Even pre-911, this was a really bad idea. I brought pepper spray to Europe in the spring of 1995. It was an extra rookie move since I didn’t even think much about it at the time. In an age when a bottle of more than three ounces of shampoo or a tube of toothpaste will be confiscated before you even get to your departure gate, it is pretty ludicrous when telling this story today.
Initially, I packed the pepper spray because I promised my mom, Judy, that I would take it with me (I was 27 at the time). I was about to go to Europe solo as a travel writer for the Berkeley Guides, a budget travel book series, and she was worried about me traveling alone.
Nevermind, that I had already been to Europe with my friend Debbie when we were 18 and unaccompanied by our parents. Furthermore, we had survived London, Geneva, and Paris — including the Montmartre area at night (actually we barely made it in Montmartre at night— but that’s another Oops).
Incidentally, Judy also wanted me to call every week on Wednesdays during a specific window of time while I was traveling. At any rate, she bought me the pepper spray and I agreed to take it with me since I appreciated that my mom was concerned.
The flight from San Francisco to Heathrow was actually enjoyable. I sat next to Richard and Paul, two travelers who were going to join a tour group in France. They were friendly and chatty, so the time went quickly. After arriving in Heathrow, it was time to go through British Customs. I had a backpack and a duffel bag. The pepper spray was packed with my clothes in the duffel.
When we were asked the standard declaration questions at Customs and then listened to their list of illegal items, I actually thought for the first time, “hmmm I may be carrying contraband.” I revealed to one of the Customs agents that, indeed, I had pepper spray because, of course, I was a woman traveling alone. Then, I included the bit in about my mom “making me take the spray.”
I actually was a bit nervous. Richard and Paul were with me, and they tried to help my case by telling the Customs agent that pepper spray was actually normal for women to carry in San Francisco. The Customs agent was quite calm and listened to our case. He merely said that tear gas was illegal and would not clear British Customs. In fact, he added that he must seize it and I would need to come with him. He took the tiny canister that looked like travel hair spray and put it in a plastic bag.
“Tear gas?” “Illegal?” “Seize?” What?! Even in 1995, hearing those adjectives made me feel like a terrorist suspect. I began asking the Customs agent a series of rather desperate questions. “Will you send me back?” “Am I going to jail?” “Do I need a lawyer or do I need to call the American embassy?”
Again, because this was before September 11, and in my opinion, due largely to the fact that he was British, the Customs agent was quite calm and polite. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind following him. Richard and Paul assured me they would wait.
I went with the Customs officer to an official sounding “T4 O.B. Desk,” which was in an office that looked like it was part of a business complex rather than a dark, cement interrogation room with a single chair and flood lights like I was expecting.
Officer M. Szczyrek introduced himself, examined the illegal canister and then interviewed me. He asked standard questions, and of course, I launched into the saga of how I brought the pepper spray…er…tear gas with me to reassure my mom that I would be safe. I added that she worries quite a bit and then told him about our calling schedule.
In a very reasonable tone, Officer Szczyrek explained to me that “dye spray” or tear gas is actually quite dangerous and it is illegal to carry or use it in the United Kingdom. Did I know that it is a chemical compound that can cause momentary blindness and that in Great Britain, it is strictly used for law enforcement purposes such as controlling riots? Basically, it was contraband and not something they were going to allow me to keep. Officer Szczyrek placed the canister back in the plastic bag and then began filling out forms for me to sign.
Really, it was about as pleasant an experience you can have when you are being questioned about brining an illegal substance into another country. I almost expected to be offered a spot of tea. Officer Szczyrek gave me copies of the forms and then pointed me back to the Customs screening area.
As promised, Richard and Paul were there waiting. They were concerned, but I assured them it had been a very agreeable experience. In fact, I showed them my papers. After being “released” from questioning and confiscation, I was impressed with my forms and thought they made great souvenirs.
They are definite keepsakes since the language is just as civilized and polite as the experience was. One form, Heathrow Serial No. T4 32076 is categorized as a “Declaration of Surrender of Prohibited Articles” form. It states that: “articles confiscated for safekeeping at Heathrow Airport can be collected within 30 days…” (However, in my case, tear gas was not kept safely. It was scheduled for “disposal.”)
On my “Seizure Information” form, it states how you can get your “things” back. Again, the language is quite cooperative and conciliatory.
“We will not restore certain prohibited and restricted items, such as drugs, illegal weapons, and indecent or obscene material.
If you accept that we have the right to seize the things listed overleaf, we may return them to you on certain conditions. This is called restoration. Usually we will ask you to pay a sum of money. This may vary from a small charge to a sum up to the value of the goods, depending on the circumstances.”
Here comes my favorite part: “Write, within one month of the date of seizure, to: The Queens Warehouse keeper”. However, despite the civilized tone, I must point out that there was no apostrophe in “Queens” on the actual form. So the Queen’s English was not quite “restored” on this official paper.