Franz Nicolay | The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar | July 2016 | 25 minutes (6,916 words)

Below is an excerpt from The Humorless Ladies of Border Control, by Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist in The Hold Steady. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

You don’t travel for comfort; you travel to justify the daily discomfort, … the nagging doubt, sadness, weariness, the sense of being a stranger in a world.

Our roommate on the sleeper train from L’viv to Kyiv was a stocky, ham-fisted forty-five-year-old veterinarian. A friend of his, he told us, had a visa to America in the 1980s, but he got caught stealing from the grain quota and now can’t go to America ever. He had conspiracy theories and opinions he was eager to share: they didn’t kill bin Laden, it could have been “any tall guy with a beard”—for that matter, I, Franz, look a little like bin Laden, don’t I? And we haven’t seen that much of Michelle Obama recently, have we? If there’s not a trumpet, it’s not jazz. Vitamin C doesn’t work, all you need is raspberry tea with lemon and the love of a good woman. Everyone’s been there— first beer, first guitar, first girl.

He stripped down to what would once have been called his BVDs, nearly obscured by his hairless belly, and snored all night. When we awoke, he was gone, replaced by an older man with a lined face and Clint Eastwood stolidity. “He has the saddest face I’ve ever seen,” Maria said. He slept first, facedown and fully clothed; then, when I returned from the bathroom, he was sitting upright, bag beside him, staring out the window. He never said a word.

I was a musician then, often traveling alone, sometimes with my new wife, Maria. I hadn’t always traveled alone: for years I had been a member of the kind of bands who traveled in marauding, roving packs, like “Kerouac and Genghis Khan,” as the songwriter Loudon Wainwright once put it. First there was the nine-piece circus-punk orchestra World / Inferno Friendship Society, a monument to pyrrhic, self-defeating romanticism and preemptive nostalgia that still haunts me like a family lost in a war. But I had ambitions, and World / Inferno had “underground phenomenon” baked into the concept. So I jumped to a rising neo–classic rock band called the Hold Steady, which became, for a few years, one of the biggest bands in what is, for lack of a term of representation rather than marketing, called “indie rock.” We opened for the Rolling Stones and played the big festivals and bigger television shows. Our victory-lap touring constituted an almost audible sigh of relief that we’d finally arrived— we’d never have to work a day job again.

But I couldn’t, it turned out, take “yes” for an answer, and it seemed to me that I was still too young to settle into that comfortable chair. Amid the usual dull stew of misaligned personalities and creative sensibilities, I shrugged off (or threw aside) this rare sinecure for a keyboardist in a rock band. Compare it to the gamble of the ambitious young lawyer or financier who knows he’ll never make partner at the firm. When you’re on the train, one friend said, and you realize it’s not going where you wanted to go, you have no choice but to jump off. You’ll get bumped and bruised, and you don’t know where you’ll stop rolling, but you do know the train’s not swerving from its track.

I enjoyed a brief palate cleanser in Against Me!, who shared the dual title of most influential punk band of their generation and most controversial soap opera of their scene. It was a brief interregnum. I wanted to test myself as an entertainer, without the crutch of volume. I wanted to see if I could walk into a room full of strangers, who might not even speak my language, and keep them, at bare minimum, from walking out of the room. I aspired to the tradesman’s charisma and practical craft of the old vaudevillian, the one who may not be the best dancer or singer but knows a few jokes, can do some soft-shoe, whatever it takes to get over that night.

There is a great deal of similarity between touring life and military life: small groups of men (and it is still, almost always, men) of disparate backgrounds, bonded by close quarters, foreign places, and meager rations, engaged in activities of dubious purpose but governed by vague and powerful ideals— patriotism, punk rock, machismo. The rules are the same: Do your job. Pack light. Defend your gang, don’t get off the boat, beware of strangers. Sleep stacked three-deep in bus bunks like submariners or curled in hard foxhole corners. Release your tensions in promiscuity, alcoholism, and violence. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your feet dry. Above all, don’t complain.

