After over a year of hoping and months of planning, I AM FINALLY HERE. I am still jet-lagged and a bit overwhelmed, but I AM HERE! You will be pleased to know that this time the Frankfurt airport did not outsmart me; I actually did manage to get on the right plane and arrive successfully to the Moscow Domededovo Airport as planned. Although achy, groggy, and sweaty, it was nice to step out of the plane to hear the din of Russian all around me: the lady who told me I was going the wrong way, the teenage girls talking about school, and my favorite, the mom teasing her little daughter that she better not go under the bars because she would be crossing the border without a passport.
I even managed to make the passport control officer(a breed which is known to be stern and heartless) crack an ever-so-slight smile with my delayed response to his questions.I couldn’t think in English, much less Russian, so when he asked me, “Where are you coming from,” I stood there dumbfounded for five seconds, probably drooling, trying to figure out whether he meant the U.S.A. or where my last flight had come from. When I finally went with “Frankfurt,” followed by a quick, “but I’m from the U.S.A.,” his mouth turned subtly upwards as he told me, “yes, that’s what interests me, where your last plane came from.” Before I knew it, he had given me a Da Svidaniya (Goodbye) and I officially crossed the border.
I had been told that the Fulbright Office would provide transportation for us from the airport, but as I wheeled my heavy suitcases awkwardly out into the mass of leather jackets and intermittent whiffs of B.O., I saw no one holding the promised Fulbright sign. Unfortunately, gypsy cab drivers have an eagle eye for the befuddled stare of a foreigner, and before I could get my bearings, a man who resembled a tall and skinny George Clooney approached me, convinced by my confused look that I could easily be ripped off. For those of you who have never heard of a gypsy cab, it is basically an unmarked/unregistered taxi that, well, should really be a last resort for transport in Russia, especially if you are a woman travelling alone. Our conversation went like this:
“Miss, do you need a ride?”
“No, I have someone coming. I am waiting for them and I’m not sure where they are.”
“Oh, you can come with me.”
“No, I’m waiting for them and I think they might be outside.”
“You speak good Russian…where are you from, Britain?”
“No, the U.S. Thank you, but-“
“You go call your ride, and if they don’t come, I’ll be here.”
“It’s okay, I don’t need one. If I do, I’ll let you know.”
He then kept shooting not-so-subtle glances at me as I called the Fulbright Office and waited for my ride. Thankfully though, soon I found the driver, a short, unassuming and polite man, and spent the next hour and a half, nauseated, in the pinball machine that is Russian driving. In Russia, the rules of the road are like Captain Barbosa’s code on Pirates of the Caribbean: they are more like guidelines. As the driver swerved in and out of lanes with only inches of room while talking on his cell phone, I looked out the window with a strange respect for Russian drivers and a confidence that I would make it to the hotel in one piece. I could never drive in Russia, but these drivers, wow, they have skills…
After checking into the hotel, finding wi-fi to check in with my parents, and running to a produkti to buy cheese, bread and juice to snack on in the room, I got as good of a night’s sleep as could be expected for a jet-lagged traveler. The next morning, I was able to meet my host mom from Nizhniy Novgorod for lunch at MacDonalds. She works in Moscow during the week and goes home on weekends, so our meeting worked out perfectly. It was so wonderful to see her, a familiar face in the midst of increasing newness, and although our time was short, it was very special. After sharing pictures from the past year while drinking tea and eating tiramisu (yes, they have that at Russian MacDonalds!), I went back to the hotel, took a nap, then got ready to go out to dinner with Drew, one of the other Fulbrighters who had come in early.
It was a fiasco in and of itself just trying to meet each other; after agreeing to meet each other on the first floor of the hotel, we both sat there, and waited, and waited, until I remembered that the hotel had two buildings! To test my theory, I asked the receptionist where he was staying, and it turned out that, yes, we had been waiting for each other on different floors, and he had knocked on a different person’s room and called a different room number. Eventually though, we found each other and had a really fun night on the town.
For dinner, we went to Yolki-Palki, which is a chain restaurant that serves traditional Russian food. With a stomach still a little restless from the jetlag, I decided to play it safe and stick with blini s sousom klubnika, pancakes with strawberry sauce. After a nice dinner, we strolled around night time Moscow for a few hours in crisp, misty weather. Since Drew had studied in Moscow before, he knew the city pretty well and we managed to get to Red Square, a statue of Dostoevsky, the library named after Lenin, as well as some other random finds, one of which was a stone platform on Red Square where beheadings used to be performed.
We got back at about midnight, which was when I met my roommate, Rebecca, who had just flown in. She left a note on the door telling me she was here so I wouldn’t be startled to walk in an find someone there, and the Russians in the room beside us found it very funny; according to her she heard them through the wall making fun of her for about five minutes. All I can say is that I am thankful for the note, otherwise I would have made a very bad first impression. I am a very jumpy person, and I can just picture myself letting out a blood-curdling scream…
Anyway, after another night of bad sleep, I got up this morning and was to spend the day with my friends Masha and Bethany from Vladimir. I met Bethany through her brother, one of my classmates at college, when he told me that she also had a love for Russia. When I found out that I was going to Vladimir for my language program last summer, I contacted her since that was where she had lived the year before. She connected me with a wonderful group of people in Vladimir, one of whom was Masha, and it was actually not until today that we spent a significant amount of time together. Although the day was rainy and cold, we had a great time enjoying one another’s company, and I can’t wait to be able to visit my friends in Vladimir!
Masha, Bethany and I
Masha and Bethany
Finally, after a day in the rain, I got back to the hotel and ate dinner with a bunch of the other Fulbrighters who had flown in. We begin job training tomorrow, which will last for five days, then we will part ways and go to our host institutions. Right now I am a bit overwhelmed, really tired, and still wishing I knew more details about what I’m going to be doing in Elabuga, but I also am confident that I am supposed to be here. Moscow has been a whirlwind so far, but with a little bit of sleep and a lot of prayer, I’ll be ready to face whatever comes my way tomorrow!