Readers, here follows a cautionary tale.
Last weekend, my family and I went on a pre-Christmas mini break to the French city of Lille. My husband had originally booked the trip as a surprise, but then told me about it, wisely figuring that suddenly barking, “PACK YOUR BAGS!” at a woman with a longstanding anxiety disorder and vivid imagination might give her the wrong idea.
We live 10 minutes’ walk from our local Eurostar. It’s not one of the main ones with the fancy atria and Oliver Bonases as far as the eye can see; it’s mainly used by businessmen and on the concourse there is a single forlorn-looking piano, just waiting for a passing hipster to sit down and knock out the first four bars of Für Elise. It never happens.
However, it does mean that you can chug into the heart of northern France in just an hour! That is unless you are stopped at Customs. I am always stopped at Customs. I don’t want to be lazy and say that it’s because I’m a brown person, but I am a brown person, I’ve been travelling internationally all my life and I can count on the fingers of one hand how often I’ve managed to stroll through Customs unmolested with the (for some reason, unequivocally blond) people I’ve been travelling with.
Sure enough, at Eurostar Customs, my husband (blond, again), three-year-old son (also blond) and one-year-old son (brunette this time, but with sun-frosted tips in the summer) zoom through the gate, then have to double back because Mum’s being taken aside for a polite little friskeroo.
Despite being stopped, I’m not too worried, because inevitably I always get to continue my journey. "Yawn," I think. "Snore," I think. "I hope we don’t miss our train," I think. Then I meditate on what might be the hold-up this time.
Might it be, as it has before, that the surname on my passport differs from that of my children, so the Customs people just want to make sure that I’m not stealing them? (Which seems fair enough.)
I don’t want to be lazy and say that it’s because I’m a brown person, but I am a brown person and I can count on the fingers of one hand how often I’ve managed to stroll through Customs unmolested
Or is it, as it has been at least twice before, that my children “do not look like” me, and therefore birth certificates are requested and I have to explain to everyone’s satisfaction that I am, in fact, these children’s actual, legal, in actuality mother? (Which seems less fair, seeing as – besides being white – they both look just bloody like me and, moreover, their white father never gets asked any of this.)
So busy am I, musing about all of this, that I don’t notice the growing clutch of blue-gloved official-looking types gathered around my passport.
“Madam,” says one of them. “You’re going to have to fold up this baby buggy so we can scan it.”
A chill settles over my heart. Not because we’re at Customs and I am a brown person, but because…
“I don’t know how to,” I whisper.
The buggy is a behemoth I got as a freebie; I don’t drive and the buggy lives in the shed, so I rarely collapse it. On the rare occasion I’ve had to, it’s involved the watching of YouTube tutorials on the topic, a minor emotional breakdown and restorative cups of tea. None of which are possible in this environment, especially with the queue of annoyed-looking travellers that’s building behind our security bottleneck. Lamely, I pull on levers and jiggle at catches.
“Are you sure you need to scan it?” I plead, now in full panic mode and with one foot stuck in the buggy frame.
“Yes, madam, it is imperative that we scan your buggy,” the Customs lady is now extremely stern. “We have swabbed your buggy and found,” here she takes a deep breath, "traces of explosives.”
“Traces of explosives?” my husband exclaims, to utter silence.
“Traces of explosives?” I clarify and literally everyone in the queue falls to the floor.
What the fuck? I mean, it is a Swedish product. Do they make buggies of dynamite in Sweden? Head reeling, I hold fast to the children, who are hellbent on escaping into the Chunnel for kicks, while my husband grabs the buggy, basically glares at it until it collapses on its own, then loads it on to the conveyor belt. The buggy goes through the scanner without incident, then we’re handed it back and told we can proceed through Customs.
“I’m sure you’d rather we took more care than less with passengers’ security,” the Customs lady tells us, primly.
“Yes, but is it safe?” I say. “What about the explosives? Is it safe to use the buggy with my children?”
“Oh, yes.” All sternness has now left the Customs lady. In fact, she’s become rather gossipy. “Our swabs are notoriously sensitive and did you know there is nitroglycerine in practically everything?”
“Oh, yes, the most common culprit is ordinary garden fertiliser. Have you been to a garden centre lately?"
Well, of course I’ve been to a fucking garden centre lately. I’m a mum of small children; garden centres – with their cafeteria, aquaria, duck ponds and play areas – are my spiritual home. In fact, I took the kids to look at the Christmas decorations at one just yesterday. With the buggy. Oh.
So, that was that. We got through Customs, I did not go to Guantanamo and my buggy has not exploded. YET. So, heed my tale, reader, lest ye too fall back on lazy assumptions around your skin colour and Customs protocol. Also, tattoo the instructions on collapsing your buggy to your very soul. And, of course, if you go to a garden centre before embarking on international travel, for God’s sake destroy all the evidence.