The Officer I Cannot Forget

After a celebratory trip to Paris, a suitcase overflowing with books, and two-hour delay at the airport leads her to a kind immigration office and three unforgettable words.

by Cecilia Valentino • Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

Arriving at O’Hare Airport, upon returning from a one-month visit to Paris, I was anxious and happy at the same time, safely home after a 15-hour day. The experience at the airport after the flight lands is a waiting game: waiting in line for the first immigration checkpoint; waiting for your luggage to magically appear on the Carousel, which was a two-hour wait for me. Waiting causes your imagination to work overtime. What if the luggage gets lost; worse yet, what if it explodes because of everything I have stuffed into it, and all this stuff is exposed for the world to see. I failed to strap a belt around mine like I’d seen on other luggage coming around.

While waiting, I started conversations with others who were having the same thoughts as I. One by one, the crowd of waiting passengers dwindled, and I was one of the last still waiting for luggage. Finally, it appears, all in one piece, no explosion. This is it. The trip is over. Just one more customs desk to pass.

I walked to the desk, pushing the cart piled with four pieces of heavy luggage. One is filled with books that I purchased in Paris and can’t wait to devour. Buying books on trips is a trait I share with the late TV announcer Peter Jennings. “Just can’t resist” I heard him tell Charlie Rose in an interview. And, of course, I, too, couldn’t resist buying books in Paris because there’s a bookshop on every block as well as along the Seine. Paris is for bibliomanics. And the best books in the world are found in Paris. Shakespeare and Company is one shop where I found books on Coco Channel, Hemingway, Somerset Maughn; no way I could walk away from them. 

For me, books are art. I always say I need a 12-step program for books. You mention a book, and I'm out of your sight running off to buy "a double." One for me; one for a friend. Thanks to Peter Jennings I am vindicated for this indulgence.

But because of the overload, the cart went in the opposite direction of the desk. Feeling awkward, I maneuvered it back to the desk, smiled impishly, and handed my passport and declaration slip to the immigration officer.

He stamped my passport, handed it back to me smiling, looked into my eyes and softly spoke three of the sweetest words I’d heard in 30 days. During that time, my French was limited to: Bonjour Madame, Au revoir Madame, Merci Madame, Enchante.

When hearing his words, something came over me. Suddenly, I felt like a little girl again, which was strange since I had just celebrated my 65th birthday in Paris. When the immigration officer spoke the words, it was as if a caring father was speaking gently to his child. It reminded me of my Dad when he would take care of me, and I knew everything would be ok. I smiled back and thanked him. His words touched me deeply. I walked away with a feeling of vigor, thinking: “I’m home and all is well.”

When I called the limousine service, the dispatcher said: “I have a white-stretch limo waiting for you. Car #50. Gate 12.” I walked out the door, and there it was waiting for me. The driver took my over-stuffed luggage, placed it in the trunk, and opened the door for me to get in as if I were a celebrity. What a good feeling.

I didn’t realize the impact the immigration officer’s words had on me until the next morning. While driving, I thought of how quickly a month passed and the wonderful trip I experienced. Then the scene of the airport surfaced in my mind. Three simple words and the demeanor of the immigration officer had touched me deeply. I started to sob, repeating the words out loud: “Wecome home, Cecilia. Welcome home, Cecilia.” 

As the memory surfaced, I could see the face of the immigration officer and his smile. The words he spoke told me something about the man too. He didn’t just look at my passport; the photo was not one that would make People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. He looked at my full name. Why didn’t he say my last name, Valentino, which usually prompts remarks? Instead his greeting was more personal. He called me by my first name, Cecilia.

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