The Voyage Home

The voyage home from Russia was supposed to begin at 3:30 a.m. in St. Petersburg, as that's when we were supposed to meet in the lobby of the hotel, where a van/bus would be waiting to take us to the airport in time for our 6:40 departure.  Unfortunately, the van/bus never showed up, so we wound up hailing cabs in the street to take us.  One of the UNI library staff negotiated a rate of $80 with the first driver, who agreed to call two more drivers to carry the eight of us, plus our luggage to the airport.  Unfortunately, we didn't fit in the first three cabs, and I wound up in a fourth cab by myself with all the luggage.  As we sped along in a direction that I hoped was somewhat in the general direction of the airport, I tried to not to think about the possibility that I was being taken somewhere to have my kidneys removed for sale on the black market.  I also kept repeating over and over that I wanted the International airport, as St. Petersburg has two airports, the other one being for domestic travel only.

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the airport, where the driver demanded $20 U.S. from me.  All I had on me were rubles, a total of 3 500-ruble notes (that I'd been intending to change to dollars at the airport), plus some change.  Great. Of course he claimed not to have change, and wound up getting 1000 rubles out of me, which is more like $34 than $20, but I was not exactly in a strong bargaining position.  I made my way inside, went through security (twice), having to open the dreaded white equipment case before checking it, then settled in to wait for the flight to Frankfurt.

The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful, and I slept for about half an hour, as I hadn't gone to sleep before leaving for the airport, operating under the theory that then I'd be able to sleep on the plane(s) if I didn't get any sleep the night before.  We arrived in Frankfurt, where we unloaded the jet on the tarmac, showing our passports at the door to a German Polize who didn't even make Chuck and I open our passports once he saw they were from the U.S.  We then boarded a bus and shuttled over to the main terminal, where we found ourselves deposited in the large shopping area of the Frankfurt airport.

There was a shop specializing in chocolate, but their credit card machine wasn't working, and now I was down to only 500 rubles, not having found a place to change it to greenbacks or Euros yet.  I gave up on that shop, and went to a duty-free shop, where I bought some really really good Swiss chocolate, about five pounds worth, that I loaded in my carry-on.  I really love white chocolate, and most of what you find in the U.S. isn't very good, so I had to stock up.

We then went to the gate to await our flight to the U.S., and were even lucky enough to find some power outlets, so that Chuck and I were able to charge up our laptops while waiting.  I played some Civilization III to pass the time, and eventually we boarded the 747 bound for Chicago.

Once on board, I discovered that Dr. Tom Connors and I were in the same row, he had the window seat, and I had the aisle.  Chuck was across the aisle from me, in the aisle seat of the middle section, and as the plane filled up, no one showed up to take the seat between Tom and I.  We grew pretty excited, as having that seat empty for the next 9 hours would make us both a lot more comfortable, but alas, it was too good to be true, and a hulking Serbian guy was soon indicating that he was going to be sitting in our row, and attempting to convince me to take that middle seat.

He didn't speak much English, but I made it pretty clear that there was no way he was getting my aisle seat, so he was just going to have to suffer in the middle, even though he was about 2 inches taller and 60 pounds more muscular than me.  He begrudingly accepted his fate, and crammed himself into the middle seat as we got ready to take off.

The Serb started reading some tabloids, and from what Tom and I could deduce, he seemed to be into kickboxing, karate, and martial arts.  He certainly fit the profile.  I also think he may have been taking steroids or other drugs, and was going through withdrawal, as he was constantly bouncing his legs in the nervous way that many people (including myself) sometimes do.  However, most people don't do that when there are two other people wedged up against you, attempting to sleep, while you're bouncing around in your seat like you have to pee.  It was annoying, to say the least.

Fortunately, I think he had some sort of problem with his right kneecap, as he kept rubbing it, and getting up to stand in the back of the plane.  I estimate he spent at least a third of the flight back there, which was fine with us, as it gave us more room, and gave me an opportunity to get several 20-30 min naps in on the flight, though I would not say I was comfortable.  I kept wondering aloud how much Business Class upgrades cost, because I'm pretty sure it's worth it.  I even spent about 20 minutes in one of the little airplane bathrooms, just because I liked being able to stretch out.  Flying coach in Lufthansa proves that my people (the Germans) have not entirely forgotten how to torture large numbers of people efficiently.

Chuck also had an interesting traveling companion, a man of unknown nationality who boarded the airplane completely intoxicated.  He didn't look like a nervous flier who'd loaded up before getting onboard, this guy had the look of of someone who was on a first-name basis with every bartender in town, and could have probably wrung enough alcohol from his clothing and greasy hair to get drunk in a pinch.  He was mostly incoherent and incapacitated, though he roused shortly after take-off to say "I need to wake up!" repeatedly.  While Chuck found this to be somewhat odd, he sort of nodded along politely, as the man grew more insistent in his proclamations, before realizing that the man actually meant he needed to get up, not wake up, and needed Chuck to vacate the aisle seat so that he could stagger his way back towards the bathroom.  He returned soon enough, and lapsed into the kind of chin-on-the-chest sleep that only comes with a lot of exhaustion or a lot of gin.

