Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Home at Last

Well, our time in Almaty was brief. We visited the S.O.S. Clinic on Monday to get Kristina her physical. The new requirement for an HIV test consisted of a finger prick with blood samples taken in 3 or 4 small glass tubes. Then on Tuesday we had out appointment with the U.S. Embassy. There we had our exit interview and received Kristina’s forms that establish her citizenship upon our return to Chicago. The Lufthansa flight home departed Almaty on Wednesday, October 25th at 3:20 AM.

Kristina dealt pretty well with the long, tiring flights. The first leg was a 7 hour journey from Almaty to Frankfurt, Germany. Following a 2 hour layover we were on the final 8 hour trip from Frankfurt to Chicago. Towards the end of the flight we got into a conversation with one of the flight attendants. She was so moved by the idea of this little girl coming into a new family and country that she took Kristina on an airborne tour of the plane.

Our approach into Chicago took place around 9:30 am and Kristina got more and more excited as she saw the ground getting closer. When we would nod ‘yes’ to her question of “America?” she would repeat it over and over while making motions with her hand to simulate a plane landing on the ground. At one point she pressed her face close to the window and fogged the glass with her breath. She then drew a heart on the window and said “Loo-bloo (love) America.” It was humbling to watch.

We landed at 10:06 AM on a crisp fall day under brilliant blue skies. As we exited United 945, the flight crew made one final announcement. They said, “Welcome to America, Kristina Alexis St. George.”

After clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, our hearts raced as we rode home in a cab. Nearly two months of absence had taken its toll on us. We were dying to be reunited with our other 3 children and watch Kristina be welcomed into the fold. As we pulled up to the house, Julia raced up to us. The tears were flowing as Robin and I hugged her tight and kissed her. We then watched her and Kristina have a first long embrace. It was as if they had always been sisters. The air was charged with excitement and emotion.

Then, just as Julia had done 18 months earlier, Kristina marched into our house and laid claim to her new surroundings. It was awesome to watch her little face light up as she recognized things she had seen in the many pictures we’d looked at. She squealed with delight as she met our dog Nugget and our cat Buddy. There were hugs, kisses and tears flying in all directions. In the midst of it all was a very happy little 6-year old girl. For now she was finally home.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Petropavlovsk Oddities

One day when we were heading to the orphanage, we sat stopped at a red light. All of the sudden, I noticed that the light was also red for the intersecting street, but that all the “walk” signals were green so pedestrians were crossing in all directions at once. The signals were not malfunctioning. Evidently, every so often the lights cycle in this manner to give the people an advantage over the cars. It’s one of the few they receive.

It had turned colder and one morning we were driving in sloppy weather. Igor commented that soon he would have to add vodka to his windshield washer tank so that the fluid didn’t freeze. Thinking he was joking, we started to laugh, but then realized he was serious. Apparently, this is not an uncommon thing to do here. Vodka is cheap and plentiful, and the familiar blue-colored washer fluid that we’re used to isn’t. Igor did say that once a policeman had stopped him for something and accused him of drinking because of the smell of vodka. Igor is very careful never to drive if he’s been drinking, so he explained to the officer about the washer fluid and even had to activate the washers to prove that they were the source of the smell. Robin and I joked that he had a secret tube that tapped into the washer reservoir so he could take an occasional sip.

The apartment we live in is one 540 square foot unit in a typical example of Soviet block construction that exists everywhere in the former Soviet Union. The 5-story building is long and rectangular with a series of 4 stairwells equally spaced along its length. Each stairwell permits access to 20 units (4 per floor x 5 floors) for a total of 80 apartments. They’re massive and imposing structures with outer walls literally 2 feet thick. This is by far the most common form of housing here. We’ve seen very few single family homes so it seems that upwards of 90% of the people live in the type of apartment that we’re staying in. Once, when we exited the apartment, there stood a group of 30 or 40 people clustered about a nearby stairwell. Close by was a small bus that had evidently deposited them there. It was most surprising to see that they were gathered around a portable stand supporting an open casket and a deceased man. Igor explained that this is the standard practice for handling funerals here.

While flipping through the TV channels one day, we landed on a Kazakh cooking show. The chef was preparing a fish. Everything looked normal as he cut the head off and gutted it. The moment for pause came when he took the decapitated fish head and carefully cut the eyes out for apparent later use. Whether part of the recipe or just a garnish, we decided not to stay and find out.

One part of Petro we were just not prepared for was the inescapable and overwhelming quantities of MUD. The sidewalks are in advanced states of decay to the point that along many routes there just aren’t any. In wet weather it is impossible to walk even a short distance without thoroughly becoming one with liberal amounts of very wet Kazakh soil. Whatever little high ground exists turns even more hotly contested as the pedestrians charge into each other to claim passage rights. The most amazing thing is that despite these conditions, you still see women wearing white, high-heeled boots to set off their fashion-driven dress. It would seem more appropriate to wear hip-waders.

The back of Igor’s car carries a triangular warning decal with a bold red border. The picture inside the decal is that of a high-heeled woman’s shoe. I asked Igor about it one day and he explained that it is there to let other drivers know that a woman is operating the car in situations where his wife might be driving. Something about perhaps her being distracted on the phone or maybe applying makeup. It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether this was a joke or intended to be serious. Well, Igor does like blonde jokes so I’m going to assume that it falls in the humor category.

