Travel Internationally, Sightsee in Moscow, Save Money

Travel Internationally, Sightsee in Moscow, Save Money

If you are traveling between the East and the West, why not stop in the capital of the land where the East and West collide?  It’s true, perhaps you have dreamed of a visit to the Kremlin, followed by the obligatory selfie in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.  And maybe you have even learned about Gorky Park’s metamorphosis into an urban oasis and would like to rent a bicycle for a leisurely ride along the Moscow River.

But it all sounds so complicated, am I right?  There are the questions of where to stay, a reliable guide, the bureaucratic headache of a visa, and, of course, how big of a hit your wallet will take in the process.
However, if you’re willing to think just a bit outside the box, you will soon find yourself enjoying a meal at an Arbat street cafe, before heading on to the Cosmonaut Museum.
In recent years, Russia’s Aeroflot Airlines has seen its service really take off, and in this humble blogger’s opinion, now exceeds the international service of any US airline, while maintaining surprisingly low prices.
If your travels are taking you between the West and the East, take a few minutes to compare the prices if you buy your tickets like you always do, or if you buy separate round-trip tickets in and out of Moscow with a few day layover before continuing to your destination on Aeroflot.  Particularly between major cities (New York and Delhi, for instance), you will find that buying tickets via Moscow on Aeroflot might save you a few bucks, and also open up for you the fascinating world that Winston Churchill described as “…a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.  You can spend a few days being surprised at the world-class hospitality service in Moscow, that now comes at a much cheaper cost due to the weaker ruble.
Do you really have a good reason to not stop for a moment in Moscow when flying between the East and West?
At Expat Flat Moscow, we recently teamed up with LikeHome, an agency that specializes in serviced apartments in downtown Moscow.  The main purpose of this partnership is to provide our clients at Expat Flat an alternative to the cost and claustrophobia of staying in a hotel room during their relocation and transition into their long term stay in Moscow.
However, this partnership also opens the door to many who would like to spend a few days getting to know a land that was once shrouded behind an Iron Curtain and is now a robust megalopolis, and a major center of influence between the East and West.
If this sounds like a grand proposition, but you are more concerned about the weight of your wallet than an unforgettable life experience, allow me to put your fears to rest.  The cost of a serviced apartment for two people in downtown Moscow, depending on size and exact location, would run you as little as $73/night.  You can also order a driver to pick you up at the airport with a sign for about $35, you will be met at the flat by a representative who will make sure you are comfortable, the apartment is cleaned daily, there is 24/7 telephone support, and you can order an excursion with a qualified guide for a reasonable price to help get you started in exploring Europe’s largest city.
So, if you’re traveling internationally, compare prices with a few day layover in Moscow.  Check out what we consider the best option for your lodging.  And who knows, maybe after a few days, you will decide that the next time you travel internationally, you won’t make Moscow your layover, but your final destination.

Russia Handcrafted Guitars

Russia Handcrafted Guitars

A few months ago I wrote a post about my friend Avgust who lives in Perm, Russia.  At that time, Avgust had just begun his work of handcrafting guitars.  And now that he is really getting into the swing of things, I thought it is high time for an update.

I was able to get one of Avgust’s guitars and show it to a few friends in Moscow.  They were blown away by the full sound, but I really liked how one of them summed it up:  “This is a player’s guitar!”.  Everyone seemed to agree that the sound beat any brand name guitar, and that it was easy to play.

And since in my previous post, I showed a pretty low quality video, made on my phone, I am happy to now be able to share a couple new high-quality videos.

Here’s Avgust playing.  Try to not pay attention to his serious face, cool hat, glasses, and beard.  Just enjoy the sound:

And for you guitar/music/sound nerds, here is a video showcasing a bit more of the sound:

You are welcome.  Get in touch with Avgust and order your guitar today.

The Kefir Kure

The Kefir Kure

I was walking down the street here in Moscow a few months ago, when BAM!, out of nowhere, I was hit with a hankering I get every six months or so.  As usual, it started off with the faint recollection of the wonderful feeling of my thirst being quenched with the unmistakable flavor of chunky sour milk.  And only a moment later I knew I was having yet another kefir withdrawal episode.  As I know these cravings to be simply irresistible,  I glanced both ways down the street and then quickly stepped into the nearest grocer and bought a bottle.  Outside, my stroll continued and I slowly sipped, allowing my tongue to not only sense the sour, but also enjoy the texture  of the lumpy goodness of this fermented milk product.

I then looked at the side of the bottle and was reminded that kefir has probiotics.  It’s all very embarrassing to discuss in the very public arena of a blog, but I must admit that I understood that probiotics would be something that perhaps the abdominal regions of my body would appreciate, so I finished off the bottle and decided to start drinking kefir every day to see what would happen.

I am no doctor, but it the very next morning I woke up and noticed a few changes:

  • I had more money than before I had drunk the kefir.
  • My wife was more beautiful than the morning before.
  • My children had become better behaved overnight.
  • The sun was shining behind the clouds and although it was snowing, I could hear birds chirping in the distance.
  • And my gut was not grumbling and heaving as it had every morning for many years.

