I didn't go to Spain looking to purchase a weapon, but when I arrived at the city of Toledo, I discovered that it is world famous for its production of medieval armaments. Toledo is like an NRA convention for fans of European history. So after I had gotten my fill of El Greco paintings, I stepped into one of the many sword shops that lined the city’s narrow streets.
The store glistened with aisles of fencing foils and baroque rapiers. Although I was intrigued by the harquebus —basically a pistol-sized musket — the item I really wanted to take home was a dagger. Which is to say, the daggers on display were small enough that could I imagine packing one in my suitcase.
I chose a model with a lacquered wooden sheath and the emblem of a lion engraved on the cross guard. I brought the dagger to the register and the shopkeeper removed the mahogany cover to inspect the merchandise. The exposed blade was sharp enough to slice your belly open like a velociraptor set loose in Jurassic Park.
“Is that a sword in there?” he said. Under other circumstances I might have just told him the whole story.
Within minutes, I was walking down the sloping streets of Toledo, heading for the train station with a weapon concealed in my duffel bag. It is difficult to describe the expression on the security guard’s face when I ran my backpack through the x-ray machine on the platform. He squinted at me as though I were some incorrigible child who should have known better. An American tourist, in other words. I unzipped my bag and he glowered at the drawing of the 17-inch dagger on the cover of the gift box. For a moment the guard seemed to be debating with himself whether he should have me dragged away by a Spanish SWAT team. But in the end, he relented and waved me onto the train to Madrid, where I would catch my flight home the next day. I figured that as soon as I checked my bag at the airport, the worst of my weapon transportation troubles would be behind me.
The flight to New York was eight hours of hell. A group of high school students had completed a summer course to learn Spanish abroad and they were returning home with a chaperone who had clearly given up on everything except drinking wine from tiny plastic bottles. In fact, after take off, the kids got so rowdy, rushing back and forth across the plane and gathering in the aisles, that the captain finally put on the fasten-your-seatbelt sign for the remainder of the flight. For eight hours, no one was allowed to get out of their seat, even to use the toilet. Holding in my irritation was the least of my problems.
When we finally landed, I endured an hour on the passport line before picking up my bag and lugging it towards customs. Because I'm a man who often travels solo, I'm used to mild interrogations from customs agents. They usually want to be sure I'm not some kind of drug smuggler. But the agent I was assigned to seemed to be mostly concerned about food products.
“Did you bring any wine with you?”
“Any fruits or farm products?”
“How about ham or sausage?”
For each question, I gave a curt “no” as my answer. I had learned over the years that it was easiest to act like a spy in a black-and-white movie. I offered one deadpan response after the next until the customs agent gave me a doubtful shrug.
“Okay,” he finally said. “But I'm afraid we're going to have to x-ray your bag.”
As we walked towards the scanning site, the agent continued to inquire about Spanish pork products. He didn’t seem to believe that anyone could resist sneaking home a few links of Spanish sausage. The customs agent smiled at my deadpan denials but when my bag finally went through the x-ray machine, his expression changed. It was not at all like the expression of the security guard in Toledo. Instead of flashing anger or contempt, the agent stared at me with utter astonishment. It was as though I had just offered him a pound of farm-fresh ham as a bribe.
“Is that a sword in there?” he said.
Under other circumstances I might have just told him the whole story with a sheepish grin. But I had just endured eight hours in a riotous flight cabin, sitting with my teeth clenched and my legs crossed. I was in no mood for any further delays.
“It's a souvenir,” I told him.
The agent looked at me as though I had just denied the superior flavor of chicharrón or pringá.
“But does it have a metal blade?” he asked.
“It's a souvenir,” I repeated.
The agent scratched his ear as he considered my response. Until that moment it hadn't occurred to me to inquire whether it was actually legal to bring an archaic weapon home from a foreign country. I had not yet read the bulletin from the US Department of Homeland Security on the import of swords from abroad. And, yes, there is actually a webpage containing this pertinent information. Apparently firearms and switchblades are out, but swords are permitted. If, instead of a dagger, I had been seduced by one of those pistol-sized muskets then this encounter might have not gone well.
“Okay,” the agent finally said. “You can go.”
As I moved towards the exit, I did not dare to gaze over my shoulder until I had slipped through the metal door leading to the airport lobby. Then I was in the clear, walking through the jet-lagged crowd towards the taxi queue. Soon, I would be back at my apartment, where my prized purchase would finally be free of suspicious glances from uniformed officials. It would hang on a wall in all its faux medieval glory: a glimmering blade that could slice through all the packages of ham and sausage ever imported from the Iberian Peninsula, legally or not.