Seeing this poster for a party in honor of International Women's Day (March 8th)reminded me of an amazing experience I had in Moscow 7 years ago. I studied Russian at an institute there for a month in February and March 2002. The program was sponsored by Humboldt University here in Berlin where I was also studying Russian for a couple of years (university is basically free in Germany, so I signed up because you get all sorts of wonderful discounts, but I was never really that interested in finishing a degree. When people asked me why I was studying Russian in Germany I first was honest and told them "For the cheap health insurance I get." but it was always obvious that this answer disappointed them. Instead I started saying "Because I wish to explore my German-Russian roots." Also true, and they found this answer much more interesting and romantic!)
With me in Moscow were 60 or so Germans, a guy from Spain, a girl from Taiwan, two French women and, strangely enough, an American from Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the time I was still in my first, very complicated marriage with a partner who was quite controlling, so I was really happy to be away, somewhere new, and have some freedom. I didn't know anyone on the trip but I was up for anything. When someone asked if I wanted to go somewhere I would immediately say yes.
Do you want to go to a Piano concert? Yes. Do you want to go see Swan Lake? Yes. Do you want to go to an opera? Yes. Do you want to go to a soccer game? Yes, yes and yes. (Though I'm not at all a soccer fan really, the game was interesting for one reason: there were a lot of hardcore soccer hooligans there eating dainty little ice cream cones in the cold. Russian ice cream is very delicious and is most often bought during the colder months from kiosks like this one.
I often crave cold things in the winter and hot things in the summer, so the Russian ice cream tradition made sense to me.)
The classical music concerts I went to were amazing. I studied music in college and was training seriously to be an opera singer for several years. Although I always loved the music, I hated the stuffiness surrounding it: Pale little men clapping politely as their glasses slip to the edge of their noses, jowly women with tight, pursed lips. The message was clear: classical music is a serious, uptight business....Not so in Russia. Not only did the musicians get passionate, so did the audience. They would leap up from their chairs and shout "Bravo! Brava! Bravissimo!!" At the end of performance they often tossed long stemmed roses onto the stage. It was in Moscow that I started singing again.
On March 8th, 2002, International Women's Day, the Spanish opera singer Monserrat Caballe was in town. I went into the city with several people that day including the guy from Spain. International Women's Day is a big holiday in Russia, as it is in every former Soviet country. From what I gathered, what it usually means is that the men give women chocolate and flowers in the morning and then proceed to drink the rest of the day. We saw many of them in the subway, swaying and stumbling, though it was only the early afternoon.
The Spanish guy was from Barcelona and was also a huge opera fan. He was totally excited that Monserrat Caballe was in town (she is also from Barcelona)and suggested that we go and try to get some tickets. We did, but the tickets were all over 100 Euros, which was way above our budgets. Later, just before the concert started, we saw scalpers selling tickets out front. They looked just like the football hooligans I had seen at the soccer game. The Spanish guy (Marc was his name, I think)asked how much they wanted, but the price was still too high.
We walked around for a bit longer when, suddenly, the two ticket-scalping-football-hooligans came up to us and started speaking in rapid Russian. My Russian wasn't very good, so I couldn't understand them, but one of the other people told me they wanted to give me one of the tickets for Monserrat Caballe. A present for me, in honor of International Women's Day.
In shock, I didn't really know what to do. It had to be a joke. But Marc snapped me out of it. "Take it and go!" he said. And so I did. I stood in line, still expecting I'd be turned away, but I wasn't. My seat was near the front row and I was surrounded by Russian Oil and Mafia brides who were dressed to the hilt while I was in jeans and a t-shirt. I don't think I stopped grinning for the entire hour that she sang.
Later I realized that, in my surprise and disbelief, I hadn't even thanked the scalpers for the gift. And so now I say thank you, for one of the best gifts I have ever received, and all because I am a woman....