Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I burn the midnight oil Wednesday. Testing my new alarm clock before slipping off to sleep, I find it in working order. When I awaken to the ping of rain on the metal roof outside my window, it’s still dark. I love rain and lay reveling in the stormy symphony, surprised my alarm hasn’t sounded yet. Tired, I plan to rest a few more minutes before checking the time.

I am not done thinking these thoughts when a sharp knock jolts me from recumbency. Cracking the door, I am horrified to see Roberta. “It’s 5:40!” she says. Throwing on clothes and brushing my teeth doesn’t take long, but as I run into the common area, everyone is waiting. Departing ten minutes late, the downpour accentuates our urgency. When we’re almost to the main street, I realize I don’t have my phone. So flustered that I fling fear of the dark aside, I sprint back to the hotel alone. Glancing round my room, I remember I’d readied everything last night, and had the phone in my bag with me. I can’t bother with my umbrella as I tear back to the group; I’ve sloshed through ankle-deep puddles and already look dreadful. As the only one who knows where we’re going, I have to reach the group before they reach the metro. Gasping, legs shaky from oxygen debt, I catch up, beneficiary of their fortuitous delay at a crosswalk whose leisurely cycles I curse at every other encounter.

We rush into our metro stop in time to watch the train pull away. Metro trains typically arrive every 90 seconds, but this early, it’s a stress-compounding five minutes. When another finally screams to a halt, it’s empty and I collapse, frazzled, in a seat, thankful we have no line changes. The kids’ train is due at 6:37 a.m. When we emerge from the metro into the railway station, it’s 6:34 a.m. I can scarcely believe we made it. All other trips, I pass the wait with tortured pacing, praying the families deem the kids worthy of their efforts to traverse the globe. Now though, relief is a lonely emotion; I’m quite void of the energy worry and pacing extract.

While David is telling my video camera that he’s anxious and nervous, the train lumbers in. Before we get to the back, where the kids traveled, they’re standing outside the car watching for us, with Katya, age twenty, our translator. Katya’s mom, Irina, translated our last two trips, but as our first-call court translator, her services are required for a family adopting two children today. Before the trip, Irina shared with me Katya’s apprehension. As we meet, I encourage her, expecting she’ll do a great job. “Thank you,” she beams, “that’s very pleasant!”

Rudimentary introductions over, kids, chaperone, and two hosts board a minibus to the hotel. The rest of us take a less hectic return trip via the metro. When we get back, the hosts are serving the kids Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereal I brought from home.

After breakfast, we commandeer the common area as games spill out and hosts begin to interact with the kids. The hotel owner stops by, congenial, but shocked we have so many children this time. When the rain relents, we visit a playground behind the hotel. Sheri distributes Pixy Stix; when one child shows us his blue tongue, the others crowd around to display theirs, too. Nine-year-old Andrea is here hosting with her parents. Metal equipment like that long ago banished from U.S. playgrounds outfits this park, planted in hard-packed earth. While the playground is likely far more austere than anywhere the Arkansas girl has played previously, she is having the time of her life with the kids. “This is the best playground ever!” she shouts at me, before darting off to rejoin the others.

Lunchtime takes us to the Golden Arches. Our trips feature repeated meals at the kid-pleasing chain, which the hosts good-naturedly tolerate both for its familiarity and popularity with the children. I ask the kids what they’d like to eat. Given the choice of one or two cheeseburgers, all the older kids clamor for two, seemingly amazed their preferences have clout. As they pick their drinks, prior experience warns me I’ll have to get lucky for them to remember what they ordered when I return. It never fails; the last child served feels slighted when the remaining beverage is not what they requested. Maria, six, refuses food; I order anyway. She ultimately drinks her Sprite, and eats one or two fries when goaded by an adult.

After lunch, one family, the chaperone, and the youngest kids return to the hotel, while the rest of us see the Cosmonaut Museum, joined by Dima, our driver. Once there, the kids flit between exhibits, more interested in taking photos than taking in Moscow’s best-produced museum. Witnessing this, Dima decries their indifference to the displays themselves. He tries, with modest success, to corner some kids for discussion of a few artifacts, but eventually gives up. I’d like them to glean something educational, too, but they’re enjoying themselves; with children’s tickets less than $1 apiece, fun alone is adequate recompense.

Afterward, we take a spin on Moscow-850, the 23-story Ferris wheel constructed in 1997 to honor Moscow’s 850th anniversary. The saleswoman distrusts my Russian as I ask for 15 tickets. She thrusts her finger at me and insists, “One,” with an air of finality. We go back and forth, until I trump her by saying, “Groupa!” This finally extracts the required tickets, albeit delivered with a hint of reluctance. The wheel makes a complete revolution in seven minutes, never stopping. Passengers board the moving wheel; to move slowly invites being jerked by the arm and stuffed into the car as it breezes by. The ride itself is silent and tranquil, the antithesis of the boarding procedure. Dima rides with me; he claims on a clear day like today, he can see Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I’m not knowledgeable enough to argue, but I never spot either.

After the Ferris wheel ride and disembarkation as harried as boarding, we return to the hotel. It’s a very long metro ride, and I lack the gumption to venture out to another restaurant. We end up cooking pelmini at the hotel. The kids love it, all except Maria, who eats only a slice of tomato. After dinner, several kids play Twister, Andrea among them. Though she has a family and doesn’t speak Russian, the orphans accept her as one of their own. This interaction is one of my favorite developments during the week.

While I prepare the food, Igor asks Katya to inquire of me when the rest of the families are coming. He’s counted hosts, and notes with dismay that the kids far outnumber families. I am shocked by the query, and realize too late I should have instructed Katya not to translate such questions. After my artless dodging at dinner, Igor asks later in the evening if anyone is coming to meet him. There are two other kids with him who aren’t likely to get families this time, and Sheri has travelled over 7000 miles to tell him herself that she wants him. Giving a lame, noncommittal answer, I slink off to my room before he can ask anything else.

I have work in spades anyway. During my end-of-day accounting, I discover with sinking heart that, after the ticket seller’s runaround earlier, I left the Ferris wheel bereft of 1250 rubles change. At bedtime, I check my alarm again, and find it was properly set today. I obviously turned it off unaware this morning, in an overtired stupor. I banish it from the nightstand and set it far from the bed; henceforth I’ll have to rise to quiet it.

If all goes well, I’ll pick Melinda up at the train station at 6:37 a.m. tomorrow after her trip to our region to meet Evgenia. I’ll be ready at 5:45 a.m.

On the button.