A trip to Italy before school starts. A great idea to get away from Toronto and clear my mind of my medical and work responsibilities to start the new year fresh. On August 2nd, I left Toronto with a classmate of mine, both excited to explore Italy to see all the old architecture, appreciate the art and most of all, eat the great food. For the most part, my trip was amazing. While I may delve deeper into the trip itself later along with lessons learnt from it, this post will mainly explain my experience after my passport was stolen from me.
The last day of my trip was August 16th, and I was in Napoli. I had been out late the night before, but wanted to make the most of my last day. After getting around 3 hours of sleep, I woke up and hit the ground running. We explored the architecture museum in Napoli for a couple hours, then went to the food district to get some Napoli pizza before making our way to the train station for our train to Rome where we would then make our first flight. Flying from Rome to Milan and then Milan to Toronto, both via Air Italy, I figured it would be a straightforward process, as our first flight was flying within Italy.
During my stay in Italy, I was well aware of the pickpockets and thievery that takes place. Myself and my friend were extremely cautious. Always walking one in front of the other, keeping our hands in our pockets if anything was in there, and never allowing other individuals to “bump” into us or get too close. We survived many of the known dangers: the notorious circumvesuviana train several times, the pigeon scheme at the Duomo in Milan, the countless friendship bracelet schemes and the notorious 64 bus to the Vatican. When we passed through security in the Rome airport destined for Milan, I jokingly stated to my friend: “Well now we don’t need to be as cautious about our stuff.” This statement still haunts me.
After having presented my passport to the Air Italy worker and receiving both boarding passes for Rome to Milan and Milan to Toronto, we passed security and waited in the airport lounge before boarding our first flight, Rome to Milan. The flight itself was quite empty with many open seats. We had an empty seat between us, so we both placed our small carry-ons here, his fanny-pack type bag and my MEC shoulder bag. My backpack with the remainder of my belongings was placed in the overhead compartment above. For most of the trip, I carried most of my valuables (passport, wallet, keys etc.) in the shoulder bag as it had 2 layers of zippering, and I always paid close attention to it to ensure nothing would get lost. The flight itself was quick, less than an hour and landing early. After landing, I got up and placed my shoulder bag on as my friend retrieved our bags from the overhead compartment. He handed me my backpack to which I took off my shoulder bag and placed it on my seat in order to put the backpack on. The bag was large and the aisle was small, so I rested the bag on the seat ahead of my own before wanting to put it back on. Waiting for the ahead passengers to leave the plane, I started to zone out because of how tired I was due to several days of limited sleep until I suddenly there is aisle movement. Somewhat panicking to get off the plane quickly, I start walking off the plane and put my backpack on. After about 30 seconds from leaving my seat, I step off the plane and immediately realize I left my shoulder bag on the seat as I did not have it on me. This is where everything went downhill.
I turn around and immediately start looking at people exiting the plane to see if anyone had taken it as I simultaneously re-entered the plane against the flow to check my seat for my shoulder bag. Time never really moves as quickly and your mind is never quite as scattered as when you are in a panic. I was in such distress that I had forgotten my seat number, so I started checking all the seats in the area. Soon after the entire plane had been emptied, and I informed the stewardesses what had happened, and they started to search the entire plane with me looking for this MEC shoulder bag. Unfortunately, it could not be found and at this point I knew it was stolen.
Thankfully I had my wallet, keys, and phone in my pocket and these belongings were not lost with the bag too. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had lost my phone or credit cards too. I left the plane and made a police report at about 11:30 pm, about an hour after the incident had occurred. I immediately, following the police report, contacted the 24/7 passport services hotline in Ottawa to which I was informed by the lady working to: 1) contact my travel insurance, 2) wait in Milan until the Monday at 9am when the consulate office opened, and 3) be happy I have an extra 2-night vacation in Milan which she said in a joking fashion. I was not laughing. I inquired about any consulate or embassy services being open during the weekend around any part of Europe or if there is anything my family in Canada can do to get me home earlier; the answer to both were no. If your passport is stolen outside of business hours, you really do need to wait to speak with a consulate during their business hours at your own expense.
