In the mid 1990’s as part of my day job we had a call out to a devastating flood in Barcelona. Ian was teaching, four full time students for seven weeks, so I went on my own. The flood site was one of the amazing Antoni Gaudi buildings whose massive main doors had been burst wide by a wave from a flash flood, caused by weeks of torrential rain, which surged through the ground floor and then, as water always will, found and engulfed the lower levels. These huge spaces were more utilitarian than the rest of the building and here were stored, for dispatch, dozens of packing cases filled with framed images which were now submerged or floating in the turgid water.
I flew into Barcelona with the dawn. There is nothing quite so satisfying as bringing order to chaos and I spent a busy morning designating extraction, treatment, drying and recovery areas and planning for the aftermath; the affirmation and care of traumatised personnel and the long-term recovery of objects and building. By 2.30pm we had set things in place, located the necessary materials and equipment and were awaiting the final vestiges of the deluge to be pumped away and the basement and packing cases to be sprayed down with fresh water, disinfectant and deodoriser. The dehumidifiers and cold blowers would not arrive until late afternoon.
In the lull my employers took me to a very fashionable restaurant, the food was good, I knew my colleagues well, however, aware that speed is of the essence I urged us to return. Reaching for my handbag, which was conspicuous by its absence, clearly stolen, my hosts were embarrassed and angry by turns apologizing profusely.
I had a choice, I could have complained said “why me God?” I could join in the lament and have a pity party or get on with what I was there for. I asked to phone Ian and he cancelled my credit cards and bank card.
I was disappointed to lose my passport, it was one of the blue ones with the rampant lion and the unicorn on the cover, and it had the visas and official stamps from my first two trips to China, which for me were more than special. I lost my return ticket, bible and personal photo’s but the passport was the real issue. How would I get back to England?
At the police station I received the requisite form and reference number so I could go to the British Consulate to get a permit to travel.
In the waiting area were a young couple and their two small children. They had been robbed of everything they had and abandoned on the road side. They sat quietly, their expression stunned. There were a number of other individuals but one young chap prowled about the room clearly impatient.
One by one individuals were dealt with and left or went off to other departments which left me, the young family and our fidgety individual. It was his turn next but he just got more indignant by the moment. The guards and clerks were all Spanish as were my colleagues. When this young chap started to complain about the delay he had everyone’s attention.
The clerk took his details asked how the consulate could assist him? “He wanted money, he had a job interview in Madrid he needed money to get there”.
The consulate isn’t a piggy bank for distressed Brits it’s remit is to give advice and protect the interest of British subjects within the law, they cannot disburse money but can arrange for money to be transferred. At that time, they were authorised to help financially to the tune of £5.00 the cost of a simple meal. Regretfully our fidgety friend completely lost the plot, and shouting and thumping the furniture he went into a complete strop. Me, I was embarrassed, I still believed in ‘stiff upper lip don’t you know’. The guards of course quieted him down but he still continued to pace and complain.
It was my turn, all I needed was a photo, and a fee and I’d have my temporary travel document. The foundation I was working for had given me some cash and after getting my travel document I went to speak to our angry guy and gave him the surplus, ‘it’s a gift from Jesus’, he was speechless. But, I couldn’t resist it and giving him my most withering look I told him to “shut up! And stop making such a fuss, try to remember your British!”
You might think that that was the end of my disaster, well no, when I got back to London I went to Petty France to get a new passport but they would only give me a one-year passport. I felt humiliated, as if they didn’t trust me.
We visited China again that year and were also invited to teach in Paris the dates set and contracts signed. We were travelling Eurostar, from Waterloo international Station and we went to get some currency the helpful cashier asked “Did I know my passport had expired?” Of course it had only been for one year. Oh No! What to do? No hope of a new one. Ian go it alone? Break our contract? Our names would be mud. We found a quiet corner and prayed, and came to a decision.
Clutching our tickets and passports we approached the barrier. No one asked for ticket or passport! We got on the train no one checked our tickets. We got off in Paris no one checked our ticket or passport. We couldn’t believe it.
