19 - Escaping Ukraine

Magpie in fountain, Odesa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-1] Raucous magpies play in the Londonskaya's courtyard.

Another day, another feverish prayer session before the almighty cashpoint: Withdraw my daily maximum limit. Wander the historic district with Elena. Pretend to be tourists. Fight back the panic and try not to stand on the pavement screaming my head off. Aye, just another regular day.

Hoarding cash while we could, felt like the right thing to do. There was just no telling when we'd be making another run for it, going into deep hiding, buying our way out of harms way -- or jail, or ending up severed from my bank account. By wiping out my savings and gnawing away at my house with a Home Equity line of credit, I was slaughtering our future safety for the present illusion of having options.

Electric trams and an ambulance in Odesa, Ukraine. Spring 2006 photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-2] Electric trams and an ambulance in Odesa, Ukraine. Spring 2006

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Elena's mobile rang. She answered. Walked away from me, mumbling: "Allo? ... When? ... Really! ... Where? ... How much?"

It had to be that eejit Alexi or some other crackpot-stupid-desperate connection we'd made. But all I could do was speculate. Prodding Elena for news usually got me the cold shoulder. That time, she volunteered in a subdued monotone: "Tanya got my passport from Mama."

Holy kapoosta! I would have been shouting news like that from the rooftops. Maybe, dancing on the ceiling. Anything but a monotone, one-liner. Elena is like that, though -- too many hopes dashed to let go of fear.

Electric locomotives at the Odesa train station. Ukraine, 2006 photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-3] Electric locomotives at the Odesa train station. Ukraine, 2006

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Tanya showed up with Elena's passport, and the two of them were as thick as thieves. Between them, I was about as out of place as an actor in Hollywood, and probably just as unappreciated. Getting the hint, I made a graceful exit to the hotel's business centre.

The passport changed everything, or so I thought. I called the Canadian consulate in Kyiv and got the same old story: "No job. No money. No ties to Russia. Thus, no tourist visa. No how. No way! Unacceptable risk of her staying."

"Of course, she will stay. We want to be a family." I said, cringing at how box-ticking trendy that sounded.

"Exactly! And that is unacceptable on a tourist visa."

"Wow. What do I do?"

Tanya and Elena at the Londonskaya hotel in Odesa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-4] Tanya and Elena at the Londonskaya hotel in Odesa, Ukraine.

"You go home, to Ca-na-da! Your friend goes to her home in Russia. She can apply for an appropriate visa through the Canadian consulate in Russia, not Ukraine."

It was like a hard kick to the gut. "That takes years!"

"It can. Look, your friend can only apply for a Canadian visitor visa from within her own country." She rattled off the usual list of required documents. All of them -- except the passport -- were held for ransom by Elena's parents.

"She can't go home. She has no home! Her parents beat the crap out of her, and hired thugs to get us. They threaten to lock her in a dom durakoff crazy house, and fry her brain with enough juice to light a good size town."

"I see." She took a very audible breath, "That is a matter for the local authorities. Not Canada!" And then, she hung up on me.

WW2 medals on building facade in Odesa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-5] Soviet medals, awarded to the city of Odesa are displayed larger than life on this passenger terminal.

Not even my superhuman powers of denial could deflect what was clawing its way up from the pit of my stomach -- fear. I was bloody terrified. Whoever said: "There's nothing to fear but fear itself," got it absolutely dead on.

Elena leaped, I caught her. Hell, I encouraged her. She'd told me a zillion times that she'd die before going back. That she was as good as dead anyway. That if she went back, they would never let her out again.

There was nowhere left to run but south to Turkiye. One of the rare countries that allow entry to both Canadians and Russians as tourists. If we got there, then what? In the very least, it would buy us precious time.

Tanya and Meg hamming it up on Odesa's waterfront photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-6] Tanya and Meg hamming it up on Odesa's waterfront.

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They say that what one leaves behind is evidence of one's existence. If that's the case, the leavings strewn about our room were a bloody monument to ours. Airline baggage restrictions were yet another brutal lesson in belongings triage.

I watched Elena kneeling on her suitcase, bouncing violently to get it closed. "I'm no climatologist, but I don't think you need that parka in Turkiye! Just leave it."