I wandered the airport looking for a café to have some food, trying to stay up and figure out my next steps until I was stopped by 2 random Italian police officers asking for identification. Note that we were 2 darker skin men that have beards walking in an airport with backpacks on surrounded by tons of other people around us also walking around. Of course, we get stopped. A prime example of racial profiling at its finest for a cherry on top of this fine day. They hold us back and get our identification, I explain my passport was stolen and present my driver’s license, which thankfully I still had. After about 10 to 15 minutes of holding us there and 2 other officers coming as “back-up”, they eventually let us go. We then finally made our way to the café and I had some breakfast.
In terms of next steps, I tried to see if Air Italy would allow me to board the flight back to Canada without a passport since I had already presented a valid passport when I got my boarding pass and that it was stolen on their flight. I stayed up until 5 am talking to family and friends, waiting for their check-in booths to open to inquire. Unfortunately, it is against their policy and no exception could be made. At this point, I knew I would be stuck in Milan for at least 2 more nights so I figured, might as well call my travel insurance since I know that the expenses for the next couple of days will rack up quickly. My credit card I booked the trip on has travel insurance which is supposed to be “top of the line” and a big reason why many medical students including myself have this credit card. Yet I was informed that lost or stolen passport preventing you from boarding your flight is not grounds for insurance coverage. Until I get back home, I would need to take on all expenses myself. While I really wanted to fight it more, it was around 5 am my time on Saturday morning, I had not actually slept for almost 24 hours at this point and I wanted to focus on my immediate next steps rather than beat a dead horse.
Next step was to check if my flight could be rescheduled. At around 6 am, the ticketing office for Air Italy opened up so I asked them if they could reschedule my flight. Unfortunately, given the type of ticket I had purchased there is no rescheduling allowed. I knew I was missing my flight, going to be stuck in Italy for at least 2 more nights, and going to be racking up lots of expenses, but at this point all I wanted to do was sleep. As a last-ditch effort, I went to the airport lost and found to see if by some stroke of luck, my bag would be there. Unfortunately, it was not. My next step was to book a hotel. However, without a passport, many hotels will not accept you. Luckily for me, I had taken a photo of my passport before going on the trip as a precaution. I called many hotels in Milan to see if I could book a room last minute, and most shot me down because I did not have a passport, but I eventually managed to find one that would take me at $150 CAD/night plus a city tax of $15 CAD for the 2 nights.
I parted ways with my friend at this point, not wanting to penalize him and have him pay up large expenses due to my mishap and I then trained it to the city, making my way to my hotel. At this point, I was a walking corpse alone in Italy without a passport, and I had been awake for about 29 hours before I made it to my hotel room and passed out on the bed. Most of the Saturday was me just catching up on sleep and a meal in the hotel restaurant because my phone had died and I did not want to wander the city alone without my one lifeline, my phone.
a busy day. I got up around noon and started to venture the city a little and
explore given the situation I was put in. During this trip I was backpacking so
I had not packed many “nice clothes”, but I figured
it would be a good idea to buy some for my meeting with the consulate the next
day. Dress shirt, dress pants, dress shoes, and
a haircut and beard trim to look more presentable and minimize potential racial
profiling. It was extremely saddening that how I looked was such a major
thought in my mind after losing my passport, but I knew it would make the
process easier for me, so I did it anyway. After
buying everything I needed
, and getting
my haircut, it was getting late, so I ate my dinner and walked my way back to
my hotel. Throughout these 2 days in Italy, it
really was quite isolating. The time difference of 6 hours with my friends back
at home left me many hours of the day without anyone to talk to, but to be with
myself allowing me a great deal of time for reflection. I bought a new journal,
since my old one was in the bag that was stolen and spent
my time in various squares reflecting on my journey and writing about my
Disappointment was the most prominent feeling during this time course. I was disappointed in myself for not being more cautious of my things. I knew that a careless individual is not who I am, and misplacing and allowing my things to get stolen is not something I like to attribute to my person. Another feeling was isolation as it had been about 2 weeks of this vacation already and I was ready to go back home and my family had also booked a trip to Toronto to come see me to help me finish moving into the new apartment I moved into the day before my trip, so I missed them as well. I definitely felt like a foreigner alone in this country and was ready to go home where I am much more comfortable.
