Wednesday, May 5, 2010

the stockholm chronicles: chapter one

disaster strikes (in which your narrator is embarrassingly irresponsible)

My flights to Amsterdam and Stockholm were pretty uneventful. The volcanic ash was light. The wine was free. The in-flight movie screens were teeny tiny. I did sit next to a lovely Norwegian named Mari, who is afraid of flying and spent our take-off and landing clutching my hand in a vice-like grip. Apparently, fear of flight knows no language barrier. Upon my arrival my best friend Elen was there to greet me and take me home to her apartment where I promptly fell asleep on her bed. All was well for the first couple of days, until I made an alarming discovery. My passport was gone. Yes my friends, I lost my passport. The traveller's worst nightmare. I didn't tell anyone other than Elen right away as 1) I didn't want anyone to worry about me (especially my mother), and 2) I was horribly embarrassed. It's one thing to have your passport stolen, but in Sweden, robberies occur about as often as I clean my apartment. Very rarely. When anything embarrassing happens, my first instinct is complete denial. But over the years I've learned that the best way to get over a mortifying experience is to have a laugh at your own expense and then tell your tale, both so that your friends and family can get in on laugh and also so that they can learn from your mistakes.

The last time I'd had my passport out of my bag was when I boarded my flight in Amsterdam. Since I didn't need to take it out again, it was a few days before I noticed that it was missing. Upon that discovery, I uttered some un-ladylike curse words, then gulped down the panic and went to the Stockholm U.S. Embassy website. I'd hoped to give them a call, just to hear a reassuring voice and have someone walk me through the process, but the American Embassy in Stockholm only takes phone calls from 1:00 to 2:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. I know, right? Their offices are only open from 9:00 to 11:00 am, and so it was here that I learned my first lesson: American Embassies have bizarre hours. I learned on their website that I would need to come in with new passport photos, a police report for the lost passport, as well as all identification that I had brought with me to Sweden. The police report was easy enough. Again, Swedes seem to be missing the crime gene that's so prevalent in America, so the station was quiet and I think the woman who assisted me was just excited to have something to do. The process was quick and painless. What was not as easy was getting my passport photo.

You see, for some reason, American passports use a different size photograph than, um, pretty much every other country. So not only do you need to find an establishment that can take your picture, you've got to find one that offers American sizing. If you check a U.S. Embassy website and it mentions that there is a passport photo machine in their building: DO NOT BELIEVE THEM! They will have one, but it will be broken. By the time Elen and I located an establishment that could accommodate my needs, it was eight minutes til close. We broke into a powerful sprint-walk, and though the doors were closing just as we arrived, a friendly employee took pity on us and let us inside. This is why my temporary passport features a photograph of me in which my bangs are wind-blown and my face is a bright cherry red. I look forward to taking a new picture shortly.

Once I had the necessary documents, it was time to give my friendly American Embassy a visit. Losing your passport is a stressful experience, but I knew that when I crossed over that threshold to American soil, I'd feel safe and reassured. I took the bus over to the Stockholm street that may as well be known as "Embassy Row." It was bordered by a lush green park, and the embassies themselves were beautiful dark brick buildings. The air was brisk and the sidewalk was wet from rain the night before. As I walked past Italy, South Korea, and Germany, I knew everything was going to be okay. Then I saw the American Embassy. You'll know the United States Embassy becuase in this sea of friendly architecture and foliage, it is the giant gray rectangular building that looks straight out of the Eastern Bloc. It is an oasis of depressing bureaucracy. My favorite feature was that, unlike the other embassies, visitors have to line up outside a guard station on the sidewalk. You can't go in and wait. I queued up with other Americans and the Swedes applying for visas and waited. For a while. The brisk chill that I'd been enjoying earlier settled into an unfriendly cold as the rain resumed. As we all hopped in place, trying to stay warm, the guards finally began to call us one by one to go through security. Inside was a waiting room full of cranky people, both American and Swedish, and I can tell you that I will never complain about the DMV again. It was hot, crowded, and there were crying babies everywhere. Fortunately I'd brought a book with me, so I did my best to tune out my surroundings and catch up on my reading. Eventually someone took down my information, and told me that my passport would be ready by 2:00 pm. Finally, I was approaching the homestretch.

the American Embassy in Stockholm, looking as chipper as it gets

Since I had a couple of hours to kill, I settled in at a Japanese restaurant and consumed copious amounts of sushi. I continued to devour my novel as well, but I decided that I should head back so that I could be back at the embassy early. I arrived about half til 2:00 and approached the guard booth. "We don't let anyone in until 2:00." "Not even to wait inside for a passport?" "No. 2.00. Exactly." I was stuck outside in the cold. Again. I should have stayed at the restaurant. At least this time I was first in line. When the guards finally let me go through security at five past the hour, I made my approach to the dreaded waiting room of waiting. It was completely deserted. I was alone and it was disconcerting. Free of the previous throng, the room had actually become quite cold, so I snuggled up in a corner chair and waited for my name to be called. I thought about getting a snack or a soda, but all of the vending machines were empty. There also did not appear to be a restroom. An employee finally came over to let me know that they were having computer issues and that I would have to wait another hour, so I continued to wait and shiver.

When my passport was ready, a wave of relief washed over me. Sure, I looked like crap in my new photograph, but it was only temporary. Now that I've shared my story, I hope that you, dear reader, can learn from my experience and know what to do if you ever lose your passport in a foreign country. But I will remind you, the best strategy is to never lose it at all. I know I'll never lose mine again, since as soon as I receive my new permanent passport I am having it surgically implanted in my forearm. Getting it renewed might be a little painful, but at least I'll have peace of mind.

more adventures from Sweden to follow...


Anonymous said...


elen said...

beautifully told my dear. i was shivering along with you in the waiting room. but definitely tell of the happier times we had. like GAGA!!!!