Next Generation: Be Bold! First prize

In Between the two

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 20.12.2013

Last time I had to apply for an entry visa, it was the American embassy in Luxembourg that would decide the freedom of my future movements. It was a bright shiny morning, and the embassy had placed comfortable deckchairs on the sidewalk in front of a big, gray locked door. The embassy was not popular that day: two other Russian citizens and a German businessman were silently sitting on the chairs, waiting for their turn in the sun. I stood nearby leaning on an anti-parking bollard. A few meters in front of me I could see the thick glass window of the embassy. Behind the glass, there were wide-faced American guards talking to each other silently like fish in an aquarium. At 11 sharp, a pretty young woman in a peach-colored summer dress appeared in the center of the aquarium. She also opened her mouth silently and, seeing that no one could hear her from the outside, waved to those waiting in line to come closer. The three others were taken in after answering a few questions. The peach-colored woman signalled that I should keep waiting.

After 20 to 30 minutes of standing by the US mansion I started to get bored. This neat, crystal-clean street with embassies lining up was empty: no cars, no people passing. I tried to focus on sounds, but the only thing I could identify was a distant bird singing in the park at the end of the street. The sky was still blue, and maple tree branches were motionless above my head. Even the American guard seemed frozen inside the embassy glass tank. “Funny,” I thought to myself, looking at a very tall, black, metallic fence with golden spikes which was protecting the embassy, “I wonder what would happen if I tried to climb this fence! What would the guard do? Would he even notice me? Could I actually climb so high?” Phoom! Somewhere a car door was shut with a thud. I looked back. Although I couldn’t see who was coming, I could hear some strange voices in one of those foreign languages that a westerner could have no chances to identify: fast, with many ‘h,’ ‘r,’ and plenty of agglutinated words, like the voice of some mythical creature.

As they turned the corner I could see all of them – a group of people all dressed in black clothes. They all had dark hair and colored skin, and were walking rather fast and confidently toward the embassy. There were two women in tidy black suits (the kind of outfit they would normally keep for a funeral), three middle aged men dressed for a similar occasion, one older man looking as if he is leading the group, and a twenty-something guy wearing glasses and a little apologetic smile. They were followed by two shy teenage girls, who turned and stood around the corner when the group came close to the embassy’s locked doors.

Not only did these people’s clothes have a look of dramatic importance, their faces did, too, especially the women’s. Back in Russia, I was mesmerized by Georgian ladies: they have so much beautiful confidence defined on their faces by two sharp, black lines of eyebrows; so much grace and power in their posture. Although I don’t think this group was originally from Georgia (they looked more Iranian or Syrian to me), I could see the same expression on their women’s faces. They always look as if they felt they are right and righteous and, because of their beauty, you want to believe it.

After examining the closed door, three men from the group noticed the speechless round-faced guard sitting behind the glass. By now his eyes were also round, and his mouth was mumbling something into a security transmitter at a rapid pace. One of the Middle-Eastern men said something to the guard in a mixture of bad English and heavily accented French. The guard looked back at him, totally lost and helpless. The man repeated. No result! Then the younger guy in glasses came closer, bowed to the narrow window, and said something, which, I thought, sounded like “an ambassador.” The guard nodded, lifted his transmitter – his lips moved fast, his eyes looked from side to side neurotically. He dropped the phone. Looking back at the guy, the guard shaped his lips into a little circle, stretched them for a second in a sort of smile, and touched his palate with his tongue – “Wait.” The dark-featured men stepped back and returned to the women who were standing right behind me all this time. I couldn’t see the group any longer, but I could hear them quietly but passionately discussing something in their mysterious language.

While they kept talking in low voices behind me, I noticed an unusual activity inside the US embassy. Now it was not just one nervous guard moving his lips at rapid speed; he had been joined by at least three others behind the glass window, and I could see a few more coming. At first, I didn’t think of it as anything suspicious. Maybe it’s about time they all gather for a shift change. Then one of the guards started to count something behind me with his index finger: one, two, three, four... He was pointing at the Middle-Eastern group. His colleague was taking some notes, while another one kept mumbling a report into his transmitter. There must be something wrong! A few moments later the big, heavy, gray door finally opened.

