Day One: What could go wrong, goes wrong!

the arrivals desk at Domodevo: clean, efficient, friendly. Source: Mathew G. Crisci

the arrivals desk at Domodevo: clean, efficient, friendly. Source: Mathew G. Crisci

All started smoothly—other than the fact that my driver, Ron, picked me up at 2:30 AM to make the 6 AM United Los Angeles-to-Moscow flight. I mean how many Americans win a grand prize for editorial excellence in a Russian newspaper!

The flight itself was rather uneventful save for the fact that the pilot woke me in the middle of a deep sleep to announce United Airline’s intention to spend $1 billion on fleet cabin renovations. After a subsequent visit to one of the bathrooms replete with white silicone caulking seeping from the seams, wood filler stuffed into deep gorges in the folding doors, and a faucet handle that flapped in the breeze, I concluded the renovation plan might be about $1 billion shy.

The road from Domodedovo

We arrived 40 minutes early at Domodevo Airport, and we were still able to get a docking gate. Russian customs process was surprising efficient and the English speaking coordinator from the Russian Consulting Group was precisely where I was told he’d be. As he called his driver (the pickup/drop-off area is rather chaotic) I launched right into my didactic speech about this being my second trip to Russia, that the first dispelled many stereotypes, and I was confident this would add to my list of insights.  It turned out Vladimir was just 24 and looking forward to visiting America. “But, my friends tell me, America not so good for the middle class these days.” I asked what he meant. He responded, “Is it true that most Americans eat fast food and pizza and hotdogs. That fresh fruits and vegetables are purchased primarily for those of means?”

By 10:40 AM we were on the road. As we pulled out of the airport my driver announced, “Nyet Angliyski. (no English)”  Not to be outdone, I quickly responded “Nyet Russki (no Russian).” You could hear a pin drop in the car as we headed in the general direction of the Marriott, Olympic Centre (there are three Marriotts  in Moscow).  Every few miles I noticed a car stopped on the right side service road. I pointed. He started to quickly pull over. “Da, da, wizz.” I wave “Nyet, Nyet.”  I thought quietly, could the drivers of all those guys cars be taking a wiz? As I was to learn, there are no highway rest stops as they exist in parts of the United States.

The traffic was surprisingly light for the next 10 kilometres (that’s the European spelling). We came to a complete halt for 30 minutes on a rare 80 degree April day in Moscow. During the wait, I learned we didn’t have air conditioning.  No worries, I opened the window. We puttered along for about another hour. I looked down at my black chinos; they are covered with little white specks. Later someone explained matter of factly, “Moscow is quite industrial, our factories release industrial dust all the time.”

As we continued to sputter along, there was the occasional high-spirited call from the dispatcher. I got the gist. He was wondering where the hell the driver was. The driver became quite agitated. I learned a new word…… (unrepeatable).  My view was now exclusively dusty, dirty cars, clogged turnoffs, billboards screaming deals, and automobile accidents (two minor; two real fender benders) with drivers vigorously pointing the finger at each other in the middle of the highway.

Four hours, 444 turns and 44 neighborhoods later, we arrived at the hotel, a surprising sleek, 5-star oasis where everyone spoke impeccable English. Seeking a sympatric ear, I mentioned my harrowing 3 ½ hour trip from the airport. The desk clerk shrugged, “Just Moscow. Everybody wishes to drive, and our roads cannot accommodate.”

Visiting Artem and Irina

I took a stress-reducing shower, and called my contact at Russia Beyond the Headlines PR Manager, Irina Dunkova, to make arrangements for an office tour, meet the editor, and take a few PR pictures. So there was no mistake because of the indecipherable Cyrillian characters, Irina texted  me the paper’s address: Ulitsa Pravdy 24, Building No.4. She repeated the Building 4 thing three times. I showed the text message to the cab driver at the hotel. He nodded “Da, da.” 15 minutes and 400 rubles ($16 dollars US). He stopped in front of a gray building with four wooden doors, silver duct tape across each entrance and a set of crumpling concrete steps held in place with steel rods. I shook my head, “nyet, nyet,” which is the best I could do for “it can’t be.”

He pointed to the text message and then the building sign that said 24 Pravdy st. Since he appeared so confident, I never questioned the Building 4 thing. He put his hand out. I paid him, reluctantly got out and immediately texted Irina…in front of her “supposed” building. She replied immediately, “be right down.” Moments later another text arrived.” Do you have your passport?”  “Only a photocopy, I left the original in the hotel safe.” She responded philosophically, “Then, we will have to make do.”

Five minutes pass, no Irina. 10 more minutes go by, still no Irina. I decided it was time to ditch the texting crap and talk to a live voice.  She answered, “Mathew, where are you?” 

I reply, “I’m right in front of your building.”

“Describe it please.” I then refer to a red brick building with a bunch of teenagers. There is a pause on the other end of the phone.”I know of no such place, are you sure you are on Pravdy Street?”

“I haven’t got a clue because everything is in impossible-to-decipher Cyrillian,” I blurted  impatiently.  Calmly, Irina tried a new approach. “Describe some of your street surroundings.” I walk down the block calling out Cyrillian shapes ( you know N is this and H is that, etc). Suddenly,  I struck gold, a restaurant sign in Latin letters, “Maltese Restaurant.”  She responded, “now I know, wait right there.” I think to myself, like where am I going to go?

The story and the trip is sponsored by Russian-American Consulting Corporation (RACC). 

