by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MOSCOW — It took three seconds. Maybe two. My feet had not yet left passport control in Sheremetyevo (Moscow) Airport when there was a voice and a face and a clipboard.

“You are . . . ” the woman began in strained English. She was wearing a white dress and too much lipstick and a pin, an “Intourist” pin, which meant she worked for the hotels designated for outsiders. And that I would not be left alone from here on in.

“Sports journalist,” I said. “American.”

“End yur name ees?”

I told her. She found me on her clipboard. She found the guy I was sharing my hotel room with, too. I pointed to the passport line. She eyeballed him, made another notation, then launched into a speech about where to go next.

So, Russia was about what I expected in minutes one through three, and now, 12 hours later, in a small hotel room overlooking Red Square, Lenin’s Tomb and the public drinking fountains — where people line up to wait for one glass, which they rinse briefly before using — I have to say it still is.

The reason we are here (we being a small contingent of American sports writers) is the Goodwill Games, a mega event staged by mega entrepreneur Ted Turner that may turn out to be a mega flop. Or maybe not. You never know. Old Ted dangled a pretty seductive carrot out there for U.S. journalists — two weeks in Moscow, America versus Russia, retribution for the Olympics and all that. Only when you get here do you find you have to pay for the phone calls. In cash: $8.50 per minute.

Talk fast, men. Separate, unequal treatment Anyhow, the Intourist woman made sure my friend and I were sent in a special car to the hotel.

“Sherl boish dreit,” the driver said, or something like that, to our guide.

“Da,” she said coldly. Then she turned to us and smiled. I didn’t trust it. “Everything is good. Please go,” she said.

Why not? We’d been sugar-coated from the moment she found us. While everyone else had their luggage ripped open and their shaving kits dissected, we were waved through customs without as much as a zipper being touched. Regular Russians fought over a half dozen luggage trolleys. We got our own. You think they want the press to get a bad impression?

“Hotel?” I asked the driver.

“Da, da,” he said. His brown hair was unkempt, his shirt was open and his chest was sweaty. He smoked. We drove several nondescript highways with the windows down, saying nothing. What do you think at those moments? “This is Russia,” you say. And you try to feel something special.

I noticed a tape deck on the car dash and asked my friend for a cassette. We gave it to the driver and he stuck it in the wrong way. “This is not his car,” I mumbled. My friend nodded.

The tape jammed. The driver pulled off the road to try to wedge it out. A few kilometers back was a swimming area, a big pond really, right in the island between one highway and another, and some kids were jumping in.

Finally the tape clicked. The driver pulled out. A few seconds later, we were rolling along to the synthesized oinks of Madonna, singing, “I Am A Material Girl.” And that’s the way we cruised past the Moscow city limits. An alarming development? A lot of people, by the way, said I had to be crazy to go to Russia after the Chernobyl explosion. And I kind of dismissed it. But during the flight, a British Airways stewardess — a regular on that route — told us about the first runs she worked after Chernobyl. She said the travelers from Moscow set off the radiation alarms with their clothes, and they had to take them off and wrap them in special bags.

That did not do a whole lot for my confidence.

It doesn’t still. But I am here. In the last 12 hours I’ve seen streets and highways and buses with no drivers and guards who just shrug and Lenin Stadium, which was three-quarters empty for a Goodwill Games track and field event.

So the thing may be a bust. But there’ll be something worth writing about. There better be. I have to pay for this piece. Hunker up 40 rubles, or else, what, I guess I don’t come home?

So I’m going to the telephone room. And I hope, this will see the light of print. It’s a weird feeling, sitting on a hotel bed overlooking Red Square, which, to many Americans is about the end of the earth. Yet I find myself thinking back on that ride, with the driver trying to hide his tapping foot as Madonna sang “Li-ving in a ma-ter-ial world . . . ” I take a certain grin out of that.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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