COLUMN: Did passport really expire?

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By Art Trujillo

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — What exactly is an expiration date? Much after the fact, I pondered that question following a hassling by a usually-friendly staff of customs-passport inspectors at the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark.

This is our third trip here. Our passports, acquired in June 1999, show proof of our visits to this area twice before, in 2006, 2008 and this year. The policy is for each visitor landing at Kastrup International to furnish proof of residency.

The economy has made some trans-oceanic travel skimpy, and after landing from a half-empty flight, we figured we’d breeze through the passport check. We were last in the line of about 100. My wife Bonnie stopped at a kiosk manned by a gentleman who welcomed her to the land of Hans Christian Andersen. He checked her photo ID and passport, stamped the booklet and sent her on her way.

My ordeal, however, was not quite so anodyne. For several minutes I got chided for having an expired passport. Expired, by whose terms? I noticed that same “passport expired” message while at the Albuquerque Sunport the day before, but there, the officials simply advised me to renew it if I plan more travel. The expiration date is June 20, the same as Bonnie’s. Plenty of time, as our return date is June 1.

In Copenhagen, the woman who checked my passport gave me the same message: your passport is expired. No problem, I thought. “But,” she added, “there’s a chance we might not even allow you into this country.” Not wanting to raise a fuss, I listened politely as she explained the, well, customs of various countries, including the U.S.

Having made four post-9/11 trips overseas (one to Spain), I’m painfully aware of the extreme measures some countries take to screen passengers. The thought of a traveler being pinched, prodded and probed to check for anything dangerous is amusing, especially when happening to another.

This time, passing airport security back in Albuquerque was a breeze. Like everyone else, I removed my belt, shoes and everything metallic and sailed through. But once cleared on the U.S. side and booked for just one stop, in Atlanta, we lacked options. If the genial Danish passport inspector had taken an even tougher stance, what would have been the alternative? Being shipped back to America? Being held indefinitely?

She explained that “In America, you need to have your passport valid for at least three months before expiration, and in some cases, six.” Did she mean that a 10-year passport, set to expire on June 20, 2009, actually becomes invalid three to six months earlier?

I concede the advantages to early renewal of passports, which might lessen the amount of paperwork in issuing a brand new one. But yet, the inspector’s tack made me feel like a deadline-flouting, warning-ignoring, risk-taking, document-forging, police-escaping, IED-planting, authority-eluding, placard-carrying, customs office-defying traveler.

Does the almost-expiration-date policy apply for driver’s licenses and insurance policies as well? Common sense would indicate that my passport is good until the last day, June 20, not last March and certainly not last January.

It’s true that customs officials have no way of knowing how long a person plans to stay in that country; my plan could have been to remain in Denmark all summer. But telling them that we’d come just for a short visit — honest — to attend the baptism of our 3-month-old granddaughter, Ellen Vestergaard Trujillo, apparently didn’t seem convincing.

Well, Madam Passport Inspector let me get off with a warning, that I might have trouble on the return flight, but she acted as if it were solely through grace on her part that I now enjoy life in northern Europe this time of year.

Glad to be here, but I wish the inspector hadn’t implied that her kindness and influence alone made it possible for me to stay. That simply goes against all I’ve experienced about Scandinavian hospitality.

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But what if the aging document indeed expires during the weeks it takes to sort out the paperwork and I become an unofficial Dane? One of the requirements of remaining here is learning their language. Well, by accident, I came across “Just As Well I’m Leaving,” a humorous book on the life of Hans Christian Andersen, by Michael Booth, a journalist.

Critical of the way the Danish language sounds to an American, Booth writes, “When the Danes speak, it invariably sounds like they are telling you off.”

“‘I love you’ is ‘Jeg elsker dig,’ pronounced something like ‘Yiye ellskere die.’ When shouted it sounds like something a Viking might yell as he plunges his horned helmet into your guts. Danish is not the language of love; it’s more the language of an angry farmer who has just caught you trespassing on his turnips.”

Learn the Danish language? I have enough trouble with English. And learning another Germanic language, which, incidentally, is a closer relative of English than is Spanish, isn’t in my cards.

It would be nice simply to be allowed to go back home.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.