Another odd sign that we spotted on one of our 24 drives (we counted them up) to the orphanage and back was posted along a main street. It was actually two signs, one above the other. The top one seemed normal enough as it was a triangular, red-bordered warning of a pedestrian crossing zone. The odd thing was the bottom of the two. It was simply a rectangular sign with black-lensed glasses. To my mind it suggests blind people. So is this a special crossing only for blind people? If so, how do they know it’s there if they can’t see the sign? Given the way people drive here I can’t imagine too many blind people cross a main highway and live to tell about it, special signs or not.

When we first arrived in Petropavlovsk we spotted a nearby building that was in the process of receiving a new roof. The building has an interesting paint scheme in that half of it is painted light green while the other half is a peach color. It makes one think that perhaps there are two owners of the building who can’t agree on the same color. This thought was reinforced by the roofing process. It was interesting in that the effort stopped pretty much once the light green half of the building had its new corrugated aluminum roof. The peach side soldiered on with the dingy roof that it has apparently worn for many years.

Hello, Almaty.

Robin here. Well, we said our sad goodbyes to Igor at the Petro airport and landed safely in Almaty on Saturday. The first leg of the trip from Petro to Astana turned out to be a contract flight. In other words, instead of being on an Air Astana Fokker 50 aircraft, we were on a sturdy (proud rivets the size of M&M’s – forget that flush rivet fad - Greg’s educated observation) but REALLY old Russian Antonov 240 relic flown by an unknown carrier with the initials “AJ.” I was so busy hustling across a windy and cold tarmac to get to the plane that I didn’t even notice that it did not display the Air Astana colors and logo. Air Astana is the best and safest carrier in Kazakhstan and operates under Western aeronautical standards. So, imagine my surprise when we boarded and I immediately recognized that this aircraft was not on par. The seatbelts barely worked, most of the seatbacks were askew and the interior d├ęcor was as dated as the flight attendant. Still, it did not register with me that we were not on an Air Astana aircraft.

Once in flight I noticed that Greg was smirking about something. I kept asking him what was wrong, but he told me that he would explain after we landed. The roar of the out-of-sync engines was deafening, so I didn’t press him on the subject. Greg was in a window seat, Kristina was in an aisle seat and I was in an aisle seat directly across from her. We were surrounded by 7th grade boys on a field trip to Astana, and as luck would have it, the boy directly in front of Kristina and the boy directly behind Kristina spent most of the flight heaving into their barf bags. I had a clear view of it all and let’s just say that it’s a good thing I have a strong stomach. I felt so sorry for the poor boys, but all I could do was listen to the roar of the engines, try to take shallow breaths and silently pray that we landed safely.

Kristina also added to my joy when she announced that she had to go pee-sitz. The bathroom was literally in the tail of the aircraft and it was not a pretty sight. The toilet was so high off the ground that poor Kristina had to jump up to get on. I had to stand outside the room with the door slightly ajar to watch her since it was impossible for both of us to fit in there at the same time.

Once we landed I asked Greg what he found so amusing -- and that is when he told me that we were not on an Air Astana plane. I then understood why this flight was so utterly inferior to other Air Astana flights we had taken. Once the mystery was solved for me, I was relieved that the second leg of our journey from Astana to Almaty would be on a Boeing 737. That flight, by the way, was perfect. We met up with our driver at the Almaty Airport and he proceeded to provide even more thrills in a pretty fast and frenzied ride to the Hyatt Hotel. Check-in felt like it lasted forever and once in our room we collapsed onto the bed and ordered room service.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Goodbye Petropavlovsk...

Robin here. It is eleven o’clock Friday evening as I sit in the darkness of the living room with only the glow from this computer screen and some outside lights to help me see beyond my nose. My mind is racing with thoughts of tomorrow and our flight to Almaty where we will spend six nights at the Hyatt with our new daughter. Still, there is so much sadness in my heart as Greg and I prepare to say goodbye to Petropavlovsk. We have truly come to love this place.

I’m remembering our last trip to the Poludino orphanage when we went to pick up Kristina and bring her to our temporary home. Watching her say goodbye to her group mates and to the mama’s was so emotional for us. Yet, I was compelled to ask Greg and Kristina to please come with me to the playroom one last time before we left for good. I remember walking into that room and scanning each and every inch of it in the hope that I could somehow file it away in my mind forever. Kristina was so cute the way she ran through the obstacle course and jumped on the mini trampoline one last frenzied time. She didn’t do it for herself. She did it for us. She saw the tears in my eyes and she understood that I was sad to leave the room where we bonded together almost every day for over a month.

Now, we are ready to leave behind our memories of this apartment. Not just the memories of the time we have spent here with Kristina, but also the memories that Greg and I shared as a couple -- just the two of us, before Kristina came to stay. We shared the same special time together as a couple in Ust, prior to Julia leaving the orphanage, too. And, as much as we loved having our daughters leave the orphanage to be with us, there was a certain sadness in losing that connection once it was no longer just about us.

These two adoption experiences have filled our hearts to the brim and our emotions are overflowing as we prepare to close the chapter here in Petro.
The trips have been long and the stresses immense at times, but making it to the end of the rainbow (not once -- but twice) has reaped rewards beyond anything we might ever have imagined for ourselves.

