Happily, we boarded a British Air flight to Moscow on a Thursday afternoon. After the successful completion of a business trip to London, my husband and I were headed for a reunion with our son Wes and his Russian wife Iulia, whom we hadn’t seen in almost a year. Starched napkins tucked under our chins, we dined in first-class splendor on caviar and premium vodka, filet of beef and pavlovas as we anticipated distributing the gifts we’d brought—cosmetics, fleece garments, Starbucks coffee beans and jars of salsa.
The plane landed on a bright summer evening, but Shermateyev Airport was as bleak as we’d remembered—dimly lit, dirty, cracked linoleum floors. The usual crush of people wedged us towards passport control until at last we found ourselves confronting a sturdy uniformed woman with dyed red hair and a slight mustache. I handed over our passports; she glanced at them, and then barked, “Visas!”
“What did she say?” asked my husband.
“She wants our visas.”
“We don’t have visas.”
“We don’t have visas,” I told her.
Tweet! Her whistle shrieked. Uniforms hustled us out of line as passengers stared and into a small windowless office where they left us. We stared at each other. On our third trip to Russia in two years, we had unaccountably, unforgivably, forgotten to obtain visas. After running through a list of candidates for blame, my husband began berating himself; I joined in. The door opened and a BA official entered, accompanied by immigration control. Hope briefly flared.
“You will be returned to London on the next flight,” he said. “You have luggage?” Dumbly we nodded.
“Give me your receipts,” he said.
“Our son. . . ” I managed to say, “one of the bags is for him. He’s waiting for us outside customs.”
They conferred in Russian. Someone left, but no one spoke. We sat silent. What could we say, how could we protest. We had begun a visit to Russia by breaking its rules. In a few minutes, our son entered, handsome, professional. With glad cries, we embraced him. Fluent in Russian, perhaps he could fix everything. But his eyes were sad.
“Dad,” he said, “I’ve got a thousand dollars in my briefcase; if I thought it would do some good, I’d use it. But tomorrow is Russian Independence Day and then it’s the weekend. No offices will be open until Monday. I don’t want you to stay at the airport until then.” Neither did I; last summer I’d entered the ladies lounge found a colony of presumably paperless Nigerians camping, sink-laundered clothes draped over the stalls, sleeping blankets heaped in the corners. No, we couldn’t do that.
The BA official told us we must hurry; the flight was being held until we joined it. We apologized again and again to Wes, promised we’d return, hugged. He had the suitcase of gifts; hurriedly I told him which gift was for whom.
Surrounded by a phalanx of officials, realizing we were actually leaving before we’d even arrived, we boarded the full flight, drudged past a gauntlet of stares through first class to the only seats left—the back of coach, in front of the bathrooms. As we sunk into our narrow seats, an American woman seated between us turned to me, and said brightly, “So, did you enjoy your stay in Russia?”
Her name, we learned, was Dixie. Her conversation, along with multiple mini-bottles of indifferent white, kept us from killing each other. I sunk into gloom and a book, Lenin’s Tomb. Arriving back in London shortly before midnight, we found Wes had called my husband’s secretary and asked her to book us a car, a return flight to Houston, and a hotel room. By 2am we were tucked into for a very few hours as we would be picked up at 7.
On the flight back to Houston, anger dissipated, we began planning our return to Russia which occured, courtesy of American Express, three weeks later.
S C Cole