Postcard from... Moscow

 

The idea that airports are windows onto the countries that lie beyond them is a bit of a cliché. But for tourists and business people arriving in a place for the first time, this is the first chance that the country gets to make an impression.

Moscow has done a lot to improve its main airport, Sheremetyevo, in recent years. There is a new shuttle train, an improved terminal and everything runs much more smoothly than it used to a few years ago, when each arrival was a journey into an inner circle of hell.

But one thing hasn't changed – the border guards must be some of the surliest people on the planet. The usual procedure: I hand over my passport, cheerfully say "zdravstvuite" (hello) and receive an angry stare in response.

A smiley face and a big hello are very American ideas of how to interact (though in the post-9/11 world, American immigration can sometimes be even more unpleasant than Russian).

Moreover, there's no need for a long conversation – I don't want to become best friends with the passport officer. But giving a basic greeting is a really small effort and can make a lasting impression.

On the rare occasions I've encountered a friendly official, I've skipped into the baggage reclaim area with a smile on my face, rather than quietly seething at how someone can be so rude as to glance at me silently and impassively when I say hello. For some people this is their first-ever interaction with a Russian, and it's an unpleasant experience that can stick. 

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