Ben Tre all over again.

Chantal tried arguing logic: Don't the deer and other critter that leap unchecked back and forth across the border carry nematode, spreading it?

"Thanks, folks, and have a nice day." Customs agents have their orders, and while we're glad they're on the ball, that kind of vertical thinking can be concerning.

This shouldn't sway anyone from spending a day up in Montreal when visiting northern Vermont. Just remember that cans of beans are okay, but fresh fruits and veggies are evil.

Why We Need a Fence--or at Least a Big Dog--Between Us and Canada

Author's Note: There are a thousand stories in the fleece-wearing North Country; this isn't one of them.

There are few things more pleasurable for an innkeeper than getting away after a long stretch of consecutive busy seasons. In Stowe, we innkeepers call it “Getting the *%&# Out of Dodge.” One of the things Chantal and I love to do is escape to Montreal. Visiting Montreal is also a great activity for guests staying with us. But getting to Montreal requires crossing the porous U.S.-Canadian border (at least it’s porous on the Canadian side; our side is tighter than a frog’s keister, and that’s watertight). While getting out of America and into other countries might be easy, some recent guests of ours found out that getting back in requires more than just charm and a passport.

Going back and forth to Canada used to be a lot easier. Because of all the illegal immigrants swarming south into America in order to flee Canada’s social healthcare system in favor of our private, punishing, prohibitive method of underinsuring the populace, crossing the border has become a stressful task. The War on Terror has also touched the U.S.-Canada line of demarcation. Canadian terrorists, disguised as flannel-clad, referendum-crazed, poutine-eating Quebecers trying to invade our country and kill us with bags of their stronger Canadian dollars (coins referred to revealingly as “loonies,” which can be stuffed into socks to create weapons of cash destruction), have forced us to tighten up the border crossing, sometimes with disastrous effects. Take the example of the subversive group called “The Irish Ladies” who stayed recently at the Auberge.

On the surface, The Irish Ladies were three good-humored women, ostensibly from Ireland (though I didn’t ask for their birth certificates when I checked them in--an oversight on my part; they could have been born anywhere), who stayed with us in September. The first flag of concern that I ignored was their gender. We all know the problems women have caused through the ages, from Eve to Hillary Clinton to Muammar Ghaddafi. But because we were in the throes of a busy foliage season, and quite nearly out of our minds from answering the same questions over and over again (“Where’s the color? Where’s the damage from the hurricane? Where’s the mint for my pillow?”), we let our guard down, enchanted by their lilting accents and credit cards.

The second warning sign was that they were traveling together: where were their menfolk? Were they sexually liberated subversives drawn to Vermont for some kind of abominable three-way civil union? They claimed that they worked for an international relief organization, exactly the kind of communist cover story three middle-aged, female Irish terrorists would use to gain access to the U.S. Furthermore, they arrived on the weekend of Stowe’s British Invasion celebration, our annual patriotic celebration of all the things our colonial forefathers spilled their own blood to rid from our country, like the superfluous “u” in words like “harbour” and “bush,” and punctuation placed outside quotation marks. Clearly these gals were were out to sabotage all the Aston Martins, Union Jacks, and tea drinking partiers that had flooded Stowe. Fortunately, after a couple of well-placed bourbons, I was able to think on my feet and come up with a plan to rid us of these leprechaun-loving Irish rovers: I’d send them to Canada. Surely those coin-loving socialists would sign them up immediately for unemployment benefits, ridding us of them forever.

So the next morning, after their tea (Who the hell drinks tea in the morning? Irish subversives, that’s who. Everyone knows that tea is the beverage of uninformed anarchists around the world), they set off for the Canadian frontier, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Imagine our disappointment when they showed up for breakfast the following day. Out of politeness, I asked about their trip to Montreal. They giggled and told us they didn’t quite make it. Seems that when they arrived at Canadian customs, they discovered that one of them forgot her passport back in her room (a likely story from globe-trotting international relief workers--if that’s what they really were). It also seems that by the time one reaches Canadian customs, one is technically already in Canada, and if one has forgotten one’s passport, one has technically entered Canada illegally. As the ladies told me this, I thought to myself, “Okay, what’s the problem? Don’t the Canadians love you Irish socialist/terrorists?” (Or was it “terrorist/socialists”? Or “socio-terrorists”? Or “terro-socialogues?” Or just “terrestrialists?”)

Apparently, since Canada has a little-brother complex, they’d begun copying everything we do here in the U.S. When big-brother U.S. tightens its borders, little-brother Canada tightens its borders. When big-brother U.S. tanks its economy, little-brother Canada invades us with its “loonies.” And so on. You can see the problem with this derivative little-brother behavior. Everything becomes tiresome, and terror-loving Irish women benefit.

Back to the Irish ladies, one of whom had just entered Canada illegally:

They were informed by the Canadian customs official that they now had to re-enter the U.S. To help, she gave them a note saying they had only gone as far as the customs booth. When the U.S. customs official saw this note, he laughed, ripped it up, and threw the Irish lady without a passport into a special room that had a television tuned to a famous cable news channel. Her two comrades were told that if they ever wanted to see their friend in O’Donohue’s on Merrion Row in Dublin again, they’d have to drive back to Stowe and get her passport--if, in fact, she had one.

Back down to Stowe drove the two co-conspirators, regaling themselves with the gorgeous views provided by the Vermont countryside, while their accomplice rotted in her cell, forced to endure the 24-hour news cycle decrying the decline and fall of the American empire. At one point two customs officials came and quizzed her about things Irish, peppering her with a series of questions that nearly unhinged her: “If you’re so Irish, tell us who directed John Wayne in The Quiet Man?” And, “In the movie The Quiet Man, how many fights did the Irish guy and John Wayne get into?” And, “Why wouldn’t Maureen O’Hara fall in love with John Wayne right away?” And, “How come John Wayne allowed Barry Fitzgerald to interfere with his relationship with Maureen O’Hara?” And “How can you tell that The Quiet Man didn’t really take place in Ireland?”

To the last question, the detained Irish lady could only shake her head and cover her face. The customs officials were triumphant: they had broken their suspect. (By the way, the answer to the last question is horses. That whole horse racing scene in The Quiet Man is bunk. Everybody knows that the Irish have nothing to do with horses. In fact, the only accurate parts of the movie are John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and all the drinking and fighting.)

Finally the Irish lady’s friends returned with her passport, and it turns our she’s Irish after all, even though the customs officials--who, because of their location on the border between Vermont and Quebec, are experts on accents--claimed that her Irish accent didn’t sound very Irish at all. Everybody had a good laugh and a drink of Irish whiskey, which is spelled with an “e” like American whiskey, which makes it okay to drink with U.S. customs officials who have detained you because of your phony Irish accent and convoluted plan to re-enter America and threaten us with terror, even if it is boozy, parodic Irish terror.

Coda: The Irish ladies had a good laugh about all this. Can you imagine? Doesn't anything bother those people?