Olga G.

An Airport Incident

The drastic change in environment struck me as soon as I stepped out of the airplane. Although I’ve been here many times, the difference was never as perceptible to me as now. Maybe before I was too young to pay attention to such intricate details, or maybe I was always too excited by the fact that I have finally arrived after a long trip. Either way, I never before seemed to notice the different atmosphere.

I was stepping out of an Air-France airplane, which had just landed in an airport just on the outskirts of Moscow. As I stepped outside the door of the airplane, I felt myself crossing a line of division between two completely different worlds. The Russian airline staff beyond the border, in strong contrast to the always smiling and ready-to-help American and French staff, had nothing resembling a smile on their faces. They wore a mask that said: “I’m at work, trying to do my job, so why should I look happy?” As I looked into their faces, I wondered where all that anti-customer sentiment came from.

As I progressed further away, into the airport, my thoughts about ‘anti-customer sentiments’ were temporarily washed away as I struggled to not get swept away by the current of people. More pressing matters, such as avoiding people continuously trying to jab their elbows into my stomach and a desperate search for a sign pointing to the bathroom, dominated my thoughts for a while.

I arrived at the passport control and took my place in the short line of ‘Russian Citizens’, most of whom, like me, were not currently living in Russia, and had a green card and a return ticket tucked safely away amidst the bright red pages of their passports.

I came up to the booth as “next” was called in a cold and just-a-little-too-unfriendly-for-my-liking voice.

I found myself looking into eyes that were staring at some abstract point above my head, persistently refusing to fully acknowledge my presence, and a face that wore an expression of extreme annoyance.

“Passport,” said a bored and slightly angry voice. I realized that in all the commotion, I completely forgot to get out my passport. The annoyed expression I met seemed to say that the whole point of ‘passport control’, last she checked, was to check my passport and it would have been very nice if I could maybe be so clever and kind as to have my passport ready before hand.

I blushed slightly and quickly dug out my passport, handing it over the counter.

“And how are you planning to get back?” a mechanic voice shot at me.

“Huh? Sorry, what do you mean?” I stammered. The unfriendly and ill-wishing manner with which I was being treated was starting to make me feel slightly uncomfortable.

“It says, ‘For living outside the Russian Federation’,” was the reply. ‘Go figure it out yourself,’ added the stare I received.

“Hm…. Oh!” It finally struck me what she was getting at. “I have a green card.”

Another stare, during which my passport was handed back, was followed by a ‘Next!’

I took that as my cue to leave.

Walking as quickly as I could manage away, checking the surrounding signs as I walked, I soon ended up next to the baggage claim area. As I saw my slightly oversized suitcase drifting toward me, I positioned myself to grab it and pull it off with one jerk. The plan failed miserably. The suitcase budged a little, but decided that it would much rather remain sitting where it was and take another ride around with the other luggage.

As it came over the fourth time in a row, I was completely determined to pull it off. Suddenly I became slightly aware of someone staring intensely at me. One of the airport workers walked up to me and laughing good-humoredly at my failed attempts to retrieve my luggage, pulled my suitcase off, smiled, and left. This was completely unexpected and I was left standing, staring questioningly after the leaving airport worker.

I thought back to the passport control and attempted to recall what the US passport control was like when my parents and I were flying to Mexico not too long before. I remember thinking that the customer service was very good, but thinking back to it now, I realized that the only reason the American customer service seemed to be so good was because of the standard ‘Hello, how are you’ at the beginning of the conversation. But as I thought about the whole process, I realized that although those people seemed to care about maintaining a friendly tone, they were just wearing a mask, the same way that the passport control people I just passed. The only difference was the expression carved onto the masks by the standards set by society. I realized that I felt as uncomfortable with the American passport control people, because even though the friendly expression covered up some of the coldness, the steely tone of voice and the blank, bored eyes revealed the true face behind the mask.

As I looked at the people around me, I realized that we were all in a way just acting as puppets in the hands of the society. The only reason that the action of the airport worker seemed so stunning was because it was done truly just to help, an action not dictated by society, and the smile was not just a custom feature of a conventional mask, but rather a glimpse of the true person within the walls of standard behavior. I continued my way to the exit, feeling myself as just a tiny speck in a huge crowd in which everyone is indirectly forced to play by an already established set of rules. And as I looked back at the passport control booth, I wondered what other expressions for different occasions those people had stored in their arsenal. Walking by a person who fell asleep on her chair while waiting, I found myself thinking about how funny she looked as her head swayed from side to side. Instead of laughing, I noticed that I maintained a serious expression, which showed nothing of what I was thinking, and realized that I too involuntarily adopted and used these masks, which covered up my true self and made me, just like anyone else, another typical face in the crowd.

 



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