The separation of person and passport

My 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

13 Responses

  1. I will feel the same thing when I lose mine but you are right, we have become so dependent on pieces of paper, and to think we are becoming more paperless because of technology. I’m sharing this post. And thank you for sharing it.

  2. I can’t wait for all sorts of chips to be inserted in my shoulders, arms, back. When my dementia progresses to the point that I am a bother to everybody, they can kick me to the curb and know that I will be found and taken care of by some agency. They will know my travels, by medical history and fantasies. I will be able to drool my way through malls and lingerie departments and eventually be picked up. And everyone will know how harmless I am (other than the drooling). Technology is just so wonderful.

    Thank you again Mary. Arturo.

  3. While I was reading your post it reminded me of the time I was in Australia and my luggage went back to South Africa in error, I cried for hours, stupid I know! Really interesting post, I love my little Maroon Irish passport, which I have had for 3 years now, it beats the “Green Mamba” (South African passport) for which we needed a visa to travel to almost every country in the world! Glad everything ended well and you got your passport back.

      1. Yes, we applied for Dual Citizenship with the South African Embassy when we applied for Irish Citizenship, so were allowed to keep our SA passports as well as getting an Irish, my daughter was born in Ireland before 2004 so she automatically became an Irish Citizen, and I registered her with the SA embassy as a foreign birth so she was entitled to SA citizenship too, very handy as if we travel in Africa we don’t need visa’s on an SA passport.

  4. We’re still a while away from not needing any paper documents I think. Chipping cats and dogs is not unusual these days, so in effect I suppose some of these creatures have e-passports 🙂
    I’d have to think it over a good bit if it ever came to a choice between being chipped as a form of officially accepted identification and holding a paper passport or plastic ID card.

    Your missing passport tale Mary reminded me a bit of the time in Germany when my passport was missing for over a week. Luckily enough, in a country where potentially at any moment you can be stopped and asked to prove who you are, I still had a German EU residency permit on me. But that document wouldn’t have been any use . say , for returning home to Ireland. Like you I don’t like if I’m asked to deposit my passport overnight at places like hotel receptions and once I waffled my way out of this when checking in at a slightly dodgy place in Brussels (they said the passport served as a deposit for the TV in the room ! )

    That time in Germany I was pretty sure that my passport had been left behind on a Eurolines bus. A call to their Frankfurt office calmed me down a lot- and I knew I’d likely have it back before really needing it again. But still it got me thinking afterwards about how vulnerable I could have been had I really needed it urgently.
    Chipping humans could be a way around this , but not without serious issues needing to be considered.


    1. I read a book once about a guy living off the grid and it shocked me to think of how much is know about what we do on a daily, if not minute-by-minute basis. So much so that doubt chipping would make any huge difference at all. I miss those days when I was blissfully ignorant! Thanks for stopping by, Paul.

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