"Nyet, if they do not let me go and send me to Russia, I will need it. Think, why Mama so easily gave to Tanya my passport?" She had a point: a Trojan horse was easy, especially in Russia. Declare her daughter missing, or a fugitive, or insane, or a terrorist, or an alien doppelgänger. "Bladt, Mama wants to hurt me, to hurt us." Elena gave up, yanked the down-filled winter coat from her bag and put it on. It was, of course, the same coat she was wearing when I first saw her at Kyiv's Boryspil airport.

Tanya, with her minuscule carry-on bag, met us in the lobby. Elena flew back to our room and crammed what she could of our castaways into a duffel bag. Computer speakers, ridiculous high-heels, books, useless fashions, makeup. Tanya could keep it or toss it. It didn't matter to Elena, at least she wasn't forced to abandon it, like everything else.

The ferry, Southern Palmyra, departing Odesa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-7] The ferry, Southern Palmyra, departing Odesa.

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Tanya's flight to Moscow was first. Elena embraced her friend. They avoided eye contact when they pulled away from each other. Impulsively, Elena dug the last of her Russian Roubles from a pocket and shoved them into Tanya's hands. "For lunch. For the taxi. For everything. Until we meet again, have a soft flight, my friend."

When it was our turn, Elena passed the initial security screening with ease. My western passport, however, obligated me to a far more stringent search. Not only were my bags scanned multiple times, but I was asked to describe fuzzy smudges on the ancient x-ray monitors. While that charade was going on, someone in a reflective safety vest turned my socks and scanties inside out with his filthy hands. A couple of boxes of chocolates were of intense interest. "Drugs! You have drugs here. Show these to me." I pulled them out. "Ah, very nice. Kyiv-In-the-Evening chocolates. To be such a rich foreigner as to buy such confections, we can only dream here in Ukraine."

Of course, what was I thinking? "The chocolates are yours, with my pleasure!" A woman in makeup she must have applied with a trowel, retreated to a side office with both boxes. Yay, the inspection was done.

Passport control was next. A man, woman and two cranky kids waited behind a yellow line. An officer signalled to them with a half-wave. The man approached without his wife and children. Something about, family members travelling together presenting themselves together, squawked from a speaker embedded in the glazing. The woman herded her kids across the yellow line to join their father at the booth. A lot of head bobbing and rubber stamping ensued. Papers were shoved back and forth in a sliding metal tray, then the family was waved on.

The officer, a humourless man in a surrealistically large hat, tidied up his bulletproof booth. He leaned back in his chair, conferred with adjacent comrades. It was probably a special psyching-out tactic used on the next victim. Us.

Elena Vaytsel checks out a first-class train carriage photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-8] Elena checks out a first-class train carriage in Odesa.

Then, the blithe, half handed come! gesture was waved in our direction. We stepped up to the booth. "What is this? One at a time!"

"We are together." Elena said with an I-swallowed-my-electric-toothbrush tremolo.

"Nyet! One goes back to the queue." He slapped the metal tray to our side of the acrylic shield.

I scooped out my passport and fell back. If that yellow line was scary before, having it between us was hell-on-the-half-shell. I watched the enormous hat bobbing up and down. Catching up with the officer's head a split second after each glance at Elena and the monitor inside his booth. My mind was screaming, This is bad. It's taking too long. We're majorly fucked! Then the officer's amplified voice squawked from his embedded, shield speaker, "You! Come here."

Elena waited for me. "A problem, Meg. He wants to speak to--"

"Forbidden! No talking. The Russian goes. Now!" He jabbed a thumb toward the third gate: passenger security screening. Little did I know, the chocolate shakedown gang was just a preliminary baggage check.

I dutifully plopped my passport and various excrescent papers in the tray. They sat there on my side of the barrier. The metal tray didn't retract. The officer casually took his time. Tidied up. Spoke with colleagues. Raised his enormous hat, ran his hand through his hair. Took a phone call.

I must have gone invisible. "Eh-hem."

"Silence! You wait."

People were moving past the other booths. Those queuing behind me were getting ugly. Elena was nowhere in sight. I assumed she passed through without a problem.

"Meez Stawn-yeh, pleez." Came from somewhere outside the passport-control stockade ropes. I turned. The chocaholic from baggage screening was beckoning.

"You go with her." Rasped from the booth's speaker.

