The Long, Long, Long road to Varna

Контент 16+ My wife Liuba is from Omsk, and many hard, frozen, poverty-stricken years there did nothing to damage her health.But all it took was four winters amid the belching smokestacks and poisoned atmosphere of Moscow for her to contract a chronic bronchial infection. During her last two years in the megapolis, often amid endless bleak rains that more and more prevail there because of climate change, our apartment was starting to sound more like a tuberculosis ward than a homey domicile. As Liuba hacked and spluttered, coughing up some kind of grimy black substance, I knew I had to do something.

But what to do? I was a foreigner with less years still in front of me than behind, and I didn't have any idea about how to get an ипотека (which in the US or UK would be called a mortgage). I am sure we could have found a way by putting everything in my wife's name, but, or so I reasoned, who in the hell wants a 20 or 30 year commitment to either a tiny shit-hole in the center (vastly over-priced) or a bigger shit-hole in the regions, far from the center were my work was? A charming situation it would be if I died and left years of obligation to my wife. I am old-school enough not to engage in a courtship with terminal debt. No thank you.

So a bulb of light came on in my head and I decided that we should buy property in Bulgaria. A multitude of Russians were doing this, and I had spent time there before. Liuba and I qualified for permanent residence in Bulgaria because we were both technically pensioners. It's a long story, so just trust me. At the time Russia was riding the Gazprom pony and all was well. Of course, there was no Plan B and the party has long since ended, but just a few years ago the ruble amounted to more than monopoly play money. 1,000,000 rubles was 33,000 dollars. Now it is less than half that.
Besides, Liuba hated our rented Krushevka which to her mind was run-down and ugly. To me, it sparkled of old-world Russia, but I guess I am just a hopeless romantic. We flew to Bulgaria. My experience had been in the ancient city of Plovdiv, and I highly recommend it if you go traveling in Bulgaria. But it is in a valley, and living there would have been counter-productive to Liuba's health. Therefore, I looked on the map and chose -- sight unseen-- the seaport of Varna.

Turned out to be a great choice.We found a nice Bulgarian real estate man in Moscow, and he arranged for a colleague to meet us and show us around. After two days of intensive inspection, Liuba chose a small but beautiful apartment in a modern complex standing two-thirds of the way up a steep slope and overlooking the sea at a distance. The apartment had a huge balcony, and from this balcony, the view of the Black Sea on the one side and the City-scape on the other was spectacular, especially at night. The Black Sea sold us the apartment. The path beside the building led down to a vast open space where cars, trucks, and many taxis hurtled back and forth, and --if instead you headed uphill from the apartment complex -- to a series of winding, intimate, mostly unpaved alleys among which were many houses of all descriptions, a constant symphony of barking dogs, and the bright cries of roosters to greet the morning. I knew our dogs would be OK up there.

Back in Moscow, we then had to decide whether to sell the car or not, with the option of buying a new one in Bulgaria. No way, said Liuba. She loved the car I had bought her. Nor was I willing to risk putting our precious dogs on an airplane, stowing them in the baggage area. Huh-uh, no, no, no.. I had read about disasters with animals on account of freezing, bad air supply, etc. Moreover, I had good reason to believe that airport staff did not really concern themselves overmuch with the welfare of animals. and that if something bad DID happen, there would be nothing I do. So Fuck them and fuck that. We decided to drive the car from Moscow to Varna. The plan was that I would then return to Moscow and work to earn the Big Rubles (haha).
Of course (the real point of this blog) we had to deal with the matter of visas. By this time, the situation in Ukraine was at its worst, and so it required very little deliberation to decide to go via Belarus and Poland. An American guy, a Russian woman, two dogs, and a car with a Russian license plate did not seem like the best combination in Ukraine.

The trip would be longer but not as potentially deadly. I was at work all the time in the run-up to our journey, so Liuba got her Bulgarian visa (giving her the right to live there) and she did all the work in obtaining for me a one-day, one-way transit visa through Belarus. Alas, neither of us (nor did any of our friends) think about the fact that we would need a Schengen visa to enter Poland from Belarus. Liuba thought, if she thought about it at all, that the visa for Bulgaria would be enough. Ho-ho-ho, how could any of us have imagined that life could be that simple? It happens that Bulgaria is European ZONE while Poland is the European UNION, whatever the son-of-a-bitching fuck difference THAT ought to make. But it was catastrophic in terms of almost ruining our trip.

I had carefully booked dog-friendly hotels at what appeared to be logical stopping points along our projected three-day journey. The first day, once we finally got out of Moscow, was exceptionally fine. The road to and through Belarus is Excellent, and we came steaming into the clean city of Brest at a very sociable evening hour and soon found our hotel where all of us, Poppy and Cass included, were welcomed with open arms. And aside from the eyebrow-raising fact that one glass of beer cost about 100,000 Belarus rubles, everything was splendid. Meanwhile, I had heard many tales about how long we would have to wait at the border -- or rather two borders: one getting us out of Belarus, and the other, about 200 meters beyond, the checkpoint for admittance into Poland. So we rose early, drove to the border, hoped for the best and expected (so we naively thought) the worst. I say this because we had NO IDEA what THE WORST could actually turn out to be. All we knew was that it would probably take about three hours to get through each checkpoint.

The dogs were behaving marvelously, the weather, as I recall, was good, and by about 15.00, we pulled up to the last window before embarking on into Europe. Poland stretched out before us, visible and waiting like a young woman waving a welcoming banner at a train station as you exit the train. Confidently, we handed our passports to the last man between us and the rest of our new lives.
"Where is your Schengen visa?" he politely asked my wife?
"I have a visa for Bulgaria," she replied.
"But that is not sufficient to get you into Poland."
Silence. Like a Siberian wasteland when the wind has died.
"What can we do?" we both asked.
"Your husband can go in Poland and wait for you. But you must return to Brest and get a Schengen visa."
We were stupefied. Speechless. I can imagine it feels like this just before you are hanged or beheaded. Can this be happening, you wonder, gaping at the hooded executioner?
Yep, it fucking-well was.

Mechanically we turned around and went back to get in line for another three-hour wait for the inspection to allow us to return to Belarus, back to Brest. Somehow, despite my "one-way" visa, we were allowed back in because, well, after all, this visa did not expire until midnight. But expire it would indeed, I was properly informed. Maybe I should just go on to Poland and wait? -- I was urged.
And leave my wife and dogs to fend for themselves? And do what in Poland for two days? Wait by the side of the road? No, thank you. And, you know, sometimes it helps to be of a rebellious nature. Because at that stage I didn't care two monkey's fucks what the Belarus authorities might think. My place was with Liuba, Cass, and Pop. And in my mind, we had done nothing wrong except commit the cardinal sin of an oversight which it should have been possible -- in a sane world -- to rectify at the border (as I had once needed to buy an impromptu visa at the Istanbul airport just to enter Turkey.) But of course, a permit to drive a few hours through Poland was NOT possible. Liuba would have to go back and get a Schengen Visa.

Back to Brest, we headed as darkness began to fall. Shell-shocked.
All because of a simple error (OKOKOK, culpa noi !) regarding the visa. The god-forsaken visa.
We drove the streets, not knowing what embassy would be the best one to head for. But it wouldn't matter today. Those bastards at the embassies always make sure to lock their doors good and early.
Yet life is not all bad. Sometimes there are angels. Never forget that. Sometimes an angel will appear. Tomorrow or the next day, I will tell you about a man named Sergei.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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