Saturday, December 11, 2010

For Cats

Entering Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow two days prior to our November Lighthouse Project trip, I am amazed to see crowd control stanchions separating lines at immigration. These bestow a Western sense of order, replacing the line jumping free-for-all I’ve dreaded most of my flight. The queue for bearers of electronic passports is so short I fear selecting it, but I waltz through in record time, and collect my luggage among the early bags on the carousel. In the arrivals area, a throng of taxi drivers plead, “Tahk-see? Tahk-see?” I feel a twinge of guilt in refusing them, but I’m seeking Dima. When he finds me, he grabs the carry-ons from my grateful shoulders and greets me with a polite, but scratchy, kiss. From touchdown to airport departure is a felicitous 25 minutes.

Outside, I rejoice in the chill, thankful the smoke and heat of August are relegated to miserable memory. I think I recognize Dima’s vehicle in the distance, but when we get closer, he tells me it’s new, and asks if I like it. I admit I’d seen no difference, but he smoothes it over, saying he painted it green to match his old Nissan. After depositing my bags in the back, he climbs in and turns the key in the ignition, to silence. “Sorry,” he mutters, as he springs out to swap batteries. Once the van is moving, Dima looks pained when I ask how long he’s been driving it. “Since yesterday,” he confesses, chagrined, adding it’s the best he can afford.

We are inspecting possible new lodging for our trips, visiting a tiny, well-heeled hamlet northwest of Moscow. Along the way, the only snow I’ll see the entire trip descends. Leaving Moscow’s city limits and entering the country, I peer out windows I defog with my sleeve every few minutes. As giant flakes light on birch forests lining the road, we speed through slush to a soundtrack punctuated periodically by a breathy male announcer. Everything about this ride is quintessentially Russian, and I love it more than ever on this, my eighth foray into the Motherland. After several calls to the house manager for directions, we arrive. Our host meets us with tea so hot that I recoil at my first tentative sip, splashing it on the floor. While I take the grand tour, Dima waits in the kitchen, watching his van out the window. Fearful it might not start again, he’s left it running. An hour later, when we’re driving off, the temperature inside feels more equatorial than Russian.

I’m desperately tired, but breakfast food shopping, Ashan-style, looms between me and the hotel. Gloom fills my heart as we park; the store is always grossly overcrowded and unwelcoming. As I deliberate the merits of products whose labels I hardly understand, I impede hordes who don’t bother to disguise their annoyance. Shopping for 25 souls, my cart begins to overflow, necessitating a second, then third. Dima suggests I leave the first cart by an end cap, and reclaim it when we’re done. I am profoundly hesitant to abandon my hard-won foodstuffs, but I take comfort seeing several other full carts alone. More than 30 minutes later I collect cart one, untouched, where I left it.

Back in the parking lot, the snow has changed to a hard rain. I’m hacking from a cold that sleep deprivation will not let me fight. I try to help Dima load the van, but I can tell I’m in the way again. I don’t object when he directs me to the van because I’m “coughing already.” His excuse is transparent, but I don’t care in my cold, wet stupor. I nod off on the ride to the hotel, so Dima wakes me when we’re there. I am loved by the hotel after all our stays, and staff greets me by name as I enter. The receptionist sets my key on the counter as I walk by, and I take my usual room without any of the typical hotel formalities.

After I’ve wrestled my groceries into the refrigerator, I am cooking rice for my dinner when Nancy, the lady who started our director Hope in adoption nearly twenty years ago, drops by the hotel. She’s in Russia separately, but forgot something at home, which I’ve brought for her. Now, after years of hearing about her, we meet. She says I’m “a doll” for carrying her things, though right now I look more like a drenched rat.

The next morning, my first family arrives. Melinda is meeting a four-year-old, and has to catch the train tonight to the region where we work. She treats me to lunch, then we visit the circus to buy tickets for later in the week. The saleswoman speaks no English, and I struggle to convey to her that I want our seats together. As she tires of my attempts, I give up and hope for the best. On the way out, I peruse the seat assignments, relieved to see they are grouped in two areas, rather than the hodgepodge we sometimes get.

Beggars, street musicians, and the ragged elderly selling flowers, kittens, and fruit are omnipresent as they vie for the compassion of passersby in Moscow. At the end of our August trip, returning from a late-night visit to Red Square, I witnessed a young man in the metro hunched over from kyphosis. While his condition was less grave than many beggars I’d ignored in the past, I’d scarcely bypassed him before I felt a crippling shame. I tried to salve my conscience with thoughts that our group was exhausted, and that the money I carried wasn’t really mine. But leaving him helpless haunted me, and I vowed next time to have my own money.

On the way back from the circus, Melinda and I walk the main street leading to the hotel. Up ahead, an ancient babushka, in padded coat and headscarf, perches on a folding stool, pan at her feet. Two cats robed in sweaters keep her company, one a Siamese mix, the other a lilac point Himalayan. I covet a photo in the worst way, but worry if I ask I’ll be refused. Shooting surreptitiously from the side, I am unmasked by my flash in the twilight. The lady rebukes me so vehemently no translation is required, leaving me thankful she doesn’t wield a cane. When my dressing down is over, I sheepishly step up and hand her enough rubles to guarantee my forgiveness.

I leave ashamed, both for the photo and the donation. As a veterinarian and cat-lover, I’m allowed to help a granny feed her pets. But somewhere in Moscow there’s a broken man, with years of dependency on the goodwill of strangers ahead of him, and I left him in the heat and smoke of August, alone, with nothing. Then I made my first donation into a pie tin.

For cats.