High on a hilltop in northern Italy, behind the stone walls of a medieval Umbrian town called Montone, we made a discovery that no overseas traveler could wish for: One of our passports was missing.

After 13 days of well-planned sightseeing, great food and glorious October weather, my wife, Joyce, and I found our itinerary unraveling into a spaghetti-like tangle.

Only two full days remained until our flight home. Joyce would need her passports to board the plane. What now? The answer: 48 tense hours that left us grateful for helpful strangers and keenly sensitive to life’s ripple effects.

We weren’t careless. We’d brought photocopies of our passports and were wary of pickpockets. Joyce kept her passport in a travel purse, inside a pocket within another pocket, each protected by a zipper and covered by the purse’s front flap. The purse’s strap was always around her neck. Only when we were at dinner in a hotel did she leave the purse in our locked room, in a safe when provided.

Even so, the passport had gone AWOL.

That’s when Italian hospitality kicked in. The proprietress of Montone’s La Locanda del Capitano, where we were staying, spoke excellent English. She calmed Joyce down and, late on a Saturday afternoon, called the U.S. Embassy in Rome. A staffer advised downloading passport application forms and appearing at the U.S. Consulate in Milan at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

After learning that our flight was leaving from Venice — a long way from Milan and Montone — our new friend called the embassy again and learned we could go instead to the U.S. Consulate in Florence, only two hours away. Then she printed out all the forms and directed us to a small shop where we made a copy of Joyce’s driver’s license.

The next morning, Sunday, we drove to nearby Humbertide to report our missing passport to the police, a step recommended on one of the forms. After we stopped to ask directions to the police station, a stranger — another helpful Italian — offered to lead the way in his car.

We found a lone carabinieri who didn’t speak English and indicated we should return Monday morning, when we would be in Florence applying for a replacement passport.

We stopped at the train station to check the Monday schedule to and from Florence, decided instead to drive, and hit the streets in search of the best route to the autostrada. Then back to the hotel for dinner — complete with truffles.

Before dawn on Monday, my cellphone’s alarm roused us with the clang of a virtual Big Ben. Joyce plugged in the coffeepot that the staff had delivered the night before, along with rolls and fruit. Suddenly our room lost power. No lights. The flashlight glow from my cellphone helped me find the circuit breaker box that I’d noticed when we checked in. The flick of a switch restored the juice.

As we made our way to the car — parked outside the ancient walls of Montone — our rolling suitcases rumbled over deserted cobblestone streets.

After one wrong turn in the early morning fog, our drive to the Florence consulate was uneventful.

In imperfect English, an armed guard outside the consulate directed us to a photo shop a few blocks away for the passport photo Joyce would need. It was closed. We soon found a shop selling photo supplies. The manager knew just how to do the job.

Twenty minutes later, photo in hand, we returned to the consulate, passed through its airport-style metal detector, and waited for nearly half an hour in a room that faced several thick glass windows, where clerks handled requests.

At least four other Americans that morning were seeking replacement passports. The State Department says that 340,940 U.S. passports were reported lost or stolen in fiscal 2014.

By lunchtime, Joyce had her replacement passport.

We spent our last night in Padua.

All went smoothly the next morning as we drove about an hour to Venice’s airport, returned our rental car and boarded our flight.

Every security official we met on the trip home noticed Joyce’s passport was temporary. An officer in Amsterdam said most missing passports in Italy are stolen because many immigrants and refugees who come through that country need that credential to cross other European borders.

Joyce prefers to think hers was stolen rather than lost. “That’s my story,” she tells friends, “and I’m sticking to it.”

Once safely home, she applied for and received her new 10-year passport. We felt pleased about resolving our problem under pressure and enjoyed telling the story. Until late December.

That’s when the mail brought a notice declaring we had failed to pay a toll on the autostrada near Florence. Neither of us can think how that happened, but the fee and penalty already has been charged to our credit card through our rental car company. We’ve challenged that payment and are awaiting the outcome.

How do you say “Uff da” in Italian?


Dan Wascoe is a retired Star Tribune reporter and columnist.