THE GREAT FIANCEE VISA ADVENTURE PT 1THE GREAT FIANCÉE VISA ADVENTURE
(A "G"-rated Romance)
It's June 1993, and I'm in St. Petersburg for the second time,assisting our fearless leader Anatoly with mundane details, while we're on an insaneexpedition with the theatre students to the uncharted wilds of the post-PerestroikaRussian theatre scene. Unfortunately for me, Anatoly considers food, bed sheets and museumtours all part of the mundane details he'd rather give me to manage, and so, soon thestudents are living in a pair of large rented flats with me as cook, tour guide and denmother. Nil, an Alaskan "punk" actor, who much resembles a character in anunderground comic book brought to life, is one of these students, and despite appearances,the most romantic soul of the lot. Therefore, it is no great surprise when after a fewdays he comes in to say:
"Tara-tara-tara! Today was so cool. I mean kaif. I mean,you see, we went on a street-action, I mean a sort of performance, parade, ritual,something, with the Theatre Metamorphose today, and it was so cool, I mean kaif, and I metTasha, and she's a hippie chick, and friend of Gwen's, so I think maybe I have no chance,since I'm really, like a punk, and not real organic, or anything, but she smiled at me,and it was so cool, kaif, super-kaif, and I think I'm in love!"
After about a half hour of hearing about Tasha's Madonna like,calm aura of spiritual well being, and how she actually deigned to smile on the fortunateNil when he spontaneously grabbed one of the ritual-performance drums and did an AlaskaNative style Raven Dance for her with pounding accompaniment and cawing sounds, I ampretty well ready to believe Nil is smitten in earnest. Each day over the next few weeks Iam given a blow by blow account of whether Tasha smiled today, or even (my God!) spoke withNil, and how he judges his suit is faring. Nil is approaching Tasha with such anattitude of groveling worship, that I begin to fear he will get nowhere. But then one dayhe comes dancing into the kitchen with raven caws and flapping hands:
"SHE KISSED ME!!!"
So things rapidly proceed from there. I no longer have to fretover Nil's meals because Tasha is cooking him three meals of organic whatsits a day.Nil meanwhile is trying to write punk songs with violent lyrics, but they turn into drippyromanticism instead. Punk's muse does not sit comfortably with love-for-all-time, alas. Itis all extremely cute, but so sudden, all their friends are predicting both will forgetthe other a month after our stay in Russia is over.
Then it is January 1994, in Fairbanks Alaska, the only Americantown where it is regularly darker and colder than St. Petersburg in Winter. I have justreturned from my third trip to St. Petersburg, when Nil comes into my office all excitedand flushed:
"You'll never guess! You'll never guess what I'vedone!" he says in a sort of joyful hysteria.
"You are engaged to Tasha." I reply, it is a statementnot a question.
"Whoa! How do you know? Do you have ESP or something?"
"Nil, you have spoken to me of nothing else since June butTasha-Tasha-Tasha. You tell me every time you call her, about, say, once a week? Last weekin Russia all she talked about was Nil-Nil-Nil. What else would put you into such astate?"
"True. How do I get her a visa?"
This is when the real fun begins. You see, getting a fiancée visa is one of the most hellish, lengthy and expensive proceedings imaginable.Nil,realizing this, tries, against advice, to circumvent this ordeal by getting Tashaatourist, business or artistic exchange visa. All of these fail most miserably and wasteseveral months. Finally Nil sets to work on a fiancée visa, sending in everything but thekitchen sink: A statement of support, old tax returns for him and his family, visa fees,Tasha's birth certificate, old marriage certificate and divorce certificate.
However, fiancée visas take about six months with all thingsgoing well, so it's still in limbo when in July of this year I come again to St.Petersburg, this time to live for a year. Nil exhorts me to take care of Tasha, andTasha to take care of me, so it's no surprise when I rent Tasha's spare room and we attackthe visa problem together.....
Here I get to see this romantic tangle from the other side. Sureenough, Nil does call once a week, usually at some obscene hour like four in the morning.Tasha, far from getting angry, gets flushed breathless and dazed. She tells me how wellNil is tuned into her feelings: "He has a great soul." Tasha takes me out onthe balcony one morning to see a huge spider in her window. "Isn't it beautiful, itlooks like a sign from Nil." Sure enough, Nil calls that night to tell Tashahe hada dream where he was a spider looking out for her. It is truly weird.
I am not one who believes in signs and portents, but I'm alwaysamazed that when I'm with people like Tasha who do, signs and portents miraculouslyappear. As she had predicted, the approval of the American half of the visa applicationfell exactly on Nil's birthday in July. "I'm afraid I may not get my approval tillmy birthday in October!" She says. "I was born on the 26th, I got my certificate(M.F.A.) on the 26th, I was married to Boris on the 26th, my son was born on the 26th, andI got divorced from Boris on the 26th too."
