English Travel

Passport confidential: the most surreal customs experience

It is funny how much a piece of paper can affect your mood. Or your life, for that matter. The other day I couldn’t find my Spanish passport for 24 hours, and I almost had a nervous breakdown. I don’t really understand why, as at this point, and being the proud owner of two of them (well, technically the governments of my two countries own them, but they still have my photo on them, right?), losing one didn’t have significant consequences, like not being able to leave for Spain in case of an emergency or something.

But I still freaked out. Big time.

I have the feeling that part of the reason is quite symbolic. I don’t think I have still fully processed what it means to me to be an American citizen, and I don’t think I will until I visit home and reenter the US in January. I need to experience a return to fully grasp it. After being naturalized in August, I still have to do some paperwork in order not to lose my Spanish citizenship. I will do so in January, as I need some documents that are less painful to obtain in Spain.

My poor, neglected passport
My poor, neglected passport

But suddenly thinking that I had lost the most important piece of paper that identifies me as a Spaniard, somehow made me feel detached from my motherland. It was a very weird feeling, as I was fretting around the house looking for it like a maniac. At 8 am on a Saturday morning, of all times. It was an impossible task, because our place is still work in progress. Construction was done months ago, but we still have those last three (let’s say that that is a kind approximation) boxes to unpack and some furniture to put together. It could have been in any of the boxes. Or in the trash.

24 hours and a good night of sleep helped me sit down and think where I had seen it last. Reasoning worked much better and faster than fretting, and I found it in the folder I had taken to one of the various steps of my naturalization process. Problem solved. At least the practical part of it.

Do you know when I didn’t freak out? When I only had one passport and I forgot it home the last time I was leaving to spend Christmas in Spain. And, hell, I should probably have freaked out. Everyone else did. I guess I was too busy having an out of body experience.

It was December 10th, 2015. I normally travel alone with the kids, but for that trip I had a whole entourage. Three kids, my only niece, who had been living with us for three months, the boyfriend she had just met here and a friend of mine so generous and kind that she chooses to travel with us when she can to give me a break. Two suitcases, a stroller, a car seat, and an undetermined number of backpacks… You get the idea.

The day before, my husband had had the bad taste of fracturing his ankle. With crutches, and in pain, there was no way for him to drive us anywhere, so we booked a limo to get the five of us and my friend to the airport.

Just before leaving the house, my mom, who is not particularly good at withholding information, couldn’t help herself and, against my sister’s wishes, told me that my brother in law (as in my niece’s dad) had had a heart attack the day before and was doing well, but in the hospital. And that, of course, my niece couldn’t find out until we got home. At that point I was too busy figuring out my best poker face to remember to do my usual last minute check. In any case, I already knew the deal too well, so, why worry?

Yes, that is just part of my travel gear, from a previous flight. Now you can understand how sorry the boarding gate agent felt for me.
Yes, that is just part of my travel gear, from a previous flight. Now you can understand how sorry the boarding gate agent felt for me.

The nice limo gentleman dropped us off in the Departures section of O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and left. We walked to the check in counter, kids, gear and friend on tow. When our turn came, I opened the tremendously sexy cross body passport pouch that I use to carry our stack, to find only six passports, two per kid,  there. I opened all six, and without even having time to think, I uttered in disbelief:

“I don’t have my passport.”

It is impossible to describe my crutch wearing husband’s face. He was speechless. Baffled. Probably mad. It was only surpassed by the expression on the face of the check in agent, who by now was shakily head counting kids. And probably the face of my friend, who, passport in hand, for a split second, surely saw herself alone in the plane with my children.

“What do you mean you don’t have your passport?!?!?! You HAVE to have your passport.”

At that point, all I could do was laugh. Because, why not? No, I didn’t have it. I was sure.

We soon figured out that he had taken it to do some election paperwork at the Spanish consulate. He just didn’t put it back in the pouch I had neglected to double check.

I was sure that there was no time to find a cab, drive back home, and get back in time to O’Hare in order to catch our flight. If we had had our car, maybe. But that is where the husband’s fractured ankle becomes relevant to this story. So, that was a no go.

