Rebecca Valentine offers firsthand advice on what to do
It was to be just me and the kids. My husband was working away so it was a trip for just the three of us to the tiny Greek island of Serifos. Both children were well prepped: “Stay close, pay attention, look after your toy bags and listen to instructions.” At a single suitcase plus three carry-on bags, luggage was minimal. All valuables including laptop were carefully packed with a ‘slide-out’ bag holding phone and bankcards.
Two airports down, we enthusiastically climbed aboard the bus to Athens, saving the cost of a taxi. An hour later in Syntagma Square the children groaned that they were hungry and needed the toilet, so we went for the fast food and free toys at MacDonalds. We grabbed the only available high bench by the door and I stowed the bag of valuables carefully between my legs on a hook under the table, while the children eagerly climbed up their tall stools to tuck in. I took a moment to consult my map. Our travel plans were going like clockwork.
“Mummy I’ve dropped my toy!” My four-year old screams with the panic normally reserved for a banged head. It had rolled to the next table. Hopping down, I reach for it just as an elderly couple scoop it off the floor and pass it to me.
Then, instinctively checking back for the bag I find it’s not there. A torrent of thoughts flood my head; ‘it must have fallen, what if the computer is damaged? what was in there again?’ Search. Search the floor, the luggage, the floor again, and around the restaurant. “THE BAG! I CAN’T SEE THE BAG,” I shout to the children, blindly looking about. Panic, shock and fear flow through me as I try to take stock of what had happened. Head and feet swirl in confusion when two policemen enter the restaurant. “My bag, someone has taken my bag.” I shout at them. “Everything is in it, everything!”
The two men ask if I am alone with the two children. Their response is calm and methodical as they discreetly lead us away to their nearby car, and on to the local police station. Looking out the passenger window I cling to the hope that the bag will miraculously appear.
A drunken Greek woman shouts at the top of her voice inside the station, reminiscent of Midnight Express. The officer dealing with my incident bellows an angry response as I attempt to divert the children’s attention and find a seat for them as they cling tightly to their Happy Meal toys.
Head in hands and tears rolling down my face I try to relay all that has been lost; passports, ferry tickets, my Loewe purse – and my laptop. All the photos, music, work files and four near-completed manuscripts had gone. I hadn’t backed up.
“Don’t worry Mummy, everything happens for a reason,” came the small words from my nine year old, eyes concerned. I smile weakly as the full magnitude slowly sinks in: And then the nosebleeds come. My four year-old shrieks as she holds out a hand dripping in blood. I can’t stem the flow and realise our medical cards were in the bag too.
Wearily walking out on to the street, I hold tight to the police report. At least we were insured, I console myself, as we climb in to a cab and on to our hotel. Over the next 24 hours we visit the embassy twice. My husband transfers £400 for the emergency passport fees and extra day in a hotel. A text arrives to say the insurance company won’t pay until our return. We take a train to the ferry port but the office is closed. It is now 8pm. The nosebleeds keep coming. Our ferry leaves without us the following day while we visit the embassy again. For respite I book a sightseeing train around the sights of Athens. None of us have the energy to visit the Acropolis.
Exhausted and downhearted we finally board the ferry two days late. Two restless nights are spent replaying the scene in my head. Could I have avoided it? What else was in that bag, or on the laptop? Should I worry about identity theft? In the mornings I stir confused, separating nightmare from reality. How must people cope when their child is taken? I had to get perspective.
I decide to start our holiday again, revel in the time remaining, keep my children close and begin a new story to replace all those I had lost.
By the end of our holiday, I was 10,000 words in to a psychological thriller about a woman stranded on a Greek island. I had watched my children dance and dive every day in the sea, we feasted on juicy fruits and scrumptious fish and, with no laptops or Ipods to keep us entertained, we spent evenings drawing and chatting, telling stories and making up games. I discovered my son had been writing his own Greek myth at home, of monsters and a magma dragon, in anticipation of our trip.
Somehow the experience had been therapeutic. We didn’t need all the electronics and our needs were very simple. I had an epiphany. On our return I took the courageous decision to close my struggling business, choosing instead to follow my passion to write. Despite the loss, I pondered on what had been gained: Perhaps I would never have heard my son’s stories, or discovered my little girl was an ace at drawing mermaids. I now had a solid idea for a new novel, and what’s more, my first feature in a local magazine.
As I type away on my son’s computer re-living the disaster and stress of those two days, yet realising their positive impact, those wise words come back and make me smile once more; “Everything happens for a reason.”
Pack all valuables together.
Make false economies; a little extra on a taxi or better hotel can save time and stress.
Make yourself a sitting target; steer clear of doorways and, where possible, tourist traps.
Make copies of ALL essential documents.
Stick to travel plans.
Keep your head and perspective.
Buy good insurance cover.
Have a money reserve for unforeseen expenses.
Take children on adventures. When the worst happens they can often be the ones to see reason amid the chaos.
British Consulate: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/when-things-go-wrong
EHIC Medical card – www.applyehic.org