So now it is time to say goodbye and take the remaining steps necessary to get us home. We’ll no doubt shed some tears tomorrow when we say goodbye to Igor at the airport. And, we’ll probably think about the orphanage and the apartment with the merchants selling produce five floors down outside our window. But, those feelings will be replaced with the excitement and anticipation of being just a week away from landing in Chicago with Kristina and bringing her to our home --.her home. And I guess that’s where the next story begins…

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Life with Kristina

We’re hanging out in the apartment now with Kristina. Wow, does a newly-minted 6 year old change the routines that Robin and I had become accustomed to. In the “BK” (before Kristina) days, we had a pattern of visiting the orphanage in the morning and perhaps buying some groceries at the Tsum in the early afternoon. The rest of the day was all about writing our journals, reading books and napping. It was deliciously laid back and predictable. We’d been doing it for so many weeks it seemed like something that’d always been there and would never change.

Now we’re a week into the “AK” ( after Kristina) era. Holy crap, is it different. No matter how much you plan for and anticipate the change, it still catches you by surprise. Like when she runs up to the light switch on the outside of the bathroom and shuts it off while you’re taking a shower. No windows in this room mean near total darkness. She squeals in laughter while you try to stay oriented and yell through the door to turn the light back on.

Or the many, many games of “chase me.” She sees that we like to ask her for a “paht-sa-loy” (kiss). She’ll turn the tables by jutting out her little butt and taunting me, saying I can “path-sa-loy” it. At that I’ll jump up and yell “You stinker!” as I chase her from the living room into the kitchen and back again. Over and over again. She can never get enough of it.

We’ve only taken her outside twice so far. Once was on a long walk and another time was over to the Tsum to buy some groceries. The people there had become accustomed to seeing us without a child in tow and we realized that they were suddenly looking at us and talking a lot more than before. It didn’t take much math to figure they were discussing us and Kristina. The big mystery of what our purpose here was revealed since they could see us speak in our limited Russian to her.

We spend a lot of time trying to keep her entertained, which isn’t easy in a 500 square foot apartment. Igor wants us to keep a low profile even though we’re past the 15 day waiting period. No one can change the outcome, but there’s always the prospect of upsetting any locals who might not be in favor of international adoption. The slower pace of life here places a premium on people-watching as entertainment, and we sense that we’re watched any time we stray outside.

Today we had a a chance to see a side of life here that normally escapes the adoption process. Kristina had complained of pain in an upper tooth on the right side of her mouth and we could see a large cavity right where she was pointing. She was in tears and it was clear that this would not keep until we got her to a dentist back home. We called Igor and asked him to see if he could find a dentist to help her. Igor called back a while later saying that none of the 15 private practices he called would see her. They don’t like to handle children for some reason.

The only alternative was the public clinic which is a holdover from the socialized medicine under the former Soviet Union. Although it’s free, it wouldn’t be your first choice from a quality standpoint.

We entered a large, tired building with the flag of Kazakhstan flying above it. After asking a few questions, Igor guided us down a long hallway. Our hearts sank as we saw a lot of people lining both sides of the hall down where the doctors and nurses were located. There was obviously quite a wait to be seen. Free, yes. Fast, no. We were mentally preparing ourselves for the numbing wait when Igor excused himself and disappeared back up the hallway we’d entered. A little while later he reappeared. It wasn’t long before a nurse emerged and took Kristina into an office. As we sat outside in the long hallway, Robin asked Igor “You went and pulled some strings with someone when you disappeared there, didn’t you?” He admitted he did. In this town, Igor pulls strings like a virtuoso musician.

Kristina reappeared 10 minutes later minus the decaying baby tooth and fighting back tears. It may be free, and it was fast in our particular case, but it still wasn’t gentle. They don’t coddle people in this society, and that includes 6-year old girls. We spent the next several hours soothing a visibly unhappy girl.

It’s Tuesday evening and I’m sitting here typing this journal while Kristina watches Cinderella for the umpteenth time. As the days slowly pass by, you can see her becoming more and more comfortable with this whole “family” idea. Even one where the two parents have such a halting command of her language. Our hearts speak their own language and there’s no problem in understanding the message.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Happy Birthday Kristina!

Robin here. Yesterday, Friday, October 13th was Kristina’s 6th birthday! To celebrate what might possibly have been the only birthday party she’s ever had, we invited Igor and his wife Nadya to our apartment for a spaghetti dinner, birthday cake and ice cream.

Earlier in the day, Igor and Greg had gone on a shopping excursion to find a stuffed animal similar to one Kristina had in the orphanage. It was a rabbit who sang the “Cheburashka” song, which is something she sang along with during some of our playtimes together. Unfortunately, there were none to be found, but Greg did manage to pick out a great bunny that didn’t do anything but look cute. Igor helped Greg to negotiate the purchase of some wrapping paper and bows to wrap her gift, although once home, the bows and a number 6 birthday candle that was purchased at the same time as her cake were nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the really important items like the cake, ice cream and bunny were in the bag – so all was not lost.

I put Kristina down for her nap while her Papa and Igor were shopping, but after an hour and a half she hadn’t gone to sleep and then began to cry out of frustration. Greg had just gotten home when this occurred, so we immediately comforted her and let her get out of bed. She calmed down in a short amount of time and then found herself very curious as to what was in the bright pink wrapping paper that Papa placed on the hallway bureau. We told her that it was her birthday present – but she would have to wait until Igor and Nadya arrived before she could open it.

