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May the force of the human spirit be with you

How to travel around Europe without a passport, money or a credit card

Elisabeth Lang, eTN Germany  Sep 12, 2011

(eTN) - I just returned from a new experience - getting around Europe without an ID, without a passport, and without any money. And people make a fuss about making their way through the airports.

On Monday, I was in my car heading to Italy for a meeting. After driving around 200 km and reaching the border between Germany and Austria, it was then that I realized I had forgotten my purse, which meant I had no passport, no credit card, and no money.

I had the idea to to head for the border of Switzerland, but then decided to leave the highway at Lugano and head for Gandria - a small border town to get to Italy. There, I got stuck in a 6 km-long queue to Italy with all the daily frontaliers. The police waved me through, and I waved back.

Luckily, I found 2 euros under my car seat, as I then had to take a car ferry to cross Lake Como to Bellagio. The only problem was the passage was 10 euros. The ferry operator asked for my credit card, my bancomat card, more money, explaining it was 10 euros for passage. I said had no more money but promised to pay the next time. "Okay then," he said, and my car and I left on the ferry.

The next day there was a general strike in Italy, and no public transportation was available at all. I was beyond lucky.

When arriving and parking at the hotel, I began talking to the people in the car next to me about my unplanned adventure. They were from New York and asked me to join them for dinner, also asking if there was anything they could do to help.

Later that night, a honeymoon couple joined us for dinner. This young bride was interesting to say the least. She said she was from Dallas, Texas, and was selling F-16s to every country who needed to be bombed, although it would be 8 years before the F-16s could be delivered.

The next morning, I went to an Italian bank and told them I needed money, but I had no bank card, no ID, no nothing. What I did have was a good memory for numbers, and upon giving them my bank account number, they gave me money.

Later, I ran into my new American friends who asked me if I had read the bestseller book by Dorothea Benton Frank for which she had done remarkable music research on Porgy & Bess. Um, no, of course not, I was thinking, and in the next instant they excalimed, "Oh no... it is her - right behind you!" And yes, it really was Dorothea Benton Frank, the New York Times bestselling author of Lowcountry Summer (William Morrow 2010), Return to Sullivan's Island (William Morrow 2009), Bulls Island, etc.

After that exciting unplanned meeting, I was watching Peter, the husband of the American couple, sitting down from a strange position as he looked at the interior rooftop of their rented BMW convertible; actually, everybody nearby was watching. Peter got out of the car and asked me if I could read German. Luckily I could and got into car, read the instructions, and was able to open the rooftop. They invited me to visit them in New York, a place I pass nearly every other day... from the other side of the ocean.

Later that same day, I left for Milan and stopped for a meeting in Como. As I was walking, I came upon a hairdresser in Como. I was telling her my remarkable story and wondering now how I was going to get to Florence seeing as how I couldn’t buy a train ticket without a credit card. She asked me how much money I needed and immediately went to an ATM to get me the money – no problem. She also gave me a new haircut, and I was then on my way to Milan.

In Milan, Piera was waiting to take me to Stazione Centrale. Under normal conditions, I would never ask her to do this, as there is a bus right round the corner, but under the circumstances, I had no choice. I arrived in Florence after an hour and 45 minutes on the train – don’t even ask me how I got there - and the next delegation was waiting for me - it was the Honorable Jane, acting Judge for the Supreme Court of Australia. She took me, without knowing I knew him, to the restaurant of Marchese Frescobaldi, who I had dinner with a couple of months ago in Munich.

Florence was so crowded that one could hardly walk around. All the cruise ships that used to go through the Mediterranean Sea down by Sicily, are now stopping in Livorno, which is only one hour away, so the cruise passengers are now invading Florence instead of Tunis or Cairo.

Early the next morning, I went back from Florence to Milan on the Frecciarossa, a very fast high-speed train, which sold “posti in piedi” (standing up tickets) at the same price as sitting tickets.

In Milan, my steadfast friend, Piera, was reading a book inside her car while she waited for me at the railway station. I later picked up my car, drove back to Germany - passing again the same 4 countries, the high Swiss Alps, and all these borders. At the border I was going to try to cross, the police were busy searching buses for “strange-looking” passengers, who were all sitting on the road (instead of the bus) with huge amounts of plastic bags and screaming children all around them. Nobody noticed me crossing the border, as I quietly headed for home.

And so here we are at the happy end of a true story.

How to travel around Europe without a passport, money or a credit card
Photo © E. Lang

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