I turn around. People are averting their eyes, I leave without a word of good-bye. There is nothing that can be done about it, I come out of the Embassy building aimlessly. Right outside of the Embassy there is St. Volodymyr’s cathedral. I walk in and buy a candle to light along with many others. I wonder how many candles here are being lit with a prayer as simple as “Lord, please grant me visa.” I feel it is almost a sacrilege to ask the Lord for visa. I wish I would light a candle and pray for peace in Palestine, or my grandmother’s health. But all I can think of is why did this happen to me, and all I feel is a pity and fear to have my whole personal passport record ruined by a rejection seal… So I raise my eyes and ask for visa.
* * *
The Priests of the Service Center
6 a.m. People start queuing by the Embassy. My train arrives to Kyiv only at 7:20, an over twelve hour train ride from Ivano-Frankivsk but luckily it is not a problem. We do not live in the Stone Age any more; we have phones. And we have “people” at the embassy who provide services. You can call them in advance, any day, any time, and they do all the paper work and ….the queuing. So I am not in a rush, I even have time for a coffee.
It’s after 8, when I arrive at the Embassy. There are only up to ten people yet, but I know that it is misleading, each of them is holding a line for at least 3-4 others. People are rushing at me immediately, offering their help in translation, notarizing documents, filling out the forms. However, when my agent greets me, they immediately loose interest. “You are number eight in the line. We still have an hour and a half before the opening” – my agent enlightens me. So we go to the agency to fill out my papers.
The comfortable air-conditioned office is right across the street from the Embassy. I can sit in comfy chairs while the agent checks if I have all the papers needed for the application. An application form – to file your application orderly. An officially notarized invitation letter – to make sure that the person on the inviting side wants to see you so badly as to go through the hassle and expenses of notarizing the one-page stupid form. A certificate from your job about your current position, how long you’ve been working there, your income, etc., all translated from Ukrainian and notarized, – as a proof of the stability of your social status. A document proving that you have sufficient money to finance the trip – paper from a bank would do here.
(Filling out the form costs 5 Eu, translation and notarizing of a one page document 7-9 Eu, insurance around 30 Eu, non-refundable visa application fee is 35 EU. My train ticket from and to Frankivsk costs 18 EU. At the university were I teach full time I get 100 Eu per month. I’m lucky to have some money saved from my previous stays abroad.)
For a small fee you can copy all the papers and leave your bag in a storage place right at the office. I leave my bags and go to the embassy, to be questioned and investigated as a potential criminal, for my own money. That takes a great motivation and a certain mental mode, which I try to tune into on my way across the street.
Missing the Pew
Outside the Embassy there are no comfy chairs, no place to sit at all, no shelter from either sun nor rain. Just a line of people in tricky poses trying to make themselves comfortable during the several hours of queuing. They say they cannot put benches for security reasons, to avoid people crowding. It does not take special observation skills to realize that they do have people crowding every working day. A few benches could actually make this crowding more orderly. However, it might delude the effect of humbleness that three to five hours of queuing produce on Embassy’s customers. By the time one walks into the building one feels entering a temple. I find my privileged 8th place among the people in the front. No one complains, we all know the rules: I have reserved a place to enter.
9:30 am: The doors of the embassy finally open.. The guards call three persons to come inside from each of the three queues; three people for business visa, three people who need to bring additional papers. Our line, i.e. ‘private’ visa, has the least priority. After the excitement of the opening, we prepare ourselves for some hours of waiting.
Standing in line for hours even the dead would start talking so I have a chat with some young internationalized intellectuals. We share stories about the places where we have studied, programs through which we went abroad. Eventually, we always start talking about our other successful trips, funny situations while crossing the borders, start joking about the Embassy officers, and foreigners. We laugh, and laughter makes us feel good, strong, and understood.
A Shrine to Bureaucracy
But when you step in the embassy, people keep their distance; everyone is by him or herself again. Only one person is standing in front of each window. This is necessary for the applicants’ privacy and, of course, security reasons. However, in such a small room there can be no privacy.
As I sit there with my eyes averted, I hear all the intimate details, which are supposed to convince the officer that a person on this side of the glass front needs a visa. You have to be persuasive; “Why do you need to see your friend? Can’t you arrange your business via e-mail? Who will pay for your trip? Which train are you taking? Why do you need to go to see Vienna with your husband? Why do you need to study German in Austria and not Germany? Can you prove that this is your friend? What relationship exists between you and the inviting side? How long your relationship lasts? Do you have pictures to prove that? How do we know you won’t stay in Austria illegally?”
And all I hear is people apologizing, explaining, trying to give justification for their curiosity, their interests, their friendship and love.
As I come up to the window I am aware of all the people behind my back listening to my explanations. I know they do not mock me, but most probably considering if their explanations and reasoning are more convincing than mine. At the same time I try to focus on the officer, maybe catch her glimpse, which is mercilessly focused on my papers alone. She asks her brisk questions without looking at me, hardly listening to my answers as if she has heard my story before. I try to tell her that my story is very special, that it is not like ‘the others’ who just want to get abroad. “Who are the others?” whispers my post-colonial education, but I mercilessly push it back, promising myself to deconstruct the concept later.
“We cannot process your application” – says the officer. “You need to provide this paper notarized.” In my mind I see my summer vacation plans collapsing into some 36 hours spent on the train, money wasted on the tickets, translations and notary, all for the need of a properly certified piece of paper. I try to plea… try to justify… have respect for my time…have respect for my limited vacation, make a phone-call to prove the information… have respect to my right to go where I want… have respect for my dignity! My life and existence does not need a notarized proof, the traces of my connection to this country have been proven through my work and my numerous returns back. Make an effort and check it!
“Lady, there is no point in scandalizing the situation here. Bring us the papers and we will consider your application again. For now it is a denial. Please pay the fees at the Reifeisen Bank at this address.”