Kristina was a very happy little girl when Igor and Nadya arrived. And, she was even happier when they presented her with a bag containing a striped pullover shirt and a fishing game comprised of a small pole with a workable reel and nine colorful plastic fish with magnets on their noses. The bait at the end of the line had an opposing magnet and Kristina wasted no time setting up the game and catching fish. She played the fish game for awhile and then wanted to open our gift to her. In addition to the stuffed bunny, we also gave her two coloring books to go with the crayons she already had. She hugged her bunny and played with it while we visited with our guests and she was very tolerant of the camera flash going off in her face each time we spotted her looking adorable.

When dinnertime came, Kristina ate heartily and was then ready for her cake and ice cream. Since the birthday candle never made it from the store to our apartment, we improvised and turned six stick matches upside down in the cake and then lit them and sang the fastest “Happy Birthday” song on record. Let’s just say that stick matches burn a heck of a lot faster than candles and it was a race against the flames burning down to the cake and the completion of the song. The song won out by a hair and there was even a second left for Kristina to blow out the candles (okay, matches) successfully! And, for the record, Kristina loves cake and ice cream -- imagine that.

It was a long and exciting day for our little munchkin and even at a mere six years old, I think she understood that her best gift of all on this and every birthday to come is all about finally belonging.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Endings and Beginnings

Wednesday dawned with clear, beautiful skies after days of low clouds, rain and snow. My first thought as I watched the sun rise was what a lovely day it was for Kristina to embark upon her new life.

The plan was for Sholpan to go to court early in the day to see the judge and get the papers authorizing Kristina’s release from the orphanage. We were to wait for Igor’s call once this was accomplished. Then we could go buy some toys, fruit, juice and ice cream for her group and take our final trip to the orphanage. We’d have a little going away party and then head back to the apartment with Kristina.

We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Realizing that Sholpan’s getting the papers was subject to the judge’s schedule, we didn’t expect to head out early. But the hours dragged by and by 2 or 3 pm the little worry gremlins were stirring once again. Had something gone wrong? Did her mother show up at the last second and derail the whole thing? Neither of us spoke about it, but the pucker factor was rising rapidly.

Finally we got the call from Igor a little after 3 pm saying he’d be there in 5 minutes. Whew! We could breathe again. We headed downstairs and climbed into his car. A couple quick stops for the toys and snacks and we were on the road for the hour drive. We met Sholpan coming the other way and stopped so she could hand off the papers to Igor. With the baton passed, the final piece to the puzzle was in place.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the orphanage. It’s funny how different it looked to us. You draw all your impressions of the hallways, rooms and furnishings from the previous trips and we were always there from 10 am to noon. We’d never seen it as it looks on a brilliant sunny afternoon with long shadows hinting that the day was nearing a close. The familiar green and blue parakeets looked like they could use suntan lotion and sunglasses.

We bustled down the corridors carrying bags of toys, treats, gifts for the mama’s and clothing for Kristina. We arrived at Group 5’s room just as the children were preparing to head out onto the grounds for some play and exercise. Igor explained to the mama why we were there and she nodded her head. She gave the children new instructions and they all put away their outdoor clothes and filed back into the room. As they took seats, the mama dispensed the ice cream as Kristina handed out toys to each of her group mates. We’d bought matching dolls for the girls and action figures from Madagascar and King Kong for the boys. The children were excitedly examining them as they savored the ice cream.

After a bit it was time for Kristina to change clothes and say goodbye to the children. She disappeared into the back room and emerged a short while later wearing one of the outfits we’d bought her on last week’s shopping trip. The children all got up and clustered around her to give her a hug goodbye. It was incredibly sweet to see their warmth and love in a situation that might instead have revealed jealousy or resentment.

With the last goodbyes said to her group, it was time for a tearful hug from the mama’s. It is so telling of the care, love and devotion that these kids receive in Kazakhstan that these partings are always so emotional. We thanked the mama’s profusely and headed down the stairs. Robin wanted to stop at the playroom one last time for a final look at the place where we’ve built a relationship; one hug, tickle and laugh at a time. With tears in our eyes we finally passed through the orphanage door. We’d arrived weeks ago as hopeful parents. We left today as a family.

I couldn’t believe how stunning the massive stands of birch trees looked as we drove back to Petropavlovsk. I’ve always loved birch and this has come to symbolize this beautiful country to me. They’re everywhere here, just like they were in Ust-Kamenogorsk when we adopted Julia. In the time that we’ve been here, we’ve seen their green foliage turn myriad shades of yellow and now thin as winter prepares to settle in.

Entering the apartment, we expected Kristina to be a whirling dervish and she did not let us down. Like in last week’s trial run, she flew from room to room making sure that none of the light switches, fans, drawers or cabinets lacked for attention. Robin prepared a dinner of meat patties, mashed potatoes and peas. We sat in the kitchen and had dinner. Then the little munchkin was on the move again.

Kristina had another nice bath and again took the seven rubber balls into the tub with her for proper cleaning. Afterwards, she dried off, changed into pajamas and brushed her teeth. The apartment we’re staying in has 2 bedrooms, one larger one for us and a smaller one specifically decorated for a child. The bed in the smaller room even has Mickey Mouse on the sheets.

