In the summer of 1999, I had a newly-completed M.Phil. degree from Oxford, severe burnout, and no money. I had gone to Amsterdam to celebrate the first and recover from the second. To address the third, I had travelled by bus.
The bus back was on the final leg of a journey up from Italy, and so was full of happy Italian students, heading back to the UK. Which, under normal circumstances, would have made for a fun atmosphere and a nice end to the journey. The problematic element was that the driver was also in the mood, and wanted to play his video collection. On the bus’ internal video system. At inescapable volume.
Here is one of the films: https://youtu.be/xll47sY_AvU
Here is another: https://youtu.be/84VpGffhmgs
[side note: the author of this blog claims no responsibility for the content of external links]
Nowadays, in this era of Google and Wikipedia, I am aware that the driver was a consummate fan of 1980s Italian action-comedy legends Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. At the time, all I could think was, “who exactly are these two gentlemen and why can I not escape their wacky adventures?”
And then came the border crossing at Calais.
We all filed off the bus, stood in a queue with our luggage, then stood in a waiting room until given permission to return to the bus.
Did I say “we?”
The sole exception had two thumbs, no money, and a very new Oxford M.Phil.
Now, it’s perfectly understandable why I’d been “randomly selected” for a bag search. I’d just spent a week sleeping in the communal dorm of a youth hostel, and looked it; I was carrying a much-worn rucksack with a Canadian flag on it (you have to have the flag, if you don’t they revoke your citizenship and ban you from buying maple syrup for life); I was wearing my last reasonably clean clothes, which were a pair of stripy linen harem pants, Birkinstocks, and a T-shirt advertising the Toronto Lesbian And Gay Pride 10 Kilometre Road Race. The T-shirt might, in hindsight, as well have read “I went to Amsterdam for the drugs, and I just might be stupid or naïve or overprivileged enough to try and bring back some snacks. Please search me.”
Furthermore, with the adventures of Signori Hill and Spencer on my mind, I was thinking of all the ways this could go wrong.
Maybe the box of tulip bulbs that the shopkeeper had assured me had all its certifications to return to England would turn out to be a rare specimen stolen from the Botanical Gardens, and I’d be arrested for trafficking….
Maybe the souvenir teddy bear from the youth hostel would turn out to have been stuffed with hemp fibre and set off all sorts of alarms…
Maybe the customs inspector would get entirely the wrong impression from the amusing souvenir T-shirt, or the box of cookies I’d bought for my friends back at college, or from the Charlie Chan mystery novel I’d book-swapped for or…
…well. Lack of sleep and three hours of Hill and Spencer had me convinced I’d be fleeing Calais on the back of a hippopotamus. So I just sat down and watched the bag search with detached, if slightly fatalistic, interest.
Partway through the bag search, the inspector said to me, “you know, you’re the calmest person about this that I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes. Normally people just stand there looking scared and guilty. But you’re not.”
So we got to talking, and I asked him what the weirdest professional experience he’d had was (unpacking the bags of a young couple and finding it full of used baby diapers, as it happens), and then he asked me a question and so I had to explain what anthropology was and why I was studying it, and I was back on the bus before long.
The Italians, still being happy, forgave me for the delay, and the trip back to Oxford otherwise went smoothly, to the merry sound of Miami Supercops.
If Hill and Spencer ever needed a scriptwriter for an English Channel customs-agent comedy, I was on it.