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.
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.