Saturday, September 15, 2007

Soap Opera Sunday - The KGB and Me - Coda

Soap Opera Sunday from Brillig and Walking Kateastrophe - find the other participants on their blogs today, and join the fun!

For part one of this tale, go here, and for part two of this tale, go here

We walked down the same gray tunnel that we’d entered all those months ago. This part of Sheremetyevo airport reminded me of the innards of a whale. The wide, concrete, ribbed arch folded down to a scarlet red carpet and was interrupted periodically by windows that showed the dreary tarmac. Despite the fact that it was morning, it was unbearably early, and so we shuffled along feeling the chains of the Soviet friends we had left behind, along with the sorrow of our goodbyes.

I was perpetually on the verge of tears. Despite Tanya’s being there with me until the last second, it was the full week of farewells and ceremonies that had left me in rags, emotionally.

We had one more stop to make before stepping through the security doors and out onto the tarmac and up to the waiting Pan Am jet. We could see the plane through the windows and the taste of freedom was palpable. My U.S. passport was resting in my back pocket, ready for inspection. My ticket was in my hand. I was devastated to be leaving my friends, but the promise of independence, of being back on familiar ground, of embracing family and friends on the other side of this flight was tantalizing.

While my entire experience in Russia had been life-changing, it had also taken enormous concentration and energy for almost every second of my time there. Being a diplomat is not easy, and this was, in fact, what we’d been. For those of us in the cities far from Moscow and Leningrad, it had been even more difficult, as we were anomalies and carefully scrutinized in each bit of our daily routines.

And I was sick of Soviet rules.

And I was sick of behaving.

And I was sick of living inside the lines and trying to do everything within the boundaries of what was acceptable in Soviet society.

So, at the last moment, I had chucked the visa that I had used to travel to Pyatigorsk on that last field trip with the kids. I figured it would only hold me up at the airport, and if there was one thing I wanted, it was to get out.

We’d reached the end of that whale-belly tunnel, and one by one we were being processed through a series of three customs/passport control booths.

I’d remembered from the initial trip that these officials made the guards at Buckingham Palace look downright friendly. My first contact was a series of grunts and pointing, despite my passable Russian. For all I knew, these guards didn’t speak Russian.

I was among the last three of our group of American teachers, and we were among the last passengers to go through passport control. Our group had been held back and given a last "debriefing" by a final Soviet apparatchik. I could see Frank, John and Allie on the other side of security. Allie was doing a happy dance, and John was making faces at us, trying to get us to crack up. We, on the other hand, were trying our best to remain solemn and passive – the best way to fly under the radar in any official situation.

Finally, Mary, Jackie and I were called forward. We each stepped into identical booths. I shoved my passport through the appropriate slot and raised my eyes to look at the guard who would be my key to the other side. He looked at me, and looked at my passport and looked at his computer.

He looked at me again, looked at my passport, rifled through my passport and looked at his computer.

He skipped through my passport, looking at every stamp I had accumulated during my five years of its ownership. He must have seen the stamps for East Germany and Czechoslovakia, among others.

He stared at his computer.

He stared at me.

Vwee,” he barked at me and pointed to a chair to my right. “Seedeetzye!” (You, sit!)

I sat.

He left.

I felt the moisture collect around the back of my neck.

To make things worse, I could see my group through the glass barriers. And they were beginning to board the plane.

I wasn’t.

I was beginning to imagine what would happen if I were thrown in a Soviet jail. What would things be like there? Would there be a special jail for foreign prisoners? There were so many levels of niceties in this classless society, would I be saved as a result?

I waited. I could feel the sweat trickling down my breasts now.

My guard came back to his booth, accompanied by another, poker-faced drone. They whispered intensely, pointing at me and pointing at my passport. They looked at the computer screen and shook their heads.

I noticed the departure lounge was empty with the exception of two, bored-looking Pan Am counter staff. I didn’t dare sneak a look at my watch. I looked down at the floor, trying not to draw attention to myself.


