A memory about Christchurch, New Zealand

As she prepared to stamp our passports, the girl behind the immigration desk noticed the head of the small teddy bear my wife was carrying in her bag.

The bear had been our travelling companion ever since Sheila had spotted her in the duty-free shop at Brunei airport. She was named – naturally – ‘Brunei Bear’, had come with us all the way to Brisbane, and was with us now on another leg of our long-distance journey.

“Have you got a passport for the bear?” asked the girl behind the desk.

Christchurch cherry blossoms and water wheel in Hagley Park - rpdubs [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]It was not a question we had expected. But the answer was, of course, that we had not.

Handing back our passports, the immigration girl gave us a broad smile and said there was a shop in the city that specialised in selling teddy bears and bear accessories. Including passports. 

“You should go there,” she added. “My daughter and I have bought all sorts of good stuff for her bears. And if your little one is going to be travelling with you, she’ll need a passport, won’t she?”

Next morning we followed her advice to locate the teddy bear shop, as we took in the city’s sights. But couldn’t find it.

Towards lunchtime, we went into the Cathedral, joining other tourists and those who had slipped into its cool silence for a moment of contemplation and prayer.

We paused in the tiny gift shop to buy a couple of postcards. As I handed over the coins, I asked the lady at the cash register if she knew the location of ‘the Teddy Bear shop’.

She didn’t, but asked the same question of a man walking through the shop. Wearing a scruffy work shirt, shorts and flip-flops, he carried a pail of water and a squeegee. It didn’t take a genius to work out that he was cleaning windows.

“I can’t help,” he replied. “But I think my wife will know.”

Christchurch CathedralHe produced a mobile phone from a pocket in his shorts, hit a few buttons and, within seconds, was asking his wife for the location of the shop. She gave it to him. He, and the lady at the cash register, showed us where it was on our map of the city centre. Luckily, not far from the Cathedral.

Off we went. We found the shop, dived inside, and spent a pleasurable time considering our purchases. Obviously, a passport for Brunei Bear, but also a tiny pair of glasses (she did a lot of reading during flights) and an equally tiny back pack for the essential things a lady bear needs on an aircraft.

On our way back, passing the Cathedral, we popped inside to thank the lady in the gift shop, asking her to pass on our thanks to the window cleaner.

“Oh,” she said, with a wide grin. “That wasn’t a window cleaner, that was The Dean. We all muck in together here.”

That was our first day in a delightful city, with its easygoing, friendly inhabitants. The first day of an all-too-short interlude before a week-long tour, during which we discovered that same welcoming attitude from folk who were, as Sheila put it: “comfortable in their skin”.

So, there you have a slight story. An inconsequential event, which over several subsequent years gave a lot of joy to passport officers all over the world, when we produced a teddy bear’s passport along with our own.

Always a smile. Sometimes outright laughter. Often a comment to colleagues, who would take an interest in an unusual passport and debate with mock seriousness which stamp should be used in its already well-stamped pages.

Teddy bearWhen you come to think about it, passport people do an important, but essentially boring, job. So a bear with a passport cheers them up.

As I type this, Brunei’s passport is in a drawer upstairs. Brunei herself went with Sheila on her last journey.

I have been thinking a lot about that incident lately.

The city in which it happened was Christchurch, New Zealand.


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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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