Oh, Yeah, My Passport
I stood paralyzed for a moment, the realization sinking in, tightness gathering in my stomach. As we stood at the United counter, the woman checking us in took our passports and ran them through the scanner. She’d tried mine multiple times, then looked it over. The difficulty was not with the scanner, mine was expired. Months of planning, weeks of counting down the days suddenly were irrelevant. I was not boarding this flight. Through my panic, I forced myself to breathe, to slow down.
In all the making of reservations, researching online, and practicing French in my car, and even pulling out my passport to make sure I knew where it was, it had never occurred to me that it might be expired. Two years before, John had renewed his and the girls had gotten their first passports in preparation for our big family trip to Japan. All the relatively recent passport activity checked that detail off my metal list.
The morning had been a bit crazy already. We were leaving the girls at home with Hud, our former head youth counselor from the dude ranch and family friend. He is much like a favorite uncle, only he knows Hannah and Marlie better than they know any real aunt or uncle. That morning, while running with their dog, Hud’s wife slipped on ice in the woods and broke her leg. Fortunately, he had not left yet when their dog came back alone and Hud went looking for her. Had he been already gone, she may have been there until she did not show up for work and people there became worried, as the forest behind their house is a lonely place in the winter. He was not able to come by in the morning as we took Marlie to school or to go over any details with us. We scrambled to rearrange the afternoon school pick up, and go over what he needed to know over the phone.
Thankfully, there were several people at the airport offering advice. It seems I’m not the first person this has happened to. The United counter agent told us that there was a way that some of the airline employees had been able to get one day passports in Seattle. Another traveler mentioned he had done this as well, and gave me the key advice that I show up at the passport agency office with a passport photo in hand. Online, we also found an office in San Francisco, but a quick phone call ruled that one out, as the next available walk in appointment was in six days. Seattle had availability first thing the next morning. I bought a one way ticket to Seattle and began the battle of the phone, trying to make a reservation to see a passport agent.
As more people crowded into the small Redmond airport before the next flight, the noise level was going up. The reservation call center matrix at the passport agency did not offer the option of talking with a human, and every noise in the airport sent it into fits. Any unrecognized response from the caller would stop the call momentarily, and only three invalid responses were allowed before the call was terminated.
The person next to me sneezed, strike one. The child in the stroller lost her pacifier and cried. Strike two. Someone in line asked his wife to also take out his green sweater from the large bag. Strike three. After starting over a dozen or so times in the terminal on three different phones, I found a vestibule on the end of the building that was quiet. Someone walked through talking, strike one. A flight was announced; the vestibule had an intercom speaker, damn! Strike two. I stepped outside. The wind caught the mouth piece, strike three. A couple more tries outside, and I found a corner, crouched behind the landscaping shrubbery where I could press my face against the two stone sides of the building and limit the wind in the mouthpiece and the outside noises long enough to finish my call. After so many calls ending in a mechanized voice telling me they could not understand my response, good bye, I finally was able to complete a call. I had an appointment at 8:30 the next morning.
I sent off John as well as Kris and Becky, the couple with whom we were taking this ski trip to France. It would be trouble enough to re-arrange my itinerary with only one person, I saw no point in entangling everyone in my mess. I would catch up later. I have a dear friend who moved to Seattle several years ago, and she was delighted I was coming to town, even if under less than ideal circumstances.
What might have been a nightmare of logistics of hotel rooms, internet access, a photo shop open in the evening, and taxis became simple. Pat and her husband Bob picked me up at the airport, and took me to dinner at one of their favorite sushi restaurants that happens to be conveniently located next to a shop that takes passport photos into the evening. A night in her guest room was far better than any airport hotel. In the morning, we picked up coffee on the way, and Pat dropped me off at the federal building downtown. She lives close enough that I would call her when I was finished.
Although my appointment was for 8:30, I arrived after several of the other 8:30AM appointments, and their issues must have been much more complicated than mine. An hour later, I was at the counter. The agent there was really very pleasant and understanding. Although his interest in my trip and his questions were likely intended to screen for people abusing the system rather than just chatting, he said nothing intended to make me feel more like a dunce than I already did, for which I was grateful. After a few minutes, he took my application, new photos of a haggard looking me, and my old passport with the photo of the laughing, younger me and promised a new passport at 3PM.
Later that morning, I found that United would charge me $3,400 for my new itinerary, flying out of Seattle and keeping my original return. They would give me a $500 credit for my unused tickets. Yikes! I never understood this, really. There is nothing in the world more perishable than time. There is no salvage value for a seat in an airplane that goes empty during a flight. And yet, on short notice, the price of flight tickets skyrockets. I did find on Travelocity, however, SAS round trip flights for $1600, and I kept the United credit for later. I would have to fly alone both ways, through Seattle. I booked a little room at the Eden Hotel in Geneva. This did turn out to be the smallest hotel room I have ever stayed in, although through my exhausted sleep there, I really did not care. It reminded me of the pod hotels in Japan I’d read about, but there was room for my bags on the floor next to the twin bed, and a bathroom of my own.
After a lovely lunch with Pat at a Peruvian restaurant on the pier, I picked up my new passport and she dropped me at the airport. I was on my way. My French for Travelers CDs paid off. I managed to pay the cab driver in euros, having forgotten that Switzerland still uses their own francs, have very nice dinner, decipher the bus schedule to find the train station, and buy tickets. A couple of phone calls to John and I lugged my rather large bags full of ski clothes and boots as well as my helmet, both without rollers, into a crowded train, and sat on them in the space between the cars.
As I watched the French countryside through the small train door windows, I knew all was right in the world. What had begun as panic ended in a sense of accomplishment. What might have been a huge inconvenience was an opportunity to visit with a dear friend. And the vacation I had thought I might lose was only changed for a day.
copyright© Eva Gill 2009 ~ Web design, photographs,text by Eva Gill, unless otherwise noted. Video by John Gill.