By Anita Graafland

As I’m running out of relevant things to say about my border crossings, despite a delightful interaction with a border guard in Dunkirk recently, I’m very pleased to give way to master storyteller and fellow CfE member John Holloway this month.

About 20 years ago, I was travelling to Spain on the ferry from Plymouth to teach English in Santander. It was September, the end of a glorious summer spent sailing around the south coast of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles with my yacht. Consequently, every visible hair on my body was bleached blond – along with some which are not normally visible, owing to very secluded deserted anchorages in the Scillies! – including my eyebrows and eyelashes, and I had an olive-skinned tan which made me look like an Australian lifeguard.

We had an idyllic passage on the Brittany Ferries flagship, the Val de Loire. Thankfully the Bay of Biscay did not live up to its fearsome reputation, and there was a flat calm all the way. There were dolphins and I even saw what I think was a Minke whale leap out of the water nearby. I spent a good part of the trip seated on the pretend bridge (installed just below the real one for passengers to fantasise) which had a splendid view ahead. Val de Loire is still my favourite to this day, although she’s long retired. I particularly loved the model ships in glass cases on her reception deck.

Having enjoyed a fine breakfast on board we arrived in Santander, which is always an emotional experience for me, as I studied Spanish at the university there in the 1980s. We disembarked and I made my way to passport control. I handed over my rather old passport to the rather bored duty officer. He opened it, looked at the picture, then at me, and suddenly became more alert and interested. He looked at the picture again and then at me. He looked again at the picture, and then more intently at me. He raised an eyebrow as he clearly realised something was not right.

My passport was about seven years old. The picture had been taken in early spring. It showed a man in his late thirties, pale-skinned, with dark hair, prominent dark eyebrows and a dark Mediterranean-style moustache. The person in front of him was about 45, clean-shaven, balding, blond and bronzed.

“Ah!” I thought, sensing that an explanation was required. “How to deal with this?” I clasped my hands together in submissive and plaintive courtesy. Using perfect Spanish, I addressed him with the same style and vocabulary that I would use if he were the Spanish king.

“I am so sorry. Please forgive me, your excellency. The Americans are looking for my brother, and so I have to travel incognito!”

“What is your brother’s name?” he enquired, looking very official and serious.

“Saddam.” I replied. 

There was a pause. Silence. He looked at the picture in my passport once more.  The family resemblance was unmistakable. Now he understood.

He could contain himself no longer. He exploded. He called his colleagues over to have compare me with my photo. They all thought the picture and my explanation were hilarious. One of them asked me why I could speak Spanish so well (that in itself proved that my passport was false because no Brit could speak Spanish as I did, they said). I replied that I had studied at the university a few minutes’ walk from the port, and quoted some Elizabethan-era Spanish poetry from memory. (That was the equivalent of performing Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be…”) They were impressed. They spoke and laughed together again, and then the duty officer smiled warmly, and using a slightly vulgar expression (which in the context was actually quite friendly) told me to be on my way.

Fortunately, Spanish border guards have a sense of humour – which is not the case in a lot of other countries!

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