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Friday, March 7, 2008

flight of the pajama-clad criminal

to quote a not-very-original line from one of my favorite DeVotchka songs--"this is how it ends."

exactly one week ago art and i made the decision to come home. it was a difficult and easy choice at the same time. we've gone through so much trying to figure out God's will for us, and finally we came to the conclusion that sometimes you just have to make a choice yourself and hope it's the right one. even though art got the job, and the papers he needed for the job, the invitation for my new visa hadn't arrived and probably wouldn't in time for my trip to the states. it seemed like one more in a long line of problems, and even though i know sometimes God wants us to perservere through adversities, art made the point that just because something sucks and goes wrong doesn't necessarily mean you must be doing the right thing.

so--enough of the reasons. on to the bitter end! ha ha.

art managed to get tickets for him and the boys on the same flights that i was already booked on, and we started packing. we had four days to get everything ready, which was plenty of time but still a little hectic. monday we were going to have a little get together at ilya and ira's house, which we put off till tuesday at the last minute. art had spent the whole day travelling back and forth to krasnodar to pick up our tickets and get some stamp in his passport he needed, and i figured after six hours of being in a bus he'd be tired. so tuesday we were going to have some fun--or so we thought.

earlier on tuesday art went through a major fiasco trying to mail a package--a fiasco that involved getting lost, going to the wrong address, taking a cab that got pulled over by the police then getting on a trolleybus only to have it stop because a bus in front of it had crashed and messed up the electric line. this, i suppose, was the event that set the tone for the rest of the week. that night, just before ilya came to pick us up to go to their house, our ilya started complaining that his tummy hurt. i could tell by the look on his face that he had a fever, so we gave him some medicine. everyone has been sick lately, and ilya and ira's son had a fever too, so we just figured at that point it didn't really matter. as soon as we got to their house ilya collapsed on the floor and started crying and wouldn't stop. the medicine didn't work, he was still burning up, so after a half hour or so of trying to be having a good time, we decided to take him home. an abrupt and sad ending to the would-be festivities, but there was nothing else for it.

we had to leave at midnight to get to krasnodar for our flight, so we put the kids down until it was time to go. i cleaned and made sure everything was ready to go, put on my pajama bottoms (we had a twenty-four hour trip ahead of us and i wanted to be comfortable) and waited. when the time came for us to load the stuff into cars it went pretty smoothly. ilya's fever was down and he seemed more cheerful, and sashka was wide awake but not talking. i rode with them and ilya gromov while art rode in another friend's car. after much longer than we anticipated we finally got to the airport, got inside, and waited for registration to begin. the guys stuck around to help us get through--the airport there is practically medieval and the baggage loading process was one step short of us having to physically put in on the plane ourselves. finally we were through, ready to go through passport control, and we said our goodbyes.

at passport control they took forever--the lady looked at the kids passports first, then at art's forever (with his beard he gets checked a lot, ha), then finally at mine. then she abruptly says my visa has expired, i'm illegal, and they pull me off and take art in the opposite direction. an officious little weiner with a ridiculous hat and a molestache, who was exactly what you would expect the head of russian passport control to look like, came and snatched my passport out of my hands and asked me if i spoke russian. i said yes, he yelled at me to stay where i was, and waggling his fat, pale fingers at me he disappeared with my passport. i could hear art somewhere else arguing, and the kids crying, and suddenly i got the overwhelming urge to puke or giggle. i started singing instead. i don't know why. people were staring at me in my pajama bottoms and snowboarding jacket, singing and humming worship songs like a crazy person, but i didn't care. i was scared. all i could think was that the worst thing i'd imagined was happening--i'd been separated from my family.

the bottom line about my visa--the lady at the consulate in the states claimed she was issuing me a three month visa, valid from the time i entered the country until three months from then. she said i had until january 15th to enter the country on my current invitation. seemed simple, and like idiots we believed her without looking too closely at the paper itself. turns out my visa expired on january 15th. even though we applied for and paid for a three month visa, she'd issued me a 57 day visa, which needless to say, is very arbitrary and thus completely russian.

