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Open house with a difference

When I first hit the States, I was intrigued by the idea of open house. Where I come from, it means that anyone can drop by – for a party. In the States, it’s when anyone who is interested in buying your house can drop by. In Malta recently, I came across an open house of a different kind.

The city of Birgu, one of the famed Three Cities of Malta (Birgu, Isla, and Bormla – also known as Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua), hosts a festival of lights each year in October. Residents open their front doors and decorate their living rooms and hallways with candles as passersby stop to peek in and take photos. While it was all stunningly beautiful, I have to fess up to feeling a little like a peeping Thomasina. I couldn’t help but eye up the paintings and the valuables and wonder how many burglars were in the crowd casing these joints for a return visit. But hey, each to their own. They’re a trusting lot, the Maltese.

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All across the city, tens of thousands of lights hang from balconies, sit atop walls and step, illuminate windows and staircases. It’s quite amazing. Over the weekend, a mere €2 will get you entry into both the Maritime Museum and the Inquisitor’s Palace, each worth a wander (can you believe how many Inquisitors became popes?????) A big screen in one of the squares shows submissions for the Short Film Festival while stages around the city showcase local bands of all genres. A massive craft fair inside the city walls is a haven for shoppers with a backdrop of historical reenactments with old-time British redcoats firing their muskets and making sure that everyone stays awake. Various eateries, including one run by the local scouts, serve up rabbit and horse and pork and chicken along with local beer and wine. It’s a great night out – and one even worth travelling to Malta to see.

IMG_1350 (600x800)IMG_1318 (800x600)IMG_1327 (479x800)A fleet of water taxis are on hand, ferrying visitors across from Valetta and at €2 per person, it’s a ride to remember. Some of the mega yachts (including one supposedly owned by Bill Gates) make you wonder just how the other
half really live. Some day, Mary. Some day.

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The inquisitors

I’ve been a tourist long enough to know that it’s impossible to see it all first time, or even seventh time. I’ve been going to Malta pretty regularly since 2010 and I’m still finding places that I’ve not been to before. The Inquisitors Palace in the city of Birgu has been on my list for a while and this last trip, I finally got to visit.
What a mad bunch they were.

I’ve bandied about the phrase ‘What’s this, another Spanish Inquisition?’ without ever really knowing what it meant. Yes, I had a vague idea that it had to do with the Catholic Church and that it was far from a shining period in the Church’s history. But I’d never quite realised what it was all about and just how nasty it actually was and that it was only one of many. The Inquistion that hit Malta came centuries later, the Roman inquistions of 1542 and onwards.

IMG_1280 (600x800)The list of things you could be tried for included: abuse of the sacraments, possession of prohibited books, infringement of abstinence, bigamy, apostasy, magical activities and superstitious remedies, heretical opinion, false witness, profanation of the sacred, blasphemy and obstructing the Tribunal. In today’s parlance, the profanity that might escape after stubbing my toe, or the simple act of throwing some spilled salt over my shoulder, or daring to believe something against the norm would have been enough to have me in the docks. Madness.

IMG_1285 (800x600)Once a girl turned 9 and a half and a boy turned 10 and a half, they were subject to inquisition (interesting the difference there). While just about anyone could land them in the docks with an accusation, it took 72 witnesses to bring up a bishop.  Definitely a case of us and them. While the museum was at pains to point out that torture was seldom resorted to, the gear was all there. There’s a manual – a Guideline for Inquisitors – written back in the 1400s that theorises:

The torture is not an infallible method to obtain the truth; there are some men so pusillanimous that at the first twinge of pain they will confess crimes they never committed; others there are so valiant and robust that they bear the most cruel torments. Those who have once been placed upon the rack suffer it with great courage, because their limbs accommodate themselves to it with facility or resist with force; others with charms and spells render themselves insensible, and will die before they will confess anything.

I reckon that one is still being read in places today. I was quite surprised at the number of inquisitors who went on to become pope. Nay, I was shocked. The whole thing of instilling the fear of God in someone, another phrase I bandy about with impunity, has taken on a whole new meaning. Even the thought of being denounced was enough to drive sane men mad in those days. And once heresy crept into a town or village and the inquisitors arrived, the locals had 40 days to confess or suffer the consequences. How many convinced themselves of their own guilt and fessed up to nothing at all? To quote the great Bertrand Russell:

Fear is the basis of the whole – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand.

