The Dad’s Post-Trip Thoughts

We are on the final flight back to Boston from Rejkjavik and I am trying to process the events of the last twelve days. What began as some poignant questions from a young child six or seven years ago about where she had come from, and from whom, has culminated in a trip back to her birth place, to her orphanage, and especially, to meet her family of origin.

Despite some well meaning cautions from friends about what it might be like returning to Russia, and our own apprehensions and concerns as to how this might all turn out, there is simply no other way to describe our trip other than as a total success. Despite the political tensions that currently exist between the two countries, the Russian people we encountered were gracious, helpful, curious, compassionate, and so much more. Without our terrific translator, Andrey, there is no way we could have met successfully with our daughter’s birth family on four separate occasions during our stay. He did more than just pass words back and forth, he understood the initial awkwardness as the families met, and just knew how to help orchestrate our time together. He was invaluable in assisting us as we worked with the orphanage to present the gifts our friends, family and co-workers so graciously contributed. We are and always will be deeply indebted to Andrey for all his help, his humor, and  his wisdom.

We would also be remiss if we did not mention and thank the people who housed us in their beautiful apartment, Tatiana and her mother Tamara. They patiently answered the countless questions we had, pointed us to the food store, which bus to where, what sites to see. They took a very genuine interest in our situation and truly became caught up in our meeting with our daughter’s birth family. They also make the finest blini (Russian pancakes) and ensured that our child would not starve during our visit.

The city of St. Petersburg itself was beautiful, incredible palaces, museums, places of worship, artwork, and so much history. Compared with our visit ten years ago, it appears now to be a bustling, enterprising city of 5 million inhabitants, many in quite a hurry to make up for the years of stifled creativity and enterprise. Try to imagine the size, energy and scope of New York City with the quirky, creative youthfulness of Boston, that might be the best way to imagine modern St. Petersburg. And then there is the food…blini, kasha, potato pancakes, hot or cold borscht, beef stroganoff, Russian black tea, baked sushi (who knew), broiled salmon made more ways than I knew existed…

Sydney of course loved it here, wanted to stay longer, drank in every moment she could of her time with her birth family. Sydney’s birth mother, half sister and aunt also could not get enough of her, not to mention Sydney’s 1 year old nephew and 4 year old cousin. Our daughter is already plotting our next trip back here, hopefully in a much shorter period of time than between her adoption and our first visit back. Modern technology will allow us to communicate on a regular basis with her birth family, and they have pleaded for us to stay in contact, to send more pictures, to include them in any way possible in Sydney’s life.

No trip is without one of “those” moments, and ours came this morning on the way to Pulkovo 2 Airport. Our cab driver was early to our apartment, cheerful, only spoke Russian and French, and his transmission blew on us literally within 100 yards of the airport front gates. What to do, help him with his broken down car, or make our flight? Sadly though wisely, we opted to make our flight, leaving him on the side of the road grinning apologetically.

In the spirit of our promise to each other to bone up on the Russian language before our next time back, and we will be back, das ve danye!

Acquaintances become friends

There are two new people in the pictures posted earlier by my husband. My daughter’s aunt and her 4 year old daughter joined us today. You see in the first picture that the young girl is shy and afraid to show her face. That’s OK, we get it.

And it was a gorgeous day here in St. P as we strolled about in the park. Families gather around blankets for birthdays and other parties, kids horseplay and roughhouse with dads, groups of friends play games, sunbathers relax, read, or chat on their cell phones (which are more ubiquitous here than in the US if such a thing is possible). Then there are the bridal parties and wedding celebrations. One bride and groom after another parade around the park in search of the perfect backdrop for pictures. My personal favorite – a tree decorated with strings of origami swans.

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Then a wedding celebration begins right next to us. We are serenaded by a four piece brass band and drummer playing for the simple and elegant party of a newly betrothed couple. They know how to keep it simple here; about 30 guests, snacks, champagne, and no videographer.

