Sunday, July 24, 2011

Where I started


On Friday I went to my orphanage.

It was very emotional for me because I got to see the place where I grew up for the first three years of my life. It was amazing just to see it. I got to see my playroom. I got to see the place where I slept. We showed the ladies pictures of me when I was very little and they laughed.

I'm very glad I saw my orphanage. It was nice and clean, the building was in good shape. I think that when the ladies saw me, it meant a lot to them that I came back.

When I left the orphanage, two of the ladies gave me a big hug. The lady said something to me, but it was in Ukrainian so I couldn't understand it. But I think it was something very sweet.

Orphanage front view with Erinna

Memories—the rooms

After we wandered into Erinna's old rooms at the orphanage, an older lady appeared in the the other doorway. I showed her my prepared statement in Ukrainian explaining why we were there. She smiled and took us down another hall to what I assume was one of the doctors or directors, who read the same statement. She smiled, and they both led us back to Erinna's old rooms.

Orphanage dining areaThere were the same little tables and chairs where I sat with Erinna that first day while she ate soup for lunch, with the little kitchen nearby. She drank her soup from a huge tin cup that seemed way too big for her.

There was the wall of stuffed toys. Different toys, now. I had brought a large stuffed animal for Erinna, which quickly became the orphanage's stuffed animal and lived on that wall.
Orphanage living roomThere was the living room where the kids played. When we arrived each day, this is where they would all surround us, begging for attention and play.

There was the door to the "bathroom" at the far end, where the kids all sat on chamber pots during their potty break. If we arrived in the middle of potty break time, the kids didn't get up, but they all started scooting on their pots towards the door! Hilarious!
Orphanage bedroomAnd in the large bedroom area, there were 16 young boys sound asleep. (I guess that explained the total silence!) No girls now, just the boys. A little more crowded than it was in Erinna's time.

And all this time, Erinna was nearly overwhelmed with excitement and the emotions being stirred up!

Memories—the bench

Orphanage bench

It took us nearly all day to find it. But finally, there it was. The orphanage where I met Erinna.

We walked in the front door and no one was around. It was eerily silent. Had we finally made it, only to find the place suddenly abandoned? We went down the first hall to the right, just as I had done nearly every day for a month 18 years ago. Up the same stairs, to the door to Erinna's old rooms. Did I dare just walk in?

I knocked, then opened the door.

There, under the window, was the bench.

The bench where I sat with Erinna on my lap the second day we came to visit. She had run straight up to me, with her arms up, saying, "Mama! Mama!"

The bench where we sat every day to get her dressed to go back to the hotel with us for the afternoon. They insisted that she put on layers and layers of clothes before going out into the cold.

Funny how that one bench nearly overwhelmed me with memories!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Russian phonics 101

Russian signs

In the early 1800s, archeologists used the Rosetta Stone as a key to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. In Russia, I'm using internationally recognized faces and signs (and the occasional street sign) as a key to the written Russian language. Here are some examples.

Russian signsRussian signsRussian signsRussian signs

Russian signsRussian signsRussian signs

With these examples, can you figure out the internationally known (and very important) word in the first picture?

The Baggallini incident


While we were waiting for the boarding announcement for our flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Erinna suddenly realized that she didn't have her purse. She must have left it in the restaurant outside of the security area. We had half an hour—could I go get it?

I managed to reverse tracks and exit the security area, where my entrance stamp was cancelled. Then I rushed to the restaurant, where no one could find a trace of the purse. Where else could it be? Oh yeah, the restroom stop!

At the restroom, one of the cleaning ladies seemed to understand, and called to another cleaning lady, who guided me back outside—to a group of five men in security uniforms, looking very grave. That's when it occurred to me—Erinna's purse was an "unattended bag" in an airport where bombs are not out of the question.

Fortunately, I had both Erinna's and my passports, and Erinna's ID was in her purse. So my explanation apparently made sense to them, and they finally gave me back the purse and asked me to check if everything was there. They were very concerned that there was no money left in the wallet—until I explained the Erinna spent it all the day before.

Regardless, they had a report to write, so while they finished it up, the officers and I had a great chat about our trip back to Erinna's birthplace and how lucky we were to get her purse back.

Finally, I raced through the security check, back to the gate, only to find everyone gone! The gate had been changed, so back to the other end of the terminal where I joined our group just as we walked onto the plane.

Yes, we were pretty lucky!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Hermitage and the Russian bear


The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great got the museum started in the 1700s with an art-buying spree that ultimately included " 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries" (Wikipedia).

Van Gogh at the Hermitage
Vincent Van Gogh
Mindy, Abby, and Alex initially focused on the Egyptian collection, while Joan, Erinna, and I went upstairs to find the French masters.

So what do you think was the highlight of the day for the girls? You got it--the bear cub right outside the Hermitage that they got to hold and cuddle for 200 rubles each.

Erinna and the bearAbby and the bear

Personally, I had mixed feelings. I can totally relate to the thrill of holding this fuzzy guy. But I can't help but wonder where he came from--and what will happen to him in a few months when he outgrows his cuteness.

Soviet Union hats

Erinna and Abby

Abby and I bought these awesome hats at the souvenir flea market in St. Petersburg. The seller made us a good deal on them -- 300 rubles for each hat.

Don't we look so awesome?

