The Road Home, Part I: Credentials

Melbourne, April 2018—A visa hunter now. The Chinese one is, against told experience, the easiest to obtain. I do the minimum at their satellite processing office in Melbourne. Two trips and the visa is mine. The female officer gifts me a multiple-entry. No asking required, no extra fee.

At a social function one evening on the south side, I meet an American embassy worker. Melbourne is her first placement, which is both luck and misfortune as it makes certain her next placement will be a rougher one. Afghanistan? I ask. “Not out of the question.”

It’s embarrassing being a United States citizen abroad these days, it’s worse to represent it. With a small budget, embassy holiday party invites go out with an RSVP and request to bring a $40 contribution. Australian employees who work as the office’s permanent staff have minimum wage protection, and they won’t let their American co-workers buy drinks for them. Poor Yanks will be turning lint out of their pockets if they did. The embassy hosts an important economic delegation from Asia, except there’s no entertaining budget. My new friend goes hat in hand to a local Victorian Parliamentarian and asks him to foot the bill. He does. This is American power that goes soft in the world, not your hands. #MAGA.

The Russian visa presents me with the proverbial chicken and egg problem: buy tickets before visa and risk rejection and financial loss, or buy tickets, which must be shown on the visa application. Die roll: I buy the tickets.

I haven’t slept well in weeks. The average is two, three hours a night. A cough has lingered since February, and only until a friend threatens me with physical harm do I see a doctor.

The doctor has an Australian accent yet tells me he’s American. I say bullshit. He says you don’t want to get me started. I say, Oh, but I do.

He is born in the United States to Australian parents who’ve been working there for two years. They depart a year after his birth. America’s birthplace citizenship test means he is American, domicile be damned. He sets foot back in the country but once more, for a two week trip at 21. For all other purposes, he is Australian, except the United States claims him: body, soul, and, most importantly, bank account. “It’s economic imperialism. They force Australian banks to turn over account information on all Americans. If they don’t, America threatens them.” To free his income from IRS reach, his only recourse is to renounce his citizenship. “The embassy requires that you give a reason, something existential, it can’t be financially motivated. Then they force you into a ‘cooling off’ period, to think about what you’ve requested. I go into my exit interview, the interviewer is sitting behind bulletproof glass with two American flags on either side of her, and the United States seal above her head. ‘Tell me,’ she says, ‘I’ve had five interviews already this morning with people begging to be let into America, and yet here you are wanting to renounce your citizenship. What possible reason could you have?”

I recount this story to my American consulate friend. “Ha ha,” she says, “It’s true, we do do that!”

I submit myself to chest x-rays. The technician who makes them says I waited three months too long. X-rays return normal, just some lung spots. This news, which I am forced to learn in a two-minute consult that costs $80, is news I could have guessed. The day after the appointment, my cough subsided. The cure was attention and money. Sickness, you are a mistress.

Russia’s visa is proving worrisome. I wonder whether macro problems will affect micro travel plans. That government has a propensity for poisoning and being expelled from places. Australia expels certain of the Russian consulate staff in Melbourne. The consul general pleas in The Age that one of the targeted employees was her chauffeur. Russia’s London consulate, I see, has doubled their visa processing time. I calculate that even if I get in my application today for standard processing, I wouldn’t receive a visa in time for my departure. Also, it needs to go to Sydney. I call the consulate in Melbourne with a question. A woman answers, “I am busy now, call back on Monday.” She hangs up.

I compile my application. Pictures are required, 35mm by 45 mm, my face cannot be wider than 22mm. The exhaustion these pictures capture is palpable. I worry about rejection through these shots alone: Russia doesn’t need addict look-a-likes. Also, my airline is going to charge me a fortune to get those bags onboard.

The application is sent. I accept reality and pay an expedite fee, thus doubling the visa cost. A week later I discover that visa-free travel is allowed due to the World Cup, all that is needed is proof of ticket purchase. I could have saved hundreds, just bought a seat for some Egypt-Uruguay group play match. Some lessons we can never utilize. I curse these visa systems. The bureaucracy, expense, uncertainty. A Ukrainian tells me her American visa experience. I shut up.

Five days before I’m to leave Australia, my Russian visa arrives. I tremble opening the envelope, pray for no mistakes. None. Relief. My sleep pattern straightens out. I double-check my route to be certain I haven’t overlooked a visa requirement: China-Obtained; Mongolia-American, N/A; Russia-Obtained; Ukraine-Schengen; Hungary-Schengen; Austria-Schengen; Italy-Schengen; Switzerland-Schengen; Germany-Schengen. There’s little I can do except go.

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