Other "signs" appear as well. Nil, for instance, hasplayed the part of a raven spirit in some of our Alaska Native shows in the theatre at theUniversity. He makes raven noises and does Raven Dances at the drop of a hat. To myeverlasting amusement, whenever things get bad, we have the local ravens here in Russiadoing positively weird things, seemingly to provide Tasha with cosmic reassurance messagesfrom Nil, whenever we grow downhearted with the visa struggle.
Probably the worst time is in August when we wait the wholemonth for word from the American Embassy that we should drop everything and go to Moscow.It is like being a character in The Three Sisters. Nothing can be done till we go.Everything will be solved when we do. But day by day passes, and no letter ever arrives,and we repeat to each other in chorus each new day "Ah, if we could only go toMoscow!" It is most frustrating in a Chekhovian sort of way.
Then September rolls around, and the letter at last comes, notwith an invitation to Moscow, but with a new stack of forms to be completed, warning ofanother stack to follow, and daunting information about costs: $200 for a visa! Where isTasha to earn the money? The new Russian customs regulations have suddenly made itimpossible to sell her paintings to tourists or to foreign galleries, practically wipingout her income, just when she needs it most. We rush around and try to produce touristart: amber and glass necklaces, lacquer boxes and painted landscape miniatures, then takeit to a touristy "Art Shop" to sell. We are both amused when we go in to it howfast the sales girls pick up the cue of my foreign clothes and pounce on me as a potentialcustomer. "Do you know about lacquer boxes?" The quickest one asks in perfectEnglish. "Well, yes, actually." I say, "I live here. And, um, we werelooking to sell you some stuff." The irony is not lost on the salesgirl, who,smiling, takes us to the counter where the guys in shiny suits appraise our work. Irony ontop of irony, Tasha's actual artwork can't sell to the "Art Shop" but my beadnecklaces do. So American tourists get, not the work of a real Russian artist, but thebead-stringing of a fellow American, marked up from my 30,000p price to the 115,000p priceof the shop.
Rubles richer, I offer to lend Tasha the necessary cash for hervisa. Again, Nil, mystically in tune with Tasha, calls that night, and asks me if heshould send her money. "I just had this feeling Tasha needs it." He says."But for now, I'm a man in love. Can I talk to my Millochka?" I surrender thephone and discreetly leave the kitchen when Tasha, whispering soft nothings into thereceiver begins to turn pink. Later after Nil has hung up, Tasha, looking as sleepy andsatisfied as the cat after swallowing the canary, says "Nil, he knows what I need or want before I know it. I feel a real spiritual connectionwith Nil." And so I hear about the manifold perfections of Nil's soul, and how heintuits things about Tasha, living on the other side of the polar ice cap...
However the worst item in the stack of Embassy info is not thecost, but a little slip of paper Tasha is supposed to give to the militia in every townshe's lived in since the age of 16. The militia is just supposed to read it, look on thewall to make sure her face is not on a WANTED poster, and sign it. Problem is nobody wantsto sign it. Tasha spends over a month going to every militia office in the city trying tofind a militia officer who will sign it without requiring her to use threats or bribery.Better still, Tasha was born in Alma-Ata in Kazakstan, and lived there till she went tocollege. This means she needs one of these forms signed there too. Problem is, Alma-Ata isabout 3,000 miles away in what is now a foreign country. Tasha calls her Mom in Alma-Atawho agrees to pick up a FAX of the paper at the P.O. and give it to the Alma-Ata police tobe blessed. The police tell her Mom that they will send the paper to Tasha via the Militiain St.Petersburg. Several weeks later, after looking in all the militia offices in thecity, she finds them.
"Tara, I know where they are!" she tells me.
"The KGB has them."
"The KGB. I'm going to pick them up today." sheannounces brightly.
"At the KGB? THE KGB???" I shout in amazement. I askeagerly: "Do you want me to come?"
"No. But can I borrow your leather coat? KGB guys likeleather coats."
Alas, they don't like my leather coat enough, and won't give herthe papers.
"I think I am the only person who ever came in and justasked for them," Tasha says "they looked astonished. They say only `officialpersons' can pick them up, and that I should tell somebody from the Embassy in Moscow tocome to Petersburg to pick them up!"
After a month of struggling, she at last finds a sympatheticMilitia Detective-Inspector who not only gets her the local Militia blessing, but actuallygoes to the KGB to get her Alma-Ata papers on his day off. At last her packet iscomplete-or is it?
"We're from THE GOVERNMENT, we're here to help you."Throughout this experience, Tasha has had the notion (bred of spending most of her lifeunder an oppressive totalitarian government), that THE GOVERNMENT, any government, is outto "get" you at all times. So every time the U.S. Embassy would throw up anotherhurdle for her visa, Tasha thought it was being erected on purpose in order to harass herand find an efficient excuse to illegitimately exclude her from marrying Nil.
