Please, just let me in

IT was a real stroke of luck. I managed to miss last week's domestic news: the Conservative Party's agony over Europe. I was due in Rome. In the circumstances the cradle of European civilisation seemed a highly suitable bolt hole.

I was feeling warmly pro-European when I arrived at Heathrow. That was when my troubles began. I went to pick up my pre-booked ticket from British Airways and the bookings clerk asked for my passport.

I happily handed it over. She frowned and said: 'This won't do. You can't travel on this.'

With half my mind on Europe I had reached into the P for passport section of the filing cabinet at home and taken out my cancelled, old passport.

I looked at the distressingly youthful photograph in the front, quite shaken. 'But we're in Europe now,' I said, thinking the passport a mere formality. 'Surely I don't actually need a passport to travel to Italy?'

'Oh yes, you do. Can you go home and get the right one?' she asked.

I was handed over to a British Airways manager, a nice, pragmatic man. 'I've made a simple, silly mistake. But I need to get on the next flight,' I said.

I saw myself through his eyes. There I was, like him as English as Brighton rock, down to my pearls and brown leather handbag. 'British Airways will be happy to carry you,' he said. Under his direction, my ticket was issued, and I headed for passport control. The UK official didn't even notice my passport was invalid.

It was only as the plane raced down the runway that I had a momentary sense of doubt, such is the basic madness of flying. Suppose my out-of-date passport had been a warning omen: that this was a flight it was in my interest to miss?

Safe at Rome airport the thought recurred; things got nasty. The passport control official threw the passport back at me, exclaiming: 'This no good]' I felt a hundred sets of eyes boring into my back as the queue behind me shifted impatiently.

A woman immigration officer marched me off to a sad little waiting room, without windows. Here there were a dozen impoverished-looking North Africans, in thin shirts, apparently without any luggage. Several were leaning forward, head in hands. All looked as if they had been there for a very long time, and would have benefited from a cup of tea. They had probably been trying to enter the country by way of an internal flight from Sicily.

I decided not to sit down on the red mesh seats, lest, like them, I might never get up again. I followed the immigration official into an inner office, where a more senior woman was writing. 'I have made a simple mistake,' I started to explain. The two women stared at me in wonder, then took me off to the nearest English speaker, an Alitalia official.

'You can't come into Italy. You have the wrong passport. Why did British Airways allow you to fly?' Faced with the prospect of being dumped back in London I pulled out all the stops. 'British Airways was pleased to carry me because I am the British representative at an important Italian conference,' I said pompously.

I was expected by my Italian hosts for dinner that evening. I gave the address. (It was, I discovered later, Rome's equivalent of Belgravia.) I produced my invitations, complete with phone numbers.

This seemed to do the trick, and more. Back in the waiting room of despair, the two women beamed at me. The junior one of the two took me outside and explained, in the reasonable English she had managed up till now to conceal: 'You are British. That counts. It counts a lot. You have a British passport. It is old, but it is good. The British are like the Italians, often they come with their old papers.' She shrugged. 'We are glad to see you in Italy.'

I walked with her to the exit, where, unexpectedly, a patient driver was holding my name above his head on a card.

But I could not shake off the sight of those dejected men back in the waiting room. It was an object lesson for Eurosceptics. So many Britons bridle at the concept of a unified Europe. Yet, to the hundreds of millions on the perimeters, it seems a haven of order and prosperity.