I can still hear Boris’ words, echoing in my head, the sweat running down the small of my back. Even though more than ten years have passed, it seems like it just happened yesterday. And I remember all this because a friend asked me if I had ever been to Russia.
It is the late nineties. I had been travelling with two teachers from Oregon to diverse locations around the world as a part of our 21st Century Schoolhouse project, where we gave teachers and students a one week workshop on working with international environmental projects through the Internet. We were now on our way to Kyrgyzstan, after having just given a workshop to a Palestinian school in Ramallah (things were quieter then). Andy and Molly’s travel agent worked out the route - the first leg to Moscow, where we had to change planes, then on to Kazakhstan where we were to be picked up and driven to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
Actually, there is not much Russia in this scenario. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are now independent countries. My only real claim to being in Russia is the Moscow Airport.
I really didn’t know where Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were, before our flight. I used to be quite good in geography, but that was before the world was reinvented. Peking became Beijing, Bombay became Mumbai, Czechoslovakia split up into The Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Yugoslavia into five, possibly seven countries (depending on who is doing the counting). West Germany and East Germany reunited when the wall came down, but Pink Floyd split up. A large part of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut and Quebec never did split from Canada. I threw out my school atlas long ago. Actually, I didn’t really throw it out, as I am a horrible hoarder. But it is somewhere in my pile of useless things. Together with most of my other reference books (dictionaries, technical manuals, etc.) which have been rendered obsolete by a rapidly changing world.
No wonder people get onto a plane nowadays and end up in the wrong country.
I guess I can understand how countries split up and reunite. But why change the name of a city? Aren’t things confusing enough? I imagine that it is just a matter of time before Toronto becomes “Rogerstown”. And no, it isn’t that far-fetched. Remember what happened to the Skydome. And some cities never stop changing their names. Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad and then Volgograd. Any bets on what name it adopts next?
Which takes us back to our flight to Moscow. Let me tell you about the landing. We landed first on the right wheel, and then on the left, screeching to the right and screeching to the left. The plane shuddered, and I’m sure I heard something drop off. But somehow we came to a stop. I think the plane just ran out of gas. This appeared to be nothing irregular to the people around me, and I was still under the influence of two cans of very strong Russian beer, so it took a few minutes for my brain to catch up to my eyes and ears and by then we were already stepping out of the plane. I think this Russian airline is no longer in operation. Something about running out of parts.
I was travelling on my Israeli passport, because of something to do with the Kyrgyzstan visa, but I didn’t expect any problems at passport control. Andy and Molly went through first, and disappeared. I brought up the rear and handed the woman my passport. She looked at my passport and then up at me. I offered my best Canadian smile, but all she saw was Israeli. The first indication that something was wrong was when the red light on the top of the booth started flashing. We waited until a heavy built, angry looking woman army officer approached the booth. The woman handed her the passport and said something in Russian. The officer looked down at the passport and then up at me with an accusing glare. I tried my smile again. Not a good idea. She said, “Kazakhstan” and pointed to my visa to Kyrgyzstan, which somehow didn’t make sense. I mean, I get them mixed up, but the Russians? And then finally I realized that they weren’t happy that my flights ended in Kazakhstan, but that I had a visa only to Kyrgyzstan. The infamous Oregon travel agent had told us that we didn’t need a visa to Kazakhstan. “Me no need visa to Kazakhstan,” I said loudly, talking like an idiot, as if this somehow would help them understand. “Someone is driving me to Kyrgyzstan,” I said, pretending to be behind a steering wheel, driving recklessly along a road in Kazakhstan. At that point I was wondering whether Andy and Molly would come to visit me in jail. But by the time I had finished with the steering wheel, the officer considered me to be much too stupid to be a Mossad agent, so she let me go. Not before she said something juicy in Russian, which had both her and the other woman laughing.
I found Molly waiting at the door leading out of the building.
“There you are,” she said, “Andy has gone on ahead.”
“To that building over there. This building is for international flights. That building is for local flights.”
“Local? But isn’t Kazakhstan a separate country now?” I asked.
“Yes, but don’t tell the Russians that.”
By the time we got over to the other building, Andy had already filled out his transit card, the instructions of which were all in Russian. Apparently someone had helped him, but that person was long gone.
“Get that guy to help you,” he said, pointing to an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike who sat at a desk blocking the exit to freedom on the other side.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. This guy made the woman officer look like Mother Theresa.
Andy only laughed. “Come on, the guy’s probably a pussy cat.”
That was the difference between Andy and me. Andy was naturally confident in such situations, but with me they could smell the fear.
I walked up to Boris (to me he looked like a Boris, and I am sure that was his name), and showed him the transit card. He scowled at the empty card and gestured over to the desk where the pens were.
“It is in Russian,” I said slowly. “I don’t understand.” Again, I thought that if I raised my voice, I would be better understood. “Do I really need to fill it in? We are just changing planes.”
That is when it happened.
“You want to leave Moskva!”
I swear that the windows shook and a few people dived for cover. Even a Canadian knows when to retreat.
“Finished?” Andy asked.
“No,” I said, still shaking.
And then I noticed that Molly had already filled out her card.
“Hey, how did you get that filled out?” I asked.
“Andy helped me,” she said, matter-of-factly.
So, that was Russia. But not the end of the story. Andy and Molly flew back to Israel a day after me. They were planning to catch a charter flight at Ben Gurion airport to go for a vacation at some Spanish island. Israeli security gave them a really difficult time at the airport, and as they sometimes do, asked for the name and phone number of somebody in Israel who could vouch for them. I then received a phone call.
“This is security at Ben Gurion airport. There are two passengers here who say that you know them. A Mr. Andrew Goldstein and a Miss Molly Kellar.”
“Andrew and Molly who?”
For all I know, they may still be there.