Monday, January 24, 2011

The Long (Long LONG) Road Home (pt 2)

Recap of yesterday's post:

Hours 0-3 were spent traveling to the airport, making our way through security, narrowly avoiding an international incident, and then boarding the plane.

Now it's time for things to get tough.

Hours 4-14 (1:00pm to 11:00pm Moscow, 4:00am to 2:00pm Minnesota)

Our flight from Moscow to Washington DC began better than expected. Aleks seemed to be comfortable in his seat, and didn't mind the takeoff as much as we expected him to. He was a bit squirmy in his seat, but initially he was entertained by his toys, and giving him small food treats.

We kept expecting him to be lulled to sleep by the hum of the airplane, but he seemed to be running on a high energy level. Once we were airborne, he made a point of switching between our laps at least every 10 minutes, so that neither of us could sneak a nap in.

At one point, Aleks was curled up on Alan's lap. He was just falling asleep, when we tried to slide him over to his own seat. Unfortunately, he woke up immediately and became fussy. We expected him to calm back down fairly quickly, but it wasn't to be. Except for a short 45 minute nap at the start of the flight, Aleks stayed awake for almost the entire 10 1/2 hour flight. Which meant that so did we.

During that time, our movie choices cycled through 5 times. Although Aleks prevented a complete viewing, Alan saw parts of Iron Man 2 five different times, along with Toy Story, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Clash of the Titans.

We were very happy when our Russian flight was over. Departing the plane, we were so excited. We were back on American soil, and we had our baby with us! Despite being very tired, we proudly walked to customs, ready to declare our gift to the USA.

Hours 15-16 (11:00pm to 1:00am Moscow, 2:00pm to 4:00pm Minnesota)

As we gathered our luggage in Washington, our ears were very happy. All announcements, overheard conversations, and security instructions were in English. We'd gotten used to hearing Russian, but it was very nice to be back in familiar surroundings.

After collecting and rechecking our luggage, we moved on to the security checkpoints. The Customs agent who helped us out was very nice, and congratulated us on our successful adoption. He welcomed us to the country, along with our son. After our last experience with Russian security, it was a very pleasant change.

We stopped to grab a bite to eat at one of the airport restaurants, called our parents, and then it was off to our next flight. After seeing the number of people getting on to the flight, we inquired whether we would be able to get Aleks on early. The very b*tchy gate clerk (we could have sworn she was the aunt of the Russian security guard) told us that we could not, and we would have to move back to let the self-important Gold Flyer level people board. Welcome to America.

Hours 17-20 (2:00am to 5:00am Moscow, 5:00pm to 8:00pm Minnesota)

When we boarded, the plane was very full, and very restless. Aleks was starting to get very crabby from lack of sleep, but he could not settle down enough to fall asleep. We tried rocking him, but he wasn't having it. What started as whimpering and crying turned into full volume screaming, and we became "THOSE PARENTS".

Here, I would like to apologize to all THOSE PARENTS that I have quietly complained about over the years. I still despise those who let their kids run wild through the lanes, but to those with a screaming child that will not calm down, I apologize.

As Aleks' screaming became louder, he began coughing and wheezing as well. We finally got him asleep, but then disaster struck. The plane began taxiing away from the gate, went approximately 300 yds, then stopped. We sat without moving for about 10 minutes, and then heard the engines powering down.

"Hello ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I wanted to give you a heads up to our situation. Apparently there is a storm front moving through parts of the US right now, that is clogging up the air lane we are about to fly. Air traffic control is telling us that they can't let us take off until traffic clears up, and they can't tell us when that will be. Based on my experience, I'd guess we'll be sitting here about an hour. Once again, my apologies."

Aleks stayed asleep through ALMOST the entire time we spent on the ground. Less than 5 minutes before the captain restarted the engines, he woke up again. This time he was very disoriented, still very tired, and managed to cry even louder.

The rest of that flight was pretty much a blur to us. Aleks was very crabby, and Kathy spent most of the flight soothing him. Alan tried to help, but the lack of sleep and stressful travel were weighing heavily on him. In addition, we were now an hour behind schedule, with only an 80 minute layover in Chicago. We had no idea if we would make our connecting flight, and we really didn't want to have to try rescheduling a later flight.

