My Midlife Adventure
In late February we received notification that Lyuba's interview at the American Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan was scheduled for March 31st. This was shockingly good news for us -- I was expecting something more in the May-June timeframe. This was the last major hurdle. Very exciting. Lyuba quickly scheduled their medical examinations.
But meanwhile, the coronavirus was continuing to spread. Airline travel was being affected. And I was terrified that Donald would use the situation to impose even more restrictions on legal immigration. So I wrote to the American Consulate in Kazakhstan and ask them if they could reschedule our interview sooner. Incredibly, they acquiesced and rescheduled the interview for Tuesday, March 10.
Lyuba managed to get their medical examinations rescheduled for Friday, March 6. I knew packing would be a lot of work, and I needed to say goodbye to Lyuba's parents, whom I love dearly. Plus I was worried about their processing through Customs in America at the airport. So I booked tickets to fly to Kazakhstan via Moscow on Friday the 13th, and return on Monday the 16th (with four would-be immigrants in tow).
We had barely a week to prepare, and they needed hundreds of pages of paper documentation to prove that we're all who we say we are, to verify my income and ability to support the family, and to convince them that this was a bona fide legitimate marriage. We had a printer in Kazakhstan that we had used to prepare documents for previous phases of the immigration. Zarina (16 year old daughter) dug it out of the closet and eventually got her phone to talk to it, after discovering that printers need to be plugged in.
With Zerena's Print Shop open for business, we went to work. I already had everything we needed on my computer. I started sending her documents to print. Meanwhile, Lyuba set out to get fresh notarized translations of all their original Russian language documents (birth certificates, marriage license, divorce decree, police reports, ...). Five days and about 600 pages later, we were ready.
They arrived at the Consulate at 8:00 AM. The children needed to be there, since technically there were four separate applications. The interview itself is a whole separate chapter, so I won't go into that here. Suffice it to say that, five hours later, the visa applications were approved. Their visas would be ready for pickup on Thursday. I would arrive in Kazakhstan on Friday, and we would all depart on Monday. And then, on Wednesday night, I saw Donald announce on television that all air travel from Europe was suspended, effective Friday at midnight. In 51 hours. Three days before our planned migration.
With Donald still talking, I got on Aeroflot's website and prepared to change the four one-way tickets to Friday, two days hence. I figured the immediate demand for tickets from Europe to the U.S. was about to skyrocket. There was a flight from Moscow to JFK. But before pushing the Big Blue Button, I called Lyuba to explain the situation.
At this moment it was already Thursday morning in Kazakhstan. I asked Lyuba if she and the girls could be packed and ready to leave in less than 24 hours, without any assistance from me. She had trouble understanding why, but finally said, "I trust you. Do it. We will be ready."
I couldn't get to Kazakhstan in time to help, but I was very afraid of my family trying to get through Customs by themselves upon their arrival in New York City. They speak hardly any English. So I booked a round trip ticket for myself from JFK to Moscow, making sure I would be on the same flight back as my family. Then I booked an earlier flight to get from Washington DC to JFK.
Meanwhile, still Thursday morning in Kazakhstan, Lyuba got a call from the Consulate informing her that the visas wouldn't be ready until the following week because they hadn't received the medical reports from the clinic. So Lyuba called the clinic. They said they had sent the reports electronically. Lyuba called the Consulate back. They said they hadn't received anything. Lyuba called me, and I called the clinic. The receptionist knew immediately who I was, and reassured me that the doctor was trying frantically to figure out what went wrong and to resend the reports to the Consulate. Lyuba called the Consulate again and explained that they had plane tickets for the following morning. For this she was severely scolded. (When I heard about this later, I told Lyuba, "Of course they scolded you. That's their job. We're not the first idiots they've had to deal with.")
At this point it was nearly midnight here (10 AM Thursday morning in Almaty), and there really wasn't anything more I could do to help. So I went to bed. When I woke up the next morning there were photos of four bright new shiny visas on my phone. I found out later that Lyuba had spent virtually the entire day (her last day in Kazakhstan) working with the medical clinic and the Consulate, eventually carrying hard copies of the medical reports from the former to the latter herself.
So now she had less than twelve hours to pack all their worldly possessions. And I had to get to the airport myself. In the airplane in Washington DC, while we were still on the ground, the pilot announced that the weather had closed in on JFK and they needed to taxi back to the vicinity of the gate to get enough fuel to fly to an alternate destination. Great, I thought. Now I would be late to the wrong airport.
But apparently the weather cleared, and we landed at JFK with time to spare. I went to check in at the Aeroflot ticket counter. The lady there checked my passport and said, "You don't have a visa?" I said no, I wouldn't be exiting the international zone at the airport in Moscow. I wouldn't be going through Passport Control. "What is your final destination?" she asked. "JFK," I responded. "No no no no no," she said. "You're at JFK. Where are you flying to?" "Well, I'm flying to Moscow where I'm going to meet my wife and children in the international zone. Then we're flying back here together. So I guess my final destination is right here. JFK." Her eyes narrowed. "I'm going to have to make a phone call," she said.
