Friday, October 04, 2013

From Russia With (No) Love

Oliver arrives in Moscow. Briefly.

Tuesday, 1st October started off reasonably well; I left the house at 8.10am with my suitcase, marched to the train station and sat down the on the train that would whisk me to the airport in just under an hour. I was feeling good - I was off to Moscow to attend a conference (where I would be giving a keynote speech on the future of Higher Education) and an academic fair. Little did I know that, exactly sixteen hours later I would have returned to exactly the same place (minus my suitcase)...

Things went fairly smoothly at the airport - a bit of luggage reshuffling (it turns out promotional brochures are pretty damn heavy) and I was checked in and had time to enjoy a relaxing latte at Starbucks. I ran through how the day would unfold - the flight to Moscow, the high speed train from the airport to the city, grabbing a taxi to my hotel, getting myself registered and then having time to catch a metro out to eat some authentic Russian food. It all sounded perfect.

The flight with KLM also wasn't too bad, although - as ever - the standard of food wasn't particularly impressive; some kind of strange pasta and cheese type dish that I ate more out of habit than anything else (although, it must be said, the white chocolate profiteroles were wonderful). And, just over three hours after departing the gate, we were touching down into a grey and rather miserable looking Moscow. But, while the weather was miserable, I was already enthused and energised and marched at a swift pace towards the customs. Not knowing I was only minutes away from the beginning of slow disaster.

I picked the queue with the least number of people in and after a few minutes took my place in front of the glass cubicle, sliding my passport with a smile through to the girl who sat behind the desk. She looked back at me with a sort of studied suspicion. Oh well, I thought, she probably looks at everyone like that. She looked at my passport photo. She looked at me again. She flicked through my passport. She looked at me again. She looked back at my passport. And then she brandished it, pointing her finger at some sellotape (scotch tape, for the non-UK residents) that was partially holding the cover in place.

I  must explain. Almost three years ago, a few months after I got the passport, the overly eager grabbing hand of someone young and excitable managed to partially detach the cover of my passport. Since I'd only just renewed it (and paid about £150 for the privilege) I figured the easiest thing to do was fix it with some tape - problem solved. I rang up the UK passport to check that it would be ok and they were of the opinion that, as long as the passport itself wasn't damaged, it should be ok. And it was. In the three years that followed I used it to travel internationally on about a dozen occasions with no problems whatsoever...

I tried to explain to the customs girl, but her English was on par with my Russian so I resorted to trying to mime. Which didn't really manage to achieve anything other than for her to call over her supervisor, who joined her in the booth and began examining my passport at great length - holding it up to the light, running her fingers across the tape, etc.

"You need to wait over there." says the supervisor and points me in the direction I have just come from before disappearing into a nearby office with my passport.

I move out of the queue and stand back a little, before a security guard (whose only English appeared to be the word "Mister" said in varying tones and volumes) politely requested, with a point and a brief "mister", that I move off to the side of the immigration hall.

What Oliver had to look at...

So, I sat down. Above, you can see my view. I figured it would take a couple of minutes for them to figure out everything was ok and they would send me on my way.

Five minutes later, nothing.

Ten minutes later. Still nothing.

After about fifteen minutes, things got interesting. But only because another plane had landed and a whole bunch of people joined me in the corner of the room, having also been pulled up for one reason or another. I am sure it was only coincidence, but I was the token Caucasian in the corner.

Thirty minutes and I was beginning to worry. My fellow companions in the 'naughty' corner were coming and going with alarming regularity. They'd be pulled out of the queue, their documents would be taken from them, and then ten minutes later they'd be escorted to the customs booth and they'd go on their way. All except me.

Time dragged on. There was very little to do and the nervous tension ensured it wasn't really possible to relax. All attempts to wander over to the office where the supervisor had long-ago disappeared were met with various versions of "Mister!" and indications that I should get back behind the line.

After an hour I started worrying about my poor suitcase, endlessly circling the baggage retrieval conveyor belt with no one to rescue it. I tried a bit of mime with the security guard, who after some head scratching, realised what I was on about. "Is ok" he told me, but I wasn't particularly reassured. Still, not wanting to be called Mister again, I slunk back to my bench in the corner.