And, like army men, when we finish our tours of duty, even if we remain in the touring world, we lose our taste for adventure: we return, like World War II veterans creating the Eisenhower suburbs, and quickly domesticate. We pair off, leave the cities for places like the Hudson Valley, Northern California, or Oxford, Mississippi, places within driving distance of an airport and a music scene but far from chance encounters with tour acquaintances. We drink quietly and alone, avoid loud bars and rock shows as places of entertainment and possibility. We tell and retell, buff and hone, our debauched and criminal war stories with those who were there when we see them, in a mutual, fictionalizing reassurance that what we did had some meaning, that we fought for the right side and maybe even won a small skirmish here and there. To outsiders, we no longer brag: we’re no longer sure we were noble.

Now I lived like a pack mule, a dumb and anonymous brute whose only purpose was to carry weight from one place to another. Accordion in a backpack on my shoulders; a day bag slung from my neck over my chest; a banjo in my left hand, my right dragging a suitcase full of CDs, vinyl records, and T-shirts with my name on them. From Brooklyn by subway to Manhattan, by train to Newark, by air to Frankfurt or Kraków or London, by cab to some club or another, dragging bumping bags across cobblestones to a kebab-and-pizza storefront to wait out a winter downpour. Often it was cold—I should have brought my overcoat, I would think, but that would have meant too much excess weight and bulk. You don’t travel for comfort; you travel to justify the daily discomfort, what in the last century would have been called existential neurosis. It’s a kind of therapy: the nagging doubt, sadness, weariness, the sense of being a stranger in a world viewed at an oblique angle suddenly, miraculously, all has a reason— you’ve been traveling. It’s not your past, your guilt, your family. It’s just the road: you are tired and sore, you are a stranger.

* * *

Be inconspicuous all day, except for the thirty minutes onstage, when you must be the most conspicuous thing in the room.

I lived like a pack mule, but I had to exude the appearance of ease and confidence. I packed carefully. I traveled alone out of thrift. The shows were rarely large, but I never lost money. It was a point of pride but also a necessity and a justification. I lived like a wealthy man, though I spent as little as possible; I had little to spend. I sometimes traveled with musicians whom hundreds of people paid to see and who were provided with bread, cheese, beer, fruit, hot food, orange juice. I scavenged like a beggar or a half-forgotten houseguest. I nibbled trail mix by the handful, like a rodent. I crushed single-serving bottles of water in my fist, as if my thirst might expose me if it, itself, was exposed.

I chipped my front tooth on the rubber cork of a bottle of wine. I had pushed it in too deeply, and taken it in my teeth and twisted the bottle to squeak it loose. A true cork might have torn or bruised, but the stubborn rubber ripped the tip of the tooth before popping free. Just a flake, a grain of sand on a pristine bedsheet, but, like the princess, my tongue grew restless in its sleep, probing, rubbing, aware.

Be inconspicuous all day, I learned, except for the thirty minutes onstage, when you must be the most conspicuous thing in the room. Your livelihood depends on being unable to ignore. Artistry has nothing to do with it: anyone can ignore a good song, but few can ignore someone singing even a terrible one in their face. They want to be entertained, but they don’t want it actively; you must both convince them of their need and fulfill it. You are the bottle and the wine, the vessel and the salve; they are the stubborn cork to which you put your jaw, in a grin that is both welcome and a challenge, like strange dogs meeting in an alley. Whose will is stronger? Is your wheedle wilier than their indifference? Can you bully or seduce them or turn their curiosity into interest, and then to attention? And for what? The restless tongue probes the tooth.

I marked my aging by renunciations: first I traveled with a band of nine, then with five, then with none. I sloughed off concentric circles of friends: my college friends and then my band friends stopped noticing I was away and filled my empty chair with others. Then instead of friends I had passing acquaintances with fake names whom I saw once a year when I came back through their town, if I ever saw them again. Time passed, and my body began to set its own contracting boundaries: first I couldn’t sleep on floors anymore, then I couldn’t sleep on couches, finally I couldn’t sleep in shared rooms.

