“Sunset at Montmajour”, a work of Van Gogh was earlier called a fake. This week it has been proven to be real after all. I wonder how an original painting is continuously declared fake for more than 100 years, and that too by various internationally renowned experts! I mean how wrong can people be, in their judgment of real vs. fake?
One knows that Van Gogh was an abject failure in life. He was neither able to earn his own living, nor start a family, nor keep his friends. His talents were recognized only after he died at the young age of 37. Just like his long unrecognized painting, one wonders how the true genius remained unrecognized by his contemporary world, during his entire life. The artist himself was a priceless piece of art created by Eternity. But nobody found him worthy of any recognition during his time. Later he was recognized for what he had created - his own little world through paintings, which was full of color, life, movement and composition. With the help of sophisticated tools the pigments used for the painting were found to correspond with those belonging to the artist when he was in Arles in 1888! It goes without saying that this painting has multiplied in value overnight, given that Van Gogh’s paintings have sold for more than $50 million.
It seems to be a fairly common thing to mistake real for fake. I am reminded of our totally unplanned visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, almost 15 years ago…it was a fantastic experience…except for one little bit of unpleasantness…
“Sorry madam, we cannot grant you the 1-day visa” said the arrogant Dutch officer to my wife at the Amsterdam airport. “Why??” she asked in annoyance...and he replied matter of factly “You have the wrong passport”.
This incident occurred in the year 1998, when we were returning from Turkey and we had missed our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Singapore. It was clearly not because of any fault of ours. There had been a delay in the KLM flight leaving from Istanbul that morning. There was only one flight to Singapore… which meant the next available flight was the next day morning!
Now what do we do?! Would we have to spend the night at the airport?
Since we were carrying Indian passports at that time, we needed a visa to get out of the airport. I was a frequent traveler so I already had a long-term visa but my wife needed a 1-day visa.
The immigration officer had inspected my jumbo passport and had found so many visa stamps that he was mildly annoyed. During that time I was working in Singapore and had been travelling to many countries on business trips, and most countries required a visa, so the pages of my passport were filled with dozens of multiple-entry visa stamps. The officer diligently found the long-term multiple-entry Schengen States visa in my passport, stifled a yawn resulting from an obviously long shift, and stamped the passport without a word.
However when he looked at my wife’s passport, he noticed that her Schengen States visa had expired a year ago, so with his unsophisticated English, he declared that she could not be granted a visa.
“What do you mean Sir – wrong passport??” retaliated my wife with polite anger in her voice. A one-day visa was no big deal after all. And it would actually help their economy if tourists came and spent money. She tried to explain to him why Amsterdam desperately needed to learn how to become super-efficient like Singapore!
Anyhow he seemed tired, and it was no point arguing with him. I assured my wife that everything would be ok. We came back to the KLM office and asked a nice lady for help. She was immediately sympathetic to us, and asked us to relax, while she spoke in a magical tone to a higher ranked officer. Her magic worked and my wife got her 1-day visa in a matter of minutes after her conversation.
KLM had given us a free night’s stay at a decent hotel and also meal vouchers. So we decided to have a blast.
We visited the Van Gogh museum, schooled ourselves in Dutch Art 101, fed the pigeons outside the museum area, admired all the bike riders, ate crispy frites, and even took a train ride to the beautiful countryside.
The next day when we were again at the airport to catch our flight to Singapore, a very strange thing happened. My wife went through immigration smoothly but when it was my turn, the officer kept looking at my passport for a very long time.
Now this was painful, I was getting restless…
What was he looking at for so long?
After a while, I asked him politely if he needed help to find the page with the Schengen States visa. “No”, he said, and quietly left his seat to consult his colleague.
The more they talked to each other, the more worried I got. Am I going to miss my flight again??
My wife was already waiting for me impatiently on the other side. I assured her that it was just a matter of routine checks. She might even have spotted an iota of nervousness in my business-like demeanor.
After what seemed like an eternity, the officer came to me and asked me how I had been allowed to enter the country in the first place!
What do you mean? I have a Schengen States visa…and look…it was stamped here…by one of your colleagues yesterday, I said. He looked at me without emotion, and said – Your visa has expired, you could not enter this country with that.
Oh! Really…I looked at my passport…well…uh…yes, he was right…my long –term multiple-entry visa had actually expired a couple of days ago. I had not even checked the dates of validity, because it was not our intent to visit Europe in this trip anyway. And the previous day, the famously arrogant immigration officer who was obviously tired at the end of a long shift, had inadvertently overlooked the expiry date on my visa!
Meanwhile another immigration officer came by to see what was going on. A Dutch immigration mini-conference had begun. How could he have been let into the country with an expired visa…Who let him in…etc. etc. My passport had suddenly turned into a priceless specimen for group discussion and it was now being treated like a delicate case-study exhibit.
I had to eventually interrupt their quest by firmly asking for my passport back. They had to let me go. And I finally did catch my flight.
The whole experience had felt a bit like the fake painting waiting to be declared real. For one day I had been a really great tourist, but there was something unreal about the whole thing. Yesterday I was confident with this smug illusion that I had all I needed to enter any country. Today I was humbled by the realization that no matter how many stamps I had on my passport, I could still be stopped at any gate, in the most ordinary fashion.
Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr once declared that what we accept as real is based on the unreal. Nothing is what it seems after all.
Not to mention the awkward paradox in the family. I was the one with the most high flying experience in travelling, but I had got it wrong. And the one with the “wrong passport” had got it right after all.