MOSCOW: “Welcome to Russia. Goodbye. Thank you,” said the stern, unsmiling taxi driver, shaking his head as he refused to take payment from me.
This was despite having to drive in circles to take this confounded - and very lost - reporter to Moscow’s FIFA Fan Fest, the official free public viewing location for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
My encounter with the cabbie, complete with an unexpected turn, summed up the experience of my very first day in the country and its capital, ahead of the month-long global football bonanza held once every four years and kicking off on Jun 14 (Thursday).
At every turn, Russians in Moscow would present an austere, no-nonsense facade on first impression, then extend warmth and generosity when it mattered most.
There was the customs officer at Domodedovo Airport who chided me for not looking straight at the camera.
The receptionist at my hotel who got annoyed when she struggled to express herself in English. The angry volunteer at the media centre who couldn’t tell my first name from my last. Frosty security personnel at the Moscow Metro and the Luzhniki Stadium, Russia’s largest arena which will host both the opening and final matches.
Most of them, however, would eventually break into a grin and go about their job with the right mix of professionalism and personality. I guess not every Russian is a Hollywood villain ...
The one other thing that stood out today was the overall lack of excitement at both major World Cup locations and Moscow hotspots - even though the first game between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia kicks off in 48 hours.
Paveletsky train station, one of Moscow’s biggest, was devoid of World Cup paraphernalia. It took hours and a handful of metro stations for me to finally spot the first proper sign of a city hosting “The Greatest Show on Earth”: a tiny, underground knick-knack store selling merchandise like Russian nesting dolls for 4,990 rubles - more than S$100.
Elsewhere, supporters of the 32 teams in action arrived in dribs and drabs at a fan ID centre outside Luzhniki Stadium, to collect an all-important document for attending matches.
Just in front of the arena itself - Russia’s largest with an 80,000 capacity - sponsor booths and F&B stalls were still being constructed for the hundreds of thousands set to descend in the coming days.
And in the heart of Moscow’s famed Red Square plaza, a smattering of fans posed for pictures with World Cup sculptures amidst wet and windy conditions.
Only one nearby cafe showed any signs of life - with a group of hardcore Peruvian supporters chanting boisterously for curious tourists passing by. But even this barely lasted for half an hour. In two days' time, one will hope Moscow and Russia breaks the ice proper and fully embraces the carnival that is the World Cup.