At the university someone asked if there was anything they could help us with. I asked if they could get me a passport renewal form from the British Consulate and one duly arrived. To my dismay it was going to cost in the region of £200.00, five times what it would normally cost, I’m from Yorkshire, need I say more? So we reasoned God got us here he surely can get us back?
In week three a general strike was called in Paris which meant the university would be closed, no public transport etc. We suggested to the students we could all meet and visit the Société Francaise de Photographie.
Up early, enjoying ‘le petite déjeuner’, looking forward to our day out with the students. Inexplicably, mid croissant, I developed a life or death urge to renew my passport, I’m from Yorkshire I don’t do illogical! Almost in tears I pleaded my case with Ian and he with a saint like patience, checked the map and we walked across Paris to the British Consulate.
The salle d’ attente was deserted and we waited for the passport section to open. I went to the toilet and as I was washing my hands the most amazing feeling of excitement filled me, a sense of expectation and anticipation. I tried to explain my excitement to Ian, it was inexplicable. Nothing happened but the excitement remained I wanted to laugh, I could barely sit still. After half an hour a lady came in and sat down close to us clearly on a similar errand as ours.
I smiled and being British mentioned the nice weather. She responded of course but it was clear she was burdened and I said is there anything we can do to help. One of her grandsons had had a terrible accident in Martinique and two thirds of his body had been burned and they needed money to get him to Paris for an operation. My heart sank I knew the consulate couldn’t give her money. We asked if we could pray for her and her grandson. She accepted gladly and we voiced a simple prayer asking God for healing and his provision. It seemed inadequate, my excitement had diminished to a slow simmer.
The passport section opened and I went up with my application, then sat down again to await the outcome. A consular official came and lead our neighbour into an adjacent office. Ian and I sat, heads together and prayed for her and her family. I told Ian about the consular remit. We discussed how much money we had and decided to offer what we had, it wasn’t much.
Within fifteen minutes she was back her face tear stained, her body language expressing her fear and despair.
She told us exactly what I already knew that they couldn’t help, they would arrange transfer of money from England but that was all they could do, she had no money in the UK and didn’t know who she could call on for help. We offered her the money we had but she refused it but we prayed for her again and illogically my excitement rose again.
Another consular official called her back into the office. We prayed. Shortly afterwards she came out of the office her face the complete opposite to when she went in she was overjoyed and thanking us for our prayers. They had called her back to see if she had been able to think of where she could get some money, they had been patient letting her sit and think. She had closed her eyes and knew we were praying and she just simply asked God for help and in a split second she remember how years ago she and her husband had lent a friend some money, he had tried to pay it back but they had said no it wasn’t necessary he had said OK but if you ever need any money just let him know. It was many years before even her children were born; they hadn’t been in touch for years. She told the official the story, he went away and made some phone calls. Was her friend still living in the same place? Yes, he was! Would he help? Yes, he would! Praise the Lord, you cannot imagine the joy and astonishment.
Was that all? No not quite all. We asked if there was anything we could do, offered her the money to keep her going but again she refused. Then she said, there is one thing? She was hesitant, she and her daughter had been all over Paris looking to buy an English language bible without success. Bubbles of excitement filled me again and I could barely stop myself from shouting Halleluiah!
That morning as Ian and I prepared to leave our hotel room to walk to the consulate I had suggested that Ian took his bible. It was a treasured possession, pocket size, beautifully bound in blue leather with gilt edge pages. There was no logic to this request either but he slipped it in his back pack.
The words were barely out of our companion’s mouth when Ian retrieved his bible from his back pack and smiling placed it in her hands.
We bid our farewells and she hurried off to tell her daughter the good news and we were left once more in possession of the empty room. We prayed thanking God for his blessing and such an amazing experience.
That should have been enough, shouldn’t it? But God is ever a generous God. In due time we were again called into the passport section and the young man shuffled his papers and pushed a passport towards me across the desk. It was a five years passport, it was stamped issued in Paris, how Chic is that? I was delighted and waited to pay the fee. No Fee, no Fee? Not one penny, no explanation just Je vous remercie and au revoir.