Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Angels Will Watch Over You

Arrival in Moscow has heretofore meant navigating Sheremetyevo Airport’s dingy, tired, and cramped international terminal, but this trip our plane halts outside a building I’ve never been in. It is immaculate, modern, innovative, and expansive. If signs weren’t in Cyrillic, or if the flight attendant hadn’t welcomed us to Russia, I’d think I’d deplaned at a new airport in the United States.

The next day, I return to the airport to pick up my families. Ten are traveling, by far a record. They come on two flights, about an hour apart, so I chat with the first group as we await the second. Kate, a young girl whose parents adopted through our director Hope years ago, has read much of my blog. She reminds me of details I’ve revealed about myself in posts past, and wonders if I find it creepy she knows so much about me.

At the hotel, everyone unloads their bags. After their all-night flight, they good-naturedly vote to sightsee. Travel is my favorite hobby, and they delight me with their gameness to see a place that, despite its grittiness, has become my third-favorite city, after Grand Rapids and Venice.

The metro is the most sensible mode of transportation for us in Moscow. Before the trip I work hard to apprise the hosts of what to expect, but the metro deftly defies description. While I loathe pushiness, I warn families that boarding the metro is no time to be selfless. Still, I know that, early on, some chivalrous soul will step aside to let everyone else board ahead of them. It would be a nightmare to reconnect were we to be separated, even though we distribute Russian phones to all travelers, to be safe.

Sure enough, our first foray onto the metro, a few hold back to permit the rest of the group to meander in. When the alarm sounds to warn the door is closing, I physically stuff the person in front of me onto the train, and not a moment too soon, as the doors slam shut behind me. Beside me, an elderly lady also makes it. She smiles at us, very rare for Russians, as they believe to smile at strangers is to announce the smiler is crazy. She speaks to me in Russian, as I smile and nod. When she continues, I answer “Da!” though I haven’t any idea what she is saying. If the country is enjoying a nascent movement toward friendliness, I’d hate to squelch it. As she persists, I counter with da’s at each pause, until she finally realizes I’m not Russian. While speaking English is becoming more prevalent among the younger generation, the older the person or more menial their job, the less likely they are to know English. So the lady flabbergasts me when she abandons Russian and switches to first-rate English. “Angels will watch over you!” she declares. She asks a few questions, which I answer until the train grinds to another stop. The car is already standing-room only, and as more Muscovites shove their way aboard, the lady is swallowed by the crowd. “Angels will watch over you!” she calls as her parting benediction, slipping away.

We emerge from the metro’s tunnels just outside the Kremlin, which the group has chosen to see this trip. The world’s largest cannon, a 200-ton bell, and the official residence of the president of Russia lie within its red brick walls. While atheism was the state religion for over seventy years, this seat of Russian government also harbors five fifteenth-century cathedrals. A Russian Orthodox lady traveling with us to meet sisters finds the churches especially meaningful; watching her appreciate them blesses me, too.

After the Kremlin, we walk next door to Red Square. Two babushkas pose outside the Kremlin bell tower as a man takes their photo with a digital camera. When he shows them the result, they are so overcome with laughter they cry. I yearn to know if this is their first visit here, or their first digital photo, or if they’re just overwhelmed in this glorious place now that their land is free. It is the sweetest thing I’ve seen in Russia, and Kate snaps a few photos for the blog. How I wish I could see them laugh, to know their moment of joy is savored by others a world away!

Tomorrow morning our arms will open to the children now on their way to us. Today, though, it was our turn to be embraced, by this giant of a country. New friends from America are here, and I’ve been privileged to share with them just a few places I love in Moscow: this day embodies all that’s best about travel. Along the way, Russians we don’t know, and will likely not meet again, have shown their goodwill, and opened their hearts and the heart of their country to us.

Angels are watching over us.