Kefir is one of those things from Russia that foreigners usually roll their eyes at when they come.  The flavor is foreign and the promised results seem exaggerated.  And I can remember years ago being asked how to say “kefir” in English.  I wasn’t sure, so I said that I thought it was buttermilk.  My answer may have been ever so slightly inaccurate.  But the truth is, I had never heard of kefir in America, but as often happens in these situations, what was once “eye-rolling” has now become popular and trendy.  I am also happy to report that I now know how to say kefir in English.

I found that out this morning when I chanced upon this helpful article in a friend’s Facebook feed, touting the wondrous results of kefir konsumption.  SPOILER ALERT:  Kefir is mostly laktose free.  Also, the Russians were right… again (not that the article makes that point).

Kefir is not trendy in Russia.  It is just there, and as it is originally from the Caucusus, it is a part of the history of the nation.  It is in every single supermarket.  It costs about $1 (USD) per liter, and usually just comes in its own very special sour flavor.  I spent two minutes doing a google search on kefir in America and saw that it is now available in various places, such as Trader Joe’s ($2.99 for 32 ounces), but is usually offered in a typical American masking of the original blueberry flavor.

So, if you are looking for significant and real changes in your life: if you would like a more beautiful wife, better behaved children, and more money, AND you’re not afraid to admit that the Russians were right (yet again!) on the positive effects of some quirky homey product, be sure to pick up a liter of kefir at Trader Joe’s.  Try to find a bottle of this life improving elixir with no extra flavor added. Then be sure to send us at Planet Russia a thank you note, if you begin to hear the birds chirping, as the sour lumpy (former) lactose begins to course down your throat.  For in this moment, when your taste buds send an all new flavor signal flare to your brain, you will know that your life enhancement has only just begun.  One small sip of kefir, one tidal wave of lifestyle breakthrough.

“Russia Needs A New Brand Manager”