Andrey is with us again, though for much of the afternoon it appears as though his work is a mere walk in the park. (sorry – I could not resist) Much of the afternoon doesn’t require a translator. We feed ducks, play ball, someone starts a game of chase and tickle (maybe it’s tickle and run away – who cares:). Other kids in our vicinity join in play with whoever has a ball to roll or toss. Unlike at home, the adults trust that a game of ball with strangers is nothing but innocent and fun.

Ever so slowly the little girl comes out from the safety of her mom’s arms just enough to allow our daughter to sit next to her on the park bench. Soon enough the two develop more of a relationship, and we all witness the blossoming of a friendship minute by minute.

I’m thinking this will be the best way to understand this week. We met people, they became acquaintances, and throughout our time together we have all blossomed.

Gifts from the heart

Oh my goodness what a morning this turned out to be. Phone calls between Andrey, our translator and best friend here in St. P, and the orphanage director netted a fine assortment of requests. Off we went to the Russian version of Best Buy to use the receipts from the wristband project.

One computer monitor and seven vacuum cleaners later we are ready for check out.

Marjorie and Andrey and a lot of gifts

Yes, each box contains a vacuum cleaner (with the computer monitor on top in the brown cardboard box). Each baby room gets vacuumed daily along with the play rooms and the offices. I can easily imagine that one broken vacuum means a lot of wasted time and energy for those responsible.

My husband – please forgive me for telling on you – spills the best line of the day. While we are calculating costs and converting rubles to dollars, he asks about the bulbs we will buy. “Tulip bulbs” I say, meaning we don’t get those here. “And besides, the gardener wants to select them personally.” He still doesn’t seem to get it, and I don’t know why.

“Shouldn’t there be light bulbs at a store like this?”

Andrey patiently explains that the gardener has requested tulip bulbs for the garden, seeds for spring flowers. I can’t speak and am holding my hand over my mouth, stifling the laughter. My husband, not a flower guy at all, pictured tulip shaped light bulbs for the outdoor lighting ambience. He’s a clever guy – he managed to work in an outdoor lighting scenario to explain the need for the gardener’s input. Even Andrey is smiling and finding it hard not to laugh. For those of you who know my husband personally, it’s OK to laugh. For those of you with no direct connection, shaking your head is perfectly acceptable.

Husband – we’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.

We deliver the gifts and – honestly – meet a cuddly administrator to receive them.

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The gardener has gone home sick, so we leave a little money for the floral purchase. Someone presents my daughter with a Russian doll as a thank you. Final hugs with the director, and we are off to a quiet, celebratory lunch.

I notice slightly different behavior from my daughter. I ask her directly (which often doesn’t work, but these days are exceptional), “How do you feel?”
“I don’t know how I feel.”
“Hmm. That’s OK. I know that the compliments we have all received today are sincere and very appreciative. It’s right to feel good about them.”
Silence.

“OK. Try to keep these compliments in your heart, somewhere inside. Someday, sometime in your life, you will have a very hard time (I say this from life experience, not a prediction) and you will always have this experience and these moments to feel good about.”

We walk on as I repeat that for myself.

Playing Touristas

A day for the three of us to just be tourists around town, and to just be…

The only synagogue in St. Petersburg

The only synagogue in St. Petersburg

Inside the Choral Synagogue

Inside the Choral Synagogue

The Bimah and the 7 Torahs

The Bimah and the 7 Torahs

A visit in May, 2002 from President Bush

A visit in May, 2002 from President Bush

The Hermitage Museum

The Hermitage Museum

The Church of the Spilt   Blood

The Church of the Spilled Blood

Chillin' at one of the countless outdoor cafes

Chillin’ at one of the countless outdoor cafes

Coincidentally, on the street where we stopped for dinner, a city block signs asking Russians to adopt a child waiting in an orphanage.