Without having any breakfast because I do not want to waste any time, I get to the consulate office in Milan for 8:15 am, 45 minutes before they open until I am greeted with the biggest slap in the face I could be greeted with: a sign on the door that says they are closed from July 29 to August 25. Furious, I call the Ottawa hotline and inquire about this. Why did the first individual I speak with not tell me they are closed for a month and why did they tell me to stay in Milan. The answer I got was that they did not want to provide me advice that would have led me to incur unnecessary expenses. With that answer, I almost lost it but knew it was pointless. I just asked them to confirm if the Rome embassy would be open and received confirmation. I then asked if the work that I needed to be done over the phone or if I had to go in person. After being told that they can’t confirm either way and I would have to wait until they open to ask I stuck to my own judgement being miles ahead of any advice I would get from this so called “hotline”. I immediately booked it to the train station. The embassy opened when I made it to the train station and I call to inform them of my situation to which I was asked to leave a detailed message on the emergency answering machine. I purchase a ticket for the next train to Rome which would leave 10 minutes after I got to the train station and get me to Rome at a scheduled time of 1:15 pm. The public hours of the Rome embassy are until 1pm but I knew at the end of the day, I would need to be in Rome as nothing could be done in Milan.
The embassy had not called me back after over an hour from my initial call, so I called again in order to ask them to please get back to me ASAP. During this call, my Italian cellphone ran out of minutes, and their online portal to add funds would not accept Canadian credit cards. Panicking that they would call me back as my minutes were out, I tried to find a solution. Thankfully, my friend had managed to help me out and found some third-party website and was able to fill it with enough money that they could call. Then 30 minutes after my second call, they got back to me. After informing them of my situation, they said that if I made it to Rome around the time my train was scheduled that they would let me in even after public hours. I am very grateful for this.
On the train ride, I start looking for hotels in Rome and think about my options, but I knew not to book anything until I got to the embassy and knew my fate. The train was delayed, and I got to the station about 30 minutes later, so on the exit off the train I called an uber to take me to the embassy. Interestingly enough the location of the Rome embassy was at a different address than the one if you search on Google maps. Thankfully the workers provided me the address over the phone.
Arriving at the embassy I had to leave all my major belongings and electronics in a locker after passing through security. When I get to the room they sit down with me and explain the next few steps. They start off by telling me the timeline which was essentially that I for sure was not getting any documentation today. At least one more night in Italy, great. They then informed me that I had done the right thing to get on the train ASAP after what had happened and they were frustrated that I was provided incomplete information from the hotline. I quickly filled out a long form which was similar to a passport renewal form, and had to provide 4 references. Thankfully, I had already setup several references the night before and wrote down all their information on a piece of paper I had brought up with me. After filling out the form they told me to go get a passport photo taken and unfortunately all the locations to take passport quality photos were closed. There was, however, a self-operated photobooth at a particular location. They printed a map for me with a pin on the location to which I plugged it into my Google Maps and saw it was a 15-minute walk away. I sprinted there faster than I have ever run before in clothing that was not made for running.
When I get to the location, I don’t immediately see a photobooth anywhere, so I go into a local convenience store and ask the worker where it is. She did not speak any English, so I pull out the map they gave me, and I point to it while making a photo-taking gesture with my hands. She comprehended what I was asking for and informed me that it was located where the metro is. I book it there and find the booth which is 5 euros for the photos. When I sit down to pay the machine, I see it only accepts 5- and 10-euro bills but not 20-euro bills. I think you can guess what bills I had in my pocket, 2 20-euro bills. I run to the ticket office for the metro and ask the workers for change for one of 20-euro bills and they refuse to give me any change. They said that they don’t do that. Frustrated that this is what is going on right now, I search my wallet and BAM I find enough coins to make up 5 euros and get my photo taken. The first take needed to be redone because I was so sweaty from the heat, the running and the stress that I was reflecting the flash off of my forehead. After getting the photos I sprint back to the embassy. After providing them the photos, I was informed nothing could be done that day. I needed to return the next morning at 9am with a plane ticket back to Canada since they cannot provide emergency travel documentation to me without proof of travel. I inquire about the timeline for the documentation and whether or not I can be guaranteed to get this documentation by a certain day in order to plan my trip. No answer could be given on a guaranteed date, so I needed to gamble on a plane ticket.
