Travel is a funny thing. You meet people and share stories and part ways, never to meet again. Take my seat-mate from London to St. Petersburg. He came along and put his covered cup pretty much on the pillow I’d set on the empty seat between us. I reached out to rescue my pillow, he reached for the cup and of course it tipped. I dragged out a wad of Kleenex and mopped it up. We sat in mutually annoyed silence as the rest of the passengers sorted themselves, the doors closed and we took to the air. Eventually the flight attendants began to pass out the immigration forms for Russia. He asked for a pen. Full of the need to continue passing out papers, the attendant agreed to provide one and moved off. My seatmate waited for awhile and asked again. At last, I dug out one of my spare pens and handed it over (those of you who know me well also know I am a pen freak, so I always have a least 3 if not more stashed around). That broke the ice. He started talking. I won’t go into the entire conversation here but one of the phrases he used to describe a wealthy person throwing a snit-fit because they hadn’t gotten their way I shall cherish forever: “throwing the toys out of the pram”. All in all, from that first inauspicious beginning we spent the nearly 3-hour flight chatting like mad. We shook hands after deplaning and laughed about the inauspicious beginning to our conversation and … I never saw him again.
In company with others, I walked down long green corridors punctuated by flight gates and several shops until we reached a large echoing barn of a room where everyone found a place in a line. There were no neat little ropes politely corralling and directing us, just a bunch of people standing in ragged columns. At the other end of the room were enclosed channels with numbers above each channel, as well as five or six signs announcing in Russian (and, thankfully, English) that this was Passport Control. Inevitably, I fell into conversation with the couple in front of me; he turned out to be a retired Naval Attache and he and his wife had lived all over the world, including Russia. In the line next to me were two couples, the husband of one grumbling and snorting at the inefficiency. You guessed it … those two couples were also part of my tour group, although the couple in front of me were not. At last it was my turn, and I have to admit to a bit of nervousness, since I had all sorts half-baked notions of stern Russian officials demanding to why I hadn’t filled out parts of my immigration card (because I didn’t know the answers). The woman was very polite and spoke very little (probably because of the language barrier) and when she handed back my passport I used the word I’d heard my Naval couple use, which turned out to be “thank you”. She smiled.
From there I entered a cramped hall crowded with luggage belts, luggage and people where a young man stood holding a vast luggage cart and a sign that said “Stanford Travel/Study”. We were to collect our luggage, bring it to him, and he would get us all out of there, through Customs and into the hands of our guide. My snorty friend from Passport Control was back, stalking around trying to find his luggage on the belt, complaining about it and generally getting in everyone’s way. Turned out that our young man had collected it for him.
Dutifully we followed our luggage man out, where we met our guide (and I don’t remember her name but I know I’ll do so later). She led us outside into a busy dark landscape with snow blowing horizontally, warning us to be careful, as it was about 34 and slippery.
It was absolutely exhilarating. I’m in Russia, in winter, and tomorrow will be an amazing, full day.