The story and the trip is sponsored by Russian-American Consulting Corporation (RACC)

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A few minutes later Irina and editorial editor, Artem Zagorodnov,  who I met a few times in the States, came walking across the street side by side. Irina was exactly as I envisioned: a bouquet of beaming bubbles with golden blonde hair. Artem was dressed in his usual stoic stare blended with a slightly sheepish grin. There not much to say, we just started laughing in the middle of the street, then headed to the lobby of their actual building..three blocks away!  The lobby was vintage communist era: battleship gray paint, ancient computer equipment and bare walls—no pictures, no corporate signs, nothing. The guy behind the desk had a large mustache and an even larger scowl. Artem took my passport photocopy and started talking to him in Russian. There was a flurry of activity behind the desk, the guy entered something into his computer, made a call, then mumbled something to Artem. I resisted the temptation to make some wise ass, sarcastic comment that only I would find outrageous and funny. (As I learned previously, the Russian and American sense of humor are quite different). I asked Artem matter-of-factly what was going on. His hand gesture with his hand, “Just be patient.” Twenty minutes passed. Finally the steel metal turnstile opened. Moments later we were walking down a long, characterless hall. At the end of the hall was a wooden door, and a clean, professionally designed plaque with the Russian Now logo.

I was amazed once inside. It was the sleekest, most modern newsroom I’d ever seen. There was digital clocks of the world, ticker tapes and 30 or 40 bright, wholesome attractive men and women engaged in various functions at their large, sleek high-resolution flat screens. Artem (an Ohio State graduate, by the way) gave me a terrific tour of day-to-day, introduced me to a number of his staff, and showed me the latest edition in progress. We take a bunch of publicity pictures (I’ve included a few in my nov-o-lette). I was genuinely impressed. We went into a conference room and discussed strategy, ideas in development, his vision, and, not least importantly, and where to have dinner since it was almost  5:30 PM.

Artem explained he has a few things to finish up, before we meet his girlfriend Eva at one of his favorite restaurants, Toro. He introduced me to an intense, friendly young man named Alex who volunteered to kill some time with me.

Alex asked if I was thirsty. I responded, “A bottle of water would really hit the spot now. It’s been a hell of a day. “He smiled knowingly and he pointed toward the kitchen. The guy was very inquisitive. He started bombarding me with thoughtful cultural, political and business questions. Another colleague, Igor, introduced himself. Clearly, he and Alex were good friends. We entered the kitchen. Alex placed nine 50-gram glasses and a jar of baby pickles on the counter, then he reached into the freezer and pulled out a bottle of Russian vodka.  “We toast new friendships, my victory and world peace for mankind.” I got the friendships and world peace thing, but took a pass on “my victory.” Alex explained how and why the crunchy, salty pickles enhance the vodka experience.  I’ve now been up about 26 straight hours, not eaten solid food in the last 10, and have got a pretty good buzz. The boys offered to do another round of three, I begged off. They went up to the roof “to have a smoke.”

Artem returned. Suddenly, every light, every computer, every clock in the place blinked and shut down. There were horrific groans and moans across the editorial floor. The unflappable Artem decided to let people go home, confident the backup system would kick in, and all will be fine on Monday (which it was). “I don’t know why people get so excited about such things. Let’s go to dinner, and some drinks.” I asked, “Do we need to call a cab?” He looked quizzically, “why.” I responded, “Isn’t it rush hour?” Artem then explained Moscow taxi etiquette. “It is much easier and faster to simply get a car ride in Moscow. We shall just go down to the Prospekt (main street) stand on the corner raise your hand and wait. Somebody will stop, roll down the window. We tell them where we want to go, and then negotiate a price. But always negotiate the final price before you get in the car.”

I figured he was nuts. Imagine try doing that in Manhattan?  But it was his city, so I figured what the hell, do as the locals do. About four minutes later we are sitting in a grey BMW circa 1990 on the way to the restaurant. There I was introduced to his tall stunning girlfriend, Eva, who looked like something out of town and country.  Fortunately, we were able to secure a patio table on what was a spectacularly warm, clear night. No sooner had we ordered drinks when Artem announced he had to make an “important stop.” Minutes later he returned to the table from outside the restaurant. I asked, “In case I need to the toilette, where exactly is it?”

“Oh, “responded Artem, Toro’s men’s room is small and always crowded. That’s why I use the rest rooms at the Starbuck’s across the mall area.”  Dinner consisted of good food (Artem said the 9 inch high Toro burger was the best in town), lively conversation and lots of dry red wine.

A man in the church tower across the way started banging on a giant bell. The bell reminded Artem it was now 11 PM. My eyelids were drooping (I’ve been up about 30 hours straight). “Let’s get you back to the hotel.” I laughed because I knew we are about to do that street thing again. Artem explained a subtlety.  “At this time on such a busy Prospekt,” said Artem, “I usually let Eva do the waving. We get more response, faster.”

I smiled, and thought to myself, the old bait-and-switch is alive and well in Moscow. Five minutes later I was speeding down the Prospekt to the sound of Russian country and western in a blue Toyota pickup truck. Since my driver, “nyet govorite angliyski” and I “nyet govorite russki,” it was a peaceful ride back to the hotel.

The story and the trip is sponsored by Russian-American Consulting Corporation (RACC). 

The story and the trip is sponsored by Russian-American Consulting Corporation (RACC)

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