IMG_1261 (600x800)IMG_1241 (800x600)Given the beauty of the city, it’s hard to imagine that it was home to such terrible times. Birgu (aka Vittoriosa) is one of what are known in Malta as The Three Cities and to my mind it is far more impressive than the capital Valetta. And is even more impressive than the walled city of Mdina. If you’re ever in the vicinity, be sure to step outside the usual tourist route and pay it a visit. You won’t be disappointed.

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2015 Grateful 14

Someone asked me today if I ever tired of travelling. The hassle. The queues. The lost luggage. The never-quite-knowing-how-much-a-flight-will-cost until you press the final button. The packing. The unpacking. Did I  mention the hassle? And I said no. Never.

Travelling is something you like or you don’t. Very few people are ambivalent. For many, it’s a chore. Something they have to do for work. They rack up hotel nights with the same frequency as others make cups of tea. For others travel is a choice. Something they do once or twice a year. The annual summer holiday with months spent planning where to spend those two weeks. And perhaps a week around Christmas, visiting family at home or abroad, or skiing. More still mark anniversaries and birthdays and notable occasions with a city break to somewhere foreign. But for some, like me, travel is an innate part of being. I can no more imagine not travelling than I can imagine not sleeping.

Yes, I’m lucky in that I have a job that facilitates my trips. I can work anywhere I have an Internet connection. Unless I’m giving workshops. And recently, when asked for dates for workshops in October and November, I froze for a minute as I looked through my diary and realised that for two whole months I would have to be in Budapest at least two days a week. Which left with with a five-day travel window.

time off

It’s not that I have anywhere in particular I want to go. Rather that I want to be free to go should the opportunity arise. A Serbian friend mooted a week in Israel – but I don’t have week. Two weeks in Iran was also on the cards but I don’t have two weeks either. And for a while, my narrative voice kicked in and I was caught up in a mental castigation of not being able to say no. I could have just said I wasn’t free. But that wouldn’t be true. I could have declined to bid on the job but that, as a freelancer, would be tantamount to heresy. You take what work you can get (within reason) when you get it, because you never know when the next lot will come along.

Some time in the last few months, my attitude to travel has changed. I missed out on tickets for Pink Martini who are playing next week in Budapest. I’m kicking myself. I’d give the toenail on my big toe to go see them live. So what did I do? I checked other tour dates in Europe and when I found myself trying to work in overnight train trips to Munich at mad h0urs mid-week, I realised that I enjoy a luxury denied to many. I’m living smack, bang in the middle of Europe. Getting a train to another country is often quicker than a drive from London to Newcastle. Flying between capitals is relatively cheap – and while the environmentalist in me screams NO!, the twenty-first century me pays her carbon dues and plants trees to offset her airmiles and reasons that as her dad wouldn’t set foot in an airplane, she can use his allocation, too.

This week is a quick trip to Ireland for a book launch. Next week is a quick trip to Malta for a workshop. Florence is also peeping over the horizon, as is Venice. And the States are calling – again.

If I’m not thinking about travelling, something is definitely wrong in my world. I’m grateful indeed that I get to indulge this particular passion and that the world is big enough to keep me thinking (and travelling) for many years to come.

The backstory

What’s that flower? How old is that church? Are all those cows milking cows?
I don’t know, he answered. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I could drive a teetotaler to drink with my incessant questions. And a series of ‘I don’t knows’ disappoints me  – irrationally so, as it’s very often my standard reply when I’m asked about buildings in Budapest. So I told my Italian friend that day many years ago when we were half-way up Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps, I told him just to make up a story. Any story. I really didn’t care what he told me as long as he told me a story. I think he surprised himself with his creativity and I had a hard time deciphering truth from fiction.

I have a friend in Malta, SM, who is a walking repository for historical facts and trivia about the island and its people. There’s no limit to what he knows. He could, of course, be making it all up, but do I care? Not a bit. And I doubt it. There’s way too much sincerity there.

We’d been to see a play in Santa Venera one night a couple of weeks ago. An AmDram production that was so obviously enjoyed by those in the audience who had friends on stage but left me in need of some sustenance. Wandering through the late-night streets, we happened across a bakery that was still open to those who knew the knock. We went inside and while he was buying his bread, he gave me a tour of the types of breads and cakes on offer, along with their associated traditions.