But that changed again, and I could too: I married Maria, and she joined me in this world of transience and assumed names. Two years later, we were three months into a six-month tour, playing together on our way from Poland to Ukraine. The previous months had included six weeks around the United States, followed by a counterclockwise spiral through Central and Eastern Europe. It was time, then, to abandon the car for the train and slim down for Russia and Asia, mailing or abandoning anything we couldn’t carry. We repacked our remaining things in the parking lot of a rest stop: one acoustic guitar in a hard case, one banjo in a soft case, one accordion in a backpack case. Six audio cables, one tuning pedal. One hiking backpack filled with day clothes— for me, one pair of pants, one shirt, three undershirts, six pairs of socks, six pairs of boxer briefs. I had learned the army style of folding one’s clothes, first in halves and then rolled into themselves, tight and elastic like hot dogs or police batons. One rolling suitcase, mostly merchandise: one dozen large white T-shirts, one dozen each black and white mediums, one dozen large black, one dozen small white; two ladies’ tank tops; two dozen LPs, fifteen vinyl EPs; some stray one-inch pins. Two boxes of CDs met us in Kraków; we had sold enough to fit more in the suitcase and hoped we could restock before we crossed into Russia. Only one stage suit—two would be better, but space and airline baggage charges didn’t permit the luxury. No room for regular shoes, so I wore my dress shoes onstage and off: the uniform comes first.

We returned our rental car without incident. We changed forints, crowns, and euros into złoty and back into euros, then tried to spend the change on gewgaws and water bottles. “Every traveler experiences,” says Gogol in Dead Souls, “when scraps of paper, pieces of string, and such rubbish is all that remains strewn on the floor, when he no longer belongs to a place and yet hasn’t regained the road either.” We had to downshift from libertarian car touring, in which we could control our route, stop for lunch, and air-dry our dirty laundry across the backseat, but also were responsible for our pace and parking and gas and the logistics of the journey, to the contained social-democratic leisure of train travel, for which you have to pack tight and efficient and mobile, but once you’re on board and give yourself over to a power greater than yourself, your time is your own. On travel days you’re in an Internet-free bubble with a window and a bed and nothing to do but read, nap, snack, and think.

From Poland into Ukraine we rode a new generation of sleeper trains, an upgrade from the clunky metal midcentury model: molded plastic and triple-decker bunks with private sinks and en-suite bathrooms that don’t stink of the filth of decades. Our roommate was an elderly and cranky Pole. Who could blame him for his mood as we clattered and tripped and, sweating, hoisted a camping backpack, a suitcase full of merch, a guitar, a banjo, and assorted day bags above our heads and onto the shelf? We finished a half-bottle of Italian frizzante and tried to get a few hours’ sleep before we had to reckon with Ukrainian customs agents. Time to get our story straight: we’re not playing any official gigs. We have some friends with whom maybe we’ll play a few songs. We’re giving away the CDs. We don’t have any concrete plans. Just a couple of slacker Americans.

* * *

Maybe you want to see something more . . . unconventional?

Three youngsters, two guys and a girl named Larisa, picked us up at the Kyiv station. They had moved from Kharkov and other more provincial centers to the big city and were sharing an apartment in one of the beige Soviet housing projects on the far side of the river. A couple of people had driven their cars down into the shallows and were bathing them with soap and soft sponges. Along the public beaches people sunned themselves. Russians and Ukrainians like to sunbathe vertically: stripped to their Speedos, they stand, hands on hips and arms akimbo, sans headphones or other distractions, dignified, bellies oiled, like little Easter Island statues lined up facing the water.

We showered and changed while our hosts watched rollerblading stunt videos scored to “Gonna Fly Now” and Lil Wayne. The blades had the middle two wheels removed and a reinforced bridge for sliding on railings. Larisa asked if we skated.

“No,” I said. “I used to ski, though— downhill racing.”

“Really? Respect.” She gave me a high five.

We offered them a hard-boiled egg. “We’re vegan,” she said. “But can I have it for the dog?”

I didn’t know dogs liked hard-boiled eggs, and anyway this seemed conceptually inconsistent for a vegan house— but never mind. The dog wolfed down the egg.

“The country is like it’s dying,” said a different Larissa, a rare American of Ukrainian heritage who had repatriated. “I come home tired and depressed and I realize it’s not me, it’s that I was walking all day among people who are tired and depressed and it just rubs off.”

“Why do you stay?” I asked.

“Well—it’s just, like, I live here now. I’ve built a place for myself. And I can’t just leave”—like a tourist can was the implication—“ because, well, I come from an easier country, and good luck to the rest of you.”

