Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sour, Helpful, and Desperate

I was reading some blogs and have been getting a sense of what it is like to be in Russia. Not just be there, but live there. Because visiting is much different. So here is a little walk down memory lane. Come with me won't you?
I think of a time when I was on a my way to Novosibirsk. I was in Moscow, scheduled to walk through the ginormous line at immigration and then out to the arrival area where my contact from my agency would give me a 'package' and then take me to the domestic terminal. But after flying 9 hours to Moscow with my mother and 4 year old daughter, I was a bit jet-laggedy. As we exited the plane, we were met by a sour women who walked up to us, and grabbed our ticket and in a short quick gesture that I took to mean "follow me" she was walking away with our tickets. We followed her, and she took us through through secret doorways, endless passages, up stairs and down them ending at an immigration check point with what appeared to be only foreigners. I wasn't sure if this was right, but we seemed to be the only English speaking foreigners so we just sort of waited around. There was no one at the little gate, then magically, sour women appeared behind the gate, and began to check and stamp our documents and give us the head nod which meant, "go that way." We went that way. My mom at this point had literally stripped down to her tank top. She was so hot and sweaty and already hating Russia. We had been in the country for an hour. And it was mid November, not tank top weather.

"That way" was a corridor that led us to a sort of bus stop. When a bus approached, we got on. Me, all the while knowing I have to pick up a 'package' for my agency. Trying to figure out how to handle this I racked my brain for who to call, hell, how to call the Moscow office and find my contact and let them know I am not in the international arrival gate, but in the domestic terminal. We arrived at the domestic terminal and found our way to the gate and settled in for the wait. We had about a 4 hour layover at that point and Anna had a really good sleep on the plane so she was ready to explore. I found a phone and did my best to call the Moscow office. No luck. Then I tried to email my location, but couldn't get a signal. Moscow didn't provide free WIFI at the gate, what? So, I decided to eat. I waited in line and managed to point to what we wanted and we all ate a nice lunch of yogurt, bacon flavored potato chips, and bananas. I had decided that I would walk around asking, "Do you speak English?" until I found someone in my area that could help me. But then, I heard my name. It wasn't very clear, but I was sure amongst the gibberish and constant feedback noise, I heard my name. I ran around to try and find the "white courtesy phone" to no avail. I ran downstairs to the empty security gates and tried to figure out whether to break security, or to go back , get my passport, and then come back. While standing there, I noticed a frantic woman looking through the other part of the gate. I called out "Helloooooo. I am Julianne Green." Where at that point the young woman almost dropped to her knees. She looked as if she were about to burst into tears. When she and I met, across the security gate, she said she was so glad to see me and held her chest breathing deeply and now in tears. Turns out the packet I was taking to Novosibirsk with me, were the last of the required documents for court. No documents, no adoption. She knew if I didn't get those documents, she would more than likely be in a whole mess of trouble. Even though it was actually ME who didn't go through the ginormous immigration line that opens up to the main arrivals hall. We spoke briefly and she went on her way. But not before grabbing her chest again.
I would meet that young woman again on my return trip.
I share this story, because that is my impression of Moscow. On one hand, completely helpful but sour. On the other hand completely lovely and desperate. Since we only have two hands, I can't then mention the unhelpful and sour. I choose now, to forget when our luggage was lost and I spent that entire trip in the same black pants and black sweater. I choose to forget those who weren't helpful because that is how I am. Even at the time I was being treated like shit, I was laughing inside. When I got yelled at on that shuttle bus between airports for not having a hat on Anna's head, I just smiled and nodded and said in my clearest loud English, "Please don't pretend to care about my child. Had you really cared, you would have adopted her weeks after her birth.." She didn't understand, but I felt much better. When I got my ten days waived in the midst of everyone else having to stay in the Novosibirsk for the entire time, I chalked it up to the lovely and helpful. When my mother, sister, daughter, and newly adopted baby boarded the plane to NYC, we were told by the Russian stewardess to move half of our party to the seat in front of ours, we didn't understand. But after realizing that row of four would remain empty, therefore giving us 8 seats to stretch out in and relax, I chalked it up to the lovely. Especially since there were several other adoptive families on the flight.
The lovely frantic young lady who found me at the airport ended up working with me upon our arrival back in Moscow. She and her mother, aka "the two Anna's" made our time there smooth as silk and either hid the sour from us, or made sure there was no sour.
But as I reading on the blogs, most who live in Russia have to face the sour everyday. They have no set of Anna's who will buffer the winds of disdain. I have to wonder how after all these years, Russians wouldn't be open to foreigners in the country. I used to think it was intense nationalism. But somehow I know it's not. My own experience doesn't give me the answers, but the attitudes and actions of many I have read about, or heard about, makes me think there is a bit of shame buried within the souls of many Russians. I could be wrong, just a theory.


Tina in CT said...

Oh my, what an ordeal you went through. So good that you had a lot of the lovely on your trips.

Was your lost suitcase ever found?

I know exactly how your mom felt with the intense, ridiculous heat in the buildings. I brought summer nightgowns and short sleeve jerseys to wear as I don't take well to 75 - 80 heat inside the buildings. If Russians came to my 65 - 68 degree (depending on what I want) temperature inside my house in the winter, they would just die.

