(Reading tip: if you’ve seen Fox’s 24, it might help to imagine that counting-down sound).
T Minus 05:35:00
I’m in a Starbucks in Düsseldorf, and my wallet is gone – and with it, my credit cards, my plane tickets and my passport. There’s a simple explanation to all of this, and I make sure I don’t think about it while I rummage through my bag in a panic, just in case the wallet has disobeyed the laws of physics and ended up somewhere impossible. A couple of minutes of this behaviour is just enough to prevent the top of my head from exploding, but does nothing for the weak, sick feeling of dread originating somewhere near my knees.
Okay, I tell myself, let’s use the right words here: I’ve been robbed.
My plane leaves in a little over five and a half hours. So I have 5.5 hours to…
To what, Mike?
When something goes wrong and it’s my fault (and regarding my travels, “when” is always a safer word to use than “if”), I always react the same way. First there’s a short period of mourning for my plans: leaning against a wall, making a noise like a wounded mongoose, etc. Then comes the self-hatred, manifesting as stomping up & down, shouting curses at myself and my blighted place in the universe. Then I grab a pen and make some lists (the first usually being “How I Will Never Be So Stupid Again”).
This is new territory. I have nothing to put on my list. I have no idea what to do.
T minus 05:27
Text – Mike Sowden to Alex ******** : I’ve just been robbed fuck fuck fuck
I’m hurrying down Königsallee, back to where I parted ways with my friend this morning as she went into the building where she works and I went hunting for a cafe to try to do the same. The fog of panic is lifting, and I’m starting to compose my first list inside my head. When my friend comes out to meet me, her face a mixture of Are you OK? and It could only happen to you, we get started.
A List Of Problems I Didn’t Have An Hour Ago
1. I have no way to draw money out.
2. I have 19 Euros, and that’s it. Price of a train ticket to Düsseldorf International Airport: unknown.
3. The boarding pass for my flight is gone.
4. At least one thief now has my credit cards.
5. All the business cards and contact info I collected at ITB, gone – so much for following up on them.
6. Without a passport, I have no way to re-enter the UK.
Problem 5 is relatively trivial. Problem 3 is annoying, but I have a PDF of the pass on my Dropbox account – I just need to get to a printer. Maybe I can temporarily borrow a little money off my friend to solve Problems 1 and 2. Problem 4 is bad, but I can do something about that right now.
I have no idea how to fix problem 6. I’m not even sure if it’s possible in 5 hours.
T Minus 05:05
My credit cards are all cancelled. (This feels like the smart thing to do. It probably is – but in an hour from now, I’ll regret doing it).
T Minus 04:55
I’m in Alex’s workplace – she’s allowing me to print out my boarding pass, and she’s lending me some Euros, enough for a taxi and a train ticket. That’s every Problem nailed except the sixth. And now, after some frantic Googling, I know what to do about that.
But it’s going to be close.
T Minus 04:15
A taxi ride later, I’m at the British Consulate-General on Yorckstrasse. I surrender my mobile phone and laptop to the plate-glassed, intercommed security guard, step into a lift and ascend 3 floors into an empty waiting room.
What To Do If You’re A British National And You Have Your Passport Stolen
1. Panic for a while. (Obviously).
2. Find out where the nearest British embassy is, and go there.
3. Ask to be issued with an Emergency Travel Document or an Emergency Passport, which will take in the region of 2-3 hours from time of application.
Oh. They tell me there’s something missing off my list.
4. Pay them £110, right then, right there.
I should have realised this before I cancelled my credit cards (the numbers of which I’ve memorized), but I didn’t – and if I had realised it, I wouldn’t have guessed the embassy would refuse to make an emergency passport for you until you paid up in advance. There was no way of getting them to take your details (as if someone making your passport doesn’t have enough on you already) and bill you later. Nope. Either you pay up front, or you’re stuck – das Ende.
I rush downstairs, get a few numbers off my phone, and ring my friend Darren. He agrees to loan me the money via a card payment, but that card is at home and he’s at work. Can I hang on for 20 minutes?
T minus 03:30
The passport office starts work on my emergency passport. I sit there, marinaded in sweaty anxiety.
T minus 01:30
Let me get this right – I have to get another taxi back to the station, let’s say half an hour away, and then it’s half an hour to the airport if I have zero waiting time for the train (which is incredibly unlikely), then I’m rushing across the terminal, let’s say 15 minutes flailing my rucksacked way through the crowd…
If they don’t finish my passport in the next 15 minutes, there is no way I can make the airport on time.
T minus 01:05
Well, that’s it then. What now? First thing is to ring work and tell them I’m not going to be….
“Excuse me? Your passport is ready.”
This is what a UK Emergency Passport looks like.
If you’ve been stressed for the last 6 hours on an empty stomach, it looks somewhat like a square of white chocolate costing £110. Don’t be fooled: if you eat it, it will (a) taste horrible and (b) cause your entire world to collapse. Also, please note that this isn’t my emergency passport – it belongs to someone called Jephso on Flickr. I would have taken a photo of mine, but I was too busy running through the streets of Dusseldorf like my trousers were on fire, and by the time my heart rate had returned to normal, I’d handed it over to Gatwick passport control. (Yep – it lasted a single trip, no more).
Useful fact for UK Emergency Passporters in Düsseldorf: head out the front of the Consulate-General, head right, take the next right turn and head over the bridge. Note how the bridge is going over a train line, and also note how there’s a station on the opposite side. Once in the station, note how there’s a regular train to the airport. In the event that you’re in a bit of a hurry, this could save you some time. It could even be a life-saver.
T minus 0:30
The train sways, clanking through the outskirts of the city at a languid pace. I wrestle with the urge to pull open the driver’s cabin door, take control and floor the accelerator. Is it even possible I’ll make it? Can I even dare to hope?
T minus 0:10
“Excuse me! Entschuldigen Sie! Entschuldigen Sie bitte! Entschul…. oh for – OUT THE BLOODY WAY, I HAVE A PLANE TO CATCH!“
T plus 00:05
I’ve checked in.
I made it.
T plus 01:15
Um…what’s the delay? Oh, right, ok – it’s late arriving. So how long…? Ah. I see. It’s just that I need to get from Gatwick to inner London and I don’t have enough cash for the Gatwick Express so it’s the bus, so I really need to get to Victoria sharpish in order to get across the Underground and catch my Megabus back to York, and if anything goes wrong with this sequence of events I don’t actually have any way of paying for new tickets, because my cards have been stolen? And actually I’ve had quite a bad day already and I really don’t want anything else to….
Train Connection From London St. Pancras to East Midlands Parkway (Megabus ticket) – T minus 00:00:30.
I’m running down the outside of a train that’s clearly ready for departure. Someone blows a whistle and raises their arm, and I charge at them. I’m in an addled state. It’s 10:24pm, and for the last 20 minutes I’ve been running through the Underground system, diving in & out of trains and pounding down tiled corridors, because my National Express bus from Gatwick got me to Victoria way later than the train would have. In short: I’m not in my right mind.
I shout “STOP THE CLOCK!”.
Images: Jephso and Mike Sowden.