My love of all things free has triumphed over reason yet again.
This winter I spent much of my spare time at American Councils for International Education, reading applications from foreign high school students to win year-long scholarships to study in the US. They administer many different study abroad programs across the globe for American and foreign students, but most of my experience was with their FLEX program. FLEX reaches out to students in former USSR countries, and has been in existence for as long as the soviet Union has not. It was such an amazing thing to get to read about the hopes and dreams of sixteen-year-olds in places like Uzbekistan, Armenia, and of course Russia, and know that I was a part of helping them reach their education goals and, in many cases, leave their country or even town for the first time. But allow me to get to the point.* After a few months of helping out at American Councils, I was invited to fill a coveted roll as a "Flight Leader" to help escort fifty students back to their country of origin at the end of their study abroad experience on June 16.
In other words, I was being offered a free ticket to Russia, an impressive feat, even for me.
Not only that, they did everything for me for my business visa application, which is a lot when it comes to Russia. One needs various forms and other pieces of paper, including an ominously named "Letter of Invitation," in addition to $140 for the ostensibly gold leaf stamp in your passport that will allow you to venture into that country. However, due to my apparent international fugitive status, I was the only flight leader to have his or her visa application denied, and with no explanation as to why**. On June 10, the coordinator was ready to replace me, but I sprang into action, the thought of losing my free golden ticket triggering an intense adrenaline rush and cat-like defensive reflexes. I began the application process again, with only seven days until the plane on which I had a seat reserved would take off, with or without me.
At the Russian Embassy, clutching hastily assembled official-looking bits and bobs, I was told with a sigh by a woman with an ear-length bob and beige, shapeless shift dress that I did not have enough consecutive pages in my passport for their enormous, glorious visa stamp. I had to spend the entirety of the next day, June 11, in a terrifying windowless place called the US Passport Agency, waiting for emergency pages to be added to my tattered travel document. Waiting there, an elderly gentlemen saw my reading material*** and said,
"Mark Twain, hmm? Cain't go wrong with Mark Twain."
I glanced up, and before me was an apparition, the ghost of the master himself. A shock of white hair and beard, a creamy linen suit, and an expression one part grouch and two parts bemused genius belied his identity. He winked as he explained that he was a writer as well, and told me to tell my father that he had raised me right. After a few minutes of literary criticism and philosophizing, he wished me luck in Russia, and left to buy vegetables from a nearby farmers market, or return to the grave, I am not sure which.
I took this to be a very propitious sign, and returned to the Embassy on June 12 with my newly altered passport, knowing that it was my last shot at my own Russian Holiday****. After approximately nine minutes of literally shuffling my papers back and forth across her desk, she took painstaking care in affixing various notes and binder clips to my application, and told me to come back again on the 15, the day before my hypothetical departure.
It is 7pm on the 15th of June, and I have got my visa.
*The point ever being: How does this get me interesting free things? Well, first of all, they gave me loads of gratis lunches but stop wasting your time in the notes, go back to the top, and read on for the real freeloader victory.
**I am, in fact, not a fugitive, however this is not the first time I have been unceremoniously and mysteriously turned away from a notoriously exclusive country.
***A book of short stories by Mark Twain, of course.
****The lesser-known and more dreary sequel to the classic Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday.