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Most memorable couture seasons? Perhaps Spring 2000, when Dior’s John Galliano shocked with his infamous ode to the homeless while Karl Lagerfeld showed Chanel at the Bois de Boulogne, just after its lushness had been ravaged by winter storms? Spring 2002, the season of Yves Saint Laurent’s peculiar finale? Or fall 2007, when Valentino staged his two-day 45th anniversary in Rome?
They’ve all slipped a notch on my list. My new most memorable couture season: spring 2014, when I experienced a new venue — lockup — while in the custody of French Immigration Police.
The season began as any other: Five minutes late for pickup. My editor already in the car. JFK. Board the plane. Call to my daughter. Reading. Catch-up TV. Sleep. Morning and a slightly late arrival, but no matter — our first appointment wasn’t until 4:30, and we’d avoided turbulence. At least in the air.
We walked into a happily empty French Customs hall. The Customs officer looked at my passport, turned the pages back and forth, looked up at me. Looked down. Turned page. Looked up. Lather, rinse, repeat. A faint bell of oh, no. Before the last rtw, I’d heard casually that France disallows passports less than three months from expiring. Mine expires on Feb. 20. My former assistant, the recently promoted Lauren McCarthy, reminded me several times to renew. I yessed her, and then promptly forgot. Until now.
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The officer left his half-glass booth, passport in hand. He disappeared behind a door that opened onto a world foreign to me: the wrong side of law enforcement. Foreign, that is, until that morning of Jan. 19, when I was escorted in.
Beyond the door, an elevated desk manned by at least two armed officers at a time anchored a drab civil service office. Uniformed types with “POLICE” on their backs and guns on their hips came and went, often stopping to kiss-kiss or shake hands in greeting and engage in small talk. This as an international array of miscreants crowded a bench, a single chair and cramped floor space. The exasperated countenance of a woman in African garb telegraphed she’d been there a while. A man with an accent I couldn’t place started telling me he’d been detained because of a DUI in the U.S. 20 years ago, his voice thick with surprise and disgust. Sorry to hear that, sir, but I’d like to mind my own business in front of the officers. Still in possession of my handbag, wheeled carry-on and phone (its battery on the wane), I called my editor Ed Nardoza, already downstairs at the baggage carousel. The reception terrible, we started texting.
“For how long?”
“What’s going on?”
The passing time made me hopeful; surely this was being worked out. After 45 minutes or so, an attractive female officer emerged to explain that, my passport unacceptable, I had two choices: leave the country immediately or spend a night at the Police Hotel and try to procure a new passport tomorrow. At first civil, she flipped on the passive-aggressive switch when I asked a question. My first reaction: leave. I wasn’t feeling for the Police Hotel, and the next flight would have me home for the AFC Championship Game. But I was here to work.
“I should speak with my boss first. He’s downstairs. Can I call him to discuss?”
“No! We’re busy here.”
“May I use the restroom?”
“No! We’ve got to work here!”
She disappeared down the corridor and that was that. For another hour or so, I continued texting Ed, who wanted me to stay and try to sort things out in the name of couture. I convinced myself that maybe tomorrow I could get a same-day passport at the American Consulate. Still, I favored immediate exit.
Time passed. Forty-five minutes? An hour? I was directed to a small, innocuous room where two officers, a man and a woman, sat at desks. Their English was fine, but they worked with an interpreter anyway. I was told I was booked on a flight home on the 21st — two days away. “What about the option to leave immediately?” One officer pointed out that I’d said I wanted to stay. No, I’d asked for five minutes to speak with my boss, and now it seemed that the decision had been made for me. I inquired about the likelihood of getting a passport in a day.
“You’re an American. You’re not from a dangerous country. So you can try.”
“What are the odds?”
“Don’t know. You can try. But you just can’t go anywhere. You have to stay at the Police Hotel.”
“But I can’t get a passport without going to the Consulate.”
“You’re not from a dangerous country, so maybe.”
“And by the way, what’s the clientele like at the Police Hotel? I’m used to the George V.”
A piece of paper was put in front of me to sign, saying that I had agreed to leave on the 21st — which I hadn’t. Among the points covered in haste: I was entitled to medical care and a lawyer. There was no mention of the methodology of reaching the outside world once my cell phone died. I was told I could keep the phone and my laptop at the hotel. (Apparently inaccurate.) Once again, the “not from a dangerous country” refrain, and word that if I couldn’t get a passport, I could leave tomorrow, despite the flight already booked for the day after. I hesitated, but rather than irritate the officers by questioning further, trying to decode some of the written details (oh, my shameful lack of French!) or insisting on a translated version, I caved to the unsubtle pressure and signed.
It never occurred to me to ask for a lawyer. This passport snafu was a mistake — my mistake — but an obvious mistake by someone who’s visited France four times a year for 15 years. They know I’m not dangerous. They know it’s a mistake.
The next several hours turned into my own little “Midnight Express,” only the issue wasn’t hashish in Turkey but an inadequate U.S. passport in France. I waited and waited, at first in that oddly populated outer room. At one point a tall redheaded man working a low-key arty look came in. “I can’t begin to explain what’s happening to me,” he said into his phone in American English. “I think you and I are in the same club,” I told him when he hung up. The man, decorator Douglas Little, had come to Paris for a client installation; his passport was two days short of the three-month minimum. Where the various other detainees all fell on the security scale, who knew?
With nothing to do but think, I wondered what marks someone as a potential security threat, and the distinctions, official or otherwise, made between “safe” and “dangerous” countries. Is merely hailing from one of the latter cause for lesser treatment? Though I obviously didn’t sit in on anyone else’s questioning, I wasn’t witnessing gradations of treatment. We were all treated equally, if unpleasantly so.
In the moment, a more visceral human rights issue prevailed. After my initial request, over the next three hours I would ask three more times to use the restroom. Each time, I was refused because, “we have to work.” The last time came after two female officers took me into another back room where they donned plastic gloves. For a horrific second, I saw a cavity search in my immediate future. Instead, the officers went through my handbag and carry-on. They opened my makeup case, inspecting each item more than once, particularly fascinated by a brow compact the size of a half-dollar. They pulled out my travel blanket and new Prada bag, tossing them on the floor. They unzipped the lining of the suitcase, attacking its innards. They demanded an explanation of my Aetna card. They counted out my U.S. cash to the penny (less than $20), but missed the envelope with 1,000 euros until I pointed it out upon realizing that this was a pre-confiscation count. The blonde officer lingered over a “Downton Abbey” DVD, pointing to her favorite characters on its cover. I was told I could keep my phone but not my laptop.
Back to the bathroom: Privilege denied — no, make that usage denied; voiding is a bodily function, not a privilege. The “Downton” fan said, breezily, “Not now; maybe later.” For the first time, annoyance (and abdominal discomfort) trumped fear. “I have been asking to use the bathroom for three hours; I’ve had to go for longer. If you don’t let me go, I’m going to have an accident.” “OK,” she shrugged, and walked me no more than 10 steps. “It’s there.” By 11:30 a.m. the bathroom was already disgusting, a lock-less cubicle with no toilet paper and the festering smell of urine. The convenient location drove home that there’s only one reason to deny someone bathroom access: because you can, and the only reason to do that is to dehumanize her or him. Appalling, particularly as it seemed a systemic policy rather than the call of a single cop with a shoulder chip. (Later in the day, a guard proved more amenable to bathroom requests. The toilet paper was never replaced, and the smell became revolting.)