The Trip to France
Back in 1990, when the great empire of USSR was approaching its demise, my nuclear physicist father got an invitation to fill a visitor scientist position at Université Paris-Sud, in the suburbs of Paris. He quickly accepted, and left for Paris in August of 1990. I was 13, and my sister was 12. It would take us awhile to join him: the Soviet "OVIR" bureaucracy was a torture, only comparable to the American INS (or whatever that horrible office's current name is) in its Kafkaesque proceduralism. But, finally, six moths later we got the permission from the Soviet authorities to travel to France. So on a cold January day we packed our bags, bought one way Yerevan-Moscow tickets, and caught a flight to the Soviet capital, where we were to get our French visas.
In Moscow we stayed with some distant relatives: they shared their 1 bedroom apartment with my mother, my sister and I. Now days this sounds crazy -- 6 people crammed in a ~700sq. ft apartment for 2 weeks -- but back then it was nothing out of ordinary. Armenians have a rather demanding code of hospitality, and overall are always very eager to have guests. While waiting for our visa, my mother, who knew Moscow pretty well from her youth days, tried to take us to as many interesting places as possible. The memories that I have of that stay in Moscow were that of an extremely cold and windy city, total lack of mountains (which, coming from Armenia, was a borderline shocking sight), very interesting museums, the hustle and bustle of Arbat, and crowds of otherwise introverted, anonymous people.
Finally, my mother was invited for an interview at the French consulate. A French bureaucrat at the consulate told my mother, in a broken Russian, that our travel to France was conditional on our father being physically present there (in France), and that their documents indicate that he was not in France. :0 !!! The conversation that followed went along these lines:
Mom: What?! Madame, did I hear you right?! I called my husband yesterday at his Parisian number, he IS in Paris!
Bureaucrat: No, Madame, c'est pas possible. In order to travel to France, your husband was required to undergo urine tests. We do not have the results of his urine tests. Which means that we would have NEVER have stamped a visa into his passport. Which means that he could have not entered the French Republic.
Mom: ??? !!! ??? !!! What do you mean?? I showed you a color photocopy of his passport, with French Visa boldly stating "La République Française" on it! I have documents showing that you granted him the visa and that he did in fact travel there!! There are crowds of French people at his workplace that will confirm in French that he is physically present in la République!
Bureaucrat: Madame, impossible. No urine tests, no visa. Which means that we cannot grant you your visa either. Sorry madame, your visa application is denied. Next person in line!
That evening my mother would give us a short summary of Kafka's "Trial". It's hard do describe our state of mind after the above exchange. Here we are, after 6 months of battling the Soviet bureaucracy, stuck in Moscow, being denied a French visa simply because our dad didn't piss in a cup before sneaking into the glorious République Française!! Talk about the theater of absurd! And we spent all these years badmouthing the Soviet bureaucratic system*, huh....
We called my father. After hearing what happened, he stormed the office of Mdme Aline Grouille, the secretary who was responsible for our paperwork, and threw a massive Armenian fit. My family is stuck in Moscow! Your consul is a moron! Մի բան արա, ջանիդ մատաղ, do something!! Aline, in her turn, called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and threw a fit of her own. Les enfants du Monsieur Danagoulian ne mangent pas six jours, please do something!! That worked**. We got a call from the consulate few days later, and the same @#$%@ who denied us the visa stamped it into my mother's passport with no questions asked (talk about being a surrender monkey). Yiiihaaa! La France, here we come!!
(to be continued)
*it would take me three stays in three other countries -- France, US and Italy -- to realize that most gov.'t bureaucrats are what they are no matter where you go: just a bunch of dimwitted failures with a never ending power trip. Sure, there are lots of truly hardworking and conscientious people among them, like Aline Grouille, however the majority are not worth the gunpowder of the bullet.
**After this ordeal, when it all worked out, my father went to Aline with flowers and presents, to thank her for her fantastic work. She told him that she was so worried and so stressed, that at some point she was unable to sleep at night: her worried husband would walk around their bed at 2am in the morning, going "But who is this Monsieur Danagoulian who is keeping you from sleeping at nights?!?!"