‘Page 19’: A border tale of visas and Eastern Europe by Zukiswa Wanner

Author Zukiswa Wanner recounts high jinks and high drama on her way to Lviv, Ukraine.

My late father studied journalism in Eastern Europe.

It had always seemed like a random choice to me when many other people I knew who studied in Eastern Europe had studied engineering or medicine. But an invitation to Eastern Europe was always going to be welcomed by me as it would give me the chance to see a place often closed off, and yet where my father and many of his friends had spent key parts of their lives. Going to Ukraine would also allow me to reconcile with my friend Nelly, one of the organisers of the Lviv International Literary Festival. In fact, it would be a reunion of sorts, as I met both Nelly and Peter, who had hosted me in Denmark, at the same time during the Cambridge Literary Festival in 2009.

Until the Friday before my departure, though, the entire trip was all still up in the air.

A visa for the Ukraine, had I been getting it in South Africa or Kenya, would have required that I set aside three weeks for the application. But I had failed to apply for it in Kenya or South Africa owing to a grueling travel schedule before I left the African continent. Nelly had suggested that I should not worry too much as I could get it in Copenhagen. I was not too sure. I was a very temporary resident in Denmark. I would be there for just three months, to be exact. Would I get the visa?

Nelly promised that she would get a letter from some official to ensure the visa was issued quickly. As soon as I arrived in Copenhagen, Peter started calling Nelly. Peter’s organisation, World Wide Words (WoWiWo), which was responsible for my Danish invitation, was also taking two other guests who required visas, so all three of us planned to apply together, with Peter’s assistance. Nelly was very laid back about it all, ‘Don’t worry, I will get it’. But Peter and I were worried.

On Wednesday, a week before the festival was due to commence, we got letters from the Mayor of Lviv. That very day, Peter drove me to the Ukrainian Embassy in Copenhagen. When we arrived, we met another member of our party who needed a visa.

We entered the Embassy.

Peter spoke in a very Director of WoWiWo voice, ‘We have this invitation to Lviv from the Mayor.’

The woman behind the glass looked at the invitation. And looked at us.

People who were born and grew up before the Berlin Wall came down, or who have ever watched Hollywood movies or James Bond flicks, where Eastern Europeans were always cast as the bad guys, would have identified this woman immediately. Her black hair was gelled and held in a chignon, which emphasised her cheekbones and made her either beautifully severe or severely beautiful, I could not say which. Less than thirty seconds later, however, I knew which it was when she said, ‘No. You need three weeks to apply with a passport from Africa. I cannot help you.’

Image: Victor Dlamini

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