Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In the Russian Cold

Back in Russia, Day 2

I arrive in Moscow an hour late, worrying Dima, our driver. At the hotel the families and kids already sleep, exhausted from their respective journeys. Elaine and Faith calm my neuroses, telling me how well things have gone. After Faith leaves for her flat, Elaine and I talk late into the night.

I match host family faces to telephone voices the next morning. Faith reads to the kids from a book about Russia’s history. With the kids occupied, the families prepare the gifts they brought. After Faith’s history lesson, clothes, toys, school supplies, and treats are handed out one giddy child at a time. Several spirit their treasures away to the dorm room; when I check on them later, a proud show-and-tell is unfolding. Diminutive Anastasia, at five the youngest child on the trip, receives her gifts last. A suitcase overflows for her, and when she sees it, she bursts into overwhelmed tears. We try again, with just one tiny item. She cries more, pushing it away. Time alone with the chaperone helps her handle the emotions that accompany receipt of such a stash, and the next time I see her, she is wearing new clothes. Alexander and Yulya agreeably take a rain check, since luggage holding their gifts was lost in transit.

Setting out, we meet a camera crew conducting “man on the street” interviews at a government building. Predictably, they interview Faith, who has honed her skills in flamboyance, quick wit, and spontaneity to an art. At the metro, she cajoles a stone-faced turnstile attendant to let three of our kids through without paying, as she doesn‘t have enough rides on her ticket. “Little, little!” she insists, gesturing toward the children, some of whom are noticeably big. For once, Faith is told no, and she trudges off to buy more tickets.

I spent much of the last trip worrying a child would be lost in the metro amongst stampeding Muscovites. This trip, I make cards with contact information, and hang them from a length of yarn. As Faith instructs the kids to wear the cards as necklaces, I am shocked even the older ones do so without argument. Each adult is given a metro map with instructions in case separated from the group, and assigned a child “metro buddy” who is to be their sole responsibility while in the subterranean system. “If your metro buddy is lost, make sure you are lost, too,” I chide.

Emerging from the metro’s bowels outside Red Square, our exuberant Nikolai, (Ray of Light, 12/16/09) lectures us on the history of the area, giving us a verbosely enthusiastic interpretation of the lesson he’d had earlier in the day. I wish his host family was here to witness this, but they’re still in New York right now.

Guidebooks concur the Resurrection Gate is the most majestic entrance to Red Square, and grants the most glorious initial glimpse of St. Basil's Cathedral. The gate itself is spectacular, though not original; it was rebuilt in 1995 after its 1930s demolition by a Stalin bent on easing access to the area with Soviet tanks and armies on Communist holidays. Today, our sightlines are obstructed by a makeshift outdoor skating rink, and for once we should have entered elsewhere. Just St. Basil's domes are visible, though I derive a modicum of comfort as gasps ascend even from this truncated view.

More kids alternate explaining the square’s history. Faith translates a story a child relates about Ivan the Terrible, the ruler who commissioned Russia‘s most iconic church. Toward the end of his life, a paranoid Ivan famously murdered his only son, so consequently had “no hair,” she solemnly tells us. I strain to be polite, but turn away when my smirk morphs into laughter. Faith learned English as an adult when she moved to America, and I respect the hard work that allowed her to master our oft-tricky language, even as I chuckle at her unintentional humor.

With our feet and noses numb, we invade GUM Mall, adjacent to St. Basil’s, to thaw and window shop. The mall is still dressed in holiday finery; Russians celebrate Orthodox Christmas January 7. The kids crave borscht, so we eat at a third-floor cafe. Russia isn’t known for efficiency, and our appearance in the restaurant exacerbates this. We are twenty-one in number, and most adults are unfamiliar with the language, food, culture, and money. Faith flits about from the head of the line assisting payers, and the tail of the line assisting in ordering. By the time we’re finished, a lengthy queue stands in our wake. Inconveniences are intrinsic to Russian existence, and those behind us seem to take the delay we’ve caused in stride. We dine under streamers made from the flags of the nations, though we never spot Russia’s white, blue, and red.

We are attending a performance of the Russian fairy tale Czarina Frog at the Natalya Sats Musical Theater, birthplace of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. We arrive to the welcome of costumed characters on balconies at the entrance just as the show is about to begin. With 200 audience members, our $5 tickets could never pay for the live orchestra, elaborate set and costumes, and cavernous castle-themed building; the government and private donors subsidize the theater. Russians love the arts, and cultivate this appreciation even in childhood. Entering the theater hall, it is plain our children are underdressed. The children with parents wear dresses or fancy outfits; our orphans in their mismatched, oversized get-ups stand out. One man, well-dressed tot in tow, sees our children and wrinkles his nose. Throughout the dazzling performance, I fight the need for rest heroically. At the end, Faith and the kids congregate in the foyer, dancing around the Christmas tree, in Russian tradition. Later, Faith finds a piano and leads the children in renditions of several folk songs. When the Lighthouse Project visits the United States, the children sing for the public in an evening program; I cherish this moment tonight, and see in it our own, private program.

Leaving this morning, I clipped my German clothespin on my bag, thinking I'd make its appearance at various Moscow sites a blog theme. The idea, charged with promise, fizzles when the flower drops off the clothespin at the first metro stop and the clothespin falls off the bag somewhere between another metro stop and the theater. After the musical, I offer a prize to the child who finds the clothespin. Alexander, hostless, walks ahead, determined to find the pin, but we don’t retrace many steps before Faith leads us in another direction, foiling any hopes of a reunion and reward.

One of my favorite memories last trip was the trolleybus breaking down on the way home from the circus. We switched buses, leading to laughter, merriment, and singing in the back of the replacement trolley. As we charge aboard tonight, I hope this one will break down, too. My wish sees no fulfillment, though when Faith tries to pay, the driver says the ticket machine is out of order, so we all ride free. Several stoic babushkas ride along, emotionless as the kids sing with Faith.

Needing food, we cause a sensation at Yolky Polky, a Russian buffet. The host asks for a headcount; when Faith says “twenty-one,” he walks down the line disbelieving, but verifying the number, assembles the requisite tables. I disdain American buffets as quantity over quality, but experience epiphany when I find Russian buffets feature neither. As our group fills their plates, servers inefficiently refill the pans with small bits of food. The fried, chopped fish patties and white hotdogs ensure that, even at $12 a head, I don’t want my money’s worth. Evgeniy sits at the end of the table and devours seven hotdogs as part of the largest meal he’s ever consumed. No one spends any time with him, and he won’t stand out if he doesn’t get a chance to talk.

All day, the hosted kids hang from their families. Alexander doesn’t have a host, though I don’t think he knows yet. He sticks with me, and holds my hand much of the way; I wish he’d circulate through the group and let others see what a fantastic kid he is, my favorite in both November and now. He can’t know there is no way I can adopt him, so he puts his eggs in the wrong basket, snapping my photo, hunting my clothespin, holding my hand, and beaming at me when I look down at him. He tells me things, kindly, in simple Russian, and I understand a little. I rue his inopportune choice of me, but I don’t push him away toward more auspicious folks, since I fear hurting his feelings, and worry about orchestrating too much of what happens. Ultimately, people need to adopt the right child for their family, even if it leaves some of our orphans out in the Russian cold.