“Russia Needs A New Brand Manager”
“You think this bad neighborhood?”
There is a part of Russia that loves being the tough guy, and there is a part of each of us that also loves the machismo of the Siberian.  There is an aura of romanticism that surrounds bears, bread lines, the taiga, and the ever present Hollywood mafia villain.
This sense of danger and bravado has a mysterious magnetic effect for some more adventurous folk, who eventually find their way to Moscow for work or pleasure.  Well, I should say, not all of these folks are intrepid daredevils, many of them are just living the expat career lifestyle which led them to Russia’s capital city.
I would suggest that the latter will find themselves less disappointed with their time in Russia.  I find these newcomers often ask me questions like “will I be safe in this neighborhood?”.  And, because it’s fun, and because it’s what everyone seems to love about Russia, I’m often tempted to answer something like this:
“You think this bad neighborhood?”  is everything we expect and somehow love about Russia.  And so I somehow feel embarrassed to admit that Moscow is safe, and assuming you aren’t being ignorant and drunk in the early morning hours, walking around with dollar bills hanging out of your pockets, you should be more than fine.
I began thinking about this subject more seriously when I recently had coffee with a former client of Expat Flat, whom I will call Marcell.  He is from Europe and has been living in Moscow for a few months now.  And as I like to ask in such situations, I inquired as to what has surprised him the most about life in Moscow so far.  His answer was both surprising and thoughtful.  Marcell replied, “Russia needs a new brand manager!”.
He then began to list the reasons:
-Safety:  He said he felt as safe here as in any city he’s lived in anywhere in the world.  Of course, no one is saying that nothing bad can happen.  Bad things can happen in Moscow, just like anywhere else.  But one thing that is interesting about Moscow, and Russian cities in general, is that there are no bad neighborhoods.  At least, I have never seen blocks and blocks of urban decay, coupled with a sense of danger, like what can be found in many American cities.  Certainly there are some that are better than others, but this is generally surrounding the idea of one neighborhood being a bit more prestigious than others.  But in an apartment building, you can often have a millionaire, an elderly couple that is struggling financially, and a flat full of students, all living in close proximity.  And all of these folks have one thing in common:  they want to live in peace and safety.  And if there is a “bad apple” or two in the building, usually the residents, regardless of their economic class, will make a little effort to take care of it.
-Internet speed:  “The internet speed here in Moscow is faster than what I had when I lived in Singapore!”, Marcell exclaimed.  He then went on to share that it was a bit of a pain waiting some hours for the internet to be installed, but the result was fantastic.  And it’s true, getting internet speed of up to 100 mbps will cost you about 750 rubles per month.  Now, at times, I have been very aware that the key words in the previous phrase are “up to”, but in any case, that’s just a little over $10 (USD) for some blazing speed.
-Cleanliness:  I agreed with Marcell that Moscow is one of the cleanest cities that we have seen in the world.  I am not saying that this level of cleanliness is uniform across Russia, or even outside of the center of any major city, but I will say that, after living in Moscow for some years, one of the main things I am shocked by when visiting Europe or America is how dirty it can be.
-Christmas decorations:  This might seem trivial, but I think we all agree that these sort of details make life more enjoyable.  These decorations, New Year’s decorations to be more exact, by Marcell’s estimation are the most beautiful of any that he has seen anywhere in the world.  I would probably agree.  There is something powerful about an urban area in common celebration, and Moscow knows how to celebrate with lights, ice skating, blini stands, and performances.
-Hipster Capital?:  Marcell then went on to say that Moscow should be one of the world’s hipster capitals.  He said, “it combines the artsiness, the great food and coffee in many places with the raw unpretentiousness of a post-soviet city, which is something I believe hipsters would dig”.  Indeed, Moscow could be one of the world’s cities where hipsters are bicycling to meet and drink coffee and exchange ideas.  With wide sidewalks and broad avenues, Gorky Park, endless museums, riverboat cruises, “anti-cafes”, and an astonishing amount of green mixed in with the concrete, I think my friend Marcell has a point.  He did go on to mention that the hipsters might be disappointed on how difficult it is to run a small independent business.  I mostly disagree with that point, so I expect that Marcell and I can debate on the ease of running a small business in Russia over coffee sometime soon.
-Retail Service (!):  Yes, this is an area where much of Russia is ahead of much of the West.  If the last time you visited Russia was in the 90’s, you might kindly suggest that I be tested for use of a controlled substance.  But the truth is, I have become so used to the service in recent years that I no longer noticed it until Marcell brought it up.  There are the obvious points:  after shopping in Moscow, 90% of malls in America will seem small and plain.  But the working hours are quite impressive and make it possible for a busy professional to also take care of their personal business with ease.  I can remember being in a medium-sized German town some years ago.  Hoping to go out for coffee with friends in the evening, I was surprised to learn that they roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m.  Also, in most major cities in Russia, a surprising amount of retail products can be ordered online and delivered promptly, and many repair services will make house visits, providing a high level service at a very reasonable cost.
There are certainly more items that could be added to this list.  But what hit me the most was the phrase that “Russia needs a new brand manager”.
I threw out this idea to some Russian friends.  They seemed concerned that I was proposing that there be one person who becomes Russia’s brand manager- perhaps I explained a subject poorly as I am still learning about it.  Indeed, Marcell did open up a whole new world to me:  nation branding.  And as I learned from Marcell, you can learn much about nation branding from a man by the name of Simon Anholt as he tackles big questions such as “Which country does the most good for the world?”.
But after these conversations, I understood this idea a bit differently from my Russian friends:  The truth is, we are all Russia’s brand manager.  And I know that we all would like to say that our time in Russia was something like this:
So, as disappointing as it might seem to share with friends back home after your trip to Moscow, unless your name is Tom Cruise,  be sure to mention that you felt safe, drank some great coffee, visited the Cosmonaut Museum, perhaps made some money, went for a river boat cruise, and had some fascinating conversation with some locals that influenced the way you view the world.
Yes, I could sit with you and any babushka on a park bench and discuss the struggles and negative aspects of Russia… or America.  And although there are many less than positive areas we could discuss, since you will be expecting them when you arrive, you might not notice or mind them so much.  But with Russia today, I see a future with potential that is perhaps unmatched by any other nation in the world.  We just need the world to find out about this new brand.  And perhaps we need the Russians to discover it as well.
What positive things have surprised you in your time in Russia?  Comment below!

Who Should I Call If I Have An Emergency In Russia?

Who Should I Call If I Have An Emergency In Russia?

If you are currently in an emergency situation in Russia, and have googled “Who Should I Call If I Have An Emergency In Russia?”, and have ended up on this blog, I would like to extend my sincere apologies.  The answer is not always simple for this question.  But since you are currently in an emergency situation in Russia, I would not want to require you to read to the end of this informational blog post, but rather would let you know that the answer is probablyDial 112“.  I hope that works for you.  Once your current emergency is over, please visit my little blog again and comment on whether that was helpful information, or not.  All the best.

For those of you who are not in an emergency situation or not in Russia, please feel free to pop some popcorn and read the rest of the explanation of emergency phone numbers in Russia.

I have lived in Russia for 17 years, and happily have only needed to call an emergency number a few times over those years.  Sometimes I was successful in receiving the necessary assistance.

But you would think that I, an expert on EVERYTHING in Russia, would know what phone number to call in an emergency situation.  Even I thought that.  Until yesterday when I was riding the modern Aeroexpress train from Moscow’s award-winning Sheremyetovo Airport to downtown Moscow.

Usually riding the Aeroexpress train is a mundane, but money  and time-saving experience, as you avoid cab fare and traffic.  And although the Aeroexpress train is usually full of travelers, it is usually quiet, as everyone is a bit jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, just like I was yesterday, after arriving in Moscow from Vladivostok.  But of course, there are no guarantees that a train ride will be uneventful, as this video amply illustrates:

But what number should you call in Russia if you are having an emergency, but neither Agent 007 nor you have any heavy industrial equipment at your disposal?  That’s a great question, and one that many Aeroexpress passengers probably ask themselves when they arrive in the Motherland.

