International Women's Day in Murmansk
It wasn’t hard to find people who were growing tulips: for the Women’s Day holiday each year all men buy flowers for the women in their lives. Bronya and I just needed to choose some good ones, and keep them fresh until 8 March. We packed the tulips into eight big boxes and kept them on my balcony, in the hope that they would not bloom too early. But in order to transport them into Russia, we needed to obtain a permit from the epidemiology lab. Bronya delegated this job to me:
- You’re a medic; you’ll be better at speaking to other medics…
But I was used to treating people, not flowers. Anyway, I went to see the epidemiologists. I paid them their fee, and they gave me the permit without so much as looking at the tulips.
We managed to buy tickets for a flight to Murmansk from Kaliningrad. Bronya’s friend Zhenya drove us to Kaliningrad in his minibus, with our boxes of flowers crammed into the back seats. The staff at the airport were appalled at how much luggage we were carrying with us, and shouted at us that we couldn’t take that many boxes. I went up to the two men who were loading the suitcases onto the plane and said:
- Guys, you’ll take all of these boxes for me won’t you? We’re taking tulips to Murmansk for Women’s Day…
- So women are doing business now? Why don’t you leave that to the men and stay at home? – the older man asked.
– I lost my job and need to make a living ‒ that’s why I’m not at home…
- Whatever you say. Give me 50 roubles and we’ll take your boxes.
Oh goodness, 50 roubles! It was a lot, but I paid him, and they loaded our flowers onto the plane.
In Murmansk we were met by a man called Igor, who was married to Bronya’s friend Marina. Four of our boxed fitted into his car, and the other four went in a taxi. The snow was waist-high, and the trees that grew by the side of the road looked like toy models. It turns out that trees don’t grow very tall in Murmansk because it is so cold for most of the year. It was still very cold outside, and slippery; several times I had to slide down a hill on my bottom. On one of the hills stands the ‘Alyosha’ monument, a memorial to those who defended the Arctic during the Second World War.
Marina and Igor lived on the seventh floor of a monolithic apartment block. I was surprised that their home was so warm, when I couldn’t see any radiators. They told me that the heating pipes are built into the walls. Because the flat was so warm, it was also very dry, and every night they would hang wet bed sheets in every room to make sure there was moisture in the air. It was good that they had an enclosed balcony, otherwise our tulips would have either frozen, or bloomed too early in the warm rooms.
At the local market, some sellers ‒ from Latvia; where else? ‒ were already selling tulips. We wanted to set up shop next to them, but it turned out that everything was controlled by the Azerbaijanis: you needed to ask for permission to sell things ‒ and of course you needed to pay. We found their boss, an extremely slimy and rude man, who offered to buy all of our flowers for the same price as we had bought them in Lithuania.
– You can get stuffed! – said Bronya, with a hand gesture thrown in for good measure. The Azerbaijani shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
We were losing heart. It was 7 March, the day before Women’s Day, and if we didn’t sell our tulips today then we might as well throw them away. We decided to go and stand next to a supermarket. We took one box of flowers, wrapped the bouquets in some paper, and carefully carried them out of the market.
People started to buy them, and everything was going well. But then Bronya, her teeth chattering from the cold, had a brilliant idea:
- Go and make a deal with the manager of the supermarket…
I went inside and found the woman in charge. As soon as she learned that I was from Lithuania, her face lit up and she gave me a hug, as if I was a long-lost relative. It turned out that her son-in-law was from Kaunas. In distant Murmansk, me being from Klaipeda practically made me family too. The lady, Valentina, gave us some space in the supermarket, a table, and a bucket of water for the tulips. She wouldn’t accept a kopeck from us in return.
At 9 the next morning we were standing in the most visible part of the shop, and were ready to bloom ourselves, so happy were we. Things had worked out again! There were no scary Azerbaijanis here, and our tulips sold like hot cakes ‒ by 11 all our boxes were empty. The only angry customers were the ones that were unhappy we hadn’t brought more flowers. But we didn’t mind: our handbags were now filled with roubles, and we were delighted with our new business. We gave one bouquet of tulips to the lovely Valentina, and in return she handed us several jars of crab meat and some crab sticks. We had never eaten crab in Lithuania; we had only heard about how good it tasted.
That evening, Marina’s father made us a special porridge made from three types of seeds: millet, buckwheat and barley. When Marina and Igor got home from work we all sat down to dinner together. I had never tried porridge like this before, but I enjoyed it. There was plenty to drink as well. But Bronya and I were missing home, and asked Igor to take us back to the airport.
The airport was almost empty, but as often happened, we were told there were no tickets to anywhere in the Baltics. I slid 50 roubles inside my passport and walked up to the desk again. The now-smiling girl behind the counter suddenly found two tickets to Minsk…
It was a late flight, leaving at 11 at night. The plane was half-empty. I had a row of three seats to myself, so I lay down and slept. After a journey from Minsk airport to its train station, a train to Vilnius and a bus to Klaipeda, I got home in the evening of 9 March.
In the morning of 11 March 1990, the supreme council of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic announced that the republic had ceased to be part of the Soviet Union. It was the first Soviet republic to gain its independence. As it turned out, I had left Soviet Lithuania with some tulips, and had come back with some money, to the independent country of Lithuania.