“It is not a civilized country” was the judgment of a Pole I’d met a few days before, eating with Maria’s aunt and her posse of aging hipster friends at a Brazilian steakhouse in Łódź. I struck up a conversation with an owl-eyed, mustachioed man who winced when he heard we were bound for Ukraine. He had tried to set up a renewable energy program there. “Everyone warned me that it was corrupt and impossible to do business there, and I never will again. I lost 50,000 euros.” He shook his head. “The people are wonderful— it is just the system is impossible.”

The show was in Malaya Opera, a pink-and-white neoclassical theater that had been a cultural center for transportation workers. It was now a dilapidated hulk with dance studios and old socialist realist murals of Ukrainian peasants along the staircase. We were in the musty basement, where a kid (whose beard almost covered the “24” tattooed on his neck) ran a studio and a rehearsal room, and, apparently, lived: he dragged a twin mattress and pillow out of the show room when we arrived for soundcheck. The show was with local heroes Maloi— who would be flat-capped, anthemic punk stars if they lived in the United States or England— and was packed and sweaty.

The rhythm of train touring is not unlike that of bus tours. You are delivered to the station after the show, at midnight or one, get in your bunk, and let yourself be rocked to sleep by the sway of the car and the white noise of strangers’ snores. You’ll be picked up in the morning by the next town’s promoter, drive to their— or, more often, their parents’ or grandparents’—flat, shower, eat breakfast, nap if necessary, and try to see some of the town.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. In this case, when we rolled into Dnipropetrovs’k around six a.m., there was no one to greet us but a few sad pigeons. We called Vlod, our contact, twice before he answered, obviously still asleep, grunted, and hung up. We settled in at the station cafeteria for what promised to be a wait.

When he arrived, Vlod proved to be tall, slouchy, hungover, and dour. Maria tried some small talk, gesturing around the station and saying, “These buildings are pretty.”

“There is nothing pretty in this town.”

Off to his grandmother’s apartment (his mother also lived there) on the sixth floor of a crumbling housing project, a gray skeletal torso with rotting balcony ribs. Vlod had been a journalism student and worked at a newspaper “singing songs of praise to the rich people and politicians.” Now he was a technical writer, making more money, he said, but without as much fun and travel.

We wanted to go downtown to see the museum, or maybe a fortress. Vlod was unenthused: “Maybe you want to see something more . . . unconventional? There is a huge abandoned building ten minutes’ walk from here. It is a monument to Soviet stupidity.”

We walked to another disintegrating apartment tower, this one beyond habitation. It had been built on the side of a hill and almost immediately started sliding down into the valley. It was about twenty yards from the elementary school Vlod had attended. When the floors and walls of the building started cracking, the students didn’t worry too much about a collapse: “We were just happy school was canceled.” After the tower was abandoned for good, the money to tear it down never materialized. Eventually the school, which had closed to keep the kids out of the way of the demolition, simply reopened in the shadow of the gap-toothed hulk.

We scrambled over the piles of rubble, clumps of weeds, and blooms of broken bottles, up the urine-scented remains of the stairs to the soggy roof. The whole city was ringed with identical “monuments to Soviet stupidity”—a miles-wide Stonehenge of graffiti-splashed white concrete, separated by the green blooms of trees. Dnipropetrovs’k is, according to the UN, the world’s fastest-shrinking city, forecast to shed 17 percent of its population in the next ten years. Vlod and his friends did “rope jumping” from the top of the ruin—a kind of amateur ziplining in which you just freefall and wind up hanging in the middle of the slack rope like abandoned laundry until your friends haul you back to the roof.

Graffiti in Kharkov, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Vlod had been to the United States twice on summer work / travel visas. It is common for Ukrainian and Russian teenagers to be given a temporary visa arranged through a U.S. business looking for cheap summer labor. Nearly universal is the complaint that this often means, in practice, working grueling hours at someplace like a Carvel in a rest stop in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. The more resourceful quit and hit the road while the visa is still good.

Vlod was sent first to Connecticut, where he finished his job and then took a Greyhound across the country. “It was the trip of a lifetime,” he said. “I prefer traveling on bus. In Ukraine, on a train the view is always the same—station, factory, trees, station, factory, trees.” When he signed up for a second go-around, though, they sent him to Pennsylvania, where “they treated us like slaves. I said they couldn’t do that. They said I’d be fired, and the next day I was and they put me on a bus to New York and a plane home.”

