Waiting for a Thaw by Claire Morsman
There were plenty of questions. Among them, 'How will we ever get out of Russia?' 'If I smile at the policemen, will it make the situation better or worse?' 'Is my husband going to be shot on our honeymoon?' and 'Why are there so many dead dogs on the pavements?' The policemen, guns like hackles and bristling with important impatience, had questions too.
Vladivostok was a meaningless 17 below that afternoon. My teeth were tessellated not with cold but with the effort of trying not to cry. Joe's back straightened as he was escorted out of the overheated room at the militsiya station. The door shut. We had been separated.
Together we had slid the 6000 train-tracked miles across Russia from Saint Petersburg to the eastern edge. Past the whites and blues and sparkles of Siberia under snow, the muffled branches of a billion trees deeply nestled in their winter sleep. Eight gently rocking time zones had slunk by with little change outside the windows but in contrast, excepting our motherly Provodnik, our carriage had constant cast changes. Passengers came and went. Women with gold teeth, children on laps and drunk soldiers sharing secrets with us over sepia-yellow smoked fish about towns we could see though the window but that weren't on the map. Their experiences of past hair loss, impotence and the waist-high mushrooms were all communicated through charades and leafing through the phrasebook – which grew very fishy – to learn about our surroundings where our guidebook was mute.
Intermittently sharing words, salty cheese, silence, vodka and smiles, mile by mile, we understood the vibrating rattle to be the heartbeat of the train and settled back inside her warmth, to stare, to sleep, to marvel, to think not much at all.
The heart stopped one morning. The apparently never-ending plumpety whites of untouched snow had degraded to dirty biscuit-mix slush. Dawn was breaking as we pulled on our thermals; a bearded lady lying along a station radiator waved us welcome to Vladivostok. The air was coal-smoke heavy and dead animals lay on the sloping pavements. Lead-coloured ice crackled between the railway station and the ferry office, from where we expected to board the boat to Japan to catch our flight home.
"Ferry is cancelled" the ticket devochka said, without interest. Our visas would expire, pumpkin-like, at midnight, as we had naively given the exit date as the day the ferry left. There were no flights out of Vladivostok that day, except to fly back into Russia. The Embassy would help! We'd all have a cup of tea and laugh at our misjudgement. However, the British Embassy building was everything that someone who needs assistance doesn't want to see. Empty would have been disconcerting, but abandoned and vandalised...
The atmosphere was changing, and the gloomy daylight was dimming to a haunted pre-dusk. The guidebook was burning sentences in my coat pocket such as "Do not stay out after dark. Vladivostok is extremely dangerous and mafia ridden." Jeeps with blacked out windows, cars spinning out of control on the ice and lingering men were making us paranoid. Phone batteries now dead, we shivered, slipped and schlepped between hotels and hostels where we could have space to work things out. I would unstick my frozen eyelashes from my snood as receptionists muttered 'Only Russian nationals allowed', and stared us out. We weren't welcome. The mafia ruled here. It grew darker and colder.
One last try. Our boots made sticky noises on the lino'ed lobby. The receptionist, after checking our passports, diverted his attention from a noisy war film, tapped thoughtfully on a tank of frogs on the desk, made some clipped phone calls and locked us in. I felt sorry for those frogs, their necks with the watermark silted on. When the glut of militsiya arrived, money was exchanged and their voices became barky at the sight of us.
Over 24 hours of dispassion later, alone in an 'interview' room, I was being distracted by the prickly sweat on the backs of my knees but still trying very hard to smile. I'm a firm believer in a smile, a facial attitude that in this case I dared hope might melt ice, revive dogs, communicate that this visa situation was a silly misunderstanding and get us released from both custody and this country.
The militsiya smiled back. They smiled! The threats thawed. We were reunited, warmly toasted, fined – then deported. 'Regretfully' informed of our future ban from Russia, we were escorted onto a plane for South Korea. As my new husband and I peeped down at Russia receding below, the air hostess had a question. What would we like from the menu? The 'Kokot from Squit', the 'Salmon fried with mask' or the 'Hot-on-home'? These were much easier questions, at last.