The passport desk is an interesting place. All that separates you from entering, or in this case leaving, a country is a thin yellow line and some glum looking individual sitting in a little glassed-in cubical. Regardless of where you are, they all look the same. Immigration officials are almost like royalty in that they all seem to come from the same family… and they probably interbreed. They don’t have good nor bad days. They just have days. When trying to draw a person in art class, it is perhaps easiest to draw the person behind the passport desk. Their lips almost always form a straight line, any visible curves that exist among the women or overweight are hidden behind colorless uniforms and their overall demeanor would be best described as stolid.
The line moves and now I have a choice. I can either go to the expressionless middle-aged blond woman at desk number two or the expressionless Russian looking man at desk number five. I don’t have any money for a bribe so I go to the woman at desk number two.
She eyes me warily, taking my passport and flipping through until she comes to what I deem as the “Ukraine” page, a page full of various entry and exit stamps into the former-soviet country. Her colleague at the next desk finishes with her victim and turns her attention towards my passport as well. A pen is taken out and notes are jotted down. Five minutes elapse and now a new woman is standing over the other two, supposedly supervising.
“Do you know what they are doing?” She asks me.
“Admiring my stamps?” I say jokingly.
Note to reader: Making a joke to an immigration officer is a big mistake because, A) They don’t have a sense of humor, and B) They’ll make it their job to ensure you leave their desk without one too.
“No,” she snaps, taking the pen in her right hand and striking it against her open left palm as if it was a baton she’s intending to beat me with. “They’re counting how many days you’ve been in Ukraine. The law says you can only be in the country for 90 days within six months.”
“No,” I say, the frustration rising in my voice now. “That’s not what the law says, otherwise I would have been turned in the last time I entered the country in October.”
Note to reader: Don’t question an immigration official’s understanding of the law. Even if you’re right, they’ll change it so you won’t be.
“You have broken the law of Ukraine!” She exclaims now, wielding the pen like a sword and pointing it at me from behind the glass. “You must pay a fine!”
“I’ve already paid a fine, the last time I left the country. I don’t intend on paying it again.”
“Where is your receipt?” She demands. The tiny cubicle is filled with at least a half-dozen immigration officials now, all of whom have turned from my passport and are regarding me suspiciously.
“The passport guy in Kharkiv didn’t give me a receipt. He said I wouldn’t need one.”
With this she turns and whispers some words into the ear of a very stern looking man with a buzz cut. He in turn talks into the radio he has in his hand.
“You always need a receipt!” She finally says. “Kharkiv didn’t do things in the correct way.”
Note to reader: If you pay this fine in Ukraine, your 90 days is supposed to automatically restart. Because my guy took his fee “unofficially” and didn’t give me a receipt, I had no evidence I had done so.
“I see,” I say, my tone a bit more level now. “Either way, that isn’t my fault and I don’t intend to pay any fine.”
“You have broken the law of Ukraine!” She repeats, clearly frustrated with me by this point. “You cannot be here more than 90 days in six months.”
“Show me where it says that.” I say defiantly. She turns back to the stern looking man, who again reports the exchange into the radio.
Note to reader: The law actually does state that American citizens can’t be in Ukraine for more than 90 days in 180. I had been previously informed that if you leave the country and re-enter, the 90 days begin again, but this deal only applies to Russians thanks to some centuries-old blood pact between the two nations.
“Do you plan to come back to Ukraine?” She asks.
“No,” I say. “I’m finished here now.”
More words are exchanged between the officials before she turns back to me once more.
“You must come with us. We will do everything the official way this time.”
I follow her back to a side room, but before reaching it the stern looking man whispers something to her and she turns once again to address me at the door.
“Would you like to pay the fine the official way or the unofficial way?”
I barely manage to suppress a laugh. After that entire lecture, these officials are now content to contradict themselves and let me bribe them, just as I had the official in Kharkiv.
“I’d prefer not to pay any fine, what are the consequences if I don’t?”
The two exchange words once again and then he leaves the two of us standing there.
“You will be banned from entering Ukraine for three years!” The way her voice rises as she says this necessitates brass accompaniment and without it, her words fall a bit flat, as does the punishment. Banned from entering Ukraine for three years? It’s a pity but, well, let’s just say I can think of worse.
I nod and take a seat across from hers inside the passport office.
“My flight leaves in 20 minutes.”
“Your flight has been delayed.” She tells me, her tone all of a sudden softening. “But even if it wasn’t, we’d let you go anyway. We don’t have the authority to keep you here.”
“That’s good to know. Perhaps I can go now then?”
“We need to take down a report first.” She withdraws a piece of paper from a folder and starts jotting information down. “What were you doing in Ukraine?”
“Ummm, tourism.” I say, well aware that my lack of a work visa means I can’t very well admit I’d been working the past year.
“For nearly a year? Expensive, isn’t it?”
“Ukraine is cheap.” I say, shrugging my shoulders. This seems to satisfy her and she turns back to filling in the form.
“Does this kind of thing happen a lot?” I ask.
“All the time. But everyone pays the fine.”
The fine, for the record, is 850 grivnas or about 85 euros. Not a whole lot, but when you’ve paid it twice already, as I have, you get tired of paying.
“You speak English well.” I say, failing to get a smile out of her.
“Yes, I studied foreign languages at my university. They often use me here to translate.”
I nod, noticing the two older women at the other desk observing our conversation curiously.
“Of course,” she quickly interjects, “that’s not my purpose for being here.”
“Of course not.”
“I’m a senior official in the Lviv immigration department.”
“I can see that.”
She nods once to convince herself before continuing to write.
“It’s a pleasure to speak to a native speaker though, I haven’t had that opportunity before.”
“Well,” I say, “anytime you’d like to pull me aside at an airport for speaking practice, be my guest.”
She didn’t like the joke (remember the first note) and her more serious tone returns.
“Okay, so you can take this in and pay the fine within the next two weeks. If you don’t pay within the next two weeks the fine will be doubled. If you don’t pay after the fine has been doubled it will be doubled again. If you don’t pay after the fine has been…” she hesitates.
“Quadrupled.” I offer.
“Right, if you don’t pay then, you’ll be banned for three years!” She observes me under arched eyebrows. “Will you pay?”
“I don’t know,” I lie. “I suppose I’ll have to weigh the pros and cons.”
“Now that you have been banned from our country then, how did you like Ukraine?”
Okay, she didn’t say that first part. But she might as well have. ‘Here you go, I’ve just gone and banned you from Ukraine, but while we’re at it, I’m putting together a lovely little travel guide on the country and would love your input!’
“Ukraine is nice. Lviv is by far my favorite place here though.”
Note to reader: What I mean by this is, “you can have your bloody country, just give Lviv back to Poland and our side will be happy.”
She asks me to sign somewhere (what happens I wonder if I don’t?) and then I am released from my temporary holding cell into the international terminal where I find that my flight has been delayed, indefinitely.
I contemplate the film “The Terminal” but an hour later my flight does in fact come, meaning I will not be left to wander the airport aimlessly until the end of time.
I watch out the window as the wheels of the plane lift off the tarmac, taking what may be the last view I ever get of this odd country before it sinks, imperceptibly, beneath the clouds.
Update: This is what happened when I tried to go back: https://mylifeintransit.com/2014/07/26/how-to-get-back-into-a-country-an-instruction-manual/