Sunday, October 07, 2007

Midnight Adventures at Moscow's Sheremetevo-1 Airport

Well, there’s an outlet in the women’s toilet. You can work in there.

Somehow I managed not to bray in response. I was at Sheremetevo-1 (share-ye-MYET-ye-vo), one of Moscow’s domestic airports last Sunday evening and was prepping to spend the night there. Now, if only I had some power, I could work, write and be entertained on my laptop. But the battery was down to 39% and prospects electrical were looking slim.

This wasn’t my first all-nighter at Sheremetevo-1. Last time it was accidental. That was in 2004 or so. . .and that night the food service manager let me set up camp in his restaurant, giving me all-night access to an outlet and table. The night flew by – kinda, sorta – and come morning and departure time I presented Mr. Nice Manager a decent souvenir from Athens. It was well worth it.

But management has changed in the interim and Sunday evening, I learned that Mr. Nice Manager has been replaced by Mr. Hard Line and he wasn’t sympathetic. Imagine setting up a laptop in the restroom. True, outlets are there, but picture a laptop on a wet countertop between sinks or dealing with the aroma let alone the scenery. In short, I had ambiance issues.

What to do. . . what to do. . .what to do? Back when planning these flights three weeks earlier I deliberately timed the overnight layover in Moscow en route from St Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don, figuring that I would catch a cab ($50) to the area’s least expensive hotel ($150) for a quick night’s sleep. That could have worked. But. . . but what I didn’t expect was that my weekend in St Petersburg, which followed a weeklong conference at nearby Peterhof, would run $200 for lodging. Too bad, so sad that my visions of staying in a dorm or with friends didn’t materialize. Alas, the gap between planning, expectations and. . . reality. But God was good and provided and protected and my weekend was extraordinary. Still it came with a price tag and I had grown quite weary of forking over rubles here, there and everywhere.

So Sunday evening at Sheremetevo-1, I decided to take control of the situation (If only!), bite the bullet and pull an all-nighter at the airport like a true Russian. This is one more thing to love about these folks. They’re so hardy and adaptable and willing to be uncomfortable without complaint. Admittedly, some folks down considerable amounts of hard liquor to get there, but that's another story.

Back to the quest for power. Two airport employees were especially helpful, a rare commodity here in the Land of Customer (dis)Service. Granted, it was after midnight and action was slow. But the 20-something police officer working the security scanner at the main entrance was quite helpful. For a minute there he considered unplugging his big x-ray machine and plugging it into my extension cord to share electricity. But we ended up vetoing that one.

Hands down, the Customer Service Award goes to the Information Booth lady. Not only did she smile, a novel concept in a land where smiles are carefully rationed, but she had a spare outlet inside her hut-of-a-booth. She couldn’t allow me inside to use it, unfortunately, but she did suggest that I hand over the laptop to recharge for an hour or two. Oh, did I have misgivings about that.

This laptop is my baby, I told her. No, actually it’s my brain.

She nodded. She’s probably a mother too.

May I ask your name?

It was Vera. Good enough. Vera means faith and I would have faith in Vera.

Two hours later I came back, laptop was 99% charged and good for a couple hours of Super Word Games. Viva Vera!

(Caption: I'm in this photo - can you spot me?)

You know, of course, that the secret to working all night is to set mini-goals. My first goal: stay awake until midnight, easy enough since my flight landed at 10:30 p.m. Next, stay busy until 3:00 a.m. And until then 6:00 and then around 8:00 when it’s time to head toward that 9:30 flight. Being armed with mini-goals and more bottles of Diet Coke than I care to admit, made all the difference. That and the occasional stroll the length of the waiting area.

I found a place to set up camp, in the café area with tables and chairs, no power though, and it cleared out eventually except for a truck driver named Eugene who drives to France regularly and who claimed that he had been up for three days. This Eugene, or Zhenya for short, and I decided to team up and provide security for each other. Like when he wanted to go outside and smoke I would watch his table. And when I needed to go for a stroll, he would watch my luggage, cross-stitch, books, Diet Coke and my beloved Paper-Mate mechanical pencils, all spread across the table as Americans are inclined to do.

What a photo op, strolling through the waiting area, past all the people catching a snooze after the blasted intercom music was finally turned off around 2:00. I was plotting how I might get away with photographing that scene. Best of all was a dignified middle-aged woman in a pink tweed suit who was reclining quite carefully across three seats so as not to muss her suit. She was sleeping with her pumps on and her ankles crossed. Now that’s a lady for you. Fortunately I didn’t have my camera with me because she stirred as I walked by, opened her eyes and would have caught me in the act.

Actually, I was uncomfortable with taking people’s photos that night. There weren’t that many people around and it would have been too obvious. But Zhenya was fine with it. No problem, he said! And he got away with it so the attached photos are thanks to him.

Throughout the night, Mr. Hard Line, the food service manager managed to become more pleasant. Drinking Diet Coke as I was, about every hour I needed more ice. That meant a trip to the bar and once it was Mr. Hard Line who served me. Not that he was softening on his power stance, mind you, but he was fine with the ice. I didn’t mention to him that if he had been like Mr. Nice Guy, I would have given him a souvenir of St Petersburg.

But who knows, maybe next time I overnight at Sheremetevo-1, there will be yet another food service manager and it might not matter if he gives me power or not. Maybe by then Shere-1 will have an internet cafe as does Vnykova -- pronounced VNOOK-ov-a – another of Moscow’s regional airports. It never hurts to dream about progress. Either that or I might have to amend the ladies' room sign to Women's Toilet and Computer Cafe.

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