Expatski: Golden passports still won't fly

Expatski: Golden passports still won't fly

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Blogger Jennifer Ermeeva describes her airport woes, when even gold cards and gold letters can't blind security with approving nods for Russian passports.

HRH and I were coming back from our classic “don’t worry be happy” Caribbean idyll, where we had not left the resort for one blessed minute of the ten days. We were tanned, rested, well fed, well read, very well watered, and generally in the sweet spot of married life.

And then we hit the airport.

The Christiansted airport is not a state-of-the-art facility, and the people who staff it don’t strike one as coming off anyone’s “A List” of on-the-ball staffers.  Not a crack regiment.  Since St. Croix is officially US territory, this is all grist to HRH’s mill, and fair enough, since I spend a lot of my waking hours making fun of Russian institutions such as the Russian National Air Carrier or State Duma Committee on Public Holidays, and it gets printed under our own surname. When he hits inefficiency even in this remote outpost of the USA, he feels it’s payback time.

First up: a false start with a thirteen-year-old American Airlines trainee, who took nine minutes to work out that HRH’s last name ends in “EV” and mine is the same last name, only ending in “EVA” because, as I explained to him helpfully, “He’s a man, and I’m a woman.”

“And,” added HRH a little more menacingly in his practiced ‘Bad Cop’ manner, “I am also Gold Card Executive Club member,” which he set about proving by flinging the plastic on the counter.

“Oh Darling,” I said effortlessly adopting my own ‘Good Cop’ parlance, “I am sure Mr. Lefebvre here knows that. It must be in the system.” I turned a sparkling smile onto Mr. Lefebvre, who was desperately punching keys.

“If he can read,” muttered HRH in Russian.

We got up to the TSA border control desk and presented our documents to the Officer. He looked the way they all do: too swarthy, greasy looking skin, unfortunate pinky ring, white teeth, and spearmint chewing gum.  To me, they all look like extras on the Sopranos, but you can just tell they all see themselves as Kevin Costner or Harrison Ford.

Our guy had a nameplate said, “Noble,” which I had to assume was his surname and not his provenance. I also had to think that he could not have been that high up the TSA food chain.

St. Croix, after all, is not an international “hot spot” -- Anderson Cooper isn’t going to be live there just after these messages. What self-respecting jihadist would try to launch a suicide bomb attack in St. Croix of all places? But, it was right after the guy who tried to detonate his underwear, so they were taking no chances. They were obviously on some heightened security brief, so HRH and I got the full treatment.

Officer Noble scrutinized HRH’s red Russian passport, and my blue American passport for what he clearly felt was long enough to start making us nervous, which it didn’t, because Russian border control people are so much better at making you nervous.

“Right, said Officer Noble, finally, hauling himself up from his hunched over position, and transferring his gum from one side of his mouth to the other, squinted at us and asked, “What is your relationship to this gentleman, ma’am?”

“He’s my husband,” I responded promptly.
“Oh, he is?

“That’s right,” I said, turning to HRH for confirmation of the fifteen years of bed-making, eight hours of labor with Velvet, the fact that I go to all the parent-teacher conferences, to say nothing of the last ten nights, and was annoyed to see him assume his, “I’m dealing with a congenital idiot in uniform” stance: one hand on the handle of his roll-a-board, the other splayed on his hip, his head cocked and his mouth pursed in a simper. He loves this kind of moment.

Officer Noble proceeded to have another flip through my passport, in that way they teach them at TSA school: thumbing through it as if it were a stack of 50-dollar bills. 

He would occasionally glance up, and it occurred to me to suggest asking him if he’d tried matching up the “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” section of my passport with the information section of HRH’s passport, but I thought better of it. Officer Noble might well think that was an obvious decoy, which would not have held much water once he failed to find the reciprocal page in HRH’s passport.

Russian authorities figure they have enough to do without screwing around with someone’s idea of their own emergency contacts. The authorities know whom to call.

Officer Noble stroked my Kingdom of Bhutan entry stamps suspiciously, then asked: “Ma’am where do you ree-side?”

“Part of the year in Massachusetts and part of the year in Russia,” I said.

He furrowed his eyebrows: the Kingdom of Bhutan would have clearly been a more plausible response. Officer Noble put down my passport and picked up HRH’s. He flipped through it, rutching up the pages as he searched for something that didn’t make him think he had severe dyslexia.  

He finally heaved a frustrated sigh, closed the passport, then assumed a ‘Now I’ve gotcha,” expression and pulled out the trick question they teach you at TSA school.

“So, where’s his home town?” he asked me.

His hometown? What did HRH’s hometown have to do with it? Then it dawned on me: Officer Noble thought I was Andie McDowell and HRH was Gerard Depardieu? Was this a Green Card thing? This was too good to be true. Especially since I knew the answer, and the answer was a tricky one.

“Berlin,” I said.

Officer Noble pursed his oversized lips and snuck a surreptitious look down at the red passport’s info page.

“Huh?” he finally said.

“Berrrrrr-leeen,” I enunciated carefully, because the TSA crowd doesn’t get out much. “In Germany.”

Officer Noble seemed gob smacked. He flipped the passport over, and checked the gold letters, which spelled out “The Russian Federation.” He looked back up at HRH, who smiled and nodded, “Berlin…Berlin.”

“As in 'the Berlin Wall'," I added helpfully, which I later thought wasn’t the smoothest conversational move, since people like Officer Noble are often of the opinion that the Berlin Wall, if anything, should have been reinforced and made higher.

But, while we certainly didn’t need to get specific on which side of The Wall HRH hailed from, I wanted to stay on the Berlin subject, since I had a growing concern that should HRH’s be asked to correctly identify my hometown, his pronunciation of “Oklahoma City” might be a bit dicey.

There was an added concern that, despite the four zillion forms HRH has had to fill out in Russia to facilitate our fifteen years of wedded bliss, he knew that this was indeed where I came from.  I certainly never encouraged anyone to put out press releases on that topic.

“Where did you stay while you were here?” he asked HRH.

HRH took off his “Sugar Mill” baseball hat, pointed to it and said, “The Sugar Mill.”

Officer Noble took one more look at HRH’s passport, and then his eyes strayed to the area behind us where all kinds of straightforward TSA victims slouched in line: rum runners, Cubans with funky Green Cards, or, if Officer Noble got lucky, possibly even a loser jihadist who was going to try and pull a third-rate terrorist attack on the puddle jumper to San Juan. Cases that were covered in the TSA Handbook, not like some wackado Russian, claiming to be married more than a decade to an American, but who hadn’t ever applied for US citizenship.

He licked his lips, and transferred the gum from one side of the mouth to the other.

Anything to declare?” he asked, finally.

“Wet bathing suits,” I said.

Officer Noble shook his head wearily, as if he’d heard that one too many times, then stamped our passports and wished us a pleasant flight, conveying his conviction that this was a distinctly remote possibility. We moved into the security line, and began to slip off our shoes and expose our laptops.
“What the hell is ‘hometown’?” asked HRH.

Writer, humour columnist, photographer, cook and veteran American expatriate, Jennifer Eremeeva has called Moscow home for almost two decades. She blogs at www.dividingmytime.typepad.com about the funnier side of life in Moscow, “HRH” her “Horrible Russian Husband,” and her horse-crazed daughter, Velvet.
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