Friday, November 13, 2009

Flashback Friday: Reflections on kindness in Moscow

Perhaps you've heard: Russia is bleak. People are mean to each other, a lot of the time. The weather is often brutally cold and dark. There are a lot of poor people there, both scraping by in small apartments or living right there on the street. Begging is something that goes on everywhere, all the time, including on the metro. For a beggar, the metro provides a captive audience that constantly refreshes itself, for a space of time just long enough to make a plea for money.

The walk to my work (top) and to the Embassy (bottom). Both very bleak.

When we lived in Moscow, it was tempting at times to get caught up in the habit of criticizing anything and everything. There was a lot to complain about. We had a lot of negative experiences there, whether it was with reckless drivers, discrimination against fellow foreigners, or the service-with-a-snarl lady at the checkout counter. (Being accused of attempting to murder my husband also comes to mind.)

However, we also had plenty of positive experiences. One of them took place on my first ride on the metro, inside a dimly lit, bland-colored, noisy underground train where everyone was trying very hard not to make eye contact with anyone else. It was the dead of winter, and the clothing of the passengers (myself included) was limited in color to black, gray, and dark brown.

A blind man soon boarded the train, led by his young son, perhaps six or seven years old. As they walked between the benches, begging for money, the boy's eyes caught sight of the only spot of color in the whole metro car - a young woman's key chain. Attached to her black backpack was a rainbow-colored Koosh ball key chain in the shape of a small, happy creature. The young boy approached the girl and began playing with the key chain, smiling widely.

Without a moment of hesitation, the young woman reached down, detatched the colorful key chain from her backpack, and gave it to the boy. The boy's eyes lit up, and I coud tell he was trying hard to keep himself from jumping up and down with glee.

I think that I was the only person who saw the exchange - everyone else was too busy avoiding making eye contact. But that experience from my first few days in Moscow never left me.

A few months later, I had the opportunity to follow that young woman's example. I was on the metro coming home from work, my second or third ride of the day. From my purse's zipper dangled a small key chain that a friend had given me. It was a tiny snow globe with the 2002 World Cup mascot inside.

As I had become infinitely used to by that point, a mother and her young daughter, perhaps six or seven years old, boarded the metro car and began to beg. After a few moments, I turned around to find the young girl fascinated with the key chain hanging from my purse. She smiled at me and giggled as she figured out how to shake the globe and make the glittery snow fall down inside it again and again. There was no question in my mind - I had to give it to her.

Experiences like that one were much-needed rays of sunshine on otherwise cloudy days, an essential antidote to the bleakness of everyday life in Moscow. Looking back, it's easier to remember the negative encounters I had with others, but it is always uplifting to think about the positive ones.


Liz Johnson said...

That is really interesting. I have that same bleak view of Moscow... colorless, drab, cold, poor. I'm sort of sad to hear that my warped view is closer to reality than I had hoped. I love that you gave the little girl your keychain - I feel like those are little moments in life that seem so insignificant, but are actually hugely important in the grand scheme of things.

Jeremy Palmer said...

Were you listening to Micheal Jackson "Stranger in Moscow" when you wrote this?

Remember when we saw the police slap the passed out drunk guy at full strength about 100 times on the metro? That was sad. I'm glad you helped me remember the good as well.

Jeremy Palmer said...


JackJen said...

I really enjoyed this post. I actually thought those pictures were rather beautiful--but all of these New England winters have me conditioned to react that way, I think. (Not that a New England winter rivals a Moscow winter in any way.....not even close.)

Aimee said...

Thanks for story. It is always see that human kindness does continue even through long, dark, bleak winters.

Aimee said...

"its always NICE TO see..."

Bridget said...

I think it's beautiful, too. But also bleak.

Katie said...

First of all, I like to think about a bright usefulness for typically useless key chains. What a lovely story.

Second of all, how do you do the little thing at the bottom where it links to three similar posts? I have been wanting to do that for a while, but I'm not sure how it's done.

Bridget said...

Just click on the words "LinkWithin" below the pictures. I stole it from my friend Nancy.

Craig said...

"You can always depend on the kindness of strangers."

Susanne said...

Pretty pictures and lovely story!


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