I, the naive American, who believes that government issupposedly set up to help you, get annoyed at these hurdles for the opposite reason, theyseem inefficient at excluding undesirables like criminals (who could simply bribe somebodyat the KGB for false papers), while being quite efficient at causing problems for honestpersons like Tasha. So when another hurdle arises, we both get annoyed, but for oppositereasons.
And so it comes to pass, that the second packet with Tasha'sappointment date for her interview, medical forms, and, yes another 1/2" of forms,does not arrive. And lo, though we call the Embassy in vain, and harass our poor localpostal workers daily, the packet is not forthcoming......
By mid-October, weary from living in our perpetual Chekovianstate (although the business with the Militia and KGB was pure Gogol), we have at last hadit with waiting and simply go to Moscow to demand the papers in person. As out-of-townfolks, we have to find it in one of my guide books, and go wandering map in hand till wesee a big office building surrounded by a walled compound. I point to the building, nudgeTasha, and say
"I think this is it."
She looks up, and says, "But the map says it's over thisway."
"Tasha, look at the windows." I prompt her, and shesquints at the faint outline of words through the tinted glass announcing "GOD BLESSAMERICA" in four foot tall masking tape letters. She looks at me, with a baffledexpression, "Why do you think they did that?" "Probably some CIA or Marinesecurity guys got bored one night and decided to play with masking tape." I say.
After speaking to a studly Marine guard (with an amazinginexplicable resemblance to Igor Chernevitch, one of the star actors of the Maly Theatrein St.Petersburg) we find that this is the uninhabitable "bugged" New Embassybuilding, so we are told to go around to the almost offensively cheerful bright yellow OldEmbassy building.
As we do so, we pass the Embassy dumpster where two well dressedguys are rifling it of American Garbage. Tasha and I speculate whether they are KGB orsimple scavengers. Tasha suggested it was one of each working as a team:
"Hey Misha, I'll trade you this microfilm I found for thebroken Cuisinart."
I propose that they are both out of work KGB guys who realizethey can make money as scavengers doing their old work:
"Hey Misha, how come when we were looking for microfilm allwe found was broken Cuisinarts, and now that my wife wants a Cuisinart, all we find ismicrofilm?"
"Murphy's law, man."
The Embassy won't let Tasha in without an appointment (how is shesupposed to get the papers without me I wonder?) so I stand around in Immigration sectionon her behalf for an hour, while Tasha waits frozen and forlorn outside in the snow. Theinside of the Embassy however, is wonderful, you instantly know you have stepped on"American Soil." The armed Marine guarding the main entrance, far from lookinglike the Jean Claude Van Damme clones Russia uses, is a seriously cute, curly haired, 5'2" Southern Gal who speaks clear concise Russian with a slight drawl. The minordiplomat who answers questions at Citizen Services is not a scowling lady bulldog in a badsuit, but a handsome young man in a violet silk shirt, sporting a gold earring. Already, Isuspect Russian's coming there might say, "You know Toto, I don't think we're in Kievany more."
The clincher is the huge American Cultural Icon: There is a Cokemachine right there, glowing with light and humming softly, that only accepts $1 bills.
Back in Immigration there are two "cases" left fromthe morning, both nice middle aged couples adopting Russian baby girls. One couple, fromMinneapolis, look like prosperous Republicans. They are in a pelter (or rather Mom is, Dadis calm, holding the cute, big-eyed girl,) because "Alexandra Elizabeth" is apreemie, and they want to take her to a doctor ASAP because Mom is worried for her."Alexandra" is, of course, perfectly happy and calm: Sucking on a huge bottle offormula like she intends to eat it bottle and all. Stuck for the last week in isolationbecause of low birth weight, her eyes roll around to look at Dad, anxiously trying tobounce, or wrap blankets, or pat or do anything she desires...the huge eyes look likeshe's been in a habitual state of worry for all the days since her birth, and now, thelook is "Wow! I get this? I mean, I can ask for a Mustang Convertible for mySixteenth birthday, and I'll get it? Hey guys, issue me that Visa! These two folks arecool!"
The Baby for the other couple is bigger, but just calmly sleeps,also in Dad's arms. It strikes me as funny, that in both natural birth and adoption, Momfeels she should do the work, while Dad, is just in thrilled awe over the baby. The secondcouple are upstate New Yorker's, that are the very picture of well-to-do LiberalEasterners: They are "dressed down" in horribly expensive natural fiber Land'sEnd shirts and sweaters, flawlessly faded Levi's, short salt and pepper hair, and wirerimmed glasses. They look as though they have flown, as is, straight from Martha'sVineyard. Unlike her Nancy Reagan suited counterpart, this lady is the picture of calm,despite the fact that her four year old son is literally bouncing off the walls andfurniture.
