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November 30, 2002

Travelers' Tales - Can You Prove You're American?

Marc Helgesen
(see also our Interview with Mr. Helgesen)

(This is a series on the adventures and mishaps that befall writers and educators on their travels. We would love to hear your story, too. We will publish the best in this column. Submit your story using our Contact Form.)

A few years ago, in a country that shall remain unnamed (but it is a country that happens not to have diplomatic relationship with the United States - and I am American.) I was on an author tour. I always enjoy author tours because of the chance to talk to people with so many different backgrounds and teaching situations. And in this particular country, audiences are known for being lively and interactive.

The particular day had been a long one. I did three long sessions almost back to back. After that, the publisher's people and I jumped in the car. I stuffed my briefcase under the seat, ate a couple of sandwiches they had picked up and settled in for the several-hour drive to the port town where I would be presenting the next morning. Sometime well after midnight we arrived at a hotel I called the King. I remember thinking the name must have referred to the size of the cockroaches. Oh, well. At least we had arrived. And if I wasn't particularly enjoying the hotel room, it was clear that the couple in the next room was, so at least some people were happy. It didn't matter that much as I was exhausted so did get a good sleep.

The next morning, I was up early, ready to go. It was when I was shaving that I noticed the sink was rather oversized. I noticed this because I had to lean across to get close enough to the mirror to shave. And it was at that moment that the weight of my leaning tore the sink off the wall. (Ah, every person's fantasy is to be as outrageous as the Rolling Stones or the Who at the height of their irresponsibility and trash a hotel room - but somehow I didn't get no satisfaction). Anyway, this caused surprisingly little trouble because when I got to the hotel lobby, the person driving met me to say our car window had been smashed. And had I left anything important in the car?

That's when I remembered the briefcase I had left under the seat. It contained my presentation notes...and my traveler's checks...and my airplane ticket...and my passport. And yes, it was gone. And my presentation was set to start in about a half-hour.

So off we went to the workshop. One nice thing about author tours is you do the same set of presentations many times so, after a while, you really don't need the notes. Nonetheless, starting a session right after finding out your passport had been stolen is not necessarily the best thing for your mindset. It probably didn't help when someone from the publisher came up at the break, told me that they had contacted the "American office" (no diplomatic relations = no embassy) and that I might be able to leave about a week later to go directly to the USA. And no, I couldn't go back to Japan. And good luck with the rest of your presentation.

After the session, I called the American office myself and am happy to report that government workers there are just as helpful and friendly as they are back in the States. I explained my situation and the person asked, "What do you have to prove you're American?" What? My accent? All my identification is in Japanese - which no one in their office could read.

In the meantime, the publisher's people were contacting the police. There was nothing much I could do, so they checked me into a hotel to wait. Sitting in the room, I noticed some things you usually don't find in a business hotel. Mirrors on the ceiling for example. What is it with the hotels my publisher chooses?

Just to prove that somehow things do work out, we got a call from the very first hotel I had stayed in when I arrived in the country - it was the hotel that I had listed as the local address on the "entry card" they had stapled into my passport. Early that morning, a newspaper paper delivery person had noticed a nearly new briefcase in a garbage can. In it, he found my passport, plane tickets and traveler's checks. He called my hotel.

I got everything back. Except the lecture notes. I won't tell you which rival publisher we suspected. (Not really. But one thing I did learn: keep a photocopy of your passport someplace where someone can fax it to you. You never know when you'll need it.)

Marc Helgesen
Marc Helgesen is co-author of English Firsthand and Active Listening . He is a regular contributor to the ELT News Think Tank feature. He is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women's College.

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