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The separation of person and passport

passportMy greatest fear, as a traveller, was realised last week. For years, I’ve broken out in a cold sweat when hotel receptionists ask me for my passport and tell me that I can pick it up in the morning. I always insist on waiting. It’s as if I’m joined to it by some invisible umbilical cord and live in dread of postpartum depression.

A few years ago, on the sleeper train from Cologne to Vienna, I had to surrender my precious baby overnight. Intellectually, I knew I was in Europe. I knew there was little trouble I could get into without it. It wasn’t as if I was going to be carted off in the middle of the night and dumped in a ditch, or sold as a white slave to some drooling turnip farmer with one tooth and a vivid imagination. I knew this and yet not having my passport kept me awake – all night.

Passportless in Las Palmas

Last week, somewhere between getting on the plane at Berlin airport and arriving at Hotel Verol in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, my passport disappeared. I recall showing it to the chap as I boarded the plane. But after that … nada.  When I was asked for my passport at check in, I reached for where it should have been to find it wasn’t there. A subsequent search of every pocket grew increasingly frantic each time I came up empty, and soon had me hyperventilating. Through a haze of tears I heard the male receptionist calmly telling me to breathe deeply. This was Wednesday. I was due to leave for Budapest on Sunday with a six-hour layover before heading to Malta bright and early Monday morning. And I had no passport.

My first call was to the unflappable Karin Bryce of Travel Unlimited who suggested I go back to the airport and check with the handling agent. My second call was to my brother in Dublin who knows a thing or two about immigration laws. His worst-case scenario was that he could claim me in Dublin on Sunday.  In the meantime, he directed me to Lost and Found.

Airline staff in control

But wait a minute! I was in the Schengen Zone. I didn’t need a passport. I hadn’t gone through any passport control. All I had to do was satisfy the airline that I was who I said I was. I just needed to get on the plane. But I had no passport. And I had no driver’s license. And I had no proof that I lived in Hungary. I’d helpfully left all other forms of ID at home … in case I lost them.

I’m not stupid. I knew it was simply a matter of getting some passport photos at the bus station kiosk, going to the Irish consulate in the morning, getting a temporary passport, and then applying for a new one, once back in Dublin later this month. A, B, C, D. Simple. Uncomplicated. Yet when I failed to unearth anything at the airport, I did what any self-respecting woman of my age, intellect, and general capability should never admit to doing – I went back to my hotel room and bawled, hysterically, for an hour.  Deep down, on some weird level, I felt as if my identity had been stolen, as if I had been kidnapped, as if I was no longer sure who I was because I couldn’t prove it to anyone. I was irrationally terrified and so completely alone.

Dependency on a piece of paper

How dependent we have become on pieces of paper, on little books with coloured covers in which we track our progress through the world. History is littered with accounts of letters of passage given by a ruler to an envoy asking for safe passage. Somewhere in Britain there’s a passport that was issued on 18 June 1641 signed by Charles I. But it wasn’t until World War I that passports were generally required for international travel.

I still recall when the old Irish hard-backed green passport was discontinued in favour of the soft-backed burgundy EU version. I remember feeling a little less Irish as a result of this convergence of colour and thinning of paper. I didn’t want to be a limp burgundy European; I wanted to be solid, green and Irish (mind you, I’m sure there are those who still think I’m both!).

Having unearthed a new fixation on passports, I can now state with some authority that the Nicaraguan passport has 89 security features and, according to The Guardian is one of the ‘least forgeable documents in the world’. Whereas the poor Israeli document is one of the most useless; it’s not accepted by 25 countries including Cuba and North Korea.

So back to me and my breakdown. The airline found my passport and called the hotel to let me know. Life was restored to near normal. Experiencing that gut-wrenching fear of being stateless on such a tiny, insignificant scale, has engendered in me a whole new empathy for refugees and those who don’t have passports to lose. It’s also taught me about vulnerability and shown me a whole new side of me.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 February 2013

Built for the sun

IMG_2427 (591x800)If ever a city was built for the sun, Las Palmas was. The locals will tell you that it only rains 10 days a year on the island of Gran Canaria and whether this is true or not is neither here nor there. Buildings which, to my mind, would be eyesores anywhere else, seem to blend in beautifully – or perhaps are made beautiful – because they reflect the sun. It’s a little like what I imagine a mirage to be – shaky images so real that you think they’re a design feature until you look across the road and see the real thing, alive and well, made of bricks and mortar. There’s no holding back with the colour palette, either.

