Passing between the raindrops – part 2

So there I was at the Sofia airport with two enormous suitcases, a carry-on backpack mostly filled with cat-related things, my cat, her EU pet passport, and definitely no additional documentation. Here is what happened throughout the rest of the day.

Airport and flight experiences:

Sofia – I went to the Lufthansa counter to check in. I knew that if anyone in the airport was going to check my paperwork, it was most likely to be here, so I tried to brace myself without appearing as nervous as I felt. The woman looked up my reservation and then asked, “You have an animal with you?” I confirmed that I did, and that it was a cat. She had me put the carrier on the scale to make sure it was under 8 kg (it was 4.9), but did not measure the dimensions or even really look inside the carrier at all. Then we dealt with my extra and overweight baggage, and she explained that I had to go to the ticket counter to pay for the bags and the pet reservation, then come back to her to get the baggage tags. I went to the ticket counter, paid, returned to check-in and got my luggage tags. This woman also explained that she made sure to give me an aisle seat on the longer flight, implying that it would be easier on the aisle with the cat, and I thanked her.

I don’t think the guy at passport check before security even realized I was carrying a cat.

I got up to security and saw, surprisingly, a man who also had a cat at one of the queues. I watched as he talked a little with one of the security attendants, then reached inside the carrier to unclip the cat’s harness, lift it out (it was a fluffy black cat), and carry it through the metal detectors, where the two hand-searchers on the other side cooed at it a little bit, and then the man put it back in the carrier.

I decided I was going into that security line. When I got to the x-ray belt, the first man said over his shoulder, “Още една” (“another one (cat)”). There was a young blonde woman in the next security line station (which was empty) who was apparently really interested in all these proceedings. The man asked me to take the cat out, and then had to help me by pulling the carrier backwards because my cat was too scared and didn’t want to leave the safety of the carrier that she had been loudly cursing and trying to escape from an hour previously. I told the man that she was scared, and he translated this for the fascinated blonde. He did not ask me to unclip the harness. I walked through the metal detector with the cat and it beeped. Instantly I worried that it was because of the metal fastenings of the harness and that they’d make me take it off her. The two hand searchers, who had clearly already been watching me and discussing the cuteness factor of my cat, conferred briefly, and then one asked me, “Does the cat have a cage?” (Because obviously you would travel on a plane with a cat without a container of some kind.) I explained that the carrier was on the x-ray belt, and he translated this for his female colleague. They conferred quickly again. Then he asked me to put the cat back in the carrier once it cleared the x-ray machine and to go back through the metal detector without my shoes.

I had been really worried that my cat was going to squirm and try to escape, since she is a little jumpy normally, and the wait for the carrier to clear the x-ray machine felt endless, but she was still so terrified that she basically did not move in my hands. I loaded her back in the carrier, went back around and put my shoes on the belt and walked through the metal detector, and this time there was no beep. The female hand searcher smiled, thanked me, and gestured at my waiting carry-ons with a “Заповядайте.” All in all, it was probably one of the friendliest security experiences I have ever had in Bulgaria. It also is one of the few times I have gone through security at the Sofia airport and not been felt up for a hand search even when I didn’t set the metal detector off the first time.

The passport control woman was too busy hating her life trying to parse my crazy Bulgaria visit situation to even notice the cat (also they can’t really see any of your luggage out of their little booth windows). Side note: all of my colleagues were in this weird situation where our Bulgaria residency expired in May or June and we had to give up our Bulgarian ID cards, but we supposedly were allowed to remain in the country as tourists for up to 90 days. Needless to say, this has really confused and occasionally antagonized all border control personnel, who see our original Bulgarian visa sticker in our passports and all want to know if we have residency cards. This woman was not rude or anything (she didn’t even talk to me other than asking if I had an ID card), but the expression on her face as she clicked through various computer records clearly showed that she totally regretted calling me up to her empty window, since she was technically in the EU Citizens lane and I had been waiting diligently in the adjacent All Passports lane for the guy who would at least anticipate possible difficulties because he drew the short straw that morning or however they decide who has to do All Passports and who gets the cushy job that day. Anyway, eventually I heard the glorious sound of the passport stamp, and I was on my way.