Finally, just over two hours after I'd first made the mistake of going to the wrong custom booth, a new security guard came out of the office with my passport. Hurrah, I thought to myself, they took their bloody time but at least they've managed to sort it out. Perhaps, I rationalised, they'd had to get an expert to verify the authenticity of my passport or check with the UK or something. Either way, emergency over. Although I was going to be late to my hotel and I might have to miss out on that Russian food...

"Here is your passport, Mr Davies. We have arranged with your airline for you to have a ticket on the next flight back, I will escort you to the gate."

Those of you that know me will know that I am rarely lost for words - but, in this moment, all I had was slack-jawed silence. Before my brain processed what was going on, realised I was being deported, and began running through a checklist of reasonable questions - such as why? (the passport is not valid), because of some tape? I've travelled all over Europe on it! (we have different rules in Russia), can I appeal the decision? (no), is there someone else I can speak to - a manager, or supervisor? (it is on paper, no, you must go). Finally, after several minutes of frantic attempts at negotiation I realised that there was nothing - absolutely nothing - I could do in the face of bureaucracy.

"Don't worry, Mr Davies - we don't think you're a terrorist." said the security guard as we headed for the gate. Which, while intended to be reassuring, didn't particularly console me at that moment in time.

Finally, I am left at the gate with my boarding pass. I have been here just over two hours, my flight departs at 20.55, Moscow time. I will spend less than three hours on Russian soil.

Oliver waves goodbye to the blurry lights of Moscow.

The flight back, I was filled with a mixture of shock, frustration, anger. Then I look at my passport and I begin to worry - the tape has been peeled off on one side and then restuck back on haphazardly; on the other side the tape has been entirely removed. Oh, and to help matters, the cover seems to have been leveraged off considerably more than the original damage. In short, my passport looks like crap. What, I worry, if they won't accept it as valid when I land?

I head straight to the Immigration Office when I arrive - not wanting to queue up at the customs booth and then find out I have a problem - and show my partially mangled passport. Is this, I ask, going to be a problem? The officer looks at it 'It's no problem - if they say anything at the window, tell them I said it's fine. I'm the chief of immigration."

Sure enough, the window has no problems. They hardly even look at the passport, don't even notice the cover that is hanging off. I trudge wearily to the baggage retrieval. Only to find that - contrary to my security guard friend's words (and the Aeroflot assistant at the gate in Moscow) - things are not ok and they've lost my suitcase. Where seems a bit of a mystery but it would seem to still be in Moscow somewhere.

I then get on the train and come home. I am, by this point, feeling utterly exhausted and generally crappy. It's been fifteen hours since I left the house. Then, like the icing on the cake, I am treated to the joys of the rudest train conductor I have ever met...

Wait...what did you just call me?
He comes down the train and I pass him my business card. He checks it and asks me quite aggressively for my supplement ticket. There must, I tell him, be something wrong, I use this train quite often with my business card and I've never had to buy a supplement ticket. He looks at me with undisguised disgust - "If that's your story," he sneers, "but I'm going to make sure there's a fine on your ticket."

Anyway, the day I've had is catching up with me and his tone and generally aggressive attitude pushes me a little over the edge. "Look, can I have your name please as I'd like to register a complaint."

"I'm not giving you my name."

I have my phone in my hand already. "Fine," I say, "I'll take a photo of you so I can identify you to the train company."

The train conductor is livid, "You put that on the internet and I'll sue you! You stupid motherfucker...."

At this point, being called a stupid motherfucker by a train conductor in his late forties, I realise just how stupid this day is and I burst out laughing. He glares at me and strides off down the carriage, my laughter still ringing out quite loudly. It really is, I thought to myself, not my day...

And so, sixteen hours (to the minute) after I stepped through the door of my apartment on my way to the train station, I step back through it having only accomplished being deported from Russia, having my suitcase lost (it turned up two days later) and being called a stupid motherfucker....