There was an unusual culture clash at the show, and I wondered how Vlod came to organize it at this particular venue. We usually ended up in dank, graffiti-covered “youth centers,” but this was a spotless white gallery and cultural center, funded by a single rich benefactor. The theater’s director, Olya, was from Kazan’ in Russian Tatarstan but had just returned from a failed marriage in California. The staff were ironic, urban, cosmopolitan. They and Vlod—who usually booked punk and metal at a bar on the other side of town—regarded each other warily, if at all. Sophisticate or no, Olya was rubber-legged drunk at the end of the night. We bunked up in the attic and hit the train station in the morning bound for Kharkov.

* * *

What Proust called ‘peculiar places, railway stations, which do not . . . constitute a part of the surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality.’

Stations upon stations indeed, as Vlod had complained: some piled with rusted debris, some graffiti-splashed concrete, one home to a dark-green old train car emblazoned with a red star, as if from a Cold War newsreel— what Proust called “peculiar places, railway stations, which do not . . . constitute a part of the surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality.” Families parked their old Ladas next to the tracks and spread out picnics, the coming and goings of trains enough entertainment for the day. Young men in stonewashed jeans and ponytails, or with shaved heads and black Adidas track pants, watched an endless array of thin, busty blondes in vertiginous patent-leather heels. Next to the tracks wiggled a dual carriageway of bicycle-wheel ruts. A wall of trees shaded a shrubbery moat. Then miles of fields.

Nearly every ex-Hapsburg town in Eastern and Central Europe will tell you they have the biggest clock or bell tower and the biggest central square in Europe. In Ukraine, they will add that they have the biggest remaining statue of Lenin. Kharkov’s claim is the largest square in Europe, depending on whether you count Red Square or something (Kharkov native son Eduard Limonov says in his 1990 book Memoir of a Russian Punk, “ ‘Only Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger than our own Dzerzhinsky Square’—Eddie-baby knows that first commandment of Kharkov patriotism well”). Writer and musician Alina Simone wrote of the city, from which her parents had emigrated, “Invariably, the two words people used to describe Kharkov were either industrial or big. Occasionally big and industrial were helpfully combined to yield the illuminating phrase ‘a big industrial city.’ ” I saw many more Soviet remnants in Kharkov than anywhere else I’d been: hammer and sickle facades, shiny red Lenin medallions on sides of buildings, the odd “Glory to Work” mural over a gray housing project. The apartment towers were missing the pastel-wash veil they get in Eastern Europe.

The Kharkov show was abruptly canceled, if in fact there ever was a show. The status reports went from TBA to “open-air picnic” to “I don’t know, it says rain” to “You must have known the show could get canceled.” We couldn’t find our hotel, which was supposed to be near the train station. It was pouring rain. We took shelter under a liquor store awning and asked for directions from a kiosk operator, then a cabdriver, then some young dudes on the sidewalk— no one seemed to be able to agree where the street our hotel was supposed to be on was. We mule-trained up a hill that seemed right only to find a dirt road. This couldn’t be it—the station hotel, within sight of the McDonald’s, on a dirt path? I ran up the hill and back. Sure enough, that was it, and in fact it was a perfectly nice little place with a banya (steam bath) in the basement. After a pilgrimage for Georgian food (it was getting on six, we still hadn’t eaten yet, and I was now sick as the proverbial dog), it was a circuitous walk home past the Constructivist gigantoliths overlooking that second-biggest-square-after-Red-Square and, for good measure, “the second-biggest Lenin.” Lenin gestured in approval of the tents that crowded the square, advertising the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer tournament. The rain had stopped.

We had a message from booking agent Dima: “You have a show tomorrow in Donetsk, no guarantee, but they’ll pay your ticket to Rostov-on-Don.” We stopped at the bus station to see how painful it would be to get to Donetsk by tomorrow. There was a bus at noon, but “they don’t sell that ticket in Ukraine.”

They don’t sell in Ukraine a ticket for a bus . . . in Ukraine?

No. “Six a.m. or eight a.m.”

Eight a.m. it would have to be, and we hit the banya to sweat out the bad news.

* * *

Dinner for my capitalist friends!

