Monday, July 21, 2014

idiots abroad

The other day, there was a story in the Evening Standard of a woman traveling on her daughter's passport.  She had taken it by accident from the pile in her house.  The woman looked nothing like a her daughter, but she made it down to Spain with no troubles at all.  She had a blast, the story went, but on the way back, airport security didn't let her pass.  Her error was discovered, and she was denied boarding.  Somehow she obtained valid papers and made it back to the UK a few flights later, but she paid dearly for the service.  This wouldn't be a story, had the woman not made it one.  Upon discovering that stupidity costs, she bitched and moaned in public instead of just quietly paying up and learning a lesson.

I hate people like that, people with a false sense of entitlement, with the conviction that the world revolves around them, where any mistake is someone else's.  Plus I hate travel rookies, people who don't know what it takes to move smoothly in a world of transcontinental mobility.

When the automated passport gate in Frankfurt flagged up my biometric chip the other day, I blamed it on the box.  The name scanned all right, as did the photo.  Surely the chip was just a read issue.  I removed my passport from the scanner to give it a wipe and start the process again.  Before reinserting it, I had a good look.  I was surprised.  I looked young.  The passport was eight years expired.  My current passport, still good for a year and a half, was back home in London.

Getting on the plane had been no problem at all.  In Heathrow, no ID is required to enter the terminal or clear security.  A boarding pass is enough.  One has to register travel documents before checking in online, but they aren't verified.  A big deal is made about showing identification before boarding but again, the documents aren't checked properly.  My face aged out of matching the photo in my expired passport a long time ago, but that was no impediment to boarding.  As long as the name on the boarding pass matches the ID, anyone can board a plane.

This is how I got to Frankfurt.  As I stepped away from the antagonistic machine, my stomach dropped.  I was in a familiar place but in uncharted waters.  How do you travel without valid documents?  How would my journey continue, and where?  I decided to take a chance on an overworked border agent, crossing the border as if nothing had happened.  The man was rather alert.  "This passport is expired", he announced calmly.  There was no alarm in his voice.

I dithered for a second, unsure what to say, when his colleague next door leaned over for advice.  He held up a Chinese passport in an irregular situation.  The owner looked on in some confusion.  Her passport contained a British visa that was all good.  Another one was needed for Germany because the Brits never joined Schengen.  Problem was the German visa was only valid from September.  "What do I do with her?"  my border agent's colleague asked.  The only correct answer was, "You have to send her back."  It came without hesitation or feeling.

This did nothing to comfort me.  "Is it?", I asked.  My head was empty of rational thoughts, their place taken by increasingly colorful worst-case scenarios.  "Yes", he said, all business.  "Can I see it, please?" I asked.  I couldn't come up with anything better to say.  I had a job interview scheduled for the next day and I really needed to enter the country, but I could see that these were not reasons to further my cause.

I needn't have worried.  Had I been thinking clearly I would have realized that was nothing to worry about.  They wouldn't send me back to London, deport me, whatever.  Because once back in London Her Majesty's border force would have send me straight back to Germany because I didn't have documents to enter the UK.  It was unlikely I would become a international ping-pong ball, forever trapped in transit between countries that denied me, and I didn't.  The border agent asked to see another form of identification.  I showed him my driver's license and was on my way.

The first hurdle cleared, the next loomed even taller.  My flight back to the UK was on Monday morning.  It was now Thursday night.  The interview would be on Friday.  How to get my situation sorted?  I must have been near despair because I did something I don't normally do.  I asked for help – and was sent to the Federal Police, their office just next to the terminal entrance.

Two officers exited as I approached.  Over the next five minutes, one of them enumerated in great detail the options available to me.  It seemed simple – and not out of the ordinary at all.  "Go to Municipal Services and they'll sort you out", he said.  "If that fails, go to the Frankfurt office early on Monday morning.  They're used to this.  And if that fails as well, the guys here will help you as a last resort, though you might have to pay a fine because you're passport is so old."  Full of useful information, I rushed from the airport to the station.  I caught, with five minutes to spare, the train I had originally planned to take.  There was even time to buy a ticket.

The next morning at five to eight, I was in front of Municipal Services, willing the clock to advance.  In Germany, you have to be registered in your home town.  Where you're registered defines your home town.  All administrative business, driver's licenses, passports, IDs, must be done in your home town.   Where I was that morning, in Heidelberg, I was not a resident.  Would they be able to help me out?  And how long would it take?

The answer to the second question was half an hour.  This included time spent in the photo booth in the building lobby to have a set of mugs shot.  It also included a bit of a palaver when the requested fax arrived from my home town.  It declared that I was without fixed abode.  When my mom had moved in February, I had failed to notify the authorities of the change in address.  They had somehow found out, maybe when they started razing the building where my mom had lived and I used to be registered, and struck me from their files.

The administrator in Heidelberg was unconcerned.  "This happens all the time", she said.  My temporary ID was already printing.  "If you could just fill in this form here.  It will formally deregister you and make everyone happy."

I was happy and relieved beyond words when I sauntered out moments later into morning air that was still fresh from the night.  My job interview was ninety minutes and only a tram ride away.  I was officially homeless but in possession of a valid ID again.