Monday, July 12, 2010

The First Test

It occurred to me the other day, as I began to go through the process of renewing my passport that this was the first test of my fitness as a traveler. I wasn't going anywhere unless I got this done - and fast, since my departure date wasn't getting any further away.

There are a lot of rules, written and unwritten, when you travel and there are a lot of rules in the renewal process too. The form was long, even the simplified form, with lots of information I had to read and facts I had to figure out before I could fill it in. Facts like how long had I known my references. One of them has been a friend since elementary school. I did the math and realized it makes me feel ancient admitting I've known anyone for 40 years. "Okay," I told myself, "get over it."

When I'd finally looked up my reference's addresses, found a couple of old postal codes for places I'd lived in and long forgotten, filled out my employment history, and figured out how to present the fact that I had a mailing address but no real home address (does the storage locker facility where all your stuff lives count?), I was ready to take the form into the office.

I got to the building, circled the block for parking, spent 5 minutes with an uncooperative parking ticket dispenser, and hurried into the building. A helpful commissionaire directed me down the hall to an office. A short line of relatively cheerful-looking people waited ahead of me. And the line was moving - great! But my excitement was premature. When my turn came, the man behind the counter asked me a couple questions, looked at my forms briefly before stuffing them into a plastic bag and handing them back to me with a number. Then the same helpful commissionaire sent me upstairs, to the real line.

Undaunted, I took a seat in the waiting area and watched the numbers change on the little electronic board. I was surrounded by other would-be travelers and realized how many different cultures were represented by the people around me, even here in my home country. I smiled, feeling the excitement build and imagining myself waiting in a different environment. Perhaps a train station in far-off Morocco! As time wore on though, I'd given up imagining and was reading the signs and absently studying the people around me. I'd foolishly forgotten to bring a book to read, but here was an opportunity to practice the art of brief conversations with total strangers which is so much a part of travel.

I gave it my best shot. I learned where others were going, what various countries should be on my 'do not miss' list, and shared my excitement about my own plans. Surprisingly, I only waited about an hour before my turn came this time. The woman behind the counter here was very friendly and helpful and gave me a pick-up date with plenty of time before my already-booked flight to Spain.

Unfortunately, she also stamped 'canceled' all over my current passport (which had 6 months still till expiry) and cut the corner off it so that it couldn't be used. I understand the reason for this, of course. You can't have 2 passports at once. But now I had none and I hadn't accounted for the fact that I had a wedding to go to in California in the meantime. Hmmm, try to cross the border without a passport? I don't think so....

A couple of panicked phone calls to the passport office a few days later, with the first person telling me I was just out of luck, and the second one giving me a faint glimmer of hope that I might expedite my passport by paying the extra fee, I was back at the office. I headed into the downstairs line to get a number.

"No, they won't do it," the woman behind the counter told me flatly, looking annoyed. She didn't seem amenable to pleading, but I had to at least try. If I could just talk to someone upstairs. She refused me again, but luckily the woman beside her interrupted a conversation with her own client long enough to tell her to send me upstairs. I thanked them both profusely and hurried upstairs with my number to wait again.

The woman behind the upstairs counter asked me a few questions. I threw myself on her mercy, speaking calmly and politely, explaining the situation. She listened and then left me standing while she went to find out if there was something they could do. I occupied myself with breathing slowly and calmly, focusing on things flowing smoothly. It would be alright, I thought over and over again. And it was. I had to write a statement, pay an extra fee and wait for them to call my references and then me. But scarcely an hour later they confirmed I could pick up my new passport the next morning.

So, more lessons learned that will be handy in my travels. When something goes wrong, be calm and reasonable, even under stress. Ask for assistance. Don't accept the first 'no' - the answer might not change but at least explore the options and talk to someone else if the first person you ask can't or won't help you. Most of all, stay positive and believe things will work out.

Tomorrow morning I pick up my new passport (thank you, Passport Canada!) and head across the border. Tomorrow California and, soon after that, the World!

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