When it came time for bed, it was a monumental task to try and calm Kristina enough to even consider falling asleep. I barely tasted the effort as I was incredibly tired and headed to the master bedroom to crash. As I later found out, Robin laid with Kristina for hours as she squirmed, got up and arranged the bedding, took bathroom breaks and basically did everything except get sleepy. Finally, she settled down and had a catharsis of affection. She stroked and braided Robin’s hair, snuggled so close as to try and crawl inside her, kissed, hugged and said “Ya tibya loo-bloo” (I love you). Endlessly. From a child who’s been a little iffy in this area at times, it was pretty evident that the dam had finally broken.

Once Kristina fell asleep, Robin crawled in with me at about 11 pm. We figured we’d set the important precedent of getting her to sleep in her own bed. At about 2:30 am, it turned out that we figured wrong. We awoke to Kristina just standing in the doorway to our bedroom, not saying a thing. Any determination to adhere to a plan evaporated. She may have been disoriented or frightened and we were not about to send her to her own bed. Instinct told us to put her in bed right between the two of us and cuddle and comfort her. It was the right decision. Once again she was a torrent of affection. We didn’t get much sleep, but our hearts are full to the brim.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Robin here. First of all, just a reminder to those of you who might have missed it, click on our video link for a picture and music montage of our adoption journey.

It is 6:20am Wednesday and I’ve been awake and out of bed since 4am. Today is the big day! Today we’ll take custody of Kristina and bring her to the apartment. Our attorney was here last night with some papers for us to sign and she assured us that she would be at the courthouse first thing this morning so that the judge can sign off on the 15 day waiting period!

Now we have a little secret to share with you. Greg and I have been going through this process with a dark cloud looming overhead. On the day we met Kristina we were told that her biological mother was still “in the picture.” She had apparently shown up at the orphanage in May, and because of that, Kristina had actually become unavailable for adoption. The good news was that there were no subsequent visits and enough time had elapsed since her appearance to allow Kristina to be put up for adoption again. Still, since the mother had never formally had her rights taken away, she could show up again during our process and put a halt to it while she petitioned the court for time to get her life on track in order to regain custody of Kristina. With this knowledge, we were asked if we wanted to see other children with less potential for problems.

Kristina was a year younger than the youngest child we thought we might choose; she had a mother who could show up and possibly thwart our adoption at any point up until the waiting period was over. And so, we were asked what we wanted to do; proceed with Kristina, or take a safer route and choose another child?

But you see -- we had already seen Kristina and heard her cheerful little voice as she entered the director’s office and greeted the room with, “Z-DRAHS-tvoy-tyeh!” It was a simple choice for us. If God put us on the path that led to Kristina, then we would have faith that he intended for us to become her parents.

Once we said, “Yes, we want Kristina,” we immediately knew that Greg would not be able to leave after court as planned. He would have to stay at least through the waiting period for fear that Kristina’s biological mother might show up and cause us to fight for Kristina in court.

So now, here I sit wide awake at the break of dawn after having my best night’s sleep in a month. I was very good about not dwelling on the possibilities during the day; nighttime is when my mind would race and keep me awake for hours on end. Greg is still sleeping. This is one of the few mornings when he has slept past 3:30am and there’s no doubt that he too has felt the dark cloud pass.

The fear of losing Kristina before we ever really had her is now over. She will sleep in her bed at the apartment tonight and in ten days we’ll head for Almaty to finish up the process. We’re going to splurge and spend our last few days at the glorious Hyatt Hotel.

Greg’s company has been so generous to agree to the length of time needed to complete Kristina’s adoption. Our friends have been lifesavers to us by taking on the added responsibility of Julia all this time and our kids at home have been patient and understanding. Thank you Lord!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Robin here. Well, Greg has completed his trilogy of noteworthy events (beer night with Igor, vodka toasts at the orphanage with Igor, and surviving “BANYA” with Igor!) And, pain notwithstanding, I know he will be eternally grateful for the experiences -- even if they nearly killed him!

Happily and sadly, today was our final visit with Kristina in the orphanage playroom. She was in an exceptionally good mood today and we had a lot of fun -- especially when she put Mama’s lipstick on Papa and then watched him smear it up to his nose and down to his chin in a frantic effort to remove it before anyone saw him!

I doubt if Kristina grasped that a chapter ended today when we left the playroom for the final time. Greg and I though, were keenly aware of each and every moment that came to pass in the colorful playroom we have come to love and will certainly miss.

Tomorrow is the final day of the waiting period and we are not scheduled to visit the orphanage. We will instead use the time to prepare for Kristina’s arrival on Wednesday. We’ll make sure that all cleaning products, medicines and potentially dangerous objects are high above her curious reach; we’ll fashion a curtain from a sheet and hang it in her bedroom window so she can take her afternoon naps in a dimly lit room; we’ll shop for her favorite foods and make sure we have plenty of fruits and vegetables on hand for her.

