Passports, Unicorns, and Rainbows

Posted on January 25, 2021


COVID has, like it has with most others, put a crimp in my style. I spent part of yesterday dusting the line of shoes that sit on a top shelf in my closet, knowing that as soon as I finished, the dust would start collecting again. I’m pretty good about tossing clothes I don’t love anymore. Those have gotten a stay of execution because they now simply provide texture to a closet that remains untouched, day after day. My drivers license expired eight months ago, but who’s keeping track?

I thought today I would write about something that, during Normal Times, would simply have been a utilitarian item, but is now the symbol, for me, of Life Before: my passport. I look at it wistfully every now and then and don’t even mind the atrocious photo of me that graces it’s first page. The stamps, most of them indecipherable, still indicate that I have been, verifiably, Somewhere.

I subscribe to the World’s Most Amazing Website, It’s a wealth of anything and everything that I never really thought about, but should have. A compendium of extravagant trivia, an homage to whatever no one else is thinking about. Messy won’t tell you where to dine in Paris. It will tell you about an obscure book of 19th century poetry devoted to the fork. A few days ago, Messy had a piece entitled “A Curious Journey Through the Story of the Passport.” I realized it was exactly what I needed now, at a time when my gym shoes feel rooted in concrete. I devoured it.

Americans, by and large, don’t like to travel anywhere that has anything different than what they have at home. This defeats the very idea of travel, and generally makes the idea of travel past the confines of the US something they can’t understand. In 2018, less than half of the American population still weren’t in possession of a passport. Some have passports but don’t go anywhere. Many of those without passports have the financial means to travel. They simply choose not to.

My parents, thanks to living in countries populated by people who were suspicious of their very existence, were forced to become world travelers at an early age. Once they arrived here, their feet firmly planted on American soil, their traveling days were over. Newly married, Then Husband and I planned a trip to Europe, paid for in its entirety by living solely on Then Husband’s monthly grad school fellowship (our food budget was $10 per week) and saving all of my monthly fellowship. I told my dad that I was going. His response was “Europe? Why would you go to Europe? Everyone is trying to leave.” My father, whose reality was shaped by a childhood of poverty and persecution, had numerous other ideas to which his American-born daughter couldn’t relate.

I simply wanted to see the world, when, at that time, I had barely seen my own country. It was, for me at that time and without any financial resources, a ridiculous goal. My first passport was the stuff of magic, akin to unicorns and rainbows. In 1952 passports were required for anyone traveling from and back to the US. Most other places on the planet required passports. But there were anomalies. In 1967, Paul McCartney was headed to France. He realized he had forgotten his passport. He got a piece of paper, wrote “You know who I am” and presented it at the airport. He was allowed to fly. On the other hand, Rameses II (who died sometime in 1213 BC) required a passport so that his remains could travel to Paris for study. The Egyptian government did indeed issue the ancient pharaoh a passport.

I flip through my passport now, as well as the expired passports I have saved. As I did back then, I dream now of going, simply going. I vow that, when that happens, I won’t mind the expense or long lines or the wait times or the cramped planes. I won’t mind that my screen is the only one on the plane that seems to be malfunctioning. I won’t even mind that I need something that I inadvertently put into my checked suitcase.

I will be in the air. I will be flying. I will be headed toward whatever is the destination of my choice, in order to experience whatever I can’t experience at home. I will be confused and sometimes frustrated by new languages, new food, new customs, new belief systems. I do so because I will be reminded every single minute that I am one small citizen of this immense world, and that world is overwhelming and unwieldy and always absolutely fascinating. I will give myself over to whatever awaits. I have a passport. My precious passport will take me there.

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Posted in: travel