Saturday 1st June, 46th Year, 14:30
I am on a train. The train is about to cross the border from France to Italy. I do not have a valid travel document. By which I mean passport. I do not have a valid passport. I did have a valid passport of course, but then, along with some extremely soiled clothes, I washed it. At 60 degrees.
If you’ve ever washed a passport at 60 degrees, you’ll know that the ensuing damage is more than enough to make your passport invalid. Despite the fact that the important page remains more or less intact – being as it is laminated – the rest of the passport ends up looking like this…
When I did this undeniably stupid thing a few days ago, I posted something about it on Facebook and was told by a friend who used to work in immigration that travelling from France to Italy without a passport would not be a problem because of something called the Schengen Agreement. Another person confirmed this. I then did a quick search online and other conversations on TripAdvisor or some such instilled in me enough confidence to think that I wouldn’t have a problem. So I did nothing about it, figuring I’d have three months in Italy – a country with a language I speak – to arrange a new passport.
There are three French border police at the end of the carriage. They are working their way towards me, asking to see people’s passports, glaring at the documents through what look like hi-tech magnifying glasses. A tiny cuss-word falls from my mouth but my heart does nothing, which is interesting.
Finally they reach me and I hand my novelty passport, fused gob and all, to a shaven-headed policeman. As I do so, I say, in a combination of French and Italian, ‘I may have a small problem.’
When the policeman opens up the document, he makes a shocked noise and, as if at a disrespectful remark in church, chortles sharply. I wonder which excuse to attempt to translate into French. Either ‘I had a bit of an accident with a washing machine’ or ‘A friend on the internet told me everything would be alright’. They both sound pretty flimsy if I’m honest, and my French would mangle them even further, so as I’m handing over my expired Italian ID card, I say, in Italian, ‘May I speak in Italian?’
The French policeman takes my Italian ID card and tells me in English that it’s OK. ‘You ‘ave zis,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but….’ And I am about to say, ‘But it expired in 2006, and I was never actually allowed to leave the country with it’, but something, thankfully, stops me.
Without checking the expiry date, the policeman hands both invalid documents back to me and, with his shaven-headed colleagues, he moves on.
I glance at the Spanish woman opposite me – the one who has made me think impure thoughts all the way from Paris – and I flash her a relieved smile. Then I stare out the window at the pine-covered, snow-capped Alps and for the next ten minutes or so, I imagine the policeman and his colleagues returning through the same door and asking me to follow them to the torture room.
I am in Bardonecchia. Despite the fact that the driver announced ‘Bardonique’, the signs are in Italian and I’m beginning to feel confident that I’ve made it. I feel like Mr Nice. I thank good fortune, or incompetence, or Schengen. I find myself smiling. Italy is beautiful.
Now all I have to do figure out where I’m going to stay tonight. No one I know in Bologna knows I’m on my way, as I didn’t tell them, and I have no telephone, or rather SIM card, and no way of getting one without a valid passport.
Being wildly disorganised is fun.