Friday, August 1, 2008

DE-RU - Frankfurt --> Moscow

I transferred at Frankfurt. As I checked in for my next flight, I felt proud of myself when I got to use my extensive German skills acquired from last year's trip to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. That's right; I had a month in German-speaking countries to hone the following words that I used on the woman at the gate's check-in desk: "Guten tag. Sprechen sie englisch?"

The check-in went splendidly right up until I turned to go into the gate's waiting area... when she asked if I had checked any baggage. I replied that I had, to which she asked to see my baggage ticket. My what-now? Apparently back at Dulles, I was supposed to get some claim ticket when I checked my bag, but I got no such thing. She said that if I wanted my bag to be on my plane to Moscow, I should go up to the desk for United Airlines (I flew on them from Dulles to Frankfurt -- they're all in a business alliance together). Suddenly the perfectly-set temperature of Frankfurt's airport began to feel a little more stifling.

I went back-aways & took the escalator up. The line for United was staffed by one person... and had a lengthy line of people waiting to chat with said one person. I turned to the information desk right nearby -- with a queue of 4 people -- and checked to make sure this was the right place. Yep. OK so I got in line... I attempted to gauge the line’s length and the rate at which it was moving. Considering it was a help desk and not a check-in counter, I knew each person could take several minutes. While the queue wasn’t horrendous, I had only 30 minutes before boarding; and it was certainly long enough that the queue likely exceeded my available time. Keep in mind that I’m trying to get my bag on the plane, which I would hope would be done right about the same time (or preferably before) I get on the plane.

The Lufthansa desks were immediately beside the United Airlines desk. While it had sizable queues, they were being tended by a wall full of people. A couple minutes into my wait, a whole flock of Lufthansa staff came out to tend to their long lines. Each of these staffmembers was quite cute, so I kept watching them partly because of hormones; and partly because I really really wanted to talk to them to make sure I was in the right place. Here I should define “cute”. “Cute” is the kind of girl you’d take home to Mom – the kind that you’d actually want to talk to.

I really didn't want to leave my place in queue to go talk to them, however, just in case I was indeed in the right place and would have to then get to the back of the line. My queue-neighbors here – all American – didn’t seem to be the talkative type. Just as the line of people waiting to talk to each staffmember would dissipate, and I'd get ready to say "Enschuldigung, frauleine" (okay so spelling German is not my strong suit), someone else would walk on up.

Eventually I got the attention of one of them (the spectacularly cute brunette) and the look on her face was priceless. It was basically the expression of "I can't believe this could ever happen, this person's bag is gone forever". She ran off & returned about a minute later with the response that there was really little they could do but hope it gets on my flight. Hope. If I got to Moscow & didn't see my bag, I'd have to go to Lost & Found. Fortunately, my bag was littered with little tags with my name & contact info plastered all over them. I could describe exactly what it looks like and, during my flight to Moscow, even practiced drawing pictures. I could even describe everything that was inside it -- right down to the order in which it had been packed.

However, I was also imagining how not having my bag might pose an issue at passport control... or customs... or wherever else I might end up upon entering a country that we were at de facto war with only 15 years ago. That’s recent enough that anyone at the counters would surely have memories of that time. And the way current events have been going, we're not the best of buddies as it is.

Could the bag be shipped to where I'm staying in Moscow? Would I even still be at that address? How long can I go with what I have in my carry-on bag? What if they ship it to the address on all my little tags... that is: in Maryland?

But wait... how does my lack of a little stub of paper impact anything at all? It's not like anyone needed to see it. The only reason the stub is generated in the first place is when my bag is checked in. I saw them put the big barcode tag onto it... I even noticed it read Dulles, Frankfurt, and Moscow. What, on their end, could pose any issue?

I’ll get back to that all in a couple paragraphs, but first I want to keep things in chronological order. Flying from Frankfurt to Moscow was a neat experience. I got my window seat this time – right in the back row: my favorite spot. It faced north so I could watch the solar eclipse. I couldn’t see the total eclipse (which was occurring further northeast); and anyone not looking for it wouldn’t even notice that we were in the penumbra.

I didn't get hold of welder's glass, but it was still neat to see the effect upon the ice crystals which had formed on the window. A bunch of little eclipses all over the place. The clouds took on odd shadows which didn't outright make it feel like an eclipse – the people sitting beside me couldn't spot anything. With my polarised sunglasses on, the clouds also became polarised and turned into a rainbow of colors right around the center of my vision. I can't explain the physics of it all... but it was kind of neat.

The crossover from Poland into Russia was neat. It was fascinating in that I could see the border. No, they didn't carve "Poland" and "Russia" into the ground... but the color of the farms changed completely. The roads even changed from the lines of gray and black indicative of asphalt roads to lines of white denoting unpaved roads. The countryside of Russia was beautiful -- almost completely pristine, broken only by the sudden appearance of Moscow's apartment blocks. I mean it when I say “sudden”... we flew over Moscow to loop around & approach the airport. It was isolated forestland one moment, massive metropolis seconds later, and then back to lush countryside just a few seconds more.

Arriving in Moscow, the first stop was Passport Control. I knew it all seemed too easy when I dodged around a lengthy mass of people (by the way, there's very little "queuing" here – really more just a bunch of people wrangling around) and got myself into a shorter “queue”. Only a couple people away from heading up to the booth, the English woman behind me mentioned to the American couple just behind her that they needed to fill out these little cards. Oops... that would be what that mass of people was, which I successfully dodged. Fortunately, the American couple were my seat-neighbors just minutes earlier. The wife grabbed us all some cards & I filled mine out, with much rejoicing.

At passport control, I approached & confidently gave my card & passport over. She said something back, to which I pulled out my phrasebook and replied "vih ga-va-rit-ye pa-an-gliski?" That means "Do you speak English?" in Russian... I must have pronounced it well enough, because she replied back with "Nyet." She kept repeating the same thing, so I grabbed the only other piece of official paper I had... my boarding pass. She took it & seemed contented until she started asking for something else. I just stared blankly back until she then stamped everything & gave back all my documents. "Spasiba", I said, and passed through the control point.

Next up was baggage claim. Was my backpack there? Would you know it: my theory of "what's the point of the stub, anyway?" was correct... it was sitting right there on the floor with the rest of my flight's luggage. Onto customs... Customs was just like every other country that's not America: there's the path with the red icon and the path with the green icon. Go through the green line and all you do is walk right on through. Granted, this one had armed guards & cameras mounted right at eye-level, less than a meter from your face... but no problems there.

Next I emerged into a room full of people – all carrying signs, waving arms, and yelling out people's names. I just walked forward slowly, almost as if I was on parade alongside my fellow arrivals. I got to the end and... no host family. I pulled out my mobile and made a call that costs me about $5.99/min ... no answer from my ride. Fortunately, seconds later, I got a text-message stating that they'd arrive in 10 minutes. Punctuality, as I would later discover, was not Anastasia’s strongest suit.

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