None of the gate personnel or the flight crew acknowledged the cat at all. I knew they knew because it’s on the flight records, but none of them looked at the cat or said anything about it. (The French children on my flight, however, were totally charmed.) Sitting at the gate, I finally allowed myself the thought that I’d had when reading the Embassy website, which states that you must turn in a copy of the health certificate at “Veterinary Control” at the airport. I don’t even know where that would be. I’ve been in the Sofia airport a lot, and never have I seen any place for “Veterinary Control” anywhere except possibly in one of the side rooms from the baggage claim area (which would make sense, for customs).

They do technically have separate passport control lanes for “nothing to declare” and “items to declare,” but the “items to declare” side is never staffed by anyone. So I don’t quite want to say that the Embassy website is a load of manure, since I’m sure it is the technical, legal requirement (as my vet friend had so kindly spelled out to me in lengthy, explicit terms the day before), but I have absolutely no idea where the supposed facilities are, or even if they exist.

In-flight, Sofia to Munich – I had a windowseat, but the middle seat was empty. I have no idea if this was intentional, but the plane was almost full, so I like to think that it was. I kind of had an emotional meltdown on the plane as we flew over my apartment, Levski Stadium, Nevski Cathedral, the Sheraton hotel, the central stations (all of which you can see very clearly from the plane) and probably due to the release of some of my cat-related anxiety (which had also prevented me from really processing the whole, “leaving my home of the last three years” bit), but as the woman on the aisle seat in my row was either crazy, drunk, or senile, she didn’t really seem to register the fact that I was wiping my eyes and sniffling for about ten minutes at the beginning of the flight.

Munich – Perhaps the weirdest part of my entire trip was the fact that I did not have to pass through additional security at Munich before getting on my U.S.-bound connecting flight. I cannot remember another time when this was the case; they even announced on my Sofia flight that any passengers who were connecting to the U.S. should report immediately to their gates because the security procedures can take a long time. But no, I just walked basically the entire length of Terminal H (no small feat when you’re trying not to overly jostle a very traumatized cat, and there are not many automated sidewalks) and reached another smaller security station where I did have to show my passport and boarding pass to gain access to the gate area, but once past the passport check I actually stopped because I was confused at why no one was actually in the process of going through security. There were two lines, one that had “Out of Order” signs taped to the x-ray machine, and the other one staffed by people who looked completely unconcerned about screening anyone for anything. Seeing my confusion, a uniformed man standing off to the side approached and asked if he could help, and when I showed him my boarding pass, he said, “Don’t worry, you’re in the right place,” and then directed me through the “Out of Order” security line to get to the gate. So I never had to take the cat out again and go through that process, although other people on my flight said that they had gone through additional security from their flights and that it took forever, as it generally does.

In-flight, Munich to Boston – I discovered that the Lufthansa check-in woman in Sofia had indeed given me an aisle seat, but one of those in the back where the rows are down to just 3 seats in the middle, not 4, and there’s almost no under-seat space on the aisle seats, whereas the middle seat has tons of under-seat storage space because of where the legs for the seats are. So basically, putting me there was well-meaning but totally impractical unless there was going to be nobody in the middle seat, which it looked for a while like there would be. But it turned out that the flight was actually full, it was just that it took ages for people to trickle on one or two at a time (apparently because they were all hung up getting through security for U.S.-bound flights inside the airport).

