The English were finally in a World Cup semifinal and Diary, no fan of the Premier League, was not mightily pleased. Sleep-deprived and groggy, as you already know, his queue at the otherwise sleepy Samara airport refused to move as beer-guzzling, very tipsy Brits decided to serenade everybody around, including the matronly Russian airport security personnel.
They, too, had had enough and some good-natured threatening finally got the Brits on board. But that completely ruined Diary’s plans to get a good few hours of sleep on his flight to St Petersburg. Russian airlines crew do let you sleep – no pesky nudges to force you buy a cola or a day-old sandwich that our Indian air crew specialise in. They will let you doze; snore even if you have a five-course meal booked for you. But be careful – they are sticklers for time, and don’t you dare ask them for your missing meal later because they don’t take your request too kindly and you don’t want a scolding to start your day.
Diary and his friend decided to take the airport shuttle and then the metro to get to their hotel in the middle of Nevsky Prospect, the social hub in the city. Their calculations, and their map-reading skills, though, went horribly wrong and the two frail journalists were left dragging their brick-filled suitcases (if only they knew how to pack light – do you really need two pairs of sweatpants?) for a couple of miles. It’s easy being in the line of duty, said no one.
More moments of despair were to come their way. Their hotel, on the fourth floor of a very old and tall building, had no elevators. After another round of jostling, they were finally there, then were promptly asked if they wanted a massage. That came as a bit of a surprise, though their aching limbs could really do with one. They checked in, and Diary’s overworked body give up as he immediately dozed off. He woke up from his slumber startled at the sight of an unshaven, dishevelled, very out-of-shape man staring back at him. Who the hell was he sharing his bed with? As wakefulness dawned, he realised it was a room full of mirrors and the man in his bed his own reflection. Internet sleuthing revealed this was one of the many “love hotels” in St Petersburg. Don’t ask Diary what love they spread, as he was too scared to ask.
Thankfully, the weather was cold, the food was good and the stadium was just a few train stations away. Belgium, after a tactical master class against Brazil, got its bearing horribly wrong and the muddled thinking of Roberto Martinez robbed it of a spot in the final.
It was a long train ride back to Moscow with much drinking with the already disheartened Brazilian photojournalists. It was the last few days of the World Cup, the time to enjoy in Moscow. But Diary’s choice of residence again went horribly wrong as he found his group on the eighth floor of a residential complex. This one, thankfully, had a lift, but the apartment look like a relic from Tsarist Russia, with no modern amenities that we are so used to today.
The football went on despite the missing sheen and noise that the South Americans bring to the party and the finale was soon upon them with Croatia taking on France. It was a glorious game with goals, VAR reviews and drama, and finally the rainbow team of France won, breaking the Croatian and neutral hearts, which were all hoping for a fairytale.
The month-long Cup of surprises and magic had come to an end and it was again time for a long flight, this time home. Sitting in Diary’s suitcase: a postcard that reads “From Russia with apathy and indifference”, though Diary will insist that’s just ironic.
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