Fortunately, the Aeroexpress train provides this information in both Russian and English.  If you are having an emergency, be sure to listen carefully:

In case you weren’t diligent enough to be taking notes, the announcement states:

“In Case of Emergency, please Dial 01, or 101, or 02, or 102, the Universal Emergency Number is Double-1,2.”

So, I hope that clears things up, if you’ve just arrived in Russia and have an emergency.

But it’s not quite that simple.  In fact, I am not alone in not really knowing who to call in case of an emergency.  Most of my Russian friends are unable to answer that question.  I hope that my dear mother-in-law, whom I will call Linda, is not reading this blog.  As this particular gem might concern her.  Not so much for me, but for the children, you see.

Historically, if you were having an emergency in Russia you could call:

-01 For Fire

-02 For Police

-03 For Ambulance.

-04 Gas Line Emergency

Before we continue, I must state that calling the ambulance in Russia is, generally speaking, very different than calling the ambulance in America.  In America, you only call the ambulance if you are having a real emergency.  For example, when I was five years old, I split my face wide open in a sledding mishap, including a fractured skull, but this was not deemed by my parents to be a situation worthy of disturbing the paramedics over.  Instead, in what is a vivid memory for me to this day, I remember being driven to the hospital in our blue station wagon, obeying all posted speed limits, and making a complete and full stop at all stop signs.  We were saving a call to the ambulance for a “real emergency”.

In Russia, on the other hand, calling the ambulance is something you do if you are feeling unwell and are unsure what to do.  A doctor will show up at your home after some time, and check things out, maybe give you a pill or a shot, and then either be on his way, or decide that this is serious enough to take you to the hospital.  For example, if you have a fever.

This is not to say that a Russian ambulance can not react quickly in an emergency, but you will need to make it very clear what the situation is when you call.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot!  Those numbers above… they don’t work if you are calling from your cell phone.  So, if you’re having an emergency and want to use those numbers, you will either need to find a land line phone, or find out what the correct phone number would be for your particular cell phone service.

For example, if you want to call the ambulance from your cell phone, you should call:

-030 if your cell phone carrier is Megafon, MTS, or Tele2

-003 if your cell phone carrier is Beeline

One time I was just outside of Moscow, and happened upon a situation where a man was dying on the side of the road.  His “friends” were afraid to call the ambulance, perhaps because they had all been partaking of controlled and unlawful substances together, and this was now perhaps why this man was lying there dying.  I told them in no uncertain terms that I didn’t give a fiddler’s fart about the police, I was going to call the ambulance.  They immediately scattered and I dialed 003, since my cell phone carrier is Beeline, and explained the situation and my location.

The kind ambulance dispatcher on the other end kindly explained to me that they don’t deliver pizza to this particular neighborhood  they were unable to provide ambulance service to this particular location, as it was outside of Moscow, and I was calling the Moscow dispatcher.  I politely explained that I was less than a kilometer from the Moscow city limits, and although I would hate to color outside the lines in this particular situation, and happily the man had still a bit of a pulse and was breathing, he was turning a bluish gray, so perhaps she could call somebody and work things out.  She, in turn, explained to me in a friendly yet firm manner, that this request was impossible.  Instead, she recited a ten digit phone number I would need to call in order to procure the necessary assistance.  I, in turn, provided more information on my personal situation; specifically that, in a moment of acute carelessness, I had not brought a notebook and pencil along for this afternoon stroll.  She patiently replied that this was the only way, and again recited the ten digit phone number, as I worked to control my breathing and apply memory recall techniques while standing next to a dying man.  I was also simultaneously trying to not think about this little tidbit from the hit TV show “The IT Crowd”.

It was sort of miraculous that I remembered the phone number, and what felt like an eternity, but was actually only several minutes later, an ambulance arrived and the kind professional paramedics saved that man’s life.

So, I tell that story to say that knowing the right phone number hasn’t seemed to work in all situations, even if I knew my carrier’s phone number.

I reckon it is because of these situations that the government made the very smart decision to make the universal 112 number.  According to the Russian 112 number Wikipedia page, the 112 number is actually incredibly universal.  Not only does it include the obvious emergency services as expected, such as gas line leaks and ambulances, but also psychological help, and also can provide services in 5 foreign languages:  English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese.

It’s all quite impressive, and I hope I never have to find out how it really works.  At the same time, my simple advice is this:  If you are in Russia, remember the number 112, but also save the emergency phone numbers for your specific cell phone carrier, in your particular location.  Also, find out what your local police station and ambulance dispatcher phone numbers are.  My experience has shown on more than one occasion that those local “long” phone numbers sometimes are more helpful than the more centralized short numbers.  Saving those numbers into your phone might take you 5 or 10 minutes and you might need to enlist the help of a Russian friend, but if you are in an emergency situation, you will be thankful that you won’t be required to remember something like 0118 999 881 999 119 725…3.

America, Really?

America, Really?

