I'm a little at a loss as to what to call the following tale. Maybe, "don't mess with a dysfunctional bureaucracy?" This episode relates how my girlfriend and I spent our last night of a short holiday in St Petersburg in Russia, having booked our flight home for one day after our visas expired.
This is how we made our return to democracy and civilization (Germany), without spending any time at all in the gulag.
For the last night we were booked into a place called the Park Inn. We arrived at the place, checked in, handed over our passports, got our keys and were told we could pick our passports in about 30 minutes. I had just had a shower when the phone rang, it was the front desk. There was a problem with the visas. “Oh really,” I said, “that cannot be.”
We'd actually known this before going to the hotel but had decided to take a chance, I think I'd said something like, "well what's the worst that can happen, they can only throw us out." So I tried to act surprised whenthe girl on the front desk told us the visas expired at midnight. She was unmoved by our best, ‘dumb tourist’ act and insisted that, legally, she couldn’t possibly let us stay and we must repack, give our keys back and leave Russia before midnight. She called us a taxi to the airport and off we went.
There was a flight to Frankfurt in a couple of hours, but a couple of ladies at the Russair (airline) office told us we could get a visa extension, good for three more days, just for 650 Rubles, (about 40 euros). We just needed to go to the MasterBank desk and ask for it.
MasterBank turned out to be a little counter in St Petersburg airport, which itself, in international terms is pretty tiny, more like a country bus station. MasterBank was still open at about 7:00pm in the evening, and after about 30 minutes of rather confused negotiation, we took possession of two printed and stamped pieces of paper, in Cyrillic script.
So, back to the hotel and reclaim our room. Another 10 minute taxi ride, this time much more expensive, but I didn’t care, I could imagine the taste of the beer already, and then to bed, so back to the same desk clerk as before. But, the printed and stamped Cyrillic script papers we had were only a receipt and what we still didn’t have was any kind of visa, we needed something stamped in our passports.
In fact, the concept of a visa extension seemed to leave the desk girI puzzled and again we were told to leave. But by now, even the possible Frankfurt flight had flown. Gerlinde tried an appeal to the Russian sense of compassion and I suggested to the girl that she call the MasterBank office and talk to the lady on the desk there. We would wait in the bar while all the telephone calls were made.
By now Gerlinde had the idea that the hotel staff had some sympathy for our plight and that we might be able to ‘camp out’, as it were, in the lobby, overnight. We never did hear back from the desk clerk so we moved to a corner of the huge lobby and settled down for the night.
The security man drifted by a few times but never challenged us and so, with the racket of a live band playing in the resteraunt we made ourselves as comfortable as we could.
Now, it seems there’s a new commitment to the ‘service industry‘ in Russia, and we noticed three or four ladies perched in various places around the lobby hoping to catch the eye of any lonely male with money to spend. And, unless I’m mistaken, a man offering an similar service. Yet it seemed to be a slow night for them and the women, and their minders, packed it in and left on the dot of 2:00 am.
The live music had stopped about 1:00am but there were still some night hawks drinking until well after 3:00am. But we were left dozing in our chairs and thinking about the cosy room we were not permitted to occupy.
After that the only activity was the occasionally cruising security man, who never made eye contact, and a couple of women who cleaned the entire floor, working, non-stop, it seemed, through the night. At one stage I went down to the toilets where one of them, ipod headphones in her ears, was singing as she cleaned the porcelain to an immaculate state. They even cleaned round us, and our suitcases, also never making eye contact and leaving the area around us spotless.
Finally, after what seemed an endless night, it was 7:00am and we went back to the front desk and asked another clerk to call us a taxi. Then, back to the airport for our 10:20 flight. This time, it transpired, we were too early to check in and had another 30 minutes to kill. Obviously we wanted to get to the gate, past passport control and effectively be in ‘International Territory’ as soon as we could.
But it was not to be, I had the passports in my pocket but those Cyrillic, visa extension receipts we’d bought were back in the hotel. So it was back to MasterBank for more of these mysterious documents. It was a totally Kafkaesque moment to discover the same office that had been open the night before was now, at 9am, closed. Fortunately the same Russair lady we’d met before helped us, and managed to get the office open and after another 700 rubles each, more cryptic, Cyrillic forms were produced.
Then, back to Passport Control. By now the flight was due to board but again we were held back. Now the magic visa itself had to be added. More arm waving and ‘I don’t speak English’ from the passport controllers. But finally our passports and all receipts and boarding passes were taken away by a senior official. ‘5 minutes,’ he said but it was more like 15 before we got all our papers, with new visa stamp back. Then we had to stand in line again and present them for review by the Passport Controllers.
Finally, after another 5 minutes of pointless faffing we were airside, just as the flight started to board.
The flight back was pleasant. The rest of the passengers applauded as the plane touched down at Munchen, maybe that’s usual when a Russair flight lands safely, I don’t know. But the fate was not yet done with us. After collecting the car we turned straight into a 12 km queue of slow moving traffic that held us back another couple of hours.
But it didn’t matter, we were back in Germany. Where not just prostitutes, but even government officials and the serving staff smile at you and help you on your way.