It was my final night in Moscow. The World Cup so far had been nothing short of amazing. I had met people from all over the world, but what affected me most was the warmth and kindness of the Russian people. From English-fluent hotel employees, to not-so-English-fluent cabbies, I was astounded. Everything I had been taught throughout my life was that Russians were alien, cold and quick to take advantage of foreigners. I couldn’t have been proved more wrong.
On this one last night, after strolling through Saint Nicholas Street with my wife, Marielena, (and eating the most amazing hamburger ever) we decided to go back to our hotel, situated in a Soviet-era apartment apartment block fairly close to the Domodedovo Airport.
And that’s where it all began.
We boarded the Green line (#2) southbound. It was packed. Like sardines. I stood up in the back after I managed to secure a seat for my wife. Looking around, it seemed Marilena and I were the only non-Russians on the car. Now, let me tell you about the Moscow Metro. It is bomb. Always on-time, always fast, the Moscow Metro is one of the best undergrounds I have ever ridden (and I’ve been on many, in many different countries).
While standing in the back of the car, squeezed between two kids with bicycles and a few proto-goth girls with wireless headsets, I waited patiently for people to leave. My back was aching. My feet were on fire. My wife LOVES to walk. My legs didn’t have the same feeling. But there was one thing I noticed while standing in the back.
There was an elderly, obviously Russian woman seated directly across from my wife. Nothing wrong with that, but she was staring at me. No. She was giving me “the look.” And I had absolutely no idea what she was thinking.
Anyway, after a couple of stops the car finally cleared up a bit, and I dropped down into an empty seat next to my wife. I stretched out and rubbed my knees. I twisted my back around. I was hurting, but I wasn’t complaining. After all, I had just spent two weeks in an amazing country.
And the elderly lady kept looking at me.
I’ve been stared at before. In Lima, Stockholm, Tokyo. You name it. But her gaze was something different. She was studying me. Intently.
Suddenly, Marielena and I saw a older gentleman (about 80) stumbling down the moving car. And that was hard. The Metro cars, although on-time, tended to sway back and forth a bit. My wife elbowed me. “Get up. Give him your seat.” I nodded and popped up, which I would have done anyway. Motioning to him, he shook his head, staring through his Coke-bottle glasses and tried to move past me. “Gaspaygin!” I said, “pazhalsta!” (Sir, please!). He reluctantly took the seat as I helped him get settled.
And the old lady kept looking at me, her cold, penetrating stare making me feel self-conscious. What had I done? Did she not like me because I was obviously a foreigner? I had no idea.
Anyway, two stops later, the older gentleman departed and I plopped down into the seat he had previously occupied next to my wife. Again I stretched out. I loved my vacation, but my legs were ready for my barca lounger back home in sunny Southern California.
Then our stop came. Surprisingly, the elderly woman who had been so intently analyzing me also disembarked.
And then the oddest thing happened.
She bumped into me and reached out, shoving some candies into my hand. “A present for you,” she said in heavily-accented English. I gave her a curious, almost clueless gaze. Then she spoke to me in Russian. I didn’t understand her words, but I did understand her meaning. She asked me if my back hurt. I nodded and said, “Da.” She then shoved a packet of pills in my hand, and, turning away, said, “Have good day, American.”
Astounded, I looked at the packet as she hurriedly disappeared into the masses of Moscow dailies. The packet said ибупрофен, and after having spent two weeks in Russia I could read that it said “ibuprofen.”
I don’t think it was my obvious pain that she felt, but the fact that I had respected her culture that had caused her to gift me with a handful of sweets and some pain killers.
And I will be forever grateful.