Twelve of us arrived at Moscow Domodedovo yesterday, bleary eyed and a bit surprised by the chilly weather awaiting us outside. Our flight, direct from Washington after a day of orientating, was fairly uneventful, save for the masses of high school students who accompanied us on our journey. They were Russian students, presumably either financially or academically advantaged, who’d all been in the States on a short-term exchange. They wore matching bright blue t-shirts, but otherwise all of them seemed to be decked out in various Americana—hoodies with logos from universities, lots of Abercrombie logos, and huge key chains with catchphrases in English. In general, their level of energy on a ten hour flight was impressively boisterous, but the final moments before touchdown were the most memorable. As soon as the pilot announced our descent, they began shouting to each other (they were scattered in pair and triplets across ten or twelve rows), reminding the group of the great things awaiting them back home. One girl yelled out “BLACK BREAD!” and another responded “POTATOES WITH BUTTER!” Really? You couldn’t find any potatoes in America? You’re shouting in anticipation for black bread? Either Russian cuisine is mysteriously close to the Russian soul, or they were with very negligent host families….
When we were only a few minutes from landing, a few students started singing the national anthem (which is the Soviet anthem tune, with new words) and almost the entire group caught on. The exchange student next to me rolled her eyes at her colleagues and continued to read an American Cosmo, while her two compatriots in the row clutched gigantic stuffed animals and looked over her shoulder at the 88 sex tips being offered in this month’s addition. Otherwise, the song caught on with the group, so we actually touched down on Russian soil amidst dozens of patriotic voices in harmony, not altogether off key either. Then the most exuberant returnee started yelling “We’re in Russia!!! We’re in Russia!”
Indeed, we were.
We parted ways from the younguns in blue at baggage claims—bless their future exploits but spare us their company in enclosed spaces—and ventured out to the bus that would take us to the dorms. The ride was surreal and lovely, thanks to the shifting Moscow landscape and jetlag. Set quite far out of the city, the road from the airport goes by new developments of sizable brick homes, empty fields and forests, the occasional horse grazing or babushka peddling strawberries along the highway, then the skyline grows denser and finally the crush of outer Moscow, slow, congested traffic surrounded by billboards (BUY! BUY! BUY!), shops, car dealerships and the most depressing looking apartment buildings (likely) ever.
Thanks to the notoriously terrible traffic, it took quite a while to reach Moscow State University (MGU), where we would all be staying. Despite our exhaustion and the general sense of resignation that ought accompany travel in Russia, we were all very curious about our housing. We’d been told we’d be in dorms, but whether or not we’d have singles, doubles, quads, en suite bathrooms, etc was all very vague. Hearts were sent pounding when one program coordinator suggests we’d be living in “blocks” with “I don’t know, probably bathrooms on each floor”…[Mental Image: Me, twenty Russian students with sour morning glares, fifteen exchange students from around the world feeling simultaneously entitled and insecure. We’re all clutching towels and toiletries, or anxiously crossing our legs. We learn to strategically wake up three hours before class to avoid [domestic] Moscow traffic jams].
Ends up we’re all in two room doubles, sharing a bathroom with only our roommate, which is really a best-case scenario. My room is a cute, tiny spot with wooden floors and a cot-like bed and a big window looking out onto the park across from MGU. When I say cot-like, I actually mean a metal-framed divan with three scraggly seat cushions and a sandbag-mattress atop. Not sure if it best suits a front porch or a waiting room bench, if pawnshops had waiting rooms. I’m sure there are chiropractic advantages to this, even if it’s five inches shorter than I am. I also have a desk, a little closet, a set of shelves that includes an old fashioned fold out writing desk, and a little table that I’ve turned into my tea station. The university itself is on a hill, overlooking most of Moscow, and flanked on most sides by beautiful parks and slopes. The one quite urbanized corner of campus is where the subway is, along with an enormous grocery store and fancy-pants mall, stocked with all American and European shops (Body Shop, L’Occitaine, Tommy Hilfiger, Starbucks). Ahhhh, the chance to buy American goods as twice the price and thrice the prestige…
Thanks to jetlag (or subconscious jitters?) I woke at 3am with nowhere to go and no chance of falling back asleep, which had its silver lining: summer in Moscow means that its only dark about 5 hours, and so my chronologically impaired internal clock woke me for my first Muscovite sunrise at 3:30am. It just about made up for the absence of a morning shower, as there’s no hot water in the complex [read: head in cold water, not yet strong enough for full immersion]. Rumor has it that it will return, much waited, by Monday…Fingers crossed. Either way I now know when get up if I want to spy peach-pink light on the hills on Moscow.