anyway, art kept trying to see me--if we separated i had all the kids stuff in my bag, plus all their passports and tickets. frantically we tried to exchange things while they yelled at him to get back on the other side, and i could see the kids on the other side of the glass now looking terrified and crying. art was trying to say that he wouldn't fly without me or something, but i didn't think that made sense and told him to just go and we'd figure it out. i said it, and while my mouth was talking my brain said, "you really are an idiot, jenn."

fortunately ilya hadn't left the airport and he came inside and starting arguing with everyone. but then he looked closely at the visa and said he was sorry but they were right. up until that point we were still convinced that these podunk beauracrats were just idiots or messing with us. almost everyone in a position of authority in this country is corrupt, so it was easy to assume. they told me i would have to get an exit visa and be deported, but nothing was open at five in the morning so we'd have to do it later. i got my bags, and ilya and i walked outside and reloaded everything in the car.

the way home was long, and exhausting. ilya got pulled over by the police for something retarded, and had to pay a bribe to get out of it, because that's the way it works here. bribes and more bribes. i hate the very idea of it--it infuriates me. but they threaten you with everything in the book unless you pay them off, and because people don't really have the greatest rights here they do it. i have to say at this point i started to feel like jonah--maybe this was my fault and i needed to be tossed overboard? that, at least, made me laugh.

once we got back to novorossysk we waited for the immigration office to open to find out where and how to get my visa so i could leave. when the office opened the guy told us to go to another place, and then i would have to appear in court and be deported and not allowed to come back for five years. oddly enough, all my brain absorbed at this point was, "i have to appear in court in my pajamas." we went to the other office, after getting lost and asking directions from an old guy and some random babushka, only to find out it was closed because they were moving. of COURSE. ilya perservered and kept asking for someone, anyone, to come out and just talk to us, and finally a chain-smoking guy in a blue terry-cloth sweatsuit (that incidentally made me feel loads better about being in my pj's) came out, looked at my passport, blew cigarette smoke all over it repeatedly, and said to come back at four and he might be able to help us. we assumed from this he meant, "come back when the office is closed and bribe me and i'll see what i can do."

we decided i'd better sleep in the mean time, so since i still had the keys to my flat i went back to crash for awhile. we were payed up till the end of the month so i didn't seem to be a big deal. ilya promised to pick me up later, and i went inside, dropped my luggage, and allowed myself the luxury of five minutes of hysterical crying. after that i laid down and slept for an hour or so, then got up and went to he store to get some food and shampoo so i could at least be clean and not hungry. i tried to be cheerful, but all i could think about was art flying alone with sick kids, trying to get all our luggage through customs by himself, and worrying about me. i was a little worried about me as well, but i knew nothing too terrible could happen.

ilya came, we went to the place and everyone yelled at us to go away that they were closed till the 11th. still, we waited around until about quarter to five hoping that guy would show up, but he didn't. there wasn't anything else we could do that day, so ilya invited me to come back to their place and have some food and watch a movie. i agreed gladly. that part was nice--i started to feel a little more relaxed, and even though i was desperately tired and numb i could feel my shoulders descending from their perch up around my ears.

after hanging out ilya brought me back to my place--i had visions of sleeping and sleeping and not being awakened by children, and i drooled a little at the prospect. i got upstairs, unlocked the door, and it wouldn't budge. again, fortunately ilya was waiting downstairs to make sure i got in my flat okay, and he came up and tried to open the door as well. the only thing we could think was that the bottom lock was locked, and i never use that one--i didn't even have a key for that one. i called my dad and he said that he'd called the house earlier and the landlady was there saying we'd left and that we flying to st. petersburg and everything was okay. so while i was out the landlady had come back and locked me out. i was mad. i had her number and ilya talked to her, and after twenty minutes of haggling and arguing they agreed to come and let me in. long story short, i got inside, saw that all my stuff had been packed up and left in the corridor, and all the food and toiletries i'd bought had been thrown away.

