Did I ever tell you about the time I spent two hours being screamed at in an eight x eight foot windowless room at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris? Five french men who barely spoke English, and me. Each one, including the translator, seemed to have working knowledge of about ten English terms (which, I admit, is far more advanced than my grasp of French). I also had a migraine at the time, which made it extra special.
Turns out they didn’t appreciate fishing a weapon out of my carry-on.
It was 2003 and I had just spent two glorious weeks with my husband, traveling around the Italian Riviera, blissed out to be with him after not having seen him for months. In the second Iraq war, he was deployed to guard an American AirForce base in Aviano and I had a small window of time to hop the pond and be with him while he was given a rare break. I lived in Minneapolis at the time and the moment he left for Europe I became a huge mess. They said he’d be gone for eight months, but there was a disclaimer attached– they had the right to keep him deployed for two years– and the thought of that nearly did me in emotionally and physically.
My body completely revolted in the face of my deprivation. I didn’t have a period in eight months, I lost forty pounds in two months, I was up all night with horrible sweats, and had severe tension headaches for months on end. I saw neurologists, endocrinologists, psychologists– you name it. Nobody could put me back together again.
But here I was with him again, in absolute Heaven as we drove around this European paradise in a tiny car, stopping wherever it was most beautiful, sipping wine and snacking on Italian bread, tangerines, hard cheeses, and ten kinds of olives. We slept late, staying tangled up with each other as long as possible before the Cinque Terre ocean air serenaded us through the open windows, every day a beautiful adventure. My body and soul were in bliss.
In paradise, two weeks evaporates cruelly fast.
The morning I left I felt like I was attending my own funeral. I was sick with grief. My husband drove me to the small Venice Airport and I said goodbye through my tears, wandering around alone and empty through the shops until it was time to catch my plane to Paris, on to Philadelphia and then finally home to Minneapolis. The tears made my head start to pound.
And then something caught my eye.
It was an Italian Alessi corkscrew. In the shape of an angel. My psyche grabbed onto it and I had to have it. My pain dulled as I held it in my hands, turning it over, she seemed to be soothing me, telling me it would be okay. Because anything that quieted my grief seemed like life or death at that time, I bought her, feeling good about myself because she was so much cheaper than if I had found her in the United States. I popped her in my bag, feeling not so alone, and boarded my plane to Paris with no incident. Sad as it sounds, I felt stronger with her by my side.
Fast forward a couple of hours.
In Paris customs, a security guard mumbled something as my bag meandered through the x-ray box. I still had no idea what they could possibly be concerned about as they rifled through my bag. He pulled out my Alessi Angel, shouting something to me in French. I humbly shrugged, indicating I could not speak the language. He quickly dismantled her, removing her head and spine from her little green dress, and then I saw it.
A ten inch long solid stainless steel instrument with a razor sharp point, her little smiling face attached, as if to say, “What…Me?”
Jesus. Venice was totally fine with it. Paris, not so much.
Before I knew it I was dragged away, literally, two security guards on each arm, and another carrying my bag, where I found myself in a small room, door locked, waiting for the head of security. When he finally entered, he seriously looked like Inspector Clouseau. Maybe 5’2″ with heels, a tiny manicured black mustache, the most intense man I have ever experienced in my life. He entered screaming.
For nearly two hours I answered the same question over and over, while the translator tried to soothe me as best he could under the circumstances.
The head of security barked over and over, “Why? Why?!” only it sounded more like, “Vy?! Vy?!”
And I would explain over and over, “I thought it was pretty. I had no idea it was dangerous. Venice never even mentioned it. They could have told me to check it.”
To which he would scream, “No go on zee plane!!!”
The rest of the men seemed to be quietly on my side. They seemed to be pleading with him. The translator whispered to me while two men screamed at each other, “The security guard is asking the director if we can simply place it in an envelope and send it with the checked luggage to meet you in Philadelphia,” to which he would scream in English, “No go on zee plane!!!” over and over. The translator sheepishly smiled at me behind the director’s back, shaking his head, as if to say, “I’m sorry. You’re never going to see that angel again.”
It was a fucking nightmare that seemed to have no end.
They all left then, to discuss it further, outside my hearing range. And left me alone in the locked room, sitting at a cold metal table for over an hour.
Sure, I could just get another corkscrew. But at the time it was so symbolic of the pain and the loss I was feeling. In that moment, I wanted to die.
The door unlocked and I was escorted out of the room, patted on the back and allowed to board my plane which was taking off in about thirty seconds. They did me the favor of holding my plane and by the time I ran there, my migraine was a ten out of ten on the pain scale. I could hardly walk. I entered the plane door and asked the Texan flight attendant my chances of ever getting my angel back. She had been informed of my security event by those who asked to hold the plane.
In her thick Texan drawl, she laughed and waved me to my seat. “Honey, you just bought his French wife a fabulous Christmas present. Forget it. Happens all the time. Go get comfortable.” She literally snorted.
I have never felt so defeated. I slumped into my seat, closing my eyes and holding my head in my hands. I tried to do some deep breathing to alleviate my pounding head. I opened my eyes for a second and saw a man dart onto the plane wearing a nylon jacket with “Securite” printed in bold yellow letters. He asked the flight attendant something and she pointed to my seat. Everyone, settled and buckled in, watched as he ran to me, looking a little suspicious as if he were taking some kind of a risk. He stopped and actually kneeled by my chair. I recognized him as the man in the locked room who was arguing with the director.
He said the glorious words, in hissed, hushed tones, like something straight out of Mission Impossible, “Mademoiselle Sweetland,” in his melodious accent, “Zee object, zee ahn-gel, she will meet you…(dramatic pause)…in Pheeladelphia.” His head bobbed with every syllable, for dramatic effect. And then he scurried off the plane before I could even say, “THANK YOU!!!!”.
I burst into tears. He gave me so much more than my corkscrew. He gave me faith in the human spirit. He gave me the most profound healing through courage and generosity. I could feel that he put himself at risk for doing so, even if it was something as seemingly small as defying an order, and yet there he was, running off a plane that was taking off in thirty seconds.
The Texan flight attendant strolled by, and sneered, “Apparently, it dun’t hurt to be cute.” She rolled her eyes and said, “Good for you, honey.”
She had no affect on me. I was buoyed by the actions of a very good man. And I knew it had nothing to do with being cute.
My Paris flight landed in Philadelphia and I made it through customs. The security guard said, “So good to have you back in the United States, Ms. Sweetland.” It truly did feel good to be home, even with my husband still far away across the ocean. I made it to the luggage carousel and immediately found my bag. No angel yet. I waited a few rotations and down the shoot came a little clear baggie making her way toward me.
It was her. She had made it.
On the package was scrawled, “Mademoiselle Sweetland, Philadelphia. So sorry. You an angel.”
Right then and there, I literally began to bawl.
There was nothing to be sorry for. Even if the director had blocked the chance to put her on zee plane, I wouldn’t have blamed anybody. But the sheer act of this man doing what he did, saved me in so many ways, and I’m not exaggerating. His goodness stays with me to this day. I think he was the angel.
He didn’t know I was hanging on by my fingernails.
He didn’t know I was literally wondering how I would make it another hour, let alone another day.
I love this man and always will.
Can we all be angels? Can we all be there for each other?
I do believe it’s a choice.