Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Stiven kak Stephan"

I spent the weekend in Russia, experiencing the best of the culture there. First some great home-made Georgian lamb-vegetable soup Saturday night (Kharcho), then some shashlik (Russian shiskabob) cooked the next afternoon at the dacha. To top this off, I spent Sunday evening at the banya, a Russian sauna (wet, not dry).

The banya treatment included a good beating with venik, dried branches, to improve circulation. This was delivered after two stints in the wooden room heated to ninety-degrees Celsius or so. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so naturally I expected the worst. I imagined a sort of Birch branch torn from a tree (a switch, a Texan might call it) and then a lashing not unlike the one applied by religious fanatics trying to atone for the death of Christ. The reality was a little different. Leafy oak branches were used (while some leafy birch was supplied for a pillow). The branches were applied on both sides of the body, from toe to shoulders, by a man who claimed to be a Walrus, a health nut (there was no vodka drinking here, just lots of tea) who’d even jumped into an icy cold river on the day of his marriage (and appeared on Channel One for the effort). He smothered my skin with heat at times, trapped it on the backs of my feet, up my spine, against my neck. Then, after instructing me to flip over a second time, he gave me a couple of good whacks, the hardest hits saved for last. A great experience -- and enough, a friend of a friend said, to complete my “extreme Russia” tour – banya and dacha.

But then the next morning, this tour unexpectedly continued – at the border with Ukraine.

Usually, the Russian passport control agents have been professional and more often than not very friendly ("You're a writer?" one asked when I arrived Saturday. "Kak Hemingway?" "Yes," I laughed, "Like Hemingway.") In comparison, the Ukrainians have been more demanding, more questioning, either puzzling over my visa (given a special cultural affairs mark) or wondering why I have it (you don’t need one if you stay in the country less than six months) or just running my address through their Palm Pilot one more time. But today there was a problem on the Russian side, and for a time I feared I might find myself locked away behind a fence, given a shovel, assigned a bunk.

On my immigration card, I had written my name as “Stephan,” just as it reads in my passport. But my Russian visa reads “Stiven” (unlike my Ukrainian visa which reads “Stephen.”)

This proved problematic.

After punching a number of buttons, staring at the screen, not looking my way for a good two or three minutes, the middle-aged woman behind the Plexi-Glass finally asked a question. “Your name?” I told her. She explained the discrepancy. I nodded, sighed, made every effort to show that I had been having this problem my whole life – in Little League, I could have said, the guy announcing the next batter always called me Stephen. I thought she was commiserating. Then I realized this to her was more than a minor frustration; it was a major clerical mistake.

She called for the control agent one line over. The two women started talking. I was the last one left from my bus of fifty or so passengers. A third woman drifted over. I asked if the bus was still there. It was. I reiterated that the difference between the two names was small. Look at my first Russian visa, two years ago, I said. Yes, there; that one has the name correct. Isn't that all that matters? That someone got it right, once? “Every time it’s different,” I said.

She stared at me as if I were speaking Greek, but it wasn't because my Russian failed me. I've been practicing. I can get some things right. This was a bureaucratic stare.

Another agent was summoned, a man in his late forties. The phone rang. He took the call, spoke with someone in Moscow for all I know. Then he hung up and asked me something in a stand-up straight voice. I answered him, suddenly six foot tall. Kharkov, I said. That's where I'm going. And because his voice commanded such respect, I gave him some more information too. I live there. I'm an English professor. (Sure, I'm not teaching anymore, but I've found this phrase opens door, hastens stamps). But he didn't listen, just looked between me and my picture, seeing a clean-shaven man in the flesh but a goateed one in the passport. He studied me again. I stood straighter somehow. Now, my whole identity was apparently in doubt.

The bus driver came in. What’s going? There’s a problem! I’ve got fifty people waiting! The customs agent tore away with my passport, striding outside, the bus driver talking at his side the whole way, me reluctantly wondering if I'd missed the command to follow him. Should I? He barked something. I stopped. The bus driver did too. The man walked away.

Didn't the State Department recommend you not give up your passport? Isn't that a bad thing? Not comfortable, that's for sure. What was he doing? How long would he be gone? Is there a complaint box? I feared a back-room, questions about the number of stamps in my passport, the back and forth between this country and that. Are you a spy? Comrade Wolf eats without listening.
Then people spilled off my bus, some smoking, others cursing, and I returned inside, where a new busload of people were filing through the two check-points.

I quickly sent text messages to someone in Russia. “Check on me in twenty minutes.” Because what if they took my phone? And really, I’m trying to leave Russia, not enter it! Is this how they fight the country’s population decline? Keep me behind for spelling practice? “They’ve taken my passport,” I wrote. “I don’t know where or for what.” Call the embassy in Moscow – I was ready to write it. But then maybe 25 or 30 minutes after it’d started with a simple shake of the head, back the man came, breezing by me to the woman in the booth who’d initially attempted to process me.

“Stiven kak Stephan,” he said.

Steven like Stephan.

The man handed me my passport. I took it and left silently for the bus, explaining to a grinning man between me and the door that it was all because of a single misplaced letter. Maybe it was really three or four misplaced letters, but he understood the point. "Extreme Russia," he said. I fell into in my seat, directly behind three new vacancies (some women had apparently walked or opted for a taxi). The bus shook to a start and we moved on to the Ukrainian side, where the control agent would tell me I'd signed my name in the wrong place on the card. "Well at least I spelled it right," I should have said.