As we landed, our pilot apologized once again for the delays, and asked that anyone who did not have a connecting flight, stay in their seat. Being true American jerks, no one stayed seated. As Alan was trying to get Aleks into his Baby Bjorn, one particularly rude man pushed by. He made it a whopping 6 inches before stopping. There might have been some sympathy, except he was busy complaining to his cell phone that "the plane is late, and the taxi ride from O'Hare is going to be a pain in the ass. And there is some brat whining next to me".

I was definitely not parent of the year material on this flight, but that comment really got my blood boiling. I made sure that for the next 10 minutes, no matter where that A-hole moved, Aleks was directly behind his ear, screaming his little head off. I think I may have even crossed between aisles to follow the jerk.

Hours 20-23 (5:00am to 7:00am Moscow, 8:00pm to 10:00pm Minnesota)

As we departed the plane, we tried to find where our connecting flight was located. Of course, it was in a different concourse from where we landed. We had about 25 minutes before takeoff, so we took off through the halls.

Aleks seemed to sense the frustration and exhaustion, as he became quiet and smiley once he was off the plane. Dragging our carry-ons, we rushed through O'Hare as quickly as we could. When we arrived at our gate, we were safe. It turned out that about half the flight was connecting from another late flight, so they would be waiting for everyone. We got seated, and called Alan's parents. We let them know that we had made our connecting flight, so we would be able to see those people who came to greet us at the airport.

Surprisingly, the Chicago to Minneapolis flight was extremely uneventful. Aleks was awake but quiet, Alan was able to catch his breath, and Kathy was just happy to be a mom. The flight was a short one, and soon we had landed at MSP.

Leaving the plane, the enormity of the situation began to hit us. After 5 months of paperwork, medical exams, fees, itineraries, trains, planes, and cramped little white buses, our journey was complete. We were parents to an amazing little boy, and we were ready to begin our life at home.

And so ended our second trip to Russia. We were gone 22 days, and our return trip took ~23 hours. I am very happy to say that no matter how stressful it got, Aleks makes every day worth it.

Trip 2, Day 22: The Long (Long LONG) Road Home (pt 1)

Wednesday, August 11th:

Our final day in Moscow and Russia dawned bright and (comparatively) cool. The temperature was a frigid 65 degrees, quite a difference from the 90+ highs we had experienced almost every day of our 3 week trip. We were up early, making sure that everything was packed, and that we would be ready to leave when our driver arrived.

Hour 0 (9:00am Moscow time, 12:00am Minnesota time)
With our bags packed, we depart from the Novy Arbat apartment. Our flight doesn't leave for about 4 hours, but fear of traffic or airport snarls are a driving factor. Aleks curls up with mommy, and is able to sleep for about 30 minutes of the hour long ride to the airport. As we pull up to Domodedovo, we thank our driver for the services he has provided, and in we go.

Sadly, there was a tragedy at Domodedovo today (1/24/10). A suicide bomber got into the arrivals area and set off a bomb. We hope that by the time Aleks is an adult, people have gotten smarter about getting along with each other.

Hour 1 (10:00am Moscow, 1:00am Minnesota)

We attempt to find our check in gate, and are shocked at how disorganized DME airport appears. Rather than having a wide wall of check in gates (like US airports), or even segregated terminal areas (like Sheremetyevo), DME seems to have tossed out a handful of salt, and build gates wherever the salt landed. Lines seem to criss cross each other, some gates are hidden behind others, and the directional signs don't bother to show any of the airline logos. Finally after searching around, we found the entrance to the United Airlines queue.

The queue stretched a long way, curving its way through the terminal. As we were waiting, Alan turned himself so that the agents working the gates could see he was carrying a child in a sling. We had heard that Russian airports will usually pull families with children into an express lane. Sure enough, soon we were being asked to go to the first class lane, so we could be checked in.

Leading up to this moment, we had been worried about our seating arrangements on the flight. We hadn't been allowed to book our seats ahead of time, either on our original travel date (13th) or the current one. We were ready to complain if we were separated, but we need not worry. Our seats were upgraded for free to the Economy Plus section for all segments of our flight. Score!

Hour 2 (11:00am Moscow, 2:00am Minnesota)

After checking our baggage, we proceeded upstairs to another, unsecured lobby area. Here we noticed that our favorite restaurant from St. Petersburg, had a cafeteria style restaurant. We decided to stop, eat, and feed Aleks. Eating was a bit challenging, as Aleks was being very curious and grabbing at anything he could get his hands on. We didn't have any type of booster seat, so one of us would eat, while the other held and entertained Aleks.

