16 - Storming the Fortress

Out the door, down the steps, turn right, walk a hundred metres and ta-DA! We were there. There being the office of a lawyer someone recommended. We were on a last-ditch mission to replace Elena's passport through official government channels: the Russian Consulate in Odesa. We needed to know what our chances were. Not just of getting listened to, but of ever being seen again. Elena thought she'd be nicked and sent to Russia. Me? She figured they'd simply kill for street meat.

Elena pictures old buildings in Odessa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-1] Elena photographs ancient buildings and architectural features in old Odessa.

The lawyer's office was something right out of Harry Potter. The bloke had it crammed full of occult totems and ancient, Hasidic regalia. Let's just say, I was in awe. This was the office of a truly interesting man. Short, round, middle-aged with a firm handshake and death's-head ring, he assured us that the consulate in Odesa had no reciprocity with Kyiv. Unless an order to apprehend Elena had come directly from the Kremlin, they would treat her with the same disregard and contempt afforded anyone.

"It is then, hopeless?" Elena asked.

"Not entirely. The Russian consulate is required to replace a lost or stolen passport of citizens who have enough documentation to prove who they are. A police report is required. I believe that is about it." He laced his fingers behind his head, leaned back in his chair and appeared to be startled by a precariously hanging chunk of the ceiling. "You have money?"

"Yeah, sure. I have dollars. Some. Is that OK?"

"Dollars, euros, roubles, doesn't matter, it's all money. Just as long as you have enough of it."

"How much do you want?"

"Not me, them! The lizards at the consulate. Without money they won't do a thing." He saw Elena's jaw drop. "And, don't worry, they are not into kidnapping. Too much hassle." He stood, looked down at us across his desk, wished us good luck and asked us to let him know how it went.

Pack of wild dogs in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-2] Stray dogs in Odessa, Ukraine.

☸ ☸ ☸

We couldn't see the actual consulate over the razor-wired, concrete wall and sentry huts. Its welded, armour-plated, pedestrian gate was closed. No surprise there. A Ukrainian officer in the closest sentry hut told us to request admittance from an embedded intercom near the gate.

Historic buildings destroyed for god photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-3] The old and the new in Odessa, Ukraine.

Elena pushed the call button and waited... and waited. She pushed it again. Nothing. She told the sentry, "It must be broken."

I suggested lobbing a brick with a note, over the wall.

The officer joined Elena at the intercom panel. "Staff do not always answer. Only when they feel like it or think it might be worth their while." He positioned himself and Elena in the closed-circuit camera's field of view. "Now, press the button."

That worked! A majorly pissed off voice seared from the speaker. "Da! What do you want?"

Elena asked to come in.

"Nyet! You can not come in. What business do you have with the consulate?"

Elena leaned in toward the panel. "My passport was lost. I need a replacement."

"Go away! We do not do that here." Click!

The Ukrainian officer shrugged his shoulders. "They refuse to see mostly everyone who is asking to enter. Some people have come a long way. There is a long queue of people every morning. Some days, they allow nobody inside."

Fairly typical, downtown Odessa housing photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-4] Residential housing in downtown Odessa.

"This is bollocks!" I wiped a tear from Elena's cheek. "Remember what the lawyer said, 'Don't take no for an answer.' It's their job to deal with you and your passport. Try again and tell them you've seen a lawyer."

Elena poked the call button.

Finally, "What!?" Erupted from the wall speaker.

"My passport was lost--"

"Oye, it is you! Go away. We don't deal with passports here."

"Da-a-a, you do." Elena's voice took on an ominous, pre-crumble tremolo. "Our lawyer said this consulate must replace it."

"So, lawyers run the consulate!?" Click, silence Then, "Show your passport to the guard." Something in the armoured gate's innards went clank. The iron slab moved a fraction of an inch from its jamb.

The sentry was astonished. He didn't care about passports, but he took our mobile phones, cameras, and asked if we were packing heat. At the gate, he wished us luck and promised to call our lawyer if we never came out.

We entered the first circle of hell: a grey, stuffy room packed with grey, downtrodden souls, slumped on grey, plank benches. We stood for fifteen minutes, eyeing an empty desk before finally dropping our bahookies on it.

Crumbling building in downtown Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-5] Elena believes that this photo, she took was of a functioning dom-durakov (crazy-house, mental hospital).

Nobody came or went. Come to think of it, nobody moved at all. "Hey, Len! The joke's on us." I waved a hand at the motionless figures around the room. "And on them."

"It is not a joke. This is Russia." Elena pulled my hand from the air. "Do not bring to us attention."

Too late. We attract attention like lightning to a nine-iron. A door crashed open, smashing into the wall, hard enough to shatter the plaster and bust off the knob. An enraged woman screeched at us to get the hell away from her desk. Elena jumped, upsetting her chair. Nobody else reacted to the commotion. Maybe they were used to it, or dead.

