Adventures from Back of Beyond

Friday, October 09, 2009

Reversal of Fortune

When my passport was stolen in Europe, my world caved in.

I was 21 years old, traveling solo over a several month period with a backpack on my back. While staying in a youth hostel in Innsbruck, Austria, I made the mistake of leaving my passport -- and all my critical travel documents, including my return flight ticket home and Eurail pass – in the pocket of my jacket. Someone watched me leave them there when I set the jacket down on my bunk to take a shower.

When I returned not more than 5 minutes later, they were gone.

I didn’t know what to do. Without a passport, you can’t cross a border. Without a Eurail pass I wasn’t going anywhere. Without a return flight, I wasn’t going home.

I had carefully budgeted for this trip, and certainly didn’t have enough money to replace the Eurail pass or flight home, both big ticket items.

I was crushed.

I went to the hostel office and asked them to make an announcement over their p.a. system to please turn in the passport if anyone found it. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. It didn’t. But I didn’t know what else to do.

That evening I looked around, suspiciously eyeing everyone in the hostel. Everyone was a suspect. But I had no leads, could do nothing. I felt helpless and lost.

I spent a restless, worried night in that hostel. At least they didn’t get my wallet which had my other ID, or my money. What little money I had left, anyway.

My first order of business was to try and get the passport replaced. Later I’d deal with the return flight and Eurail pass, if I could.

Innsbruck didn’t have an American consulate or embassy office capable of replacing a passport. I’d have to go to Vienna for that.

So I began planning. First, I couldn’t even find Vienna on the map. I searched and searched. There was “Wien”, the capital, but no Vienna. Only later did I discover that Wien and Vienna were one and the same. That time wasted only added to my growing frustration at my own stupidity.

Still, Vienna was too far away and in the wrong direction from where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Switzerland.

I’d heard of Switzerland’s famous neutrality, security, and efficiency. I’d never been there before, but it seemed to be a clean and welcoming place. This is where I wanted to go and try to get my stuff replaced, and Zurich – which did have an American consulate office capable of replacing a passport – was much closer to Innsbruck than Vienna.

But I had no Eurail pass. What to do? I decided to try hitchhiking.

I stood outside that dismal youth hostel with my thumb out, along a very busy boulevard with several lanes of traffic in both directions, for many discouraging hours. Car after car passed me. It was very depressing, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Finally, a little blue VW bug stopped. I got in.

Inside, a pleasant smiling young man was driving, and he fortunately spoke some English. I spoke some German, but not very well. We conversed mostly in English.

Turns out he was a medical student going to school in Vienna, and headed to his parent's home in a far western Austria. The fact that he was a med student was yet another instance of a recurring theme in my life, a theme of a certain group of people – in this case doctors, medical students, sons and daughters of doctors – playing an important and meaningful role in my life.

There’s another recurring theme in my life, a different group of people, but that’s another story.

I told this young medical student that my passport and other travel documents were stolen from me in the youth hostel, and I wanted to go to Switzerland to try and get them replaced. He listened patiently. And after hearing my wretched story, this man felt absolutely awful. He felt bad that here was a young American traveler, an innocent visitor to his country, and something so bad had happened, an unfortunate incident that reflected very poorly on his country.

He understood my predicament, and he was compassionate. This man decided to help me.

Soon he asked if I was hungry. Lord knows I hadn’t eaten a decent sit down meal in many weeks, on the tight budget that I was. He decided to stop for something to eat, and I remember that meal vividly.

We stopped at a nice restaurant in a stone building. He ordered, in German. First the wine came. Half a glass and I already was feeling better. Maybe things would work out. Then came a half chicken, baked, with potato and vegetable. Food hadn't tasted this good to me in a long time. He paid the bill, refusing any money from me.

It was amazing how much better I felt after a decent meal.

We continued on to the rural western part of Austria, his home. We discussed how I would get across the border without a passport. I hadn’t really given that much thought. I had no idea.

He came up with a plan. This was a rural part of the country without a lot of traffic, and he knew some of the border guards personally, from traveling regularly to Switzerland. He would tell the guards that I was his cousin visiting from the States, and we were just going across to buy cigarettes. Apparently Switzerland taxes them less than Austria, and many people make quick trips over just for this. I was to smile and keep my mouth shut.

When we got to the border, that’s exactly what I did, and that's exactly what happened. He showed his ID, told the story, and we were waved right on through.

My med student friend dropped me off a couple of miles down the road, out of sight of the border. He then returned back to Austria by a different route. But not before giving me the name and phone number of his friend in Italy that I was to look up later. This man was an angel.

So far so good. Now at least I was in Switzerland. My savior drove off, and I again stood on the side of the road and stuck out my thumb.

I knew my luck had significantly changed when within just a few minutes a beautiful young woman in an expensive new Mercedes sedan stopped to pick me up.

I got in, and off we went. As a 21 year old kid, I was amazed at the circumstances. Within just a few hours, I went from the depths of despair to literally sitting in the lap of luxury. Quite a turnaround.

The Swiss woman took me right into Zurich, to an excellent, clean, modern, and cheap youth hostel. Dropped me off right at the door. This would turn out to be one of the very best youth hostels I would stay in anywhere I traveled over a six month period in Europe, in any country. The place even had hair dryers in the spotlessly clean bathrooms.

As it turned out, I was able to get my passport replaced quickly at the American consulate. I showed the officer my social security card and draft card still in my wallet, irrefutable identification. Once I produced passport photos, he issued a new replacement "Z" (for Zurich) numbered passport on the spot. I still have that expired passport today.

The Air Canada office in Zurich reissued my return flight ticket home. At the suggestion of my father before I left home, I fortunately had written down my ticket number on a little scrap of paper I kept separately in my wallet. That was a huge break.

I was unable to get the Eurail pass replaced. But in the youth hostel I met another American who was going home and still had a few weeks left on a StudentRail pass. He let me have it, and I used it to travel to several more countries before it expired.

I even found a paying job in Zurich, dropping off phone books at residences and businesses.

Coming from the depths of a collapsed world, this was a definite reversal of fortune.

3 Comments:

  • Wow, sounds like an amazing trip.. especially as a 21 year old. That's my pop! proud to say it

    By Blogger Max, at 1:26 AM  

  • what an adventure...why i love to travel..no matter what happens to you, good or bad, you learn something and usually meet amazing people along the way, and are challenged in ways like you've never been before. Always a challenge, always enriching

    By Anonymous Kara, at 3:35 PM  

  • Hello,

    I absolutely love your post and I would like to talk to you about republishing it on our website.

    I couldn't find any contact information, so if you can please e-mail me at isabella@accessMyId.com I would be very thankful.

    Cheers!

    By Anonymous Isabella F., at 11:26 AM  

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