Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sud de France - Major Detour de France

We emerged at the top of the rock, walked to the edge and looked out over Nice, sprawling from the Mediterranean shore. I took a deep breath, taking it all in… and then my jaw dropped… where was the bag… THE BAG…

The view disappeared as I poured over recollections of our last steps. When had I last seen the bag? Nothing came, and then a glimpse - on the bench by the beach. Right. I told Chris to wait and legged it back down the rock. Reaching the bottom I sprinted across the road, hurdling a fence with sufficient clumsiness to catch my toe, do a triple commando roll on the concrete and emerge back into a run (only later would I find I screwed my wrist, not to fully fix for months). I made it back to the bench and… nothing. Shit. Fuck. Balls!
The contents of the bag flicked through my head with horror. Wallet, documents, tom tom, sunnies, phones and… all our passports. Shit. Shit! Had we left it? Had it been snatched? Did it matter? Where was the BAG?

After a frantic look around the surrounding area I rushed back up the hill to Chris. She look worried, which turned to aghast when I reported back my findings (or lack thereof). She was unsurprisingly not impressed. We were stuck in the southern corner of France with no passports, two small kids and a fast growing baby in Chris’ tummy.

Looking for half positives, we still had one phone, one wallet and the keys for the rental car. Thankfully these had been in my pocket.
We strapped the kids in the double buggy and rushed back down to the beach for another desperate search. Nothing. Having gone as far as checking all bins and dark corners within nearly a half mile, we were left with a trip to the police station. Unfortunately for us, it was a major festival day in Nice, Festival des Fleur, and therefore a major crime day. The queue of people waiting to report an array of offences stretched through the entrance hall.
Two hours later, via much waiting and a bemusing interaction with an Atari’esque bureaucratic French police reporting tool, we left with a police report, but no hope of finding our stuff.

HOW TO GET HOME?

With flights booked for the next morning there was only one place to go. The airport. We must have seemed like a hopeless case, a one year old, two year old, visibly pregnant woman and me walking up to the BA till announcing we had lost our passports and asking how we could get home. To my pleasant surprise, BA were fantastic. While there was no way they could let us on a flight without passports, they gave us their sympathy and free any time transferable flights from Paris to London.

You may be thinking - “But Paris is nowhere near Nice”. Indeed it is not. If it were just the boys and me we could have rocked up at the British consulate in Marseille the next day, received our temporary passports and boarded a flight home. Chris is though Greek and, in case you had missed the news for the last few years, Greece does not have the cash to keep luxuries such as full service consulates in second cities. The Greek embassy was in Paris, so Paris it had to be.

On returning back to our hotel in Cannes, we were greeted with huge warmth and help by the awesome owners, whipping up a free home cooked meal and letting us use their phone for free. We spent the evening planning next steps, getting our hands on some Paris bound TGV tickets for the next morning and a cheap hotel room in which to stay once we got there.


PARISIAN DETOUR

I felt a little like a fugitive boarding the TGV in Nice with a whole family but no real identification. Luckily no one asked. As the only remaining tickets had been first class, that is what we purchased and spent the next 6 hours whizzing through the expanse of the French countryside at up to 300 kmph, doing our best to keep the kids entertained with cards, books and snacks.
The time passed like a breeze. High speed rail leaves me in a pleasant daze, what with the hyper-strewn views distorting both the time and places passed. Still, this unexpected side trip reminded me of just how large our Gallic neighbour is.

When in Paris, things seemed to be working out. The people in the hotel were friendly and our room was just big enough to squeeze in. Before knocking out for the night, we peered out our window and were surprised by a framed view of the Eiffel Tower sparkling on the hour. I still hold that it is an ugly glorified pylon by day, but at night it is magnificent.
We set off early the next morning to the embassies, hitting the Greek one first. It was situated just up from the Arc de Triomphe, a short packed metro ride from our hotel.  The door was shut and no one answered the bell. On looking to the side we found a small note stuck to a door. It announced that the embassy was shut for the day. Come back tomorrow. Unbeknown to us, it was little heralded holiday for Greek public servants. We were not impressed. For the first time, Chris began to get rather stressed. Not surprising for a four month pregnant lady who had Greek public inefficiency blocking her way to getting home.
All we could do was move on to the British consulate, a short walk down the Champs Elysees and left at the Place de Concorde. There things were amiable, relatively efficient and expensive. Two hours later we walked out with three new shiny temporary passports for the tidy sum of GBP 285. They were just like the normal ones, but coloured a sickly cream and with less pages.
There was nothing more we could do until the Greek embassy re-opened, so we did our best to enjoy the city. And we did a pretty good job. Trip round the Louvre, a boat ride on the Seine and various stops to pretty corner cafes for refreshment. Every time I go to Paris I appreciate it a bit more. An unsurpassed combination of man made beauty, style and attitude. 

