While travelling across Russia one day, as you do, by train, on your way to Ulan Butah and then Beijing, one morning a group of shy, Mongolian, 19 year old medical students came and filled the doorway of my carriage. We were about to cross the border from Russia into Mongolia later on that day.
Would you mind storing something in your carriage for us until we get across the border?
Every warning that the Department of Foreign Affairs website has ever hosted has contained some variation of “don’t take anything for anyone across any border ever”.
Seeing our shocked and doubtful faces they quickly added.
It’s orange juice.
Knowing that few people actually admit the true nature of what they are asking you to smuggle on their behalf, I wasn’t moving. My unworldly travelling companion was quicker than I however and quipped that it would be fine then.
Within seconds the boys were back expertly lifting up our bottom bunks to reveal a storage container we had never even seen, and stacking paper carton upon paper carton of the orange juice brand we had seen all over Russia.
The fierce looking Mongolian immigration guards never even bothered looking in our cabin although they went through the one next door pretty thoroughly, revealing only the requisite amount of orange juice allowed to be imported, per person, to Mongolia.
Thanks, thanks so much!
The students came bounding into our cabin immediately afterwards, full of smiles and gratitude that lasted for the next few days, until they disembarked with their full load of contraband, enough to sell on the black market and make a handsome profit to further fund their medical studies. Fresh fruit, vegetables and their derivatives are not produced in Mongolia (which is mostly desert) and so come at a premium price.
It isn’t the first time I have snuck food into a country. Italy has fantastic food. Italian cuisine is varied, fresh, simple, and consists of much more than pizza or pasta. They don’t however import or make any of our food, none of it. So there is no other food available in Italy than what makes up their indigenous cuisine. Fabulous enough, however when one is facing Winter without crumpets, baked beans, stilton cheese, marmalade, and tinned tomato soup, for the umpteenth time, things can get desperate.
It is a little known fact and hard to explain in a culture such as ours (Australia) where you can get dozens of different countries cuisines, their ingredients, their desserts, their sauces and flavours, that nothing that is not Italian, made in Italy, or eaten by Italians can be had in Italy. For example you will never, ever find sticky date pudding on the menu, an iced donut anywhere, a slice of cheese cake in a café, a mud cake, mushroom soup, a potato cake, a lamb chop two weeks either side of Easter, sliced bread in a packet, coriander, parsnip, rhubarb, passion fruit, the list goes on. Like the French they are fiercely protective of their own nations’ producers and most Italians wouldn’t dream of experimenting with another countries food. Indians eat Indian food, French eat French food, Americans eat their version of food, and Italians eat Italian food is their understanding of the world.
Hence my need to go to London every Autumn and stock up so I can survive the Winter ahead on my non Italian Winter comfort food. Heathrow however is the centre of search and control practices for keeping airports safe. You and your bags can be searched at any time and anywhere. Waiting in a boarding queue, one year, after stocking up, I got selected for a search of my hand luggage. Up onto a large table surrounded by burly, male British air port workers went my small suitcase. The large security guard, surrounded by all his mates, unzipped it carefully and found it hard to hide the surprise on his face as he encountered a suitcase full of crumpets, marmalade and tins of tomato soup which came tumbling out onto the table and floor.
Ey up! What’s all this for then? He said as he and his mates were lining packets of crumpets up alongside my suitcase.
I…..I…..I live in Italy…….came out as the only response I could muster.
Even as I was saying it I realised how ridiculous it sounded. Most Brits go to Italy to FOR the food, they don’t take theirs with them. Sniggering and laughing into his sleeve, he winked at me knowingly while he zipped it back up again.
Oh, aye, luv, I get it, there’s nothing worse than not bein’ able to have yrrr bit o’ crrrrumpet when you want it.
I lugged away my weighed down suitcase with the sound of laughter in my ears, my face as red as the tomato soup I was carrying and just ordered on line from Fortnum’s and Mason’s after that.