Thursday, May 15, 2008

C'est une Americaine!

Per request, the details of my Moscow excursion:

I boarded the night train to Moscow and found my place in the lower bunk. It wasn't a bed yet, it was a sitting area. Then one person climbs up to the top bunk and the other converts the sitting area into a bed. My bunkmate helped me with this. I had been unsure at first if she was Russian, but then something about the way she ate her apple confirmed it. Plus, she was reading the Russian side of a Russian/English guidebook.

Keep in mind that I've been reading Chesterton's detective stories. This will come into play later as well.

After arriving in Moscow at about 6:30 am, I waited about an hour before going into the metro. Once there, I found it much less intimidating than expected. My previous experiences consisted of traveling in big groups with luggage, with people falling over luggage and getting separated by the automatic doors closing. I found the metro fairly easy to navigate, although on one of the lines they didn't announce the stops, which meant I had to crane my neck and read the sign through the windows.

When I got to the neighborhood where the Embassy was, I got turned around a little bit, but I still arrived at the right place at 9 am.

Now let's rewind a little bit to Monday afternoon when I was confirming information, trying to make sure I had the right address. Since there are two Congo's (DRC and Congo-Brazzaville), it was easy to get confused. In addition, I found different addresses and phone numbers for the Embassy, as well as conflicting information about obtaining a visa: some websites said 14 days minimum, others said less. Finally I called one of the numbers listed for the DRC, and they confirmed that a U.S. citizen could get a visa in one day. However, the guy was either in a rush or didn't speak Russian very well, so I couldn't get any other information, such as their working hours or how much the visa would cost.

Then, one Russian website revealed some interesting information. It described the Congolese Embassy (which I had telephoned) as being located in an apartment in a regular 9-story residential building. It explained that you must talk to the guard, and that it was advisable to phone ahead and set up a meeting, otherwise it was possible that there would be no one in the Embassy and you wouldn't be able to get in touch with anyone. Well, I had essentially phoned ahead and they hadn't said anything about setting up a meeting, so hopefully I was okay. But I wrote down all the numbers.

The next item on the website was a bit disturbing. It described a situation a few years ago with a division of power in the Moscow-based embassy, which led to another embassy being set up, and at some point there was even a fake embassy which gave fake visas, leading to people being deported upon arrival in Congo.

I decided to give my Congolese friend a call and get things straightened out. He assured me that the first address I had was correct.

Back to the story...

I arrived in the residential area where the embassy was and found the correct address. It was in a gated residential building matching the description of the one in the article. I hovered around the entrance and asked to go inside. The guard said that no one had arrived yet, but that I could sit on the bench. I explained that I had come from St.Petersburg and therefore it was urgent that I attend to business in the embassy. He tried to get in touch with the office but said that no one had come in to work yet. I sat on the bench, looking around. My senses were heightened because of reading the detective stories. I noticed that the guard was stricter with some people than with others. And there were a lot of foreigners coming and going. What else was housed in this building besides the Embassy of the DRC?

At one point, an African man passed through the checkpoint. I thought maybe he was the person I had been waiting for, but then he got in a car and drove back through the gate.

I sent a text message to my Congolese friend in St.P. asking if it was normal that it was 9:30 and no one had come to work yet. He said that they sometimes come in at 10:00. But the guard had said 9:00. Hmmm. If I couldn't get my visa today, I would have to somehow find a hotel room in Moscow and change my train ticket. And I would miss going to the orphanage. Not a desired outcome.

Suddenly the guard said, "They're in the office now, you can go in." That was strange, as no one had passed by. I left the bench and found my way inside. Once inside, I tried to get down to business, but they asked me to sit down and wait, even though I was the only customer. Supposedly the person I needed wasn't there yet. I peeked into another room and there sat the man who had driven away in the car. How had he gotten back inside without passing the guard? I realized later that there was a second entrance to the compound.

Eventually someone came and asked what I needed, translating from Russian into French for a second man. I could understand most of the French, but couldn't answer anything. There was initial confusion as they first thought I was Russian and then deduced, "Elle est americaine!" "Aaaaah, elle est americaine!" Then they remembered my phone call from last week. So it seemed that they were on top of things after all.

They asked me to wait again, and then another guy came out with the visa application. It was all very casual, but the form was in Russian and French, and after the train ride my brain was about to explode. For the first half of the form, I forgot to use capital letters. Then I forgot what address to use because I had been planning to use the consulate in the U.S., so my practice forms were all U.S. information while here I was obviously living in Russia. I couldn't think of any Russian addresses, so I put U.S. addresses and Russian phone numbers. Ha ha! I tried to ask the guy a few questions, but we weren't understanding each other's Russian.

He told me to hand over my documents and money. I tried to give him some more documents, like the Yellow Fever card and travel itinerary, but he didn't want them. Then I gave him my credit card, having checked "credit card," as the payment option, but he said they couldn't accept it, only cash. Usually they give you a bill and you pay at the bank, but here it was cash only. I didn't have enough money and asked where there was an ATM. He said there weren't any nearby, not even at the metro.

I set off to find an ATM, asking when I should return. "When would you like your visa?" he asked. "Ummm, in a few hours?" "I thought you wanted it immediately?" "Ummm, I can get it now?" "Yes, it's not difficult." "Ohhh, I thought there might be a line or something..." "No, not here...."

I went off in the direction he had shown me, with my umbrella since it was now raining. I walked around for about an hour and ended up making a huge circle, finding an ATM towards the end. It was a residential area, but there were grocery stores and a market. If people were spending money, surely they were withdrawing it from somewhere?

I handed over the money and they returned about 10 minutes later with my passport and receipt. In my passport there was the "visa," a stamp with my name and travel dates written in.

On the way back to the metro, I passed an ATM about 3 minutes walking distance of the Embassy.

Since it was raining, I settled for Plan B which was the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The prices posted said that a ticket cost 60 for Russians and 300 for foreigners. I handed over 500 rubles and asked for an adult ticket. "Don't you have anything smaller?" asked the little old ladies. "Ummm, I'm ummmm...not Russian," I said. "Where are you from?" "The U.S." "You don't look like it! We'll give you a discount." And they gave me back 300 rubles. I guess in Africa it will be a little harder to blend in.

I saw a lot of fine paintings at the museum. But I was sooo sleepy. I took advantage of each room that had a sitting area and took a little snooze. In the rooms that didn't have seating, I stumbled around with my eyelids fluttering.

I still had several hours until my evening train! For lack of a better idea, I took the metro to Red Square. I approached the square, but was too tired to actually walk around. Besides, they were still cleaning up from Victory Day and it didn't look very picturesque. I bought a French pastry and sat down to loiter alongside some Russian teenagers.

I got to the train station and still had THREE hours. I sat down in a waiting area and went to sleep, disregarding the rigid metal chair.

Once on the train, I was itching to get to sleep, but I didn't want to be annoying and ask my bunkmate to hurry up and climb up onto the top bunk. So I waited an hour or so until he left on his own. We arrived in St.Petersburg at 5:30 and the metro opened a few minutes later. And then another day began! I ignored my roommate's orders to go to bed, but the 2-hour commute to the orphanage gave me a chance to take a nap, and I managed to make it through the evening...


  1. Elizabeth! What a tremendously fun post to read! It was like being there - I love the details and know enough of Moscow to picture it all! Thanks so much! I'm glad it all worked out in the end. Isn't it fun when you have those "detective glasses" on? I want to go take a nap on your behalf, though.


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