I ask "Which is harder, childbirth or paperwork?"
"Having been through both, I'd say paperwork is,definitely."
So this little sleeping girl will go to New York to be raised arecycling, eco-conscious, liberal Democrat, while wide eyed Alexandra will be enrolled inthe Rainbow Girls and want to rebel against going to private college. And Eighteen yearsfrom now, they'll end up at Columbia, meet, share an apartment (because they have so muchin common) and become friends, never guessing that they'd met before. The Republicanparented Alex will envy the other's ability to go out on dates with long haired boyfriendswho wear crosses in their ears. The little Democrat will wish her parents had let her eatsteak and potatoes, and bought her a convertible. And both will wonder, what would it havebeen like if I hadn't been adopted? Or been adopted by the other parents?
And all this lies in the future for them. Now they only knowthey are wearing clean Huggies and sucking on Gerber formula, and these big strange folksare making cute noises at them and they like it. Babies understand the important things inlife: eating, pooping, sleeping and warmth. The rest, roots and identity included, aregravy. Clean diapers come first.
So I wait, and wait, while the paperwork of baby transit isworked out. In the meantime, behind me, Barbie and Ken in matching green L.L.Bean Fallclothes appear, wedding rings on right hands in all their blonde perfection. Obviouslyhappy, obviously just married, obviously met while working for American Express doinglucrative work. Problem is, which is which? Which half of the perfect Aryan couple isapplying for the visa? I listen to their speech. His is perfect English, hers is softenedby a Southern sounding accent. Is she another Born-Again Russian Christian like my friendHelen who learned English from Southern Baptists? No, while waiting in line we talk, and Ifind she's from Atlanta. I think of the line from My Fair Lady, his "`Englishis too good,' he said, `that clearly indicates that [he] is foreign.'"
I mention to her that I am getting papers for another couple toget a fiancée visa. She looks brightly at "Ken," and he looks back at her,equally dreamy, like a Pepsodent ad, and she says "Yes, isn't it fun?" I chokedown a giggle, since I don't think either Nil or Tasha regard Embassy paperwork as"fun." But then they aren't doing it like these two, arm in arm, in matchingclothes, like a boxed souvenir set of "Barbie and Ken Go To Moscow to getVisa's." I mentally save up their cuteness to tell Tasha later to cheer her up.
After presenting her with the 1/2" wad of forms that arethe fruit of my hour's waiting, and seeing her grow pale with horror, I figure shedefinitely needs cheering up. I drag her frozen unresisting body to McDonald's, and spenda week's grocery money getting us both the height of American cuisine. Then I tell her allthe funny stories of folks in line as I stuff her with French fries to reduce the greenpallor that the stack of forms have brought on.
"From here on it is simple," I explain, "thereare two things that will win the day: Cheerful persistence and money. Don't get the ideathat they are out to get you, just keep asking `What do I do next?' and `Where do I go tofind out?'
Then we shell out money for the hostel, money for the doctor'stest, and money for the visa, we just keep handing it over till you get the papers."
Tasha looks unconvinced, but well enough to tramp to the clinicto get her $110 medical exam. Afterwards we wander around GUM, the great glassed indepartment store on Red Square, and a Raven(!), mysteriously living inside the store,lands on a perch overlooking Tasha's head and regards us with an "Are you OK?"look. This cheers Tasha up better than my pep-talks, and she happily treats me to a Coke atthe cafe overlooking Lenin's Mausoleum. As we discuss making a return to Petersburg tosave on hostel fees, two more Ravens hop their way across Red Square to ge a closer lookat us up in our window. I point this out, and Tasha looks at them, and then me, and doesher best beatific Raphael Madonna smile.
Late that night we pile onto the Red Arrow train, to go back toPetersburg. I keep getting the weirdest feeling I should talk to the two nice nerdy guyssharing our sleeping compartment. But the problem is, I speak almost no Russian and theyabsolutely do not speak any English. Tasha, who could translate, fell unconscious theminute we lay down, but I continue to get the feeling I should tell these total strangersour personal business---a thing I ordinarily would advise train travelers not to do.
Somehow, out of the far reaches of my brain I unearth enoughRussian to explain our situation to these two, they keep asking more, and I keep tellingthem more, till at last they tell me they work for OVIR, and "they want tohelp." Now me, I'm just a dumb foreigner, I don't know OVIR from KGB, but I suddenlyintuit, OVIR=Russian Passport/Visa people, and so I wake Tasha and tell her, and (holycow!) I'm right. Tasha also has a minor Russian visa problem that these two guys solveright then, just by knowing the right information. They also give us tea and chocolatesand tell us about their own Moscow adventure:
It seems they were the paper-pushers ("NOT state security!They hasten to assure us,) that accompanied the state security guy who had the fun job ofextraditing a multiple murderer back to Ulan Bator for trial. (One guy to guard, and twofor the paperwork?) They quickly convince us they are too indiscreet to be KGB by showingus all the receipts for transit that it was their duty to collect and return toPetersburg. After an hour we all fall unconscious, and don't wake till the hall guardsnaps open our door at dawn.
