Monday, January 3, 2011


Wednesday my families arrive. Three have traveled previously, and want to visit kids they’re waiting for. Sheri hopes to adopt Igor, but he doesn’t know it yet. She wants to see his face when he finds out, so she has traveled to tell him personally. Barrie worries Alexandra will lose hope as the adoption process drags on, so he is here to encourage her. Amy aches to see Yulya again; she’s been waiting a year, through no fault of Amy’s. David is traveling to see Zulya and Lora; his wife met them last trip, and they’re planning to adopt, but he's anxious to meet them himself. Mike and Roberta are coming, along with their daughter, and Stefanee is visiting, just four weeks after a cross-country move with her husband and young children. Melinda is already in our region to meet a child too young for the trip. It’s her second trip with us, and she’ll join us for the weekend to spend time with the rest of the children.

Dima calls me when he leaves the airport with four of the families; the others are arriving at another airport later today. I expect them in an hour, but it’s closer to two, as traffic is punishing. When they walk into the hotel, it feels like a reunion of sorts, even with those I’ve not previously met. They’re kindred spirits in my mission, and we’ve spoken so often. Meeting the hosts is almost as big a thrill as meeting the kids.

Before we all left home, I offered them the options of resting upon arrival or sightseeing. All good-naturedly choose the Armory Museum over a nap.  Armory tickets come with an entrance time, and a 90-minute window to view the exhibits. The museum is within the Kremlin’s walls; entrance requires an expensive ticket, passage through a metal detector, and a half-hearted inspection of purses. Bags are not allowed inside, though it’s still a mystery to me how Russians differentiate between bags and purses. Calling my bag a purse, an attendant rebuffs my attempt to leave it at the bag check room.

The doors open at precisely 2:30. The Armory is my favorite Russian museum; I like everything about it. The museum is intimate, the restrooms are the cleanest I’ve seen here, and there’s a time limit. We start at the end, as the best exhibits are there. Catherine the Great’s wasp-waisted coronation gown; Peter the Great’s boots, like eighteenth-century hip waders; and Ivan the Terrible’s very straight-backed ivory throne are preserved in these final rooms. My favorite exhibits are the gaudy carriages of Russia’s tsars and tsarinas. Signs in Russian and English bid viewers not to touch, but the carriages are so alluring our group never manages strict compliance. A guard in a green sport coat shadows a more exuberant member of our band, but his requests to refrain from touching are issued in Russian, and fall on deaf ears. When an arm comes too close to a carriage, red lights flash, and a loud multi-lingual recording rebukes the unwitting miscreant. While it’s embarrassing if I’m in close proximity, it’s good for a chuckle at a distance.

After the Armory, dusk is descending, so we wander next door to Red Square to see St. Basil’s by night, when it’s even more magical than by day. Once there, it’s still not quite dark, so we end up in GUM Mall for a snack. I order a Coca-Cola, my go-to beverage. Barrie adores it, too, I learned on the August trip. Now I  feel selfish imbibing in front of him when he says he and his wife have forsworn it until they get Alexandra home. Seeking a way to relate to her inability to enjoy the “finer things in life,” they’ve vowed to forego soda in a Lenten-like exercise of self-denial. As I sheepishly quaff my drink, Barrie graciously salves my conscience by confiding he’s finally beyond the point of temptation when in the presence of someone enjoying a Coke.

Back in Red Square, the Kremlin bell tower is striking five, the red stars above its towers are aglow, St. Basil’s domes shine, and GUM is completely outlined in white lights. The scene is glorious; I want to stretch out my arms and twirl around to take it all in. While the photographers in our group finish their photos, I ask everyone if they’re punctual. We’re meeting the kids at the train station tomorrow, and need to leave the hotel by 5:45 a.m. I don’t know if I should tell them that time, or earlier. All of them claim they’re prompt, so we set 5:45 for our departure.

After Red Square, we return to the hotel to find Mike, Roberta, and David waiting. We’re hungry, it’s been months since I’ve eaten at MuMu, and I have a hankering for pelmini, so our destination is obvious. MuMu’s atmosphere is cozy and the food uniformly delicious, but its quirks seem Soviet. The restaurant is cafeteria-style, and the line staffed by Central Asians with infinitesimal patience. To hesitate even a moment when ordering is to invite certain rolled-eyed censure. Each item ordered is meticulously weighed, and any overage painstakingly removed. As I watch a worker reclaim a half-bite of coleslaw from a plate overzealously served, I can’t help but think the cost of the time exceeds the value of the few strands of salvaged cabbage, unless Russia’s minimum wage is much lower than I imagine. At checkout, each paying customer receives a sugar-crusted caramel candy most of my travelers find irresistible. But no matter how many diners are on a single order, only one candy is presented: one receipt, one caramel, no exceptions. No amount of protest or gesticulation at the vastness of our party ever wrests additional candy from the cashier. In Russia, the customer is never right.

Back at the hotel, Sheri, Roberta, and Stefanee exhibit the extra things they’ve brought to send back to the orphanages as donations. While sorting all their gifts and candy feels festive, I am moved by their generosity and creativity, as I sense the compassion that drove their selections. This was not required of them, yet they yearn to brighten the kids’ hardscrabble existence. The kinship I feel with those who care enough to travel with me never grows old.

As I anticipate tomorrow, I hope my hosts, my friends, will find what they’ve come here looking for.