Saturday, July 24, 2010


Hilary and I haven't been exactly tearing up the international travel scene the last two years or so. There doesn't seem much chance of it in the near future, either. So, I took advantage of this window to renew my passport.

It is no small thing to take that little booklet that has been your companion on many adventures and send it off to god-knows-where in the State Department. The stamps from a number of countries, the memories of travels alone and with friends. Oh, and let's not forget the lovely passport photo:

Blimey! In nine years of use, I'm still surprised that I never received extra scrutiny as some sort of IRA terrorist with that picture. I suppose those nine years have seen a lot of changes in travel security and terrorism.

Thankfully, the State Department was kind enough to send that wonderful passport back to me this past week, with plenty of holes punched in it to indicate that it was no longer valid. The new passport, according to the helpful insert added to the mailing, will come in a different shipment.

The story of that particular passport, and how I ended up with that charming mugshot, is worth a little telling. My original passport was issued in late 1998, in preparation for a trip to Chile to attend the Scouting World Jamboree. I used it again in the winter of 2001 to travel to Germany for several months to study abroad - improving my German, learning history and culture, enjoying copious drinking while under 21. I was not as seasoned a traveler then as I am now, and the transatlantic flight followed by rail trip from Frankfurt to Berlin addled my brain. Surely I had the passport to get into the country, but by the time I reached Berlin it was gone. Nicely done: my first day in-country, and I lose my passport. Bravo.

Well, seeking out the American embassy was a fine way to practice my German and explore the city. The place to handle such things, I soon learned, was not at the embassy proper, but in a smaller consulate office attached to the air base in SW Berlin. Thankfully I did have Xerox copies of the passport to present to them, and the renewal process wasn't all that difficult. They had a photo booth there for just such a purpose, and I guess my irritation at my own carelessness, or the price, showed in my expression. (Incidentally, my new passport photo isn't nearly as interesting, it's just bad.)

It was, however, just a temporary replacement passport that would allow me to travel. On the front cover, under the lamination and next to that lovely picture, it clearly stated an expiration date of one year hence, with a note to look at the last page. That page had an type-written note stating that this was a replacement for a lost passport, reiterating the expiration date, and embossed with the consulate's seal.

A few weeks later, however, my original passport showed up. Someone I suppose had turned it in and it had made its slow way back to the consulate. They now offered me a choice: give me back the original passport, or extend the expiration on the replacement passport to the full ten years. Feeling that the original passport was now tainted from its long time out in the wild (today we'd call it identity theft), I opted for the latter. That led to another page getting a typed and embossed note clarifying the expiration date. This situation has, over the years, resulted in many double-takes, awkward questions, and lengthy explanations in not-English. This all adds charm to the thing: rather like the old beat up automobile whose quirks you know intimately, and would never dream of replacing short of catastrophic breakdown.

So, by my second week in country, I had a new passport. Good thing, too, because during that term abroad I hopscotched around Europe a bit: a few days each in Hungary, Poland, Czech, Austria, Switzerland, Italy. In the nine years since then I've used that passport to travel back to Germany (and internship during summer 2002), Spain (with Hilary and her folks, after we'd been dating all of five months!), Spain again (a robotics conference in Barcelona), Greenland (field research, if you believe me), and Italy. To say that I've been blessed with travel opportunities in my life would be putting it mildly. Notably, aside from that original trip to Chile, or those few weeks on the Greenland icecap, I haven't had the chance to travel farther abroad than Europe: no Asia, no more South America, no Africa. I've got lots of plans, but they'll all have to wait another few years, methinks.

But, hey, I'll need my new passport if I ever want to hop the border to Canada.

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