The air was understandably cold, the new-fallen snow glistening white. Men in thick hats and women in long fur coats milled about, coming and going in a great cacophony of sound undeterred by the winter dark. Even at nearly nine in the morning, it was almost pitch black. Then again, this was Moscow, and thankfully, I was indoors, dead asleep in a hotel within Sheremetyevo International Airport’s Terminal E.

My slumber was more than deserved. I’d just spent five days in North Korea — running in and around the environs of Pyongyang as among the first foreign tourists to spend New Year’s in the country — and was unquestionably exhausted after my second visit there. Sleep was in order — even if it meant shelling out 6,100 rubles (about $185) for 12 hours in the “V Express” capsule hotel.

I’d figured I wouldn’t be disturbed. After all, the V Express was the same hotel — the first located entirely within the transit area of a Russian airport — that NSA leaker Edward Snowden had been holed up in for three weeks before being granted asylum after his US passport was revoked (I’d asked where he stayed, but was rebuffed by hotel staff, who claimed they never heard of him). I wasn’t wanted by one of the world’s major superpowers, but considering he’d just ordered the execution of his own uncle by feeding him alive to a pack of 120 ravenous dogs (if media reports were to be believed), and I had gained some local notoriety for appearing on TV clapping less than enthusiastically while attending a performance of the Pyongyang Circus, I imagined it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that Kim Jong Un might have put a price on my head high enough to economically support a small country for a year.

Still, rest came easy at this no-nonsense hotel, allowing me to doze peacefully in a light-colored, minimalist room with a bed and not much else. At least it wasn’t like the capsule hotels of Japan, some of which are no more than slots in walls people climb in and out of.

A loud ringing suddenly woke me.

Da?” I said into the phone, pretending in my semi-conscious state that I was a fluent Russian speaker. It was borderline rude to simply say “yes” when picking up the phone, but Russians were known for their curtness.

“It is time to check out, sir.” The woman’s voice on the phone’s was richly accented, but she spoke in perfect English.

Do svidaniya (goodbye).” What more needed to be said?

Throwing on my clothes — the same ones I’d been wearing since I left Pyongyang and during a brief stopover in Beijing — I stumbled out of the compact room, which was so narrow I could touch both walls if I stretched my arms out. The hallway was a bit wider, an airy design said to put weary travelers at ease. Despite being just a few steps from the constant din of jumbo jets at the second-busiest airport in Russia (serving more than 26 million passengers per year with nearly 230,000 aircraft movements, or one every two minutes), it was utterly silent.

Handing my electronic key card to the pretty blonde at the front desk, I tried the Snowden question one last time. CNN would probably pay big bucks if I could figure it out and snap a few photos. The CIA would probably want to talk to me too.

“A friend of mine stayed here a while back,” I began. “He said he left a camera in his room, and was wondering if someone might have found it? He told me to ask when I stayed here.”

The woman gave a dangerous sideways glance. “We have no camera, sorry.”

“Maybe I could check his room quickly?”


Well, so much for that.

Exiting the hotel through the single bank vault-thick door that served as its only discernible entrance, I found myself amidst the labyrinthine halls of Sheremetyevo’s transit area.

Sheremetyevo was opened on August 11, 1959, though its first international flight was not until 1960. The airport received its name from two areas nearby: the village of Sheremetyevsky and the Savelov railway station. Though it has been remodeled extensively since then (most recently in 2010, when a walkway was added between Terminals D, E and F), it still retains much of the simplicity that was common among architecture during the existence of the Soviet Union. White tile floors and large windows with expansive views of taxiways and runways predominate, with cozy nooks and crannies branching off from the relatively narrow main thoroughfare between gates. Such a design has led to the airport being featured in a variety of media, from the films Air Force One (starring Harrison Ford) and The Bourne Supremacy (with Matt Damon), to the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, when Terminal D (under a fictitious name) is attacked by terrorists in a mission that led to the game being banned in several countries for its graphic content.

The first order of business was to find some coffee. Moscow is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world — and consequently is also among the most expensive — meaning I had little hope of finding anything reasonably affordable, if the price I paid for such Spartan sleeping accommodations as the V Express was any indication. Signage throughout the airport is naturally in Russian and its Cyrillic alphabet, but, fortunately, English translations are also commonplace. However, regardless of the language, what dawned on me was that I had no intention of paying 350 rubles ($10.50) for a single shot of espresso.

I was also, I realized, rather hungry. After subsisting on a diet of rice, kimchi, noodles, dog soup and North Korean beer, I was craving something a little more… well, something that didn’t involve kimchi or enough spice to rival a volcano.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to break the bank to fill my stomach, and it came at a place as unlikely to find in Moscow as a McDonald’s in Tehran: that good old-fashioned symbol of American casual dining, TGI Friday’s.

Believe it or not, TGI Friday’s can be found in 61 countries outside the United States. Granted, it didn’t come to the world’s largest country by land area until after the fall of the Soviet Union, but there it was, in not one, but two locations within Terminal D, less than 500 feet apart. Normally, I detested quintessentially “American” food outside the 50 states, but I just couldn’t resist the sheer oddity. I was reminded of a rather shameless visit to a Pizza Hut in Yanji, China the last time I’d walked out of North Korea.

Taking a seat in the half-empty restaurant festooned with sports memorabilia and Christmas decorations (it may have been early January, but considering the Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated January 7, it made perfect sense), I promptly ordered a Caesar salad, gesticulating wildly to convey my message to the brunette waitress in a red and white striped uniform who spoke very little English. And to wash it down, I ordered a piping-hot cappuccino with extra creamer, of course.

Leaning back in my chair, I allowed myself to relax. Airports had always seemed like a second home to me, a strange place of tranquility amidst a frothing sea of chaos. Devout Christians attend churches, Jews the synagogue, Muslims visit the mosque, and Hindus go to temple, but in the church of Ben Mack, the airport was the place of religious observance and communion with the universe.

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