The morning’s cabdriver quoted us a price of fifty, Maria said forty, he hemmed for a minute, and, thinking she was my guide, said in Russian, “How about forty-five? Tell him fifty, and you can keep the rest for yourself.” When he dropped us at the station, a man was loading boxes of live chickens into the storage bins beneath the bus. The fact that there was a space under the bus was actually a pleasant surprise, since it meant we were in a modern bus, not an old Soviet Ikarus, an exhaust-stinking, shock-free diesel monster. We asked to put our bags in the bays. “Not now,” said the driver. “There are cameras on me. You will have to pay extra.” The bus swung around the corner of the building and parked a hundred yards away. We threw the bags underneath and boarded without incident or extra charge.

The bus stopped for a bathroom break in a village (Izyum, meaning “raisin”) about halfway between Kharkov and Donetsk. A statue of a woman in a flowing dress strode confidently into the future. A dog slept in the sun in front of an ice cream cart, whose attendant yelled at me for leaving the freezer door open while I counted my cash. A young boy fingered a Rubik’s Cube faster than I’d ever seen, first with both hands and then with just one. He was the “Tommy” of Rubik’s Cube. Two tall, bullet-headed Georgians with sleepy eyes made gentle fun of the etchings of Georgian tourist attractions printed in their passports. My health had started to crumple under the effects of the short, sleepless nights, and there’s not much worse than having a cold in the dusty summer heat. Primary-color Ladas scattered across the streets like M&M’s.

Halfway through the six-hour sauna of a bus ride, we got another text from Dima: “The Rostov venue”—this was the first show in Russia, supposedly two days hence—“ gave me the wrong date! It’s tomorrow. Oh, by the way, there are no trains to Russia either. Please buy a bus ticket at the station when you arrive.”

Andrey, who was supposed to pick us up in Donetsk, called Maria, who’d been sleeping, for a status report. “I think . . . the bus broke down, we’re still in Slovyansk.” That’s what she’d heard the guy behind us saying to his friend on his phone. The guy tapped her on the shoulder and explained that he’d been lying to his friends because he was late. “Oh, we’re in Donetsk!” she corrected. “Almost there.”

We pulled in. “Where’s our guy?” She scanned the parking lot. “Not the hippie!”

A gangly ostrich of a man strutted across the gravel, juggling, woven bag over his shoulder, a couple of halfhearted dreadlocks, zipper pull in one earlobe, a curl of bone in the other, apron tied over corduroy cutoff shorts. He grinned, gathered his juggling balls, waved.

“Yup, it’s the hippie,” I told Maria. “Are you Andrey?”

“Nope, they sent the waiter. I’m Anton!”

Anton was a cheery fellow, as are most hippies at first. He took Maria to the ticket counter to explore our options for crossing the Russian border.

“You got a ticket?” I asked when they returned.

“Yeah, but you’re not gonna like it!” Anton grinned. “Leaving tonight at midnight, arrive seven a.m.”

Graffiti in Donetsk. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Donetsk seemed less weighted by physical history than other eastern Ukrainian or Eastern European cities. It was founded only in 1869—by John Hughes, a Welsh mining magnate— and destroyed in World War II. It had, to me, the faint scent of Texas: new mineral wealth showing off, fresh construction, unstained pavement, a pink Hummer parked outside a coffee shop. Donetsk is home to Ukraine’s richest man, the steel and coal tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who operates the region nearly as a personal fiefdom (when fighting broke out two years later and ground the local economy to a halt, thousands of workers stayed solvent because his factories stayed open and continued to pay their salaries). Anton came to our table in the club with plates of pasta.

“Dinner for my capitalist friends!” he announced.

“Did he just call us his capitalist friends?” I asked Maria.

“Is a joke!”

We asked promoter Andrey if he thought that the bottle of wine he had given us would be an issue at the border. “In this part of the country, it’s barely a border,” he said.

(Two years later, it barely was. In the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, separatist provocateurs began referring to the southeastern provinces of Ukraine as Novorossiya—“ New Russia”—and declared a “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Unacknowledged Russian arms, tanks, and soldiers poured across the border from the Rostov region. Bombing destroyed the Donetsk airport and much of the city, including the hospital. The train station closed. Heat and water were scarce. Those who could leave the region fled: 1.5 million of the region’s prewar population of 4.5 million are said to have gone either to Russia or to western Ukraine, depending on their political sympathies. The Russian government both represented the separatists at peace negotiations and denied any control over them. The American government considered sending arms to the Ukrainians.)

