Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Short Night of the Longest Day

I had just arrived back at Sheremetevo-2 (Sheree-MYET-ye-vo), Moscow’s international airport, after an exhilarating tour of Biblical sites in Greece and Turkey. It was June 22, 2004 – the longest day of the year. And that’s part of the reason my travel plans went awry.

Our flight left Athens at 1:40 that afternoon and when we arrived in Moscow, my watch said 5:15. I was tired and looking forward to getting back in Rostov that evening.

By the time I made it through passport control, baggage pickup and transferred to Sheremetevo-1, the adjoining regional airport, it was around 6:30 p.m.according to my watch. Figured I had a couple of hours before queuing up at 8:30 for the last flight to Rostov at 9:50 that evening. How to fill those hours? For one thing, all seats in the vast waiting area were taken so my options were limited.

What better pastime at an airport than people-watching? Shortly I noticed a 50-something man file in and resign himself to standing with the rest of us around the perimeter of the waiting area.

From his appearance – a starched button-down shirt, khakis, recent haircut, hint of anxiety on his face – I determined that he was an American and come to Russia either for ministry or business. Deciding that it was my mission to brighten his day, I went over to say hello.

Do you speak English?

He was American!

I decided to clarify my intentions right away.

I serve as a missionary, I said. So believe me, I have only the purest of motives here. But, say, I’m about to get myself some bottled water. Could I get one for you?

Well – sure! And I know this is not a come on. No woman has come on to me for 35 years.

Okay, good. With that settled, we could have a nice conversation.

And we did. We talked and talked. He’s a petroleum engineer in Siberia. He works for two months and then has two months off. Something like that. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, kids in college, horses and enjoys the pleasantries of a country life. On the other hand, small town Siberia isn’t exactly his cup of tea. He misses his family and internet access to them wasn’t easy. He speaks little Russian. His apartment needs repairs, plumbing and such, that isn’t easily solved. But still the pay isn’t bad.

I envy you, he said. I’d give anything to be able to do what you are doing.

What? I wasn’t believing my ears.

My life is so complicated, he continued. With the kids in school and our lifestyle as it is, there’s no way I can walk away from all that. But I’d give anything to be able to chuck it all and be a missionary.

We talked on and on. He had time to fill as well. He was waiting for a Russian colleague and together they would head east that evening. Eventually Colleague showed up, spotted him and headed in our direction. He stopped short when he saw me and tried to make sense of the situation, Okalahoma Engineer speaking English with some woman, obviously an American. I could see his mental wheels spinning.

Oh, I live in Rostov and we’re just visiting while I wait for my 9:50 flight

You’d better hurry. You’re already late.

My heart leaped. I glanced at my watch. It said 8:30.

No, I’m fine. It’s only 8:30. I have plenty of time.

What was his problem? The sun was high in the sky – it wouldn’t set for two more hours. All was fine with my world.

Excuse me, he said. But it’s 9:30.

Somebody’s watch was wrong. We squinted at the airport clock across the way. It was indeed 9:30.

What on earth? This made no sense at all. It was 15 minutes until departure. But first I had to get through passport check-in, through security screening across to baggage check-in and then up to the gate and hop on a shuttle out to the plane waiting far across the tarmac.

Oh. . ..dear. . .God! I wasn’t swearing – I was praying. I grabbed my luggage and dashed across the waiting area. Folks near passport check and security made a path for me and I rushed through to baggage check-in.

We have finished boarding,
said the agent.

I’ve made the dumbest mistake ever. Could you please help me catch that flight?

Gate Agent picked up the phone and talked with a co-worker out at the plane. It looked as if I might have a chance.

Do you have any luggage to check?

Yes, one suitcase.

Oops - wrong answer. They had already finished loading baggage and locked the hatch.

Sorry but unfortunately you can’t make that flight.

Oh how stupid, I thought. I’ve been at the airport for hours! How could this have happened?

How was I was an hour off? Oy!Oy! Oy! My watch was still on Athens time. I hadn’t managed to change it when we landed in Moscow.

Oh for pity’s sake. . .What to do?

Well it was obvious that I wouldn’t be spending the night in Rostov. On to Plan B . I needed to back in the morning for the 9:30 flight. But where to spend the night? There aren’t any hotels near Sheremetevo-1. I could go back to Sheremetevo-2 and stay at the Otel’ there, but taxi to and fro plus room would be $200. Plus I had to buy another plane ticket.

I decided to be bono fide Russian and spend the night sitting in the airport. People do that here and besides the whole ridiculous situation required that penance be paid.

And so I spent the night – the shortest night of the year – there in the Sheremetevo-1 airport waiting area with 150-some other travelers who were dozing off and keeping an eye on their luggage. And I ended up rather enjoying myself.

I had been itching to start editing my photos of Corinth, Meteora and Patmos and I had hundreds. All I needed was a good table and power. Toward the end of the waiting hall was a café with high round tables. That wouldn't work, but farther still, past a velvet rope and two steps up was a semi-exclusive restaurant. Perfect! I decided to go for it.

The manager readily agreed, a surprise here in the land of nyet, and allowed me to work at a table even after they closed around midnight. Soon it was just me and the cleaning lady. Every hour or so, I’d step away to refresh my Diet Coke or visit the ladies’ room and she would watch my things. The night flew by and around 4:00 a.m., through the vast wall of windows I could see the sky begin to lighten. I figured that Oklahoma Engineer and colleague had probably arrived at their Siberian oil field. And in just a few hours, I would be back in Rostov and in my own bed.

Fast forward 18 months, to January 2007. Once again I found myself at Sheremetevo-2, Moscow’s international airport after a flight from the States.I’d made it through passport control and was claiming my baggage when who should come striding into the baggage area but Oklahoma Engineer, himself. I spotted him first and decided, once again, to brighten his day.

He remembered me too, eventually. Our encounter was late morning on one of the shortest days of the year. Rest assured that I had already reset my watch to local time. After all, it was only 2:00 a.m. in Dallas. But I rather like to think that I had learned my lesson well. In short, be in whatsoever time zone you find yourself. Be there one hundred percent, watch and all.

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