My dad is in a perpetual state of zen when it comes to orchestrating travel plans. Someday I’ll admire it, but for now it drives me to drink. We barely book flights before we go anywhere, and certainly don’t research activities in advance. But for whatever reason, my dad was very concerned about what there was to do in Moscow–a town of 11 million people that is also the cultural, political and historical capital of Eastern Europe. Below is part of a transcript of a conversation I had with him:
“Well, I had to go online and do a bit of research to make sure there are two full days’ worth of things to do in Moscow. You know, because I don’t want to waste a second day if all there is to see is Red Square and St Basel’s Cathedral.”
“Dad, I’m sure we will be just fine. That seriously never crossed my mind as being an issue.”
“Well, I just don’t want to force anything and waste our already-precious travel time. So, I printed out a “Top 8 things to do in Moscow” list, but I only find the top six worthy of visiting. Number 7 is the Moscow Zoo, and you know, i just don’t think we’re that into zoos anymore.”
Really Dad? I’d never been so upset by a trip I wasn’t going on. A major metropolitan city and you are concerned there will be nothing to do for 48 hours? Really?
The only researching he should have been doing was the top 10 things to do inside the Moscow Airport, because less than 3 weeks out, no one had even touched the visa applications that would permit entry to the country. I learned early on that many things can go wrong in the process. My visa was rejected by India because I forgot to sign a form. My dad and I once drove to a consulate on Christmas Eve minutes before closing. Another visa had me traveling 400 miles, lying to Chinese government officials and temporarily hiding out in a FedEx Kinkos. One of the lowest visa moments was trying to cut out our DIY passport photos into the required 2×2 format on our way to the airport. Who tries to make their own passport photos when you live 2 minutes from a 24-hour Walgreens? My dad. (this Dad does not, however, and they still turn out a little off)
Obtaining a visa is always an adventurous process. Like most countries’ visa forms, Moscow wants to know everything about you– pretty much everything from the places you’ve traveled, your criminal offenses to your great uncle’s blood type. And don’t forget the two copies of that passport photo that you look like a homeless drug-addicted criminal in (Just me? Okay).
But before we could even do that, we had to make hotel reservations, because a Russian organization (hotel, school, government organization, etc.) needs to formally “invite” you to Russia, which is a separate set of documents. I smiled at the thought of anyone inviting my family to Russia.
In spite of this, I can’t bring myself to hate on the Russians. Allow me to share some questions on the U.S. Tourist Visa questionnaire:
- Did you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?
- Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State?
- Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government or Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?
If mass killers were as honest as we perceived them, we’d have this terrorism thing figured out.
This visa application process is so daunting that companies specialize in helping average non-Nazi collaborators. They ensure the forms are readied properly, drop them off to the consulate, pick them up and send them back to you. They make a killing (pun intended?), especially off of clueless last-minute parties.
There is no Russian Consulate in Chicago, so my dad had to send their documents to the next nearest city. We were about to send the passports and forms to the New York Consulate until Hurricane Sandy threw a wrench into the entire east coast’s functionality. New York and DC were shut down, and no one knew when things would be back up and running. I called an audible and told Dad to send the documents to the next closest consulate: Houston. (For whatever reason, neither of my parents knew about Hurricane Sandy. My mom texted my brother and I on the East Coast: “Why is everyone texting me to see if you guys are ok? Did something happen?”)
If only that was the sole problem we ran into. My dad, as he was preparing his documents, realized his passport was full. Many countries, including Russia, stipulate that you must have two consecutive blank pages in your passport for them to issue a visa. Surprise! Dad’s had a half a page empty . Now he had to send his passport to a Regional Passport Agency in Chicago for supplemental pages before he sent it to the Consulate. As my mom likes to say, “Tick tock…”
Dad’s global experience always seems to hurt where it should help. Instead of waiting for his passport to return with the supplemental pages, he deliberately sent his documents to Houston along with everyone else’s without the key ingredient: his passport.
I know. This makes no sense. His reasoning was that at least the visa company could get his documents started while they waited for his passport. That’s how worried he was that we were not going to get them back before departure.
In actuality, this just pissed off the visa company. They charged him double the rate as the rest of us, an expedited fee + an idiot fee on top.
Impressively, Kevin, who had to go to the Russian Embassy in Prague and fill out documents in Czech and Russian, made out better than everyone else. As luck would have it, he had a Russian friend from his study abroad program who came along to translate at the Russian Embassy. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is. Kevin got his visa approved days later. While it required a few GoogleTranslates and emails to the Russian Embassy in czech, he figured it out on his own give or take a few harassing emails from me (“I woke up to so many emails from you this morning that I thought someone died,” he said to me).
Between booking a hotel, finding a “sponsor” and filling out all the required documents, the typical time frame one should allow for all this to comfortably happen is about a month. My dad was sending visas in with less than two weeks to go.
“Well, you know, even if things don’t work out the first time, I’ve always fantasized about being one of those people who end up having to fly to the consulate in a different city to pick up their passports just hours before they depart,” my dad said to me.
Speak for yourself, Dad. If there was a single mistake on a form, someone was not leaving the airport. There would be no time to start over and send them back. And if history is our guide, my dad would have zero qualms about leaving Tim in custody of Russian officials for two days and pick him up at the airport on our way back.
In the end, the visas came just in time. Morgan got hers in the mail at South Carolina the morning she was supposed to leave and still nearly ran into problems at the airport:
“Your visa is expired.” The Russian agent said.
“What? Are you sure?” Morgan never even bothered to look at it.
“Just kidding! But it does expire in two days. Have a nice flight.” Morgan was on the verge of a conniption.
Russian humor at its finest.