Kristina is a spitfire in almost constant motion and we’ll need our combined energies to keep up with her. I remember that it was much the same when we first brought Julia from the orphanage. It’s sensory overload. There are just too many things to explore. There are drawers to open and close, fans to turn on and off, light switches to flick, toilet flushing, refrigerator exploration and numerous baths to take! Luckily, it levels off in a few days once a routine has been established -- but the air is supercharged with energy until that happens. Yes, things will change dramatically on Wednesday when little Miss Kristina comes to live with us in the apartment. So, tomorrow Greg and I will savor the final day of our “routine for two” that we’ve established over the past five weeks and enjoy the serenity.

We’ll stop and pick up some gifts for Kristina’s group on our way to the orphanage on Wednesday. We’ll also bring some bananas, pineapple and ice cream for her going away party. And, as it was with Julia’s group in 2004, I’m sure the children and the Mama’s will wish Kristina happiness in her new life. Also, just as in 2004, Greg and I will have lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes as we leave behind some of the most precious memories and precious children imaginable…

Saturday, October 07, 2006


It’s really amazing just how totally different this experience is from our previous adoption trip in December, 2004 when we brought Julia into our lives. The first trip held all the newness of being in central Asia with such an intense focus on ‘learning’ the systems. From the language and currency to the logistics of visiting the orphanage, taking care of the paperwork, figuring out what local foods were right for us (all hail vareniki) to such mundane issues as why light switches were outside the rooms they control.

In preparing for this trip I thought that the benefit of our previous experience would leave us with less to learn. To some extent that’s true. Our Russian is better, we know about the brinksmanship of people and cars and we can convert tenge to dollars in our heads (subtract 20% and move the decimal 2 places to the left). But a single difference can spell an impressive amount of change.

This trip, that difference is a man named Igor. Anyone who has been here and dealt with him will be nodding their head knowingly at this point. He is not just our translator, he is our friend. Igor has told us that he likes his job not only because he enjoys helping the families and the orphans, but because he likes to make friends. He is good at it, even when we’re stressed, uncertain or hesitant. He puts us at ease and lets us know that we are on course and that things will be fine.

With that as a background, Igor has been telling me for some time now that I need to accompany him and his friend Viktor to a “banya.” I had no idea what that is and he explained that it involved steam, beer and fish. So far, so good. Oh yeah, and don’t forget your choices; do you prefer birch or oak? Hmm.

It took some discussion of the topic before I finally assembled a mental picture of naked, sweaty men in a sauna being flogged with tree branches. Every so often you dive into ice cold water and then take a break to drink beer and eat some smoked fish. I’m not sure that an upper middle class lifestyle prepares you for this sort of thing.

When Igor would first mention it, I’d make some comment about how ‘interesting’ a banya sounds and then drop the subject. But Igor has a good memory and the topic would resurface. Igor finally pinned me a couple days ago when he said “Saturday at 7:30 pm. Banya.” It was time to weenie out or join the party. What the hell, I said “Sure.”

Igor and Viktor showed up in a cab about 7:15 pm and I squeezed into the back seat pressed up against several large bags. Inside one of them was the smoked fish, bags of peanuts and chips and 30 cans of beer (at ½ liter per can). Another bag held two leafy clumps of birch branches specially prepared for the occasion. The last bag held some miscellaneous things including two large black mitts (think oven mitts). I discovered that Viktor spoke pretty good English as the taxi navigated the bumpy roads.

We arrived at the facility and entered our ‘suite’ after a short wait. It consisted of 4 rooms connected to a short hallway. There was a dressing/dining room where we set up the food and stripped down, a bathroom, the ice cold pool room and finally the small sauna with its two levels of wooden benches.

Modesty was short-lived. It quickly became apparent that it was impractical to try and even wear a towel in this process. You drink beer and eat fish, roast and get flailed in the sauna, endure massive thermal shock in the pool and then start over. When I first entered the sauna, I felt true fear. This was heat at a level that I couldn’t even imagine. You had to draw short, shallow breaths to not sear your lungs. It was much worse on the upper bench and worse yet when they threw water on the open, rock-filled furnace. They did that fairly often.

As if this wasn’t enough, the birch branches were wielded expertly over your body, first lying face down and then face up. Viktor (or Igor) would wear the mitts to protect their hands and start by just waving them slightly over your skin. Already struggling to deal with the heat, this stirring of the air made you even hotter. Then they would progress from lightly touching your skin with the branches and leaves to vigorously flailing you. The contact from the super-heated birch quickly became unbearable and you would be near blind with pain as you ran from the room to dive into the ice cold pool.

It was an awesome experience. By the end of our 3 hours there we’d all taken some serious heat and cold. I held back from drinking too much beer, but Igor and Viktor made up for it. We had some great discussions, tested our pain thresholds and sealed the bonds of friendship all the more. Igor had told me that “After banya, you will go home and sleep like a baby.” He was right.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Robin here. With the memory of our outing on Tuesday still fresh in our minds and hearts, we set out today to visit with Kristina at the orphanage. Igor told us that Kristina questioned him several times on the ride back to the orphanage Tuesday night as to when she would be with us for good. What a great vote of confidence as we approach the big day where her new life begins as part of our family!

Kristina came running when she spotted us in the doorway and went straight into her Papa’s arms for a big hug. I noticed that the large red balloon she got from the restaurant on Tuesday was sitting high atop an armoire. She asked one of the Mamas if she could have it and was apparently told -- no. Perhaps there was a squabble over it amongst the children and the balloon was placed there until further notice. After I had my turn at the hugs and kisses we then headed down the brightly colored stairs, with Kristina several steps ahead in an effort to make it to one of many hiding spots she slips into along the path to the playroom. She loves jumping out and surprising us as we walk along -- and we never disappoint her with our reactions.