I would like to preface this post by stating that I love America.  And with that, part of America’s proud democratic tradition stipulates that observation and perhaps a little criticism are a part of our patriotic heritage and expression of our deep love.

Perhaps I’ve been living on Planet Russia for too long, but now when I return to America, I am thinking “I don’t remember it being this way”.  Perhaps that is because I was never really an adult in America (insert joke about me never being an adult in Russia either).

But now since our kids are a little older (13, 12, 9, and 7), it is also fun to hear their observations, as they are now a bit more aware of their surroundings both here in Planet Russia and abroad (in America).

I seriously can’t get enough of this picture.

No sooner did our plane wheels make contact with Planet America in late December, then our offspring began springing unexpected and curious questions.  Here are a few:

  1. Aren’t we supposed to clap when the plane lands?  This one was from our 12 year old.  He has grown up in a country where all air passengers are so relieved by the landing that they spontaneously burst into applause.  Actually, the plane always lands- we only applaud when it lands on a runway.  But whether it lands on the runway or not, we will get out of our seats and start pulling all of our stuff out of the overhead bin before the seat belt sign is turned off.
  2. Why aren’t there any fences between the properties?  This came with a follow up question:  How will they know where their property ends and the next one begins?  I didn’t bother to explain that that is because some folks have a plan to build a fence around the entire nation.
  3. Why are there so many flags everywhere?  This one was from our 9 year old.  He then went on to say:  “We live in Moscow, which is the capital of Russia, but there aren’t as many flags as there are here in Cuyahoga Falls… which is not the capital”.  I have to hand it to my young son for this astute observation:  Once you leave America and then come back, the number of flags and the national anthem at even inconsequential sporting events seems, well, just a bit spooky.  I’m pretty sure there is no other country in the free world that goes this overboard on external expression of patriotism.  You can read a few more of my thoughts on that matter here.  So, enjoy reading that.

Listening to our children’s observations was certainly an unexpected bonus to our New Year stay in what is our children’s favorite place in the world:  Ohio.

And I had a couple of observations of my own that were less humorous, and perhaps primarily based on what I saw on TV:

WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO SPEND OUR MONEY ON:  Based on the TV commercials, we are supposed to spend our money on education (also weddings and mortgages).  With that kind of relentless marketing, no wonder education is overpriced and college debt is perhaps one of the greatest issues that America is now facing.  I would probably most agree with Mike Rowe on that subject.

Or if you’re watching a sporting event, you learn that you should be spending your money on insurance and beer.  For if you possess these products in great measures, you will no longer be a slave to fear.  Which brings us to our next point.

FEAR:  America, really?  Since when did America become so afraid of everything?  Afraid of losing jobs.  Afraid of a Democrat or Republican becoming President.  Afraid of guns.  Afraid of not having guns.  Afraid of Russia.  Afraid of Mexico.  Afraid of Muslims.  Afraid of Christians.  Afraid of the economy.  Afraid of retirement.  Afraid of not retiring.

And I didn’t hear anyone in fear that they would never start a business.  America, really?

I know that a sense of danger always grabs our attention.  But if you keep buying fear, you can no longer expect to lead.

So how does America plan to find the remedy to all of this fear and once again be the beacon leading the free world?  Well, as it turns out, with a junior high debate competition.  Actually, I’m joking.  No junior high debate competition would allow the personal and juvenile attacks of a Presidential debate, they would be required to stick to the issues.  But now America has decided that leadership skill that will bring hope to the otherwise hopeless situation is best displayed by one’s ability to shoot out a well-timed zinger that will be splashed across the headlines the next day.

With that kind of filtering process, please do not be surprised if your next leader is a smart ass an impudent narcissist.  Talking and leading are not the same thing.  “He’s not afraid to say it” is perhaps not the primary quality you want from your nation’s leading representative and the ability to spew one’s opinion is not what will make America great again.

I guess I’m afraid too.  I’m afraid about why America is so afraid.  America, really?  I remember you had the answers.  The world looked to you for hope.  And I believe you can find it, but it will require a patriotism deeper than standing and waving a flag at a sporting event.  Because as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the early church in Rome, hope is birthed with suffering, character and perseverance.

I think we could say that, in other words, hope starts with a lot of work.  It might be worth considering the fact that the value you add to society with your work and the sacrifice you make for your family and loved ones always has and always will create more impact in the world than your vote.

At least that’s my view from over here on Planet Russia after a visit to my homeland.  I will crawl back under my rock now.  At least this house has a fence around it.  Guess that means there is nothing to be afraid of.

How To Fly From Cleveland To Moscow on 5 Airplanes (and make a little cash on the way)

How To Fly From Cleveland To Moscow on 5 Airplanes (and make a little cash on the way)

One of my favorite things about social media is my virtual friends whining about various travel travails such as flight delays.  And as we all know, flight delays are the worst.

So, I don’t blame my friends for whining.  But there was a time during the past 36 hours, that I remembered the Chilean miners.