We spend a weekend back home, then chug back on the Arrow toMoscow again for Tasha's "interview" appointment, which, as Tasha foretold, haslanded exactly on her birthday. Since the train would get us there too late for herappointment on the day itself, we have arrived a day early and check into the Moscowhostel.
At the hostel we encounter two fellow tourists with romantictroubles of their own. One is the living embodiment of The Great White Hunter in an oldjungle movie: Half Aussie half Afrikaaner accent, tanned profile resembling the cartoonDudley Dooright, broad hairy chest, unselfconscious racist speech, he has clearly walkedout of the pages of an old Rider Haggard novel for our amusement. He is speaking to a HughGrant clone in a hockey jersey, a laid back Canadian who is, true to stereotype, "sopolite."
But oh, the sexism of the conversation! White Man has apparentlytossed much of his fame and fortune (so he says) overboard in the aftermath of a failedrelationship, and is raging on about the whole female gender. He is now determined toavoid female company lest he get "more behind" in making his fortune in theworld. He is heading back down under to the home of the marsupials, via scenic surfacetransport on the Trans-Siberian Express, Chinese rail, and ultimately Trans-Pacificsteamer, to resume his efforts at carving a fortune out of the Outback and the indigenouspeople, which he persists in calling "Abos". "Hugh" is trying to tempthim out to a night club, but White Man will have none of it: "I just have one moreday till my train leaves, and I'm trying to keep it in my pants till then."
"Hugh" looks embarrassed to think that his offer ofbeer and dancing was presumed to include "loose women" in the package, andblushes and stammers hasty assurances of the respectability of the offer. White Manbelatedly realizes that all his anti-ex-girlfriend ravings, as well as his lewdassumptions about the nightclub, may sound a bit sexist to us women in the room, so heattempts to counteract his previous remarks with: "You know what they say: `Men arelike public toilets, they're either taken or full of s____ ."
After that uplifting thought, they both turn around and go intoa discussion along the lines of the old "Russian women are desperate and submissiveand all want to marry foreigners" myth that seems to pervade American newspapercolumns and Western male thought. They go on about this for some time, oblivious ofTasha'snationality or circumstances. They are on the "all Russian women just want to marryforeigners to get out of Russia and enjoy Western material comforts" part of thismyth, when I notice Tasha twitching slightly behind her book. I fear she may be gettingupset, since Tasha is dumping friends, family and a great apartment to live in what shethinks is a cabin in the woods with Nil, whose income is derived from dish washing at theUniversity cafeteria. In other words, Tasha thinks she is giving up material comforts inexchange for love-in-a-cottage in Alaska. I look closely at my twitching roommate, andbehind her book she is quietly.....choking from suppressed laughter.
Before she loses it completely, I interrupt the guys."Don't you know," I say, "women everywhere are desperate, not just inRussia. But as for being submissive? Why? I mean, what's the point exactly?" The guysseem to agree with each other that "Western women have too many expectations." Iask, "What expectations?" Their reply only confuses me further, however. Thething they seem to like about Russian women (in myth) was that they imagine Russian womenwould expect to stay home and cook dinner while "Hugh" and the White Man hacktheir millions out of the bush and natives. What I can't figure out is why they think thatWestern women, who expect to hack out their own millions to add to the pot, have "toomany expectations," when those that they think expect to be supported entirely bytheir husbands they think "have less expectations." I point this out, and theylook to each other commiseratingly as if to say "She'll never get it, it's pointlessto try explaining," and simply go on defining their imaginary ideal Russianhousewives as having "less expectations," to my utter confusion.
Both men apparently have money to spare, and so feel that femaleadoration is their God given right. "I think a man should be allowed to have as manywives as he can afford to keep," White Man says with perfect sincerity."OK," I reply "but can I have as many husbands as I can afford tokeep?" I ask. "I don't see why not." "Actually, I'd settle forone." "Why just one?" He asks, he likes BIG things and sweeping statements,"One" just sounds too little to this huge guy sprawled out over two chairs."Well I'm a professor, so I don't get paid much. And I'm a woman, so I get paid lessthan male professors, so I'm not sure I could afford more than one. Besides which, eventhough I think I can afford one, there don't seem to be any available." He doesn'tknow quite what to make of this, he had been poised to argue with me if I'd made asentimental or moral argument, but no money? He clearly doesn't know what to do aboutthat.
