Leaving Armenia the hard way

I was booking my international flight by credit card when my friend called. He was planning some travel of his own. “We have the chance to visit Switzerland” he said, excited “Christoph asked us to come”

Christoph once visited Goris and saw the sites with my tour guide friend. Later, Christoph, who is Swiss, traveled to Gyumri in the north of Armenia. Unfortunately, he was involved in a late-night accident there. He wasn’t hurt, but had to go to the police. Christoph speaks French, German, Italian and English–but not Armenian. He made a midnight phone call to his tour guide at the other end of the country, and the driver’s language skills saved the day. Since then, the two men have stayed in touch. “Bring your family to Switzerland for a holiday” Christoph offered, and sent the money for four return tickets. Via DHL, he sent a formal invitation letter to help with  the visa process.  The letter specified that Christoph would cover all the family’s expenses during their vacation, and supplied bank statements to show money was no object. My friend drove 250 km to Yerevan from Goris to pick up the letter.

Armenians need a Schengen visa to visit Switzerland, and just about every other country in Europe.  Here in Armenia, there is a Swiss Embassy, but they don’t process visas. The visa process is allegedly managed by the Polish Embassy. Only on a Friday can an Armenian go online at the Polish Embassy site to apply for a visa. Not any Friday of course. At the moment, no applications will be accepted until Friday September 14. The notice of delays went up on the website on August 2. Something broken? Someone on holiday? There is no way of knowing. They do not answer the phone, and my friend was turned away when he turned up on the doorstep the day he was in town to retrieve the invitation letter. No applications until September 14. They may, or may not, be available then. The family is meant to travel on September 6.

swiss embassy wrote to important people in Switzerland and were told it was possible for Armenians to travel to Georgia, the country next door, to make application at the Swiss Embassy there. The family could make the nearly 1000 km round trip with passports, invitation letter and proof of income and savings. The roads are not good, my friend’s wife is pregnant. One of their small boys suffers from car sickness. Nonetheless, they did it–it takes nearly 12 hours each way. Plus waiting time at the Embassy.

In common with a high percentage of people in Armenia, my friend is self-employed and pays his bills in cash. In order to make visa approval more likely, he set up a bank account and ordered a bank card. But of course he has no history of regular deposits. This meant that the Embassy in Tbilisi had to forward the family’s applications to the Swiss canton where Christoph lives. Was the canton happy to take the risk of having the family in the country? It would take them two weeks to decide.

Last Friday, Christoph went to the Canton and made a fuss. Told that interoffice mail stampwould mean that a letter needing an official stamp could not be delivered to another Zurich office until Monday, Christoph offered to take it himself. He made the three minute walk, got the stamp and hovered while the necessary approvals were emailed to the Swiss Embassy in Tbilisi. By then, of course, the Tbilisi office was closed. At the weekend, as the family packed their bags, we emailed the Embassy and requested an early appointment for visa pick up on Tuesday morning. If they could confirm early on Monday, my friend could drive 500 km to the Embassy and have time to drive back on Tuesday and rest a little on Wednesday before making the five hour journey to the airport for very early Thursday morning. An eight and a half hour flight to Zurich via Kiev would follow.

Monday morning came and went. Still no word from Tbilisi. Christoph called and called them from Zurich. We called and called them from Goris. Although this Embassy had always been very responsive , no-one would now answer the phone. My friend alternated between biting his nails and revving his engine.  Time was running out…

At 4pm yesterday the message came. 3 visas were approved and would be ready for pick-up today at 11am. 3? Whose was missing and why? Luckily the problem was quickly sorted out by phone. Many wives in Armenia keep their family names when they marry. This meant that Mrs A’s visa had been misfiled. Phew. My friend set off with his uncle in the passenger seat–it wouldn’t be safe for one person to drive 1000 km in 30 hours, including Embassy waiting time. As far as I know they made their appointment this morning and are on their way home.

The whole thing took more patience, more persistence, more fuel, more time and more Euros than most people anywhere have. I know I would have given up on the doorstep of the Polish Embassy in Yerevan.

Lack of money of course is the main reason most Armenians don’t travel. Not everyone is lucky enough to be offered an all-expenses-paid international vacation. But visa issues–inevitably linked to finances in a world where impoverished immigrants are unwanted–must be a close second.

“I am beginning to feel like a prisoner here” said my friend told me as he faced yet another twist and turn on the road to visa approval “I love this country but it is like a crime to have been born here. I can go almost nowhere. We have this great opportunity–a friend offering this great chance for my boys–and yet we cannot make it happen. They think I would run from Armenia. I wouldn’t. I only want to see Switzerland, visit friends. I would never leave my garden…” This made me laugh, for it is absolutely true.

I need no visa to complete my own international trip. I will travel to Zvartnots airport just one day after my Goris friends. Those of us with US and European passports have no idea just how lucky we are.

About Liz Barron

Returned US Peace Corps Volunteer (Armenia 17-19). Permanent address in Washington DC. Deep roots in Northern Ireland and persistent Belfast accent. Blogger, cook, painter, mother, grandma, Scrabble-player and enthusiastic world traveller.
This entry was posted in Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Driving, Schengen visa, Things that make a difference, travel, Travel to Switzerland. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Leaving Armenia the hard way

  1. Bryan DeLeo says:

    Thanks for this, Liz. American friends are just back from Belfast, instructive for them. Over here, our president incites fear of foreigners for his personal and political goals. So many unhelpful people, and so much suspicion of others.


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