Being a resourceful hack when I need to, and with my most charming smile, and probably a bit of a pout, I asked the by now terrified and almost speechless agent if there was any way I could fly on my Spanish state ID. He rolled his eyes just a tiny bit less than my husband did, and said, without taking his eyes from my collection of kids (at that time 1, 4 and 8) that he didn’t think so, but that he would ask anyway.

By some miracle (mainly me not being a solo dark haired man), he came back with our boarding passes, all four of them, three passports, and my ID. He would give me the boarding pass, but after that, I was on my own, and most likely going to be prevented from boarding the plane at any of the security checks.

Very high on adrenaline, and suddenly in a hurry to get to the boarding gate, we waved goodbye to the husband, and headed towards security. Since Iberia departs from Terminal 3, like many domestic flights, I just pulled out my American driver’s license, and proceeded through the security check.

That was pretty easy. On to level 3!

Now, the trickiest part was ahead of us, as we still had to go through the passport and boarding pass check at the gate. Since I was traveling with kids, I joined the pre boarding line, thinking that I needed to buy as much time as possible in case expected issues arose. Trying to get my kids to behave (if you know them personally, you also know that it is a nearly impossible task), I proceeded. For the first time in my life, I was very happy to be such a pitiful sight. Pushing a stroller, while pulling a car seat, while holding a toddler on one hip and balancing my backpack on the other one, all without losing sight of the other two boys and holding my tiny stack of passports, all six of them and my lonely Spanish state ID on top with my seventh hand probably made a sad impression on the gate lady.

As I was about to hand them to her and explain the situation, she told me that she saw that I had as many passports as boarding passes, and that I could keep moving. Without opening them. Or checking them. Or even looking at them, or really counting. She basically gave me a free pass. She threw me a life mushroom. Because by now, this totally felt like a videogame. And I had made it through the end, right?

Still high on excitement because I had made it, I accommodated the car seat, the kids, and the hand luggage, with the intention of enjoying what by now felt like it would be the most perfectly relaxing flight I had ever had, despite the kids, the ill brother in law, and the rest of mi particular chaos.

Then, it just landed on me. Like that. Most likely in mental Spanish. Shit. How the fuck was I going to enter Spain without a passport?

I sure had proof that I was Spanish, but still there was a strong possibility that they could at the very least stop me in Madrid for a bit. In the first moment of panic I had in those three hours, I frantically e-mailed my brother, who is an attorney, so he could figure out a way to get me in if I run into trouble. And then I had no other choice but to fall into the informative black hole that a nine hour flight can be.

We watched movies, played, ate, walked around… Business as usual. It was good, because I needed to be distracted enough to calm down and rest a bit before hitting level 4 of my very own videogame.

We landed in Madrid, and gathered our gear and the rest of our party, who seemed just a tad bit slightly worried about having to take care of the kids if I was retained.

By the time we were going through the passport control, it was 7 am. We all looked exhausted, and so did the policeman I had in front of me. I timidly put my stack of passports, with the ID on top, in front of him. He looked at it, looked back at me in disbelief and just could utter: “¿Estás de guasa, no?”, Spanish for “You are joking, right?”

By then I couldn’t even talk. My usual sauciness had deserted me, and all I was able to do was try an angelical smile and puppy eyes, ojos de cordero degollado, and shake my head side to side. Which, luckily, worked. Laughing in disbelief, he just told me to keep going, “Anda, tira, tira…”, all while looking at the kids. Who were being head counted for the second time in 14 hours.

It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I have ever lived. I was very lucky, because I should have never made it to that plane, and certainly neither into Spain. Particularly because this took place just a few weeks after the Paris terror attacks in which more than a hundred people were killed, and security had supposedly been heightened all over the world. Yet, there I was, a passportless international traveler, who boarded a plane and crossed a border without proper identification.

It is the kind of story none of us will ever forget, and I hope that it remains my craziest travel experience forever. Almost two years later, I still can’t believe I pulled it off. I am sure that the fact that I am a whitish woman with three kids in my charge helped immensely. No one wants to deal with unattended kids, and I look inoffensive enough. But it made me realize a few things: how many security holes air transportation can have. That you should never leave home without a last minute check. That there is an upside to traveling with kids.

And that I can still kick ass at videogames.


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