Sunday, March 18, 2012

March 8 and Me

My readers in the US no doubt are wondering at the title of this posting, perhaps thinking there should be a question mark, as in March 8 and Me?

My readers east of the Danube, however, are already smiling and thinking, "But of course, for Robyn this was the first March 8 of her new life."  If anything, they may be thinking there should be an exclamation point, as in March 8 and Me!  They also be wondering why I think my U.S. friends are scratching their heads.

So please bear with me as I explain.

Dear U.S. friends, March 8 is International Women's Day, and it's big.  I mean as in it's bigger than Valentine's Day and Mother's Day combined.  It dates to 1909, when it was first declared by the Socialist Party in the United States, but to my mind this holiday is associated with the 1917 February Revolution in Russia.  You know, that's the one that toppled the tsar and ushered in a period of democratic hopes that the Bolsheviks smashed eight months later in their October Revolution.  The women of Petrograd were in the streets on February 23 for International Women's Day.  It was the middle of World War I, and the march slogan was bread and peace.

International Women's Day 1917, Russia
Then a strange thing happened.  Bystanders gathered, and at the end of the day, no one went home.  Think of Cairo and the Arab spring.  Now you've got the picture.  The crowds stayed in the streets for days.  More and more people joined in.  The city was hungry, and someone finally thought to break into a bakery.  It turned into a bread riot.  The tsar was away at the front, but the city authorities tried to restore order by calling in troops.  It didn't work out the way they hoped, however, because the good troops were all away fighting the Germans.  The troops that were in the capital were largely raw draftees.  Ordered to shoot into the crowds, they hesitated, seeing so many women's faces, faces that reminded them of their own mothers.  Instead, many went over to the side of the crowd.  At the Imperial Duma -- a proto-parliament that until then had little power -- Prince Lvov, Alexander Kerensky, and a group of other legislators decided it was time to get ahead of events.  They formed what they called a Provisional Committee and sent a telegram to the tsar at the front.  "Sire, to save the country, you must abdicate."  To their own surprise, the tsar acquiesced, and that was the February Revolution.

My U.S. readers are scratching their heads again.  "March 8?  February Revolution?  Has hormone therapy mixed you up on calendars and dates?"  No, no, dear friends.  It's just that Russia in those days was still using the Julian Calendar, which at that time lagged behind the Gregorian Calendar used in the West by thirteen days.  Thus February 23 in Russia was March 8 in the US.  When the Bolsheviks took over in the October Revolution, they switched the country to the Gregorian Calendar.  For the next 70 years, the October Revolution holiday was observed on November 7.  They also put Russia on the metric system.  If they had just stopped there, they might have had a great thing going.  But it all went to their heads with dreams of collectivization and communism.  Then we got Stalin and the Gulag, the Brezhnev decay, and finally Yeltsin and the revolution of August 1991 that brought things back to where they were in the spring of 1917, more or less.

Is it all clear, now?

Oh, I almost forgot, what about the women?  Well, the Bolsheviks didn't like the idea of women or anyone else marching in the streets, so they took the March 8 holiday and turned it into a completely apolitical women's day, sort of our Valentine's Day and Mother's Day rolled into one but more so.  It's still a national holiday in Russia.  Everything is closed, and that includes the U.S. Embassy.  Flowers and gifts are given.  It's the one day when Russian men turn soft and treat the women in their lives -- and I mean all the women in their lives -- as queens and princesses.  They have to!  They know what will happen to them on March 9 if they don't.

When I was stationed in Uzbekistan, all the local guys at Embassy Tashkent formed a receiving line.  It ran from the front entrance almost out to the street.  As the workday began, the guys greeted each and every woman, Uzbek and American, as she arrived for work.  By the time she entered the Embassy, each woman held a small bouquet of roses.

Now my readers east of the Danube are scratching their heads.  "Surely you celebrate March 8 in the US, don't you?"  No, I'm afraid we don't.  Some progressive newscasters might mention International Women's Day, but no one gives it a second thought.  Yes, dear friends east of the Danube, that is the sad reality on our side of the Atlantic.
In the 1980s and onward, I took my own enjoyment in International Women's Day whenever I was east of the Danube.  I would give the flowers and chocolate, and I would give the dinner invitations.  I knew that gender transition was an impossible fantasy for me, but I also knew how I would like to be treated in that world of fantasy.  I took my own silent joy in giving.

So imagine my joy this year!  This is now my day.  Alas, March 8 is no longer a national holiday in Romania, but it's still big.  It was too cold for the guys to form a receiving line out to the street, but inside our work home on the outskirts of Bucharest, all was warmth.   A knock on my office door, another flower in my hands.  Bouquets covered the tables at lunchtime.  Doors were held more gallantly than usual, and we women smiled at each other in passing throughout this day, our special day.  Cards and e-cards flew through the ether, including a special one from my dear friend Nadine in Moldova:
Любимая и дорогая наша подруга! Мне очень приятно поздравить тебя от всего сердца с Международным женским днем!  Мы первый раз это делаем и я так рада!!!  Пусть твоя прекрасная и заразительная улыбка будет всегда олицетворять твое счастливое сердце, а твои глаза излучающие доброту и понимание пусть всегда сияют, чувствуя любовь близских людей и верных друзей!!!
Dear and beloved girlfriend!  I am so happy  to wish you a Happy International Women's Day with my whole heart!  This is the first time we can greet you with this wish, and it makes me glad!!!  May your beautiful and infectious smile always be the face that reflects a happy heart.  May your eyes always shine forth with goodness and understanding, feeling the love of your close ones and true friends!!!
My friend F1 from Uzbekistan said it simply and with beauty:  "I knew you as a soft and sincere man, and my happiness for you today is that you have lived to know the joys of womanhood."

In Romania and neighboring Moldova, the entire month of March is for women.  March 1 is Mărțișor, a celebration of women, life, and continuity.  Men give red and white ribbons and charms to their women friends, and women give them to each other.  According to tradition, women wear the charms and ribbons on their wrists or over their hearts.  As the spring blooms, women and girls move the charms from their wrists to the branches of fruit trees, a sign of fertility for the year to come.
Winter's End, A First Bloom

March 1, March 8, and then March 17 and St. Patrick's Day -- yes, the wearing of the green extends even to Bucharest -- March is a celebration of spring and of life.  The long winter, seemingly endless just three weeks ago, has broken.  The snow drifts are melting, and the Sun warms skin that it has not touched since last year.  It is a wonderful, joyful time for me, Robyn, to be alive in this, the year that brought the first March 8 of my life.

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