Monday, July 03, 2006

A Russian Wedding

Russia's Saint Petersburg, the picturesque, historic capital, is situated on the shores of the baltic sea. The sea meets Russian soil in the far north, where days are long in the summer and only hinted at in the winter.

I was invited to a wedding in Saint Petersburg, to take place on June 23rd, a day after the longest day of the year. That time of the year in Saint Petersburg is called White Nights, on account of, well, their un-black-ness. In fact, it's the time of year when festivals, concerts and other happenings arrive at Saint Petersburg. In fact, a good chunk of Europe ups and moves there and hotel costs skyrocket to $400 a night.

To make it even more memorable, the wedding reception was to take place at night, on a boat, floating down the Neva river.

I definitely wanted to go!

Well, there I was on a business trip, meeting a few customers and on my way to visit my engineering team in Saint Petersburg. Talk about "coincidence" - I was about to arrive there on June 21, enough to get a good night's sleep, do some work, then go attend a wedding.

The trip was going well. On Wednesday morning, June 21st, at 6a greenwich mean time, I was just waking up in the oh-so-conveniently placed Hilton Paddington. The hotel, opened over a 100 years ago, was originally for "families and single gentlemen" in London's Paddington neighbourhood (then village). Nowadays it is at the end of the Heathrow Express, the quickest way into London from the airport.

By 7a I was getting into the shower. Yes - I have a lot of excuses why it took an hour. No - I'm not going to go into them. Suffice it to say that from now on all times mentioned in this post are After Shower or AS.

1.5 hours AS (after shower): bags packed, checked out. We leave the hotel for a customer meeting.

5.5 hours AS: Check in at the airport for a quick flight to Frankfurt, a 1 hour conection and continuing on to Saint Petersburg

6 AS: Flight supposed to have taken off now but is delayed 30 minutes. Chances to make the connection - 0%

6.5 AS: Flight is supposed to have taken off after delay, but is delayed another 30 minutes. Chances to make the connection - 0%

7 AS: Flight takes off.

7.5 AS: We land in Germany. The flight to Saint Petersburg takes off at roughly the same time. We wave to them.

8 AS: This being World Cup time - there are no hotels available. The only option is a night flight to Russia. Lufthansa transfer desk reroutes me to Saint Petersburg through Moscow.

16 AS: (midnight in Frankfurt for those of you keeping track) flight takes off to Russia.

20 AS: Land in Moscow. Air conditioning on these flights is never great. And I'm still dressed for the customer meeting - no slacks nor t-shirt. I need a shower. I want to change clothes. Only a few more hours to go.

21 AS: Russian immigration says my passport's front page is starting to come out and they don't like the "status of your document". I'm told I have to fly back to Frankfurt.

21.05 AS: No one speaks English here. I'm over the denial stage, now asking to fly to Israel.

21.10 AS: They still don't speak English. I mime. My head bounces off the wall that is Russian immigration - I'm not allowed to fly to Israel, my followup destination. Only to Frankfurt. Yes, even if I pay for the ticket. Besides, there's no where to buy the ticket at. And it's out of their hands. Please follow us to the immigration office.

22 AS: (Marinating in my own sweat, my butt shaped midway between an airplane's seat and a departure lounge chair, sitting outside the Russian immigration office.) I get up and oh-so-timidly (really! I can do timid!) ask what is happening with my passport and tickets. The response is "Sit! and! Wait!". After a flashback to some cold war movie where the KGB interrogates the secondary character before he is made to disappear from off the face of the earth, I timidly sit-and-wait.

22.5 AS: Me, 2 asian who can't speak a word of English or Russian and a girl who was trying to come visit her father but was not allowed to, are all lead by the somewhat-English-speaking official through the scenic route of the duty free and up to the flight management office. We're shown the office and told to come by two hours before our deportation flight to pick up our passport and ticket. "They'll know who you are," he says.

24 AS: Having walked the duty free area back and forth a number of times, sat down to have some dinner-breakfast-lunch-thingy and having found out that my cellphone's battery is about to die and no, you can't make collect calls to your travel agent even if that's what their instructions say you should do in case of trouble since you can't make collect calls from the aiport, I go and collect my ticket and passport. I also get the russian-only deportation order since the law says I have to receive it. Later translations showed that the official deportation reason was "invalid Visa" even though it's still valid.

26 AS: (yes, that's 26 hours after the shower, same clothes, marinade really sinking in) taking off back to Frankfurt.

30 AS: land in frankfurt. Now only 11 hours to go until the flight to Israel. Can't leave the airport in case someone decides my passport really is problematic. Can't switch terminals since in Frankfurt passports are sometimes checked between areas. I walk around the duty free area, find a chair and park. Get up walk around park. Get up eat something walk around park. Park. Walk around park. Get up park. Eat something park. Almost done with the book, still parking.

41 AS: (extra-marinated, feeling like @#$# and definitely not smelling of roses. nor any other kind of flower except maybe that one that stinks to high heaven so that herbivors will leave it alone. Carrion eaters still welcome though.) I've got some vague ideas about where my clothes might be. They're in my luggage. I can guess potential locations where it might be: moscow, saint petersburg or frankfurt. Or maybe some other exotic location. Or maybe taken apart by security to check why it's spinning around on the carousel waiting to be picked up. Or maybe someone adopted it and gave it a good home. The luggage stub I have says London -> Frankfurt -> Saint Petersburg. When I ask at the gate, they say "are you sure this is the right stub". I insist. They insist back. Eventually they check and "yes, it is on the list to be loaded onto the plane. And two loads have not been loaded yet. Maybe it will be in one of those" says the very unconvinced airline rep.

I don't care. I get on that plane.

44 AS: I land in Israel. My luggage doesn't. The unbelieving rep on this side says "really? they told you it doesn't matter what the tag says, only its number? well, " (laughing discretely under his moustache) " let me check. Oh. OH. It shows up here. What do you know. It'll arrive on the flight later today but we close up before that. We'll send it to you tomorrow".

I don't care. I just want to sleep. And shower. But definitely sleep.

44.05 AS: My parents showed up to pick me up! Stanislav Lem, the polish sci-fi writer, once defined one unit of happiness as the feeling you get when you walk a mile with a nail in your shoe sticking into your foot, then take it out. I'm not sure he considered how you'll feel tomorrow, or a few days later when the infection sets in, but nevertheless there it is. I felt like a whole fakir's bed worth of nails were pulled out of my foot. Mom & Dad - what can I say? :)

47 AS: Arrive at home. Quick breakfast. glorious shower. Still same clothes.

49 AS: Stores open. We go shopping. It's been a while since I bought clothes with mom, but then I can't be trusted to drive in my sleep deprived state.

52 AS: Lunch with the family before I collapse.

53 AS: A real bed!


75 AS: My luggage arrives. To this day, it refuses to say where it's been and what it's been doing but it has that glint in its eye that says it saw the world and had a grand old time and I should mind my own business. I do.

You were wondering about the wedding? I was told it was great. They danced on the boat until late at night or early morning or whatever you call that time when it's all light even though the clock shows an AM hour in the low single digits.

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Anonymous said...

very funny!! sometimes being tatranit has its advantages.....

Anonymous said...

That airflights -- what a mess!
Ilya P

Jason H said...

Sense of humor is the most important travel accessory! :) I wish the Russian authorities could see how ridiculous its positions is... Thanks for writing this up.