You see, here’s what happened.  My family and I decided to surprise my parents for Christmas and show up on their doorstep.  Which was really a great time.  And yes, they were surprised:

But, of course, to surprise them, we had to travel with our four children from Moscow to Cleveland.  This is a much easier situation than it used to be since our children are now a bit older (13, 12, 9, and 7) and are fairly seasoned travelers.

We got a great deal on the tickets and our itinerary was Moscow – London – New York (JFK) -Cleveland.  Not as quick as the Moscow-JFK-Cleveland option, but cheaper, so definitely worth it.

So, we flew from Moscow to London on British Airways, and somewhat surprisingly this was the first time I ever flew that storied airlines or ever went to Heathrow.  In an effort to be culturally sensitive to the flight attendants, I asked for my tea with milk.

At Heathrow, we met American Airlines.  It’s also a curious point, that I don’t remember ever flying American Airlines until this particular trip.

Now to say that I hadn’t been warned about American Airlines would be incorrect.  You see, I have a good Russian friend, whom for the purposes of this blog, I will call Eugene.  Because that is his name.  You see, a couple months ago, Eugene fell into an American Airlines black hole and my Facebook and Twitter feed was littered with Eugene’s whining for days.

So, I was smugly sitting at home and chuckling at my friend Eugene.  And then I flew American Airlines.  And now, I will whine a bit about a travel story.

Our flight from London to JFK was actually quite nice.  A brand new airplane with great in-flight entertainment (for the kids) and kind flight attendants.  And food.  And I was surprised at how full the flight was, even after all of Eugene’s anti-American (Airlines) efforts on social media.

We didn’t have a very long layover at JFK, so we were relieved that we were met upon arrival with someone who handed us our onward boarding passes and also “Fast Lane” passes, so that we could get through passport control and security more quickly.

After jumping through those respective hoops, we went to the counter to check our bags for the aforementioned onward flight from JFK to Cleveland and were informed that our flight had been cancelled.  But there was no reason to fret because in only five hours there would be a flight from LaGuardia to Cleveland and we were being provided with a taxi and meal vouchers for $70.

My wife, whom for the purposes of this blog I will call Rachel, and I had a little chuckle about what morsels we would be able to procure for our offspring with a $70 meal voucher at an airport in New York City.  But here’s the thing: neither Rachel nor I had ever been to LaGuardia.

You know how airport architecture is supposed to give you the feeling of freedom, flight, and a nation that is pressing forward towards its destiny?  Well, at LaGuardia the architecture of hopelessness was somehow countered by my ability to jump and touch the ceiling.

I have been to many airports in many nations around the world.  And it is very hard to find an airport that is worse than LaGuardia.

If Joe Biden runs for president, he will win.  And part of the reason is that he is able to take on the real issues and describe the direction the United States is taking in a manner that reaches out to both sides of the aisle.  Here is his take on LaGuardia:

Actually, come to think of it, I think anyone could use “LaGuardia is a Third World Country” as their platform and become President of the United States of America.

Because LaGuardia isn’t like a Third World Country.  LaGuardia is a Third World country.  And the great thing about that is, if you have $70 in a Third World country that you must use for one meal, you won’t be able to eat it all.  And that’s exactly what happened to us.

The rule for an airport meal voucher is that you must use it in one place because they won’t give you change.  So, we went to the LaGuardia food court and found a nice Asian food eatery that had a special that included noodles (or rice) and two types of meat for $8.  Anyway, we could barely fit all of the food on our table, and we certainly couldn’t finish it.

We arrived in Cleveland about five hours behind what we had originally planned.

And if that was all that had happened, I wouldn’t have written this blog post and you would have never heard about it.  But then we had our return trip to Moscow:

In short, the return trip did not include a trip to a Third World Country, but it did include a tour of most of Europe, provided by 4 airlines.  And it ended about 36 hours after it started.

Which is only slightly longer than it will take for you to read the more detailed version:

It was Friday morning, when my wife (Rachel) and I, together with our four children were taken to Cleveland Airport.  From there, we had the very uneventful experience of an on time flight to New York City’s JFK Airport, which is really a very good representation of a transportation hub of the economic capital of the free world.

We had a three hour layover, but entertained ourselves with our various devices and also occasional strolls about the terminal with our offspring.

When it was time to board, the American Airlines lady picked up the microphone and explained that:

-“There has been a decision“.  If you’re from Akron, you know that is never a good thing.

-The airplane is in the hangar.  It can not fly.  There is another airplane.

-That is ALL I can tell you right now.

-Your flight is delayed from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

-Do not worry about your connections from London onward!  Once the flight takes off at 9 p.m. the system begins to work for you and work out your onward flights.

At this point, we knew that we would miss our connection from London to Moscow, but we had more pressing needs.  Such as our children’s blood sugar levels.  So, I began to scout the various fine eating establishments at JFK and quickly discovered that the cost of eating at JFK was somewhat higher than a nearby Third World Country.

