***We are being careful with verbiage and staying away from commenting on the conflict as we don’t want that to hinder connecting with family in the future. I’m sure you all know how we feel. Feel free to contact us directly.***
I apologize for the length of this post. I think I needed to purge it. Please read it for what it is. This post is only about our ordeal in my little family’s world. We fully understand that our first world problems are nothing on the grand scale of things.
Here’s the short version:
My wife Lena and I flew from Los Angeles to Moscow on a trip to go see her family and to stay for two months after a long four year wait. Unfortunately when we landed we received the news of the conflict in Ukraine. We spent the next four days trying to get home which proved to be very problematic and heartbreaking.
The Long Version:
We are so thankful for all of the messages and help. We are truly grateful for you all. It’s hard to reconcile all of it right now. It is an absolute tragedy what is happening in Ukraine and very sad for the people of Russia. Two countries are being torn apart in so many ways. We are worried for our family and friends in both countries and about when we can return so Lena can see her Mom and Sister.
I have spent over 10 years traveling to Russia. I have come to know the people and culture as well as an American from California can and I’ve made friends there that I will have for life. One of my good friends there even introduced me to my Russian wife Lena. Lena and I were married four years ago and because of visa requirements, Lena was not allowed to re-enter the US until her paperwork was processed which takes up to a year or more. When approved we made travel plans and Covid hit which again restricted us from going back. Two years later travel was becoming normalized and we made plans again only to find out that on top of Covid restrictions there was an international travel restriction on dogs. So we waited almost another year until they lifted the restrictions and allowed certified dogs to fly. So after four years of waiting, we finally made plans and bought tickets to fly to Russia.
Our intentions were to go and stay for two months. We would spend four days in Moscow visiting friends and then on to Lena’s hometown of Krasnoyarsk, another five hour flight east. We had planned on going to see and stay with Lena’s Mom, meet with her sister and our friends, go to some needed doctor appointments over there, get desperately needed dental work done (it is a fraction of the cost there), renew Lena’s passport and driver’s license, get our Russia marriage license and a laundry list of other things we have not been able to do from the US. Get-togethers and celebrations were planned and I even brought my video camera and some microphones to record my experiences to bring back and share with everyone.
With our dog tucked into a small carrier and stuffed under the seat in front of us, our 12 hour flight to Moscow left Los Angeles February 23rd. When we landed, we got the news about the conflict in Ukraine. I was not surprised but I thought it would be a smaller, regional incursion like Crimea and that things would not affect our plans. I was wrong about that. I had received messages from my family and some of you to turn around and come home but anytime I go there I have people that worry and write and ask if I am ok so I respectfully fluffed it off.
When we got on the ground in Moscow I got my first indication things were not right. We had been invited to a dinner at a restaurant at the top of a tower in Moscow City center but plans changed as one of the friends joining us had seen that protests had started and there were police vans lined up near the area where we were. They suggested that we should just hang out in an apartment instead of going out to avoid possibly being hassled. I stick out there. You can tell I’m American. So we stayed in which was better than going to a restaurant anyway. It was a fantastic night. Two of my wife’s friends from grade school were there to see her and we got to see other friends of ours as well. We all monitored the news on our phones and on TV. Most television was state run but at that time we at least had BBC, CNN, France 24 and DW.
The next day, we continued to monitor the situation but went on with our plans. Things were quiet around the city so we had a tour of Moscow’s biggest flea market and a friend’s food production facility and that evening the stars aligned and my wife was invited to go to a concert featuring her favorite singer of all time, Zemfira, who just happened to be doing a concert that night. The next morning, things seemed to be fine, people were going about their daily business but then we heard the news that Europe and the US started denying Russian planes from landing, that there was a possibility of our banking being cut off and things went south pretty quickly from there.
We realized that if we went on, we could be stuck without a way to get home and stuck with the possibility of having no money or credit cards. We also worried that if we waited too long, I may be able to leave but Lena would not. After waiting four years we were just one flight away from Lena returning to her home and seeing her family but we had to make the very difficult decision to go back to the airport and to go home. All of our plans were gone. It was absolutely devastating.
When we arrived at the airport, the problems were immediate. There were a lot of people trying to get out. We went to the ticket counter and were unable to change our tickets to go directly back to Los Angeles as Russian planes were not allowed in the US. We were instructed that we would have to forfeit our original tickets totaling $3500 and start over and that we would have to do that at another ticket officw in another part of the airport. We made our appeals but were told there was nothing that could be done and were basically shooed away. So we made our way and stood at a different ticket counter for over four hours while a very nice but stern lady called each airline and did everything she could to get us back to Los Angeles. (It would be the only time someone really helped us.)
