From Gray and Grimy to Grateful

After 19 hours in transit, a groggy group arrives in Moscow
Posted Friday, March 14, 2003; 11:57 p.m.

Moscow - Journeying journalism student Jamal Watson in the yellow-shaded bus that took him and 17 classmates from Sheremetyevo Airport to the Renaissance Hotel, in the Prospekt Mira area of Moscow. PHOTO: Sara Leitch

MOSCOW - With the late afternoon sun casting dark shadows along a moody Moscow horizon, a long day's journey finally lurched toward completion. But for a team of journalists involved in "Covering Religion," a ten-day tour through Russia, it was both an end and a beginning.

Most celebrated the transition with a much-needed nap.

Upon arrival, the group looked simultaneously thrilled and exhausted. Having traversed different time zones, hurdled language barriers, and mastered several modes of transportation most responded with sleep. And while some took immediate advantage of their new surroundings to explore before dinner, many could not resist the invitation of a soft bed and a quiet room. Still, despite jet lag sapping their strength, the hallmark of the trip, religious experience, culminated the opening day.

One could probably blame the fatigue on the frenetic days prior to departure. For many, panicky delirium over completing masters' projects gave way to pure exhaustion as they staggered into the Lufthansa terminal at New York's JFK Airport under a gray, grimy sky.

Small talk hung in the air, but minds fixed on the sweet, dim darkness ahead as many felt an almost transcendental relief from academic pressures.

On the flight, many crashed hard-unmoved by Lufthansa's canary yellow motif and slick German design that seemed to announce: "I am slick German design" - an unexpected cup holder, sleek edges on a pitcher of tea. The A340-300 screamed through the darkness.

Just past breakfast, splotchy patches of peach light materialized below, breaking the monotony of the pitch-black Atlantic. Cities! Clusters of little cities! But, which, alas, it was difficult to tell. London? Paris? Soon after, we touched down in Frankfurt at 5:30 a.m. German time.

Muhammad Lila executed his Islamic morning prayer in the direction of Mecca. Alexandra Alter crashed immediately on a cluster of chairs at the departure gate-as did Daniel Burke and several others, folding and tucking in body parts to fit into compact sleeping spaces.

Others projected their crankiness onto Frankfurt International. Angela Uherbelau and Gabriel Rodriguez-Nava found the barbed wire motif at the airport monorail "evocative." Going past a closed casino room, an exasperated Timothy Lavin asked: "What kind of casino closes?"

Ari Goldman, the class professor, noted that last year at the Munich airport "they were drinking beer at six in the morning. I don't know what's wrong with this place. Where can you get a drink around here?"

The troops soldiered on by bus through Frankfurt's sprawling terminals and out to its vast airfield and the connecting flight to, at last, Moscow.

Three hours later, the plane descended from a cloudless sky onto a swath of runway cut from a seemingly endless shroud of forest. The winter's snow pack had begun bleeding into spring, leaving the roads, as predicted, slick and muddy.

Tellingly, the first formal "introduction" the group received came from a billboard spotted out a plane window: Metelitsa, a hot spot described by Rough Guide as Moscow's "swankiest casino," where "the classiest whores in town relieve the biggest big-shots and flattest flatheads of their cash."

Andrei Zolotov, a Moscow Times reporter, met the group immediately following customs. Soon the bus was speeding along the Leningrad Highway toward the capital. Along the way, Zolotov taught eagerly.

He explained a stark monument to the spot at which German forces were stopped in 1941, which now stood against the backdrop of a wildly successful Ikea superstore. Where Hitler had failed, Swedish design at reasonable prices had, apparently, succeeded.

Most eyes seem glued to the passing spires, dilapidated apartment buildings and bottlenecking Moscow traffic, though some sneaked a quick catnap.

The group checked into the Renaissance Moscow Hotel. Some slept, some investigated the sprawling city.

At Sabbath dinner that night, Goldman offered four prayers that included a welcome to the Shabbat queen, blessings for his children, and a prayer over the bread and wine.

Given the intensity of their day's travels together, it may have been appropriate that the group's religious exploration began not outwardly, but inwardly. A month after they had attended Shabbat services at Goldman's synagogue in New York, the experience, in a sense, came full circle.

And those free-time naps may have helped. Rumors and whispers circulated, suggesting that some would venture out in search of the pulse of Moscow's nightlife, somehow staving off their first sensible opportunity to sleep.

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