20150206_231134_resizedOutside, looking skywards at the moon, I spotted one of many lovely old buildings that seem to be crying out for some TLC. I noticed the broken windowpanes. He noticed the empty flower pillars.

balcony 2Apparently, back in the day, when the daughter of the house was in search of a husband, she’d put flowers  on the ledges on either side of the window. This told the single men in town (and their mothers) that she was open to be wooed. Interested suitors would pass beneath the window and call to her, or perhaps sing. If she was interested, she’d appear and engage in conversation. If she wasn’t, she’d stay put, not showing herself, but no doubt sneaking a peak or three as she made up her mind.

balconyThis was in the days before online dating, before apps like Tinder that let you browse through catalogues of online photos saying yay or nay as the mood takes you. This was even before classified ads and personal columns. Before matchmakers. And what a lovely way it was, too. Romantic, if a little public. But what of the girl who posted the flowers only to find that no one stopped by? And worse, the whole town knew of it?

While I found myself mentally going through the checklist of necessities – I have a street-facing balcony, I have flowerpots, and I have hope – I could also hear a voice telling me to get with the twenty-first century. And not for the first time, I realised that I may well have been born into the wrong era.

 

 

2014 Grateful 37

As I child, I gave up chocolate each Lent. I’d hoard every bar I was given as a present until Easter Sunday when I’d gorge on the lot and make myself ill. My idea of sacrifice wasn’t to do without but rather to delay gratification.

Easter Sunday 2014 has come and is almost gone. I’ve a lot deadlines on right now so most of this holiday was spent in front of my computer. To a greater or lesser extent, it was a day like any other, yet I still expected it to be full of Easter bonnets, Easter eggs, and roast lamb dinner. But it wasn’t.

IMG_1646 (800x600)In fact, the only thing that made it different to any other day this week was that I went to Mass. And technically, as I go  to Mass every Sunday, that in and of itself didn’t do much to separate it from the other 50+ Sundays in the year. But today, two things stood out.

About half-way during Mass, a middle-aged woman a couple of seats in front of me stood up. The rest of the church was sitting, but she continued to stand, blocking the view of those sitting behind her. Her muttered mumblings to whom I assume was her daughter or daughter-in-law (given the husband and two kids she had in tow) led me to believe that (a) either the cushion on the seat was cold/wet or (b) the pew was too hard. In any event, stand she did. And stand out she did, too.

I was reminded of an encounter on a bus in Malta a few months ago. A woman with a young child got on the bus and sat towards the back. The child (about 3 or 4) was acting up so the mum told him that he should watch how quiet everyone else was being, and behave exactly the same. For some reason I had a horrendous vision of the Holocaust, one that confusingly flashed in front of me with a background narration of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. I’m still deliberating….

Studying this woman today though, she seemed perfectly at ease with standing up (and out); it was those around her who seemed disconcerted. It left me wondering about conformity and who benefits most.

IMG_1644 (600x800)IMG_1648 (600x800)The second involved the Crown of Thorns that I noticed at the base of the cross on the altar. I’d not seen it before, although the church has been decorating the altar in the same way for the all the years I’ve been going there. It struck a chord, perhaps because last night I watched one of many episodes in the first series of Prison Break, in which John imagines seeing the head of Jesus, crown and all, as He hung on the cross. The rust stains in his cell he sees as Christ’s Blood. He then goes out to kill another inmate, but instead, forgives him (having found the Lord), only to have yer man turn and kill him instead. Is there no justice in the world?

In some convoluted way, with some random word association and image processing going on in a chocolate-starved brain perhaps, I began to think about the crown of thorns that each of us wears. Some of us have little choice but to keep suffering, to keep wearing our Cancer or our MS or our Hunger, but I suspect that many more of us could simply take off our crowns of thorns off. We have a choice, one we choose too often to ignore.

After a week that was longer and more intense than usual, I’m grateful that today was the day it was, a quiet day with two clear messages. (1) Stand up for what I believe in no matter how uncomfortable it makes others feel. (2) Be conscious that almost everything in life involves a choice…and I can choose to say no.

Happy Easter to one and all. Hope someone is making up for my chocolate deficiency 🙂

 

 

il-banda

I still get occasional flashbacks to playing in the school band. I failed miserably with the accordion, had slightly better success with the melodica (mine was green and cream in colour), and finally settled on the recorder. To this day, anytime I hear Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy I’m back to marching around the GAA groundsmelodica in full uniform, playing my heart out. I can still remember the white shirt, the tartan kilt, the blue sash and the colourful broach. And for one tune in particular, all I remember are the notes:

Soh, lah, soh, fah, me, re, doh … it rattles around my head namelessly driving me slowly mad.

