A crash course in Russian bureaucracy

The seven of us stepped off the airplane through customs and into Moscow’s pristine marble and glass airport. Fifteen minutes later I discovered that it was not as modern as it looked.

Little did I know that, while I stared longingly at a stopped luggage conveyer belt, my suitcase was leaving for a new flight. Soon I was struggling to read and fill out in triplicate forms written in Russian. I also had to explain why I couldn’t stay in the airport overnight while they tried to find my bag, which was making its very own trek 5,000 miles across Russia.

My suitcase and I both were beginning our separate three-day journeys. Unfortunately, mine was a little more complicated than my suitcase’s.

My adventure began at the bag check, when I discovered that my luggage had been replaced by an imposter. This imposter was of the same size and color – and even had the same yellow ribbon tied to its handle.

Exhausted from the nine hour, overnight flight, I made sure to reexamine the bag at least three more times, hoping I was mistaken and this was indeed my suitcase.

Sadly that was not the case.

The conveyer belt made a final resounding halt and my professor and I set off to attempt communication in a language neither of us knew, in a country we had only stepped into 30 minutes before.

As my eyes burned, and my focus went in and out, I tried my best to understand the meaning of the blond attendant’s sharp broken English through her heavy Russian accent. And when I began signing form after form, all I could do was pray that they had something to do with helping me find my bag.

She gave me one form back, waved in a direction behind me and said a sentence that included both the word “stamp” and “customs.” I was afraid that, if I asked for clarification, her pinched mouth would give up on me, throw my freshly-filled out papers away and turn to the next Russian speaker in line behind me.

I left her desk feeling as though I was involved in some sort of never-ending scavenger hunt. One not only in a foreign language, but also full of people looking very unhappy to see me.

When I walked through one of three doors marked customs, I was in luck. Not only did the man seem to know why I was handing him the paper the woman had given me, but spoke even less English, so my brain simply had to grasp hand signals and slow single words.

After filling out yet more forms in Russian, he sent me back to the first woman, and suddenly I had this terrible thought. What if this was one big joke they played on ‘stupid Americans’ who hadn’t bothered to learn their language before visiting? I guess they figure they’d wear me out going back and forth between offices until I gave up and just hopped on a flight straight back to the U.S.

Lucky for me my theory was squashed when I returned to her desk. She told me that they had found my suitcase back at JFK (which we later learned was incorrect) and that we were free to spend the night in Moscow and wait for it to arrive the following day. But when my professor tried to explain that we were part of a school group and had to connect to our next flight in about two hours, she simply stared at us.

All we could do was leave and hope the group’s Russian guide could help us sort it all out the next day.

But by then it looked as though I would never get my suitcase back.

Our guide, Natasha, a native Russian, made phone call after phone call to the airport’s lost and found. It wasn’t that no one knew where it was, it was that no one answered the phone.

I began living off of the remnants of my carry-on backpack and the rest of the group’s suitcases.

There was an upside to my travails: I got to know my traveling companions very quickly when I had to borrow from them everything from shampoo to shirts. I was very happy the next morning when Natasha knocked on my dorm room with news.

Apparently my suitcase had been picked up by someone else, and flown all the way to Vladivostok. For those, like me, who have never heard of this place, let alone know how to pronounce it, Vladivostok is still in Russia, but right on the border near Japan – about a nine hour flight away.

We discovered the location of my bag through sheer luck. One of the professors from St. Petersburg University was flying back to the United States and had the wonderful idea to inquire at the airport about my luggage.

The person who had taken my bag had sent it on a flight to St. Petersburg, which would arrive that night.

Although it was a flooded airport that greeted Natasha and I that evening, our three-hour trek there and back proved to be a success.

I had my suitcase and a thorough introduction to the Russian bureaucracy.