Just a couple of short months ago I found myself flying from New Delhi, India to Rome, Italy. Naturally, this was not a direct flight. Well, I was perfectly happy to spend 10 hours in an airplane, watching such fine films as Kung Fu Panda, Role Models and the Secret Life of Bees. And then I could stretch my legs in Vienna for a couple of hours and finish my journey with a short flight to Rome. Too easy.
Ok, so I arrived in Vienna. Now as you step off the plane in Vienna, you’ll find an airport that is exactly what you’d expect – too clean and too orderly, way too orderly in fact. Within 26 seconds of arriving I had already passed through immigration despite having been in row 32 on the airplane.
I had one a half hours to waste before my next flight. In the end, I opted not to join the locals for a 7:00am pint of beer and took the boring route of reading instead. Then, 30 minutes before take-off time, I wandered over towards my gate with visions of eating freshly-made gelato while staring at the Sistine Chapel.
These happy visions, however, were abruptly taken from me as a jean and t-shirt-clad man suddenly appeared out of nowhere and stopped me from entering the gate. I kid you not. Sure, he had a large gold police badge around his neck and a jacket that said Policie, and he made it quite obvious that he wanted to have a little chat.
He led me off to the side and demanded I show him my passport. He glanced at the photograph page and then started asking me questions as if there was no way I was getting onto my flight without answering them.
And it turns out that that was actually the case.
He began with the usual questions I am always asked by customs officials – where was I coming from, what have I been doing in India, when was the last time I was in Europe and what do I do for a living. All went well for the first three, but it’s that fourth question that always gets me.
But this time, Austrian Customs had another trick up their Ärmel.
Looking straight at me, this plain clothes police officer bluntly asked me if I had been in Sweden in June 2008. And guess what, yes I had. Now if someone can tell me how this man knew that, I’d be thankful for your explanation. He never swiped my passport into any machine or computer, he never looked at the stamps either (although I don’t even have a stamp for Sweden).
After much thought, I have come to the most logical conclusions possible. Either Austria employs telepathic aliens as airport police officers or I had been followed by cameras as I walked from the Immigration Desk (where my travel history would have been seen) to my connecting gate. When I think about it, this man had been waiting for me and already knew stuff about me that any normal Austrian citizen should not know. Nor should any Austrian police officer for that matter.
After having my body thoroughly patted down three times and having my carry-on bag enjoy three trips through the x-ray machine I was finally allowed to proceed into the gate. Actually, not before everything was removed from my carry-on, inspected by hand and then placed into ‘special’ flashing machines just to be sure.
Austria…I think you now know that I am not a drug smuggler.
End of story? Not quite.
When I arrived in Rome a couple of hours later, my main backpack came off the luggage belt with every buckle completely undone. Coincidence? I think not. I did a quick search but nothing seemed to be missing, so I immediately ruled out mischief at the airport in India.
Anyway, I didn’t have time to hang around figuring it out as I was actually meeting my mom in the airport.
Later in the evening however, I had plenty of time to inspect things more closely and what did I find? Could it be a large slash the size of a pencil straight down the back of my backpack. It could. And could that be yet another slash, about 10 inches in length that completely shredded the inside of my backpack? Indeed it was.
All I could say was Heilige Scheiße! Who do these people think they are?
It is no secret that I have been subjected to plenty of searches and questioning by immigration and customs officials all over the world. After all, I understand that my lifestyle, one which involves constantly flying all over the world on one-way tickets, can seem a little suspicious. But come on, never has anyone mutilated my personal belongings as a result.
I am even absolutely, ok, maybe fairly certain, that the United States, which is known for some harsh and controversial immigration/customs practices, would never stoop so low. After all my dealings with them, I just can’t imagine them slashing my backpack behind closed doors and without my knowledge. No way. The US Customs officials enjoy slashing stuff right in front of you and right after they tell you, “I am now going to slash open all of your belongings.”
Well, at the end of the day, what can I do? So it goes. I did send a half-hearted email to the Austrian government agency in charge of customs but I don’t really see a reply coming in the near future.
So, all I can do is use this story as a lesson/warning to anyone who has just begun living a life of constant global travel.
Beware of Austria! Really, beware! And this is a real shame too, because Austrian Airlines offers some ridiculously low fares from India to Europe. But trust me, unless you want to be followed by cameras in the sky, suspected of being a drug smuggler, inspected and man-handled by a large Austrian male and have your backpack treated like a Thanksgiving turkey, I suggest you stay far away.