Friday, July 15, 2011

More metro guidelines

Here are some metro lessons we've found useful for when we're traveling as a party of six:
  1. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first lesson is that an adult always gets on last. When those doors close, they close fast.
  2. Closely related to #1 is #2, an adult always gets on first. This was brought home to us when Abby and Alex made it on the train, and Joan just barely followed, while the rest of us watched them ride off.
    Moscow metro Joan waiting
  3. This provided an opportunity to review the "hug a tree" rule, or in this case, the "hug a bench" rule. If a kid ends up alone on a train, he or she is to get off at the next stop and hug a tree -- I mean, bench. If a kid gets left behind alone at a stop, again, hug a bench.
  4. When the train is crowded, do your best to not be standing right at the door. This was brought home to Alex when the doors opened and he was swept out with the crowd. Fortunately, Joan (last on, see #2) swept him back on with the incoming rush.
    Moscow metro Alex
  5. Watch out for strange people sitting next to you.
    Moscow metro Abby Joan
  6. Take advantage of the train ride to exercise. When the train is packed like sardines and you can't reach a handrail, you can work those leg muscles trying to stay upright. When the train isn't so crowded, you can be a little more creative.
    Moscow metro Mindy
    Moscow metro ErinnaMoscow metro Abby
  7. And last, when the train isn't crowded, have some fun!
    Moscow metro Pam Joan Mindy

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Baby orphanage #14


Fourteen years later, the director of Abby's orphanage is still there, and she was very excited to meet us and show us around. "This is where we played with Abby, this is where they bathed her in the video," Mindy kept commenting as we moved from room to room. Memories were flooding back in. The women spoke no English, and we speak no Russian. We communicated in signs, smiles, and a few words of German.

IMG_4847But I think it was a bit odd for Abby. She was the center of attention in a story and a country that she has no real memory of. But she was a trooper!

For me, it was a reminder of the kids at Erinna's orphanage. Just like those kids years ago, these 2-to-3-year-olds saw us and starting yelling out, "Mama, mama!"

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The heart of Moscow

We spent the day today at the Kremlin and Red Square. The last time Erinna and I were in Moscow, she was two and our host, Tatiana, kindly offered to watch her while our translator and guide, Julia, took me sightseeing. So for me, today was about remembering that first trip. For Erinna, it was about learning firsthand about her Soviet heritage.

IMG_4650Red Square is amazing. It's huge, and at the far end are the colorful onion domes of St. Basil's. It turned out St. Basil's was closed for some special event, so we headed over to the Kremlin instead.

IMG_4600Again, awesome! The cathedrals with their gold-plated onion domes are incredibly beautiful, and we walked around the inside of most them as well.

The kids were really interested—not! Abby was the most interested, since she's at least from Moscow. But really—they all just wanted lunch, with the promise of shopping at GUM afterwards.


IMG_4662In 1993, GUM was more like a giant flea market than a shopping center. The stores carried cheap scarves and those stacking dolls, along with sundries like toothpaste. Now, GUM is a high-end shopping center, with Cartier and Dior. We stayed long enough to buy Erinna a $3 pair of socks for $10. She's wearing her "comfortable" sandals today, which, it turns out, are giving her blisters. With her socks, she's not stylish, but at least she can continue walking.

Looking up in the GUM shopping mall

The Moscow metro

Before we could start our first full day as Moscow tourists, we had to learn how to use the metro.

No, first we had to find the metro. You wouldn't think it'd be that hard (it's just down the street), but it took us 30 minutes and a couple of helpful Russians.

Then we had to learn how to use the metro pass. It turns out you have to actually touch the pass to the turnstile, as was demonstrated very forcibly by the attendant. (Erinna wants to know why the Russians don't like us.)

IMG_4498Once you get through the turnstiles, you descend forever down the escalator to the bowels of the city.

This sign says "Bar Restaurant Cafe".
The metro stops aren't quite as easy.
And finally, you have to decipher the stops and make sure you're going the right direction. We can easily recognize restaurants and bars, but metro stops are a challenge.

IMG_4674Oh, and one more thing. When the trains are crowded, you have to make sure you get on quickly. I learned this the hard way when I actually got caught in the closing door. That's when we decided that an adult should always be the last one in our group to get on each time. Just in case.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Back to the beginning

Eighteen years ago, my first trip to Russia and Ukraine started with a phone call and this faxed picture. A week later, I was on my way to Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, to pick up my new daughter, Erinna.

In a couple of days, Erinna and I are heading back to see where it all started. Our friend Mindy, along with her two Russian-born kids Alex and Abby, and our friend Joan, who accompanied both Mindy and me on our trips, are coming along.

The faxAlthough there are many similarities between the trips, the differences are significant!
  • Then, Erinna was just short of 3 years old. This time, she's all grown up. (Although she'll always be my little smunchkin.)
  • Then, I had a week to get all our paperwork in order, make reservations, and pack. This time, we've been planning this trip for a year. (Even so, Alex's and Abby's visas almost didn't come in time.)
  • Then, I had an "entourage" accompanying me throughout the trip: a coordinator, a translator (and nearly constant companion), drivers, liaisons, host families. This time, we're on our own. (And loving it !)
  • Then, I traveled with a total of 14 bags (for 3 people). This time, if it doesn't fit in our carry-ons, we're not taking it.
  • Then, one dollar got you about 700 rubles. This time, one dollar is worth about 30 rubles.
  • Then, I didn't know for sure if I was bringing home a daughter. This time, there's no doubt!
So join us on this trip back to the beginning!