Coincidentally, on the street where we stopped for dinner, a city block of signs asking Russians to adopt a child waiting in an orphanage.

Our Home Away from Home

We are staying at a bed and breakfast, though it is much more personal than any other I’ve stayed in before. We are in a family’s flat in St. Petersburg, a two bedroom section of the apartment is our space, along with kitchen privileges. The building is over 100 years old, built with the help of this woman’s great-grandfather who was an engineer and builder. The architect was famous in St. P at that time and designed many buildings. He lived on the third floor of this building and a flat on the first floor was given to his friend and business partner, the engineer mentioned earlier.

To Americans, this flat makes no design sense at all. I discover that even to Russians this is unusual, though it has character and angles galore. This would be a great class project for a math teacher in geometric shapes and angles. Maybe next year’s math teacher would slip this in as a lesson, and maybe my daughter would shoot me at point blank range if I did manage it.

Naturally, the family adores it and we do as well. Some of it has been modernized – the kitchen and bathroom first, and some has remained war torn. Literally war torn. There are marks on the inlaid wood floor in one of the rooms from the single wood stove that was the only heat source during the siege of Leningrad.

What do we say in America? Location, location, location. This has it. 3 blocks down the street you come across the very green and very peaceful Tavricheskiy Sad (park and gardens). And from there you can walk to the Neva River and sit along the embankment. In this neighborhood we  can walk to small grocery stores, a French style bakery, an Italian restaurant (considering the cars parked in front we question its patrons business endeavors), a highly esteemed and equally highly priced fish restaurant which is rated on one of the French cuisine scales. We walk down Suvorovsky Prospekt to Nevsky Prospekt (think walking from the Back Bay or South End to a combination of Newbury Street and Boylston Street all in one). Everything is there. Indoor glitzy gallerias (Starbucks with gelato), restaurants of all sizes and price points, singular storefronts with exceptionally high quality art, antiques, European designer clothing, tourist kitsch, coffee shops that rival those in other parts of Europe. At the far end of Nevsky Prospekt, still walkable but not for those in high heels, you are at the corner of the Winter Palace also known as the famed Hermitage.

I don’t mean to be a travelogue advisor here – just sayin’ we are the luckiest of the lucky.

More impressive than the design, history, and location of this flat is the family. Tatiana and her mom speak English very well, Tatiana lived in the US for a number of years. Her son speaks a little English as well. They share our story and adventures every day with great interest. Helpful and resourceful doesn’t begin to describe this family. This morning, for example, our daughter started to scratch a mosquito bite. Bab (short for babushka, grandmother) jumps up from the table and makes a paste of baking soda and water for the red, itchy skin. We ask if she will make a call for us as I still have the phone number of the two facilitators who escorted us through the adoption maze here 10 years ago. Soon a return phone call comes in and I’m saying hello to Natasha. Maybe she doesn’t remember us precisely, but never mind. Wouldn’t you like to get a phone call from someone you helped 10 years ago and hear their voice, hear that they are healthy and happy? Every day we experience a miracle.

Yesterday Tatiana invited us to their dacha, which was what I was thinking about as the inspiration for this entry. She has a little country house, good size plot of land compared to most (a family grant from two generations ago), a small vegetable garden, mini greenhouse for the tomatoes and cucumbers. Meanwhile, a friend of Tatiana’s, who is also in the tourist and travel business, called her. She was babysitting for a 10 year old girl from Texas that day. So there we all are at the dacha – Tatiana, her mother, her son and his two friends, her older pregnant daughter with husband, the friend and Paige (from Texas). Ping Pong works in all languages, a walk to the river works in any language, a visit to the playground that is too young for these kids works in any language, and a BBQ definitely works in any language.

Know what else works in any language? Kids and their electronic devices. After the ping pong, out came the devices. Oh well. All’s well that has content kids.

Tatiana's Dacha

Tatiana’s Dacha

Dinner with friends

Dinner with friends

Content kiddies

Content kiddies