On a cold, snowy night in late September 1982, my brother and I left Moscow’s international airport in a taxi for Sheremetevo, where we were to catch a plane that would take us to Yerevan, Armenia. The driver, who was friendly enough, had demanded forty rubles for what was normally a twenty-ruble ride — an exorbitant fee, but a fair trade considering road conditions. During the past few hours, an early winter storm had left the main highway frozen and heaped with snow, making it necessary to creep along in ruts several inches deep.
When we arrived over an hour later, the snow was blowing sideways. Instead of taking us to the main entrance, the driver, for reasons I’ve never understood, dropped us off at a booth about twice the size of an outhouse on the edge of the airport grounds. Inside, a woman bundled against the cold greeted us with a stare, then picked up the telephone. After saying no more than five words, she hung up, folded her arms across her chest, and stared out the window into the inhospitable night.
The woman, in her fifties and ruggedly built, knew no English, or, if she did, she didn’t let on. Our Russian, meanwhile, was limited to nyet and borshch. After several minutes of silence, a small airport tractor and trailer emerged from the blizzard. The man driving stopped at the booth. The woman opened the door, letting what little heat there was escape, and began chatting with the man. After they’d agreed that we were just about the funniest thing they’d ever seen, the man loaded our suitcases onto the trailer and motioned us to climb on and sit beside them.
The temperature was five degrees. Like sides of beef, we rattled off over the frozen tarmac, stuck to the metal surface of the trailer bed. In the distance, we could make out lights through the swirling snow. They came from the airport terminal, but we had little hope of reaching the building alive. We weren’t even sure that was where we were being taken.
When we finally did arrive, we were shoved with our luggage through a door that opened next to a ticket counter, landing in a heap of snowflakes, ticket stubs, and muddy boots. As soon as we’d gotten to our feet and brushed ourselves off, the tractor driver opened his palm, thrust it before us, and grunted. I gave him a ruble, but he felt his services were worth much more. He pointed to his rubled palm and grunted again. I waved him off, saying one ruble was already too much, considering we had almost died in the cold. He stomped off in a rage and slammed the door behind him.
The girls working at the ticket counter were no help. Finally, a young man from Paris informed us in English that all flights were delayed due to the storm. As it happened, he was also bound for Armenia, to participate, of all things, in a puppet festival.
After moving our luggage to a safe place, we took two of the few remaining seats and settled in for the night. At about two a.m., a rotund Armenian businessman encased in a leather jacket began talking in a loud voice to several other Armenians, telling them what a big success he was, and about how he had the world in the palm of his hand. At three a.m., he was still talking, but no one was listening. At four a.m., an old woman with a bucket of dirty water began wiping the floor with rags. Working on her hands and knees, whenever she came to an empty vodka bottle, instead of picking it up, she merely brushed it aside, letting it roll across the floor.
A year or so later, the storm died down. The sun rose, revealing birch trees in the distance. Exhausted, we boarded our creaky plane to Yerevan. Once we were in the air, water began dripping on me from above. Since the water wasn’t frozen, I took this as a good sign.
In Yerevan, it was warm and sunny. Several minutes before we arrived at the Zvartnots Airport, the passengers, being typically impatient Armenians, were up and standing in the aisle, jostling each other for position. No one told them to remain seated with their seat belts fastened and their trays in the upright position. When the plane touched down, we were all packed so tightly in the aisle that it was impossible to fall and be hurt.
Bumped along by the crowd, my brother and I set foot on Armenian soil for the first time. We collected our suitcases and managed to find a taxi. Later, a friend told us that we’d paid twelve rubles for a two-ruble ride. But it didn’t matter. We were there. And in a way that would take a long time to explain, we have been there ever since.
Also by William Michaelian
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
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