Friday, October 30, 2009

So Spoiled

In Russia: Day 3

In the region, we meet a lady who came once as a chaperone on my trip, and she greets me with “Becky!” and outstretched arms. In her office, she pours me tea. I’ve never drunk tea before, and doubt I’ll like it, but I say yes to be polite. It figures I end up with the largest cup, but I smile anyway, hoping my mannerly sacrifice might lead another child to a family. The first snow I’ve seen all year dusts the ground as I drain the last drop of tea from my cup, fearing it might earn me a second.

We need wheels, and Faith tries, unsuccessfully, to hail a cab. It feels like hitchhiking to me, but finally a parked car we’d been standing in front of for ten minutes takes the bait and offers a ride. Along the way, the driver and his wife Yelena share an unprompted synopsis of their lives. When they hear we’re visiting an orphanage in a certain town, Yelena asks if we know such-and-such, who once lived at said orphanage. I say yes, she went home to Michigan recently, and Yelena registers surprise, exclaiming she’d been this child’s teacher. Yelena's daughter Kristina lives in New Jersey. Kristina is shocked by the daily shipments one store has of fresh produce; odder still, things are thrown away if they don’t sell the first day. Yelena sounds scandalized as she leans forward and whispers, "I heard people in America take mortgages." Faith counters that mortgages in Russia currently carry about 17% interest. Yelena edifies, “We like to pay for what we get,” and helpfully adds, “We never borrow any money because it’s not good.” When her husband drops her off, Yelena refuses our request for a photo.

As we dash between orphanages, we eat on the run. Faith offers me a yellow Antonovka apple, native to Russia. She tells me they are tough as stones and don’t rot. She hands me half, and it’s delicious, the tartest apple I’ve tasted. My window doesn’t roll down so I hold the core. Faith offers to take it, so I reluctantly fork it over. She eyes it with disdain. “This is meat!” she chides, adding, “You’re so spoiled!” Offered a second half, I leave practically nothing this time, assuming she’ll be impressed. Reality bites when she hands me a third half, this time with the core already removed. I reminisce that the day we arrived home with our Russian children, my new son ate an entire apple. Queried as to where the apple was, my little one presented a stem. He’d eaten the apple, core, seeds, and all, as he’d been taught in the orphanage. I told him this wasn’t necessary in America; if he wanted more, he should take another one instead.

At our second orphanage stop, we meet one of my favorite chaperones from past trips. Svetlana hugs me tightly and invites us to dinner in the cafeteria. We decline, but it’s clear she wants to feed us. We finally agree, and dine on bread, cheese, tomatoes, hot chocolate milk, and plain penne pasta topped with chicken meatloaf. Disliking ground meat, I shudder at the white loaf, but my distaste turns to horror sighting the heaping mound of pickled beets topped with sour cream. Svetlana sits down with us, and explains each item. She is so kind I haven’t the heart to reject the beets, a vegetable I’ve loathed since childhood. I strategize, tackling my meatloaf first, buying time to make peace with consuming beets. When the beets’ turn comes, I eat them with purpose, opting not to linger and prolong the agony. I somehow finish, and Svetlana walks out with me arm in arm. While my stomach churns, I treasure the kindness she shows both the orphans and us.

The next day, I drink tea again at another orphanage. It’s not growing on me, but the fruit flavor in this variety marginally increases palatability. I drink it all, but a teacher, unmoved by my etiquette, gives us the coolest reception we get all trip. She’s upset since one of her orphans is not able to travel to Moscow with the Lighthouse Project this weekend. I promoted him as my favorite child but still didn’t find a host family. She is slighted by his omission from our list, and feels entitled to let us know. I leave that place with a little shiver.

Our warmest welcome comes from Boris, chaperone of my March Grand Rapids trip. Boris speaks excellent English and epitomizes warmth and sincerity. He wants us to see his children, so he leads us to a classroom where Andrei, from Elaine's July Missouri trip, sits. He announces to everyone Andrei has visitors from America, and the boy leaps to his feet, stands by his desk, and beams with pride when he sees it’s us, for him. His smile makes our trip to this orphanage to see only him worthwhile.

Boris invites us to dinner and is so insistent we would be heartless to refuse. He brings us to a storage room off the cafeteria where 40 thin mattresses are stacked beside a table. When we see the place settings and food waiting, we know it was right to stay. We eat pickled cabbage with canned peas, beef and buckwheat, bread, oranges, and bananas. Over dinner, he asks about Losha, just adopted in July. He’s hungry for news, and I promise to get an update from the family. I am touched by his concern for his 127 kids. He seems sad that the kids eat in five shifts for lack of seating.

He's delighted we’re here, and he throws open his cabinet, revealing a bottle of cognac he’s purchased for the occasion. As my teetotaling throat tightens in revulsion, my glass is filled. He makes a toast to his guests from America, and I have no choice but to take a sip. It takes my breath away, and I am nauseated instantaneously. Boris doesn’t notice. Within a few minutes, he refills Faith’s glass and reaches for mine. I croak out a still-incapacitated, “N—" but it’s too little, too late; now my glass holds more than when I started. When Boris makes another toast to our visit, I grimly realize my only out is to down the beverage in as few sips as possible. My first big gulp smacks me like a two by four, and I know there’s no way I can finish this potion. Thankfully, Boris leaves the room for a minute, and Faith lets me pour what’s left into her glass. Elaine doesn’t need an invitation and she follows my lead. When Boris returns, he’s pleased we liked our drinks well enough to finish them. We rise before he can give us a refill.

As we go, Boris apologizes in English for the fare, “I know you would have better in America, but this is the best we have. It is the same thing we feed ourselves.” I wince as he downplays his most memorable and genuine hospitality. His kindness to us and his care for his kids shames my condescending assessment of the meals we’ve been served with such warmth. He walks us to our car and gives me a gentlemanly European peck on the cheek.

Maybe Faith is right: I am blessed everywhere beyond words, too spoiled even to know it.