Malta has a great tradition of bands. As far back as the Middle Ages, playing music during feasts and processions was the norm, although back then, instruments were limited to drums and flutes. Even though band clubs existed in the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the influence of military bands and the musical influence of Italian refugees escaping from their civil war became evident. Groups of individuals got together to form small bands. The community stepped in to sponsor instruments for those willing to learn how to play them and the band’s raison d’etre was to take part in the village festas.

IMG_1420 (800x557)In 1947, there were about 60 bands in the country. Today there is closer to 100. Every parish has one and some have more than one. The club itself is a social centre, where members and parishioners alike meet regularly.

IMG_1425 (600x800)In Birgu, one of the Three Cities, there’s a Belgian-owned restaurant next to the Band Club that has a huge colour photo of the band on its wall. It was the first time I’d fully appreciated the effort that goes into these bands, the seriousness with which they’re taken, and the importance of their roles in the community. As I looked at the picture on the wall, the chef in the open-plan kitchen was busy making complimentary tapas for the band to accompany their beers once they’d finished their practice.

And as festa time approaches, they’re practicing in earnest. Already, in some churches, the massive statues are being taken out of their nooks and transferred to their pedestals as they wait patiently to be processioned through the streets on their feast day. And leading the parade will be  il-banda.

 

Making travel compulsory

I travel. A lot. And I love it. I like finding new places, seeing new things, meeting different people. And when I go back again and again to the same place, be it for work or pleasure, there’s an extra satisfaction in showing my special places to those who travel with me.

IMG_0365 (800x600)The Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa)  in Gozo is one of those places. If you take an early-morning ferry from Malta across to Mgarr, then you can get there before the hordes descend and make it  too busy for comfort. I managed this one month with one friend and failed miserably with another some time later. The difference was inconsolable. The place was packed. First-time visitors were parroting the usual reaction – how amazing, spectacular, the blue – oh my what a blue…  Old-timers were looking disgruntled at the number of people there. Me? I was so sorry that the experience wasn’t what it could have been.

IMG_0370 (800x592)But the inland sea was relatively deserted because the water was too choppy to take out the boats. I was glad of this, in a way. To be fully appreciated, it needs quiet. Last month, we took a small fishing boat and travelled through the rock wall to the outer sea. It was the first time in I don’t know how many visits that I’d felt the need to do this and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve long since learned the value of realising that I can always come back – there’s no need for me to pack everything in to the time I have available. No where is going anywhere (except perhaps for the Maldives and the like, should sea levels continue to rise).

IMG_0371 (800x600)IMG_0385 (600x800)There’s a particular type of coral that only grows here – it’s purple and as eye-catching as a coral can be. With one hand on the side of the boat and the other on my camera, the choice between being tossed overboard and capturing the essence of what I was seeing made me long fleetingly for the days when cameras needed plugs, bulbs, and tripods. Days when a choice wouldn’t be a problem as it wouldn’t have existed.

I was torn between enjoying what I was seeing and my compulsion to share what I’d seen. I was reminded of a Venetian writer whose name I can’t remember telling me to leave my camera at home and enjoy the moment. But what about those who will never get to Gozo, and boat through the wall, and get to the other side – shouldn’t they be able to come too?

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I’ve never been much of an artist. My rather dark wardrobe will testify to my lack of imagination when it comes to colour. Yet there was something quite surreal about this purple coral as it mediated between the gray walls and the blue sea. Had it been a colour spectrum, the purple would have been out of place. And yet there it was, in all its glory, mediating between two shades of similarity – a foot in both worlds. And it reminded me a little of me…

IMG_0407 (593x800)On the journey back inside, what looked like an impossibly narrow opening gradually opened up. Crossing this gradual revelation was like travelling through time, in slow motion. And although I’d seen the inland sea many times before, this was the first time I’d looked at it from a different direction. There was a lesson in perspective there… should I choose to learn it.

Malta is one of the few places I visit repeatedly  – and each time, there’s something new or something old seen in a new light. And more often than not, that new light comes from seeing it from someone else’s perspective, experiencing second-hand the pleasure they get from places I’ve shown them. What’s not to like about travel, I wonder? Were I queen for the day, I’d make it compulsory.