So the conversation takes an abrupt shift onto racial relationsin Australia, with White Man pontificating on what he called the "Abo Problem,"(ie. there are very angry Aborigines and very nervous white settlers). Still thinkingalong matrimonial lines, I cheerfully suggest that the two hundred year old"Problem" should be solved by the settlers and natives inter marrying untileverybody comes out medium brown and can relax. White Man just looks flabbergasted at meas though I'd just suggested he mate with a kangaroo, and the conversation grinds to ahalt.
So "Hugh" fills in by telling his own love story, andit's transcendent:
"Back in college I took a course in Russian Literature, andI read War And Peace. Of course, I fell in love with Natasha, the heroine, so good, andpure and beautiful...in my mind you see. I basically fell in love with Russia from afarthrough the beauties of Russian Lit. So when I was in college, I developed this fantasy.Even then I'd heard about the Moscow nightclub scene, and so I dreamed of going to aglittering Russian nightclub and meeting a beautiful Russian ballerina named Natasha andasking her to run away with me. I told my friends, and it was a great joke to them all,but secretly I always kept this fantasy.
"I don't mean to say I obsessed on it or anything. I justwent along in my normal life. I've had a few girlfriends, I even got engaged once, thoughit didn't work out, and I didn't take the fantasy seriously, exactly. But still, I had it.
"I've been to a lot of different places, lived in Kenya,Thailand, and now London. And a couple of weeks ago I finally came here on a holiday, metsome friends, and went to the clubs. And then, one night, in a club, I got introduced tothis beautiful girl, and we hit it off right away--you know, one of those connections youget where you feel like you've known each other for years? But it was really noisy in theclub, and I hadn't heard her name when she was introduced, and one of her friends cameover and talked to her and I thought she said her name. So I say `I'm sorry, It's so noisyin here, I didn't catch your name.' And it turns out that her name is Natasha. So I'mbeginning to get the theme from the Twilight Zone softly playing in myhead, when we get into a discussion of our jobs. I find out that she's an out of workballerina! So we go on talking all night, I mean, we really hit it off, but by now theTwilight Zone theme is running full blast in my brain, and so I'm scared and I don't tellher.
"The next day I spent the whole day struggling with myselftrying to figure out if it's destiny or something, and I should ask this girl I've justmet if she wants to run away to London with me?! I can't eat or sleep, it just seems socrazy. So I meet her at the club the next night, we start talking again, and it's sowonderful, I mean, we just get along great, and so I get up the nerve to tell her mystory. And then I do it. I ask her. So then we both spend the next two nights thinking,worrying, can't eat, can't sleep, it feels right to do, but sounds insane. And finally,two nights later she says `Yes.'
"So the last week we've been trying to get her a visa soshe can come. The problem is, the only visa it seems I can get her to the U.K. is afiancée visa, and that would mean we'd have to get married within nine months, and neitherof us is ready for that. I mean, my God, I just kissed her for the first time two daysago. She's a nice girl, and, well, we are noteven so far that I would think I should kiss her on the neck!"
It is very reassuring to see that despite his fantasy life, heisn't jumping in too fast.
"But still, don't you think I really had to ask her underthe circumstances?" he asks us all gravely. We all, White Man included, bob our headsin solemn assent. It is clearly a case of real life being cosmically influenced toresemble the movies, and, as such, it requires he do the romantic movie ending thing. Heshows us a small photo of Natasha then. It is clear he is making the right choice. Thereshe is, an obviously innocent, young, sad-eyed girl, with long dark hair and a wistful,half tragic smile, a Tolstoy heroine to the teeth, the last creature on earth one mightreasonably expect to find in a night club.
I hope it's a trend. I mean, it would be nice, if, in responseto all our collective wishes, life would oblige us all by becoming like the movies. I wishmine would. Ah well.
So the next day Tasha and I head off to the Embassy again. Thistime having Tasha's appointment in writing so we both get in. The Immigration Section is azoo, or rather a playpen, with five American couples, five Russian babies and five sets ofadoption officials. There is amazing noise as the cacophony of five sets of Americanadults trying to speak in mangled bits of Russian, competes with the crying, laughing andscreeching of five toddlers.
Tasha just has to sit and wait for her name to be called, but sheis dressed to the teeth, and in nervous fidgets. "I need to go ask about importingthe cat to the USA in Citizen Services right now, can I leave you here?" Tashanods,and so I zip round the corner to the "American" section with the glowing Cokemachine, and get in line.
Ahead of me is a small, white haired, eighty-something babushkawith a worn wool coat, little knitted beret, and a long owlish nose on which no glassesrepose. She has an old red Soviet passport with the name Feldman on it, and a clear, pure,educated, Brooklyn accent! She is nearly having to shout to be heard through the bulletproof glass as she endeavors to explain her passport problems to the frazzled lookingclerk.