I reached for my passport. The metal tray with my papers snapped back into the booth. Crikey, I almost lost a finger. "Ooooh-kaaay, I see that you're going to keep my passport safe. I'll just pop back round in a bit to collect it." It was starting to feel an awful lot like the Russian consulate in Odesa. Just nowhere near as funny.

"Go! Now!"

Sitting at her desk and sighing like she had to broker a Mid-East peace deal, the woman offered me one of my chocolates.

"Thank you, no." The box was almost empty. I felt more like throwing up, than gobbling confections. "Is there another problem with my luggage?"

"Problem with girlfriend." The woman's English wasn't bad.

The big-hatted, passport-control officer came in without knocking. He dropped into a metal chair and helped himself to a chocolate. "The Russian girl, she can fly to Turkiye. I have stamped her passport." He went on in Ukrainian. Russian is hard enough, Ukrainian is beyond me. I couldn't catch a thing they were talking about.

"This Russian girl, she can go to Turkiye. This officer has not to stopped her. She should not travel to out of CIS." The woman spoke slowly, in English.

"Why?" I said, before realising the right response was how much?

Meg and Elena on the Potemkin Stairs in Odesa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-9] Alfresco dining on the Potemkin stairs.

An intense back-and-forth Ukrainian dialogue ensued. The woman broke it off, turned to me. "No time, if to Turkiye with Russian girlfriend you want to travel. There is problem with girlfriend passport." She looked at me intently. I waited for the bottom line. The woman sat back in her chair, exhausted by the translation effort. "This man, he has done, how to say--"

"A favour?" I offered.

"Da, yes! He has done to you a favour. You should thank to this officer for not to send girlfriend to Russia."

"Was her passport flagged?" Stupid question.

The woman leaned forward and said, "Plane to Istanbul, is leaving soon, yes?"

My mind raced. Obviously, the passport was flagged! When he scanned it, three cherries probably flashed on his monitor. The chocaholic was right, I was going to miss the damn plane. I plunged a hand into one of my pockets, pulled out a fistful of twenties and bolted for the door. The queue at passport control -- minus an officer -- was going to strand me in Odesa. I wondered if I would get my passport back. Oh, my dog! I hoped Elena would get on the plane without me. Get safely out of Ukraine, know that no matter what, I'd find her.

The chocaholic came from behind, grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the passport-control booths. Past the queues of petulant, nervous passengers. Right to His booth. He never made eye contact. How could he, given the size of his hat? "Where to?"

"Istanbul." I said, but was thinking, you arsehole!

"You came to Kyiv, but you leave through Odesa. Why is this? How did you get from Kyiv to Odesa? Show to me travel tickets." At that, he made eye contact. I could just make out the first hint of an evil gotcha grin.

Bloody bollocks, I didn't have time for another shakedown. I couldn't just hand over money at the booth with all those eyes and cameras on us. "No tickets. We travelled with friends in their private vehicle." Brilliant! I thought while saying it.

He picked up his stamp, then wielding it like a gavel, slammed it down on my papers and finally my passport.

A flight-side passenger transfer contraption at the Odesa airport. photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-10] A flight-side passenger transfer contraption at the Odesa airport.

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Business-class was all ours. It was eerie, considering the rest of the plane was chock-a-block full. We didn't know why Mama gave up the passport. Elena thought that since Tanya knew the true story, she could contradict Mama's lies about her daughter's disappearance. Maybe she didn't expect us to fly the coop before Tanya had time to report that she had failed to bring Elena back. Maybe passport-control smelled opportunity when a Westerner doling out chocolates and crisp twenties showed up with a pie-eyed Russian. Maybe the passport was flagged and I outbid the flagger.

Maybe we were running headlong into disaster. I was getting the shakes. Elena stared out her window at the terminal. I could hear her fighting a losing battle with tears. It was threatening to unleash an avalanche of emotion in me. No, I couldn't cry. This was no time to fall apart. Maybe later, in flight. If Elena slept -- maybe then.

I didn't know where we would end up in Turkiye or what we would even do once we got there. I sure as hell didn't know what would happen when our pocketfuls of twenties ran out. All that mattered at the time was that we were getting out and we were still together.

Warm seawater splashed on the back of my hand. OK, my tears didn't wait for take-off.

Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 in Odesa. photo elenameg.com

[Image 19-11] Meg photographed their 'ride' out of Ukraine, minutes before boarding and still not sure they would both be on the aircraft.

[[ updated Apr 23, 23:36 GMT ]]