Lost Passport, Can Travel
You left your passports in Brindisi, Italy?” the incredulous British Custom’s Officer shouted at us when we arrived at Dover after crossing the English Channel on the car ferry from Calais, Normandy in France.
“Then go back and get them.”
We were 4 friends who had traveled to Greece for Spring break, camping and touring battlefields of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta about 400 A.D. Robert and Lyn were classicists who had packed paperbacks of Thucydides and other historians.
We had a fun, educational trip, stopping frequently to read the relevant passage and recreate the battles as described, imagining the armies rushing down from the hills and really understanding how the Athenian Empire was dismantled.. Thucydides was himself a general in the Athenian army. He left a very detailed report of the lengthy wars.
“We don’t have the money for the petrol to take us back to Brindisi,” we protested. “And, we are supposed to be back in our universities tomorrow.”
We don’t have the money for the petrol to take us back to Brindisi.
We were ushered into a room at the port of Dover. Someone came and took detailed notes on who we were, our home addresses, phone numbers, which Universities we attended and what we were studying. They were not interested in our impressive document on legal paper which had sufficed to get us through both Italian/Swiss and Swiss/French customs. We were left to sit and talk to each other in no man’s land with no assurance we would be allowed to enter without our passports.
On the outbound trip, three of us had driven Mark’s little Morris Minor station- wagon from Britain to Geneva where his family lived. He had flown home a week earlier, but I had medical exams to take, and a shorter break than the others. We drove to Greece through what was then Yugoslavia, where the roads were full of potholes. So, after spending time in Athens, Delphi and other major sites, we decided to take a ferry to Corfu and another to Brindisi and return through Italy.
When we had driven about 800 miles north from Brindisi, we realized we had left our passports at the custom’s shed after exiting the ferry. Petrol was extremely expensive, and we did not have the money between us to return for them. We detoured to Milan where there was a British Consulute. The Consul was empathic about our plight, and offered to produce a certificate to vouch for the 3 of us who were British citizens.
We returned with our “mug shots.”
He sent us off to the railway station around the corner to get photos in the booth since time was of the essence. We returned with our “mug shots” which he added to a heavy-duty legal-sized paper on which he stated:
“Whereas these three named British students are legitimate and stranded without their passports which have been lost in southern Italy, and whereas they need to return to continue their studies at the University of Oxford and the University of London, I, the Consul for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, in Milan, Italy, request everyone provide them with assistance crossing borders and enable their safe return home to England….
He attached the 3 photos which were really bad, then added 3 scarlet sealing-wax stamps, partially hiding each photo.
It certainly looked impressive. He handed it to Mark, who was a South African National. He said there was nothing he could do for him as there was no Consulate or Embassy we could get to in Italy.
Once outside, we conferred and decided since Mark was bilingual, we would arrange to cross borders in the dark when 2 of us could be sleeping in the back of the station wagon. Mark would be driving, hop out of the car and show the document to border control. He would explain in french how we didn’t have our passports, so had gone to the consul in Milan who vouched for us.
It worked perfectly at the Italian-Swiss Border.
It worked perfectly at the Italian-Swiss Border. The officer counted the photos counted 3 of us in the car, handed Mark the document and waved us through. We spent the next day with Mark’s parents once we arrived in Geneva, and left in the evening so it was dark again when we crossed into France. “Un, deux, trois,” the French border agent pointed to us in the car, then handed our precious document back to Mark. We couldn’t believe our luck, nor the stupidity of the officers being unable to count to 4.
But now we waited. The reaction in our home country was a surprise. Eventually, the British Custom’s officer returned, told us they had confirmed our addresses, and that we were legitimate so as a special favor they would let us in. However they made us promise to contact the custom’s office in Brindisi and arrange to have the passports returned. They made it clear they had a right to refuse us entry and we should take more care in future.