Family Travel Silver Winner: Cleared for Takeoff in St. Petersburg

by Nancy Middleton

We arrived at the St. Petersburg airport a couple of hours before takeoff.  In plenty of timeor at least we thought.  My mother and I dragged our suitcases to the end of an ominously long line just inside the terminal and waited with the rest of our tour group. The bus that had dropped us off was gone, along with the perky guide who’d accompanied us from the hotel.  She had been quite young and, like every guide we’d encountered during our two-week stay, she’d insisted we ask her tough questions about life in Russia and promised she would answer honestly.

“Really,” she’d chirped.  “Ask me anything.”

Somebody had asked about health care, and she readily admitted that the Russian system was less than perfect.  This, of course, prompted more questions on the topic, but suddenlyas if nervous about the direction of the conversationshe changed the subject.

“Why should we spend such a beautiful day speaking of such depressing things ” she said and waved her hand toward the sunny sky.

My ears perked up.  Was this the “Soviet” moment I’d been waiting for   The point where the carefully crafted tour ended and the cracks began to show   As someone who, in college, had studied the history and language of Russia (then still the Soviet Union), it was etched in my brain that this country was adept at papering over the truth.  And I had spent a good part of the past two weeks looking for evidence to support my beliefs.  The only problem   Our trip had been virtually problem-free.  We had been treated wellfed and housed in styleand our guides had been quite open and honest with their opinions on everything from Medvedev to the breakup of the former Soviet Union.  We had even seen Star City, the scruffy cosmonaut training center that had been open to the public for only seven years.

Now at the airport, the episode with the tour guide forgotten, we shuffled forward with our bags, my hopes for a Soviet moment all but dashed.

The airport seemed unusually small and rundown for a city the size of St. Petersburg, but I reminded myself that the Moscow airport we’d flown into had been equally decrepit.  Moscow’s had been worse, in fact, with chunks of plaster missing from the walls and water pooling on the floor by the baggage claim.  This was Russia in transition, I had learned:  shopworn around the edges but trying hard to catch up.

My mother and I exchanged a weary look.  It had been a spectacular trip, but we were ready to travel home.  Around us, members of our tour group stood silently in line, the camaraderie of the past two weeks already slipping away as they splintered off into couples, reclaiming their privacy.

The line was barely moving, so I peered ahead to see what was causing the holdup.  Officials seemed to be checking IDs and boarding passes before allowing passengers to pass through a sliding glass door.  We were waiting in line, I suddenly realized, just to get into the ticketing areawaiting in what would be public space, the common area, in most major airports.  This seemed odd, but not alarmingly so.  As any seasoned traveler knows, every airport has its own security system these days, and it’s best not to question it.

Eventually, we passed through the doors and into the inner sanctum of the airport, where the ticketing windows were located.  It was a low-ceilinged gray cement box of a space more reminiscent of an abandoned bus station.

“Pretty grim,” I remarked to my mom, who agreed as we received our boarding passes and seat assignments.  The ticketing agent didn’t tell us our gate number, but this we assumed would be easy to find out.

Free of our luggage, we wandered about for a few minutes searching for the arrivals/departures board and, finding none, we walked out through small sliding glass doors and into what you could perhaps call an atriumif only because it was better lit than the ticketing area.  The space was small and shockingly rundown.  (Imagine a 1960s-era shopping mall neglected and left for dead.)  We quickly determined that there were just four departure gates:  two up and two down.

“Well, that will make things easy when it’s time to board,” I remarked.

“Not far to walk,” my mother said.  We both prided ourselves on being “good” travelers:  no complaining and no worrying allowed.

A rickety escalator ran up the center of the atrium.  Upstairs was a duty-free shop and downstairs, a small gift store.  Tinny music played faintly over an intercom, but it was virtually impossible to hear.  Every so often the music was interrupted by a female announcer whose faint and garbled speech was equally impossible to understand.  There was no arrivals/departures board here either, and there seemed to be no airport employees around to ask.  We bumped into some of our fellow travelerswe were all milling about aimlessly, with nothing to do but waitand asked if they knew what gate our plane was departing from.  No one seemed to know.

“Strange,” I said to my mother, who agreed.  But, good travelers that we were, we assured ourselves that we would be informed in time.  Someone would surely make an announcementright   We took the escalator upstairs and floated in and out of the gift shop.  After several minutes of examining bottles of vodka and rows of Matrushka dolls, we grew bored.  My mother found some plastic seats to the left of the escalator and we sat down to wait.  We were still an hour from departure.  There was no need to worry; yet, a small part of me was growing increasingly nervous.  What if we missed our plane   What if we just kept sitting here in our ignorance and our plane took off without our knowing it   It suddenly struck me as possible.  The tinny voice came over the loudspeaker and we strained to hear it.

“If that’s our gate announcement,” my mother said.  “I can’t understand a word.”  I nodded and tried to hide my anxiety.  Time was ticking by and we still had no idea which gate was ours.  Around us, others were becoming slightly agitated.  A few members of our group rode the escalator down, convinced that they’d find out something about our departure gate, only to come back up just as confused as before.

