A password for my password

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Underwear? Check! Toothbrush? Check! Dutch cheeses and beers? Check! Microsoft Surface for the required writing and critiquing? Check!

This morning at nine, my checklist was already complete for the tenth anniversary edition of the Villa Diodati Expat Writers Workshop. My suitcase waited by the door; I’d even put my coat within reach.

I’d even checked my itinerary last night, and discovered that my ICE train would not be able to stop at Cologne, where I was supposed to change trains; a single last-minute phone call to the Dutch International Railroad Service (NS International) had been enough to move my train change from Cologne to Frankfurt, and to book new seats.

What could possibly go wrong?

On the ferry to Amsterdam Central Station, fifteen minutes before departure, I discovered what could go wrong. For instance, I could have forgotten my phone, and not have enough time to turn back home to pick it up.

How important is your phone on a writing weekend with friends, you may ask? Wouldn’t it even be easier to concentrate on the weekend itself without it?

Perhaps so. But I rather prefer it if my family can reach me in case of emergency. And my personal phone hotspot provides better internet access almost anywhere, compared to the free Wifi at train stations, on trains, or in castles.

And… my phone contains the NS International app.

And the NS International app contains my train tickets.

No reason to panic, I thought, after a few seconds of utter panic. There’s an NS International service desk at Amsterdam Central Station, and I have fifteen minutes left. They were incredibly helpful last night; I’m sure they can help me now.

Reassured by this thought, I ambled across the station. A friendly hostess asked me what she could do for me. I explained my problem, acknowledged my own stupidity, and asked if the staff would be able to print my tickets for me.

“Absolutely,” she said, and I lifted my right foot for a happy dance. “Provided you have the booking code.”

There I stood like a fool, one foot in the air, mouth wide open in perplexed disbelief.

My booking code?

“Would it also be possible to find my tickets by name?”

“No, only by booking code.”

“By email address, then?”

“No, only by booking code.”

“Birth date?”

“No, only by booking code.”

“ZIP code and house number?”

“No, only by booking code.”

“Social security number? Bank account? Zodiac sign? Employee number? Fingerprint? Retinal scan? Birthdays of my grandparents? DNA profile? The first five fucking verses of La Marseillaise?”

“No, only by booking code. Or the first six verses.”

You should know that the booking code consists of seven capital letters, that together form an incomprehensible stew of impossible-to-remember gibberish. Remembering that one was a bridge too far even for my overachiever memory.

I gasped for breath. I racked my brain for any conceivable reason for this bizarre limitation to their systems. The hostess proved less than helpful. If I had the booking code, I explained to her, that would mean I had access to either the booking confirmation or the app, and in that case I wouldn’t actually need their help at all, would I?

She conceded the point with a strained smile.

“I could give you a queue number for the service desk,” she said; I was unable to read from her face wheter she was being helpful, or just eager to get rid of me.

“Please. Will they be able to help me there?”

“No, not at all. Not without your booking code.”

My mind raced. Was there any way to retrieve my booking code? Yes! The confirmation email was still in my Gmail Inbox. I had my Surface* with me. Simply booting that and… that would require an internet connection though.

“Is there Wifi on this station?”

“Yes, but it only works in the central hall, near the piano.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. Her words turned out to be literally true: I could connect to the free open Wifi network only if I placed my Surface on the piano. And she wasn’t lying either when she said there was Wifi: it was only Wifi. When I finally connected to the wireless network after tens of excruciating seconds, I still didn’t have internet.

Or a booking code.

A last plea with the hostess yielded me exactly nothing. The hands of the clock crawled ever closer to my departure. Was I really going to miss my train becauseo f a forgotten phone?

Suddenly an idea struck me: undoubtedly, the ICE trains offer… Wifi on board! With only three minutes left, I sprinted to the platform, my roller case swerving and bouncing behind me. Sweaty and almost incoherent, I accosted the first conductor I saw to ask about onboard Wifi.

“Certainly,” she said. “From the German border onward.”

And there I stood again with one foot in the air.

I began to explain my problem to her. After three words, she interrupted me to tell me I would have to speak with the train manager. She pointed. About 500 meters away, at the other end of the long, long train, I spotted a figure in a train uniform. I had two minutes left on the clock.

“Gaspisgasptheregaspwifigaspongaspboardgasp?” I asked after another case-bouncing spring. Fortunately, he turned out to be multilingual.

“Certainly,” he replied.

And so, five minutes later, I was able to used the website for my mobile security app to verify that my phone was indeed still at home, and download my tickets to my desktop; after sinking into my my seat breathless and sweaty; after checking my carriage and seat numbers in my Inbox; after logging on to the excellent onboard Wifi network in my ICE train.

Years ago, I suddenly lost access to my Chello webmail account. I called their helpdesk. They had had cause to change my password, a service tech explained. Wouldn’t it have been advisable to inform me of the fact? They had, was their straight-faced answer.

By email.

All’s well as ends well, and now that I’m cutting through the German countryside at 150 miles an hour, I can see the humor in this entire affair. But when I heard that NS International can only access my booking with my booking code, I thought fondly back at Chello.

* No, I couldn’t log on to a different computer to access my Inbox. I’ve secured my account with two-factor authentication, and the second factor is an authorization code… on my phone.