Planespotting, Flyrobics and a Father's Blessing
Class arrives for first day in Moscow

Our first day in Moscow was preceded by an exhausting journey, which took the class from New York's JFK, to Munich, and finally to our destination, Moscow. Some of us slept on the way in and others tried to keep themselves occupied with a book, plane aerobics or conversation.

After waiting in the airport for everyone to arrive and then finally getting checked in at the front desk, I was gently brought back to reality — going through metal detectors and security rooting through our bags. Some classmates were asked to take their shoes off for inspection before being allowed to walk to our gate.

On the seven-hour flight, people slept off a wearying week of masters' projects or entertained themselves with a Travolta movie. Others took in a video on Flyrobics, the airlines suggested aerobic exercises that can be done in the comfort of one's own seat. For many in this bleary-eyed group, the latter seemed downright fascinating. Nicole Neroulias. had this to say about the video, "I did some of the Flyrobics, but I think the three guys in front of me were really into it." Those three were Nada El Sawy, Ailis Brown, and Darren Foster. And they did seem just a bit more refreshed and alert than the rest of us — apart maybe from those who took a snooze.

When we arrived in Munich for our layover, we lounged in the little cafe there. Some admired the straight-lined and glassy architecture or some smoked cigarettes. Others sprawled out (or at least tried to) three seats at a time for a nap.

One German security guard took time out from eyeing passengers to comment on the state of airport security in Deutschland. Although Herr Freundorfer did not give his first name, he did note that security has been beefed up substantially since September 11th — especially during peak flying hours. He also pointed out that passengers have become much less genial when asked to step aside for inspection. The change in attitude from helpful to somewhat resistant began in December, he said. "They say, 'But that happened such a long time ago.'"

After chatting with Fruendorfer and checking out the furry wallets, comic books and Swatches in the M´┐Żnchen gift shops, we caught our flight to Moscow, a two-hour journey.

The flight to Moscow was uneventful. But our arrival was not. Trees weren't blowing in the wind, but the plane's wings were. The landing was tense, but it ended up with us all safe and sound, on the ground, through customs, and finally in the trustworthy hands of our guide, a journalist from The Moscow Times, Andrei Zolotov.

On the bus ride in, Andrei described some of the sites — the hookers on the side of the highway, the Constructivist-style soccer stadium built in the 1920s and the graveyard for Napoleon's soldiers, which now serves as a makeshift battleground for paint-ballers. When we finally made it back to the hotel, the hassles at the desk over room arrangements and the plans for dinner quickly faded as we all headed upstairs to the comfort of a lumpy bed.

Two hours before dinner was enough time to re-energize. At 8:30 p.m. Moscow time, we all headed down to Incognito, the hotel's basement restaurant. There, Professor Ari Goldman treated the class to a candlelit ritual moment, the prayers before a Jewish Sabbath dinner. He said prayers for his sons and daughter and wife, and then explained to us what they meant. For someone like myself, a Jew who didn't grow up with religion, it was a tasty pre-dinner morsel of things to come during the next 10 days.

For dinner we had salads, salmon, risotto, and for the non- vegetarians and those not observing Lent, there was an appetizer of cold sliced meat. We discussed story ideas: the take-home-bride industry, the devoutly religious Old Believers and Mountain Jews. As dinner wound down, this writer, accompanied by editors, and a photographer snuck away from the table for the first day's installment of Finding Faith.

Click here for more of the author's impressions and musings on Moscow.

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Professor Ari Goldman breaks the challah and recites the blessing which begins the Shabbat meal