at this point my ulcer exploded and i started coughing.

ilya talked with the landlady's husband, and they agreed that i could stay till friday while i sorted out the visa situation. they left, i laid down, and a mosquito started buzzing around me head. well, two actually--flying around in tandem and doing high and low harmonies together. at first i tried to slap at them, but then i just gave up. bite me for all i care.

in the morning ilya called krasnodar, and found out that nobody in this region could help me. i had to get to st. pete where i'd flown in and get deported there. there were two options: take a two-day train by myself up to st. pete, or fly up. option number one is risky because it's scary to travel so long alone as a woman. option number two is risky because they check passports much more carefully at the airport, even if it's a domestic flight. in the end i decided to risk a flight. i was in action mode and i just want to DO something to get out of here. ilya took me to buy a ticket, then we rushed to the airport in anapa to make the flight. sure enough, they checked my passport and started making a fuss. at first it looked like they were going to help me--they said that they could write a paper that would keep anyone else from detaining me at other checkpoints. they said to go ahead and get my luggage checked in and they would work on it. after i checked my luggage and paid $100 in overweight baggage fees, they pulled ilya into a room. he came out with this scary look on his face and said i had two options: be arrested and held in a deportation jail until enough other people were arrested to do a mass deportation, or bribe the guy. i opted for bribery. not so much because i was afraid of jail but because i felt the need to get the heck out of the region, a sentiment which ilya voiced aloud just as i was thinking it. i gave ilya some money, and then we said goodbye and i was through.

the first leg of the flight was short (i was going through moscow), and i sat next to a really nice lebanese guy and we talked the whole way so that was a good distraction. after hearing a little about what was going on he for some reason decided to be my guardian for awhile, and followed me off the plane and helped me figure out where to go and even talked to a lady from the airline asking if i would have problems. she seemed to think they wouldn't check too closely because i had a connecting flight. mr. lebanon walked me to the exit and said goodbye, and waited until i was through security before he went his way. i had a two hour layover in moscow and ilya and ira were really afraid i would get in trouble there with a second militia checkpoint. they called friends to be on standby to help me if needed, but it turned out to be unecessary. i got through without any problems. things seemed to be a little more positive. except my ulcer, which was radiating pain through my whole chest cavity, and the annoying coughing that was leaving me feeling that i'd swallowed some shrapnel. but these are merely trifles, no?

art's mom met me at the airport, and we took a cab back to her house. at some point my cell phone must have fallen out of my pocket, because when we got upstairs it was nowhere to be found. we called it over and over hoping the cabbie would answer and bring it back, but that's assuming a lack of corrupt greed not in keeping with my understanding of the average russian.

i took a shower, talked to art, lost my voice, and coughed myself to sleep.

today art's mom is going to immigration services to get paperwork, and i've been left here to relax and be sick in peace until she gets back. then i'll probably have to go out into a blizzard with my thin slip-on shoes and a fever and wait in a huge line so my criminal self can get kicked out of this accursed place good and proper. ha ha.

6 comments:

foldreformer said...

oh, my goodness. I am speechless. I am praying you will get "home" to your family soon. Hang in there, Jenn

Kellee

the mumpers said...

Jenn, you might consider calling the American Consulate in St. Petersburg to see what services they can provide. The number is (812) 331-2600.

Heather said...

I'll definitely keep you in prayer - I hope you make it back to America safely! God bless!

melissaamatangelo said...

I can't believe it! I'll be praying for you guys, It's the only thing I can do.

contrarian 78 said...

This calls for a viewing of The Terminal starring Tom Hanks.

Very apropos.....

Gromovs said...

I only have one correction to make - when we were going back to Novorossiysk from the airport and I got pulled over by the police I didn't have to bribe them - they just let me go. I have to add this as it seems the only decent thing that happened to us from the authorities :)