This was also why some kind of seat-changing negotiation started going on which I never did learn the originating cause for (i.e. a couple wanting to sit together, parents and kids needing to sit together, etc). I had put the cat under the middle seat storage, since it is pretty much twice the size of the normal storage area and since there was literally nowhere else to put her, and so I got briefly roped into the negotiations, with the flight attendant asking if it wasn’t then better for me to just sit in the middle since that’s where my cat was anyway, but I refused on the grounds that I had to be on the aisle to be able to maneuver the cat carrier as necessary, and had specifically been given an aisle seat upon check-in for this exact purpose. I felt like an asshole, but it ended up being absolutely the right decision, because I never would have been able to move the carrier at all during the flight if I’d been in the middle seat. Anyway, the flight attendant eventually found a nice woman who was willing to move. Other than that exchange, my experience with Munich flight attendants and gate staff was pretty similar to Sofia’s in that basically nobody acknowledged the cat at all.

I know some people and had read some stories about people taking pets into the airplane bathrooms to let them out of the carriers for a little while, but I left my cat in the whole time because she can be nervous/jumpy and I didn’t know if I could get her back IN the carrier, honestly. Based on her behavior, I don’t know if she would have wanted to come out, anyway. She was quiet throughout all of the flights overall (the last time she meowed even a little bit was in the Sofia airport), but she refused food and water, didn’t poop or pee, and was just kind of breathing quickly and nervously; her poor little nose was running from stress/anxiety. But she finally calmed down a bit on the long flight, possibly because she was used/resigned to it by then and because it was at least more constant for a long period of time, plus I could hold the carrier on my lap and keep my arm inside petting her, which I think helped; her heart rate slowed down and she seemed less panicky for the last part of the journey.

Boston – US customs…the last barrier. I had also relaxed a bit during that long flight (though had not slept at all) and hadn’t been quite as worried about Boston as the rest of it, partly because everything I read indicated that the U.S. has fewer requirements and is less strict than Europe and partly because I figured at worst they might quarantine the cat but at least I’d gotten her to the States and the quarantine would be in my hometown. I declared the cat on my customs form by checking “(b) Meats, animals, animal products,” which I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to do, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was hiding her. The passport guy asked what I was carrying that qualified under (b) and then said, “Oh, you have a kittycat…well, they’ll check the paperwork downstairs before you leave,” wrote a big red “A” on my form, and waved me on.

Suddenly stricken by a bit more anxiety (what I could muster in my exhausted state), I waited an age and a half for luggage (admittedly thinking, “on top of all of this – now my luggage is gone, too?!”), during which the drug-sniffing dog came by and was really interested in the cat carrier until his officer gently pulled him away. I finally got my bags and headed to the exit line where you turn in your customs form. They sent me to the Agriculture section because of the red A on my form. Even though I hadn’t been as concerned about Boston before, even in a worst case scenario, it was suddenly starting to seem really cruel to get so close to the goal and then have the absolute last person I saw at any of three international airports be the one who foiled me.

The guy at Agriculture asked me where I was coming from and why, and then if I had any food items in my luggage. I started to explain that I only checked that box because of the cat and he said, “I know you have a cat, that’s fine. But do you have any food products like meat, sausage, in your bags?” in a tone of voice that indicated he might as well have literally said, “I could care less about your cat.” I said no, and he said, “OK, we’ll just have you put your bags through the scanner one more time and that’ll be it.” So I just loaded my checked baggage onto the x-ray belt (I was going to put my backpack also, but the guy stopped me and said I didn’t have to), then picked it up on the other side, and I was on my way. He never even looked at the cat, much less examined it to see that it was in good health, which is pretty much the only USDA requirement.

And that was it. We passed between the raindrops. I could count on one hand the number of staff during 17 hours of transit who looked at my cat at all, and three of them were the security personnel at Sofia airport. No one ever asked for any documentation. I never even took the pet passport out of my backpack. So in the end, my experience was pretty much the same as all of my colleagues’ experiences bringing their cats from Bulgaria to the U.S., which is to say, somewhat shockingly easy. I should warn any anxious pet owners who might read this that the requirements are really different for dogs and for different countries, and again, if I had to do it all over again, I would still have gone and gotten the stupid meaningless certification from the national clinic to avoid all of my stress, but I’m just glad that it all worked out.

Now if I could only get my cat, 36 hours later, to pee or poop, all my problems would be solved.

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