She is trying to get a new American passport so she can visither daughter, who is now living in Queens. "When did you loose your Americanpassport, Ms. Feldman?" the man asks in a Russian accent that advertises his status asa naturalized American.
"I think it was taken around the time I was given RussianCitizenship in 1937." The clerk, briefly looks up from the woman's papers to discernwhether she is serious.
"When did you come here?" He asks, mildly incredulous.
"In 1932. I and my husband came here to teach English in`32. Then in 1935 my husband was told if he wanted to keep his job he needed to apply forSoviet citizenship. Otherwise we would be deported. There was the Depression in America,and we had a baby coming (my daughter) so he applied and got citizenship in 1935.
"Then in 1937, with the war coming there were developments." she says with an intensitythat implied we should understand that the developments to which she refers included, butwere not limited to Stalin sending foreign nationals, Jews, and intellectuals such asherself off to the gulags by the train load.
"And I was told that if I wished to keep my job, and beallowed to stay with my husband in Russia, I had to apply for Soviet citizenship. So Iapplied."
"Now at this time it was a rather involved matter to applyfor Soviet citizenship." she informs the young man in history teacher style,"You had to fill out the forms and then wait, because the Supreme Soviet had to voteon each case. So I filled out the forms, and for a year we were very nervous. There werelots of developments, Hitler was taking over Europe, there was talk of war, andthings here were very unsettled." she intones calmly, a miracle of understatement,"Mr. Feldman even told me at one point that I should take the baby and flee leavinghim behind, but I wouldn't do that," she informs the young man with a steelydetermination, still present after over fifty years passage of time. "And a yearlater," she says, with some pride, "I was informed that I had been approved bythe Supreme Soviet and I had Russian Citizenship."
(Yes, she had been blessed (?) with a Soviet passport, and toldshe had been a citizen for the previous year, and yes, Comradette Feldman, the SupremeSoviet says all is well with you and family and job.)
"Did you give up your U.S. citizenship at any time?"the clerk asks her with a beady eyed look, he now knows she must have been one of thoseforeign 1930's communists who came to Russia in droves, most of whom quickly left or werepacked off to Gulags. He obviously does not approve of her, but is too timid to say so.
"No." she insists firmly. He looks disbelieving, buttoo intimidated by her sharp eyed stare to feel comfortable arguing with her, even frombehind bullet proof glass. I can see his point. I am usually most protective of cutelittle old ladies, but this woman strikes me as the sort that would be more valuableprotection on ones side than a Mafia enforcer, two tanks and an Uzi. She just has thislook like "though she be but little, she is fierce," that must have beenresponsible for her managing to live through the last sixty years in Russia.
"Well, with your birth certificate, we can get you a USpassport pretty quickly. However you will need a new Russian external passport to exitRussia. This one is an internal passport, and out of date."
"I thought if I got my American passport it would beenough."
"It is, for the American government, but not forRussia."
"And I thought we had changed so much," she says withthe only wistful piteous sound I heard her use. Then she resumes her grim determined tone:"But apparently, not enough."
I find myself in the odd position of apologizing for OVIR toher, "Actually, if I were to go out of Russia without a visa or with an expired visa,they would charge me a fine for every day over my original visa time I'd gone. It's usual.And you don't want them charging you $50 a day for every day over your original 1932 visayou stayed!"
"No." She lingers for a moment, packing up her papersand I get up the nerve to say "I think, Ma'am, that you have, and you have had, amost interesting life."
"Yes," she says with calm sincerity "there havebeen many battles, so many battles. But it always has been interesting." And sheleaves.
To the young man I say "I have something comparativelystupid and easy to ask you: Does my cat need a rabies shot to come home with me?"
I must say my life problems are much easier to deal with thanMrs. Feldman's. Still. Eighty-something or not, she seems still to be gallantly able toovercome any obstacles. I admire that.
After returning to Immigration I watch Tasha do her"interview" at another bulletproof window. It goes very quickly, andTasha, facecovered with astonishment, comes up to me and says "THEY SAID YES!" in a tonethat makes me realize that she had genuinely expected they were going to say no.
"I need to come back a five o'clock with $200, and thenthey will give it to me!" She is trembling all over with a combination of joy andastonishment.
"This requires a celebration. Wait here." I race backto Citizen Services, pop a $1 bill in the humming Coca-Cola machine, and it spits out acan so cold it hurts my fingers. I run back to Immigration, and hand it to Tasha, asymbolic "Welcome-to-America" gift.
We then go outside and snap photos of each other triumphantlyholding the can of Coke in lieu of the visa in front of the Embassy.