Our playroom activities today included a new game that Kristina seemed to be making up as it went along. She lined up scores of plastic bowling pins of different shapes and colors and then gave each of us an equal amount of rubber balls and beanbags to throw into a basket. I guess the object of the game was to get the balls and beanbags into the basket without knocking over the pins. After mastering that game, she then gave us permission to roll the balls at the pins in an attempt to knock them down. From there, we ended up sitting on a pile of mats located against the wall. Kristina took a position on the floor hiding behind the mats and we instinctively knew what she wanted us to do. We would roll the balls and they would fall off the end of the mats where she was crouching down in an attempt to be concealed. Kristina would then throw the balls at us from her strategic position and we would find ourselves ducking for cover. We had much fun with this game and then lay together on the mats where we talked and tickled and hugged for awhile.

It was now time to go, so we gathered up all of the toys and tidied up the playroom before heading back to Kristina’s group. Once there, we were given big hugs and many kisses goodbye. Two more orphanage visits -- one on Saturday and one on Monday -- and then we take Kristina out of the orphanage forever -- just as Igor promised her…

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There are many, many joys to adopting a child but it would not be realistic to deny that there are some stresses that go along with the process. The sadness of lost time with family and friends, financial pressures to complete the process without going bankrupt, the difficulty in not speaking the native language, and many more.

It is also difficult to be away from familiar foods for such an extended period of time. Especially, for someone like me who is extremely fond of peanut butter. I’ve read all of the “make sure you pack” lists on the adoption boards and I am fully aware of the countless statements to the effect that “peanut butter is just not found outside of the U.S.”

So I did pack a 28 oz. jar that traveled halfway around the world with us and which I have meticulously paced myself in consuming. Not meticulously enough, I’m afraid. It’s almost gone.

Imagine my surprise when Robin and I went to the Tsum today to buy some groceries and I noticed a single jar of what appeared to be peanut butter. Against all the cautions that it just isn’t available, this is akin to stubbing your toe on the Holy Grail.

I picked it up and examined it, but like all the foods here I haven’t a clue what the Cyrillic words say. All I know is that it looks like peanut butter and there’s a picture on the label of some goofy bear holding a big peanut in its lap. Able to read numbers, I can deduce that it’s 100% of something and 0% of something else. My mind wishfully inserted “peanuts” for the first element and “rat poison” for the second.

Of course I had to buy it. Turns out it cost 440 tenge which is about $3.50 in U.S. currency. When we got back to the apartment, I removed the seal from the jar and with great expectations (Robin refused to mimic a drum roll) tasted a sample.

Yes, it IS peanut butter. Not in the class of Jif or Skippy but I’m not complaining. And now all those people who authoritatively state that “peanut butter is impossible to find” will have to retract that little piece of wisdom. I guess you just have to be lucky.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Today was one we’ve been anticipating for some time. Igor picked up Kristina from the orphanage early and stopped to have her passport photos taken. Then he came to our apartment and we joined up to take her shopping for clothes. Opening the door to Igor’s car, we saw the little peanut all decked out in a coat, heavy red sweater, jeans and boots and a grin a mile wide. She knew this was a special day that was all about outfitting her for her new life.

We drove to a very large, indoor market area that was filled with hundreds of small booths. Probably 90% of them sold clothing. We were glad it was enclosed since the day was cold and rainy. Our mission was to buy Kristina underwear, socks, undershirts, pajamas, tops, pants, shoes and a coat. We wasted no time scouting up and down the long aisles to identify the best booths for our mission.

One stop netted the underwear, socks, undershirts and pajamas. A different booth for the shoes. Yet another for the coat. As we stopped at each we would count on Igor to translate for us with the shopkeeper. It seemed to me that they could probably figure out that we were adoptive parents and that Kristina was a local orphan. We drew lots of looks from the other shopkeepers everywhere we went. I asked Igor about this at one point and he confirmed that yes, they did know.

After spending many thousands of tenge, we finally had enough clothing to last Kristina until we get home. We then headed over to a local restaurant named Doner that had a nice indoor play area for kids. We ordered some lunch and Kristina headed immediately off to play. She came back long enough to eat part of a hamburger but you could see she was too excited to pay much attention to her appetite. There were a couple of coin operated rides available, so I went in and fed some coins to a motorized dolphin and airplane for her to try.

We returned to our apartment about 1:30 pm. Kristina didn’t have to leave to go back to the orphanage for another 4 hours, so Igor dropped us off and said he’d be back at 5:30 pm. We walked up the 5 flights of stairs to show her where Mama and Papa have been hanging out the whole time we’ve been here.

Kristina turned into a flurry of motion the moment we entered the apartment. She ran from room to room switching lights on and off, turning on fans and opening every drawer and door she could find. Any thought we had of getting her to take the afternoon nap she normally gets at the orphanage quickly evaporated. We started a Cinderella DVD playing but it barely slowed her down.

