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Traveling Incognito. Why I stay anonymous.

Traveling Incognito. Why I stay anonymous.

Times are changing. I am sure people have always been saying that and I certainly remember this phrase making the rounds since I was a child. Somehow, it feels like they are changing faster and in more terrifying ways than ever before. Where previously people might refer to technological advances, different ways of working or how their kids were growing up differently to themselves – now we are worried about how where we were born influences our ability to work and travel.

I’ve grown up with the notion that I was different from the people in my town, because I was born somewhere else. It mattered in small-town Holland where I was “really” from, despite my Dutch passport. Even so, I don’t remember a time in my life where it mattered this much. When you think about it, where you are born is just a lottery and none of us come into the world as inherently bad people, or should be less worthy of opportunities and success. Nevertheless, where you are born has a lot to do with where you go in life. And now, it has ever more to do with where you can travel. Even if just for tourism.

I am lucky. I won the birth lottery relatively speaking. There are a number of close friends who are Canadian or British, but just because their life started out in a different country they are no longer able to travel to the US (without complications). Not everyone is quite so lucky, and while place of birth is not something any of us can choose it does impact us in some cases more than the choices we can make.

Labels, no matter what

Five minutes ago I took my seat on an Air Maroc flight to Casablanca, and the person about to sit next to me made small talk. All it took was one short response from me to elicit the comment: “I didn’t think Americans travelled that much anymore these days”. No matter where I go (except if I am home in Toronto), I am labelled the moment I open my mouth. Every time again I have to explain my heritage, and indulge people’s curiosity about how I ended up with an American accent.

There are several things wrong with the statement the man next to me made, so I won’t even get into that here because that opens an entirely different discussion.

Exactly because people make these kinds of assumptions, I don’t like showing off where I am from. You might think that precisely for this reason I might want to flash my Dutch passport for all to see, but I don’t. I am not offended if someone thinks I am American, it is just not correct. When on the road, we spend a lot of time giving up our privacy. We are enclosed in tight spaces for hours on end with complete strangers, and at the core I appreciate keeping some ownership over what about myself I divulge. I hope that others who travel a lot might understand where I am coming from with this. To help, I recently got a leather passport cover from Niche Lane. To travel incognito in style. In part for this reason, in part to protect my passport and keep my travel essentials together (health card, credit card, and boarding pass). No rummaging through carry-on luggage needed if I want to buy a coffee and my passport automatically flips open on the photo page when I need it to. When frequent (business) travel is part of your life, you have to make it as easy as possible.

I like that by covering my passport, I feel a bit more anonymous. It’s my choice to who I reveal what my nationality is (aside from of course to official border agents), and it is my way of being defiant to this sudden emphasis on where you are from. Just because you spent hours in a tiny box in the air together, doesn’t give the people sitting close to you any right to your life story. However, if you do want to chat the conversation deserves to take whatever turn that is interesting at the time, instead of being dominated by geopolitics and cultural stereotypes (if I had a penny for every time someone made an inappropriate comment about Amsterdam…and I am not even from Amsterdam…).

If you are curious about my passport wallet, I took a picture of it just before getting on to my British Airways flight to Amsterdam last week, and it is the picture above! What I love about this particular cover is that it’s not just high quality, but also designed in the UK and ethically made. This year I am putting in even more effort to buy locally, and support businesses that create durable, sustainable products. In contrast, recently a friend of mine told me about a product he bought that had to be shipped from the US, because he couldn’t find it anywhere in the UK. Only to then see “made in Germany” written on the actual item. Imagine all that wasted extra fuel to ship it to North America first, then back to Europe. That certainly wasn’t the case for me and it does make me feel a bit more environmentally responsible. If you’d like to copy my style, you can get the same passport wallet here.

What are your thoughts about my travel strategy? Silly…? Or maybe something you might do as well? Always look forward to your comments!


Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".

  1. Laura

    27 April

    I totally support your decision and in fact I think I might get a passport cover as well. It’s getting to me that the first thing strangers ask me when I travel is the “where are you from” question. Who cares???? I get that it is easy small talk to make but it’s not like you ask people in your own country what town they were born in, right?

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura. Indeed… it is up there with people always being so fascinated when they meet others from their own country. Dutch people always want to chat with me when they know I am also from holland, and while it is fun I can’t help but think that the same people would not just randomly talk to me if we were both in the Netherlands. It’s a bit different than the where-are-you-from question, but still.

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