April 20, 2019

The Berlin Emergency

I was invited to give a talk at SmartGridComm in Aalborg, Denmark in October 2018. The trip that I was looking forward to for a long time, turned out to be my worst so far, yet made me a much stronger person than I was.

A street in Darmstadt

After meeting up with my friends, Waqar and Costi, in Frankfurt, I decided to take the train to Berlin and then take a flight to Aalborg, Denmark. I messaged my college-hostel neighbor, Amit, to check if he had made it to the station. He said he would wait at the station.

We met at the station and decided to catch lunch at an Italian place before walking around Berlin. He suggested a self-serve Italian place at the station. We picked up our Penne Arrabiata Pasta and found a table. Time flew as we reminisced our college days and discussed his current stand-up comedy adventures. I looked at my watch; my time in Berlin was running out. I had planned to spend three hours in Berlin; I was down one. As we stood up to leave, I bent down to pick up my backpack, and it was missing.

The immediate reaction, of course, was panic. I could see the same horror on Amit's face. He had taken me to the restaurant where we placed both our bags down, but mine was missing now. The immediate thought racing through my mind was the conversation I had had with my dad, just the previous day.

"My classmate's wife works there in the Indian embassy, you should go visit them, or at least keep their number in case of emergency", he said.

"Why would anyone need to contact the embassy? Only if they lost their passport. I won't need it", I had remarked.

And there I stood, jinxed by own words. I had lost not just my passport, but also my laptop, tablet and some more documents.

I went around the entire place in one direction, and Amit took the other route — nothing. We kept coming around until I stopped him and told him it was time to go to the police station. We asked the manager if they could help us, but they needed the police to come there with a warrant. With no other choice, we made our way to the police station. Thankfully, it was right there, in the railway station.

We weren't able to just walk into the police station. We had to ring the bell outside, and speak through the microphone and explain to them. Why do two Indians, who speak no German, want to talk to the police? It took at least three rounds of trying to explain and showing them my US driving license along with my student ID for them to realize what happened. An hour later they gave a document proving that I lost my passport so that I could apply for a new one and said I could leave.

My next course of action was to stop at the Indian embassy, except it remains shut on Sundays. And of course, all of this is happening on a Sunday. I decided to crash at my friend's place in Berlin and try to get a new passport, new visa, and somehow get back to the USA.

Amit was doing a stand-up comedy show that evening. My misfortune earlier in the day allowed me to cheer for my friend, I thought as I accompanied him to the show. I realized that I was, in fact, the first person from his college peer group attending his show. I had mixed feelings. I was excited to see him do his show. But at the same time, I was sad this was happening under these circumstances.

An Israeli comic started the show, asking if we were having a great time. I don't know if I learnt much from my whole Berlin experience, but I learned one thing. Do not heckle standup comics; they will destroy you. What followed was a full stand-up set that was a conversation with me and against me; mocking me, embarrassing me, roasting me sprinkled with my feeble attempts to get back at him. The evening I lost my passport turned out to be my best evening in Berlin.

Amit took half a day off to accompany me to the Indian Embassy. It seemed like the person at the counter was having a monotonous day. People came to renew passports, apply for an Indian visa. It was my turn, and I told him what happened. It seemed like my tragedy put some life into his otherwise dull day. The person stepped out of his counter hearing my plight and tried to comfort me. Judging by his accent, Amit and I had guessed he was from the same part of the country as Amit. They started speaking in their tongue, with me trying to string broken sentences together.

The only reason the embassy wants to be bothered is if I have no money, no place to stay, and want to get deported back home. The Indian embassy placed my options in front of me. First,  I could stay there and get a new passport. They said it took two weeks on an average for a new passport to arrive. Second, I could get an emergency travel document and leave to India immediately. A viable option, but my parents were visiting me in the USA then. I would have no family to go back to in India. I kept telling him neither was viable for me. At this point, having Amit alongside speak in their tongue was very helpful. The Embassy officer offered a third option now. I could get a hand-written passport and use it to get a visa to get back to the USA. I paid the amount and left. It would now be the evening of Wednesday by the time I got the passport.

My initial plan was to leave Europe next Monday. Head to Denmark from Germany, give my talk, head to Sweden, catch up with a friend from college, and then head back to the USA via Frankfurt. I planned to leave Europe the Monday after. I now had two working days to figure out how I need not cancel my flight back; I had already canceled several train and flight tickets—the ones from Germany to Denmark, Denmark to Sweden, and Sweden to Germany. I visited the remnants of the wall, went to the Holocaust Memorial, the Alexanderplatz, and the Mall of Berlin. While also trying their Vegan Currywurst, and their roadside Doner delicacies.

The Berlin TV Tower
The Holocaust Memorial

As I waited for my passport, I applied for a new I-20, a form I needed to apply for a new Visa to get back to the USA. The USA visa application included a provision to get an expedited interview. Here came my next dilemma. The American Embassy does not allow anyone to bring their mobile phones. Back in India, in each of my Visa interviews, I've dragged one of my parents along to wait outside. This time, I had to take a train for an hour, without my phone. I wrote down clear directions, including the train and the bus I would need to take, to the embassy. One wrong move and I would be lost.

I reached the Embassy on Friday morning and told the officer what happened. First, they said they were sorry that happened to me. Then they had a conversation about what I did while I was here in Berlin. After the pleasantries, I told them I needed to get my visa by the end of the day. It was Friday already and I had only the weekend between me and my flight back to the US. They asked me to come back in the afternoon; I wouldn't know until I went back if I would get the visa that day. So I went, and they had the visa ready for me. Contrary to popular belief, a US embassy granted and issued a visa in four hours.

I took the first train out of Berlin, to head to Frankfurt and take a flight from there. I was back home. The aftermath, however, was that every time I enter the US, the immigration agents ask me if I ever lost a travel document, and then ask me when and where I lost them.

One month later, my passports, documents, and keys mysteriously appeared in the mail through Deutchepost, the postal service of Germany. The German police found these and mailed them to my address.

Passports, along with my car and office key, mysteriously appeared in the mail one month later. 

Here are some lessons I learned through these events.

  • Always scan all your visas.
  • Keep your passport in a fanny pack when you are on the road.
  • And if you do end up losing your passport, the sequence you should follow is (1) Inform your embassy, (2) Inform the foreign office or the embassy of the country that issued you the visa to legally stay in the area (in my case, it was the embassy), (3) Contact the embassy of the country you need to return to if it is not your home country.

Even if you lose your passport, it is going to be okay. People who work at embassies are not as heartless as you may fear. You can get back to your boring life in a matter of seven days.