I was to report to the Moscow division of the American Councils before my departure to the States. All the finalists from all over Russia were sent over in big groups over 2 days.
The Councils paid for my trip to Moscow. My mother came with me to see me off. The “departure base” was in the Izmailovo Hotel. I was given a room with a roommate from my hometown, but stayed in the room my mother rented.
I can’t remember that time very clearly now, but I think we had a paperwork session, where we were given our exchange visitor forms (I forget the number). The next morning all exchange students put on identical blue FLEX T-shirts. We were to travel to JFK as a group with one adult superviser. The idea was that the T-shirt would make us more visible as exchange students and possibly facilitate immigration procedures.
The flight was about 10 hours long, but somehow I never took a nap. We were talking to fellow exchange students, listening to their stories about their future host-families (for those who had gotten in touch with theirs). At that point, I had only talked to my host mother on the telephone a couple of times. All I knew was that I was to stay in a small town in Pennsylvania with a single middle-aged woman named Esther.
I had pretty little layover time at JFK and, for some reason, I had to claim my baggage (customs regulations, maybe?). So I ended up yanking my bag off one belt only to check it right back in. I was too much in a hurry to try and find my way to the gate on my own, so I just put my ticket in the face of the first airport official I met and had them show me the way.
Then came the smaller domestic flight to Pittsburgh. I was now on my own. It was the first time I’d seen a small airplane with only 4 seats in each row and a curtain separating the cabin from the cockpit. I spent the 2-hour flight talking to my next-seat neighbor, a middle-aged woman.
Anyway, I arrived safely, but there seemed to be no one to pick me up. I had been warned that due to enhanced safety regulations, people were sometimes unable to go into the arrival area and we’d have to go to the baggage claim area to meet them. That I did, but there was still no one there. (Oh yes, I did ask airport employees, they told me the same thing about the baggage claim area). Then I went outdoors to some grim-looking concrete ramp. Same outcome. This was all in the pre-cell-phone era, but I had some emergency number. So I went to a payphone and dialled it. Nothing.
What else was there to do but to start crying. I could insert a passage on how I was only 15 at the time, but I’m not sure I’d have acted differently today, almost 8 years after the events I’m describing.
I don’t know how much time I spent in that airport wandering aimlessly. Might have been an hour or two. Might have been half an hour for all I know, but it felt much longer given the frustration I was in.
Finally, as I was riding an elevator up (as part of my aimless wandering routine), a bigger blonde lady in her late 30s going downstairs asked me if I was Maria. Yes, for God’s sake! For a moment I thought it was my host mother, whom, mind you, I had never seen. But she turned out to be Lea Walls, my local program coordinator. For some reason, they’d changed the original plan, so she was to pick me up and take me to my host mother’s. Either my flight landed ahead of schedule or she had the wrong time to begin with or she was looking in the wrong area – I never really found out the reason. I was glad to finally have met someone who was there for me, and I was now going to what I thought would be my home for the next year…