As I sat patiently awaiting my flight from Moscow to Tashkent, I suddenly realized, Sheremyetovo just isn’t the same as it used to be.
If you’ve been in Russia for awhile, you might sometimes, on rare occasions, miss ordering food over a counter, then going to a largish woman with an abacus to pay, and then returning to the counter for your victuals. Yes, those were the good old days when human intelligence trumped the machine at each and every retail sale.
I sometimes find myself missing the old Sheremyetovo as well. Like many foreign persons, my first impression of Russia was Sheremyetovo, Terminal 2. Indeed, this storied passenger aviation complex used to house all the warmth and charm of a coal mine. But still, I sometimes kind of miss the old Sheremyetovo. You know, like sometimes you miss your dentist.
I remember flying in for the first time, right around New Year’s Day of 1995. Since like most Americans my cultural training for Russia had mainly come from Rocky IV, I was immediately on the lookout for an ambush as I disembarked the plane.
And there it was, the first unsmiling Russian guard that I had ever seen. The smell was of old stale carpet and the hallways were darkened, presumably to give the Soviet army an advantage over less alert foreign air passengers.
And then, yes, my very first queue, in Russia. It was for passport control. Although I was a young fellow at the time, I believe I had to shave twice before I finally met the second unsmiling Russian person I had ever seen. Those were the good old days. The passport control agent would look at you with the blank face. Then, I swear I am not making this up, sometimes they would then look down at your papers for some minutes, remaining completely motionless. During this lengthy procedure, it was of paramount importance to resist the urge to scream “Sanctuary!” and make a mad dash towards the nearest embassy complex.
After that, there was baggage claim and then customs control. I am not sure if there was a “green channel” in those days or not. I do know that if there was a green channel, then I knew nothing of it, but instead always went through the red channel. We opened bags and flashed cash at the request of the officer. The officer would smile, but by now we would not.
If you think that after customs, the passenger was free, then you never came to Russia in the nineties. For after customs the Golden Horde awaited. Naturally, I refer to the legion of taxi drivers offering a lift in exchange for your appendages. If you know what I mean.
The cost for a taxi ride in those days to Sheremyetovo Terminal 1 ran somewhere in the vicinity of $80 for the unwary foreigner, if I’m not mistaken. This 5 kilometer trip to the other side of the airfield ended at a forlorn squarish structure, a monument to hopelessness, if you will.
Sheremyetovo-1 was a joyless clown car. Somewhere out there a mad scientist was performing a controlled experiment on how many passengers could be added to one terminal. Empty seats were always at a premium at Sheremyetovo-1. Standing passengers would hover over the seated, just waiting for them to vacate. If you were seated, you would need to fight the urge to visit the toilet or stretch your legs, for then you would be sentenced to standing endlessly. Furthermore, if you were a part of the seated bourgeoise, it was vital to pretend not to notice the standing proletariat. Kind of like when you are seated on the subway, but aren’t sure if the lady standing nearby is pregnant. Or not.
I once had a 12 hour layover that I spent completely at Sheremyetovo-1. It was during this time that I began to believe in Purgatory, although quite frankly I failed to see how any indulgence could speed the final boarding call.
But out of everything that we fondly remember of Sheremyetovo, what we will always remember most is that in the Soviet Union, the production of cans far outpaced the production of coffee. This quandary was remedied through the forward thinking architects of Terminal 2. Yes, I speak of the ceiling of Sheremyetovo, Terminal 2. It seemed that there was a hanging can for each and every hamburger that McDonald’s has ever served worldwide as a defiant Soviet stand against the evil of Western imperialistic capitalism. To be quite fair, I made that up, but the ceiling was registered as the 8th Natural Wonder of the World. Okay, I also made that up. But I am not making up the fact that the coffee can ceiling was a dust nightmare and they had a vacuum cleaner with a very long rigid hose for the purpose of cleaning out each and every metallic orifice. Perhaps at times convicts were presented with the choice between a lifetime of hard labor in Siberia or dusting out the airport ceiling once.
The food was very bad, but they made up for that by making it insanely expensive. I had a Swiss friend who met her friend at Sheremyetovo once, and they made the amateurish decision to dine at the cafeteria. They added the few items to their tray that two thrifty young ladies who are watching their figure would consume for a light lunch. The bill was $100, so they actually returned the food. During one layover, I stalked some airport employees who appeared to be going to lunch break. We passed through the parking lot and a field and in a back alley there was kind of a cross between a kiosk and a cafeteria. From then on I would eat lunch there during long layovers, feeling quite smug about my insider information.
But after some time, the Winds of Change started to blow across the airfields of Sheremyetovo. I speak, of course, of the wi-fi service, which I think was $1 per minute and the Kroshka-Kartoshka stands, one for each terminal. I was beyond giddy with expectation as I ordered stuffed potatoes and surfed the worldwide information superhighway for up to ten minutes during a layover.
I had heard of construction of a so-called Sheremyetovo, Terminal 3. I took these reports in the same serious way I take Shangri-La and Atlantis. I do not take change in any form very well, and I am distrustful of any proclaimed improvements. Sure, I could see the construction cranes whenever I landed at Sheremyetovo, but
I have also seen puddles in the desert. If you know what I mean.
But indeed, it was true. And soon enough Terminal C was added to Terminal 1 and 2. Terminal C cried out, “Yes, we can!”. I would feel like I was totally beating the system by sitting out my layovers for departure from Terminal 1 inside Terminal C. In a way it was also very sad, for I felt I had reached the pinnacle of my career and there was no way higher up this ladder of Air Travel Euphoria.
But I was wrong. After only a few more short years, Terminal 1, now consisting of Terminal B and C was accompanied by Terminal 2 consisting of Terminal F and Terminal
3 consisting of Terminals E and D. The best part about that is that it is absolutely true, and if you ever take a bus to Sheremyetovo, that is exactly what the sign on the bus will say. You might ask why Terminal 1 consists of Terminal B and C while Terminal 2 consists of Terminal F and Terminal 3 consists of Terminals E and D. The answer is the same reason whereby the railroad gauge of Russia is different from the railroad gauge of surrounding nations. It slows down foreign invasion. And the location of Terminal A? That is top secret information not available to citizen passengers.
So, today, I breeze through the passport control to my departure gate. And then I have the problem I have whenever I go back home and visit Wal-Mart. That is, way too much selection. Rows and rows of empty seats, but which one is best for my wait? I sit back and surf the internet for free and look up and there is a sign. It says
“Burger King coming soon”.
Yes, Sheremyetovo just isn’t the same as it used to be.