For those who travel light, the moment of reckoning comes early in a journey that it’s time to put up a wash. After four days of hiking in the Swiss Alps, my husband, Ken, volunteered for the chore. We should seize the moment, he said, and dry our clothes in the afternoon sun on the veranda in Wengen – a carless village in the Bernese Oberland region.
About an hour later, I was sitting in just that spot, talking on my cell phone with a friend in New York, when he brought out the clothes rack, hung up the laundry and then deposited on the table in front of me two very soggy passports. Even in a machine set to the delicate cycle, they had obviously gone through the wringer.
Effusive apologies ensued. I restrained myself from casting blame, even as I recalled all the times back home when he had scolded me for leaving tissues in various pockets. (For the uninitiated, they disintegrate into many tiny pieces that adhere to freshly washed clothes, but a little Scotch tape goes a long way to clean up the mess.) Now, as I gently peeled apart each passport page and wiped it with a paper towel, I contemplated more serious troubleshooting.
Ordinarily, we would have left our passports safe (and dry) in our rented apartment, but they were required for identification when using our half-price Swiss rail pass. In the time of Covid, we were also required to produce them on demand in conjunction with showing the Swiss Covid Certificate (proof of immunization) on our iPhones. And so my husband carried our passports in his zippered pants pocket for easy access.
The big question, which we could not answer, was whether these laundered documents were still readable in the scanning machines used by airlines, customs and immigration officials all over the world. If not, a bit of online research revealed, they would be considered “mutilated,” and we would need to visit an American embassy and get them replaced. The closest one was in Bern, about two hours by train from Wengen, where we were several days into a one-week stay.
By early the next morning, the Swiss embassy had replied to Ken’s overnight e-mail explaining the circumstances and offered us an “exceptional” appointment two days hence. (Due to Covid protocols, there could be no walk-ins.)
“They don’t look so bad to me,” said a kindly clerk there after we had gone through security, checked our iPhones and spent 12 Swiss francs (about $13 at current conversion rates) apiece to take new, and decidedly unglamorous, passport pictures in the embassy photo booth.
I couldn’t help wondering whether the Swiss, with their long reputation of being hospitable to money laundering, might also take a lenient view of passport laundering. But much to our relief, when he put our passports through two different scanners in the office, the pages with our personal information could, indeed, be read. “They are still wet,” he said, fingering the pages. “You should dry them out.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we had already been trying to do that for two days.
The remaining question, and one without an easy answer, was whether our passports would pass muster purely on the basis of visual inspection. This could be an issue if we used them for identification – when checking into a hotel, renting a car or if we were stopped for speeding, for example, during the next segment of our ten-week European sojourn.
The clerk offered to issue us new passports, with the proviso that they would take two weeks to reach us at a future destination. And, meanwhile, we would need to surrender our laundered passport and travel with only our driver’s licenses for ID. A third possibility was for him to give us a temporary passport, sufficient to get us back home in an emergency, but perhaps not well suited to the trip we planned; French authorities would not accept them as valid identification, he advised.
To our minds, there was little room for debate. “We’ll live dangerously,” my husband told the clerk, who spoke excellent English but did not seem to understand this idiom. “We’ll keep these passports, and if anyone asks, we’ll just tell them they went into the laundry,” I added, in response to the quizzical look on his face. “You can’t make this stuff up.” He laughed in what we took to be a sign of agreement.
Our total time at the embassy was less than half an hour, most of which was spent going through security; figuring out how to center the images of our heads in the photo booth; and then retrieving the electronic devices we had been asked to check.
That left us with the rest of the day to poke around Bern’s charming medieval city, with its shopping arcades, fountains and the 13th-century clock known as the Zytglogge. By the time it struck noon, we had resolved that Bern’s gourmet food shops alone made it worth a day trip from Wengen – something we never would have done were it not for the passport-laundering incident. We provisioned ourselves with an assortment of cheeses (Gruyère, Emmental, raclette and Berner Blitz – a local specialty) from Chäsbueb (Kramgasse 83); sausages and salami from Metzgerei Grunder (Rathaugasse 24); and sheets of freshly made salted-caramel milk chocolate from Läderach (Spitalgasse 2) that cost almost as much as caviar.
Thus poorer and richer for our travel mishap, we sat back and enjoyed the return ride to our mountain refuge: first past fields of corn and sunflowers, then around the glistening Interlaken Lake, and finally, after two train changes, on the cog railway up to Wengen. We felt secure with the knowledge that our soggy but still readable passports were safe inside a zippered pants pocket – at least until the next time we did the wash.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.