She walked off somewhere, then reappeared a few minutes later. She handed me my passport and announced, "You are not flying today. You need a visa. You don't have a visa." "Noooooo!" I feigned shock. I tried to cry. I pleaded. Then I told her the story of my Midlife Adventure. The three minute version. With special emphasis on the romance. Her stern demeanor melted away. She got starry eyed. I guess she thought there's something romantic about a new husband flying halfway around the world just to hold his wife's hand on the way to America to immigrate.
She conferred with her colleague at the next counter. They both kept glancing at me. Finally she said to me, "Let me make another phone call."
While waiting, I asked the colleague, "Hey, what will they do in Moscow if they don't like the fact that I don't have a visa? Put me on the next flight back?" I tried not to smirk. "Not immediately," she replied with a friendly smile. "First, they will arrest you. It could take hours. Maybe days."
But this encounter eventually had a happy ending. Two more phone calls and a third teary colleague later, I was cleared for takeoff. They even bumped me up to the best ComfortPlus seat on the plane, one notch below First Class. "Goodbye! Good luck!" they chorused as I left them for the gate.
A while later, when I was standing in line at the gate to board the Moscow flight, the first ticket counter lady reappeared. "Here," she said, handing me another boarding pass. "This may be helpful at the airport in Moscow." It was my boarding pass for the return flight, which had just effectively become the second leg of my international journey. My connecting flight to JFK. I was all set.
The flight to Moscow was very comfortable, but otherwise uneventful. I would have a three hour layover (plenty of time to determine the departure gate and its location), but Lyuba and the girls would arrive two hours later than me. A one hour layover for them. Very tight. My return flight boarding pass indicated that the flight would depart from Terminal D (but the gate was still unknown). I told this to Lyuba (my flight had WiFi) as she sat in the airport in Almaty, and we selected a random coffee shop advertised on the airport's website in Terminal D as a rendezvous point. Their phones would not work in Moscow, so we had to have an old-fashioned plan. And the contingency plan was to meet at the gate. I was concerned about their ability to determine and then find the correct gate -- hence the rendezvous point.
But that turned out to be a bad idea. The Terminal D coffee shop we had randomly selected turned out not to exist. And Lyuba's flight did not have WiFi, so I couldn't tell her this. I decided to camp just outside the incoming security checkpoint that I was pretty sure they would come through. But they didn't. With twenty minutes left, I sprinted to the gate. Everyone had boarded. No family, and there were only two minutes until they would close the aircraft door. They checked the names, and told me that my family had not boarded the plane. I rubbernecked in all directions. Five minutes later I saw them, sprinting towards me. I spun around. "They're here!" I shouted. "The door has already closed. Sorry." I pleaded. I quickly launched into my three minute love story. But she would have none of my fairy tale. She was obviously from Siberia, with a heart to match. "I suggest you go to the Aeroflot counter and exchange your tickets for a later flight." Then she proceeded to ignore me completely, as if I wasn't there.
So we walked dejectedly to the ticket counter. There we discovered that there was another flight in three hours! I think perhaps they had added a flight to accommodate the Donald surge. So we exchanged our tickets. "How much?" I asked. The old lady finished clicking her calculator, then showed it to me. 3164. Again, I feigned shock. She just smiled at me, then finally said, "Rubles." She obviously enjoys playing this little game with Gringos. "Ok, how much in dollars?" I asked. More clicking. She showed me the updated display silently. "42 dollars? I'll take it."
And she gave me the same seat I had been given by my new friends in JFK. ComfortPlus. My family back in EconomyMinus would have to discover how to recline their seats without my assistance. Bummer for them...
And this all turned out fine. If we had caught our original flight, we would still have had to endure a six hour layover at JFK. Instead, we were faced with a leisurely three hour layover in Moscow (leisurely except for eight-year-old Aisha asking every five minutes if it was time for us to go to our plane), and a three hour layover at JFK -- plenty of time to clear Customs. We could easily catch our final flight to Washington DC.
And that's exactly what happened. Actually getting through Customs and doing the final Real Immigration turned out to be a breeze. And there were no delays at the airport to get our temperatures taken (Lyuba and the girls' temperatures would have shocked the medical staff, because their temperatures are in Celsius. Joke! I make stupid joke.). But then I realized that I forgot to buy a ticket to Washington for myself, and the Delta website indicated that it was sold out, as was the next flight, which was the last flight of the day. Nevertheless, we were able to purchase a ticket at the counter for the earlier flight. And Aruzhan left her phone on the plane, which, for an eleven year old girl, introduces trauma that far overwhelms the excitement of a once-in-a-lifetime exodus. Also two of our suitcases missed the flight. But when I went to Baggage Services to inquire about the lost suitcases, I casually asked if they knew who I should contact about a lost cellphone. They sprang into action. Twenty minutes later, Aruzhan and her lost phone were reunited. And the wayward suitcases were delivered to their new home the next day.
And we all lived happily ever after.
1) We later discovered that Donald had left the fine print out of his proclamation. It didn't apply to American citizens or their immediate families. So maybe all this scrambling was unnecessary. Except...
2) On Sunday, two days after our successful immigration, one day before our original immigration date, guess what happened. Give up? I'll tell you. On Sunday, Kazakhstan closed its borders. Nobody in, nobody out.
If we hadn't changed our schedule in response to Donald's edict, we would all be trapped in Kazakhstan indefinitely, myself included. And the immigration visas expire after six months if they're not used, so if things were to drag on, the entire immigration itself could have been in serious jeopardy.