Do any of you have the newest version of the United States passport? If you don’t, it’s actually very pretty: every two-page spread has a lithographed illustration of a different part of America. We’ve got Plymouth Rock, the Statue of Liberty, the Rocky Mountains, a Mississippi steamboat, the Great Plains, Hawaii palm trees, totem poles, the Transcontinental Railroad…. Each page, too, has a quote on top that tries to express what America wants to be, borrowing from our founding documents, past presidents, activists, civil rights leaders, and many others.
So I was on the train between Tbilisi and Baku, and we were stopped at the border for three hours while every passport on the train was checked. After passing my border control interview, I went back to my sleeper bunk, where my compartment-mates – a Georgian man and two Azerbaijani women, a mother and daughter – congratulated me on finally making it into the country. The daughter happened to see the dark blue of my passport peeking out of my pocket. “Excuse me, can I look at your passport?” “Of course!” I said.
We traded passports. It’s so rare to get to look at a passport from another country, and I always love it when I get the chance. I flipped through her pages of Azerbaijani and Georgian stamps and handed hers back to her, only to realize that she was transfixed by mine. She lingered on every page, staring into the pictures as if they could transport her. She spoke English quite well, and as she paged through, she whispered all the quotes to herself, asking me about every word she didn’t know. “Excuse me, do you mind if I copy these down?” she murmured, pulling a notebook out of her purse. I watched her out of the corner of my eye to see when she would get to the page with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, just so I could beam at her, “That’s my city! That’s where America was born!”
All told, she spent nearly an hour paging through, peppering me with questions along the way. Did Washington write the Constitution? Who are these people on Mount Rushmore? What is the Golden Spike? “It’s like a lesson on all of American history in one passport!” she marveled. She seemed especially taken by the quote from our Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….” She read it aloud to her mother and the Georgian man, translating it into Russian on the fly. Жизнь, свобода, счастье. Life, liberty, happiness. The mother wiped something out of the corner of her eye.
And then, all of a sudden she started giggling, bubbly, merry. “And for us, everything is the opposite!” she laughed. “What rights do we have? Let’s see. The right to death, of course! The right to prison! The right to tears!” Her laughter was infectious, and soon everyone in the compartment was cracking up along with her.