Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Moving Day

Our hotel stands in the shadow of one of Stalin’s seven skyscrapers, a monstrosity at once repulsive and appealing. I identify this landmark for my travelers every trip as a reference point, should they venture out alone. This morning, as we leave for the train station to meet the kids, the wicked smoke obscures its tower, and I wonder if it’s still standing.

In a nod to my neuroses, I always allow an exorbitant amount of travel time to get to the train station. We leave quasi-punctually, though one host makes a mad dash back to the hotel for forgotten passports. The heat makes his sprint torture, but he reunites with the group just as we reach the metro to find the doors locked. A note on the door presumably provides explanation, though with my skimpy Russian, it’s academic. Worrying how to get to the kids’ station when the one way I know is closed, I utter an urgent prayer, turn, and walk away with sham nonchalance. Immediate inspiration comes in my sighting of the underpass spanning the ten-lane road beside us. Since most metro stations have entrances on both sides of busy thoroughfares, I cross under the road, leaving my fears unspoken. When the doors to this entrance open, I know how Moses felt at the parting of the Red Sea. The rest of our trip is uneventful, and we have time for a photo below a clock showing two minutes before the train is due.

The train pulls in as we’re finishing, and we walk nearly to the end before we find the kids standing outside their car waiting. I am masked, but shed it when I notice the kids eyeing me strangely. Angelina, ten, from the January trip, gives me a huge embrace; with her shyness, her hug surprises and delights me. Egor spots the family he met in Missouri last year. His wait is nearly over, as they’ve been assigned a court date in mid-September, but they wanted to see him again. He stands there staring, disbelieving. When mom-to-be Teresa approaches him, touches her heart, then his, he breaks down in tears. Alexandra, fourteen, sees Joyce returned from the June trip, auspiciously this time with husband Barrie. Krista is meeting Zulya and Lora. Two weeks ago, when first we spoke, she didn’t hold a valid passport; now she’s with us, halfway around the globe. Her commitment is breathtaking to fathom, and I’m hoping she finds the visit worthy of her effort.

Oleg and Andrei are unhosted, and they’re here for my assessment if they’re good candidates for adoption. I’d met them briefly at their orphanage, and thought them promising enough to warrant this step. Angelina is hostless, too, and I’ve violated my policy of not bringing an unhosted child twice by bringing her now. Since I already know and like her, she has little to gain here. Extenuating circumstances led me to break this rule, and I am praying I don’t break her heart.

Leaving the train, I distribute masks to everyone but never see them used. Back at the hotel, I’m figuring out if they will refund our money, if Hope has our flats booked, if Love knows when we can get the keys, if Dima can bring sleeping bags, and when he’ll move our copious luggage. It’s frazzling with too many questions and everyone waiting, so the hosts help out with the kids’ breakfast. The lady I need to speak with won’t be here until eleven, so after breakfast, the kids and families go outside to throw water balloons, a fitting hot weather ice breaker. Courageous hosts lend the kids their cameras, while Teresa works to get a good photo of Angelina. By trip’s end, the little girl, so sparing with smiles, has a portfolio demonstrating a metamorphosis from our October to January to August meetings (Scared, 12/21/09).

I aim to sandwich a Moscow River cruise between our lunch and move, but as the wait for the employee drags on, I’m seeing the families’ first day with the kids frittered away behind a hotel. At 12:30 p.m., too late for our boat ride, she finally appears, apologizing as she declines my refund request.

At last we leave for McDonald’s, Oleg holding my hand. Soon he is dragging me, and as we fall behind, I start hyperventilating behind my mask. I close my eyes and let Oleg, gentler now, lead me. Translator Irina and chaperone Svetlana see this and ask if I’m okay, demanding it when I ignore them. Svetlana digs into her purse, where she stores a mini-pharmacy she now attacks with the vengeance of a paramedic on call. Dousing a cotton ball with a pungent potion from a brown glass bottle, she holds it under my nose. I am immediately alert, incredulous that the bottle’s contents hold their own against the stench of the smoke. When she’s satisfied I’m better she proffers the cotton, issuing orders in Russian to sniff it. Irina sacrifices her water, which I guzzle. From up ahead, Zulya notices I’m lagging, and she insists the group wait. When I catch up, the cotton’s powers and the water have revived me, and I feel peachy, except for a stout headache.

After lunch, we meet Dima back at the hotel and pile our luggage into his van. Next, we find Love, who now has the keys for both flats. She greets me with an embrace to soften a bombshell. “Only one flat is air conditioned,” she moans. My mind refuses this. I hate her cruel joke, but she wails she’s serious. The heat alone makes it distressing, but realizing I’ve moved sixteen people to an unpaid-for place, wasted all day doing it, and crushed hopes of salvation in the process catapults my horror to the stratospheric. Love asks which flat I want. It feels selfish consigning the kids to a hot, smoky place, but I don’t relish telling the families they’ve moved for naught, either. Finally, not knowing which flat has the air conditioner, I opt to house the kids, who need more space with ten in their group, in the larger flat.

In updates prefacing the trip I caution families to expect inconvenience in Russia. The flat charade is maddeningly typical, leaving me grateful I’d issued the warnings. When my despondency fades, I grudgingly realize the families derive cultural value from the episode as a quintessential Russian experience. Still, the owner’s lame defense, a repairman removed the appliance and never returned it, seems delivered with almost criminally minimal self-flagellation.

Entering the kids’ place, a cool breeze hits me, leaving me comfortless, knowing we’ll get the hot flat. Their flat is beautifully maintained and modern. When the kids are settled, we venture with heavy hearts to our place, about one mile away, literally around the corner from the Kremlin. If we weren’t here to spend time with the kids, the location would be stellar, in the nerve center of Moscow. Our flat is toasty, but bordering bearable, on the building’s sixth floor. Each party has private space, and while air conditioning isn’t included, free international phone calls are.

Dropping our bags inside, we scurry back to the kids’ flat; freshening up would be futile. We redeem our rat race of a day at the circus, arriving late, as usual. A stir ensues as we block the aisles while the usher goads people planted in our seats to move. This production is made laudable by her persistence, even if it deeply annoys those whose view we obstruct at length. After the show, the kids are abuzz over the tigers. Mirroring every trip, they point to plastic trinkets as we exit, vainly hoping we’ll buy.

When I stumble into my shared home, it’s late, but I spend hours talking with my friends, enjoying the luxury of free calls. My last is to fellow Lighthouse Project coordinator Elaine.   As I unload my woes in a diatribe taking thirty minutes, she makes no comment. When I finish, she offers no acknowledgment; finally, I realize she’s not there. I find the exercise a strange balm, even without an audience. Later, she tells me all she heard was “Hello.”

The windows of our rooms are well situated, and a decent, if stinky, breeze wafts through the flat. As I drift off to dream world on a fold-out loveseat, today seems a loss. With three days left, I hope the rest of the trip looks up, and that hearts can be won in the compacted time remaining.