It was in the year 1999 when I finally obtained my first passport, at the age of 19. I had never had the opportunity to go abroad when I was younger, even though it was one of my greatest dreams, so applying for a passport was pointless. Many years have passed since then and my first passport expired, so I was issued the latest generation of a biometric one (!)
My first passport remembers those interesting times when one was obliged to purchase a return ticket when flying out of Poland. On top of that, a Pole could stay in the EU member countries only for a limited period of time.
Yeah, life was tough. Going to Italy, for example, I could stay here legally as a ‘tourist’ for up to three months. If I extended my stay I would become an illegal immigrant, in Italian called ‘Clandestina’. A similar law applied in Spain. I had already had a resident’s and work permits for Italy, but they did not entitle me to stay and work in Spain. I, therefore, spent 4 months there, unsuccessfully looking for a job. Every job offer was withdrawn once it was clear that I had no ‘papeles’ – documents that entitled me to work legally. Well, my Polish passport did not impress anybody. I was not an EU citizen, so the door to those ‘sectors of life’ (the right to live and work) was shut for me.
In Colombia, where I went next, it was quite different. Even though I held the same Polish passport and I didn’t have any work permit, I managed to find a job as a bilingual receptionist. Mind you, it was not just an ordinary hotel, it was the most prestigious 5-star hotel in Bogotá, owned by none other than the Colombian Army! It was the best-guarded hotel in the city (or in the whole country, for that matter) and it was visited by politicians and other celebrities. I did not last long there but I gained priceless experience and I enjoyed my co-workers’ friendliness and hospitality. I recall that the foreigners were met with opened arms in Colombia. I am not sure whether this applied to all nationalities but definitely to the majority of them. There are not many of them in Colombia, and Colombians love their country, therefore they treat an incomer rather like a blessing than a potential enemy. I can’t resist noticing, that in ancient times the Indians had a similar attitude and it ended badly for them. The more I would like to congratulate for their openness and courage!
As I said, being a Pole in Colombia I was treated like a “princess”. There, as opposed to Europe or USA, I was one of very few visitors from Poland, therefore I was unique, intriguing and perhaps that was a reason for my ‘magnificence’. Besides, I came from a faraway country which never harmed Colombia in any way (as far as I am aware!). Surely, the Polish Pope added to my popularity, as Colombia is a Catholic country. (Although I’m rather far from being a saint!
Going back to the topic, my employer in Bogota wasn’t willing to help me with obtaining the work permit so I had to leave my receptionist job. To be precise I was suggested to leave, which I was absolutely fine with, as I did not wish to bring me nor the hotel management any trouble. (Besides, they had more than enough problems to deal with!)
I never found another job in Colombia. Perhaps I wasn’t that adored as I thought?
In the meantime, many things changed and in 2004 Poland joined the European Union. Polish borders opened to the West and even though we still could not legally work in all EU states, three kind countries (Ireland, Great Britain, and Sweden:)) opened their job markets to Poland and other new members from Central Europe. I was not “Clandestina” anymore and I did not have to look for work without ‘papeles’.I left Colombia and soon after arrived in Scotland, where I immediately found employment. I began a new chapter in my life, a “legal” one for a change, and could finally travel almost anywhere in Europe on a “one way” ticket!
Now, when I have seen more than half of Europe, when I can even travel to some countries out of the continent with no visa, the memory of the past starts fading away. I shall never forget these times when I could not just head off somewhere because I wanted to. What’s more, my mum during the Communism had no passport at all and the right to obtain it was far from obvious.
A passport surely opens doors to the world but can also determine which of them remain shut.