Tuesday, October 6, 2009

First Few Hours In Russia

My first glimpse of Russia actually occurred in Vienna. There, I was made to go through a special ‘Russia-bound’ security screening gate at the lobby to the aircraft, and that’s when I saw Russians. Oddly enough, they were dressed exactly the same as people back home and carried themselves the same way (that is, in the same bored and slightly forced manner of patient impatience which can only be found at airports).

For the short 3-hour flight from Vienna to Moscow I boarded a small, comfortable Airbus, which was a nice change from the bulky, crowded and uncomfortable Boeing I had spent 7 hours crossing the Atlantic on. Once aboard, 2 really cute Russian girls were seated next to me and, despite having been travelling in Austria, didn’t speak English. They giggled at my impression of “Gutentag” but otherwise we ignored each other.

Somewhere over the Belarus-Russian border the clouds parted and there below me were the vast forests and unending steppes of western Russia. It was just as I’d pictured it. I have always been fascinated by the accounts of German soldiers in World War 2 who felt completely lost in the vastness of Russia. Diaries and interviews reveal that it was the unending steppes and the vast forests that broke their morale, although I do have to wonder if the 12 million Soviet soldiers waiting just over the horizon had anything to do with it...

I digress.

On the plane I was handed a registration card with two identical halves. I had to fill out both halves (the giggling Russian girls stared at me in curious silence when I pulled out my Canadian passport). As the plane circled to land I tried to get a glimpse of Moscow but couldn’t see anything that stood out, aside from a bunch of apartment buildings, a couple of highways and some factories.

Once on the ground I was led along a corridor to Passport Control where, surprisingly, everybody lined up all nice. Of course, all the Russian nationals went down their own corridor. There were a lot of central-Asian-looking people in line from countries that end in ‘stan’. At the passport control booth a blonde woman with a pretty Slavic face unsmilingly took my passport from under a bullet-proof window, electronically scanned my identification page and then the visa, stamped it and handed it back to me. I was looking her right in the eyes and, to my complete surprise and contrary to what I had read concerning immigration officials, she smiled! It only lasted a second, but she did smile and nod to me, before the frown came back and her eyes shifted to the next person in line. I walked through a turnstile and suddenly I was in Russia.

My luggage was surprisingly all together on the conveyor belt (unlike in North America where one suitcase comes out after 10 minutes and the other comes out an hour later) as was everybody else’s. It’s as if though the handlers simply dumped the luggage container onto the conveyor all at once. It was actually very efficient. Next I passed through customs where four guys in uniforms stood around an x-ray machine. They just waved me through but stopped the ‘stan’ guy behind me.

Then past a line of people holding signs that read “CRC Symposium” and “Microsoft: David Peters” and a bunch in Russian and one in Japanese. I looked around but couldn’t find anything with my name on it or the company name. I did find a money-changer, however, and handed over several hundred dollars in Canadian twenties, for which I received about 11,000 roubles. Went to a small store selling Coke and chocolate bars and magazines and I attempted to purchase a small bottle of water. It cost half a rouble but the smallest denomination I had was a 100-rouble bill. I tried handing it to the girl but she just shook her head, so I walked away thirsty.

I looked along the line of people holding signs again but still there was nothing for me. Some dorky, balding American with thick glasses and a polo shirt, carrying a ridiculous bouquet of roses and looking for all the world like the most self-conscious guy on the planet, strode up to a beautiful brunette and gave her the flowers. Ah, mail-order-bride-love.

After realizing that my contact wasn’t here, I went outside for a smoke. There were lots of other people smoking there, too, which is something fairly normal with any airport in the world. I finished my cigarette and went back inside and did another circuit along the signs. Still, there was nothing for me.

I had been at the airport for about an hour now and I was starting to panic. I had no contact number or address for my employers. I only had an email and a fax number, which did me no good at Domededovo International. Since I had no other choice, I found a chair at a little cafe which was located across from the line of signs and sat down to wait. About 30 minutes later I saw some rough-looking bald guy with a t-shirt and black leather racing gloves holding a sign that had my company name on it. I strolled over to him and said “Hi! I think you might be waiting for me.” He shrugged and shook his head. I pulled out my passport, which has my name in Cyrillic on the visa and he read it and then nodded his head, motioned for me to follow, and then abruptly turned and walked off before I could grab my luggage.

I can’t remember his name but he didn’t speak a word of English. He took me to his minivan where he proceeded to eat a sandwich while I sat in the passenger seat in uncomfortable silence. Then he muttered something and pulled out. We left the airport and got onto a giant 8-lane highway that was packed with traffic. This was the Moscow Ring Road, a 108-km-long highway that circles the city, and it was here that I got my first taste of Russian driving. At first it came as a shock, with the insane accelerations followed by the sudden slamming of the brakes inches before driving into someone’s trunk, and then passing a semi on the shoulder before darting in between a speeding SUV and a slow moving Lada. The shock didn’t last long, however, as 2 years of experience with drivers in South Korea returned and I found myself, much as I did after a while in Korea, ignoring the death-defying driving that would lose a person their license, and possibly their liberty, in Canada.

After an incredibly awkward hour we reached Mytischi and I met my DOS (Director of Studies), who I’ll call Ms. Tennessee, and another teacher, who I’ll call Ms. Australia. Ms. Tennessee took me to my flat. She was incredibly kind and patient and almost mothering and was genuinely concerned that I settled in with the least amount of discomfort. As a Russian-American she speaks fluent Russian so she took me to the local grocery store for beer, cigarettes and laundry detergent (I was so happy to see that my flat had a washing machine, TV, DVD player, microwave and computer desk). My flat is on the 13th floor of a huge Brezhnev-era apartment building and, although the elevators scare the crap out of me, the interior is warm and spacious.

After she left I began to unpack my things. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for nearly two months and it was nice to have a place I could, even temporarily, call home. Then my new flatmate came home. I’ll call him Mr. Irish (guess where he’s from). He’s a 22-year-old recent grad who studied Russian and spent a year here in 2008 and speaks fluent Russian. He cracked a bottle of vodka and we proceeded to get completely smashed. We had to stagger to a little outdoor booze stand around the corner at 2 am to get another bottle, which we polished off.
Just as I suspected, Russian vodka goes down much smoother than the gasoline we get in North America, and I do enjoy drinking straight shots of Russian vodka. I just don’t like the morning after, but that’s a different story altogether.

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