Even though my affection for her is undimmed - because really, this sort of thing can and does happen when traveling - Julia's avowals and assurances re: the entry visa I need to get into Moscow? Were not founded. Julia told me that once we had the paperwork for a "home stay", all I had to do was go to the Russian Embassy in Paris with it and get a transit visa. This was plausible to me: I have had all my other required transit and tourist visas processed right on the spot in embassies in Europe before - one day I picked up several visas from different embassies in Athens so I could get through Macedonia and Albania and part of Yugoslavia.
I remember that morning with some embarrassment, actually. We didn't know that war in Yugoslavia had just broken out and that was why the train service was all wonky when we were tilting for visas. We didn't know there was a war on when we boarded the train either. Maybe nobody in the consulates was ready to say the word "war". Maybe nobody really knew yet what was going on, not exactly. I don't know. Maybe we just didn't hear the word clear - our shiny little American minds totally incapable of rezzing the importance of the demurrals that we just ignored as we bulldozed our way to GIVE ME WHAT I WANT. So that's another possibility: we were young and dumb.
Then, or, The Lady or the Tiger.
I was with a group of other women, all of whom had been traveling singly before we formed an ad hoc gypsy tribe. Neither French (which used to be pretty reliable in Greece) or English were really working out communication-wise, and we were at the train station and told that we had to take the boat. No train from Athens to Munich. This made no sense to us, because we could see the lines on our maps and we could see trains on the schedule and everything. We insisted. They said no. We insisted some more. Actually, mostly I insisted - being the most obstinate and patient of the lot, it fell to me to say things over and over again in different ways, sometimes with amusing charades or sketches - until something clicked and the ball got to rolling. I don't mind that. I kind of like it, even. So I persisted, patient and smiling, trying to grok why we couldn't get a train to Munich even though there was no strike, they were on the schedule, etc. etc..
Why is it so important, the train guy seemed to be saying. Take the <hand gesture for boat>.
But see, here is the thing about the boat that runs from Athens to Patras and Corfu to Brindisi... In April and May. It SUCKS. It is full of the worst and crappiest and most intolerable specimens of assholery ever. Sorority girls shrieking WE'RE GOING TO SANTORINIIIIIIII over and over again until you have a collateral embolism. Kids in Birkenstocks headed for the freakin' Pink Palace and saying UH HUH HUH THEY WAKE YOU UP WITH OUZO
So anyway, none of us were getting back on the goddamn boat. NOT INTERESTED. We all preferred to make our way over land. How to explain this to the guy at the train station? I decided to act it out. I held up my hand to signify that there was gonna be some mimin'. He smiled. I turned my face into a sorostitute rictus and screeched WE"RE GOING TO SANTOREEEENEEEEE OH MY GOHHHHHD!" in an annoying high pitched squeal, did a stupid little jig, clapped my hands together like a cheerleader, and then snapped back to Normal Person, gave him my "Get it?" look while running the blade of my hand across my throat to signify that I myself wanted to murder Americans like that in their sleep, and waited. He looked REALLY amused by this performance and held his hands up to signify surrender. He said "Visas." He pointed at the maps. He gave us the addresses of the embassies. We went to all of them and got transit visas, no problem. The Yugoslavian embassy guy was reluctant, but when he saw our itinerary from the train station he was like ok whatevs, here are your kajillion stamps. We got on the train the next morning. We were very surprised that nobody else was on it - by which I mean: nobody. Not one human soul. We were it. And it was this giant old black cast iron train engine, like in a children's book. Only the engine and the passenger compartment behind it were visible, the way the station was and in the dark. You could see more of it in outline, but something about it was just... Weird. We got on the train, picking out our car. Four of us were going - the other two headed further east. Something just seemed wrong and weird and quiet about the whole thing, but it was like 6:30 in the morning so we weren't totally freaked out by the fact that we were alone on the train. It quietly chuffed out of the station and we sat in silence, looking out the window. Then one of the engineers came and took our passports for the duration, telling us that we'd get them back in Munich. THAT was weird. THAT made us nervous. We asked why. He told us it was a sealed train, straight shot: no stops. No other passengers. I guessed the other cars were shipping. No way to find out though: he locked us into our car. We hadn't even had coffee - figured we'd have it on the train - and there was obviously no diner car or any sort of sammiches and bevs service either. That made us unhappy also: we pooled our resources and found we had plenty of cheese and trailmix and chocolate to get there without getting cranky or really hungry. Water wasn't going to be so comfy - it was a long train ride, almost two days. We just... Didn't know what we were getting into. I now suspect that the amused train station guy thought "Oh, honey: you think that's bad? You think you deserve special treatment because you don't like sorohos? COMING RIGHT UP." And we got what we deserved. Or needed. Because what we rolled through was something I probably *did* need to see, humble pie I needed to eat up and have seconds.
Some of it was just melancholic - An old man working some land on a John Deere tractor being pulled by a team of oxen. A sad-eyed tweedsuited shepherd with his flock, waiting for the train to pass so they could cross the tracks. But as we went further north it got bad. Farm collectives, these weird concrete ghetto buildings in the middle of vast expanses of farmland - windows blasted out and curtains in the breeze. And hundreds of refugees, packed into the stations so deep there was no room to move. Carrying what they could in those plastic blue and red shoppers. Packed on the platform, waiting. Maybe they'd heard there was a train coming. Maybe they'd been waiting there like that for hours, or days. And we blew right by them without even slowing down to safe station-passing speeds. Without slowing down to jumping-on speed. And their faces. God, their faces. We just sat there in our rocketing train and cried. It was a hard trip.
The current problem here lies in the fact that it appears Schengen citizens are in fact able to get visas outside of their country of permanent residence. A Swiss woman could pick up a Russian visa in Paris. I am not a Schengen resident. I cannot pick up a Russian visa in Paris, which Julia was sure I could. Nope. Not so much. As I discovered today - after, of course, all the paperwork for the official invitation was in the hopper and the airplane ticket purchased. I would need proof of residency in the country in which I was to acquire the visa - and I will not be resident anywhere, unless you count three weeks in Oxford (something is telling me that will not nearly cut it, ha). Aeroflot will not refund my ticket, even though the flight is almost five months off - evidently their refund policy extends only to Russian citizens. This appalling bit of news was delivered to me by an extra-gleefully malicious Russian chick in the New York office. American Express is going to dispute the charges. Maybe I will get a refund. Maybe not. But a $600 mistake is hardly the most expensive mistake anyone will ever make in a lifetime, and though I felt pretty gnarly about it at first, I'm fine now. Part of that is thinking about the trip my little pack of lone wolves took together on that train. Pissing and moaning about something like this for more than an hour would just be... Stupid. Poor me, living a life in which that kind of mistake is even possible, in which there is enough to cover that kind of mistake with a *headdesk* and a wince or seventy. Oh, woe betide. Amirite? There is enough pain in the world without rubbing minor misfortunes together until they create yet more of it.
Hoping that Julia will get to come hang with me in Bruges over the Easter break, or a weekend in Venice. We talked about doing that too - and now that Moscow is off, I'm hoping for it even more.