But blood sugar levels are blood sugar levels.  So, our ravenous troop made its way to a nearby McDonald’s to spend our 7 year old’s college savings on 6 value meals.  The change of scenery was nice.  And my wife (Rachel) and our children entertained themselves by recapping Star Wars, including the big spoiler that nobody is supposed to discuss.  So, although I figured that financial recovery from this meal at McDonald’s would take our family some time, I was happy to note that I had saved myself the cost of a ticket to the movies, because I have no plans to watch Star Wars, and I know what happens at the end anyway.

We returned to the gate to see a team of men with large carts and several tables setting up a smorgasbord of fine sandwiches, drinks, and assorted snackery.

A couple quick fire questions to American Airlines:

  1.  Why does the system only begin to work for you AFTER you take off?  I’m sure your partner airlines really like that one.  Why not help folks be rerouted immediately when clearly 90% of the people on the airplane will not make their connections?  But I guess that’s not your problem.  Or is it?
  2. When you know that food would be provided, why on earth wouldn’t you announce that?  What could have made you sound really great (food is on the way!) just made you look terrible with everyone grumbling about how they just spent all of their money at the food court, so there was no room left for your sandwichery.

But, if only this had happened, I also would not have recounted the experience in a blog.

At around 10 p.m. our flight took off for London.  In the pilot’s own words, it was the bumpiest flight he could remember for a really long time.  And it was that way for most of the flight.

Travel Tip:  If you’re on a turbulent flight across the Atlantic and trying to digest food, don’t watch the movie Martian.  I didn’t finish it, because my “in-flight entertainment system” crashed froze and I couldn’t get it to work again.  But I assume Jason Bourne made it home.

The flight back to London is under 7 hours.  My wife (Rachel) was really surprised by this.  And I said, “it’s always faster to fly this way (west to east)”?  And in Rachel’s defense, we were already really tired at this point, and she asked if that was because of the earth’s rotation.  And I sneered and explained it was because of the wind not the rotation.  But then I spent the next hour and half wondering why using the earth’s rotation wouldn’t work (you could then make it to London in like 20 minutes), and then questioning whether it’s really round, etc.  We were tired.  That is all.

Upon arriving in London, while still taxiing around the runway, two passengers sitting next to me were tossing their cookies.  I won’t say who those passengers were, but we do have a new rule in our family that you must look out the window and not at screens while in a taxiing airplane.

In the terminal, we were met with eager ground personnel, who gave us our tickets to Frankfurt.  Once we took off from JFK, the system had been working for us!  “Really?  You’ve got to be kidding me!”, I politely inquired, in a British manner.  “Well, your other option is to take the 9 p.m. flight direct to Moscow,” explained the kind ground personnel, “but this way will be much faster.”

“Okay”, I said with a very obvious rolling of my eyes.  And we were on our way.  Happily, they also provided us with vouchers for breakfast, in the amount of sixty pounds sterling.  I don’t have time to figure out how much that is in dollars, but since the UK does not have the Federal Reserve, it’s way more than 60 dollars.

At this point, delirium was setting in, so as we were enjoying breakfast, courtesy of American Airlines, I began to babble excitedly:

-“Kids, don’t ever say I didn’t take you for an English breakfast in London!”

-“Kids, as we’re enjoying this fine breakfast courtesy of American Airlines, it’s time you learned the meaning of the phrase ‘Stick it to the man’!”

-“Kids, before this day is over, I guarantee you, we will be in more cities than just Cleveland, New York, London, Frankfurt, and Moscow!”

And at this point my swelling euphoria could not be contained by the snide and sarcastic remarks from my entourage, particularly from the 12 year old.  Especially, since the 13 year old was taking pictures of her breakfast.  Which means I totally made a slam dunk.

I had received explicit instructions from a fine English man, whose inexplicable occupation includes representing the interests of Lufthansa, on how to track my baggage.

At the departure gate to Frankfurt, I followed the instructions and made a “baggage query”.  The kind man used his walkie-talkie device to call a man in the Heathrow Underworld regarding our luggage situation.  He said that he needed to know the status of the baggage of “Frecka”.  As often happens in these situation, the man in the Heathrow Underworld didn’t quite understand our last name, so the man at the gate uttered the following phrase quite effortlessly:  “Foxtrot, Romeo, Echo, Charlie, Kilo, Alpha”.  Which I am totally going to work on memorizing for the next time I’m on the phone with a customer service representative.

And just as the doors to the plane were closing, all of our luggage to Frankfurt was confirmed.   Our flight to Frankfurt was smooth, German, and on time.  I must say that our 7 year old was beginning to experience some fatigue and despair, but our 12 year old (whom I will call Charlie) provided him with the encouraging word, “Don’t worry, this is our last flight, and then we’ll be home.”

At the departure gate to Moscow, I rounded up my male offspring for a trip to the water closet.  “Boys, we’re marking our territory worldwide today!”.

Upon returning to the gate, my wife (Rachel) said, “They’re asking if anyone is willing to fly via Zurich for 400 euros”, as if that was the worst.  

