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No passports; will travel: a major Detour in France


We made it to the top of the rock, walked to the edge and looked out over Nice, sprawling from the Mediterranean shore. I took in the spectacle with a deep breath and a smile… and then my jaw dropped… where was the bag… THE BAG…?

The view disappeared as I pored over our last steps. When had I last seen the bag? Nothing came, and then a glimpse – on the bench by the beach. Damn. I asked my wife to wait with the kids and legged it back down the rock. Reaching the bottom already out of breath, I sprinted across the road, hurdling a fence with sufficient clumsiness to catch my toe, do a commando roll on the concrete and just about emerge back into a run (incidentally damaging my wrist for the next 6 months). I made it back to the bench and… nothing. Aaaagh!!

The contents of the bag flicked through my head with horror. Wallet, documents, sat nav, sunglasses, phones and… all our passports. Nightmare! Had we left it? Had it been snatched? Did it matter? Where was the BAG?

Last sighting of missing bag

After a frantic look around the surrounding area I rushed back up the rock to my family. My wife looked worried, which turned to aghast when I reported my findings (or lack thereof). She was unsurprisingly not impressed. We were stuck in the southern corner of France with no passports, two small kids and a fast-growing baby in her tummy.

Looking for half positives, we still had one phone, one wallet and the keys for the rental car. Thankfully these had been in my pocket.

We strapped the kids in the double buggy and rushed back down to the beach for another desperate search. Nothing. Having gone as far as checking all bins and dark corners within nearly a half mile, we were left with a trip to the police station. Unfortunately for us, it was Festival des Fleur, a major festival day in Nice, and therefore a major crime day. The queue of people waiting to report an array of offences stretched out the door.

Two hours later, via much waiting and a bemusing interaction with an Atari’esque bureaucratic French police reporting tool, we left with a police report, but no hope of finding our stuff.

HOW TO GET HOME?

With flights booked for the next morning we rushed to the airport. We must have seemed like a hopeless case, a one year old, two year old, visibly pregnant woman and me walking up to the BA till announcing we had lost our passports and pleading for help getting home. To my pleasant surprise, BA were great. While there was no way they could let us on a flight without passports, they gave us sympathy and free any-time transferable flights from Paris to London.

You may be thinking – “But Paris is nowhere near Nice”. Indeed it is not. If it were just the boys and me, we could have rocked up at the British consulate in Marseille the next day, received our temporary passports and boarded a flight home. My wife is though Greek and, in case you had missed the news for the last few years, Greece does not have the cash to keep luxuries such as full-service consulates in second cities. The Greek embassy was in Paris, so Paris it had to be.

On returning to our hotel in Cannes, we were greeted with huge warmth and help by the owners, whipping up a home cooked meal and letting us use their phone sans charge. We spent the evening planning next steps and getting our hands on some Paris bound TGV tickets for the next morning.

PARISIAN DETOUR

I felt a little like a fugitive boarding the TGV in Nice with a whole family but no ID. Luckily no-one asked. As the only remaining tickets had been first class, that is what we purchased and spent the next 6 hours whizzing through the expanse of the French countryside at up to 300 kmph, doing our best to keep the kids entertained with limited props.

The time passed like a breeze. High speed rail leaves me in a pleasant daze, what with the hyper-strewn views distorting both the time and places passed. Still, this unexpected side trip reminded me of just how large France is.

When in Paris, things seemed to be working out. The people in the hotel were friendly and our last minute room just big enough to squeeze in. Before knocking out for the night, we peered out our window and were surprised by a framed view of the Eiffel Tower sparkling on the hour. I still hold that it is an ugly glorified pylon by day, but at night it is magnificent.