“I don’t like U.S.A., but I like you!” said an audience member after the show. The cab we were supposed to take to the bus station sped away in a huff because his trunk was full and we had too many bags. We packed into the next one, and a drunk jumped in the front seat. I thought he was with the driver until he got out at an intersection, gave us a double thumbs-up to confirm that we had the money, and split.

We passed the new stadium, built to hold Euro 2012 matches. The old one had been tiny and on the outskirts of town. The new one was lit up in blue like Giants Stadium and was almost as big. A massive statue of Winged Victory, also lit, stood out front. The cabdriver gestured to the hotel across the way: “That, too, has been there forever. And now in the last month they’re calling it a four-star hotel.” (The stadium was damaged by artillery shelling in 2014, and the Donetsk team now plays on the other side of the country, in L’viv.)

The station was dark, but the security guard, smoking cigs and drinking beer, assured us that the bus to Rostov was coming. He told the driver that it was a four hryvnia charge to continue into the parking lot. We got out on the curb instead. The bus pulled up some time later.

It was an hour’s wait to board, and a two-year-old girl had the best idea of anyone for making use of her time: jump on the curb, jump off the curb, shake your ass, kick the aluminum wall, get daddy to swing you around like an airplane. Cabdrivers offered to take us the six hours straight to Rostov-on-Don. We all boarded, crammed into every seat. Truly, as Dr. Pangloss never said, this was the worst of all possible worlds.

It was three a.m. when we reached the border crossing. The horizon brightened even as the near-full moon was still in the sky. The Russian authorities filed on, tight-lipped and tight-haired, and I had an idea for a worst-selling pinup calendar: “The Humorless Ladies of Border Control.” A guard mumbled his way through some boilerplate. As he left, someone said, “Use your street voice!” The guy sitting next to us joked, “He was asking ‘Everyone all right? Need a drink? Not too cold?’ ”

We sat for three hours at the border, from three a.m. to six a.m. Legions of pigeons were nesting and hatching in the eaves under the tin roof of the Ukrainian exit station, and the cacophony of coos, chirps, and warbles was maddening. We were given two cigarette breaks. A dozen giggling women ran into the field and hoisted their skirts to pee.

* * *

Having passed through one formality does not secure the stranger from another.

Of nineteenth-century Russian customs and border agents, the Marquis de Custine wrote, “The sight of these voluntary automata inspires me with a kind of fear . . . every stranger is treated as culpable upon arriving on the Russian frontier.”

The paranoia and vindictively selective enforcement had begun thousands of miles to the west, at the Russian consulate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We’d expected some procedural difficulty getting an entry visa at the Chinese embassy, located in the shadow of the USS Intrepid on the desolate West Side, but had sailed through the lines, frictionless. We simply dropped off our passports, photos, and a check for two hundred bucks and a week later picked up the passports with our photos laminated onto a visa page.

The Russians, though, were a different story. Mark Twain, writing over a hundred years earlier, complained that Russians “are usually so suspicious of strangers that they worry them excessively with the delays and aggravations incident to a complicated passport system.” We were required to fill out the PDF application in advance and show up at the consulate building between nine thirty a.m. and twelve thirty p.m. to apply in person.

The first day, we arrived at ten thirty a.m. and joined the line on the sidewalk, about twenty people deep.

“Well, this shouldn’t take too long,” I thought.

Two hours later, only five people had entered the building.

“Come back tomorrow,” said the burly security guard in a thick Russian accent and slammed the iron cage around the door shut.

We looked at our linemates, none of whom seemed shocked. All of them, besides ourselves, were professional line-standers, paid by visa applicants with more money and less free time—or more sense— than we had. They brought books, lined up before the doors opened, and hoped for the best (or, if they were paid by the hour, the worst).

We returned the next day, at nine a.m. this time, and waited a mere hour and a half outside before being ushered through the glass doors into a waiting room, then to a Plexiglas window like a bank teller’s. A blonde stereotype of a sadistic Slavic bureaucrat didn’t look up from her desk.

“Papers!” she barked, of course. “Passports!”

She read unhurriedly through the applications, marking them with a red pen, first mine, then Maria’s.