BACK TO THE GREEK EMBASSY

We were back at the Greek embassy first thing the next morning. The day before had been fun, but we were keen to get home. Forgetting for a second that we were already two days late for work and I had run out of underwear (I could live with that), we were running short on baby paraphernalia and pregnancy related medical appointments called in Blighty.

We pushed the buzzer and, after a nerve inducing long pause, were relieved to be buzzed in. To my eternal astonishment we walked out 30 minutes later with a temporary Greek passport. They were so Greek, mostly in a good way. Seeing a pregnant woman, they rushed her straight in and after a nice chat the official gave Chris her new document. Somewhat predictably, there was a catch.

In stark contrast to the full security, micro-chipped British temporary passports, the Greek embassy provided us with a piece of paper. A photocopied, ever so slightly crumpled piece of standard A4 paper. I admit it was nice of them to put an ink stamp on it and staple Chris’ photo to the top. They even went as far to add “via London” after the printed “valid for travel to Athens”. Despite their efforts, it still looked like a 10 years old’s forgery. 

This made us a tad nervous, but there was nothing we could do about it, so we booked flights for that evening and went off to see more of Paris. First stop Notre Dame.

CHARLES DE GAULLE

Trying to look as confident as possible, we walked up to the check-in desk and provided the lady with our documents. She flicked through the replacement British passports without a word. She then held up the Greek “passport”, peered at it for some time, scrutinised it a bit more, paused, and asked - “What is this?”

I explained, again calmly, that this was the Greek equivalent of those shiny new British documents she had just passed and is valid to take us home. The lady looked slightly baffled and went back to discuss with her supervisors. Chris and I exchanged nervous looks. The lady returned to explain that this was not a valid travel document. I, a bit more sternly, explained that this was the only type of temporary passport the Greek embassy issues, it was valid and would be getting us on the flight. She walked away again to discuss with her supervisors.

By this point, our two small boys were starting to get upset. We did not discourage them. A bit more ruckus and tears would only put more pressure on the check-in staff.

The lady returned with her supervisor, who pointed out that the document said “via London” rather than “to London”. British Airways would not therefore let us on a plane to London when they knew we intended to disembark there (rather than continue on to Athens). This was not funny. If Chris was only permitted to return to Athens then we were screwed. She would not be able to return to the UK until she had been issued a new passport in Greece, the waiting list was currently six months and she was due to give birth in just over four. Even forgetting about the fact that we had jobs to return to, we were facing the prospect of either being separated or locked out the UK until we had had the new baby. Not funny!

Needless to say I made my point rather more forcefully. The “via London” was just the way the Greek embassy did it. There was nothing else they issue and, despite what the piece of paper looked like, it was valid and WE WOULD BE GETTING ON TO THE PLANE. If they were not able to make this decision then they would need to escalate, escalate and escalate again until someone was.
And, eventually, that is what happened. After another 15 minutes stewing, refusing to move from the front of the queue, we were informed that they would let us on the plane. It had been signed off by the head of immigration at Paris Charles de Gaulle.

We quickly gave token thanks, loaded our luggage on and headed for the plane. We did not want to give them a chance to change their minds.

UK IMMIGRATION

There was only one hurdle left, UK immigration. Would they accept the flimsy joke document and waive us into the country? Yes, and with barely any hesitation. We did not care why. What could have been a mini disaster had worked out alright and given us an unexpected side trip to one of the great cities of the world. I have always loved the twists and turns of travel, but, for once, was happy to be home.

POST NOTE - Without any explanation as to how, Chris' stolen passport turned up six months later at her local police station in Athens. Mine and the boys' are still MIA.
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