Saturday, June 21, 2008

Moscow May Never Sleep, But Helsinki Never Wakes

or “One Night In Helsinki (Too Many)

Before I start this post, a preliminary apology to my Finnish friends (esp. Maria & Hanna), since Helsinki is actually a great place, despite what you’re about to read.

For the last few weeks I've been cooling my heels in Moscow, awaiting the processing of my new visa (all foreigners in Russia need to go overseas for a "visa run" every year).

Given the endless Soviet-era paperwork required and a couple of minor glitches (Job? What job?), our friendly neighbour, the Ukraine, refused to give me a visa. As a result, it was decided Helsinki would be the closest destination for me to pick up my visa.

As the appointed date of the end of my current visa approached, and no word of whether my invitation was actually in Helsinki, I grew increasingly agitated. Faced with a lack of alternatives, I flew to Helsinki on the last day of my old visa in the hope the Russian consulate would be ready the following morning.

On arrival, I was duly informed that it was a huge public holiday in Finland, and that the consulate could not possibly be open, despite what the website might say. Unable to confirm either way, I grew more concerned and began forced contemplation of a trip to the Finnish lake region.

My previous visits to Helsinki had revealed it to be a pleasant, pretty place, with some lovely sights and great history, but as Maria and I left our 11th establishment in a fruitless search for food, it was not proving to be a haven for gastronomy or wild nightlife. After a Finnish Tex-Mex meal while being tortured by the wails of a garage band of accountants-turned-rock stars (pictured), one of whom looked suspiciously like the stapler guy from Office Space, we escaped and tore through the deserted streets, avoiding rolling tumbleweeds, ending up in a bar drowning our sorrows until nightmares of the Russian consulate drove us home.

The following morning dawned grey and sullen, the leaden clouds threating death & destruction upon all (OK, maybe I’m being a little melodramatic, but given my mood, Maria’s apartment not having curtains, and the fact that it doesn’t get dark here, that’s how I saw it). I dragged myself off the coach and began my pilgrimage to the embassy.

For me to successfully avoid extended time in Finland, three unlikely and dependent outcomes all had to occur, the probability of which (as I strained to recall my high school math permutation theories) was pretty damn small:
1) The consulate had to be open on the quietest holiday of the Finnish year;
2) They had to have actually received my invitation, proof of the existence of which I had not received, along with the required confirmation number;
3) They had to be persuaded to instantaneously turn around my visa, almost unheard of at any diplomatic institution, let alone a post-Soviet one.

Things were not looking good.

The Russian embassy in Helsinki is a grandiose and imposing building, the hammer and sickle still carved on the facade, which did nothing to ease my apprehensions. By 8.15 a line had already formed out front, which at least indicated that the consulate would be open today.

Sure enough, at 9am the gates unlocked, and a swarm of Russians and their human shields, um, I mean children, descended from the trees and from behind the parked cars where they must have been hiding, ignored the line and stormed the gates, waving their children like screaming, multicoloured prayer offerings. I ticked off the first necessary event.

Once inside the woman behind the counter easily found my invitation and even agreed that it would not be reasonable to accurately list each visit I had made to Russia (a major feat in overcoming Russian beauracracy). I settled on the magic number of 42, and ticked off the second necessary event.

She asked me for my press accreditation (which awaited me in Moscow), listened skeptically to my story of banker-turned-literary luminary, and I took her through a tasteful collection of my photography on my iPhone. Upon hearing that I was supposed to collect the visa and return to Russia that day, she looked dubious and said she would have to speak to “the Diplomat”.

After more waiting on tenterhooks, I was informed that as I was not Finnish, I would have to wait two weeks for my visa, and there was nothing more that could be done. Faced with the dreaded prospect of another two weeks of tumbleweeds, Tex-Mex, and that truly awful band, I pleaded with her in my best Russian as to whether there was any additional paperwork or “expediting fees” that might assist. She informed me that being Russia, a call from the right person was probably the only solution, but since the consulate closed in 20 minutes, it wasn’t likely.

Having already called my visa sponsor, I begged him to hurry, and awaited the result.

Sure enough, shortly thereafter there was a flurry of activity, and 20 minutes later I burst into the drizzling Nordic summer, visa in hand, elated at the prospect of a rapid return home. 6 hours later, back in Moscow, it was hard to believe the whole process had taken only 24 hours.

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