But I was already on my way to the counter.  I explained that I represented six passengers who were willing to fly via Zurich.  Sadly, they only needed two.  So, I returned to my merry band and explained that whoever was willing to accompany me to Switzerland would get 20 euros.  “How much is that in dollars?” they asked, as if 20 euros isn’t mad cash in their world, particularly for only a 4 hour delay in travel plans.

A negotiation process commenced, and when we reached the 25 euro threshold, Charlie said, “Well, if you’re willing to go, then I’m willing to go”.  This made me proud because I want Charlie to understand the value of a hard earned dollar.

The kind German lady at the counter explained that four bags would accompany my wife and 13, 9, and 7 year old, and two bags would accompany Charlie and me.  She also explained that I wouldn’t land in Moscow at Domodedovo airport.  I would land at Sheremetyevo.  Which is closer to where we live than Domodedovo.

So, Charlie and I waved good-bye to the rest of our beleaguered band and headed off to the nearest Lufthansa Service Center to cash our 800 euros of vouchers.  There was a Lufthansa employee on the way who mentioned that we certainly weren’t hitting the Powerball Jackpot, but if we didn’t know what to do with the money, we could do our best to remember where his desk is.  It was at this point we discovered that when it comes to cash boxes in Lufthansa Service Centers, there are the flughafens and the flughafnotens.  If you know what I mean. But at the third Lufthansa Service Center we hit money.

The Lufthansa employee who handled the payout asked Charlie what his cut was.  Charlie politely smiled.  Then the Lufthansa employee gave me a meaningful look and said that the smallest bill he had was 50 euro.  I was cornered and told him to give it to Charlie.

It was then that I mentioned to the man who had just handed me 800 750 euros in cash that my son and I were a bit famished, it would be more than an hour until our flight, and could we possibly trouble him for some meal vouchers.

The man said “oh yes, of course”, “here are your vouchers”, “they are for 10 euros apiece”, (PAUSE), “which is the starting base amount for a meal voucher”.  And I had the common sense to drop it and not negotiate for a higher voucher amount.

Charlie and I settled on sushi (his favorite).  We went about fifteen euros over our meal voucher limit, but we were awash in cash, and I had to keep the hired help happy.  If you know what I mean.

And we were on our way to Zurich.  It’s a 30 minute flight in which the Swiss flight attendants manage to politely hand everyone a drink with crazed Swiss speed and efficiency on what was somewhat of a largish plane for such a short flight.

We had only about 40 minutes in Zurich, so we were happy to discover that the Zurich airport is smaller than JFK, Heathrow, or Frankfurt.

At this point, I would be lying if I said I was not disappointed that they weren’t looking for anyone who would be willing to fly to Moscow via Stockholm, because I would have totally jumped all over that one.  Because Charlie and I had reached an air travel nirvana where we no longer felt the shackles of time and space.  We had no idea in the world where we were.  We didn’t care.  And we were ready to keep this show going indefinitely, for just a little cash.  Or at least until Monday when Charlie needed to get back to school and me to work.

In any case, no such riotous gaiety was afoot, so we made it on the airplane where the Aeroflot flight attendants fed us the entire way to Moscow.

And since Aeroflot has received a lot of flack over the years, I would like to say that it is my favorite airline in the world, has improved considerably over the past twenty years and its service is way better than its American competitors.  And the flight on Aeroflot was the most normal part of our journey.  Normal except for the part where I had a chicken and rice meal with caesar salad at 2 a.m., chased down by the accompanying muesli bar, which was then followed by coffee at 2:30 a.m. after having already eaten McDonald’s, complimentary snacks, a chicken meal (while watching part of “Martian”), an English breakfast, and sushi and Vietnamese noodles.  In my defense, I still have a German buterbrod in my carry-on for “just in case” that I have not yet consumed.

When we landed, a passenger sitting next to me, who shall remain unnamed, obediently followed the rule to look out the window.  I won’t say exactly what happened, except to say that the rule didn’t help, but we’re keeping it (the rule and the passenger) anyway.

Upon arriving at the Sheremetyevo baggage claim, Charlie and I were shocked and deeply saddened to learn that only one of our two bags had made it.  I called Rachel and she indicated that two of her four bags had arrived.

This wasn’t really a big problem, because the lady at lost luggage was thrilled to have a customer at 4 a.m.  She asked me to describe my lost bag.  I explained that I could not because my wife and I had become separated in Germany and we both had lost bags, and so, it was either a black bag with gray lining, a black bag with green lining.  Or a pink suitcase.  She then asked me to tell her what connections I had made during the journey.  And as I began listing, she looked both tired and a bit concerned that she was being pranked.  Somehow in my very dazed state at this point, the whole ordeal felt like a giant and unsolvable algebra problem which involved the hopeless pursuit of a hidden value.

So, after this 2016 trans-Atlantic flight Odyssey, I must say that I agree with my friend Eugene 100%:  I will never fly American Airlines ever again.*

And I also totally agree with my brother-in-law who says that “Getting there is not half the fun”.  He’s totally right.  It’s most of it.

*Unless they offer the lowest price to my chosen destination.