Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Golden Arches, Golden Domes

In Russia: Day 6

Bleary-eyed and dragging, my host families from Michigan, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Illinois file into the hotel at about 1:00 p.m. on Friday. Even after the flight and the 7-8 hour time change, they’re anxious to meet the kids, who've been waiting almost six hours. The meeting lacks the customary fanfare of a US trip because all of us, kids and families, have traveled overnight, but it’s just as well we skip the drama since half the kids lack official hosts. Shortly afterward, we tackle the day’s sightseeing. Without the introduction of who goes with whom, it’s interesting to see how families and kids pair up on our walk, and how kids flit from family to family, in an apparent attempt to cover their bases. It’s a foreign dynamic compared to previous trips. Since I don't have other potential adoptive families to draw from this time, I worry at first when the “wrong” child is with the “wrong” parent, but eventually decide it doesn’t matter if everyone notices all the kids. An added benefit: it is less obvious which kids don’t have families this way. While I’m far from happy about the host to orphan ratio, watching how everyone is soon comfortable with everyone else, I realize this idea was a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Scarcely out of our hotel, we turn left on the busiest street in Moscow, just in time to see the street closed off and a motorcade of black Mercedes limousines sandwiched by a phalanx of motorcycles speeding down the road. Faith says it’s the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, and commands us to wave. We do, but his tinted windows keep us from knowing if he reciprocates. He’s returning home to the Kremlin, just down the road from where we’re staying. Faith claims the kids are celebrities now that they’ve seen a car holding such an important person, but they don’t believe her.

We’re hungry. Plans to visit Moscow’s only authentic pizza restaurant fizzle, but we spot a restaurant marked with golden arches on our way. The kids vote to eat there, but when we enter, the place is so busy there’s nowhere to sit. We end up at MuMu instead, an atmospheric joint specializing in Russian food like pelmini and borscht. It’s delicious, but the kids would prefer something a little more American.

We wander Arbat Street, Moscow’s pedestrian promenade, lined with little shops selling matryoshka dolls, trinkets, and Russian kitsch. We pass a shriveled old woman wearing a sandwich board incongruously advertising tattoos. In our sleep-deprived delirium, nobody buys anything, and nobody gets a tattoo.

At the end of the road, we see the golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The largest church building in Russian Orthodoxy, the original cathedral on the site was built to commemorate Napoleon’s departure from Russia, and consecrated in 1883. In 1931, Stalin issued an edict, leading to the church's destruction. Plans called for an audaciously monstrous “Palace of the Soviets” to be built there. Blueprints crowned the structure with a garish statue of Lenin over 300 feet tall, but instability in the ground due to the nearby Moscow River rendered the plan untenable, and the project was abandoned. In its place, the world’s largest open-air swimming pool was built. Faith and Dima fondly reminisced swimming there, playing hide and seek in the steam of the pool on savagely frigid days. They had mixed emotions when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pool was demolished and the church faithfully reconstructed according to original specifications.

Darkness falls early in Russia, and after the cathedral, we call it a day, boarding a bus back to the hotel. Faith tells the driver the children are orphans, so he lets them ride without a ticket. As we thaw at home, parents work together in the kitchen, creating a scene of domestic bliss while the kids play behind us. Ramen noodles and pickles are dinner. It isn’t fancy fare, but it beats beets and white meatloaf. As I retreat to my room to write, the same sensation I always have when kids arrive floods my psyche. I know I’ve done all I can for this moment, it’s here, and it’s time to see what God has in store for the kids and their futures. I’m praying that it’s something special.

My head hits the pillow at 3 a.m. I sleep quickly, but not before mulling a smidgen about how privileged I am to play a role, and how honored to be entrusted with a first stab at this unfolding, grand adventure.

See video here.