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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why You Shouldn't Smuggle Drugs Into Norway

The year after I graduated from college, I got a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Germany, working as a teaching assistant in English at a German high school. I lived in Göttingen, a small town in central Germany. Whenever my skills as a bilingual dictionary weren't being abused by the school (they must have missed the "assistant" part of my job title), I tried to travel as much as possible. This often led to a week of near-starvation at the end of every month, as the US State Department grossly underestimates how much monthly bills as a TA in Germany add up to be, but for me, the choice was usually an easy one. Who wouldn't rather see amazing new cities than eat?

When a group of my friends scattered around Germany (not all were Fulbrights) found round-trip plane tickets to Oslo for 22€ (around $30 at the time), we jumped at the chance. I saved up as much money as I could in preparation (about $100), and eagerly counted down the days until our journey.

The day before our flight left, we all met up in Berlin. Our flight was out of the capital city, and some of the people going with us were lucky enough to be living there. As I've told you before, I used to live in Berlin, so I was thrilled to go back "home" for the day. I met up with my friends who lived there, we walked around town (because that's what you do in Berlin), ate some pizza, and then went to one of their friend's apartments, where everyone smoked a lot of pot. Except me. Because I don't smoke pot. But that is actually a very good story for another time. People have always told me they're very surprised when they learn that I don't smoke pot (and never have). I'm never quite sure how to interpret that...

The next morning, the group of us heading to Oslo woke up bright and early (and hungover), to head to one of Berlin's three airports. The excitement of the impending trip helped with our headaches (I do drink - well, at least I used to, before the whole "having children" phase of life), and by the time we were on the plane, everyone was in great spirits. We were going to Oslo! That's in NORWAY!!

The plane landed after a surprisingly short flight (Europe is really small if you spent your childhood road-tripping across the US). Because we were a group of nerds, we were all very excited about the possibility of getting our passports stamped; Norway is, after all, not part of the European Union. We deplaned and got in line, eager to show the important man behind the glass our passports. We talked eagerly amongst ourselves until it was our turn. We all approached at once, spilling our enthusiasm all over the passport man, who, in turn, didn't really care that we were coming in to his country, and didn't stamp our passports.

Mildly disappointed, but determined not to let that minor glitch get to us, we followed the line out of the customs area of the airport, which led through these giant glass doors and into the unsecured area. A woman a short distance in front of us had an adorable cocker spaniel that was holding up the line. An airport official was with them and pulled the dog out of the line. Before long, we were walking past them ourselves. One of the girls in our group bent down to pet the adorable, friendly family pet. She stood up just in time to be briskly whisked away by 7-foot tall Blond Giants into a secret door behind the hallway we were currently walking down. The rest of us froze in horror as the dog greeted us in his friendly way and the airport official told us gruffly to keep walking.

Before I had any idea what was happening, we were on the other side of the big glass doors, minus one member of our party.

"What the hell happened to Jill??" I tried to keep my voice from exploding into a scream (by the way, her name is clearly not Jill).

"She had pot on her," I was calmly and quietly informed. Panic began to set over the rest of our group as we stood like lost and confused sheep, directly on the other side of the big glass doors. It didn't take long for the giant blond people to approach us and tell us to "move along." We tried to inquire after our comrade, but all they would say was that she had been arrested.

As the recently deplaned crowed thinned out, we realized we were not the only group nervously pacing and waiting on a kidnapped party. A group of Middle Eastern-looking men were next to us looking just as nervous. It quickly became an unspoken competition to see whose abductee would be the first to show. We lost.

We moved away from the doors, but continued to mill around aimlessly. After waiting close to 45 minutes, another Middle Eastern-looking young man came through the doors, and the other party perked up instantly. They shot us victoriously smug glances as they walked away to Norwegian freedom. Finally, after another 30 minutes or so, Jill emerged. Escorted by one of the extremely tall, perfectly white-haired Norwegian Blond Giant police officers. He quietly informed her that she could have a word with us. She walked over to us and we erupted into a bombardment of questions.