I've been up watching the Olympics and scrapbooking but it's 1:25 AM on Sunday so I guess I should put the dog out for the last time, take the phone off the hook so I can sleep in and go up to bed with the dog and my heartburn.

Jojo, Julz, Julianne said...

My coordinators in Novo spent the entire week trying to get it for me, but could not seem to locate both sets of luggage, so when we arrived back in Moscow we went to the land of the lost luggage and found it..Lucky for us!! I only wanted to change my shoes since I wore some cutie-pie high shoes that KILLED my feet for the whole first part of the trip!!!

Annie said...


I hope I get the chance to add one or more of these "postcards".

I think Russia is just "different"...some of the differences I really love, some I simply find interesting. Some I expect I love because I put a positive spin on what others would simply hate...

I do think that Russians are accustomed to being looked down on by Americans. In all sorts of adoption blogs, and in talking to people I hear things like "I just wanted to get my kid and get out of that awful place". What?! (And I wonder how that poor child will feel about himself....when he picks up over the years that he came from a place his parents despise.)

But Russians may presume that Americans are coming with that haughty and superior attitude.

Maybe you and I love Russia because we are capable of ignoring the uglies and concentrating on the interesting, kind and beautiful. It is a great way to go through life, wherever you are!

Jojo, Julz, Julianne said...

I never intened to love Russia. Just planned to yank my girl outta there..But if there are magnificant beautiful people in Russia, most are in Khabarovsk and and Komsomosk. I couldn't help but begin to wonder about the history, the differences, the sadness, the culture...And I was hooked the moment I walked into the first hotel and handed a giant key, with a keychain the size of a curling iron..And the floor ladies..Oh well, I could go on and on..I just find it curious that some folks in Russia don't love Americans as much as some Americans love Russia!!

Ian said...

Wow. Your experience sounds like it was rough. We were really lucky since I was a consultant when we adopted which meant I had a huge number of frequent flyer miles plus status on the airlines we flew. I also spent a lot of time in foreign countries including places like India where it is really crazy when you get off the plane. We also had a great agency which took care of us from start to finish. So all those combined together meant that our arrival was pretty much a non-event. I thought the customs process in some parts of Europe were actually harder.

I found the Russians I interacted with to be very friendly (course it could be that since I am 6'3" and 270 pounds that most people are friendly to me!). I thought there was a mix though of how they responded to the whole adoption thing. One person I spoke to said that there was some shame and anger that Americans were coming into their country and taking their children. Anger that we were doing it and shame that there was not a good alternative.

Jen Stevens said...

Your Moscow event sounds much like my NYC fiasco. I'll have to tell you the story sometime.
We had quite a bit of time in Moscow and were left on our own often. I think I found more of the lovely than the sour, but I guess my expectations by that point were not very high. I call it cordoal enough to get by. Although there were the few roses in with the thorns that just made it all more beautiful.

Stacey said...

So very well said. My experience (recent and still stinging a little in the raw places) mirrors your sentiment exactly. I think I went into travel with so many preconceived ideas including "there's no crying in Russia" (as I sat without my passport after being yelled at in Russian on Christmas eve and missing my flight). The irony of that is that, once I actually did begin to cry, I was helped by the most amazing people who wouldn't even tell me their names. What seems blundt, abrupt, and at times angry in their tone is likely just a communication gap that really means "there is a problem and I don't have the words to explain to you what it is... but if you sit and wait, we will try and fix it". I was offered a soft place to land by these same abrupt hard people when I needed it most and for that, I will forever be grateful to "the man in the grey suit". I am so looking forward to going back on trip two where I can relax and enjoy the land and the people in a way that I didn't have the luxury of time to do over Christmas. Komsomolsk... Khabarovsk... I'm ready to witness your beauty (and bust my kid outta there!)
hugs from Canada

Annie said...

Oh, Julianne....I simply hate to have to tell you that the very NICEST and most WONDERFUL people in Russia are in Ivanovo and Moscow. Now, our dear Natalie (our Russian teacher) is from Khabarovsk, so I presume you met some others....but how I LOVE Ivanovo!

I THINK I expected to like it? I am not sure; I do know that Russia was not at all what I expected. But it was so darned interesting! And I was so awake and alive and how could I NOT love a country that resulted in my dear Sergei? Impossible!

kate said...

I've been interested in Russia since jr. hi. I've read all sorts of Russian literature, history, etc. I was so excited to come and live in Russia!

And, it was great at first--not fun, not easy, but very, very interesting.

For me, I've just been here long enough. It's a battle of attrition--and I lost. ;> Things are just...harder here.

Do I think that you shouldn't come? NO! Come! Living life in Russia without the help of translators and co-ordinators will just open new doors and new adventures. For the first year it was a grand adventure. The second year was enjoyable. The third year I was beginning to be weary. Now, at four-and-a-half years, I'm ready to leave.

Do I have dear and warm Russian friends? Absolutely. It's not the people that wear you down so much as it is the collective, amorphous "Russia". I am doing a poor job of explaining.

I don't know if it's shame. I've heard the same thing Ian said about shame/anger and adoption. But for general attitudes...I think it's more subconscious envy than shame.