Once we were done eating, we moved towards the security check in lanes. This was where our Moscow experience got a bit ugly. The lines were moving very slowly, so Alan again tried to "accidentally" get the attention of the security gate attendants. Over and over, we saw other families with larger children being pulled out of line, and brought through the VIP security section. Finally, after pulling people out of line far behind us, the woman signaled for us to come through with about 5 other families. Unfortunately, by the time we were pulled out, the single line at VIP was almost as long as the regular line.

Patiently, we waited in the VIP line. There were two gates open in front of us, so the line was making progress. When we were nearly to the front, the same woman who had pulled us aside began splitting the line into two separate lines. We ended up in the right side lane. The family in front of us was waved forward, and began their process. Once they were finished, one of the 2 people in the security area left the office, and walked away. We waited to be signaled forward by the remaining person, but she just worked on some paperwork for a few minutes.

Finally, Alan decided to step forward. She signaled and said Nyet, then shushed us back to the line. Meanwhile, many of the people behind us began moving over to form the original single line. Finally, the woman got up, left the gate, and went into the other gate to start working with the woman there. We waited to be signaled over into that lane, but the security guards just pretended there was no one over there.

Alan's patience was near zero by that point, so when it was time for the next person to step up, he walked in front of the family in the other line. They appeared insulted, but by that point going to the end of the line would have added another 30 minutes to the wait time. The security guard for this lane looked annoyed, but took the paperwork and started processing it.

After processing both Kathy and Alan's paperwork, she started working on Aleks' paperwork. She curtly began speaking in Russian to us, apparently asking for some additional paperwork. With a large sigh and roll of her eyes, she said "yellow envelope. You need yellow envelope". Apparently our US passports hadn't been reason enough to consider using her English skills immediately.

Attempting to figure out what she meant, Alan remembered the manilla envelope we had been given the previous day at the embassy. He pulled out the folder, and handed it to the guard. As she took the envelope, she promptly began the process of tearing it open, at which point Alan started yelling out "Nyet, NYET!". This was the information we were supposed to hand over to the American Customs crew unopened.

Tempers flared, and an international incident appeared imminent as Alan tried to explain that she couldn't open the document. The guard was also very flustered, and began yelling at us "No yellow, no baby!" A kind (or impatient) flier in line behind us offered to translate, and was able to get information from the guard. It turned out she was asking for a completely different set of paperwork.

Kathy understood what paperwork she was asking for, and got it out. However, rather than look at the paperwork, the guard began yelling at the rest of the people in line, and they started filing out, back the way we had come in. We stood waiting as she walked off with them, and she led them to a line in the normal security area. She made her way back to us, and very rudely yelled "come, come American". She stomped off as we tried to follow with our carry on luggage, Aleks' diaper bag, and our 11 month old son.

As we made it to the normal security area, the woman began yelling loudly at the person working there, pointing to us frequently. Eventually she threw her hands in the air, and started stomping away further into the airport. The new guard shrugged, handed us our paperwork, and signaled for us to go through the gates. All we could think was "What the (heck)?"

Our final security stop was in the bag check area. We snaked our way through the line, and guess who was now working bag check? Yup, our favorite Security guard. She glared at us, and Alan glared back as we went through the area. They had full body scanners for everyone to go through, so Alan went through with Aleks strapped to his chest. It did not take long for him to go through, so Alan figures they might not have run the machine with the baby in there.

Hour 4 (1:00pm Moscow, 4:00am Minnesota)

Finally, we were through. All that was left was getting to our gate. At least, while we were in Russia. At the gate, we were disappointed to see that the area was completely full. With no place to sit, Alan leaned against the wall with our baggage while Kathy walked around with Aleks for a short time. When it came time to board the plane, parents with small children were invited on before anyone else, even the first class passengers. So we were able to get Aleks on the plane and in his seat, before anyone else. We were very nervous about how he would do flying, but we had already gone beyond the point of no return.