"What's going on?" "Are you going to jail?" "You had pot on you?" "That COCKER SPANIEL was a DRUG DOG?!" "Who the hell makes a cocker spaniel a drug dog?!" "It didn't even occur to us that a cocker spaniel could be a drug dog!" "Did YOU know a cocker spaniel could be a drug dog?" "Are you okay?" "What the hell are we going to do?"

Jill managed to keep her cool (although she was clearly shaken as well). She informed us that they were not going to make her go down to the police station. She had been officially arrested, and would have to pay a fine, but she would be released to go with us - in just a few hours. She told us we could go on to the hotel, but we decided, after all the trauma we'd already been through, it would be best to stick together as much as possible. The Blond Giant approached us from behind, and, in his hilarious Norwegian accent informed us that, "Iht was tihme to go bahck." First he escorted her to a near-by ATM, then walked her back through the big glass doors. He wouldn't let her say anything else to us. We stood in slightly calmed desperation, watching our adorable little friend being dragged back to Blond Giant airport prison.

We spent the next two hours getting to know the airport and writing prison letters to our dear friend in lock-up. While waiting, we had another terrible realization: Norway is insanely expensive. We had to share airport food, because we couldn't afford to each eat our own meal. It was the start to a very thrifty four day vacation, which included switching from our decent hotel to a not-so-decent hostel, walking through miles of very cold snow (our visit was in early January - no wonder tickets were only $30!), and eating at gas stations to try and save money, where even the gas station attendants speak English ("Hof course, Ih speahk Henglish").

Finally, our Jill was released to us. She came out through the giant glass doors, once again, but this time without her perfect aryan escort. We sat on a bench outside the airport trying to recover from the terror and fear we'd all just endured (Jill more than any of us) for the last three+ hours. After ensuring Jill was doing better and feeling okay (she even laughed at our prison love-letters), one of the other girls in the group got a sly grin on her face.

"Don't worry, Jill. It'll be okay," she said, quietly, through the conspiratory grin. "They didn't catch me." She pat her bag.

I was shocked. I stared in absolute disbelief. There is no way TWO people in our group attempted to smuggle illegal drugs across countries - especially going from an EU country to a non-EU country, where we were sure to have to go through customs. And yet... here we were. Maybe it's just because I don't smoke pot, but I was starting to question the ability of my friends to make appropriate critical thinking decisions.

Finally, we set out on our way to our (expensive) hotel (that we could only afford to stay in for one night). As soon as we were there, my friends "partook" in the illegal substance they were able to bring along. My disbelief had started to wear off (after all, I have spent a good deal of time with people who do smoke regularly - maybe that's why people are always surprised to learn I don't...) And then, Jill blew my mind (and I wasn't even the high one, people!!).

She confessed to us that this was not the first time she'd smuggled marijuana illegally into another country. In fact, she'd done it just a few weeks before. When she went to ISTANBUL. In TURKEY. Where they probably would have thrown her in jail for a few years (if she was lucky), had she'd been caught. Although now, in retrospect of our afternoon, Jill was lamenting her foolishness and expressing her intense gratitude at being caught this time, in civilized and polite Norway, rather than terrifying and outrageously-strict-on-drug-smugglers Turkey.

The rest of our trip was significantly less eventful and overall very enjoyable. Albeit very cold. Oslo is a beautiful city (even in several inches of packed snow), and we had a great time seeing authentic Viking ships from the 800's, Munch's "The Scream," trying to find Bunny Island, tracking down the tallest person we could find (he turned out to be a German baker who was well over 7 feet tall - we figured he must have moved to Norway to finally live somewhere where he could fit through all the doorways), seeing giant Norwegian fishing boats, shopping at authentic Norwegian butchers (with real stuffed reindeer in the window), watching all the beautiful Blond Giants at their annual equivalent of the Oscars, talking in our best (terrible) Norwegian accents, and tromping through the snow.

And of course, smoking a little grass.

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