One of our problems was that because we had to start over and get new tickets we would be required to start over with our dog certification and covid testing as well. We also had only a couple of places we could fly to because Lena is a Russian citizen and would need a visa to go to most European countries. Because of the exodus of people leaving the only thing available was business class on one airline at $5000 a seat. Obviously that would not work for us. Hours and intense phone calls later she found us a flight out. It would be on two different airlines, Aeroflot Russian Airlines and Turkish Airlines and we would have a connection in Istanbul, Turkey of two hours. She had even got preapproved for our dog on both airlines. Unfortunately it was not for two days. It was our only feasible option, everything else was business or first class on any remaining airlines flying out. The total was $3000. Yikes.
We decided to lay low and stay out of the city and in a hotel in the airport hoping that there would still be a flight when it was time to depart. We had 40 or so hours before the flight and Lena was so absolutely devastated that she could not see her Mom especially to be so close. So we worked it out that her Mom would immediately catch the next flight she could and fly into Moscow from Krasnoyarsk to at least be with Lena for one day. Domestic flights there are pretty inexpensive, even last minute and we found her a ticket for $250 so she flew in. It was a long time coming and absolutely needed but by the time she came, they would only have 24 hours together.
Before our flight out we were instructed to have our dog recertified at Russian veterinary control. We found the office and upon entering, were immediately pushed out the door. The technician was on her cell phone, told us that she was too busy and to see the other Veterinary control office in a different terminal of the airport. After an insane long distance walk, a train, and another long distance walk we found the other Veterinary office. When entering we were literally pushed back and told again to go to another terminal to see veterinary control because the attendant was busy, on her cell phone. This time my wife went back in and told the attendant we needed to be seen. Now. After waiting a while we were allowed back in only to be told that we would need to go to a certified veterinarian that was located in the city about 45 minutes away.
So instead of quality time with her Mom that she hasn’t seen in four years, they had to hustle back to the hotel on the other side of the airport, then get a taxi and go to the certified Veterinarian to get papers so that we could get on our flight. Once they reached the first veterinary office they were told to go to another, no joke, an hour from the first one. It was unbelievable. Several hours later Lena and her Mom returned to the airport and went back to the Veterinary control office where the supervisor of Veterinary control told them, none of this was needed.
All of the original paperwork we had was all we needed.
The original person that saw us could have approved it. The office staff just didn’t want to deal with it. The unneeded recertification killed the entire day so there was only enough time to eat and then Lena and her Mom slept in the hotel room we got for her. They were exhausted. She left just a few hours later. Absolutely not enough time. Terribly emotional. It was awful to watch.
Our flight was leaving just a few hours after Lena’s Mom’s flight so we went to our gate early to make sure everything was ok and that we could get out. We had our paperwork checked again and went through security. We had made it and were relieved to be heading to our gate.
What no one mentioned to us at all was that because of the conflict, airplanes were diverted around Ukraine which added two hours to the flight. Our layover was two hours. When we arrived our connection was already gone so even before going through passport control and baggage, we went to the Turkish Airlines ticket counter to see if we could get on another flight that day. There was one later that night. We sat at that counter while we were handed off to several employees. We explained we already had tickets to fly, we were already approved for covid and our dog and that we just needed to get on the next available flight.
What seemed so simple took another several hours. We could not retrieve our bags because we were stuck behind passport control and if we went through, we could not get back in. The ticket office was in an empty hall. No access to wifi or a sim card so that our cell phones would work. We were stuck with no communications waiting for the employees to change our tickets to the next flight. We were continually asked why we did not make the flight connection. It was a battle to communicate with the staff. The language barrier even using a translator was of no help. While sitting on the floor waiting, we met other people in the same position, waiting for hours to be re-booked. Several customers were screaming at the staff, pounding fists on the counters, and that happened more than once.
It was as if no one there really cared to help or figure things out. After several hours we were told we were not approved to take our dog and that they had to work on the paperwork for us. We argued again that we had already been approved, had all of our paperwork in order and simply missed the flight because of our routing around Ukraine but that got nowhere. They took pictures of all of our approved paperwork and explained that the next flight they could put us on was two days from then. A supervisor handed me a piece of paper with a printout of a new flight and departure time, some scribbled notes and told us to come to the airport five hours early in two days, show them the paper and that the airline office would help us.
We had also made arrangements for our friend Rik to come and pick us up at Los Angeles Airport. Because of being stuck with no wifi or cell service for several hours, we were unable to communicate to him that we missed our connection. The last he had heard from us was that we were flying out of Russia. He had driven over an hour to pick us up and waited for us for several hours before going back. Ugh.