Hungry, tired, thirsty, and frustrated are some of the feelings I felt. I walked out of the embassy, went to a convenience store next door and bought myself a chocolate bar, a bottle of milk and a bottle of prosecco. The chocolate and milk were my first source of calories for about 20 hours and the prosecco was for later that night since I had been through hell, I knew that I had earned it. I book a hotel called the Canada hotel, ironic since I wanted to be in Canada at this point more than anything. Once I get to my hotel, I book a flight for the Wednesday at 1pm, costing me $1000 CAD. I tried looking for flights Tuesday evening but the latest flight that day was around 3pm which was too soon in the day since I had no way of knowing how long it would take. There were no refunds on this flight, because I had a 6-hour anatomy lab to start off my 2nd year of med Thursday morning, and because I wanted to be home more than anything, I was praying I got this documentation. I rolled the dice.
That night I slept early, woke up and made my way to the embassy for 8:30am and waited until 9:00am open being the first person through the doors. Thinking that the process should be smooth that day with proof of flight, I was thrown an immediate curve ball. According to Ottawa, my signature on the forms I had filled out the day before did not match the signature of my forms over a year and a half before when I applied for my passport renewal. I also did not have a complete education and work history for the past 5 years, even though their form did not have sufficient rows for all of my experiences, I was stressed from the situation and did not have my resume with me to fully remember the contact phone number, address and exact name of all jobs I had in the preceding 5 years. I had to write out a page for each “mistake” explaining why the information was inconsistent, and then I had to fill out a complete 5-year work history. Thankfully I had access to my email and pulled up my OMSAS application which I used as reference (thank you medical school application). After completing these aspects, I waited. Waiting and pacing the embassy for hours, hoping for good news until at 1pm Italian time they called me over. I was given emergency travel documentation and with that I got a jolt of happiness. I was going home, it all worked out. They handed me the document and said to be careful with this walking to the hotel. After leaving the embassy I get to my hotel, immediately place it in the safe and enjoy my last day in Italy before catching my flight back the next day.
It was quite remarkable the happiness that came from being back in Canada. We take it for granted everyday living in this country how lucky we are to be citizens and have the ease and ability to come and go. After going through all this and having a taste of what it is like to not be allowed back home when that is all you want, I developed a new appreciation for it. I am also lucky that the country I am from works hard to expedite your return home. While I definitely have complaints with the way the system is setup, and I do not believe it was perfect, I am still blessed that Canada has diplomatic relations with the country I was visiting and they provided a speedy process to help me get back home. I am sure there are many other countries where the process would take much longer, and there would be less supports and information available. I am also blessed to live in a country where I do not need to worry about this kind of thievery on a regular basis. One time my wallet actually fell out of my pocket when I was in high school, and instead of stealing the contents, a fellow Canadian drove it to my house and gave it to my parents to return to me. Contrasting this with having my bag stolen on a plane that was left unattended for no more than 30 seconds, it is easy to take for granted the trust in society we have as Canadians.
The primary learning point for me through all this, however, is to always safeguard your passport. It is probably the most important thing along with a functioning credit card, as those two things can get you whatever you need. Having a photo of your passport is helpful for reference or booking hotels if it does get lost. Overall the experience was a huge rollercoaster of emotions. I do have to pass along thanks to all my friends and family that reached out to me and provided their support. I definitely did not feel psychologically alone even though I was physically alone in a foreign country. Also need to pass along a thanks to all the public servants at the Rome embassy who worked hard with me to get me back home and did whatever was in their power to advocate on my behalf.
Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and it is important to not look 3 moves behind and linger on the mistakes made, but instead always look 10 moves ahead and try to make the best of the situation at hand. While I definitely did have regrets and casted self-blame, I instead aimed to focus myself and keep my spirits high. When you are alone in and all you have are your wits, you need to be focused. Ensuring that I stayed attuned to what the next best move would be given whatever was thrown my way, was my priority. I cannot say I am proud of having my passport stolen, but I can say that I am proud of how the situation unfolded and how I dealt with whatever was thrown at me after the fact. While I am not happy it happened, and do not ever wish this on anyone, I am glad I came out of it unscathed and had a great learning opportunity from it.