Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In Russia: Day 2

With so much to see out the window of our train compartment, I wake up feeling almost guilty for having slept through some of it. All that restrains my plunge into self-flagellation is the approaching dawn, and that the landscape was heretofore swathed in night. Haystacks shaped like mushroom caps stand sentinel across the countryside as scarved babushkas in padded coats trudge hunched beside the track, dragging wheeled wire baskets in their wakes. Cows restrained by rope tethers looped around their horns graze, not deigning to cock an eyelid in acknowledgment of the train’s din. Mothers undeterred by the October chill push buggies cradling generously swaddled tots. Pensioners dig rows of potatoes from tiny patches beside tinier houses. My favorite sight of all is an elderly fellow herding his flock of seven honking geese with a stick. I smugly note the rusted rattletraps queuing deferentially for us at railroad crossings, in a sort of automotive breadline. Seeing everything enrobed in a shroud of grungy gray sameness elicits my friend Elaine’s comment that she cannot imagine anyone smiling who must live under these conditions.

Gazing out the window, a dissonant concoction of happiness and depression wells within. These windows last framed my view three years ago, when we brought our son and daughter home. The excitement and promise of that trip to this region stokes a nostalgia that yearns to revisit every spot on that journey. Our brood doubled with two of the best souls of Russia, and I guard the memories with fierce devotion. Our joy did little to ameliorate our children’s loss, however, and in a perfect world, they would not have needed us. The love and provision they would have received from their biological parents would have kept them Russian citizens. Ideal was never reality in Russia, though, and circumstances conspired to make their loss our gain. Now my docket calls for visits to about ten orphanages in this smallish region, orphanages populated with hundreds of other children with their own chapters in the history of Russian pain and privation. Without these losses, my travel to another continent would be superfluous. All anticipation for this trip is tempered by knowledge of what necessitated it. I know today’s sightseeing will be anything but a vacation.

We arrive at our destination wrestling our bags off the train, ruing our over-packing, and assuaging our frustration since most of their contents are aid for orphans. Faith, our translator and tour guide, finds us a cab, and everything somehow fits into our Soviet-style car when our driver produces a bungee cord for the trunk and I volunteer to sit cross-legged in the back seat with one bag on the floor and another in my lap. For once, I don’t sweat the Russian propensity to forego working seatbelts. Wedged in as I am, I’m not going anywhere.

We arrive at our hotel, and my stroll down memory lane revs into overdrive. We stayed here on both our trips to Russia, and it is better appointed than most places we would pick in the United States. I open the lobby door praying the couch my kids were sitting on the moment we first met survived the hotel’s recent renovation. I breathe a relieved sigh when I find it in the same spot, choke up, and regaining my composure, point out the sacred furnishing to Elaine. I cannot stifle a detailed description of where the kids sat, and which parent first held which child where. Our room on the fourth floor plus our voluminous luggage betray my normal verve for stair climbing, so we take the elevator. Elaine and Faith hear how our junior bellhops took turns pushing the buttons every trip. They’re graciously patient with my obsession for reminiscing details, a trait I see I’ll be appreciating frequently as our mission unfolds.