Packing for Your Return From France

Forget about packing FOR France; the real issue is packing for your return FROM France.  There is no such thing as bringing too much back home with you. Face it: what you really want to bring is the whole country, which logistically probably isn’t possible.  Back in the days before I made France my permanent home, I lived for the stingily allotted period relegated to me for a visit, a time frame that was never long enough.  Before I arrived, I was already plotting strategies for bringing choice morsels of the beloved Hexagone (as the French refer to their country) home in my suitcase, which going over would be filled with dozens of empty plastic zipper bags in all sizes, especially large. And if the bijou tidbits returning with me were illegal, so much the better. Now, I’m not talking about tens of thousands of dollars of undeclared couturier clothes or bricks of heroin and cocaine from Marseille or stolen Roman antiquities from Provence; no, I’m talking more along the lines of gloriously runny microbe-filled young lait cru cheeses, homemade cured sausages, mi-cuit foie gras, and maybe a truffle or two.  And  there were always items such as the bottle of homemade Suze or nut wine pressed into my hands by a friend as I prepared to leave.  Over the years. I confess, I became a superb food smuggler and if you don’t tell another living soul, I am prepared to divulge a few secrets. First and foremost, don’t lie. This is a tip I learned from flight attendants on a major airline flying between France and the USA.  They confessed to bringing food in all the time from France. The trick is when you fill out the little questionnaire just before landing, next to the question that asks if you have visited a farm, been in the countryside or are bringing in food, check “yes.”  That way, if you are stopped–and most likely you won’t be–you are covered and will neither be arrested for lying nor have a red light next to your name for the rest of your life every time you enter and leave the United States. One year I was stopped, asked to step outside the line. I was escorted into a high security area with powdered foot baths, human-sized canisters of disinfectant and glaring lights. A bored-looking customs inspector asked why I had checked the “yes” box.  Well, I explained, I’d been in the country, in Provence, and I had visited some farms–all true. He looked at me as if I were seriously in need of a psychiatric workup. Did I have any food with me? Yes, some chocolate, some olive oil, some jam, some–  He cut me off mid-sentence. “That’s enough,” said he, waving his arm in a gesture that implied “get the hell out of here, nut-job.” Another time, coming through customs at JFK in New York, the cute little sniffy dog (a beagle) was making his rounds.  He sniffed his way straight to my suitcase, which was filled with forbidden foods hidden beneath such permitted items as Provençal soap, boxes of Aspégic, moutarde violette, Petit Marseillaise bubble bath, dried herbes de Provence, Cliousclat pottery, lavender oil and DIM pantyhose. The inspector asked me to open my suitcase.  I’d completely forgotten the pain au levain from my favorite boulangerie I’d thrown in at the last minute.  As soon as he saw the bread, he was overcome with apologies, begging my forgiveness for his having requested I open my bag. He explained the sniffy dogs have a flaw; for reasons unknown, they are unable to distinguish French bread, totally permitted, from the contraband stuff. My travel agent in New York called me the Fieldsteel Cartel. When I bought my ticket, he made me swear if I was caught to never divulge where I’d purchased my plane ticket–as long as I brought him back some of that cheese, what was it called? Recently, I was mentioning my long-gone smuggling days to my friend Tara, the Grande Dame Doyenne of Packing, Organization and Efficiency.  Tara even outdoes Martha (Stewart, of course), plus Tara is extremely nice, something I’m told Martha sometimes isn’t.   Tara gave me a look, completely uncharacteristic for her, as if to say, are you out of your mind?! “All you had to do,” she explained, as if to a half-witted child, “was have everything vacuum-wrapped(emballage sous vide) before you got on the plane, that’s perfectly legal.” Oh. Today, when I think back on my days of breaking the law, I am mildly horrified, something I can be now that I live in France and have everything I want available every day.  There is absolutely no need to smuggle anymore.  My friends bring over items from America, such as Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, canned baked beans, corn starch, Tylenol PM, molasses and corn syrup, I can’t get here. I stock up on bagels, matzoh and Philadelphia cream cheese when I go to Germany (yes, Germany). Since I haven’t yet visited the States, I haven’t been put to the test, but should I go, I’m sure I’ll find some choice items to bring back.
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