Thursday, September 08, 2016

Russia Thinks I'm FBI

So, funny story...

Once we got off the cruise ship in St. Petersburg, Russia, we had to go through border control and have our passports approved and stamped for accepted temporary entry into the country, in lieu of having to purchase a visitor's visa.  The rule is that Russia will waive the visa as long as the visitor is escorted throughout the city by a Russian tour guide.  This would somehow seem shadier if we were in Moscow, but it ended up feeling just oddly curious given that we were in St. Petersburg, arguably the most Western-influenced city in that entire country.

It's always a little nerve-wracking to go through customs or border control, even when you are a law-abiding citizen.  You are essentially at the mercy of non-Americans in a non-American country who espouse non-American beliefs yet still possess the very American ideals of suspicion and conspiracy theories.

So we, Kevin, his parents and me, are standing in the border patrol line with out passports and proof of tour in-hand.  Kevin goes through first so he can connect with our Russian tour guide on the other side.  Then Kevin's dad went through, followed by his mom.  Each time, the border patrol officer would take the passport, look at it, look at the person, look at the passport, do something out of view like look at a computer or scan the photo or play Soduko, then eventually stamp the passport and approve the entry.  Each person took about 20 seconds or so. Then it was my turn.

Because I somehow invite weirdness into my life by some unseen flashing bulb on top of my head, I should have known this would be weird.  I approached the thick glass window and passed my documents through to the officer.  He looked at me, then at my passport, then at me, then down again.  After about 15 seconds, he leaned in and said (in his thick Russian accent) "I need to see your military ID."  I'm sure my usual, uncontrollable look of WTF flashed across my face.  "I don't have a military ID" was my response.  "No?" he said?  "No" I replied.  He looked down again and after a few seconds looked back up at me.

"Are you a cop?" he asked.  "No, I'm not a cop."  He looked down again, then gave me a sly look.  "Teacher?"  "No, I'm not a teacher."  His expression never changed; he remained emotionless.  There was no clue that he was just having fun with me or if he was dead serious.  But I erred on the side of believing he was dead serious.  Because at this point, he got up out of his chair, opened his door and yelled for someone to come assist him (which I can only assume is what happened since it was yelled in Russian and someone showed up about 30 seconds later).  It was also at this point that I turned to look at my family who were standing about 30 feet away, basically in another country, looking at me inquisitively.  "They think I'm a cop" was all I could mouth to them.

And I got the sudden rush of thinking, "holy shit they are going to escort me to a small white room with fluorescent lighting and make me admit that I really AM a cop... or a soldier... or an English teacher (?).

Office Number 2 arrived and the two officers began conversing in Russian.  Admittedly, I am still a little unnerved.  Again, I'm in a foreign country at the mercy of border patrol.  If they decide I'm not telling them the truth, they can just take me away.  No questions asked.  And no one could do anything about it.  So I tried to stay calm without looking like I was actually hiding something.  After a minute or so, Officer Number 2, a young blonde guy, came out of the office and in a more friendly tone asked me if I worked for the police.  I told him I didn't.

"What is your job?" he asked, also in a thick Russian accent.

When I responded that I work in non-profit, I was met with blank stares.  So I altered it to say I worked in a charity.  I quickly assumed that telling them I work in Human Resources would be a completely baffling statement so I hoped the word "charity" would translate easier.

The two officers talked again.  I wish I knew what they were saying but Officer Number 1 seemed to be incredulous.  After more talking, Officer Number 2 simply asked me, "Do you work for the FBI?"  At this point, I couldn't contain myself and I simply laughed out loud.  Office Number 2 laughed as well.  Officer Number 1, notsomuch.  "No, I don't work for the FBI."  I REALLY wanted to ask them why they were asking me or what is it about me that makes them think I am with some form of law enforcement (or perhaps teach law enforcement?).  But I assessed that this was neither the place nor time to try to make friends, so I basically prayed that they believed me and hoped for the best.

After a little more discussion, I assume Officer Number 2 approved me and Officer Number 1 reluctantly stamped my passport and allowed me to enter Russia.  I met my family and gave them the details.  I guess I can feel comforted by the fact that I look like I can take care of myself.  And that I am, apparently, the Russian ideal for what looks like law enforcement in that country.  If things start to go south for me job-wise again, I could probably get a gig in St. Petersburg.

Or - and I flatter myself here - perhaps I bore too much of a resemblance to Sean Connery in one of my favorite movies, "The Hunt for Red October", where he plays a Russian who defects to the United States and takes the USSR's prize submarine with him.  Who knows?

But if you are ever in St. Petersburg and you are stopped by a police officer, it's not me.  Or is it?