old stone arches in a wall on a hillside near Athens, Greece

Crossing Borders 8: Held Up at Knifepoint

A stern-faced beady-eyed man held the knife point in my face while motioning ominously, “You come with me.”

I usually write about backwoods border crossings. In this episode, however, I share a travel experience from 1993, a somewhat scary story that ended well.

I once journeyed to Greece during the Golden Era of Frequent Flyers, a relatively brief time period when a business traveler could easily rack up tens of thousands of airline loyalty points. Cashing in an award to fly business class across the Atlantic, I met my family in Athens for an early summer excursion around southern Greece, followed by a short cruise to a handful of the many jewel-like Aegean islands.

Somewhere on this jaunt I purchased a small souvenir letter opener, which I had admired for its carved onyx handle. I have always loved things made with stone, a passion dating back to a childhood summer reading club where I earned polished rocks as prizes. This particular piece featured a blunt brass blade and a milky creamsicle-colored grip. As if packing a takeaway order of fish-and-chips, the seller wrapped it in old newspaper and Scotch-taped it together. I popped it in the bottom of my shoulder bag and promptly forgot about it.

The library at Ephesus, one of the stops on the trip around Greece and Turkey

The rest of the trip was quite enjoyable, especially the visit to Ephesus in Turkey to stroll through the amazing Roman-era ruins, an archeological excavation ongoing since the late 1800s which continues to uncover new wonders even today.

But all good things come to an end, and the time came to return home. The first leg passed uneventfully, as I began by checking in for an early morning flight from Athens to Frankfurt. Nothing unusual happened, other than a surprisingly pleasant glass of fresh orange juice served aboard the aircraft.

Travelers today are likely well aware of the necessary stringent changes to airport security put into effect after 2001. Prior to that it was normal to meet friends directly at their arrival gate and even visit family aboard a plane as a guest. Anyone remember touring the cockpit of an aircraft while in flight? I did this during a long-haul trip aboard a 747 from Miami to Cape Town, at the time one of the longest nonstop air routes in the world. These air travel memories are, like the golden age of rail travel, now gone with the wind.

A view of Athens, Greece with Lycabettus hill in the distance

Arriving in Germany for my connecting flight to Atlanta, things got interesting. Here in the Frankfurt airport, I was faced with German efficiency. Even though my carry-on bag had already been screened once in Athens, I became slightly anxious at another security check for hand luggage. My blue shoulder bag was flagged and pulled aside for a second screening, Then again a third time. “What could it be?” I kept wondering to myself. An officer then ruffled deeper into my duffle, pulling out something paper-wrapped and passing it back through the X-ray machine. I was still clueless, having forgotten about my souvenir knife from the island of Mykonos or wherever I had found it.

The small parcel passed through the screening for the umpteenth time, and with a eureka-like expression, the intense-looking official ripped off the wrapping, waved the brass point between my eyes and said “AHA!” In a frantic-like panic, I tried to explain that it was just a harmless letter opener, but to no avail. “You come with me,” was the deadpan response.

Crestfallen does not begin to describe my emotional state at that point. I had seen the movie Midnight Express, the story of a young American man sent to prison for a failed smuggling attempt, and scenes of his nightmarish experience began flashing through my head. Other passengers, including a work colleague I recognized from a project for NCR’s Europe Group, stared shaking their heads as I was led away, maybe never to be seen again.

Inside the airport waiting on a connecting flight

The security officer must have noticed the faces of the crowd, who were pondering my fate, because he glanced back to have a look, too. Noticing my facial expression, he more gently motioned his hand and began trying to reassure me, saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Still not convinced, I sluggishly dragged my feet behind him to the Lufthansa desk, where he explained my predicament in German. A sudden glimpse of hope – it seemed I might not be taken to the police after all! A kindly desk agent took out a document-sized padded envelope, wrapped up my souvenir knife and explained that it would be checked along with my regular luggage to be claimed in Atlanta. They weren’t even going to confiscate it!

My emotional relief at this outpouring of grace was beyond belief. Not only would I not have to go directly to jail, but also I would be getting my souvenir back without any penalty! I practically cried tears of joy, as they handed me a claim check for my little letter opener, the all but forgotten object which had so recently been the source of such curiosity, fascination and shock.

I passed through security a second time with no problems, walking on an imaginary cloud and across the border. I still have that little letter opener somewhere, a reminder of a time when I received an undeserved gift of grace.


Please click here for more tales from this series of border crossing adventures!

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