Many study abroad programs have just gotten under way. For a number of students, they just received their first and potentially only foreign stamp in their passport, the golden ticket to seeing the world outside one’s own country. I love my old, now expired passport. I love looking back through it. The stamps and visas remind me of the few years I spent enjoying a higher proportion of international travel than the years prior or since.
The passport is proof of my travels. It is a souvenir. It’s a bare bones scrap book, if I were a scrap booker. It is a keepsake. The time span it covers is from my first study abroad experience in 2001 to visiting friends in London in 2008. There are two personal “highlights” – if you will – of the collection. One is a stamp, the other a visa.
Way back on page 20 is a solitary stamp. This blue-green inked rectangle marks some exciting and important firsts for me: first major continental getaway, first overnight train, and first time to Eastern Europe. It was fall 2001 and I was traveling with four other girls. The plan was Prague, a stop in Vienna, and then some would return to the Netherlands, and others, myself included, would make a trip to Munich.
The reason this stamp is so coveted is not just because it denotes these firsts, but because this was the only stamp given in the Czech Republic – to any of us. When we entered the country we didn’t receive a stamp; it happened on our way out. We were on the train passing through the border city of Břeclav on our way to Austria. The patrolman went around our train carriage looking through each of our passports. Mine happened to be the last one he checked, and was, therefore, the lucky recipient of the stamp. I had the only (passport) proof we spent time in the Czech Republic.
I have four visas in my passport: one for the Netherlands, two for England, as the first one they put in had the wrong date on it, and one for Russia. This last one I think is pretty awesome, if for nothing else than having my name, or a close equivalent, written in Russian. I didn’t have an easy go at getting that visa. It took me two trips to the embassy in London in 2005. It was only open for a few hours in the morning and the queuing started early.
The first time I went, I just didn’t get there early enough. After standing in line for two hours and getting as close as 20 people between me and the front of the line, I went to class empty handed. The second time I went I arrived earlier. I also got sick, literally, and on the sidewalk. Fortunately, I had met a girl in line who was going on the same trip as me. She was gracious enough to hold my spot while I made my way to the nearest public restroom to clean up. Thank you, Starbucks, for really being on every corner. Though I felt terrible and still nauseous, I rallied as I was determined not to have to get up at 5AM again. And I was rewarded for my efforts and sacrifices by being granted entrance and receiving my visa. In the end, the trip was more than worth the hassle.
I now have a new passport and I have yet to hand it over to an immigration officer of a foreign nation, have them turn to any empty page, and place their stamp on the (overly) decorative paper. I can’t wait to see what stamps fill it up.