Lost passports

The first time I forgot my passport was more of a failure to think through. After years of intercontinental trips, a day trip to Denmark didn’t feel like travelling. I just grabbed my briefcase and headed off to the airport. Only as I was leaving the train station and walking into the terminal did I realise my oversight. Now what? I didn’t have time to go home again and get it so I decided to just see what could be done.

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I should say right here and now, that I have never intentionally or fraudulently travelled without a passport. I don’t think it’s a clever thing to do or in any way suggest you give it a go. In any case it is probably harder with each passing month of increasing security measures. I share these incidents more in the spirit of resilience in the face of adversity, flexibility of bureaucrats, and not giving up.

In fact I had experienced some previous problems with official documentation. Like not realising that my Ethiopian visa was single entry when I left for a few days in Uganda and then tried to come back. That took a lot of persuasion and patience to resolve. Maybe would have been easier with some incentivisation but I don’t like to go there. Flying out of Colombia with my first child, then 8 months old, was difficult. The system required a notarised form signed by the father. Her father was somewhere in the Congo, definitely not available to stand in a queue at the notary’s office in Bogota and produce fingerprints. Generally I pride myself on my honesty but on this occasion pragmatism took over. I had to catch that flight. They asked for the document I didn’t have and I surprised myself by bursting into tears and explaining that the father had died just a few weeks ago and I was going to visit my family for solace. Alarmed by the tears, latino in their love of a bit of drama, they hastened me through.

Obviously this technique was unlikely to work on British customs officers though. I had thought I could use any photographic ID but had forgotten that Denmark was not part of the European Union. In the end they decided I could go since it was just for the day and gave me a paper to show the Danish officials. It probably helped that I was met at the airport by a director of one of their biggest firms and he was prepared to vouch for me and promise to return me the same day. So that was 3 out of 4 passport showing moments dealt with. The trickiest bit was returning back to the UK where my proffered library card caused much scoffing and was flung back at me. “So what shall I do?” I asked politely. Only now wondering what the options might be for someone in my position. “Go away,” he snapped “Get out of my sight and don’t ever try and do this again.” I didn’t need to be asked twice as I walked through with relief.

There have, to my chagrin, been several other passport failures, but let me just mention one more. Driving back to England from France I didn’t realise until we approached passport control that I had left my precious document on the counter at the money exchange bureau in Paris. We were in a queue with cars right behind us. There was no way out.

“Passport” requested the official.

“Er well. This is going to sound ridiculous. But I’ve just realised ..” I gave him my weak explanation.

He arched an eyebrow. “I see. Children’s passports?”

“They’re both on my passport”

“Uh huh.”

“And who are these two?” he asked waving at the two Colombian women in the back of the car – my au pair and the daughter of a friend of a friend who was staying with me for a while. They did have passports which was something, but both with visas that depended on me as sponsor.

The customs official invited me to get out of the car and go into the office so he could explain the situation to his colleague. “So basically we have this woman, two children she says are hers and two Colombians she is vouching for. And no passports”

His colleague roared with laughter. “Brilliant.” he said peering at me with amusement, “You’re no hardened criminal are you? I don’t think anybody trying to do anything illegal could be quite so incompetent”. I bit my tongue, tempting as it was to defend myself against the accusation and instead just smiling in what I hoped was a winning but not over confident way.

He looked at me in mock sternness. “It’s late, you’d better get those kids home and into bed.”

Now I reflect on these situations it occurs to me that they say a great deal for the humanity and perception of the officials involved. They have extremely serious jobs. Lives depend on the judgement calls they make. And they spend all day having to treat people with suspicion, on the alert for possible problems. It is to their great credit that in each of these situations they could distinguish between a potential security threat and merely deficient admin, and have the largesse to act on it. Gentlemen I thank you one and all, and wish you well.

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