It was like Kafka.
“World According to Russia,” she said to me over the phone. “Hello!”
I was slightly taken back that someone in a Russian office would pick up after the first ring.
“Yes, hello,” she repeated. “World According to Russia. How can I help you?”
“Yes, um. Hello… I mean: Allo!” and that’s when I switched back to my native tongue, and I don’t know why. “Zdravstvui’te!”
I was respectful but immediately nervous. Whenever speaking to any Russian bureaucrat, I tend to lose a grasp on my otherwise unwavering — to some, obnoxious — self-esteem.
It makes no sense to English speakers, but there are several types of Russian.
“Well, it is like dialects?” an American would ask me.
No. I’d rather think of it as this: That the entire history of my dear tortured Motha’land had made a mark onto my native tongue of poetic beauty — by splitting it into as many personalities as there were regimes.
First, there is the pretty Russian, used mostly in literature: I’m pretty good at that one, and I dig the way it translates. Then, there is the Soviet street talk: A blend of Yiddish and something crass and always funny, it is the most expressive of them all.
Motha speaks in that one well, and normally our chats result in my dashing for the bathroom, at the end.
“Who needz fuckingg Pilates, eh — vhen ve laugh and laugh like zis?!” She would sometimes say that from behind my bathroom door, while I would clutch my bladder and beg her to “PLEASE! STOP!”
She is right though: My motha’s stand-up routine is the best form of ab workout I have ever known. But I do not speak her language: I only marvel at the way it turns its words from inside out, and it makes for such comedy, as a result.
The street talk of the contemporary Russians is something I’ve only briefly overheard on the lips of those hotheaded Muscovites, all clad in black leather jackets and American labels, whenever I catch them being interviewed by BBC. Most of the time though, they tend to switch to English anyway, which then comes out eloquently and with a very little accent. The tall female beauties speak in that tongue as well. They are, however, most often accompanied by older men of stoic nature who speak on their behalf. And when they speak to women, the men tend to address them slightly condescendingly, or like little girls.
The third personality of Russian — is the one I fear the most. It is the one adopted by the Russian Consulates, bilingual politicians or lawyers in West Hollywood. It’s not just legal lingo though. Again: It’s NOT a dialect!
This type of Russian is choppy, filled with acronyms and abbreviations that I have no skills for breaking down. Instead, I panic, ask them to slow down; then, reiterate their statements again and again. Considering that most bureaucrats are at a lack for time, such interactions don’t end well for me. The people who should have the answers leave me to my own devices, while they, nearly irate, roll their eyes at my degree of helplessness and walk out on me — or hang up.
The woman on the phone had switched to Russian, too. I have to give it to her: She sounded quite pleasant, so far. Not really perky, no; but pleasant nonetheless. I guess she never knew who could be calling her. It could be an American, and an American always expects a certain standard of customer service (the concept of which doesn’t even exist in my native tongue, no matter its personality).
“How can I help you, young woman?” she said to me, sounding almost aristocratic.
I relaxed a bit: “Um. Well. I wanted to know about traveling to Russia with an American passport.”
There was a pause. She didn’t budge.
“Would one need a visa?” I gave her a little more.
“But of course!”
Aha! The way she said it almost sounded irate. Was that a dumb question? Or did I expect her to be rude? I tried to sooth the situation.
“Um. Okay. Well. How would one… go about… THAT? Da?”
“You would have to bring documentation that proves you’re no longer a Russian citizen.”
“Um. Okay. But isn’t having an American passport enough of a proof?”
“Young woman,” her voice got slightly terser. “Do you know how many Russians live here with both passports?”
I didn’t know.
“Is that like dual citizenship?” I jumped: Look at me, being smart ‘n’ all! But I did have to switch to English to deliver that.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” the woman answered, also in English.
At any moment now, she would hang up on me, I thought. She owed me nothing. She was doing this for free.
“Um. Okay. What do I do to prove that I am an American and NOT a Russian citizen.”
“You would have to show us papers renouncing your Russian citizenship.”
“Renouncing?!” That sounded harsh. Nyet?!
But the answer was simply: “Da.”
“Um. Okay. How do I do that?”
“You have to bring your Russian passport…”
“Well. Yes, you see: I do not have one.”
“Then, you must apply!”
The woman proceeded to breakdown timelines and fees. I panicked and asked her to slow down. The gist was this: It would take half a grand to get the passport that I would then have to renounce. In terms of time, I was looking at pretty much a year.
“Um. What if I don’t renounce it?” I said. (If I can help it, I’d rather never renounce anything in life.)
“Then, you still pay and wait to get the passport.”
There was more silence. I wanted to reiterate, but the absurdity was pretty clear already. There would be paperwork and fees, then a long wait. And then, another stage of paperwork, and fees, and more long wait. But at least, it sounded Russian!
The silence lasted. The woman almost gave in:
“Unless you were born here…” She was giving me an inch… a centimeter.
“No,” I said. I wasn’t sure which language I was using at that point.
I think the woman sensed the shock, because she took some mercy on me:
“When did you come here, miss?”
“Um. Sixteen years ago.”
“WHAT YEAR?” and just like that, she was about to get irate, again.
“Nineteen… Oh, I dunno. 1997, I think?”
“Ah, yes. You’re one of those,” the woman said. “You have no choice.”