Like many people, I have trouble picking a favorite movie, a favorite food or a favorite song. But I have always been able to pick a favorite possession:
It has long been at the top of my list, ever since I got my first one as a teenager on a trip to Paris. I had never been overseas before, and at the airport, when I slid my passport under the glass, the French officer said,
“Vous ete Americain?”
And I said, “Oui.”
And he stamped my entrance to his country.
I know this sounds silly, but it made me feel as if someone had just opened the door to the world. This little blue book with my picture and my name was a passkey to new adventure. I open the pages and examined the stamp, the way a child examines a mirror when he loses his first tooth.
As the years passed, my passport grew fat. The summer I went to Europe with a college buddy, I collected the triangle stamp of British customs, the blue square stamp of Austria (with a little crest that says “Republik Osterreich”) and the very official looking black hexagon stamp of Bundesrepublik Deutschland West Germany which at the time was still separated from its eastern cousin.
A few years later, I scooped up stamps from Ireland, Switzerland and Sweden, which, you may note, has three blue crowns in between the words
“Swedish” and “Customs.”
One time I entered the tiny republic of Liechtenstein, a country with fewer citizens than most American towns. They didn’t have a stamp at the border. I drove to the center of the capital city and paid 25 cents to get one.
“You’re nuts,” a friend said to me.
Maybe. But I got it. And years later, when I flipped through my passport, I saw the page with the Liechtenstein stamp and I laughed.
Been there, done that
This, of course, always has been the joy of passports. You can flip through them like a photo album to remind you of where you’ve been. And, even better than photos, they show the wear and tear of your travels. The corners fray. The pages crinkle. I keep my passport in my front pants pocket and it bends to fit my thigh. So to some degree, my passport is even shaped like me.
I like watching it age and fray, more than I like watching myself do the same. I love the way it fills with the colors and idiosyncrasies of the world. A stamp from Australia, a big country, appropriately, takes up the whole page. A stamp from Korea is in pink ink with four symbols I cannot recognize. I also have an ominous-looking stamp from East Germany with a handwritten signature from the border guard, who stood beside a German shepherd when he signed it. East Germany is history now. So my passport has permission to enter a country that no longer exists.
I love that. When time came for me to get a new passport, I was crushed. The woman at the agency told me to send in my old one, but I demanded that it be returned once a new one was issued. I put the old one in a drawer, then set out to fill the crisp pages of the new one with as many stamps as I could gather, inky proof that I had been places and seen things.
Brave new world
But now there is a problem. On a recent trip to Europe, I was reminded of a new trend. No visas required. Relaxed border control. In most cases, if they take your passport, they do not stamp it. And going between many countries, you don’t need one at all.
I was recently driving from Italy and Austria. At the Italian border, the guard, munching on a sandwich, simply waved me through, didn’t even want me to roll down the window. A few days later, on the return trip, I passed through the Austrian border without hitting the brake. No one was even in the booths.
This is the new detente. It is supposed to be for the good — and I’m sure, in a global sense, it is. But I miss the borders, the stamps, the guards who examined you closely before permitting your entry. It made the countries seem unique and more mysterious.
The truth is, today it is hard to tell Hamburg from Barcelona or Milan from Oslo. The world is melting more and more into one big city, with a Hard Rock Cafe, a Hilton and a Benetton store.
On this recent trip, out of frustration, I finally asked a guard if he would stamp my passport. He rolled his eyes, took out his stamp and delivered that sweet click-and-thump sound. Ba-chunk.
Then he handed it back and looked me over. I thought about explaining why this still meant so much to me. Instead I ran my fingers over the ink, smiled at the man, then put my passport in my pocket and moved on, feeling duly noted that I had indeed been somewhere special.