Friday, January 30, 2015

Come snow, come Moscow

For those of you who have been following my 15 nanoseconds of fame, you may know that I recently quit my job with UNICEF for personal and professional reasons. Doing so came on the heels of my 30th birthday, and as I rounded the bend of the last days of my 20s, I decided that this decade will be dedicated to making responsible decisions and creating more stability in my life. Then I thought it would way more fun to go to Thailand. So two days after I turned 30, I took off for three weeks.

One of the great phenomenon about much of North America is seasons, which allow the body to endure freezing cold and burning hot temperatures within the span of six months in a sort of masochistic ritual of weight fluctuations and beatings to the skin. No wonder retail did so well in America. The thing about having seasons is that there is always some kind of weather event that can make traveling internationally a total pain. Whether it’s a hurricane, sleet, floods, or a snowstorm, any consistent traveler can at some point in their life count on dealing with a heinous delay getting back home to New York City. I had just hoped my heinous delay would happen in oh, say, Paris, or Cape Town, or some other beautiful, open place. But no. Where did my heinous delay transpire?


Don’t get me wrong, Russia has always been on my list of travel destinations. Well, I shouldn’t say always. Really, my desire to go to Russia could be traced to around my 16th birthday, when the fake lesbian Russian duo t.A.t.U. graced American media with poorly translated songs (“You to be have my love this tonight morning!”) and a message of sexual equality that seemed to cater to creepy old white men who had a strong undertone of pedophilia. (Now I use Pussy Riot as an actual equality and Russian muse.) Sadly, the Russian Federation has since taken a turn for the homophobic worst, proving that a Communist empire is for lovers – but only if you’re straight. With this death of equality came the death of my desire to pay to go to Russia. A long layover in Russia, however, is totally fine, as it satisfies my travel curiosity without a total meltdown of moral standards. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of a super cheap ticket to Bangkok with a super long layover in Moscow, I figured I had my chance to take an illegal picture of my Pride flag covered book against the Kremlin.

Alas, for American citizens, the visa process to get outside of the airport is about as complicated as particle physics and about as logical as the Tea Party manifesto. I decided to forgo the time and misery of making use of my long layovers in Moscow, and instead resigned myself to people watching and avoiding duty free perfume in the airport. For an 18-hour layover, this airport arrest seemed doable. When news of the blizzards of all blizzards would be hitting NYC right on the day I was to get back, I knew, however, that this already long endeavor would turn into days. Low and behold, I was right.

With an original layover of “only” 18 hours long, I had decided that I absolutely needed to sit at the front of the plane to make a quick exit ahead of all the poor saps who had 20 minutes to clear one-hundred years of historical inefficiency. After a Ukrainian guy started a fight with the Russian passport control agent, it was my go in line. I handed over my passport sweating with the look of an innocent person who forgot how to appear not guilty. Because my second flight – the one back to New York – had been scheduled a day after I landed in Moscow, I didn’t have a second boarding pass, which was required to get through.

Fortunately, the passport agent was grateful I was not a Ukrainian guy who came to start a fight, and she waved me to the ticket agent behind. After a surprisingly pleasant conversation with a friendly Russian woman, I found out my original flight had been cancelled. To make up for the five-hour delay until the following flight, Aeroflot gave me a voucher equivalent to $8, which is enough to buy half a sandwich at Burger King or a small bag of M&Ms. When spaced out properly, this amounted to approximately one M&M per hour, which is one more M&M per hour any given American airline would offer for a five-hour delay.

I decided to spend the evening in the “Capsule Hotel,” which is the Moscow airport hotel that tries to mimic Pod Hotel. In all respects, the Capsule Hotel captures the spirit of Pod Hotel, except for the years of stale smoke, poor lighting, gross bathroom, ratty carpets, and thin walls that permeate their rooms. The next morning, I awoke after a particularly disturbing dream of my life as Edward Snowden (Snowed-In?), and saw that my second flight had too been cancelled. So, I set off for Terminal D to ask the guy at the information counter whether I would automatically get rebooked for a second time. He looked at me and grunted, finally answering,

“You have food voucher, yes?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, you use food voucher until 9. Then you come back at 9 and we put you in hotel.”

His awkward phrasing threw me into “dealing with any African government ever” mode, and I stood there a few extra minutes asking questions to make sure I had heard right and he had spoken correctly.

“Ok, so I go use the voucher and then I come back at 9? Where can I use the voucher until 9? It is 6:30 now, so I come back in 2.5 hours, at 9?”

“Lady, you like word 9.”
“9. Ok.”

Confident 9 was not code for 11 or 12 or tomorrow, I decided to follow his advice and stopped at a coffee shop on the way back. The barista helped me decide on what items would total up to the exact 490 ruble voucher, and after buying a coffee the size of a shot glass, a dry muffin and two bananas, I locked myself away for another few hours until it was time to go back to Terminal D.

Bogged down with 40 pounds of carry-on luggage, I saw a comforting sight as I returned to the information desk – a group of Hasidic Jews, two Chinese people, two Japanese people, two hipster musicians with Brooklyn Industries bags, a hippie girl, three college students, an elderly rich Arab couple, a black guy and a quiet Italian girl. In other words, a typical slice of New York City. Obviously, I was not the only person in this heinous delay predicament.

The same guy as before led us down to a separate passport control area I had not previously seen, and told us to wait there. Over the course of the next four hours, five very serious looking Aeroflot and airport staff took our passports in inexplicable groups, printed off a series of papers, and ducked in and out of a stainless steel and tripled-paned glass edifice while peering at our faces while we pretended to look away. The less seasoned travelers of the group made it habit to loudly declare they had no idea what was going on, but my days at The New School taking a class taught by a famous Russian-American politicist had proven useful. I was sure they were running a series of background checks before confirming whether we’d be allowed to go stay in an offsite hotel. Fortunately, I made the cut with my fellow New Yorkers. Albeit, I was next-to-last in the approval process thanks to God knows how many visas associated with my name and a skin tone that matches darker Chechens. Seriously.

