Three years ago, I applied for a visa in order to teach at a Russian university as a “Senior Lawyer Abroad.” I wrote in these pages about the university’s “invitation” that said I was going there as a “student.” Of course I didn’t know about the mistake because it was written in Russian. I sent the invitation off to the Russian Consulate in New York along with my passport, visa application form, and bank check. The next day, a woman called, speaking English with a Russian accent. It seems that if you are going to Russia to study, you need to take an AIDS test. I told her that the invitation was incorrect, that I was going to teach, not to study. You can imagine how far that got me.
We decided to go back to Russia this year. I made sure that the university’s invitation was correct, checked out the visa process on the Russian Consulate’s website, and sent the invitation off to New York along with application form, passport, bank check, and prepaid FedEx return envelope. A month passed with no response, and the time for our departure was approaching. I then looked more closely at the visa instructions online and saw something I missed the first time. They no longer accept applications in the mail!
Why, I wondered, hadn’t they simply opened up my package, seen the mistake, and sent it back to me? So I called the telephone number the Consulate lists on its website. First I got a busy signal and then no answer. I kept trying and they kept not answering. I have no idea why they publish a phone number, because it turns out you can’t call the Russian Consulate in New York.
So, here it is September, I don’t have my passport, I’m not even close to having a visa, and panic is setting in. We have promised to be in St. Petersburg on a certain date, me to teach and the pianist to perform, not to mention that we have paid for airplane tickets. I somehow manage to get the Consulate’s email address, and I send them a polite inquiry. The response is short and to the point: “You should come to us in person. Have a good day.”
I now understand that they aren’t going to send me a visa, so I send another email, apologize for my error, and ask them to please return my documents, especially my passport. They may not answer the phone, but they waste no time answering emails: “dear sir, we can not mail it back cause we do not mail documents back according to our policy.”
So I do what I should have done in the first place. I contact an agency in New York that obtains visas for people. By now it’s late, and I’m in the “added charge” category. In order to get a visa you need a passport, which I don’t have. So I make an appointment at the passport office in Boston, and when I arrive I get in line along with a lot of other people who need a passport in a hurry. That costs extra too.
I then send off the new passport and the other documents, this time to the agency, and a few days before our departure the visa arrives. Time to pack, and I get out my one-of-a-kind, unique, very large blue suitcase. We fly off to Russia, and they let us in. No problem.
We return to Boston 17 days later and pick up luggage at baggage claim, my big blue suitcase and two smaller pieces. I hear the recorded announcement, “Luggage often looks alike. Be sure to check your bags.” No one else has a suitcase like mine, I think to myself, groggy from jetlag and looking forward to home, drinkable tap water, and a comfortable bed.
Unfortunately, there is a line at the taxi stand, so we have to wait our turn. A few minutes later, just as we get near the front of the line, my cellphone vibrates. Unlike the Russian Consulate, I do answer the phone. “Mr. Steinfield?” a man asks. “Yes,” I answer. “I’m at baggage claim with your large blue suitcase,” he says, “and you must have mine.” And I did.
So this year, I’m feeling thankful for cellphones.