Sunday, September 14, 2008

Chelyabinsk, Russia, Part 2: Flying Aeroflot

Yesterday's Aeroflot crash in Perm brings to mind memories of my white-knuckle flights in Russia. All the more reason to knock back a bit of cognac before boarding.

I awoke exhausted and bruised from the poky bedsprings and only lasted through an hour and a half of the Customs training before crashing back in my original room. I slept through lunch, and when I arrived at dinner that night the two Andres, Sasha and Vladimir were in a foul mood. Though the table was piled high with food, there was a key element missing: vodka. Their secretary in Moscow had ordered vodka when she made the hotel reservations, but somehow the order had gotten messed up. We had depleted the hotel’s supply the night before.

From the scowls on their faces I could see that the situation at hand easily outweighed my near-drowning of the previous night. “We had to play good-cop bad-cop with the waitresses,” they grumbled. Now they were waiting for one of the waitresses to come back from a liquor store. I tried to cheer them up by recounting my mattress and Brad Pitt dreams, and they did indeed find this entertaining. The first one especially, with the 28-year old mattress being shrugged off by the manager, is reminiscent of the kind of Soviet jokes Russians still delight in, making light of the futility of living an easy life under Communist rule.

Eventually the waitress came in from the cold with two bottles of vodka and some wine, and all was right again with the world. It turns out that Sasha (my interpreter) knows quite a lot about dream analysis. He asked me if my subjective or objective sense of time is faster. Once I figured out what he meant by that I admitted that I am hyperconscious of things taking longer than they need to (subjective) and feel resentful when people waste my time. He nodded and explained that the number 28 in my dream represents my true mental age, and I quickly agreed with this. He advised me not to feel rushed and basically be comfortable with my mental age. As for giving Brad Pitt the brush-off because of his accent, he warned me not to get too caught up in unimportant external qualities and look at the true person beneath. Ahhhhh. Trust me, if you’ve just spent an evening drinking toasts with Ukrainian pepper vodka these kinds of statements seem enormously profound.

Speaking of toasts, our glasses were raised that night to everyone from Chelyabinsk Customs, to Vladimir’s brother (whose birthday it was that day), to Freddie Mercury. I can’t remember who thought up that last one, but I know it wasn’t me.

There was a music store next to the hotel that stayed open until 11 pm. Andre took me there after dinner and bought me two CDs. My suspicion that the store was selling pirated music was confirmed once I returned home and found a suspicious-looking image on the front of the disc...

The guy who was burning these in his garage must have stuck his thumb in the ink before it was dry.

The workshop continued the next day with time for brandy at lunch, and then we packed up and drove to the airport. Once there the Chief Inspector led us upstairs to his office and we polished off a bottle of expensive Armenian cognac confiscated from some poor sap. If you’ve ever had to hand something over going through Customs, you can be sure that at least someone else enjoyed it later.

One of the guys told a joke that the pessimist says, “This cognac tastes like bugs!” and the optimist says, “These bugs taste like cognac!” The joke-telling continued for a while, with one dirty joke about Lenin that they refused to translate for me. After that we talked about the kinds of things that come through that airport, especially drugs originating in Afghanistan. There are two flights a week from Tajikistan and each time a plane lands they pull a handful of people aside and check them to see if they hid or swallowed any drugs. They use drug-sniffing dogs, trained in one of two ways: by making drug-finding a game, or by getting the dogs actually addicted to drugs. Though the first way is more humane, they said the dogs might not always feel like doing their work. The second way they always try as hard as they can to get to the drugs.

Finally it was time to say goodbye and board our creaky Aeroflot bucket of bolts. As we touched down hard in Moscow, several empty seatbacks slammed down, somebody’s coat came flying off the luggage shelf, and a woman in front of me crossed herself three times.

Anatoli picked us up from the airport, and he and Vladimir got into some sort of shouting match on the way home. There are upsides to not knowing the language.

I got back to the Metropol and unpacked one last time. When I went downstairs to order a taxi to the airport the next day, a man in a cheap suit and his “date” were checking in. He wanted to pay in cash and since the Metropol doesn’t rent rooms by the hour, it was taking forever to count out the rubles (me and my subjective sense of time). I gave up and went back to my room, and the next thing I knew it was morning and the maid was knocking on the door. I was supposed to leave for the airport at 10 am. It was 10:03. I wasn’t packed.

Luckily a taxi was located and I made it to the airport in plenty of time. But (surprise, surprise) there was a flight delay. On board, the pilot announced that our meals hadn’t arrived. At that point all I wanted was some coffee, but the flight attendant informed us that since most of the coffee had been stolen off the plane (“The Russians steal everything,” she said), they were rationing the coffee for the meal service. Eventually the catering service arrived but the pilot had one more delay to announce. It seems that one of the passengers had been refused boarding and they had to retrieve his luggage from the cargo hold. Apparently he’d had too much to drink and wasn’t fit to fly. Amateur.

1 comment:

  1. Laurie,

    Your story is very funny and typically Russian. The Russians love to drink. I'll tell you more about how I know that at Ebbitt's in September.

    Uvidimsial and best regards,