Boston, Cultural Confusion, and The 1812 Overture

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The college I attended in California had an exchange program with several colleges on the East Coast so I decided to take advantage of it and spent my Junior year in Boston.

The summer before, I was in Ibadan, Nigeria, with my parents. I left Ibadan on a Saturday and spent the night near the airport in Lagos. Next night was a layover in Frankfurt and I arrived in Boston on Monday afternoon not knowing where I was supposed to be. I finally found the correct dorm only to be told they had not heard of me. After climbing up and down five fights of stairs several times, it was sorted out and I moved into my room.

Simmons College was just down the street from Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox played baseball, right in the middle of Boston. I could hop on the subway and be anywhere in minutes. We were just down the street from the Harvard Medical School so ambulances went screaming past our windows day and night.

The first week of school, I saw flyers for a party. When I walked up to the door to buy a ticket, the black girl sitting there told me it was for blacks only. It was being sponsored by a black organization and whites were not welcome. I said, “You’re kidding, right?”  She smiled and said “No”. It seemed like she felt I was getting a taste of my own medicine.

It freaked me out. I had grown up internationally and was having trouble understanding the USA and the problems between whites and blacks. I had never thought of people as being white, brown, or any kind of color. When I described people it was usually by nationality, tribe, or where they had lived. And I certainly never thought about one being “better” than another. I was naïve, yes, but it was sincere. What a strange place this America was.

I left the party a little confused and went to the school’s pub for a beer. I ended up spending the evening with a Nigerian, an Italian who was half Ethiopian, a Sierra Leonean, a Frenchman who was half Algerian and my friend Penny. That was a much more comfortable atmosphere for me!

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Mayflower

In all my years of school, I only had one year of US history. While in Boston, I visited places like Concord, Salem, the Mayflower, Boston Commons, Bunker Hill, the Old North Church, Harvard Square, Cape Cod, and Walden Pond. It was probably the best American history education ever.

I had some interesting classes and I was amazed to find out that they took attendance and counted it in your grade, so for the first time in my college career I started to attend classes. I couldn’t believe how easy school could be if you actually went to class. It saved all kinds of time making up for missed lectures. I found that I didn’t have to spend my time doing all that reading because they reviewed everything in the classroom and if I took notes I rarely had to study at all. I did a lot better in school that year. I only wish I had discovered it sooner.

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Waiting for the concert to start.

On the Fourth of July there was a Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade. This particular summer, 1976, it was the Bi-Centennial of the USA and so I was excited to go and see it live in person. We arrived early in the day and marked out our territory where we could see everything. By the time the concert started, the place was jammed and the police were getting irritable.

About 400,000 of us were cheering on Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Luckily there were no major incidents and it was a concert to remember. The concert ended with the “1812 Overture,” cannon shooting over the Charles River and an amazing fireworks show. The event made it into the Guinness Book of World records for he largest audience to attend a classical concert.

Almost 20 years later I saw the “1812 Overture” performed at another outdoor concert. This time the crowd was a little smaller – about 100,000. I was in Red Square, Moscow, Russia. It was winter and the square was jammed with people. We were so smushed together we were all keeping each other warm. A Russian cellist and conductor had been living in exile and this was his first concert after being welcomed back.

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Red Square 1993 (RIA Novosti,Yuryi Abramochkin)

“Washington Chorus Society and USA National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, perform the finale of Prokofiev’s Cantata “Alexander Nevsky” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” with Kremlin Cathedral Bells and “Cannon Volleys.”

We were at the back but up front, where there were seats, we could see Boris Yeltsin stand up to welcome the crowd. It was the first time an orchestral concert had ever been performed in Red Square.

They were both significant events. However, standing in Red Square on that cold winter day it dawned on me, the “1812 Overture” is kind of a strange way to celebrate the Fourth of July. Tchaikovsky wrote it to celebrate Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon. I had recently learned about it when I visited the fields of Borodino where the final battle took place.

I guess when it is such a great piece of music, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

Battle of 1812 re-enactment, Borodino, Russia
Battle of 1812 re-enactment, Borodino, Russia

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