Finally making it through another two rounds of baggage security checks, we were taken through the basement of the airport down to a loading dock and on to a bus…and driven approximately three feet away from the Terminal to the hotel. On the way over, I chatted with the hippie girl, who was also coming from Bangkok. Like the proud idiot I am, I mentioned my book, even pulling out a copy to show her. She quietly read the back cover, and then told me that sounded like an amazing plot, “Especially the part about the lesbians!” I silently died inside while expecting to be arrested in the next few hours.

The Novotel we were to call home for the next night or two checked us in ten at a time. When my group of ten came up, were lead to the front lobby…and then past the front lobby to another basement. In what appeared to be the barracks quarters of the hotel, we were informed that we’d be sharing a room with someone else, and we were not permitted to leave the hallway. I kid you not. We were not even allowed to walk through the rest of the hotel. As soon as our keys were distributed, the hotel staff not so subtly motioned for us to look at the end of the hall, where a burly looking security guard who fulfilled every possible Russian stereotype had been placed in our honor.

The hippie girl asked if I wanted to share a room, and I agreed after realizing my other options consisted of guys I had never met before. We were given half an hour to drop our stuff in our rooms before being told that it was time for lunch. In the gastronomic monotony of endless flying, never in my life had I been more grateful for hotel food. As the waiter walked in with our first course, I actually felt my heart take a leap up. This sad appreciation was for naught, however, for in my naiveté, I missed the sign written in broken English plastered at the end of our guarded hallway: “Meal will to be serve airplane Aeroflot food.” Yes indeed, though disguised on real plates and with the fancy kind of plastic cutlery, there was no mistaking that our lunch was in fact, Aeroflot airplane food. Very sure we would all end up with food poisoning, my fellow New Yorkers and I managed to stuff down a few bites of the fake food out of pure hunger and desperation.

I passed the next few hours talking to my roommate, sleeping, swearing at the shit Internet, stopping by the musicians’ room for a glass of vodka, and avoiding the creepiest of all the creeps of the group. Dinnertime rolled around, and I decided that a constantly devaluing ruble was occasion enough to avoid an airline dinner meal. Instead, I ordered room service. Not being particularly adept to Russian portions, I decided to get everything on the menu I had actually heard of: blinis with caviar, pork loin, and a borsch. If my calculations are correct, this is the equivalent of my caloric intake of next week.

Despite the lunch letdown, I couldn’t help but again let my heart leap for joy at the thought of non-airplane food, and I greeted the woman who brought my tray a little too warmly. Note to the wise, Russians do not appreciate hugs from strangers. I positioned my laptop in front of me to play the one video I have that does not have any queer subject matter, and gleefully removed the cover from my dishes. The blinis looked fantastic, the borsch was nice and dark. Then there was the pork loin. Any normal person would have appreciated the nice presentation, the few grilled vegetables and the nice thick sauce. I, on the other hand, almost vomited. For three months in 2014, I lived in a hotel in central Africa, forced to eat the hotel food more often than any human being should have to. For three months, I dealt with grey sauces, oil-laden bread, and wilted steamed vegetables. Though infinitely better in quality, one look at my Russian pork loin, and I was overcome with flashbacks to my days in central Africa. There is nothing that will send me into a frenzy quicker than a thick, grey sauce.

After pacing around the room debating what to do, I brought myself to take a small bite. Thank God, it was delicious. But my God, I still felt so gross. Much like when I was forced to contend with a brilliantly flavored rat, I was torn between raging hunger and gag reflexes. Finally deciding, I scarfed down my entire meal before a single episode of “30 Rock” had finished, before I had too long to consider what I was doing. In another strange flashback to my days in Burundi, I picked up my tray of conflicted leftovers, and laid it outside for collection. I fell asleep an hour later to the sound of my nervous laughter.

At 6 AM, the phone rang with an important message:


Not having a clue what the hell that meant, I slammed down the receiver and went back to bed. 45 minutes later, a security guard with a terrible crew cut and an even worse attitude banged on all of our doors. When I went to open mine, he stared at me and shouted,

“Get up! You leave at 7.”
“What? You’re telling us now that we have 15 minutes to get ready?”
“You have wake-up call at 6.”
“You mean the announcement?”
“Yes. Announcement is get up.”

I silently debated whether to argue with the guy before concluding I had already pushed my luck with the gayness and hug-ness of my time in Russia. In record time (25 minutes), I showered, changed and packed. My roommate and I made it two steps outside of our room before an Aeroflot personnel stopped us and asked us to check a list of passengers. Having already seen my second rebooking, I knew I wasn’t on this list. Neither was my roommate.

“So do we go to the airport now?” I asked.
“No, this only for 9 AM flight,” she replied.
“And when do we leave?”
“In five hours?”

I made sure to catch the eye of morning offender before smugly returning to my room to wait another 300 minutes. He looked embarrassed. That made me happy.

Finally, in tow with our three security guards, the rest of us made our way back onto the saddest, greyest bus ever to be driven back to the airport. We collected our boarding passes, ate more mediocre food, and pushed our way onto the plane. Somewhere over Greenland, I sank back into my chair and chuckled at the randomness of my life. Stability may be nowhere close in my new decade, but that does remind me to write Aeroflot and thank them for helping me keep consistent – always random, always interesting.

Come snow, come Moscow.

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