Today's post went long, so I'll return to the trip home tomorrow. I promise. I'll start working on it tonight, I swear.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Trip 2, Days 19-21: Smog, Moscow Medical & an Embassy

Quick Note: I apologize for the very long waits in between these posts. As the realities of parental life have kicked in, it gets harder and harder to say "hey, I'm going to write a blog". Just one more after this one, and then Kathy can take over doing some of the post-Russia updates. Alan

Sunday, August 8th

As mentioned in the previous blog entry, Moscow was extremely smoggy and hot when we arrived. Hundreds of wildfires were raging in the Russian countryside, which covered Moscow in a thick, thick haze. We took a picture from our Novy Arbat apartment window in June (shown on left). We had the same apartment for our last few days of the trip, so we took another picture.

The second photo was taken on Monday, after the smog had cleared considerably. At one point Sunday, we could not see anything beyond the large building on the left side!

Unfortunately, this put a major damper on any sightseeing plans we had. We decided that staying healthy was much more important than getting pictures of Aleks in front of St. Basil's cathedral. We limited ourselves to a visit to one of the restaurants for lunch, and then purchasing groceries for our final stay.

We also discovered that the AC unit located in the bedroom could keep the bedroom comfortable, but only if the door was kept closed. If we tried to cool the entire apartment, it was only slightly less miserable than without. We chose to keep the bedroom comfortable.

Aleks didn't seem to mind the heat at all. He loved crawling around everywhere in just a diaper. We didn't feel like the best parents, but it kept him cooler. We focused on keeping everyone hydrated, and keeping him entertained.

The first day, Aleks was entertained by the toys we had brought. However, he soon grew bored of them, and his attention shifted. One of his favorite activities was crawling over to the side of the stove, and looking at his reflection in the steel.

After feeding Aleks, and preparing a quick meal for ourselves, we turned in early that night. Staying in the sauna (aka living room) was just too uncomfortable.

Monday, August 9th

Monday morning, Kathy asked if Alan would be okay watching Aleks while she ventured out to the grocery store for more water and Diet Coke. Aleks had been doing great so far, so Alan agreed without any reservations. By the time Kathy returned 40 minutes later, Alan was a nervous wreck!

Aleks' calm demeanor had lasted for about 5 minutes after his mommy left. At that point, he decided he was sick of daddy, and wanted mommy. So he cried. And cried. And cried some more. We learned just how loud our little guy could be when he is upset, and it is definitely LOUD. Toss in a very inexperienced new dad, and it made for a frazzling time.

Our agenda for the day was busy but quick. Our first stop was to get Aleks' visa photos. Tanya, our translator, met us outside, along with a new driver we hadn't met before. He wasn't as friendly as Ilya or Constantin had been, and didn't seem to be too happy working with Tanya either. As we drove to the photo center, he drove very fast and recklessly (even for Moscow standards).

How anyone ever does business in Moscow is a mystery to us. I'll go into detail of our path to get Aleks' visa photos.

We took a side street, another side street, and then stopped at a giant gate that was mostly closed. There weren't any signs on the gate, but we walked through to a large courtyard. After a few turns, we approached what looked like a cellar door in one of the buildings. There was a sign next to the door that said photo, but that was it. We opened the door, and descended into the basement of the building. Down empty hallways we walked, with nothing to indicate that we were going to the right place, except for Tanya's confidence. Finally we reached what looked like an apartment door. We walked in, and Comic Book Guy's Russian cousin was sitting at a desk in front of a very old looking PC. There were lots of tourism-style posters on the walls that were very faded, like they had been exposed to the sun for years and years. However, this room (and the guy working in it) looked like they hadn't seen sunlight since they ventured to Mordor to toss the ring into Mt. Doom.

After the photos were taken and printed, our next stop was at a medical clinic. Before we could take Aleks out of the country, he needed to have a checkup performed by an approved doctor.

At the clinic, there was another American couple getting their child checked also. They were much calmer about the process, as they had already adopted two other children from Russia. While we waited for their checkup to complete, Alan and Tanya filled out the paperwork required for the embassy. While there were a lot of forms to fill out, Tanya knew exactly what to fill out, and how.

We were very happy with our visit to the doctor. We had been told earlier that he spoke English, but his cheerful demeanor was a pleasant surprise. He did a variety of tests on Aleks, explaining to us what he was doing and why. He was joking with us, and entertaining Aleks, through the whole procedure. He seemed to be very pleased with the number of teeth Aleks had, as it showed that he was receiving good nutrition at the baby home.

During the examination, the doctor's assistant was typing up the report needed for the embassy. Even with waiting for the other couple's visit, we were finished at the doctor's office much quicker than we had anticipated. This turned out to be a very good thing.