After inspecting the bathroom for the 4th time, Kristina came up to us and said “koo-PAHT-sa” (bath). Robin looked at her and inquired if she wanted to take a bath. She nodded eagerly. The next hour or so was spent with Kristina thoroughly enjoying a nice long bath with water up to her chest. I brought in one of the rubber balls I’d bought and she decided to clean it and then insisted that she get the other 6 of them so they could all get properly cleaned.

The rest of the afternoon was spent trying on some of the clothes we’d purchased, playing some games, having a few snacks and basically just getting comfortable with each other in this new setting. A preview of what’s to come. When Igor finally showed up at 5:30 we exchanged hugs and kisses and she headed back off to the orphanage. One more week and the orphanage will be a closed chapter in her life.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Robin here. When we arrived at the orphanage today, we saw that the children were outside helping with fall clean-up. They must have seen us drive up in the car because by the time we made it to the Group 5 room, Kristina was already there taking off her outside clothes. Since no one was there, we had a chance to get a grand tour with Kristina as our guide. She was very proud as she pointed out the large children’s bathroom and where the toys and clothes are kept. There was a stand alone clothes closet in the bedroom that we believe holds the girls’ clothing for special occasions like the bonding period. This is where Kristina chose her outfit for the day. She actually changed her mind and replaced the first dress she had on with a denim jumper instead. This made me happy, as the first dress was too lightweight for the cooler weather we’ve been having and I was afraid one of the Mama’s would make her change it once they saw her.

We are looking forward to a great day tomorrow when we take Kristina shopping for clothes, to a restaurant for lunch and then back to our apartment for a few hours. It will be our first glimpse into how well we can entertain her for the ten days that we’ll have her prior to our departure for Almaty. I think we have plenty of toys, games, gadgets and videos to keep her occupied – I least I hope so…

We learned of the children’s schedule recently and we’ll do our best to follow it as closely as possible to help make Kristina’s transition less stressful for all of us.

8:00 – Rise and shine, Make Bed, Dress
8:30 – Breakfast and Clean-Up
9:00 – Indoor Activity, Video/TV or Outside Play
10:00 – Fruit Snack
10:30 – Music, Dance or Art Instruction
12:00 – Lunch and Clean-up
1:00 – Two Hour Nap
3:00 – Up from Nap and Make Bed
3:30 – Snack
4:00 – Go to the Playroom
5:00 – Various Activities, Reading and Play
9:00 – Eat Dinner (We won’t be eating dinner that late!)
9:30 – Clean-Up, Brush Teeth, Get Ready for Bed
10:00 – Lights Out (We’ll be moving that up a good bit as well)

For the most part, each day is the same – even weekends. The orphanage provides for the children as best it can. Still, it is not a home and a family. And, with few exceptions, the routine does not vary much. The children get a shower once a week -- perhaps more often in the heat of summer. And, they have little choice in what they eat or wear. The saddest sights for me are the little boys wearing girl’s clothing. It is not uncommon to see boys in pink tights, tops with flowers or girls sandals. They dress the kids in what’s available and what fits. The boys however, seem oblivious to it all…

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Ambush of the Babushkas

Robin and I had a gorgeous day present itself with mild temperatures, light winds and clear skies. Since we weren't going to visit the orphanage today, we decided to take a nice long walk. We stopped at a nearby shop that Igor mentioned sells souvenirs and bought a couple of things. Then we set out to cover some serious territory.

Along the way we came to a park with a statue that commemorates some dignified Kazakh gentleman. We posed for a picture. Through the magic of digital compositing, we are both together under his watchful eye.

Much mileage later we happened upon an amusement park. It is probably the place that we'll stop at next week when we spring Kristina from the orphanage for a day to get her passport photos taken, buy some clothes and have some fun. Robin and I walked around and discussed which rides we thought she could go on and which ones we would avoid. The one with the overturned car falls into the latter category (see photos).

At one point as we were walking, I suddenly recognized the bar that Igor and I had gone to the night we went out for "beers" (see photo). My head throbbed just to witness the place in the cold light of day.

Robin and I stopped at the open air market on the way back and bought some bread along with an assortment of vegetables for tonight's dinner. Our approach to negotiating payment is to hold out a fistful of tenge and let them take whatever they feel is fair for the cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes that we've selected.

Our 2 hour walk concluded, we headed back to the apartment and felt the hair go up on the back of our necks as we turned the final corner. There sat 3 old babushkas by the thick steel door that admits us to the stairwell of our 5th floor apartment. They had spotted us and we sure weren't going to get past them without some sort of dialog. We're not exactly sure why.

We approached to a volley of Russian words that would have stopped an elk dead in its tracks. I reflexed and used the only phrase I've really learned from the Pimsleur tapes: "Ya dolka nee ma-nohga pahnee-my-yoo pa-roo-ski" (I only understand a little Russian). Of course, this is a complete lie since we understand virtually no Russian in the context of this encounter. We can count to 10, identify primary colors, and ask Kristina if she has to take a pee, but we sure couldn't deflect 3 determined babushkas from demanding answers to undecipherable questions.

After much body language, our invoking the name of Igor, and me finally shaking off the most determined of the babushkas in the stairwell, Robin and I made record time up the 5 flights of stairs and into the apartment.

I've had the pastuerized, pre-measured, tightly scripted American forms of entertainment, but a day like this is so genuine and real, it will be traveling along my synapses long after everything else has faded.