The ride into Moscow from the airport was yet another surreal exercise. All of Russia was a place that would make Salvador Dali say, “woah, fuck this!” and become Amish.
We met our driver, a middle aged Russian man named Sasha, just outside the Passport Control gates. He had a little cardboard sign with the name of our company written illegibly in faded black marker. We only knew he was looking for us because he was the only guy there holding a sign at all. Everyone else had flowers or potatoes.
We dragged out our belongings, all disheveled after a thorough search in customs, and completely unrepackable, into the parking lot at the Sheremetrovo airport. We went across the main lot and down a set of stairs so worn they were basically a mix or rebar and gravel, and found his car. This was my first ride in a Volga.
The Volga is a staple of Soviet automotive engineering. A very big, fairly comfortable car, that looked like it came from the forties, but was not more than ten years old, and falling apart already. It actually looked pretty good. Most of everything we saw so far was covered in a layer of grime, but Sasha took pride in his car, it was washed clean, patched up with care on the broken panels, but he took his job as driver seriously.
He helped is drag our bags down and load them into the trunk of the car. All the time smoking on a soviet Belamor Canal cigarette. These were the 1/3 harsh tobacco, 2/3 cardboard tube that you pinched to make a filter. They had a smell that you couldn’t miss, and couldn’t place either, unless you had been to Tacoma.
We loaded in, and noticed that no seatbelts were to be found. Bob and Paul were faster than I was, and got I the back. I was left in front, which I learned was commonly called the “Death Seat”. Bob bravely risked tetanus and reached in between the cushions to find some sort of thing to hold him down, and got a seatbelt, that clicked together after only a few tries. Sasha didn’t seem pleased with the amount of dirt and rust chips that this left on his seat covers, but we were in a rather polite state of panic at this point, and didn’t notice much.
Moscow is big.
I was watching on the map I had, and the airport was actually inside the city limits, but it took us what seemed like forever to make our way toward the center, where our hotel was. We were so tired and jetlagged that everything swirled past us in a great grey blur. But that was the first thing I noticed. When you drive throughout Seattle, the city is green, Los Angeles has a desert yellow, but Moscow was grey. Brutally so. But not uniformly so. Almost like you were watching the city on an old Black and White TV. Colors were supposed to be there, but you couldn’t see them.
Partway in, we entered the Chimki neighborhood (which means Chemical), and on the outskirts were these GIGANTIC tank traps. Easily six stories high. I asked Sasha what these were, but his English was even worse than my Russian, so we tried translating through Bob. I took a few minutes, but we determined that this was the point where the Russian Army stopped the Germans in WWII. Inside the city. Crap.
Much of the rest of the rive in was like being in a movie from 1940 where a totally obvious film loop is playing outside the car. As we approached the hotel, things got different. Our little neighborhood had a small airport, the big DINAMO soccer stadium, and a trolley stop right in front of the hotel. The Aerostar.
Compared to the city, the Aerostar hotel was new. It was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and was almost complete. It was apparently the Joint Venture between the Russians and some Canadian company. Sasha dropped us and our bags off ant the front door, smiled, and left us there. Not knowing what to expect next, we walked towards the doors, and surprisingly they opened.
A very polite doorman offered us champagne and motioned us towards the check in desk. Upstairs was a full bar, and a little gift shop was near the stairs going up. Everyone spoke perfect English, and they preferred to be paid in Dollars.
This was our home for the next few months. They would regret welcoming us.