My passport expired yesterday.
It doesn't sound like that big of a deal, and the reality is— I should be relieved. The little blue book that gets me in and out of the country looks more like a home-ec project than proof of my citizenship.
That dumb thing has gotten me detained in my own country, detained in other countries, denied entry visa, removed from various forms of transportation and possibly added to the FBI watch list.
I don't know for sure.
But, it is kind of sad— the whole expiring passport thing. I spent a few years traveling the world when I was younger and my passport is full of a decade's worth of stamps and visas from all over the world. It's proof of my adventures. I can get a new one, but I know the next won't fill up as quickly or as completely as the first.
Actually, this was technically my second passport, the story of the demise of my first passport is far more tragic.
My passport is a replacement passport for the original. It has 24 extra stamp pages, the number is handwritten inside the front cover and my photo is glued inside. Glued. No halograms, no chips, just some Hungarian Elmer's. Yeah. I've spent a lot of hours explaining myself to customs officials around the world— often with major language barriers.
I had a normal passport at one time, but one fateful day while celebrating Easter in Hungary, I "lost" my valid proof of citizenship.
That's bad. Really bad.
I should clarify. According to my friends at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest (which by the way, you should never photograph unless you want to be chased by armed guards) my passport was not lost or stolen. It was mutilated. Not by me. I would never mutiliate my own proof of citizenship.
I thought about selling it to pay off my education, but I would never mutilate it.
It was a washing machine. On Easter Sunday, 2001, I woke up to find a little blue book flopping around in the dryer at the Hungarian home where I was staying. I selflessly prayed, "Please don't be mine, please don't be mine," and of course, when I opened the dryer door and saw a damp smeared passport with my face on it, I knew I was in big trouble.
I had exactly 48 hours to get a new passport before I was scheduled to leave for Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a long two days.
The embassy told me it was impossible.
I had my photo taken by a man that I'm fairly convinced was an axe murderer on the side.
I met the Secretary of Education who wrote me a note so I wouldn't have to wait in line for my entry visa. To this day, I am eternally grateful to that man.
I got in a war of words with a woman at the Budapest Post Office over post communism vs. pre-communism Europe and how that affects the queue of people waiting for service.
She was painfully unaware of the duress and lack of sleep I'd experienced.
I caught her up to speed.
I got a lecture from an American at the counter at the embassy who told me how vital it was that I maintain control of my passport at all times.
Ya, thanks. I'll keep that in mind.
With minutes to spare, I boarded my train out of Budapest and every border stop I've made since that day, ten years ago, I've explained the story of my passport. It usually goes something like this:
Customs official (insert accent here):What is this? Did you make this yourself?
Me: It's my replacement for the passport I lost. I can assure you, it's real.
Customs official: Why you need a replacement?
Me: I lost my passport in Hungary.
Customs official: This says you mutilated it. Why would you mutilate your passport?
Me: It was an accident. I washed it in the washing machine.
This is the part where Customs guy gets his buddies and makes me repeat my story far too many times, while they inspect my passport.
Customs official: You should be more careful next time. You need this to travel, you know.
Me: Sigh. Thank you.
I'm sure next week sometime I'll pay the $135 it now costs to renew my proof of citizenship, and then I'll be free to travel the globe again. But I'm going to miss that little makeshift, foreign-originated document that, for a decade, has been the proof of my American citizenship and has gotten me into more trouble than I could begin to describe. But it's also the record of the greatest years of my life. Time in Europe and Asia and Africa and South America. My favorite was traveling through Turkey and India. I've even used it to go to Canada.
I know I'll continue to travel, but not like I did in the last decade. My Hungarian issued passport will always have it's place in the bottom of my drawer, and from time to time I'll pull it out and remember the days of backtracking across the globe, hopping wrong trains and unexpected planes only to end up in cities I had no intentions of seeing, but will always be glad I had the chance to visit.