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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

IMG_2531 (600x800)Saturday in Las Palmas was spent trying to find a pub that was showing the Ireland/Wales match. The first Irish pub I found looked as if it had closed shortly after it opened back in 1996. So I took a bus to the old town where I had vague memories of passing a Guinness sign the other day. I eventually found it. They had one small TV and no rugby. Helpful as ever, one of the locals gave me another address to try – a sports bar where I could have watched everthing from skiing to showjumping, but no rugby. So I went to Tourist Information and as a result of the helpfulness that is so part of the service/tourism culture on the island, I tried three other places. I eventually gave up and treated myself to a cod and asparagus lunch in the shadow of Santa Anna cathedral – trading one religion for another.

IMG_2592 (597x800)I spent the day talking to myself; wondering where to go, what to do next. When it got a little too much, I stopped for coffee and a cava, marvelling at the occasional ‘old and lovely’ amidst the ‘new and not so lovely’. I stumbled across a few tiled masterpieces and some wrought-iron bandstands that were just crying out for a brass band. Away from the beach area, I began to get a feel for how the island used to be; a sense of what living here pre-tourism must have been like: stylish and genteel.

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While Las Palmas has its share of high street shops that have become part and parcel of cityscapes across Europe, it also has its fair share of boutiques – designer stores that proudly display their ‘Made in Spain’ labels. I couldn’t quite get the hang of what appears to be a special shopping day when prices on the labels don’t seem to matter. But as the final bill was a lot less than my math made it, I really didn’t need an explanation.

My second (and only other item) on today’s agenda was to get mass. I’d scoped out the church earlier and arrived in good time to see the oddest thing in progress. A woman, carrying a large crucifix, followed by a priest holding  a lit candle, headed a procession of candle-bearing mass-goers up and down the aisles of the church. This was a first for me. But lo and behold,  2 February in the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches is one of the twelve Great Feasts aka Candlemas. Apparently, this is also the day on which the Churching of Women happens (another new one on me): a ceremony where new mothers are blessed. The ceremony includes thanksgiving for the woman’s survival of childbirth, and is performed even when the child is stillborn, or has died unbaptized. And it was here, apparently, that Our Lady appeared in a pine tree. Loathe though I am to quote Wikipedia, it does have this to say:

The story of Nuestra Señora del Pino (Our Lady of the Pine) is a fascinating one. At the site of the present-day Basilica, the image of the virgin herself is said to have appeared in a pine tree on 8 September 1492 to the first Bishop of Gran Canaria, Juan Frías. Said to possess healing qualities, Nuestra Señora del Pino has become the patron saint of the island. On the steps outside the Basilica it is possible to buy wax models of every part of the human body that can be offered for healing. The figure itself is extraordinary. It is said that one side of the face is smiling and the other side is sad. The figure is bedecked with jewels, although not as many as there were before the robbery in 1975.  I went in the side door, so missed the body parts!

IMG_2422 (591x800)The Canary islands were originally inhabited by Guanches, an aboriginal Berber people. On Gran Canaria, suicide was regarded as honourable. Whenever a new king was installed, one of his subjects willingly honoured the occasion by throwing himself over a precipice (as depicted by this statue in the grounds of the Santa Catalina hotel. [Spanish royalty apparently stay here when visiting the island and I wonder how many willing subjects they’d find to continue this tradition.] And it’s another first me for me: a monument to suicide.

IMG_2426 (800x598)It’s an odd place. It seems as if it’s not quite sure what it should be. Half urban beach semi-circled by tall hotels; half old world charm and beauty. Perhaps I just don’t ‘get’ Spain; I didn’t take to Madrid much either.

Mindyou, it’s been a lovely few days. The Hotel Verol is perfectly situated and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. That not so remarkable really as everyone (apart from the formidable, stylishly dressed middle-aged dowagers, hair-sprayed to within an inch of their lives) is helpful. They’ve certainly got the hang of this tourism lark.

Saturday, 2nd February, 8.39pm has come and gone. Now let’s wait and see what happens next.