Our final stop for the day was the embassy. Tanya needed to drop off our paperwork, so that we could get an appointment for the next day. We were not allowed to go with, so we waited in the car with our driver. His car did not have air conditioning (of course), so we had two choices: Sit in the back seat of a small vehicle with a squirmy, bored 11 month old, or Stand outside in the heat and smog. Eventually, heat and smog won out.

After what seemed like a very long wait, Tanya returned. Because of the weather, the embassy had been turning people away, telling them to come back tomorrow. Tanya had to explain our situation, and beg for our paperwork to be accepted. Otherwise, we would have been stuck in Moscow for at least 1 more day beyond our planned departure date.

I want to stop here, and just show my appreciation for the work that our Russian coordinators performed. Although there were some surprise changes that took place, the amount of work and care that they put into our adoption was very special to us.

After the photos, medical, and embassy visit #1, we were dropped off back at our apartment. There was still plenty of the day left, but once again the heat and smog prevented us from venturing out farther than the grocery store.

Tuesday, August 10th

This was our last day in Moscow (and Russia), and it was bittersweet. Although we were excited to be finally going home, we loved spending 3 weeks on the other side of the world.

When we went down to the street to meet Tanya that day, we were happy to see that the smog was finally starting to lift. In addition, the temperatures were a little cooler than they had been before (I believe it only got to 85 that day). Since we were only a 10 minute walk from the US embassy, we felt a bit silly having a driver take there. However, that was part of our daily fee, so we accepted the service.

Once we arrived at the embassy, we were on our own. We approached the secured area, and proceeded through multiple checkpoints. Alan was a bit surprised, as all of the outside security guards, and some internal security guards, were Russian. We always thought that since it was "American soil", that meant that all employees were also American.

Once inside, we were required to surrender our cellphone. We walked through massive, empty hallways and proceeded to window #4. Although the instructions had implied that there would be long lines of people at windows 1-3 and 5-6, there was no one in line at any of those windows. Eventually, we moved to another waiting area, that was filled with 5-6 American families who were adopting. Aleks crawled back and forth through the room, while we waited for our turn to approach the counter. Once there, we spoke with a very nice man who checked our information, and finalized Aleks' adoption papers. We received a large manilla folder, that contained all of the information needed at American customs. He was very adamant that we do NOT open this folder, as doing so would greatly slow down the process.

We were also instructed to wait in the lobby until everyone was processed. There was additional information we would be getting. This was where we got our first real surprising news of the trip. As the embassy representative was speaking, he mentioned something we had not heard before.

As a male citizen of the Russian Federation, Aleks is required to perform 3 years of service in the Russian military. This obviously cannot be enforced while he is living in the United States, but it could be if he returned to Russia between the ages of 18 and 35. The exception to this would be for him to visit the Russian embassy in the US and formally rescind his citizenship before traveling to Russia. We cannot perform this action for him, so it would have to occur after he 18. This was important for us to know, as we had always assumed we would visit Russia with him at some point in the future. If he's underage, we're safe. But if we visit after he's an adult, there could be trouble.

After that, the rest of the information was fairly standard. We gathered up Aleks, and left the embassy. We returned to our apartment, and had a celebration. Both the Russian and US governments had cleared (almost) all hurdles to finalizing the adoption!!!

That night, the heat finally broke. Around 10pm, a thunderstorm blew through Moscow, cooling the air and cleaning the skies. It was a "go figure" moment. We'd just experienced 3 weeks of record breaking temperatures, and on our last day it was going to become comfortable. Oh well.

Next up:
The final post of the trip! The Long (long long LONG) road home.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Trip 2, Night 18: The Train to Moscow

Saturday August 7th:

Kathy, Alan, and Aleks Carda board a train in Kirov, Russia. It's destination? Moscow. The following is an account of the 12 hour trip.

As mentioned in the last blog entry, our trip started out very hectic. Bags were strewn all over the cabin, there was a broken glass sitting on the table, and two people were getting their very first experiences as being parents.

To say that we were clueless would be an understatement. We did get the glass cleaned up quickly, and made sure there weren't any small shards around. Alan got one of the other fathers to help move the large bags into one of the upper bunks. This freed up a lot of space.

The three families spoke for a short time in the hallway, slightly in shock that the children were ours. However, once the train was moving and the air conditioning had kicked in, each family closed their door. We stayed that way most of the rest of the trip.