Eventually, the friendly German flight attendants brought us our first meal, which was chicken/spaghetti, a salad, a roll, and some dessert thing, which I didn't eat.  One thing I will say about Lufthansa, the food is downright edible, and they give you whatever you want to drink, including various alcoholic beverages, at no charge.  After eating, I sort of tried to sleep some more, though the Serbian was back, and I wasn't having much luck.

We were then shown two movies, The Stepford Wives and Dodgeball, both of which I'd already seen in the theatres.  Being somewhat a Cinephile, watching movies in a 4:3 aspect ratio, edited for content, on a tiny worn-out screen with burn-in and color smearing didn't really appeal to me, so I tried to ignore them and get some sleep, though it didn't really work.

Eventually, they brough us our second meal, which was really just a snack, though it was tasty.  I got a Calzone filled with some sort of red goo, but since it tasted good, I ate it all, though I'm not exactly sure what was in it, though I know there was at least some meat-like substance.  I washed it down with a coke, and then waited the requisite hour that it seems to take before flight attendants will actually come get the empty food trays they gave you with your meals.

After a few more hours of clock-watching, we arrived in Chicago, where we sailed through Customs and Passport Control with no problems.  We then had to re-check our bags for the flight to Cedar Rapids, where I was again asked to open the white equipment case so they could inspect it.  They chastised me for packing the two bottles of vodka in my luggage, and I neglected to mention that I had another 6 packed in my other bag.  The intersection where this took place is extremely confusing, even to Americans, and several of the faculty failed to negotiate it properly.  You come down a hallway from Customs and passport control.  Just to the left is a TSA baggage screening area, where they wiped my bag with the residue pads, and made me open it.  But they only did the one bag, then had me go down farther to my left with the other bag, where another TSA guy glanced at it, and put it on a conveyer belt.  There was a conveyer belt where they'd already placed the white case, but for some reason made me drag my suitcase down to another guy to be placed on the same belt, as far as I could tell.  After this, you had to retrace your steps to a United ticket counter, where you could check in and get your boarding passes for the flight to Cedar Rapids, before finally going through the door which was straight ahead of you at the start, which leads to the monorail to the other terminals.  Now, I was able to do this, only by studying the layout and watching everyone else ahead of me.  There are approximately 50 TSA, Airline, and various security personnel all milling about in this area, and they just sort of randomly shout instructions at you, it must be a nightmare for a non-English speaker.

Once we cleared this area, we ran into Chuck's parents, who'd come to talk to him while we waited for our next flight.  Chuck and I also learned that the flight time had been changed since we received our schedule, so we weren't leaving for an extra 45 minutes.  I left him to catch up with his parents, and after going through security (again) I sought out a McDonald's to grab some lunch.

It was just a little after noon, and our original flight was supposed to leave around 2:40, arriving in Cedar Rapids at 3:40, where Todd would pick us up.  The flight had been rescheduled to 3:20, so after Chuck caught up with his parents, he used his cell phone to attempt to notify Todd, but discovered it was too late, as Todd has already left for Cedar Rapids, and didn't notice his voice mail indicator on his cell phone until he got there.  Well, we could handle a 40 minute delay, so we sat around and waited, watching CNN coverage of the presidential race on the TVs in the airport, and wishing that someone in O'Hare had the brains to install a Wi-Fi system. 

United soon claimed our flight was actually leaving at 3:34, then changed that to 3:40.  As 3:40 came around, and we hadn't even begun to board the plane, we realized that we weren't going to be getting home soon.  Around 3:45 or so, we actually got on the plane, got everything situated, with Chuck and I located in the back two seats of the plane that didn't recline.  We taxied out to the runway, got in the queue to take off, then abrubtly taxied back to the gate while the captain came on to explain that the plane was over the weight limit, and that we had to shed some weight.

It took about half an hour for them to kick off a few standby passengers who were airline employees, and remove some cargo, then we taxied back out to the runway, where we found ourselves in tenth place waiting to take off.  By this point, we were actively disgruntled, as we could have rented a car at noon from Chicago and been home by 4:30, it was now 5:00, and we hadn't even got in the air yet. 

We finally got airborne sometime after 5:00, though Chuck and I were so exhausted we were barely conscious.  We slept for most of the hour-long flight home, though we briefly debated never flying anywhere again, and arrived to find Todd just outside the security checkpoint, having spent the last three and a half hours waiting for United to deliver us.  We got our luggage, checked mine for signs of broken vodka bottles, and loaded up the UNI van for the trip home.  Chuck and I were so happy to be nearly home that we managed to retain consciousness, and I arrived home around 7:30 to find my wife had put a Welcome Home banner in the front window for me.  I lugged my stuff in, gave her a big hug, and then headed off to enjoy a warm shower and a good night's sleep in my own bed.