One of the guards – a very tall and rather skinny man with a gun hanging on the right side of his belt and a police baton hanging on his left – stepped out from the embassy, and stood still with his feet wide apart. Another man appeared soon after. He was also very tall and rather wide in this particular American way (I don’t mean that he was fat, not at all; but I’ve always noticed that many Americans tend to have a big, meaty structure, with large feet, a round or square face, and a deep, rather low voice). “What can I do for you today?” he said with trained confidence, looking straight at me.

At this second I realized that I was standing awkwardly right in the middle of the action, between the American ambassador and the large group of people in black clothes. I moved immediately. I stepped intuitively on the side of the Americans. Now I could see right next to me the guard with his serious, concentrated gaze; then, with his back towards me, the ambassador in his large beige trousers and white shirt, his arms on his hips – “What can I do for you today?” he’s asking a second time. Finally, I can see those dark narrow faces with a lost expression – they are searching for a reply to this strange question. “What can he do for us?” they are probably thinking. The older man (the one who I thought was the leader) looked up at the American ambassador and all of a sudden said: “There was a massacre in Russia. Seventy of our people were killed.” One moment later: “You know all about it.”

The ambassador did not deny it, which made me even more attentive, because I hadn’t heard of anything like that on the news recently. “OK,” he paused. “But what can I personally do for you today?” After hearing this question for the third time, the men started to mumble something unclear. “You... you... you should do something, because...” “Your people know about it, they participate...” “It’s our sons there, it’s our brothers!” When they ran out of words, the older man looked directly into the eyes of the ambassador and said slowly: “You represent the strongest... the strongest nation in the world. It’s you who should tell us what you can do for us.” The silence lingered. After a few moments the ambassador replied with his favorite question in the same artificially confident manner, behind which I could hear some shaking notes growing: “I understand your concerns, gentlemen, but what can the US embassy in Luxembourg do for you today? Do you want to schedule an appointment or leave a note?” The men looked back at him. Some were losing their patience, some were getting angry, searching for the right expressions. How to make him realize? What to appeal to? The old man raised his eyes again: “You... you, maybe, understand... understand as a human... as a... huuuman.” This word sounded especially powerful and, somehow, improper, breaking the air in two, making the separation grow bigger. I could hear how difficult it was for this man to say this voiceless glottal ‘h’ and then jump down straight to ‘u.’ “Hhh... you... man”. The syllable “man” kept hanging somewhere between them.

“Gentlemen,” the US ambassador continued, “You have to understand that there’s nothing the American embassy in Luxembourg can do for you today. If you want, you can leave a message, and I will transfer it to the officials.” All of a sudden a clear, though not very loud, and confident female voice started. One of the two women standing behind the men had something to say. She was talking in her native language, and everyone, including the ambassador, was listening. The men were nodding. At this moment one could definitely see who the leader was. Her face was also clear and beautiful in its stone-like firmness and assuredness. What could she be saying? That it’s no use? That he won’t do anything? That they had better find another way? I really don’t know. They let the woman finish. Then the ambassador repeated: “So? Do you have any letter to pass through me? I think it’s the only thing I could do for you here.” The woman said another couple of words, looking at the younger guy with glasses. Indeed, all this time he was silently holding a thin, brown package with their letter...

Now he gave the envelope to the ambassador. The unplanned meeting was over. The ambassador said that he would definitely pass the letter to the officials responsible. People nodded. The women looked away. The young guy kept wearing his little sad smile. The ambassador said ‘bye’, and turned in my direction. I could see his red, stressed face now. He opened the door and stepped in, followed by the tall guard. The company also turned back and walked slowly away.

A few minutes later, I was asked to come closer to the window. The pretty young lady in the peach-colored dress took my passport. After checking that I had an appointment, she allowed me in and asked me to follow her. She then opened another door leading to the inner yard and continued walking in front of me to the interview room.

On the way, I had a look around. The yard was neatly set, and the flowerbeds were bursting with red and yellow, cheerful under the early September sun. When we reached the entrance, the door opened from inside and the familiar beige trousers stepped out. The ambassador had a look of preoccupied importance on his face. In his right hand he held a large white coffee mug with the coat of arms of the United States printed on the side. The American said ‘hi’ to the young woman, and walked away in the direction of his professional interests.

I was led indoors and shown into the interview room. After a few minutes I was invited to enter. The consular officer cheerfully smiled at me and said, “What can I do for you today?”

The author was born in Kemerovo, Russia, in 1985 and studies in Luxembourg.
Artem Mozgovoy
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