Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Two nights on planes

The trip to get to Nizhny Novgorod was not much fun. In this age of instant messages and Skype lessons between different time zones, I forgot exactly how far apart the west coast of the US and Russia are. You can't simply race the sun west. It's always east, east, and then more east until you at last reach Russia.

The first plane left Portland at midnight. Are you ready for this? ;)

In basic math:

Four hours to Atlanta. A few more hours waiting for the next flight, almost two hours to New York. Seven hours in New York to transfer between airports and then get stuck in the absolute purgatory that is JFK's international terminal. It's like a travelers' halfway house that sells diamonds and duty-free perfume and plays the same five luxury brand commercials on repeat.

The Moscow flight is at gate 8, surrounded by gates of China-bound travelers. There's almost nowhere to sit and there's nowhere to walk, since lines of 100+ people clutter up the narrow walkway. In a situation like this, there's really only one thing to do: start drinking.

It's pay-to-sit anyways, so I get a small bottle of wine from the Italian-Mediterranean-Vegetarian to-go place and sit at a table for sixteen people. A group of Dutch travelers are chatting away on the left. Some American guys sit down across from me and start talking about snapchat. To the right is a family traveling with two little girls. After the bottle is gone, I walk back to the gate. There's a Paris flight waiting to board, passengers doing their best to resemble an attacking Tatar horde under the rule of Ghengis Khan. Near the gate is a bar, so I get a big glass of wine. A plane taxis up to another gate and the crowd there lets out a big cheer. They're going to Mexico, the bartender leans over to say. Only people from Mexico get that excited to see their plane arrive. She goes back to speaking Spanish with the other bartender. Nobody else gets excited to see their plane taxi in, which is kind of a bummer.

The Paris passengers are still mobbing Gate 8. If I had internet, I probably would have found out sooner that Moscow's gate had changed. By the time I figure it out, the line for Gate 1 stretches all the way past that gate and the neighboring Saudi Arabia flight. I get in line next to a group of Kent State students who are traveling to Russia for a two-week MBA program. None of them speak any Russian, but they say the program will be conducted in English and will take them to both Moscow and St. Petersburg. I look around for my companion from the long line at the Aeroflot ticket counter earlier that day- an American expat going home to Greece via Moscow- but she has vanished somewhere in the departure line.

We finally board the plane, welcomed by white-gloved flight attendants with a sickle and hammer emblem on their suit sleeve. The screens on the back of each seat advertise "Fly to Cuba with Aeroflot!" In my row sits an exhausted girl from Astana (if I'm telling you about flying from Portland to Russia, just imagine Seattle to Kazakhstan!) and a Muscovite taking a trip home from New York. I put on the Aeroflot slippers and try to sleep against the window while the Kazakh girl sleeps on my shoulder.

Another midnight passes.

Landing in Moscow nine hours later, the plane looks like a wild Aeroflot slipper party took place. There are тапочки tossed all over the plane like we'd been playing slipper dodgeball over the Atlantic. Food wrappers too, which I understand from having seen Russian streets before. But тапочки, the sacred icon of all Russian homes, being discarded so callously? Shocking! Maybe the flight crew is at least slightly consoled by the standing ovation that happens when the plane touches earth again.

In Sheremetovo, the passport control line is slow but surprisingly easy. I wait in line behind two American missionaries who are eager to get back to "their" city. When it happens, the actual moment of being in front of the Russian official is low-key. She gives me a super-critical look while holding up the passport photo for comparison, and then stamps the passport. Not a single word passes between us! And then it's time to shake off the sleepiness and get to work.