Aleks was able to entertain himself for a few minutes at a time with the toys that we had brought with us. However, with such a small space to work in, and with two nervous people watching his every move (and nearly panicking if he came close to the metal bed frame), he quickly grew bored and cranky.

We took turns holding him, which he enjoyed. Each bunk had a rail that held a hand towel. Soon Aleks was holding on to the rail, and attempting to pull himself up on it. That was when we first started to realize just how strong he was. He could barely stand, could not yet walk, but he was able to pull himself about 4" off of the bed, using his arm strength.

Eventually, it was time for bed and we started trying to figure out how sleeping arrangements would go. We originally planned on setting luggage around a bunk so it would be crib-like. However, seeing his strength convinced us that he could probably pull any luggage over. We didn't want it toppling on to him, so we gave him a pile of soft blankets on the floor. He seemed to be happy with this, as he could look into the full length door mirror while he was laying down.

Just as we thought he was settling down, he shifted while the train was accelerating or decelerating. He bumped his head (lightly) against part of the train. Surprise turned into crying, which turned into an amazingly loud wailing.

When we received Aleks' referral, it mentioned that he was calm. We weren't quite sure what that had meant at the time. Once we met him, we learned. All throughout our first 3 visits, Aleks never cried. Not once. One time he fell, and started to cry, but we were able to distract him. Therefore, by the time we got on the train, we had never heard Aleks' LOUD voice.

The wailing was loud. All through the train car, we could hear room doors opening as people wondered who was murdering the child in room #6. We tried to comfort him, but he was having none of it. We tried to rock him and get him to fall asleep, but the wailing continued. We realized that we were supposed to have given him a nighttime bottle feeding by this time, but hadn't. Our bottles were packed, brand new, and hadn't been cleaned yet. Uh oh.

Kathy left the room to see if the German couple had a bottle we could borrow, while Alan tried to comfort Aleks. It was a huge shock to find out that our calm, happy, giggly child had one heck of a loud whiny side. Rocking him didn't help, bouncing him didn't help. Alan tried turning the lights off to soothe him, which only made things MUCH worse. Somehow, Aleks found an extra 10 decibels of volume to scream at. Finally, much to Alan and Aleks' relief, Kathy returned with a bottle of formula. Aleks instantly went quiet, happily sucking on his bottle.

After the bottle, Aleks decided he was going to play for a little while before he went back to sleep. Fearing another loud outburst, we let him play for as long as he wanted. When he decided he had enough, there was little warning. He laid down on his blankets, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and was almost instantly asleep. Kathy went to sleep soon afterward, fearing that he would wake up in the middle of the night. She chose one of the bottom bunks, so that she would be just inches from the little man.

Alan had chosen a top bunk, so as wife and child were falling asleep, he moved up there. He read for a short time, then turned off his light. We left one of the cabin lights on for Aleks. It made sleeping a little more difficult for the adults, but it kept Aleks content.

Alan woke up the next morning, before either Kathy or Aleks. He was amazed, Aleks had slept most of the night through. Maybe this wouldn't be as difficult as we thought it would be?

After about an hour, Alan heard something wet and sickening from the floor. Aleks opened his eyes, and gave a look that said he was very uncomfortable. Messy diaper. Knowing that the diapers we had bought were a bit big, and seeing the white railway blanket directly under Aleks, Alan jumped out of the bunk to check on the little guy. As he hit the ground, the smell hit him. Definitely messy diaper.

We were able to get Aleks changed before the diaper could leak, or Aleks could start to get fussy again. As we changed him, we realized it was a good thing the diaper was large. It was smelly and FULL. Alan took the diaper to a garbage in the hallway, and washed his hands. After he got back in, Kathy left to wash her hands and make Aleks another bottle for his morning feeding.

As Alan was bouncing Aleks on his knee, he again heard the wet sound emanate from Aleks' diaper. Say what? The little guy had just filled one diaper that was 2 sizes too big for him, and now he was going again 5 minutes later? Alan went to check, and sure enough, it was another large deposit. Since Kathy had changed diaper #1, Alan decided he'd better learn with #2.

Since we've had Aleks home, we've begun to learn the intricacies and variations of diaper contents. When said contents are larger or smaller than average, or the consistency changes, there is great debate within the household. Those of you without children are probably repulsed right now. How can someone spend so much time talking about poop? Those of you with children are just chuckling and nodding your heads.

