Carrying on about Carry-on Luggage

What's in Your Suitcase?

Carrying on about carry on

Ah, the joys of carry-on luggage. What fits? What doesn’t? What’s allowed? What isn’t? What don’t you mind having scanned? What’s too embarrassing? It almost takes the fun out of traveling! Here to help — me and the good old New York Times!

The Times recently featured a story about carry-on luggage, detailing what’s OK and what’s not OK  to bring on board. It was an informative and humorous story filled with tips about vibrators, weed, and safety pins. The story was a reminder about a goodbye gift of hash, as in hashish (not hash brown potatoes), and getting stopped by a Soviet border guard because I was transporting a pair of men’s boots.

According to the newspaper, among the surprising can-do carry-on items:

  • Knitting needles (I consider this a surprising “can-do” item because I once had an expensive pair of cuticle nippers confiscated and they strike me as way less lethal than knitting needles.)
  • Live fish (which obviously need water and yet, somehow get to swim around the “no liquids” rule.)
  • Wands (Rejoice, magicians!)
  • Waffle irons (But not cast-iron pots)
  • Boxing gloves
  • Cremated remains (with certain specific handling instructions)

The list goes on and on. You can find it here.

Carrying On about Carry-on Luggage

Among the items, you cannot carry on are:

  • Compressed air guns (duh)
  • Mallets (Sorry, no airborne croquet in the aisles)
  • Kirpans and kubatons (I don’t know what they are, but I just feel safer knowing they’re not allowed near me inflight, don’t you?)

As for me, I only had one run-in with TSA and that was on a return trip West from NYC. A baffled agent ran my suitcase back and forth through the scanner multiple times. Finally, he looked up and queried, “Little chairs?”

For a second, even I was stymied. Then, I remembered.

“Oh, they’re parts of a menorah. For Hannukah. Each one holds a candle. For the eight days of the Jewish festival of lights. There’s a ninth chair, I mean, candle holder, called the shamash. I’m happy to open my suitcase if you’d like.”

The TSA agent smiled and declined my offer. No inspection required. A Hannukah miracle much to my relief — and the people in line behind me.

Back in the USSR

Only one brush with US government agents but multiple skirmishes plus one almost serious incident with border agents in the former Soviet Union.

In the late ‘70s, I was a college and graduate student, majoring in Russian Area Studies — meaning the politics, history, economics, and language of Russia and the Soviet Union. I took two terms of study there, first at Leningrad State University (now St. Petersburg) and in Moscow at the Pushkin Language Institute.

For the first trip, we students had been warned that Soviet customs agents would inspect our luggage thoroughly to ensure we weren’t bringing in contraband goods to “corrupt” their fellow countrymen and women. Contraband goods, you know, like bibles, blue jeans (to sell on the black market), and rock and roll records/cassettes to damage the mind of vulnerable youth!

We female students, mostly a meek and modest group, were aghast at the idea of border guards rifling through our undergarments searching for these obviously harmless (at least obviously harmless to us) items. But thanks to our student advisor, a seasoned Soviet traveler, we were spared the embarrassment of having our undies manhandled!

She gave us a priceless tip which we modest maidens immodestly but nonetheless immediately followed: placing our feminine hygiene products on the top of our belongings in our suitcases.

Sure enough, the young border guards at the airport, despite their oversized uniforms and boots and tin badges, blushingly took one look at the girlie stuff and — to a one— slammed our bags shut without inspection. Our fellow male students, on the other hand, had their bags torn apart as the boy guards doubled down on their inspection duties!

Carry-On Don’ts!

On another flight, this one leaving Leningrad, a Russian friend somehow came up with the not-so-bright idea to “gift” me with a balled-up dollop of hashish. For the life of me, I cannot imagine what possessed him to do so. I was most decidedly not that kind of girl. I didn’t even smoke regular cigarettes, no less do drugs! Maybe he was pulling my leg and it was just a dumb joke to tease my straight arrow ways. It could have been Lipton Tea for all I knew. But it was, of course, an unwanted, unwelcome, weird, and dangerous item to receive seconds before I was due to face a customs officer.

I dashed into the bathroom and tried flushing it down the rusty, disgusting toilet that barely worked on a good day. The damned gift didn’t disappear down the toilet. It floated and bobbed. I flushed and flushed to no avail. Then, I fled the bathroom. Sweating and swearing under my breath, I cleared customs and returned home.

The Boot for Carry-on Boots!

Two decades later I visited Russia as a tourist with my brother Gil. We had been on a multi-country tour and had co-mingled our possessions in our suitcases as the trip progressed.

In Russia, while communism was no longer in the ascendancy, unsmiling border guards in oversized uniforms still stood.

The guard who opened my suitcase immediately went apoplectic at the sight of a pair of men’s brown boots in my bag. He immediately accused me of being a “fartsovshchik” — a black marketeer. I calmly explained that they belonged to my brother standing behind me. The guard ordered my brother to step forward, remove the shoes he was wearing and put the boots on to “prove” they fit and were his. All the while, I was humming (silently) The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.”

All of those “oh, so Soviet” customs experiences — silly and scary — are the reason I never complain when our own TSA agents do their job. I figure it’s tough enough trying to sort out the menorahs and the vibrators from the real dangers out there. I’m not going to give them a hard time — even when they confiscate my favorite, fancy cuticle nippers.

🎶 🎶 🎶

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in a trip down memory lane, here’s the back story behind the Beatles, “Back in the USSR.” (No carry-on luggage required!)

And in the care-to-share category: any stories of funny (or embarrassing) TSA carry-on luggage moments you’ve had? Do tell!

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