"Please forgive us. There is nowhere else to sit and we had no way of knowing." Elena righted the chair.

"Ah hah!" Barked the woman. "You should have thought of that before demanding to be let in. You stand!" She slammed the door.

I spotted a closed circuit camera. Elbowed Elena. "Look, we're on candid camera!"

CRASH! Again, the grey door exploded open. "Silence! No talking!" The woman pointed a sausage-like finger at us and, SLAM! She was gone.

Another fifteen minutes went by. My feet were killing me. Especially the ankle I'd pranged before flinging myself into this crazy odyssey. Time to up the ante in whatever poxy game that woman was playing. I felt for the wad of US twenties I carried for bribes. Held one up to the camera.

Nothing, except Elena's nostrils flared alarmingly and her cheeks went crimson.

I peeled off another twenty and held two of them up to the camera. Still nothing. When I had five twenties spread out like a poker hand, we got some action. The woman came demurely through what was left of the door, sat at her desk and oozed servility. "Now then, pardon the delay. May I see your passport?"

"I don't have one. That is why we--" Elena started.

"Not yours!" The woman jabbed a finger in my direction. "Hers!"

Dirty laundry hanging out in ancient Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-6] Home is where the laundry hangs.

I folded a hundred bucks into my passport. She deftly slid the twenties from between the pages. Transaction complete, she waved me away.

"As I was saying--" Elena tried again. "My passport went missing in Kyiv, and--"

"Kyiv!?" A wicked smirk crossed the woman's face. She stood. "If you lost your passport in Kyiv, you must go to the Russian Embassy there. In Kyiv! Not here, in Odesa."

I dug for another twenty.

The woman sat back down and snatched a form from a drawer. "Fill this out and get it signed by the police where you lost your passport. Kyiv, was it? Bring it back, and then, if all is in order, you will wait three months for a temporary travel document."

"I have the police report." Elena placed it on the desk.

"Unacceptable!" The woman gave the report the kind of look one might for a dog turd on a dinner plate. "This is in Ukrainian! Stupid girl. Go to Kyiv. Get a new one. In Russian!"

"Meg, three months, we do not have." Elena said in English.

"No tourist has more than three months. That's part of this game." I slapped a twenty on the desk. Then, in my sketchy Russian, "What if we were big pine cones?" I slapped down another one. "What if we were rich?" I kept the bills coming. "Do the big shishkas, the criminals wait three months for you to do your job?" Slap, slap, slap. The bench zombies reanimated during my tantrum. Shocked faces were all on the woman at a desk littered with cash. She sprang for the door, noticing, too late, it was missing it's knob. In a flash, she whirled around and ran straight out the main entrance. I'm pretty sure that without the audience, she would have hoovered up those banknotes, lickety-split.

Dwellings in old Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-7] Elena discovered this architectural treasure trove in downtown Odessa.

I scooped up what was left of our bribery fund. "That was fun. Let's say we hit the mall for Tater Tots?"

Luckily, the door we'd come in through still had a knob. Before we got to it, however, another grey door opened into the waiting area. A sumptuously appointed office spread out behind an imposing and impeccably well-dressed man. "Get in here. Now!" He bellowed.

Ah-ha, that's how one gets a meeting with a Russian official. "Take note, waiting-room zombies. Take note!" I psychically implored my fellow first-circle denizens.

The consul's walls were covered with icons and paintings. A well-appointed bar paid homage to his refined taste for single malt scotch and Cuban cigars. Easing into the throne-like chair behind his desk, he folded his large manicured hands on the blotter and demanded, "What is the meaning of this disturbance in the waiting lounge?"

"I lost my passport and--"

He cut Elena off. "You do not come in here and wave money around! Nothing gets done around here with cash. There are cameras everywhere. I deal with all sorts of people, important people and they show some decorum. They know how business is done and they do not do it here." He deflated with a long sigh.

Elena attempted an apology.

Again, he cut her off. "By when do you need this passport?"

"We have to leave Ukraine in a few weeks," Elena said.

"Such a short time is a problem. A big problem. But problems, they can be solved." He scrawled on a pad and slid it toward me.

"Holy kapoosta! He wants twenty thousand bucks!" I blurted in English -- except for the kapoosta part, which means, cabbage, in Ukrainian. "I can't come up with that kind of money! Lenna. We. Are. Fucked!"

The official went nuclear. He slammed both fists into his desk. "Out! Get out! English will not be spoken in the Russian consulate. You insult me. You insult my hard-working staff. You insult Russia! Get out of my sight before I beat you both to your deaths!"

Green clock on burnt umber exterior wall of a dom durakoff in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 16-8] For Elena and Meg, time was running out.

[[ updated Apr 23, 23:22 GMT ]]