Find an обмен валют in Moscow, the school had written. You need 800 rubles to pay the driver. Using the best обмен балют I could find, $100 becomes 5500 rubles. Ouch. But onward, through the внутренний трансферы (domestic transfers) security screening. Maybe it was just culture shock, but I was a little cowered by this airport. My flight isn't appearing on the departure screens and I run around buying little things to break the 5000 ruble note to pay the driver later. I end up with a 270 ruble chocolate bar which still sits unopened in the fridge. Now that I'm in Nizhny, I realize that 270 rubles is probably what some students spend for an entire week of food. I talk to several passengers in the airport (especially trying to track down that gate, haha) and I know this is an obvious thing to say, but people in Moscow airports really aren't very friendly! 

I find the gate, then re-find it after it changes ,and join the line right away. I'd also learned from the New York flight that there is no such thing as being called by rows. These planes are a first come, first served deal. When we get on the plane, I'm by the window again, next to a teenage girl holding a caged kitten on her lap. And I just lose it. If you saw me breaking the stoic Russian tradition of not crying in public, sorry ;) My brain was operating at about 22% on no sleep, the planes were hot, the Russian language was being very Russian-y, and I just needed 5 minutes of solitude to pull myself together. Even just a minute would have worked. But the plane takes off, so for ninety long minutes this poor Russian teenager probably has to wonder about the weirdo she's sitting next to. At least Aeroflot gives everyone a complimentary sandwich as a distraction.

We land in Nizhny Novgorod. Anatoliy, the school driver, grabs my suitcase and leads me over to his Lada. His old Lada. His very, very old Lada. But they say a good Lada never truly dies and off we go, escorted into Nizhny Novgorod by a cloud of gasoline fumes. 

The thing with Russians, if they're expecting you, they're AWESOME. Someone who would totally and cruelly snub you in real life is actually the nicest person you'll ever meet... if they know you, or at least know you're coming. This means, Anatoliy is a really nice guy. We drive through the "airport" region of Nizhny Novgorod and he offers to take the long route to the dorms so that I can see the city. His tour is all in Russian and offers commentary in mainly the past tense. He points out things that were built over other things and tells stories of what used to be there. Anatoliy is retired, so he spent most of his living in Gorky (the city's old name during the Soviet Union). He points out monasteries, the cable cars, a small kremlin, the train station, a car factory, both local rivers. He's most excited about a forest of cranes in the distance. The city is preparing to be a host for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and they're constructing All The New Things at a furious rate.

We stop a few times at viewpoints over the river and at a museum showcasing Maxim Gorky's childhood home. More interesting than the museum (almost anything is more interesting than a museum!), we stop in at a gas station for 1000 rubles of gasoline. The car fumes and the pump fumes combine to create what's practically a Martian atmosphere. We get out of there just before succumbing to the toxic cloud. I try to get some good gossip from Anatoliy on the other students- how many? from where?- but he says most of them just wanted to get to the dorms and go to sleep.

The university.

We arrive at the campus, which is much smaller than I thought. It's just off Prospect Gargarina and it's a walled enclosure of less than a dozen large buildings. The dorm is your garden-variety old Russian building. A dark stairwell, a fire safety sign that references the USSR, but actual smoke detectors and astonishingly-swanky windows. (I always notice dorm windows after visiting Poltava and seeing a university where students had to buy their way into the dorms by purchasing a modern window frame for their room.)

Anatoliy turns me over to Irina Nikolaevna, the вахтерша on duty, and a new life in the dorms begins.

Behold- Russian dorms! Ура!


  1. I hate traveling. When I was coming to Russia I flew Washington DC to Dubai and I didn't have anyone sitting next to me. It was great. I could put my feet up and sleep. Same with my flight from Seoul to San Francisco. ;)

    1. You know, me too. Everyone's like "I loooove traveling" and I totally do not feel that way, even in terms of "traveling through Europe with a backpack", etc. I just want to go live in a Cyrillic-alphabet place for a good while... and preferably get magically transported there instantaneously ;)

  2. Great post and the beginning of a new adventure for you. Looking forward to reading more of these.

    1. Thanks, Dean! I'm super-excited to follow along with your Ukraine adventures :)