The oily reason I’m worried about flying

I’m planning an overseas flight with my kids this summer, and I have a bad feeling.

Not because of COVID (though that promises now to, forever, be a problem), not because of tensions between Turkey and Greece (though that could get ugly fast) and not because I’ve seen post after post warning that travel this year will be hellacious.

It’s because of the oil.

The story starts in the 1980s, when my mother and my two brothers and I were preparing to return home from visiting family in Greece. My father, who loves olive oil from his village more than he loves life itself, couldn’t go with us. As a consolation, he’d asked his mother, my grandmother, to send some oil back with us.

My grandmother handed over to my mom an obscene amount of olive oil, sealed in huge metal containers, and mysteriously, my mom agreed to take it on two planes, over an ocean, while also traveling with her children, one as young as 4.

When we got to JFK Airport, we were late for our connecting flight to New Orleans. We ran through the halls as fast as a woman and three children laden with four full tins of olive oil can manage. My youngest brother was too small to carry one, so my brother and I hauled one apiece and my mom had two, in addition to the luggage.

I remember the look on my mother’s face then, and even as a child, it transmitted to me so clearly the contents of her mind: This is hell.

We arrived the X-ray machine out of breath but full of relief. There was no line. We put the four tins of olive oil, clink, clink, clink, clink, on the conveyor belt and stepped to the side.

Now, airport security wasn’t then what it is now, but even 35 years ago, people who worked the X-ray machines knew they should probably give at least a cursory inspection to giant metal containers holding unknown substances.

“What’s in here?” one of the guys asked with suspicion.

“Keep it,” my mother ordered in response, with the wild look in her eyes of a woman dragging three children through a New York airport with a connecting flight home at risk.

The airport security attendants must have realized that either my mother was a. the worst drug mule in the history of the international narcotics trade, or b. perhaps not trying to smuggle illicit substances by threatening to leave them with federal employees.

They waved us through.

I remember, then, feeling joy.

We won’t have to sleep here, I thought, gleefully, and my dad will get his village olive oil.

The next night, when my dad sat down to dinner, he expectantly tasted the oil we’d brought him from Greece.

He made a face, then he called his mother.

“What happened to the oil?” he asked.

On the other end of the line, I heard Greek Mother Griping, a patented voice Greek mothers use, one that sounds simultaneously plaintive and aggressive.

When my dad hung up, he told us the news.

“She mixed vegetable oil in with the olive oil.”

This was, perhaps, something both of my parents could have anticipated, since they knew very well my grandmother was the type of person who took great joy in combining foods that were tangentially related but still not, exactly, the same.

Gherkins and dill pickles are both pickles, aren’t they?

My mother, though, upon learning that her airport-related trauma had been in service of transporting over the Atlantic Ocean the same quality of cooking oil she could have gotten at the A&P, hit the roof.

Never again, she swore.

And I learned an important lesson: Avoid combining kids and airports at all costs.

At least, that is, until they’re old enough to carry their own olive oil.

To learn more about Georgia Garvey, visit GeorgiaGarvey.com.


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