A Raincoat in Tunisia

My foreign study experience as a college student was in 1985. I spent six months in Brussels, arriving in January.

Brussels in January—and February, and March—is a gray, damp, chilled place. By the time spring break arrived, in mid-March, I had acquired a female traveling companion and a powerful desire to find the sun and the sea. Amy and I pooled our francs and in the heyday of the Reagan dollar and half-price fares for students, we discovered to our amazement that we could afford a nine-day trip to Tunisia. North Africa! The Mediterranean! The beach!

The trip was wonderful, sandwiching weekends in Tunis around a week in the town of Hammamet, looking very much like a Paul Klee watercolor. When it was time to return to Brussels, we checked in with Sabena Airlines inside Tunis-Carthage Airport, cleared security, and awaited our flight at the assigned gate.

Not long after we arrived in the departure area, Amy drew my attention to a character who was very out of place, to say the least. A dark-haired woman in her late thirties stood out in several ways. First, unlike every other Caucasian who was leaving Tunis (and who had presumably been there for at least a few days), she showed no evidence of having been in the sun. Amy and I, along with our Belgian co-travelers, had spent every possible moment outdoors, soaking up the heat and light, hoping that we could somehow bring them back with us to warm the remainder of the Brussels winter. This passenger's skin was chalky white.

The second thing we noticed about this woman was her raincoat: a long, northern European-style trenchcoat, something you didn't generally wear in the North African sun. And to complete her look she wore over-sized sunglasses and a man's fedora, pulled down to her ears.

Amy said she had seen this woman ahead of us, checking in for our flight while we waited to check our own bags. I hadn't seen her. "She was hard to miss," Amy said. "Just look at her! And her suitcase was bright, bright red!"

We observed the woman for a few moments, after which Amy joked, "Maybe she's Baader-Meinhof." The Baader-Meinhoff Gang, also called the Red Army Faction or RAF, was Europe's most notorious terrorist organization in the 1970s. Among their notable acts was a high-profile hijacking that ended violently. Amy had spent the previous semester in Germany and the RAF was a frequent subject of her jokes and wisecracks.

As we laughed about this, two plain clothes security men appeared, rapidly approaching Ms. Baader and asking for her papers. She produced a West German passport from her raincoat pocket. The security agents examined it for a moment, then asked her to follow them. She did so, quietly leaving the gate area under the suspicious gaze of the other passengers.

Moments later we boarded, prepared to wing our way north to Belgium's relentlessly gray skies. We taxied a healthy distance from the gate, but then stopped in that limbo between the terminal and the runway. The whining of the engines faded away as the captain shut down the power. And we waited. We sat for at least ten minutes without knowing what we were waiting for. At last, the flight attendant made an announcement:

"As a security precaution, at this time all passengers must descend the steps to the ground and identify their own luggage to the baggage handlers. We will proceed ten rows at a time, beginning with the rear of the aircraft."

As our row prepared to descend, a very pretty flight attendant asked me to wait at the top of the air stairs until it was our turn. I asked her, in my student French, the reason for this exercise. I had an idea, of course, but I assumed she would give a perfunctory, official non-answer. Instead, with a gorgeous smile and shining eyes, she said, in French that even I could clearly understand:

"We have to be sure that there isn't a bomb on the plane!"

I smiled nervously along with her. Amy and I descended at last, walked beneath the plane's open cargo doors and identified our own suitcases. The plane's full complement of luggage had been removed from the belly of the aircraft and lined up on the pavement below the fuselage.

When every passenger had finished this process and re-boarded the jet, the stairs were removed, the doors sealed, and the cabin pressurized for take-off. It was at that moment, rolling slowly to our take-off, that Amy turned to me suddenly and gasped, "She never got on the plane!"

"What?" I asked.

"Baader-Meinhoff! Trenchcoat! They took her away for questioning and she never came back to the gate!"

It was true. Seated as we were near the rear of the aircraft, we had been among the last to board, entering via a door near the back. At no time had the pale, raincoated German woman reappeared.

I turned in my window seat and watched the terminal recede into the Tunisian afternoon. There below us, driving across the tarmac, away from the terminal and all the other planes, was a speeding forklift. And balanced on its front end was a lone, bright red suitcase, unclaimed by any of the passengers heading home to Europe.


Andy Shaindlin is a university administrator living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He blogs about education and technology at Alumni Futures.

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