Sunday, September 19, 2010

Looking Up

Without air conditioning, our windows are constantly open. We wake to smoke less punishing, thanks to an overnight shower and the prayers of many back home. We walk to the kids’ flat; several run to let us in when we buzz the bell outside their building. Having sacrificed the air conditioned accommodations for them, it is mildly annoying to find the unit turned off as we enter.

After breakfast, a game helps us get to know each other better. When a yellow beach ball is caught, the recipient shares a fact about himself, then tosses the ball to someone of opposite nationality. Through the passing of the ball, we learn Egor is the best reader in his class, Alexandra dances, and Oleg likes English. We’re in a circle, and Angelina’s the only one sitting. Once, I throw her the ball as encouragement that we want to know her, too. She pushes it away, looks down, and won’t say anything, even with Svetlana’s cajoling. It’s slightly awkward, and while I wonder if we should try harder to coax her participation, I acquiesce to her choice.

Angelina travelled unhosted in January (Scared, 12/21/09). The last day of the trip, we interviewed the kids; toward the end, she had yet to speak. Faith gently probed about what she’d most enjoyed, and got three or four words in response before a very charming boy started laughing, interjecting a snide comment. Angelina clammed up, not willing to finish her thought. It vexed me that the charmer, family safely in pocket, heartlessly mocked the shy girl. As Angelina refuses participation, I feel sure she remembers the January experience, and I must work to suppress resentment toward the boy whose long-past thoughtlessness denies her a chance to shine now.

Gifts are distributed next, to the glee of all. Few here have received many before, unless they’ve traveled with us previously. Lora is an astute trader, making several beneficial swaps before a few of the hosts intervene. When our group sets out for the day, the boys pose by a red Ferrari parked in the courtyard outside their flat. As its owner has carefully tucked it in a corner by an adjacent building, I doubt he would approve of several children leaning against it for photos.

At the metro, my magnetic ticket allows us sixty rides, the least expensive option for short-term visitors. Before we’re in the door, the kids clamor to scan the strip on the card reader. It’s already hard to remember who has had a turn, and who hasn’t. As I watch a child scan the card, I worry it won’t read between entrants, and that the gate will slam closed on the unwitting second to pass, assuring its victim multiple bruises. The metro resounds with a loud, singsongy tune whenever able-bodied cheaters jump the gate. Cheerless women wearing sour, no-nonsense expressions man booths nearby, blowing police whistles as they menacingly, but impotently, jab the air at the freeloaders.

We emerge from underground by the Kremlin, stopping at a bronze plaque embedded in the stone outside the Resurrection Gate, my favorite entrance to Red Square. Popular culture considers this spot the center of Russia, though geographically that title belongs almost 3000 miles east. With their backs to Red Square, people stand on the plaque, tossing coins over their right shoulders for luck. The coins are generally kopeks, tiny denominations valued in hundredths of a cent, but a few tattered elderly ladies hover nearby, collecting the coins with frail fingers as they bounce off the stones.

Right before departure, I’d seen several horrifying photos of Red Square shrouded in smoke, just the outline of St. Basil’s visible. Today, though, with much of the smoke dissipating, I’m absent my mask, no longer fighting carbon monoxide reputed to have been as high as seven times the safe upper limit earlier in our jaunt. For my friends’ sakes, I am relieved that their first view of Moscow’s most iconic site is fairly clear. After the requisite photos with St. Basil’s as backdrop, we grab lunch at my favorite GUM Mall eatery, dining amidst a smorgasbord of color. Every time I visit GUM, there is a new, and unfailingly classy, display of decorations or artifacts; today Audis from the 1930s to the present form a car snake through the mall’s corridors. A man sits in one, and lets the kids join him. He demonstrates the GPS, a gadget the kids find irresistible. The man is so accommodating that I assume he is either not Russian, or not working for the vehicle’s owner. I keep waiting for the ubiquitous mall security officers to descend on us, rebuking and shooing us away, but they never materialize.

After GUM, we cruise the Moscow River. It’s sweltering out, though a breeze on the river provides a modicum of relief. I spring for ice cream, and most kids thank me without prompting, though I remind a few. It’s refreshing how many of the kids, orphans, remember this pleasantry, even in English. I wile away much of the ride chatting on the phone with my friend Valerie, our adoption coordinator. She calls me with encouragement daily here; I love her, and almost forget my troubles as she commiserates with me.

Cruise over, we return to the kids’ flat to prepare dinner. As we assemble the components, Lora proudly contributes the four leftover McDonald’s cheeseburgers she’d collected yesterday and stored in her bag overnight. She is appalled when I throw them away, telling her we can’t use them, since meat needs to be refrigerated. Krista brought macaroni and cheese from home, and I have pelmini, Russian ravioli served with sour cream. Kids commonly name macaroni as their favorite food, but it is eaten sans sauce here. When Krista mentions American kids love macaroni and cheese, the Russians eat it with extra gusto. Cucumber slices and plums languished earlier, but fashioned into a smiley face on a plate, they’re promptly devoured. After the meal, we’re tired. I feel guilty leaving, but the heat has sapped our strength.

Traipsing back to our own flat, someone remembers we need toilet paper. At a store open day and night, shopping reminds me of a book I read about marketing; in a phenomenon they called “the butt brush effect,” the authors claimed customers would stop browsing in an area the third time they were bumped from behind. Here, in aisles wide enough for only one person, I’m thinking the butt brush threshold would have to be higher. The inventory consists of expensive blue paper, or abrasive brown Soviet-holdout paper, sold singly for about twelve cents per roll. Back at the flat, exhaustion lowers inhibitions as we envision how we would advertise the rough paper, were we the ad agency charged with such an unenviable assignment. We settle on, “Your butt might feel it, but your wallet won’t!” and laugh uproariously until I feel lightheaded.

My room is really an office next to the kitchen, and it lacks a door. The location teems with distractions, and renders blogging impossible. While I’m on the phone, Jeff cobbles together nine wimpy trash bags into a makeshift door. Before I hang up, the thin blue plastic offers some semblance of privacy. Krista decorates it with my name, but I can’t decide if I should be honored or offended by the crown she draws atop the “B.”

By the time my lights go out, a fifteen-minute rainstorm has begun and ended. A stiff breeze is blowing through, and I reach for the duvet. With a cleansing rain, the welcome chill, my bag door, the hearty laughing session, and the prayers of those who love me at home, things are looking up.

I'm going to make it.