Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The ultimate character test

I had just two fears as I sat squirming in my plane seat a year and a half ago on my way to Moscow to start a new job: that my small mountain of luggage would be lost and that no one would be at the airport to greet me.

Both came to pass. Which meant that upon arrival, I had to argue with the baggage person, borrow a "dvushka" for the phone (and figure out how to work it) and then negotiate with the Sheremetyevo taxi mafia. I had been in Moscow less than an hour, and the city had already given me its best shot. I was still standing.

Looking back, the "affair" seems ludicrously ordinary. This is everyday life here. Could my skin have once been so thin? Now when things go right the first time, I wonder what's wrong. I've been known to arrive at a train station without a ticket 10 minutes before my train departs and still be on the train when it begins moving. I'm not boasting. On the contrary, this is no big deal to anyone who lives here.

But then, foreigners here are enduring the ultimate test of their character - Moscow. Which is not to say that Moscow is a bad place; it's just that everything is so hard here that it makes us find a reserve of resourcefulness we didn't know we had.

To make a simple phone call can take three dialings; to make a dinner reservation requires real city savvy; to pay a fair rate on a cab ride demands all the bargaining skills of a proprietor at a Turkish bazaar. These tests thicken our skin. They're like callouses.

This is where some foreigners, especially diplomats, sometimes get in trouble. If they don't build these callouses through contact with Moscow, then they face every hardship unprotected by the shield of dozens of previous such encounters.

But if you hang in there, stand the test, you reach a turning point where you understand that the reason everything is difficult is also the reason everything is possible. This transforms Moscow from the land of irritations to the land of possibilities.

Foreigners who have turned this key corner are all around us. In a Sept. 6 article in the Moscow Guardian ("Pioneers on the fringe"). Bob Agee, head of representation for Xerox Corp. , said, "I don't think I've come across any problem that I couldn't find some way of solving". Agee has made the transition.

But as a caveat, it is interesting to remember that Russians, in order to survive, must carry around with them every minute this reserve of resourcefulness. There's no easy end in sight. Day-to-day living is a test of their character, and they're doing remarkably well. I find that encouraging.