Monday, January 24, 2011

Groundhog Days

This is happening too much to me―these 75 hour layovers in mid-winter, in mid-Russia. It starts with the agonizing drive from the airport, the last hour jerky bumpy stops-and-goes past miles of monotonous buildings in a cramped dark bus. Conversation among the crew of 11 dies out quickly as heads bend to meet hands propped on elbows.  

Finally we arrive at the Marriott Courtyard at 2pm, a discreet hotel embedded on a narrow back street in north central Moscow about a half mile from the Kremlin. We get keys and we pilots agree to meet at 8:30 to go in search of victuals. Eating at the Marriott is quite out of the question. Breakfast alone is over 1000 rubles, about $29. After a deep hard nap, I meet Bill and Frank at the appointed time. We fill our pockets with rubles from the ATM, pull on jackets, gloves, scarfs and ski caps and step into the cutting winter.

We pass an English pub. Looks warm in there. We go in and choke on smoke. Two Scotsmen sitting at the bar beckon us over. They heard our English. They're Halliburton men. I tell them I used to be in the oil business.

We sit at the bar, order ales and look at menus. Bill ogles the pretty blond tending bar and tries to get friendly with her. “Are you from Nepal?” he asks. 

She puffs up. “I am from Kazakhstan!” she barks, and storms away.

Frank and I look at him. “Nepal? Dude, that's in the Himalaya's. It's a backward country. You've insulted her.”

Bill shrugs. “So, I made a mistake.”

Frank coughs. He can't stand the smoke. We pay and leave without eating. I tell the two Halliburton men to “Keep it turning to the right.”* They about spit their beer. They thought I was joshing them about once being an oil man.

Another frigid block and we find a Mexican restaurant, settle in and eat decently and at great expense to the ear-shattering roar of a live rock band. Back at the hotel we agree to meet at 12:30 pm next day for a lunch hike.

At the appointed time I find my two co-pilots standing in the lobby with eyes half shut. None of us has slept well. Like me, Bill has not shaven. But Frank has. Our wallets thinned out, we milk the ATM again. We find a mall food court. I order a pork stew. I leave half of it. Russian cuisine is just not appetizing to me.

It is here that I first notice Frank's strange eating habits. He cuts a flat piece of mystery meat into a grid, somewhat resembling a tic-tac-toe pattern. He eats each one slowly, eyes shifting back and forth. I'm certain he's accessing the palatability of the dish, and from the looks of it, is not impressed. Bill carves up a hunk of roasted chicken for which he paid a small fortune. He is still smarting over the bar girl’s rebuff. Frank finishes his meat, declares it good and we turn up collars for the RTB to the Marriott. We will meet at 7:30 pm for another hike.

7:30. Bill's beard is thicker, his hair frazzled. So is mine. Frank is fresh and tidy. We execute another bone-chilling walk to another cafe. Tonight it is Belarus food. Not too bad. Bill laments about the bar girl while I continue to study the way Frank eats. Again he grids up his meat. He studies each square before forking it, then pauses in mid flight and rotates it on his fork, examining it from every angle. He completely downs the entree before moving on to the potatoes. He finishes those completely before starting on the vegetables.

We are beginning to learn much about one another. Bill, an ex-USAF pilot, is a scout master and is anticipating taking his young troops on a winter hike and campout next week. Frank, a former Navy pilot met his wife in the Navy. She flew F-18s in Iraq, logging several combat missions. Now she is acing medical school. Frank has married far above his station, he reckons, and Bill and I lend support to his conclusion. Back at the Marriott we agree on a 12:30 meet for tomorrow's lunch mission. We wonder why each meeting must be on a half hour, but that's the way Frank likes it.

12:30, day three. I know now how Bill Murray felt in Ground Hog Day. Bill looks positively ragged. Me too. Frank is ready for inspection. We raid the ATM and head out. It's back to the food court. We get pizza. Talk is sparse now. Even the subject of the bar girl has gotten stale. Afterward, we decide to risk a cold hike to Red Square to go in the Russian Museum of History. A bunch of Tsar stuff is in there, they say. We arrive and a guard turns us away. He points at a sign on the door. It's in Cyrillic. We figure he means it's closed. But why must he frown as if we intend to blow the building up? Why must Russians always frown? Frank suggests―correctly, I believe―that it's going to take another generation before Russians emerge from the mistrustful mindset the Soviet regimes bred into them. Back at the hotel we agree to meet for dinner at 7:30.

This time it's Lebanese. Bills gets lamb, I fish, and Frank portions up a slab of beef. I can stand it no more. I ask Frank why he does that. He's puzzled. No one has ever asked him that before. We go back to the hotel and try to hibernate.
On the final morning the crew assembles. Bill and I have finally shaved. The bus arrives. We pile on and head for Domodedovo airport for the 11 hour flight. Bill sighs and mumbles, “Livin' the dream, man. We're livin' the dream.”

We have many great pilots at this airline, Bill and Frank included. Their flying skills are exceeded only by their fluency in the art of sarcasm.

p.s. Just as I was about to post this I heard that Domodedovo airport has been bombed. The body count is so far up to 35. I have always been leery of walking through that airport. I'm always picking my way through great masses of grave looking faces, many of them menacing and seedy looking.

Livin' the nightmare.

*This phrase is the oil business's aloha.