Again we end up at McDonald's, but this time in a better mood.We recognize people there from the trip before, and I recognize a German man who I'd seenliving in St. Petersburg the previous Summer. It seems like everybody in the world (or atleast everybody in Moscow) eats there as least one meal a day. The biggest McDonald's inMoscow sells more burgers than any other McDonald's in the world, so this may even betrue. It's said that each Moscow McDonald's serves over 100,000 customers daily.
"It's secret communism!" I say to Tasha "It'scommunal kitchens for the feeding of the World urban proletariat!" She giggles, stillhigh from her successful interview, and I launch into a monologue about how living hereshows one how much better and closer the so-called "capitalist" USA got tomaking and spreading true socialism than this whole fake "communist" state everdid.
"Here it is all show, and slogans, and mosaics in themetro, no actual communal kitchens for us proles, and what passes for communal kitchensare mostly just lousy cafeterias with insufficient cutlery."
Tasha is ready to collapse with happy exhaustion from heremotional ordeal, so I roll her home to the Hostel for a nap. On the way I point to theLevi's for sale in a store window and quote from Lyubov Popova's 1918 Manifesto on theClothing of the Future: "`The worker's coverall will be the garment of thefuture!'" I say. "You know, Popova was right, but I think she'd be amazed tohear how we got there."
At four we are both dressed to the teeth in my fanciest beadedevening gowns, preparing for another wild evening at McDonald's to celebrate Tasha'sbirthday, and hopefully, after our trip to the Embassy, her visa acquisition. Once we paythe huge $200 fee, McDonald's will be the most we can afford.
By four thirty, all of Tasha's paranoid fears of visa rejectionhave returned. We walk in the fading grey light of sunset through thick choking ice fog tothe Embassy, looking in store windows to kill time before the appointment. We both feelthe pinch of the $200 fee keenly, me as temporary lender, Tasha as reluctant debtor. Thefoul smelling darkness and waiting are beginning to oppress us both with irrationalworries. I look around (now hooked as well as Tasha) for a Raven-sign of reassurance, butno hopping bird pops into sight. Instead, before us, in a gun store window is a huge,stuffed glass eyed raven, the kind of giant black bird only found in Alaska and Siberia. Itry to nudge Tasha into taking this as a good sign, but the beady glass eyes in the hugeblack corpse, are anything but reassuring.
Shivering with cold and foreboding we once again travel to theEmbassy. I sit and wait as Tasha does the last bits of paperwork. She quickly finishes, andcomes over to me with a strange expression on her face that is obviously excited, butotherwise unreadable.
"Quick!" she says, "We have to leave now!"
"What's wrong? Did you get the visa? What's wrong?"
"Yes, yes, I got the visa," she assures me with aconspiratorial smile, and shows me the rainbow colored page of her passport, "Butlet's leave---now." she adds urgently. I privately think she is taking her governmentparanoia to an excessive degree, but follow her as she rushes out in delighted haste.
Outside she hisses to me in a whisper "They didn't chargeme!"
"They wouldn't take the $200! I was afraid they wouldchange their minds. That's why I wanted to leave so fast." She feels like she justgot away with something. Her behavior all makes sense now. But why not take the money, Iwonder? Won't they figure it out and send her and Nil a bill? Why wouldn't they take themoney? They are the GOVERNMENT for God sakes, they ALWAYS want money!
I begin to question Tasha as we walk in the fog towards themetro: "Tell me exactly what happened."
"I just got up there, and gave him my receipt for mypassport and the $200, and he gave me my passport with the visa stamp, but he wouldn'ttake the $200!"
"What did you do?"
"I said, `Don't I need to pay?' and he said `no', and justsmiled at me, and gave me my $200 back." She looks at me for a moment in amazement,then lights a cigarette, "So I just took it, got you, and got out, before he changedhis mind." She bounces in place with suppressed glee.
"He smiled at you?" I say seriously.
"Yes. It was really funny." Tasha's experience doesn'tinclude a lot of smiling government officials. "Maybe we can afford to go out todinner at the Metropol and not just McDonald's!"
We walk in the foggy darkness towards one of those seven giantStalinist wedding cakes that dot Moscow, as I think about her words. The building lookslike a Gothic fairy tale castle with the tops of the towers disappearing into the mistabove our heads. "He smiled", I think, hmm.
"Tasha," I say "I think I've figured it out.Somebody at the Embassy noticed from your papers that today is your birthday. So they musthave just quietly waived the fee as a kind of present."
"You think so?" her voice asks incredulously in theshrouding darkness. In the dim light, her face is unreadable. I see the tip of hercigarette glow with an intake of breath as she considers this statement. Then the smokeflows out with relief. "You know, I am beginning to like American Government."
[Note: This is a fictionalized account of a real visa struggle of twofriends of mine. Nil and Tasha were married in 1995 in Alaska.]