Brace Yourself For the Flight Into Moscow

Frankfurt International Airport, 10 a.m. You can spot the Moscow flight a mile away. Clouds of smoke waft from the waiting lounge into the main concourse. Dour-faced passengers slump sullenly in their seats, heaps of carry-on luggage piled all around them. A few people huddle importantly, gripping their massive briefcases as they go over last-minute plans. Others animatedly talk politics and whether this will be the year of economic stabilization for Russia.

Just a few gates down, passengers in khakis, sunglasses and flowered shirts wait to board their flight to some sun spot. People are smiling. Babies coo gently in their mothers' arms. Strangers strike up amiable conversation about the vacation to come. When the flight is called, passengers amble toward the gate, politely making way for families trying to board.

The Moscow flight is called. The dour faces leap to their feet and dive for the plane. Luggage flies. One man wheels an entire cart of bags down the jetway. The few mothers with children are pushed aside in the rush to get on board and monopolize the overhead compartments.

The plane is packed, and luggage is wedged under every seat. The flight attendants are smiling, but you can tell they know it's going to be a long trip. One man asks for a vodka before takeoff. Another tries to light up a cigarette.

The Russian experience, it seems, starts even before you touch down in Russia.

When my husband and I moved here (yes, as I have mentioned many times now, five years ago), our flight was virtually empty. There were 16 people on the plane -- so few that we basically had our own personal flight attendant, who regaled us with tales of his trips around the world.

Hardly anyone was flying into Moscow that day. It was Friday, and the plane was coming in to pick up the hordes who had been here all week and were anxious to get out.

These days, whether you fly on a Friday or Monday, every plane is packed -- or so it seems. There are businessmen coming to buy up factories, students on exchange programs, the Russian business elite back from working trips abroad, and tourists eager for a winter view of Red Square.

The mood is always the same. The flight "in" (we say "in" and "out" as if Moscow were a prison) is quiet and moody. The businessmen brood over a week of trying to force financial information out of recalcitrant factory directors. The students are scared about speaking Russian. The Russian business elite just don't want to be coming home. And the tourists look at all these bad moods and ask themselves why they wanted to see Red Square in the first place.

On the flight out, everyone gets drunk. The businessmen have escaped the grip of the factory directors. The students are glad for a hot meal. The Russian businessmen are escaping the mafia and tax police, and the tourists are thrilled at having seen Lenin before he is buried.

The drunker they get, the more the passengers talk about Russia. The businessmen lecture anyone who will listen on Russia's coming economic miracle, and the New Russians join in. The students hand out resumes. The tourists plan their return trip. The flight attendants run back and forth, wondering how they could possibly be running out of drinks.

And I turn the headphones on -- loud.