It was three o'clock in the morning, the end of a very long first day in Moscow. We already had walked around Red Square and watched the changing of the guard at Lenin's Tomb. Now, we had to figure out how to get back to our hotel.
The last press bus was in a garage somewhere. There was nothing resembling a taxi on the dark, empty street. But we had been coached by other writers who had arrived here prior to the Goodwill Games' opening cermonies. "Just walk into the street and put out your hand," they said.
Sure enough, a car stopped. The driver rolled down the window. "Hotel Moskva?" we asked. "Nyet," he said, and drove off.
Apparently, the drivers of Russian gypsy taxis are careful. Our hotel, across the street from the Kremlin and Red Square, attracts a lot of police and security. Since the gypsy cabs are illegal, none of their drivers are eager to travel that way, even at 3 a.m.
Soon, another car stopped. We repeated our destination. He nodded. Now, we had to negotiate a price. "Three rubles," (about $4.50) I said, holding up the appropriate number of fingers. "Ten," he said in English.
"Five," I answered, trying to sound firm. He unlocked the door and three of us piled in. I had just saved The Washington Post $2 and I was quite proud of myself. Why? My phone bill for the evening -- at $9 a minute -- was $160.
There are few dull moments for someone on his first trip to Moscow. Everything, it seems, is some kind of an adventure, whether it is hailing a cab, trying to order a meal or trying to convince a cop in English that you aren't a bad guy just because you ran across the street in pursuit of yet another elusive cab.
The Soviets have worked very hard to impress their American visitors at these games. U.S. journalists were met at the airport, helped through customs and put in cars to take them to the hotel. When nine Americans flew in from London last Monday, they spent less than an hour getting out of the airport. That may be some kind of a record.
The only problem was encountered by Dave Kindred of the Atlanta Constitution, who made the mistake of bringing a buttonhook that he had bought for his wife in London. When it showed up on the X-ray machine -- bags are X-rayed here going in and out -- Kindred had to open his bag. Two customs officials peered suspiciously at the weapon.
"For my wife," Kindred kept saying. "It's a present."
Finally, after fixing Kindred with a hard look, they let him pass.
The incident set off a lot of jokes about "going to the Big Si," as everyone in the American contingent calls Siberia. The betting favorite to go to the Big Si among the Americans is me. After all, my mother's last words when I left for Europe were, "Keep your big mouth shut when you get to Russia."
Mom, I'm trying.
It isn't always easy. Generally, the people here could not be nicer. They are helpful, patient and work very hard to deal with the language barrier. But, just as anywhere else, you are bound to run into someone who wants to make life difficult.
There was a guard at the TV studio at which Turner Broadcasting System has its headquarters. I had finished an interview in the studio and walked out with two other writers. Halfway to the street, I realized I had left my computer in the studio.
When I turned to go back, the guard blocked my way. "I was just here," I said. "I forgot something."
The guard spoke English. "Your name must be on the list to come in," he said. I pointed to the list, which had my name on it, and showed him my press badge, matching the name on the badge to the one on the list.
"You already went in once," he said. "That's it."
We argued several more minutes. I offered to leave my equipment bag with him. No go. My passport (not very bright). Still no go. Finally, I just stalked past him. I ran. He chased, calling for help.
Fortunately, I got far enough upstairs to find someone from TBS before they surrounded me. I was taken to the office where my machine was and then escorted from the building -- which was fine.
As I left, the guard said in English, "This is not the end, Fenschten."
I responded maturely, never raising my voice, never using a bad word. Mom, you gotta believe me.
In truth, there have been lots of laughs here. It started on our way into the city when Tom Callahan of Time magazine noticed that our driver had a baseball card hanging from his rear-view mirror. The picture on the card was of Marc Sullivan, that famed backup catcher for the Boston Red Sox.
"Where did you get that?" Callahan asked, pointing at the card. The driver didn't understand but he understood. "Change?" he asked. Sadly, no one in the car had brought a Dwight Gooden.
Ted Turner, the man who organized these Goodwill Games, also has been the source for more than an occasional light moment. Turner visited Lenin's Tomb the other day. Turner came out of the tomb, shook his head and said, "Lenin looked good. A little pale, but pretty good."
Turner, like any man staging his own Olympics, has had a great time since he arrived here last week. He also thinks he has learned to speak Russian: He just adds "ski" to everything. To a Soviet journalist earlier this week, Turner said, "Sitski here, Sovietski." And, when he wanted to get a van driver to take him to the upper level at his hotel, Turner pointed a finger and said, "Upstairski."
A lot of Soviets speak English. When a Yugoslav journalist ventured into the street late one evening, a man approached him. "Do you have," he asked, "any pornography?"
No, the Yugoslav said firmly, partly because he didn't, partly because everyone has been warned about staying away from people who offer to buy things.
"Okay," the man said, "in that case, will you sell me your shoes?"
Everyone had been worried about the food here. It tastes great. No problem. But some people won't touch it because they are afraid of Chernobyl aftereffects.
Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press and Jim Sarni of the Fort Lauderdale News stocked up on canned food in London -- tuna fish, salmon, cookies, meats, you name it. They have been eating only the canned food for a week. Bruce Schoenfeld of the Cincinnati Post won't drink the water. Everyone else just worries. But the food itself tastes fine. Especially, the Chicken Kiev.