We set off early the next morning to the embassies, hitting the Greek one first. It was situated just up from the Arc de Triomphe, a short, packed metro ride from our hotel. The door was shut and no one answered the bell. On looking to the side we found a small note stuck to a door. It announced that the embassy was shut for the day. Come back tomorrow. Unbeknown to us, it was little heralded holiday for Greek public servants. We were not impressed. For the first time, my wife began to get rather stressed. Not surprising for a heavily pregnant lady who had Greek public inefficiency blocking her way to getting home.

All we could do was move on to the British consulate, a short walk down the Champs Elysees and left at the Place de Concorde. There things were amiable, efficient and expensive. Two hours later we walked out with three new shiny temporary passports for the tidy sum of GBP 285. They were just like the normal ones, but coloured a sickly cream and with less pages.

There was nothing more we could do until the Greek embassy re-opened, so we did our best to enjoy the city. And we did a pretty good job. A trip round the Louvre, boat ride on the Seine and various stops to pretty corner cafes for refreshment. Every time I go to Paris I appreciate it a bit more. An unsurpassed combination of man-made beauty, style and attitude.

BACK TO THE EMBASSY

We were back at the Greek embassy first thing the next morning. The day before had been fun, but we were keen to get home. Forgetting for a second that we were already two days late for work and I had run out of underwear (I could live with that), we were running short on baby paraphernalia.

We pushed the buzzer and, after a nerve inducing long pause, were relieved to be buzzed in. To my eternal astonishment we walked out 30 minutes later with a temporary Greek passport. Seeing a pregnant woman, they rushed her straight in and after a nice chat the official gave my wife her new document. Somewhat predictably, there was a catch.

In stark contrast to the full security, micro-chipped British temporary passports, the Greek embassy provided us with a piece of paper. A photocopied, ever so slightly crumpled piece of standard A4 paper. I admit it was nice of them to put an ink stamp on it and staple her photo to the top. They even went as far to add “via London” after the printed “valid for travel to Athens”. Despite their efforts, it still looked like a 10 year old’s forgery.

This made us a tad nervous, but there was nothing we could do about it, so we booked flights for that evening and went off to see more of Paris. First stop Notre Dame.

CHARLES DE GAULLE

Trying to look as confident as possible, we walked up to the check-in desk and provided the lady with our documents. She flicked through the replacement British passports without a word. She then held up the Greek “passport”, peered at it for some time, scrutinised it a bit more, paused, and asked – “What is this?”

I explained, calmly, that this was the Greek equivalent of those shiny new British documents she had just passed and is valid to take us home. The lady looked slightly baffled and went back to discuss with her supervisors. My wife and I exchanged nervous looks. The lady returned to explain that this was not a valid travel document. I explained that, unprofessional as it looked, this was the only type of temporary passport the Greek embassy issues, it was valid and would be getting us on the flight. She walked away again to discuss with her supervisors.

By this point, our two small boys were losing the plot. We did not discourage them. A bit more ruckus and tears would likely help our cause.

The lady returned with her supervisor, who pointed out that the document said “via London” rather than “to London”. BA would not therefore let us on a plane to London when they knew we intended to end our journey there. This was not funny. If my wife was only permitted to return to Athens then we were screwed. She would not be able to return to the UK until she had been issued a new passport in Greece, the waiting list was currently six months and she was due to give birth in much less. We were facing the prospect of either being separated or locked out the UK until we had had the new baby. Not funny!

Getting desperate, I made my point more forcefully, while the kids wailed. We would be getting on the plane! Once, twice, three times it came back as a no, while I willed them to escalate and escalated again. After what felt like an age stewing and with the doors of the plane about to close, we were given the go ahead by no less that the head of immigration at Paris Charles de Gaulle.

We gave rapid, token thanks before they could change their mind and legged it to the plane.

BACK IN BLIGHTY

There was only one hurdle left, UK immigration. Would they accept the flimsy joke document and waive us into the country? Yes, and with barely any hesitation. We did not care why. What could have been a mini disaster had worked out alright and given us an unexpected side trip to one of the great cities of the world. I have always loved the twists and turns of travel, but, for once, was happy to be home.

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