The flight from La Guardia to Halifax is a cinch: A small plane operated by Chautauqua Airlines for Delta gets you there in less than an hour and a half, and makes it hard to believe you are traveling to another country and have to bring along your passport. So it was with what you might call careless abandon that, in the air headed to Nova Scotia, I filled out a Canadian customs declaration. Too much abandon, as it turned out. Just exactly why I answered in the negative when ticking off the query that asks if you are bringing in food remains unclear even to me.
I had checked in my suitcase at La Guardia. In it was packed a small round of soft French cheese, Petit Livarot from Normandy, doubly wrapped in a balsam-like box, inside my cosmetics bag. It was a gift for my daughter, who lives in rural Nova Scotia (a land of many lobsters but few cheeses). I was dismayed when, after a delay of a two hours, we landed at Stanfield International in Halifax and I didn’t find my suitcase on the carousel at baggage claim. “The airlines aren’t supposed to lose suitcases anymore,” I thought, fretting. But the airline hadn’t.
Turning around to find someone to ask about it, I spied the suitcase leaning against a barrier with a uniformed guard standing nearby. When I walked up and expressed relief at its being there, I noticed that a green tag had been placed on it with the words: “Take to Inspection.”
It didn’t occur to me that anything was amiss as I got on a fairly long line of recently debarked passengers whose bags also had been cherry-picked. And then, with my suspect luggage up on a low counter, a customs official asked to see the form I had filled out; he surveyed my answers, then asked whether I was carrying any food. Blithely (no, foolishly) I said “no.”
Only then did it dawn on me. Cheese! An official sniffer dog had identified something in the outer pouch of my suitcase . . . and there it was, the Petit Livarot, wedged between toiletries. I had no good answer when asked why I had not declared it. Shame-faced, I listened to a rundown on Canada’s customs regulations. I began to get quite anxious. Would I be fined? Jailed? How serious would the penalty be?
A second official walked over, peered at the little package of cheese, looked at me, and said, “My dog, Roscoe, is never wrong.” After rifling through the rest of the suitcase and finding no other contraband, the inspectors apparently decided that I wouldn’t have left the cheese in an outside pouch if I had intentionally been attempting to smuggle it in. Then, they actually put the cheese back in its little box, zipped the cosmetics bag back up, and let me go on my way.
It wasn’t until that evening, when I had presented the cheese, along with the embarrassing story, to my son-in-law, that I realized how brazen was my crime. Even if there hadn’t been a professional customs dog named Roscoe on duty to sniff it out, the jig would have been up. “What is that smell? Good lord!” said my daughter, coming into the room. My own sense of smell hasn’t been very good for some years now — and so I wasn’t aware that I had, apparently, illegally imported to Canada the smelliest cheese in all of France. We double-wrapped it back up, and sealed it in the refrigerator, because it was stinking up the kitchen.