IMG_0413 (600x800)Travel to Malta with Air Malta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great citizen sell-off

Driving to my hotel from the airport in Malta last week, I fell into conversation with the taxi driver. He spoke English, the language of business in Malta. But like many others on the island, it was a second language for him, and a poor relation to his mother tongue, Maltese. I asked him what was new in the country, politically. Malta has a new Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, a man who shares the same birthday as my taxi driver’s daughter. Both have just turned 40. To have such a young PM bodes well for a country methinks – particularly in the aftermath of my recent visit to Italy which boasts a gerontocracy with an average age of 64 and, from what I saw and heard while I was there, is the bane of young progressives who have little room to make their mark.

BT 2014 06Muscat is apparently turning Malta on its head. Young. Energetic. Focused. According to my taxi driver, he’s come up with a brilliant new idea ‘to sell 1800 citizens’ and make in excess of €1 billion in the process, money that would then be invested in ensuring that there are no more poor in the country. A laudable ambition by any measure. I was highly amused on two counts: the idea of selling off citizens (as opposed to citizenship) and the idea that this was Muscat’s brainchild. In this taxi at least, he was getting full credit for the idea.

Austria and Cyprus already offer investor immigration programmes that offer immediate citizenship. Malta joins this group with a lower minimum investment requirement of €1.5 million (compared to €3 million and €2.5 million for Austria and Cyprus, respectively). Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Hungary all offer residence programmes that give access to Schengen countries with a minimum investment ranging from €250,000 to €500, 000 (Hungary is at €300 000). Ireland and the UK have similar programmes although both are outside the Schengen area. In the rest of the world, Singapore, Canada, and the USA have variations on the same theme. It seems that money can buy just about anything these days – including citizenship and the right to live and work in another country.

Since it introduced the residence bond programme in December 2012, Hungary has reportedly sold 430 of them to non-EU nationals who want to reside/work in an EU country. My understanding is that a residence permit will allow someone to work in Hungary and travel freely within the Schengen zone but, unlike citizenship, it will not entitle the holder to work in another EU country … just in Hungary.

Given all the deals that are out there, Hungary seems to be the best bang for your buck. Of the initial €300 000 required, €250 000 is refunded after five years but the residency granted is for life. Divide that cost between a family of, say, five (three minors), and it comes at a price tag of €170 per person per month for five years. A good deal, no?

So why isn’t there a longer queue?

First published in the Budapest Times 7 February 2014

2013 Grateful 41

glassI can bitch and moan with the best of them. Depending on the day that’s in it and the mood I’m in, it’s either glass half-full, glass half-empty, or simply a case of too much glass. So when a steady stream of people started commenting recently on how well I’m looking or how happy I seem or that something about me is different, the self-deprecation default switch kicks on and I find myself wondering exactly how drab and dreary I was before.

Before what, you might well ask. Not that I’m going to answer… and not out of contrariness either, mind you. It could be one of many recent changes in my life or a combination of two or three or indeed of all of them. Or it could simply be a growing understanding of just how lucky I am to be live where I live (despite the insane political situation), to work at what I do (despite the ridiculous hours I sometimes put in), and to have such a fascinating coterie of friends.

Earlier this year, in February, I went to Las Palmas.  Not from any great desire to see the place again but because I sought, paid for, and then had to listen to the advice of an astrologer. Something in my life needed to change. I needed all the help I could get and I wasn’t too particular about from whence it came! I was fortunate in that he told me that were I to present myself in Las Palmas at 8.39 pm on 2 February,  every aspect of my life would improve over the course of the next six months.

Now some I told thought me mad. For others it just confirmed the madness. For me I thought – why not! And since then, whatever the planetary alignment did to change the energy in my life, the balance has shifted and indeed, by all accounts, I’m positively glowing.

I’ve noticed a strange domino effect lately, too, whereby ye olde adage of one good turn begets another has kicked in. I was helping a mate (A) find some work using what contacts I have. And then this mate thought that they might be able to help another mate of mine (B) out in the same vein. And then it turns out that (B) was in a position to do a favour for third mate (C)… such linear synchronicity is just lovely when it happens. Perhaps it’s because I’m in a more positive frame of mind that I’m noticing these things. Or perhaps it’s because, set against the worsening political situation in Hungary (has anyone been reading the testimonies at the US Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary?) these types of simple good deeds are more noticeable.

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In any event, as I sit in my hotel room in Malta, overlooking St Julian’s Bay, after yet another successful, energetic, and inspiring Modern Diplomacy Workshop (which, coincidentally, was the subject of my 2012 Grateful 41, and has forever changed the way I look at brown sugar!), I am grateful for the turn that my life has taken, for those in it (both long-term residents and those new to the world of MMMM), and for having the wherewithal to be able to do what I do and to enjoy doing it.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

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