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Images of the beautiful island of Burano near Venice and holiday cottages in the West of Ireland come to mind. In the former, the colour is quirky; in the latter, it’s plain gaudy. Yet here in Las Palmas, it seems so natural. It has to be the sun.

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I don’t have the jargon to talk sensibly about the architecture but I know enough to realise that the city planners have been on holiday for a long time. Old and new sit side by side and perfect harmony is noticeable by its absence. And yet even that isn’t as upsetting for me as it has been in other cities I’ve been to. Perhaps it’s the audacity of the colours – the statements the bright greens and yellows and purples make. Given that Las Palmas is just a mere 500 years old, it might well be still enjoying its teenage rebellion.

IMG_2527 (578x800)While everyone here seems to smoke and cigarettes are ridiculously priced at €1.20 a pack, I’ve not had a whiff of anything more toxic. Perhaps just as well, really. I can’t imagine being on LSD or some other mind-altering substance when, clean and sober, it takes me  a few minutes to decide if what I’m seeing is real or just a reflection of reality.  And it’s happened more than once or twice. It could well be the caffeine though, as I can’t resist a cafe con leche. Even the drabbest bus terminal’s coffee rates. [As a not so complete aside, the local name for a bus is a guagua – what a great word!]

IMG_2469 (600x800)There’s no shortage of greenery in this, Spain’s seventh-largest city. The most popular trees are laurel and palm and the green is picked up in a lot of building design. Skate parks abound and every flat open square is teeming with young and old on skate boards and roller blades trying to outdo each other or master that one set of steps they keep tripping on. I saw one chap (not all that much younger than I am) take three falls before he managed to leap a set of four steps and stay upright. Each to their own, I say. Whatever blings your blade. That and the myriad exercise machines lined up along the prom must deliver quite an active set of a locals and a fitter set of tourists than your average package resort. I even saw a chap reading the odometer on a city running machine last night. Either the city is doing a usage survey or Las Palmas has taken train spotting one step further.

It’s all about the emphasis

Isn’t it odd how, when for all your reasoning life, you’ve heard a word pronounced in one way, and then you hear it, from a native-speaker, pronounced another? And it sounds better? Since I first visited the Canary Islands back in the mid-1980s, they’ve been the Canary Islands – CaNARY. And yet today, all day, I’ve been hearing CANary.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria harbour

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria harbour

I’m on Gran Canaria for a few days because a man in the know suggested that it would be good for me to be here at 8.39pm on 2 February. We will see. [It’s a little like a stop-over to something great – just like when the sailors of old would stop here before crossing the Atlantic, a tradition first started over 500 years ago when Christopher Columbus himself inaugurated it.] I say that lest you think it was my holiday destination of choice. It wasn’t and would never feature on my list of top 20 places to go.

Playa de las Canteras

Playa de las Canteras

My first ever sun holiday to Playa del Ingés (another town on the island of Gran Canaria) lasted two weeks; the novelty of being away from home  and in the sun wore off on Day 6 when boredom set in. It was my last sun holiday, too. It’s not the sun I object to (although I’m not a huge fan); it’s the packaging. The whole package tour thing. This time, like last time, the same chap has appeared in my vicinty for dinner two nights in a row. Last time can be explained. This time, it’s a little irritating. If I see him again tomorrow night, I’ll really begin to wonder. But it’s an island so this might be expected – but so odd that we’re on the same culinary cycle, don’t you think?

Sardines by the sea

Sardines by the sea

I’m staying in Las Palmas, in the north-east corner of the island and it’s buzzing. Or it was, last night, when Las Palmas played Roma. Tapas is the food of choice and obviously they know what they’re doing. I need to stop trying to order in Hungarian though as it’s confusing the locals. Should the man in the know not be so knowing after all, at least the food is worth the trip!

View from the dinner table

View from the dinner table

For all its nasty packaging, it’s a great place for self-affirmation. To see women with cellulitic thighs braving the streets in shorter-than-short shorts has me thinking ‘Way to go, sister’. But I draw the line at middle-aged men in thong speedos. That’s the stuff nightmares are made of. At least, tomorrow, when I hit the beach, I’ll be lost amidst the hundreds of others soaking up the 25 degree sun. It promises to be an experience in personal space.