At the passport control, the immigration officer questioned, one after the other, a bunch of Chinese young men. What is the purpose of your visit? How long are you going to stay? What kind of business are you doing? Their English was not very good, but they answered diligently, and the officer was satisfied.
He will not keep me for more than a few seconds, thought I. And I had my reasons.
‘God kväll’, said I briskly while handing over my passport and visa, swallowing the ‘d’, so it sounded more like ‘goockvell’. I knew that this greeting alone set me apart from the other foreigners who are much more likely to use ‘Hej’.
He greeted me and asked: ‘Bor du i Sverige?’
‘Jaaaa, det gör jag’, I replied, stretching the ‘ja’ nonchalantly.
He checked my visa and passport, while I was looking about with an absent-minded half-smile.
‘Var bor du någonstans?’, he asked politely.
‘I Stockholm, i Sollentuna’, I answered conversationally. He was already returning me the passport and visa as I was speaking.
And then he said it.
Somehow, I knew he was going to say it, and yet I could not believe my ears. Somehow, I knew exactly what he was going to say after the first syllable escaped his lips.
Not even ‘Välkommen till Sverige’. ‘Välkommen hem’.
Now, how shall I explain why this is such a big deal to me? How shall I explain why a wide smile emerged on my face and stayed there for a couple of hours? How shall I explain why every tiny thing: the wooden floor, the staircase, the chat with the salesperson in Pressbyrån where I topped up my phone balance and at the railway station where I bought my ticket (all in Swedish, of course), the shrieks and laughter of a teenage first-generation Swede chatting with her friend (‘Honba… hanba…’), the theatre poster on the train – everything caused the return of this blissful smile?
Because I did not have to decide where my home was. Someone decided it for me.
This incident had been, as synchronicity goes, preceded by a conversation with my mother a week or so before. We were watching some American film. As it happens in American films, an immigration officer said to someone at the border: ‘Welcome home’. Unexpectedly for myself, when I heard it, I blurted out: ‘Why does nobody say this to me when I enter Russia?’
This was a rhetorical question.
The only thing I had ever heard from a Russian immigration officer when I was entering Russia was: ‘I don’t need your boarding pass’.
Which she said without looking at me and through clenched teeth.
And the only thing I ever heard when exiting Russia (why do they even bother???) was: ‘You have a strange accent’.
I have a strange accent! In Russian!!!
Now, I don’t really mean anything. Please don’t read too much into what I’m saying. I’m not trying to say that I will denounce my motherland only because some polite Swede told me ‘Welcome home’. I will not denounce my Russian citizenship and my Russianness only because the folks at the border are chronically, pathologically rude.
No, no, no. I don’t mean it.
I don’t even mean that you can say much about a country judging by the politeness of its people. Even immigration officers.
I don’t mean any of that.
What do I mean then?
When I complained to my (Indian) husband about this (who has had the misfortune of interacting with Russian immigration officers more than once), he said:
‘Come on. You know Russians. They don’t like to show affection in public’.
And he is right. We don’t.
In order to get affection, compassion, and anything else in Russia, you need to interact. You need to talk. You need to scratch the surface. You need to appeal to the humanity in a human being who is standing in front of you.
Not always – there are exceptions. There will be moments when someone will interact with you, talk, scratch the surface and appeal to your humanity, and you will screw your eyes in mistrust: what does she want?
So yes, my husband is right. Do not expect politeness from a Russian immigration officer.
It doesn’t say anything about Russia. If it says something, it is perhaps that you will not get any fake politeness there. You get what you see. At face value.
And yet, and yet. It also says something else.
Risking to sound melodramatic, I have to say: it seems that our motherland does not make a very good mother. A good step-mother, more likely.
Well. It’s all we have. The trick is to learn to love it like a child, not a step-child.
Sometimes it takes a lifetime to learn that. But it is worth the effort.