by Johnny Ireland
I have owned a British passport for pretty much 50 years of my life. Apparently, it’s burgundy but I’ve always thought of it as purple. Maybe I’m colour blind? Anyway, it has gold writing on the front and a hard cover.
My passport has travelled with me on many a foreign holiday, but it was also a constant companion when I lived and worked abroad. That was a very special time in my life. I have wonderful memories of being an ex-pat. It was fabulous to know the sun was going to shine every day. But it wasn’t always easy. Foreign countries have their own rules, sometimes very strict rules. Fail to abide by those rules and you could end up having your passport taken away. I was very protective of my purple passport so I made sure to behave appropriately.
Securing a work permit had been particularly laborious. It took months to obtain the necessary paperwork: medicals, blood tests, criminal conviction checks. I had to make numerous trips to the relevant Embassy in London. Walking through the Embassy was like walking through Customs at an airport. Why did I feel so guilty?
Once I had passed the tests, I had to hand over my purple passport. Eventually, it was returned with the relevant work permit. The permit was stuck to one of those passport stamp pages we all love so much. Travel through passport control anywhere in the world and you receive a stamp. One for entry, one for exit. Your passport is a book of life; your own piece of history. Flick through the pages and memories come flooding back: places you visited, people you met, the food you ate. You may remember the hotel barman, the taxi driver or the passport control officer. My favourite was a beautiful, blonde German lady who forgave me very quickly when I arrived at her counter with a big smile and said, “Bonjour, ça va?”
All very well if she’d been French but not so impressive for a German!
“It’s ok, I forgive you,” she said, “you have a British passport.”
Rather than being embarrassed to have confused the two languages, I felt proud to receive another stamp in my beloved purple passport.
Now, I know the British love to queue, but I’ve never experienced queues like those in foreign government offices. Want a driving licence? Join the queue. Medical insurance? Another queue. What I didn’t realise was the impact my purple passport could have when faced with yet another queue.
In one particular, very long line, there were approximately 50 people in front of me. To combat the boredom of waiting, I took out my passport and began to study the stamps. Within seconds everyone in front of me had moved to one side. The queue included a mixture of nationalities – Indian, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi – but I was the only Brit.
“You have a British passport, sir. You are special. You should move to the front of the queue.”
Far from feeling special, I felt decidedly bewildered and insisted I remain at the back of the queue. I was more than happy to wait my turn. The policeman overseeing proceedings, however, had other ideas. He took my passport, studied the cover, and demanded I move to the front.
“Go to the front or I shoot you.”
To this day, I’m not sure if he was joking. Needless to say, I did as I was told.
Considering how much I treasured my purple passport, it’s hard to believe I gave it away almost as soon as I arrived in my new foreign home. Having already experienced the bureaucracy at its very worst, I went against all of the advice and trusted a foreign taxi driver who promised to ‘get things done’ in half the time. His name was Faisal. I remember giving him my passport (with a bundle of cash) and watching him drive away. Would I ever see him again? Would I ever see my passport again? Thankfully, he delivered on his promise. Not only did he help me obtain my driving licence in half the time, we soon became good friends. We shared daily FaceTime calls with his young daughters who were growing up thousands of miles away in Sri Lanka.
“This is Sir Johnny,” he would tell them. “He is British.”
Having obtained the appropriate driving licence (thanks to Faisal), I bought my first left-hand drive car (also thanks to Faisal). It was a 4×4 automatic, a far cry from the fancy sports cars I’d always driven in the UK, but I loved it. One day, I was stopped by the local traffic police. I was pretty sure I hadn’t been speeding but had no idea what else I could’ve done wrong. There didn’t appear to be any rules relating to indicating or over/undertaking. In fact, there didn’t appear to be any rules at all when driving in this particular country.
Having pulled over, I watched the policeman walk towards me. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses and managed to look cool but menacing at the same time.
“Is everything okay, officer?”
“Yes. You bought my uncle’s car. He said you were British. I just wanted to say hi. I’ve never been to the UK yet. It’s my dream to visit. Have a good day.”
I recall producing my purple passport when I purchased the vehicle. The policeman smiled and went on his way. What a bizarre experience!
As an ex-pat, I handed over my purple passport countless times… government officials, police officers, passport control officials. They all looked at it (and me) with a certain amount of respect. It was a nice feeling. Sadly, things are now a little different.
When my passport was about to expire, I applied for a new one, sending my old one back to the passport office. Placing my purple passport inside a recorded delivery envelope, I felt more fear than the day I gave it to a total stranger who then drove away with it in his taxi. That taxi driver, I forgot to say, is still my friend ten years later.
When my new passport finally arrived, my heart sank. Apparently it’s dark blue but it looks jet black. Maybe I really am colour blind? It still has gold writing on the front but it has a soft cover. It looks… inferior. My old one was eventually returned to me, complete with memories. I intend to frame it.
Don’t get me wrong, I like black. In fact, my wife once threatened to divorce me if I bought any more black clothes. Harsh, but my wardrobe was very black dominated in those days. Black jeans, black T-shirts, black jumpers. And why not? It’s a slimming colour and it suited me. Well, I thought it did.
As I write this article I’m sitting in Düsseldorf airport. I’ve just been through passport control. The queue was 500 deep so, passport in hand, I began to walk to the front.
“Sorry, sir,” said the German policeman, “you have a black passport. Non EU. You need to get to the back of the queue.”
I no longer like black. I prefer purple.