Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015 - 1 comment

I Can't Bring WHAT On the Plane?!?

We all know the drill.  No liquids over 100 mL in our carry-ons.  Contact solution and hand cream sealed up in a nice little Zip-Loc baggie.  Scissors and tweezers safely stowed away in our checked luggage.  No explosives or live animals in any of our suitcases.  

The other day, though, as I was purchasing a domestic ticket on Atlasjet, an airline I don’t often fly with, I was caught off guard by the very specific list of what cannot, under any circumstances, be brought on a plane.  And I chuckled to myself and thought, “Only in Turkey.”

Here's what it said:

"Fluid substances like olive oil, pickles, tomato paste; flammable substances such as acetone, cologne; cans, sacks, plastic bags and barrels will not be accepted to the flight neither as free baggage or as cabin baggage."

I could just picture an old teyze staring, bewildered, at the guy at the check-in counter, asking, “Why in the world can’t I bring tomato paste on the plane?  Do you know how long it took us to make that?”  Or, “But these pickles are my daughter’s favourite!  You can’t get pickles like these in Istanbul!”  Or, “Young man, this oil is from our family’s own olive grove.  Don’t your mother bring you things home from your village??”  

There’s a reason many Turks still take buses when traveling cross-country, even though the price of a plane ticket is often way cheaper:  You can’t bring a whole winter’s supply of goodies home on a fifteen kilo weight limit!  People who spend their summer in their hometown will have invested months in harvesting and processing everything they need to make it through the cold season, and they’ll add in a whole bunch extra to pass out to friends who weren’t able to make it home or are just lucky enough to get in on the stash.   Spicy pepper paste from Urfa, pistachios from Gaziantep, apples from Amasya, jars of anchovies from Trabzon.  Grape leaves, tomato paste, tarhana, walnuts....what you can find in the big city is just never as good as what you can pick in your own family orchard.

The “cans, sacks, plastic bags and barrels” bit cracked me up, too.  How many times have I seen someone cram a ten kilo can of white cheese, a monstrous sack of onions or a whole flat of cherries into the luggage compartment under a bus?  And the “cologne” - our beloved “lemon kolonya”, no doubt.  The cure for everything from greasy hands to paper cuts to fainting.  (Got a stain on your wooden table?  Slather on some kolonya and set in on fire - the stain will vanish before your very eyes!  But watch out - this practice can be habit forming....)

Affordable air travel is a relatively new development in Turkey.  Airports and routes have multiplied tenfold even in the eight years I’ve lived here.  So it’s understandable that the rules and restrictions related to flying are not yet common knowledge.  If you’ve only ever travelled on long-distance buses, discovering that you won’t be accepted onto the plane if you show up ten minutes before take-off or that you can’t bring unlimited luggage can be a rude awakening. (I’ve seen my fair share of tantrums at the check-in counter...)  

My Turkish mom, who has only flown once or twice in her life, is a sweet, well-meaning example of this.  When I’m returning home from visiting my family in Istanbul, she is forever giving me “one more thing” to bring home as a present, and always right before I’m leaving for the airport.  I’ve usually already crammed my suitcase to the limit (I can never resist Istanbul’s wide array of bookstores...) and don’t have the space or the weight allowance to squeeze in a kilogram of mantı (ravioli) or a big box of cookies from the pastry shop where she works.  These scenes usually end up stuffing a kilo’s worth of stuff in my coat pockets so as to avoid breaking the rules or breaking her heart.

I’ve noticed in the past year, though, how “Turkified” I’ve become in this area.  When visiting friends who live in colder parts of the country or in cities where they don’t have access to good, cheap produce like we do here, it’s fun to bring them something from the pazar or our garden that I know they’ve been missing.  When we headed east to Erzincan to see our old neighbours in their village last fall, we got some amused looks as our carry-ons went through the x-ray machine laden with two kilos of pomegranates and a whole pile of lemons from the tree in our yard.  (Our friend used to be “soul mates” with our lemon tree, so we knew this would make her year!)

When returning from said trip, we had a little “suspicious package” episode of our own.  Our friends make this amazing stuff called çemen - a sort of “breakfast sauce” made from red pepper paste, crushed walnuts and various herbs that tastes amazing on bread.  When they lived here, we always felt privileged when they’d pull out a jar at breakfast and share it with us.  We knew it was a valuable “hometown specialty” that they didn’t bust out for just anyone.  (Kind of like how we only use imported brown sugar and chocolate chips to make cookies for certain select friends.  You have to pass the appreciation test...)  Like tomato paste, making çemen is pretty labour intensive, and it was even more precious this year after a late frost all but nixed the walnut harvest.  So it was a huge honour when they sent us home with a big jar of our very own.  

Naturally, we weren’t too keen on packing a big jar of squishy red stuff in either of our checked bags where one over-zealous toss by a luggage handler could render our clothes permanently streaked with “souvenirs of Erzincan.”  So, with a very Turkish “bir şey olmaz” (“eh, nothing bad will happen”), we decided that çemen didn’t count as liquid and opted to put it in my roommate’s carry-on.  

As we went through security to head to our gate, the guy at the scanner paused the conveyor belt and looked up with a suspicious, “You have a large cylindrical object in here....can you tell me what it is?”  

Now, before we proceed with this story, you have to understand a thing or two about this airport.  It’s in a tiny city that has only recently arrived on the airlines’ map.  The building is a brand new, state-of the-art glass dome that provides a 360 degree view of the mountains.  The locals are very proud of it.  It boasts both a domestic and an international terminal, though there aren’t actually any international flights coming in and out of the city as of yet.  The domestic terminal has exactly one gate.  As far as I can tell, there are about six flights in and out each day - all of them to and from Ankara and Istanbul.  There are two snack shops outside security, and one inside.  When they announce a departing flight, the guy from one of the shops literally closes his store window, crosses into the gate area, and opens the shop on the inside.  It’s the ultimate frontier-town scene.

Accordingly, we followed our pre-agreed upon script.

“It’s çemen!”

The girl unwrapping the plastic bags around the jar eyed us curiously.  (How many foreigners have ever heard of çemen?)

“We came to visit our friends and they made it themselves and gave it to us cuz they know we can’t get it where we’re from.  Wasn’t that nice of them?  You’re so lucky you live here and can have it all the time...”

She looked questioningly at the guy who seemed to be her supervisor.  

“We brought them lemons from our garden and they’re sending us home with çemen.  Good trade,” I said with a bright smile.

He opened the jar to sniff it and then handed it back to her.  “It’s çemen,” he laughed.  “Bir şey olmaz.”

And off we went.

The moral of the story?  When in doubt, appeal to cultural pride.  

A recent attempt by a friend to bring me some lingonberry jam in his carry-on (he’s lucky enough to have an IKEA in his city) didn’t result in the same show of mercy and, sadly, the jar ended up in the trash.  I guess the rules only stretch as far as the limits of what’s treated like gold in one’s own culture.  Swedish delicacies, apparently, are outside the acceptable zone.

I’ll have to test out the strictness of Atlasjet’s baggage policy whenever they start doing routes to and from Erzincan.  Tomato paste might be a no-go, but maybe çemen will still fly.  :)


Oh I LOVE this! I can totally picture this airport scene :) Love your writing!