According to Wikipedia, “A mule… is someone who smuggles something with them… across a national border, including bringing into and out of an international plane, especially a small amount, transported for a smuggling organization.” Well, though we do not travel on behalf of any smuggling organization, we did perform the function of mules on our recent trip to the US. The idea sounded good when we talked about taking some of our two-week old olive oil back to the States. Family and friends were anxious to try the just-pressed oil and we were anxious to share it with them. Also, we have become proficient at traveling “light,” so we could get the oil into a suitcase and still have enough space to accommodate our clothing and necessities. In other words, the shipping of the oil would be included in the cost of our flights. The theory was unassailable.
The day of our flight began too soon after the previous day ended. We were up the night before packing, weighing, unpacking, repacking, re-weighing, all in an effort to make sure that only one of the cases was over 23 kilos (52 pounds), the maximum weight permitted to avoid an over-weight charge of 70 euro, according to the Alitalia website. It was a given that one of the cases would be over-weight (It was about 37 kilos.) so we accepted the fact that we were into this for 70 euro. So be it.
I also confirmed, with a tape measure, that my carry-on, admittedly of a size that I repeatedly criticized others for bringing onto a plane, was within the parameters stipulated on the airline website.
Our day started with the eruption of the alarm at 3:30am, followed by morning ablutions, dressing and jumping into the already-packed car for the one-hour drive to the airport in Bari. Though our flight didn’t depart until 7:05, we decided to get to the airport especially early to give us the best chance of getting a parking space in the “low cost” lot. A recent experience at that airport when that lot was full, required us to pay 15 euro a day instead of the 5 euro a day in the cheaper lot and, since we would be gone for three weeks on this trip, we wanted to be sure to get one of the cheap spaces. Of course, the downside of the lower cost is the lot’s lack of proximity to the airport and it took us a while to drag our cargo from the car to the Alitalia check-in desk. Fortunately, at that time of morning, the line was short and we were soon speaking with the ticket agent. We showed our tickets and passports.
“Quanti bagagli?” she asked. How many bags.
“Due,” I responded, as though I knew Italian.
“Puo mettere qua?” she said. Can you put them there.
I hefted the heavier of the two cases onto the scale and it hovered on the number 37.
“Non e’ possibile,” she said. “E’ troppo pesante.” It’s too heavy.
“Io pago,” I offered. I’ll pay.
“No. Non possiamo prenderla,” she said. “E’ troppo pesante.” No, we can’t take it. It’s too heavy. She then suggested that we take some of the weight from the heavier bag and put more into the lighter one, the objective being to get each to the maximum weight of 30 kilos, a figure that appears absolutely nowhere on the Alitalia website. Jessica and I scrambled off into a corner and began the process of shifting contents from one case to the other. With each attempt, we weighed and re-weighed the bags until we struck the perfect balance at which point we re-entered the now-longer line at the ticket counter. When our turn to be served came, we were directed to one of the other three agents but talk of the crazy Americans had obviously reached her since she was ready for us. She accepted the checked bags and I got my credit card out to pay for the, now, two, over-weight bags. Our “good idea” was starting to look a little less good as 70 euros became 140 euros.
“Posso pagare qui?” I asked hopefully. Can I pay here.
“No, paga qua,” she said, gesturing to another counter.
She hand-wrote two forms, one for each bag, that reminded me of the old airline tickets with multiple layers and red carbon-paper in between each. As instructed, I took the forms to the other counter. The woman there wrote on the forms some more, filled out two more forms, took my credit card and, after about twenty-five minutes, sent me back to the ticket counter where, in exchange for some of the dozen-or-so pieces of paper I now had, we would be given our boarding passes.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, Jessica and our ticket agent had had a short but distressing conversation.
“E’ che il bagaglio di tuo marito?” Is that your husband’s bag, she asked referring to my carry-on that was sitting next to where Jessica was standing.
“Si’,” responded Jessica knowing exactly where this was going.
“Non e’ possibile,” she said using a phrase with which we were becoming all too familiar. “E’ troppo grande.” Too big.
When I finally returned to Jessica, she told me of the chat with the agent. I went to the woman and pleaded my case that the bag was not too big but to no avail. Before I could even officially surrender, she began filling out the form. It was now getting close to the time that we should be at the gate and still she kept writing. The constitutions of small countries have been written in less time than it took her to finish. When she was finally done, I, of course, had to go back to the other counter, watch as new forms were completed and await the processing of the credit card. Eventually, now armed with the new forms, I was on my way back to the ticket counter and the now-even-longer line. As I waited my turn, I thought about our plane boarding, the number of trees that had been sacrificed just so those three pieces of luggage to join us on our trip and what the tins of olive oil were going to look like when we arrived in the US after our hurried and haphazard packing of the bags.
With little time to spare, we received our boarding passes, negotiated the security process without event and boarded the plane. And, though we were now 210 euro lighter in the pocket (or heavier in the credit card balance), we looked forward to setting foot in the United States for the first time since moving to Puglia. And, unlike most mules, we had little fear of body cavity searches on our arrival.