España Update 8 ~ Arriving in America

When I last wrote about my return travel home to America, I had completed one-third of my day’s journey and survived a bomb scare. It was early afternoon Spain time and I was in flight on my Iberian Airlines jet soaring at 30,000 feet toward New York’s JFK International Airport.

Tracking my flight with the on-board GPS

Tracking my flight with the on-board GPS

Although somewhat tired after already being up since 5AM and only having a few hours of sleep, my main focus for the flight was writing.  I didn’t want to miss capturing a word, a thought, an emotion, or any possible revelation that could surface once my fingers hit the keyboard on my tablet.  Sleep would wait until my mind couldn’t coherently piece together another thought that was racing through it.

Airplane Etiquette

Five hours into the 8-hour transatlantic flight, I couldn’t fight the urge to sleep any longer.  When I reclined my seat to the furthest position, I was met with resistance from the woman behind me.  She abruptly pushed my seat forward.  Earlier in the flight I had tried to recline my seat and she, a French woman, responded in the same fashion.  At that time I gave up trying because I didn’t want to cause a scene.  But now she was also kicking my seat.  I was not going to be intimidated by her rude behavior any longer.

Flight attendant call buttonI pressed the call button for the flight attendant and told her my dilemma.  She tried to reason with the woman in English, using the French woman’s husband as a translator.  When the attendant left, I thought all would be fine.  I reclined my seat again.  It was only in that position for a minute or so before the woman proceeded to punch the seat back and kick under my seat again.  My patience was wearing thin, and my body was in need of some rest.

I had just survived six weeks in a foreign country where language was a daily challenge for me.  In this new situation, I decided I was going to use my voice, get my needs met, and use my conflict resolution skills—regardless of the language barrier.  I turned around and calmly spoke with her husband in English.  He was more understanding as we worked out a compromise.

I was a bit nervous about the entire situation, standing up for my airspace rights, and trying to reason with someone who clearly thought she was entitled to bully me for what she wanted.  Even the woman sitting next to me loudly declared, “That is just the French, they think they are so special”.  An international incident was averted, but it definitely reinforced the uncomplimentary things I have often heard about the French.

Nervous about question 11(b).

Nervous about question 11(b).

On American Soil

Toward the end of the flight, each passenger was required to fill out a form for U.S. Customs, to declare items being brought into the country.  A red flag went up inside of me; and I was worried when I saw the question that states: “I am bringing meats, animals, animal/wildlife products—yes or no?”

“Uh, oh,” I thought.  I had gifts of Spanish ham packed away in my luggage.  When I asked the flight attendant if it was allowed, he said ‘yes’ and that I just had to declare it on the form.  “What a relief,” I thought and put it out of my mind.

Upon arrival at JFK Airport, I followed the other passengers towards the U.S. Customs area for re-entry to the States.  There was a huge back up of people waiting that seemed to go for blocks.  It took me a few minutes to realize that this was the line for the non-residents.  There was virtually no waiting at the U.S. resident line.  I laughed to myself and thought how great it was to be a U.S. citizen at that very moment.  As I’m prone to do, to remember these kinds of small details, I took a photo—for reference later when it came time to write about it.

That was not a good idea.  Within seconds, a Customs agent was in my face telling me to “PUT THAT CAMERA AWAY” and “I DON’T WANT TO SEE THAT CAMERA OUT AGAIN!”  I quickly complied with her demands, feeling totally unnerved and shamed by her intimidating behavior.

The agent who then reviewed my Customs declaration form was witness to the entire incident.  He requested that I pull out my camera and show him my recent photos.

DELETE, DELETE—within seconds two photos were erased from my SD card.  Well, I didn’t need those photos to remember anything about this incident now!  This experience had already embedded itself into my memory.  And I still wasn’t cleared to re-enter the country.

Iberian hamMy Poor Ham

Next I was directed to go to a separate area for inspection of my luggage.  Another stoic looking Customs agent was all too eager to demand that I pull my prized ham out of my suitcase.  But first I had to find it.  Of course it wasn’t in the first suitcase.  It was in the heavier of the two—50 pounds of baggage crashed onto the steel table.

I had my next shocking discovery when I opened the suitcase.  Items were strewn about inside—definitely not in the neatly organized way I last saw it.  I immediately told the Customs agent that my luggage was gone through and asked if that was common.  She said it would’ve been tagged if it was inspected.  There was no such tag.  My heart sank as I suspected the worst.

There was no sympathy from the agent.  She just wanted the ham.  I gave her the ham; she inspected it briefly, and said it wasn’t allowed in the U.S.

The Duty Free shop at the Palma airport was full of Spanish products including Iberian ham.

The Duty Free shop at the Palma airport was full of Spanish products including Iberian ham.

I got nowhere with her as I told her how I was assured by the butcher at the neighborhood market that there would be no problem traveling with it.  (Of course, in hindsight, I realize he probably wasn’t privy to U.S regulations, but was most helpful in making sure it was adequately packaged for my trip home.)  She went on about asking me if he had a license to package it, or something like it.  None of this made any sense to me.

“But this kind of ham is readily available at the airport duty free shops in Spain,” I told her as I was trying to make some reason out of what I feared would happen next.  “Why would they sell it to tourists if it wasn’t allowed?” I asked.

“They just want to take your money,” she resolutely said.  There was no reasoning with her.  I was frustrated, bewildered, and helpless to get any understanding or empathy for my situation from the agent.

“But, but, but…,” I almost cried as I watched and listened to my precious packages of specialty Iberian ham being thrown into the trash bin.  That ham traveled from Madrid to Mallorca, back to Madrid, and on to New York, via car, boat and plane.  Now it was lining a garbage can at JFK International Airport.

“Welcome back to America,” I thought, but my thoughts were not in a complementary nature to my native country.   In that moment I was embarrassed to be an American, and dreaded telling my Spanish family the fate of the ham that we so painstakingly secured for my family and friends back home.

I felt beaten up inside and out.  I was crushed.  I was exhausted.  I was alone.  I still had nine hours of travel time before I would be home with my family again.

What happened next?  You can read about how the last leg of my travel turned out on the final update in this series.

What’s your worst travel story?

Leave a comment


  1. Linda Reed

     /  September 18, 2013

    oh my gosh!!! how rude 😦 on all counts….what an adventure though! Good job using your voice 🙂


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    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

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