“Twenty-six!” she said, circling that box forcefully. “It is wrong.” She shoved the papers back through the slot beneath the window.

Item number 11 took one’s passport number, issuing country, and dates of validity. Item 26 asked, “List all countries which have ever issued you a passport.” Since she had already entered her passport information, Maria had left it blank instead of entering “United States.”

“Obviously this was just an oversight,” she said to the lady. “Can’t I just write it in?”

“No! Reprint it and come back tomorrow.” If she’d had a shutter to slam shut, she would have.

“We’ve been here two days in a row!”

She muttered to herself, scribbled something in Russian on a Post-it note, slid it to us, and got up from her chair. The interview was over.

“What does the note say?” I asked Maria.

“It says, ‘Can skip line.’ ”

“We’re supposed to show armed guards a Post-it note?”

“Russia is the land of useless formalities,” complained Custine, who was himself detained in customs for twenty-four hours while trying to enter Saint Petersburg. “Much trouble is taken to attain unimportant ends, and those employed believe they can never show enough zeal . . . having passed through one formality does not secure the stranger from another.”

Yet societies that insist on procedure and red tape can be simultaneously riddled with informal, ad hoc loopholes. We arrived early on the third day, not a little dispirited. We knocked on the cage and showed the guard the note. He waved us in.

* * *

What we seek in traveling are proofs that we are not at home.

I should properly introduce my other traveling companion on the Russian leg of our journey: a Frenchman, the Marquis Astolphe de Custine, author of the 1839 book Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia. He served the same role for me in Russia that Rebecca West would in the Balkans: a perceptive, acid perspective from a different era against which to measure my own impressions. Born in 1790, Custine lost both his father and grandfather to the guillotine at an early age. He became an object of scandal when in 1824 he was found unconscious, stripped, and beaten, the result of a misplaced sexual advance toward another man. He became one of the most notorious homosexuals of his conservative day—“a problem for everyone,” as a contemporary put it—and he grew snide, bitter, and scandalous. He had literary ambitions, but his writing was ignored during his lifetime; Heine called him “a half-man of letters.” But his discomfort in his homeland, and seemingly in his own skin, made him an ideal traveler. “The real travelers,” said his countryman Baudelaire, “are those who leave for the sake of leaving.” Custine was a connoisseur of places, he said, that were “more singular than pretty or convenient; but singularity suffices to amuse a stranger: what we seek in traveling are proofs that we are not at home.” He first wrote a travel book about Spain, which garnered him a complimentary letter from Balzac, who suggested he write about another “semi-European country”—Italy, or perhaps Russia.

Emboldened by Balzac’s suggestion and envious of Tocqueville’s example, he traveled to Russia in 1839—a short trip, mostly confined to Russia’s northwest, but as George F. Kennan, the American Russia hand and Cold Warrior, wrote, Custine “read countries, he claimed, as other people read books.” Custine arrived in Russia a born elitist and returned (despite his personal respect for then Tsar Nicholas I) a confirmed democrat, sickened by what he saw as the debasing effect of authoritarianism on the population. “When [Russian nobles] arrive in Europe,” his German hotelier tells him on his way to Saint Petersburg, “They have a gay, easy, contented air, like horses set free, or birds let loose from their cages. . . . The same persons when they return have long faces and gloomy looks; their words are few and abrupt; their countenances full of care. I conclude from this, that a country which they quitted with so much joy, and to which they return with so much regret, is a bad country.” The Russian customs agents themselves questioned his motives:

“What is your object in Russia?”

“To see the country.”

“That is not here a motive for traveling!”

His ensuing judgment of the country was severe, perhaps unfair, certainly condescending, and somehow persistent: perhaps because his pessimism echoes the “curiosity, sarcasm, and carping criticism” he—and I, and many other observers— found among Russians themselves. It is in his role as critic, and as the personification of the opinion of a Europe toward which Russia has historically looked with a mixture of envy, self-deprecation, and defensiveness, that he served his most recent turn in the public eye. In Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, filmed in one ninety-six-minute shot, Custine and an unnamed narrator stroll through the Hermitage and thus through scenes from Russian history, from Peter the Great to World War II, still trying to identify the soul, or the narrative, or the fate, of the nation.

* * *

Copyright © 2016 by Franz Nicolay. This excerpt originally appeared in The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.