This was not my first (Russian) rodeo. I remember vividly my arrival to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with my friend David in summer 2002. We were quick off the plane, front to middle of the pack for the international arrivals passport control line. Then, as now, the line was critically understaffed by a lone, young Russian woman who, in classic Russian form, showed no signs of concern for the crowd quickly gathering around her desk. She was prepared for the storm.

In 2002, David and I had dutifully taken our place in line. It had been an overnight flight, few people spoke, and everyone seemed ready to get on with their days. Russians, I assumed, having been trained by nearly a century of life under communism and its characteristic queuing and core communal philosophy, would make this process a simple and straightforward one. Ah, the naïveté, Norcini! Instead, a century of waiting on line for things had turned these people into grizzled line cutters of the clandestine sort. Their ability to stare straight ahead, make no eye contact, and slowly, stealthily manage the gaps and play the long game was unlike anything I had experienced. And, so, somehow, it happened: an hour and a half later, David, me, and a guy from New York, were the final three people to exit the passport control line.

What that experience and the rest of my 2002 trip to Russia taught me was this: do not mistake silence for kindness, do not acquiesce to small, seemingly insignificant shuffling of the feet or shifts of the hips. That heavy backpack is not a burden in a long queue but rather is a tool for the procurement of space and preservation of time. Do not mistake old ladies for your own grandmother: they care nothing for you and, given the opportunity, they will use your emotions and compassion against you. Fool me once…

Fast forward to 2019, layover in Moscow en route to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The post-overnight flight crowd converges on the single checkpoint from multiple entrances. The empty stare at the access point commences. To the untrained eye, the people in this mass of travelers seem docile, obedient, and calm.

Fool me twice…

Every gap between bodies or luggage is an opportunity. I spread my arms like a posturing bird or a pro wrestler waiting In the ring for his opponent (and, given that it’s been nearly 2 days since my last shower, my skin glistens just like that oiled wrestler’s. Though, for clarity, I’m not wearing a mankini). I stay attuned to the movement of people’s hips and feet and exploit the small spaces. An old lady to my south-southeast presses her rolly bag against my right foot. She’s trying to flank me. At first, I think, Norcini, it’s an old lady, just let it go. Then, clarity returns to me. She’s not your grandma, Norcini! Back on emotional bedrock, I slide my right foot three inches to the right to block her flank move. She tries again. I respond in kind. This game of micro movements continues among the crowd, as we all inch closer to the checkpoint. The game of one-up-manship footsie with the old lady has brought me an unexpected new opportunity: our right side is getting increasingly close to the front edge of the control desk. A few more feet and I could plant my right elbow on the desk, thereby establishing a firm barrier to the crowd on my right. “Jess, give me your passport,” I hurriedly whisper to my left. Passports in hand, I move on the strategy. Success! Right side protected, the gap closed, and passports within eyeshot of the Customs woman. The Russian lady’s bag is still pressed against my foot as I hand our passports to the controller. Victory is sweet.

After finding our gate, Jess and I break for the bathrooms. The cleaning woman arrives at the entrance to the men’s room at the same moment I do. She blocks the entrance with her cleaning cart and places a yellow caution sign on the floor before getting to work. I’ll just wait, I think to myself. Other men start to gather. A crowd is rapidly forming outside the men’s room. Instead of forming a queue, People are strategically positioning themselves, knowing that in a few minutes, the cleaning cart will be removed, and the first people in will have access to one of the clean stalls. Everyone is staring forward, saying nothing. But I know what’s going on. I’ve got this. Watch out, Boris, that first stall is mine.

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