Thursday, August 26, 2010


Last night I’d heroically determined not to complain, no matter the circumstances here. At 6 a.m. Sunday, my resolve nosedives as I awaken to find my mask, which I’d slept in, conspiring with the smoke to smother me with breath-robbing vengeance. I vault coughing from bed in a fresh panic, maddeningly stranded in this acrid inferno. My planned Friday departure, one day closer, leaves me comfortless, as I cannot survive that long. I pound out a frantic e-mail missive to our director, Hope. My life, or at least my sanity, is in jeopardy, and my opening sentences ooze agony. But in typing, my outlook improves, as focusing elsewhere shaves the edge off my misery. This knowledge is power; my survival strategy becomes cramming every moment with activity.

In summertime, Moscow shuts off the hot water by sections of the city to fix their ancient pipes. For years I’d fretted that some yet-unplanned summer trip to Moscow might plunk me in lodging bereft of hot water, unable to take a comfortable shower. Now that I’m here on an August jaunt, wilting in temperatures better suited to saunas than Russia, I realize my fears are unfounded and unrealistic. By the time my host families arise at 11 a.m., I’m a veteran of two cold showers taken in a futile attempt at cooling.

Across town, Oklahomans Jeff and Robin are in the waning days of their month-long adoption journey, picking up fourteen-year-old Edik, alumni of one of my previous trips. They’d been staying with our Russian adoption coordinator, Love, and had spent their recent days rotating through the shower. Love’s two Persians lie pathetically motionless except for their panting until Jeff compassionately helps her trim their fluff, resuscitating them. Three days before departure, Jeff and Robin can suffer the heat and smoke no longer. They move to a very posh hotel offering a pool and air conditioning. Love is thrilled to escape the heat when they rent a room for her and the cats, too.

Early Sunday afternoon Jeff calls me, hoping to see me and my little band. It’s been a long stay in Russia, and they’re hungry for American company. When my last hosts, Iowans Barrie and Joyce, arrive, we have little incentive to remain at our hotel. We leave to meet Jeff, Robin, Edik, and Love at a KFC-owned chicken outfit, but the plan is scuttled when the restaurant proves hotter than the streets. We migrate next door to Il Patio, reputed to be Moscow’s only authentic pizza. Inside, the cool, clean air brings me to the brink of elated tears, exacerbated by the sight of Jeff and Robin, now parents. I sit next to Edik; the last time I saw him, he was in his orphanage, confessing fear over whether his new family would really come for him. As Edik calls Robin “Mama,” requesting permission for this and that, I revel in the quotidian domesticity of the scene. Gatherings of adoptive families invigorate me as our commonalities engender almost endless conversation, and we linger long after our food is gone.

Jeff and Robin invite us to their hotel; in this heat, we won’t make them ask twice. Conversing in temperature-controlled bliss, they detail how their adoption of Edik was approved by a regional supreme court judge. One of the host families, Jeff and Teresa of Michigan, has a court date scheduled for mid-September, and they listen with especially rapt attention. In the hotel room, there’s no hint of smoke, and I relish the sensation of almost being cold. When both Jeffs and Edik leave to swim, Robin and the host moms browse in a hotel gift shop, studying every item. I hate shopping and tire of the wait, so I visit Love’s room to see the cats. She apologizes for their appearance, but their haircuts are so hideous they’re irresistible. For both man and beast, appearance plays second fiddle to comfort this week, and I hardly begrudge the cats their trims. Love notices I am tired, and when she orders me to lie down on the spare bed, I make no argument. I sink into the duvet, my form cradled by pillows as prolific as rabbits; once lying there I feel little inclination toward activity. As I lounge, Love bids me in her charming English to spend the night here, rather than at my hotel, urging, “Becky, you must stay!” Cursing my scruples which mandate I suffer in solidarity with my host families, I snuggle further into the bed, and it takes every moral I can muster to refuse her offer.

When the swimmers and shoppers reappear, I drag myself from the bed to go home. While we have spent over seven hours in cool luxury, the sickening heat outside at once relegates it all to a bitter memory. Back at our hotel, we are demoralized finding it even hotter than outdoors. Retreating to my room, I have a sympathetic message from Hope, providing a modicum of encouragement. She offers to move us to an air conditioned hotel, but I am resistant in my tightwaddery, as this one is paid for already. Later, my friend Valerie, our US adoption coordinator, calls to say Hope is insistent we move. It’s past midnight here, too late to ask the families now what they want. I tell Valerie we have to wait until Monday to decide this, but she worries the less expensive hotels will be booked as there are few rooms left in Moscow; even flights and trains out of the capital are sold out.

I emerge from my room for another shower and instead discover all the hosts in the common area, flush-faced and too hot to sleep. I call a meeting, which Barrie and Joyce host. Detailing the pros and cons of moving to an air conditioned hotel, the pros have a grossly unfair advantage. The consensus is that we should move, pending the hotel’s willingness to refund our money. In Russia, where the operating premise of every business seems to be “the customer is always wrong,” even a partial refund is in grievous doubt. I leave the meeting to speak to a receptionist sitting at the front desk by what I’d been told was the hotel’s only fan. When I reveal we’re contemplating leaving due to the nearly insufferable conditions, two fans miraculously appear from under the counter. They’re tiny and tired, but I return to my families triumphant. That there are four rooms and two fans only mildly tarnishes my glee. As trip coordinator, I cannot co-opt a fan, but nobody else is selfish, either. A good-natured argument ensues, each host claiming their need of a fan is less urgent than the others’. After coveting fans so much of the day, it is comically ridiculous. When we finally determine which two parties get a fan, neither will pick one. As sweat trickles down my back, I’m impatient for my shower. Secretly numbering them “Fan 1” and “Fan 2” ends the deliberations, as fan assignment is randomized. The winners promise to pass the fans on tomorrow to those of us who do without now, but I tell them if we pass on tonight, they’ll get to keep them. I apologize repeatedly for the conditions, but hear no lamentation or condemnation from them, only a magnanimous recognition after their long journeys that this ordeal is not of my genesis. The powwow is a twisted pleasure, and I love these families more for enduring our trial with humor and generosity.

Valerie calls again, well past 1 a.m., and says Hope is renting two flats: one for us, and one for the kids. Both are air conditioned, and in close proximity to each other. She kindly makes the arrangements, as heat, dehydration, and the hour have dulled me mentally.

Anticipating Monday with the kids’ arrival and our departure to cooler digs and purer air, I collapse, masked, into bed. I know when I awaken, Hope, eleven hours behind, will have everything ready. I am still again, but not panicky now. I am never alone, even in this dark. I have friends here and at home, generous friends, and somehow together, we’ll see this through, to complete the mission that moves us all.