What’s so special about March 8?

Every year on International Women’s Day, I think of the time I first learned that we really do have something to celebrate on March 8.

It was 1990.

Britain had not yet signed the Maastricht Treaty. I was in Leiden, the Netherlands, spending six months of my degree on the Erasmus programme.

My room was in a cold, austere building (not surprising since in a previous incarnation the building had been a hospital founded by nuns); it was long and narrow with a high ceiling and grey walls, something akin to a prison cell. It was just the place where I slept, but the kitchen and bathrooms were shared with people who made the place feel like home.

There were three other English students and a guy from Denmark, but we were far outnumbered by Italians.

Two of the Italian girls, Marina and Francesca shared a huge corner room and they’d already been there six months. They were relaxed, clever, confident and vivacious. Marina hand-washed her beautiful underwear with care and regularly left it hanging in the communal shower without any of the northern English qualms that I’d been brought up with. Their bedroom door was always open (except when one of them was enjoying sex, and even then they’d forget to lock the door). They were generous and warm; loving and liberated. They seemed to be everything I was yet to become even at the age of 21. They seemed to enjoy being women in a way that was completely foreign to this indie kid from Blackpool.

I learned a lot in those few months in Hooigracht: essentials such as making a perfect espresso, how to make home-made gnocchi and how to make an improvised draining spoon by perforating a split-open drinks can with a corkscrew. I felt I was learning how to live. One or other of the Italians would invariably bring fruit or flowers back from the market and between us all, we’d have a regular whip-round and Antonio or Jasper would go and get a crate of Grolsch from Hema on their bike rack. And once in a while, when the mood was right, Francesca would roll us all a legendary joint with the best sensimiglia local coffeeshops could offer and Davide would get his guitar out and kill some classic Bowie or Tom Waits with his own unique Italianised lyrics.

One morning in March, I bumped into a friend of Francesca’s in the corridor. He was called Targi and he was over from Bologna and in his arms he carried a bouquet of branches bearing vivid yellow pom-pom flowers that smelled amazing.

‘Mimosa,’ he told me simply and he took a branch from his bouquet and handed it to me.

‘For you,’ he said.

I must have looked embarrassed or perplexed or something. Maybe he knew the reputation of Italian men wasn’t working in his favour at that moment and he felt the need to elaborate:

“It’s Women’s Day! In Italy, it’s tradition on Women’s Day, we celebrate le donne and we give them this flower, mimosa. Please – take it!”

It was a complete revelation. Not just the flower or the fact that there was such a thing as Women’s Day, but the extraordinary news that this person I barely knew was telling me I was valued and respected because I was a woman.

Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before and the memory of it has stuck with me. It resonates with me, especially in recent years when I notice how many men seem to almost resent International Women’s Day (usually because they’re unaware of International Men’s Day on November 19). It’s difficult to know where to start when they ask with false naivety if I think Women’s Day is probably sexist.

I don’t.

Twenty eight years ago, I was gifted with  branch of mimosa. Not because it was my birthday. Not because he wanted to get me into bed. Not because I’d had a baby or because I am a mother. And not because I was owed an apology. 

Someone I barely knew gave me flowers because International Woman’s Day allowed him to. And I accepted them and walked away feeling great about being a woman.

That’s something to celebrate.