We took the paper the supervisor gave us and started the huge line through passport control and when we made it to the front we were stopped because we needed a visa to enter Istanbul. We wouldn’t have needed it if we made our flight. We were told to go to another office and wait there to get a travel visa. We went through that line, paid the fee, got a travel visa then went back through the passport control line and on to baggage claim to find our luggage. Our luggage had arrived hours earlier so we went to the lost luggage office and waited there until they could locate the bags. They finally found them and immediately we found the nearest place to get food and take our dog out. We were able to find a cell phone store, got a local sim card and got online to write home and to find a place to stay. It was getting late and a lot of hotels were already booked. We were having no luck for over an hour finding one. After calling several and being laughed at when I asked if dogs were allowed, I finally found one.
Emotionally, mentally and physically wiped out, we spent a day and a half in our hotel room. Basically going out to take the dog for a walk. The first time we did, we walked down the sidewalk past the building next door that happened to be a police station. Our dog sniffed around the weeds that were growing around the front of the building just as a group of police officers came out. One of them walked past and another turned and walked up to my wife looking angry and said in broken english “Do you know this is a police station?” They were obviously not dog people. I walked toward him, played dumb, apologized and went the other way. That was our cue to lay low and just wait for our flight.
As instructed, we went to the airport the day of our flight, more than five hours early. When we arrived, there were no ticket offices open. The place we originally were at was behind security which we could not go through without actual tickets. After walking the length of an enormous international airport a couple of times we found a sole person working at a counter and asked about our tickets. I handed this person the paper we were given by the supervisor, told her the story, and told her we were instructed to come early and to get tickets. She had no idea what we were talking about. She explained that the person who did that, did nothing and that there was no record of us or our flight. That they had basically passed us off.
She did find us room on the next flight but we would have to pay again for new tickets and would have to be approved for our dog. Explaining again that we had already had flights booked and were already approved went nowhere. We were told to go to a supervisor to have them approve the flight first before we were allowed to get tickets. We crossed the airport again and talked to a supervisor. Well, she talked at us. Lena was a champ, she had all of the paperwork needed for us both traveling back, dog certifications from the US and Russia and our covid tests. It didn’t matter. The supervisor told us we could not fly with the dog because of US laws. She was wrong. Trying to prove that to her took over an hour. The supervisor seemed to be trying so hard not to let us get tickets. Even arguing that our dog’s chip identification was expired. That’s not how that works. The supervisor even argued that Lena’s green card ID was a vaccination card. It was maddening. Another supervisor came over and started in on the arguments. He told me I could pay for business class, signifying that all of the hassle can go away if I upgraded. We could not afford that.
Lena worked her magic and went through the entire thing with the supervisor, showing that we were already booked, our certifications and testing. After several phone calls the supervisor finally approved us to buy tickets. So we were told to go to another counter that was now open on the other side of the airport to purchase our tickets. That person gave us yet another piece of paper and instructed us to get in yet another line at yet another ticket counter that would not be open for two more hours. It was a circus. So we went and waited and met a lot of people trying to get back to the US. When we went to finally get our tickets we were stopped again. The ticket agent told us we would need new covid tests. We again appealed to them that we just did it and had our results and paperwork and it was then that another supervisor stood up and yelled “Must Get Test!” and then shoved me our passports. So before they would let us purchase the tickets we had to check our luggage, run down to the lower level to get another test in another part of the airport, wait for results and then come back.
So with a gigantic line behind us I put our luggage on the belt to be checked in. One of the suitcases had been damaged on the last flight and the handle was stuck and would not collapse. Nothing worked. Horrible timing. I had to take dump everything out of the suitcase onto the floor, open the lining and dismantle the handle so that it would collapse, dump everything back in and then quickly get to testing as the plane would be leaving soon. We ran with our backpacks and dog and went to the lower level of the airport, paid another $100, got tested, waited 20 minutes for the results and then ran back across the airport to the ticket counter.
We finally got back to the ticket counter without much time to spare to get through security. I was sweating like I had been standing in the rain for an hour. Drenched. The charge to change our tickets was another $1500. With n o other choice, we paid and went immediately through security and passport control. We had enough time to sit for five minutes and shove a sandwich down our throats and then went to the gate. Everyone in line was asked for their passports by an agent roaming the line, but just six feet later, another security check. We showed our passports and tickets again, turned a corner and there was another security passport and bag check. Weird. So they went through our bags again and checked our passports and tickets again. I’m not exaggerating, when we got to the doorway to the skybridge we were stopped for the fourth time, for passports and tickets but this time the agent said there was a problem with having our dog.
I was so exhausted mentally and physically that I just lost it. There was no fucking way that we could be where we were if we had not have gone through all of the ticketing, supervisors, testing and security! The agent made a phone call while I was starting to make a scene and then handed us our passports and tickets and we made our way to our seats. It was only then we realized we were going to be able to go home. A bittersweet flight back to say the least.
We made it home. (Thank you Rik for coming back to pick us up.) We got out of there just in time as availability for flights was next to nothing and ticket prices took off. So many of you reached out and had our backs, thank you.
Please kiss and hug your loved ones,
Michael and Lena