By the time we were thirty minutes from takeoff, the mood in the crowd was decidedly nervous.  By fifteen minutes to takeoff, it had become panicky.

“How are we all going to board and take off in time ” I asked my mother.  Of course, she had no answer.  “Maybe it’s been delayed,” I remarked, although there had been no word of a delay.  There had been no word . . . period.  And that was the problem.

Then, as if someone had whispered in somebody else’s ear, the crowd began to move downstairs.  There had been no announcement, yet we realized that–suddenly, urgentlythis was what we had to do.  Something was happening.

“Is our plane leaving ” I asked a man who had been on our tour, as we crowded onto the escalator.  He shrugged.

“All I know is someone told us to go downstairs,” he said.

We stumbled off of the escalator and smack into an impenetrable crowd of anxious passengers.  Everyone who had been milling about the terminal was suddenly crammed into one massive, unruly line that passed across the front of, and then wrapped around, the escalator.  We jostled into place.  There was already a huge crowd in front of us.

“Where did all these people come from ” I asked a woman in line.  She shot me a frenzied look.  There must have been hundreds of us in this one huge mass of a line.  From conversations around us we learned that there were two large flights scheduled to take off within minutes of each other:  our flight to London and another one to Paris.

“We’re never going to make it,” I muttered.  And I truly believed this.  There was no way that this many people could be funneled through security and seated in time for the scheduled takeoffs.

“I don’t think they’d leave without us,” my mother said.  She was striving to be optimistica good traveler still–to counter my growing skepticism.  And she had a point.  Would a plane take off if most of its passengers were stuck in the terminal   I didn’t know, but our experience so far was making me distrustful of the system.  Nothing was working the way it should.

We pressed forward in the line, although it wasn’t really a line anymore.  It was a crush of humanity all clutching boarding passes and all wearing the same anxious expression.  Nobody wanted to be left behind, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that some of us just might be.  Just ahead of us, a well-dressed man was becoming increasingly angry.

“We’re never going to make our flight,” he said.  “I’ve been making this trip for the past three years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he added.  We spoke for a few moments.  He was an art dealer, it turned out.  Apparently, the Moscow art market was hot and he was making a killing.  After we finished talking, he abandoned us and pushed his way forward, determined not to be one of those left behind.

All around, others were doing the same.  The closer we got to the security checkpoint, the rougher the shoving and pushing became.  It was now ten minutes past our scheduled takeoff time and, for all we knew, our plane was already gone.  There had been no announcements, of course, and no airport officials to be found.  As we rounded the corner of the escalator, I saw that we were all being shuttled through a narrow security checkpoint.  There was one rather bored-looking security agent and oneyes, onemetal detector.  Passengers were moving through at a snail’s pace.

“Oh my God!” somebody groaned.

My sentiments exactly.

We had just begun to make progress toward the checkpoint when an airport official suddenly appeared out of nowhere, shoved through the crowd, and started calling for all passengers on the flight to Paris to move to the front of the line.  What!  I continued to push ahead, ignoring the call to step aside for the Paris-bound passengers.  My self-preservationist side had kicked in, and I didn’t care if the others missed their plane.  I had pushed my way to the front of the queue fair and square, and I’d be damned if somebody got in front of me.

Fortunately, my mother was taking a more civilized approach.  She pulled me aside and we waited as several Paris-bound passengers went through security ahead of us   while I seethed, helpless and frustrated, on the side.

And then it struck me:  This was my true Soviet moment!  We were experiencing firsthand the same frustrations Soviet citizens must have felt for decades:  enduring the long waits for scarce goods with no guarantee of receiving them, feeling the anger and helplessness a capricious and inefficient system breeds.  And I was shocked and ashamed at how it made me behave.

We eventually shuffled our way through security, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my reaction.  Inside the gated area we found, yes, another line.  The Paris-bound passengers were boarding their plane so we had to wait, penned like cattle behind a divider.  Again, no one knew whether our plane was still scheduled to take off or not, and no official seemed able or willing to answer our questions.  The airport officials we saw nowand there were a few–seemed harried, as if they had just now realized what a huge problem they had on their hands.

Finally, when the area cleared of passengers and the flight to Paris took off, we began to move forward.  We were going to make it.  We would be leaving an hour late, but we were going to make it.  I didn’t even care anymore if we made our connecting flight in London.  All I wanted was out of St. Petersburg.

We boarded our plane.  Our flight attendants were friendly and seemingly unaware of the ordeal we had just endured.  We filed down the aisle and found our seats.  I felt like a hostage must feel upon their release.  The chaos of the terminal and our struggle there seemed a lifetime away.  Here were our numbered seats and blankets and pillows.  Everything was as it should be.

I sat down and felt my body relax.  I thought of the harried airport employees still trapped in the terminal, of our chipper tour guide, of all the Russian people we had met during the past two weeks and felt a sudden surge of sympathyand respect–for them.  I had had my Soviet momentbut it had been only a moment, whereas they had lived like that for decades.  I closed my eyes.  Such resilience.  Such stamina.

Russia. Now I understood.

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