Ask an expat to name their most valuable possession and I’m pretty sure the answer would be their passport. Not only is it usually proof you have the right to be living and working wherever you are, but it’s your ticket to freedom and your get-of-jail card. It can get you anywhere, especially home.
I recently renewed my passport and I was sad to say farewell to the dog-eared one that had expired. That particular passport was issued in 2006 and to say it symbolised freedom to me would be something of an understatement. It wasn’t strictly speaking my very first passport – that one was issued in my married name at the time, and I had taken only one trip with it, to New Zealand so I hadn’t even got it stamped – but it was the first passport that I ever really put to good use, and the one that I knew would get me where I needed to be, in every sense of the word.
I reverted back to my maiden name pretty much the week my first marriage was over. It was possibly a knee-jerk reaction but I was so wounded, ashamed and embarrassed about everything that had happened with my first husband. I felt sick every time I saw his name. So I set about obliterating it from anything associated with me, which was a fairly horrendous process. I had my used-once married name passport cancelled and I remember taking all the documents to the post office to apply for a new one. I couldn’t just change the surname and get a replacement free of charge – I could only do that if I had divorce papers and that couldn't happen for another year minimum, as I had only just moved out. None of it was as simple as I thought. I was still legally bound, regardless of the fact I'd put the rings in a drawer and changed my name back.
That was the time when the enormity of it all started to hit me. I had made a terrible mistake that was going to follow me around for the rest of my life. I had only just turned 25 and was overwhelmed by the mess I’d made of everything. I thought, somehow, getting a passport in my own name might make me feel better, that it might give me the push to actually start seeing the world as I'd longed to do, because now there was no one to stop me.
So I tried to explain to the woman at the passport interview why I was there and what I wanted to do but my throat kept closing over with tears I was determined not to cry (I hadn’t yet realised that crying in public is pretty much par for the course with a marriage breakdown). The woman was looking at my birth certificate as I spoke (or tried to) and then she reached across the counter and squeezed my hand.
“You’ll always be Philippa Moore,” she said fiercely. “That’s who you were born. That’s who you’ll always be. He can’t take that away from you.” Her tone was heavy with the wisdom of someone who had been there.
My new passport was issued within a few weeks and my first trip with it was also to New Zealand, so in many ways it felt like a reset, like the first one had never happened. My first ever stamp in it was six months later, in April 2007, when I boarded my plane to San Francisco at Sydney airport. “Departed Australia” declared the stamp, and a few pages down was a UK Ancestry visa safely glued in. My adventure had started.
2016 seemed like an age away back then. But all of a sudden, it was here and my beloved passport was useless with less than six months validity on it, so it needed renewing. And not a moment too soon, as it was getting tricky for an immigration officer to find space to stamp it every time I went somewhere, it was so chock full of evidence that I had revelled in my freedom.
Flicking through the pages is like going to an exhibition of the last 10 years of my life. A UK visa long since expired and replaced with an indefinite leave to remain card; a visa to enter India in 2011 (I wish I’d made another trip while the visa was still valid!); stamps from every country I’ve ever visited, every one of them evoking a hundred memories. The photo at the front was a young woman staring blankly into what felt like, at that moment, a very uncertain future. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to see the world. As she began to make those plans, she realised the future was actually wide open and she could decide what happened next.
I will keep that passport forever. I might even frame it. It's an old friend.
My new one feels different - not just because the design and e-features have changed in the last decade, but it really feels like a new era. The pages are blank. Who knows what they will hold by the time the next renewal comes around....the photo of course is still hideous, but I was pleased that I didn’t look too different after 10 years!
It feels fitting that my first real passport expired the same year my first book, which chronicles the adventures I had with it, is now out in the world. In so many ways I’m still that 25-year-old staring into the camera, trying to keep her head straight. Life is unpredictable, that’s for sure. But one thing I know, I’ll always want it to feel like an adventure.
I've already got my first stamps in the new passport. The new era has started!