What does US Customs want?

My son and I went to Russia for the summer and just recently came back

… Anticipating nostalgia already, I left behind St. Petersburg’s white nights, hasty packing, taxi to Pulkovo, a familiar for me thought, “It seems we are late for the plane,” transfer in Paris, movies on the plane where you almost can’t hear anything … airplane food in dense foil, customs declaration stating that I do not bring to America  drugs, a lot of money, or bacteria …

So, we landed at the new Atlanta International Terminal, and after we passed the border, on the way to the exit door I approached a customs officer with a naive question “to whom shall I give the customs declaration”. The officer, without any hesitation called me out of the crowd for “Nothing to Declare”, gave a special voucher and sent me (with two huge suitcases and a child) back to the customs clearance. I was cursing at myself for my stupidity and extra questions having such an obvious Russian accent… So, we came to the customs and an officer, a big, serious, guy with squared shoulders, looked at me straight in the eyes and accusingly asked if I had brought any food from Russia.  I certainly had. In my suitcase were smoked fish in a vacuum packet, which my husband loves so much, and caviar; Bordeaux and pate from the Paris Duty Free.  I felt very reluctant to give it all to customs; however I didn’t want any problems.  I stood and thought about the best way to handle the situation with a minimum loss. The officer patiently repeated his question whether I am bringing any food from Russia. «What do you mean? “, I asked, buying time by playing stupid as though I did not realize what Americans consider to be a food (and secretly hoping that fish and caviar is not)  «I have wine and pate from France Duty Free»-I finally squeezed the answer out of myself.
“No, we mean SALO (he said in Russian” Salo” and apples (!?) (Salo is pork fatback which is very popular in Russia and Ukraine.  It usually cured with salt and garlic and should be eaten with black bread to accompany a shot of ice-cold vodka.  Most Americans consider salo terrible, but for Russians, and especially for Ukrainians, it is the finest of delicacies which goes great with a shot of cold vodka.  But I didn’t have salo with me and I was so relieved to be able to be honest with customs that I almost screamed. “No! I do not have it! No Salo! And no apples too! “- I almost cried from relief.   It’s so much easier to tell the truth. They checked my luggage, waved at me “if you have no salo- just go then.”  They seemed to be disappointed and even sad. “What about fish?” – I babbled … «Fish is OK» -, said the officer, surprisingly.  I remember last year when I went through customs, a woman officer stopped me and asked me specifically if I had fish from Russia.  I said, “No.”  She was very surprised and asked again: “How not? The white and red fish that you Russians love so much ?”. ” No “- I repeated more firmly that time. Apparently, something has changed in Customs’ tastes.

Speaking of customs, different countries have different styles of checking.  I remember a year ago, I was leaving Nice and my friend just before I said to her good bye gave me a sealed can of almond butter which is supposed to be very healthy, and tasty, and expensive.   Because it was in a glass jar I decided to take it with me in my hand luggage.  Well, the French custom’s officer took that jar and explained it can’t be taken on the plane.  I was clearly upset and tried to explain to him it wasn’t a liquid. “Well, the Officer replied, – we’ll see.”  He took the jar, turned it upside down, and we both observed it for a minute or two.  Slowly and unwillingly the almond butter started to creep towards the cover.  “You see!”-the French officer exclaimed happily, it has moved!”  I remember how I hated him at the time.  I could almost see him eating my almond butter during his lunch break.  I kept it with my both hands as he snatched it from me.  At that time, I agreed with Dostoevsky’s dislike of the French.

Well, these days customs can take anything.  I am almost sure they have stopped buying shaving gels, liquid soaps and other toiletries because they have it all now.

Then, we walked back to the exit door, and I was thinking whether anyone carries apples from Russia. Well, salo I can understand, but apples?

The lessons learned:
1 Never ask questions of customs officers
2 Salo and apples are prohibited
3. Fish is OK

The automatic doors had opened.  My son asked “Mom, what did they want from us?” “They wanted salo” – I answered to him honestly.  Welcome to America!

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