I looked up. My passport was shoved back through the slot. “Iditye!” (Go!)

I went. I picked up my passport and walked through those doors and was met with “Hurry!” by the Pan Am folks and I walked through their doors and I walked out on the tarmac, and up the stairs to my plane, and a lovely flight attendant met me at the door, and showed me to my seat, and when my fellow teachers saw me they broke into cheers.

And I sat down to an International Herald Tribune and a glass of orange juice. It was the sweetest orange juice I’ve had before or since. And the news was from a Capitalist source and uncensored.

And I just wanted to kiss my fellow teachers, kiss the Soviets on the plane, kiss the seats, the arm rests, the carpet and my newspaper. But I didn’t.

I sipped my orange juice and read my paper and wallowed in being on an American plane.

And we took off and began to soar into the skies, leaving the Soviet Union, with its beauty and its terror, behind us.


Dedee said...

Wow. I'm glad you made it back.

I can't imagine what it must have been like, although I've always wanted to go.

Thanks for sharing.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

So incredibly intense. You're an amazing writer.

Madam Crunchypants said...

How nerve-wracking. I've really enjoyed reading about your experiences in the USSR though, and hope there will be more.

Brillig said...

"And I was sick of behaving." Oh my goodness, I can only imagine.

This is such powerful stuff--thanks for sharing these experiences. So fascinating, terrifying, relieving. Wonderful.

soccer mom in denial said...

oh my. oh my. I'm speechless.

This was the SOS I was looking forward to this week.

Jen said...

Thanks so much for the comments, everyone.

This part was nerve-wracking. I'm still playing with these pieces - they're really just drafts, but the time that I was sitting in that chair was over 12 minutes. I need to convey that somehow. And while that doesn't seem like a lot of time, when you think you might be thrown in a foreign jail, it's a lllllooooonnnnggg time, lol.

And SMID had a wonderful post about her dad yesterday and it was partly my idealistic dad's fault that I was there in the first place, lol. I almost wished I hadn't wanted to "save the world."

Thanks for reading!

anno said...

I'm glad you made it back, too. So scary when you're dealing with different (and arbitrary) rules.

Unknown said...

Sheesh, it wasn't until that last paragraph that I even realized that I was holding my breath! Amazing story.

jennifer said...

Jenn, I don't rememeber if I already told you, but I also wound up being sat down in a dank room in the Moscow airport. My visa (a flimsy slip of paper) was ripped at the corner as I tried to leave. What ensued was alot of intimidation and icy stares.
I loved reading this. Brought it all back!

Betsy said...

Oh man, I so expected you to say that they kept you for questioning and made you miss your plane! Glad you made it out (relatively) unscathed! :-)

Rebecca said...

wow, Jen. I can't imagine how terrifying that must have been - to contemplate going to jail (for doing NOTHING)and to almost miss your plane. You must have been MORE than thrilled to get home.

Fourier Analyst said...

Whew! Now I can exhale. I know just how confining this must have been for you. But you must admit, it makes great material for your blog!

Annette Lyon said...

This brought me right back to the Tel Aviv airport in Israel last summer and the panic I had there. My passport had been stolen, and the one I had was an emergency replacement. As a result, my husband and I were grilled incessantly at every possible point. It was such a relief to finally board the plane! I think I would have collapsed if they had pointed me to a chair for even half the time you were in yours.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine the feeling you had sitting in that chair just waiting. What a wonderful series. I hope you'll write more about your experiences. It's so interesting!

Luisa Perkins said...

Jen, you really should post your SOSs to the buzz. I think the reaction would be great. You're so good!

Goofball said...

oh wow, how creepy. I remember how unfriendly the airport personnel and customs agents were in Moscow in 2003....when they were already used to free travel. gosh how much worse must it have been before. Yikes. Glad I wasn't in that seat!