By the time Kathy returned with a bottle, the room had become quite fragrant.
"Oh yuck, how does it smell even worse in here?"
"He had a second dirty diaper."
"Yep. He deals in volume"
"Oh, I really hope that's not a sign of things to come"

After the morning feeding, we got Aleks dressed and ready to go. Our first night as parents had been relatively painless, except for our singed nostrils and watering eyes. As we were slowing down and moving through the outskirts of Moscow, we wondered if there was going to be rain. A thick fog hung over everything, and the color of the sky seemed to indicate that a storm was imminent.

We were able to depart the train after everyone else, so there was no rush to get all of our baggage out. As we got out, a pungent odor filled the air (that was NOT related to Aleks). It made Alan think of a combination of a forest fire, and an electrical fire. Alan asked our driver Ilya about this, he told us that there were underground fires surrounding the city.

We would learn much more about the fires over the next few days, keep tuned in to see how different Moscow was from our first few stops there.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trip 2, Days 17 & 18: Paperwork, Passports and the Gotcha Day

Our last two days in Kirov were a blur of heat, paperwork, and preparation. We were quite exhausted by that time, so we did not do a lot or take many pictures during that time.

After having a chance to clean up at the hotel, we made our way back to the baby home. We were very happy to see Aleks that morning, as we knew that we were finally done with all of the hard work. He was our son, and we would be leaving for good the next night.

We played with the children in the morning, then went to lunch. Guess where we went to lunch? That's right, our favorite pizza place! Looking for something different, we tried their pasta. The pasta and toppings were good, but there was no sauce to go with it. Cooked pasta without sauce isn't very good.

In the afternoon, we alternated between playing with Aleks, and filling out paperwork. We practiced a lot more with the Baby Bjorn, and we also started getting information about Aleks' eating and sleeping habits. That day we also got Aleks' passport, which made it all seem very real. Finally, we made our way back to the hotel for the evening.

At the hotel, the three families decided to have dinner together in the hotel restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant had turned off their AC for the evening. Where it had been warm but dry on our first visit, this time the temp inside was close to 95 degrees. Luckily there was a table just outside the restaurant, where the temp was only 85. We compensated by drinking lots of beer.

After dinner, we decided to celebrate with some additional alcohol. We brought out a bottle of Vodka we had purchased, while the Irish couple brought out a bottle of Bailey's. Somehow, the entire bottle of Bailey's was consumed in short order. The women discussed important topics related to raising our three new sons, while the men discussed alcohol, US presidents, US politics (neither of these topics were brought up by Alan), and the World Cup matches that were going on that month. After a relaxing night of drinking and camaraderie, we retired to our room.

Saturday August 7th dawned sunny and exciting. It was Gotcha Day. We had spent our last night in the Kirov hotel; that evening, we would be leaving for Moscow with our son. We wouldn't be going to the baby home until the afternoon, so we were able to relax in the morning.

Alan spent a fair amount of time in the hotel lobby, using the internet connection. While there, he saw the new American, German, and Irish couples checking in to the front desk. One of the couples were very rude to the people at the front desk. They weren't happy with the rooms they were booked in, and were throwing a bit of a tantrum about it. Alan figured we were probably in the room that they wanted, so he didn't say anything to them.

After another lunch at our favorite pizza place, we went shopping. The first shopping area was the local mall. There were some clothes and souvenirs purchased by the other couples; we didn't really see anything that we needed or wanted. Our second stop was at the "baby store". It was here that our translator loaded us up with all of the essentials that we would need for taking care of a small child. Dry food, wet food, cereal, tea, diapers, wipes; we left with two large bags, and with our wallets significantly lighter than they had been when we went in.

The afternoon session with the children seemed to drag on for a long time. The group overlap meant that there were 7 sets of adoptive parents, and 7 children crammed into 2 medium sized rooms. When you add in the extreme heat and humidity, along with the anticipation of leaving Kirov soon, it made time slow way down.

Finally, it was time for us to pack up and leave. We changed Aleks' out of his orphanage clothes, and into the clothing we'd brought for him. We said our goodbyes to his caretakers, and got some final photos with them. We said goodbye to our coordinator, driver, and translator, and thanked them for all of the work they had performed on our behalf while we were in the country. Driving away from the orphanage, it began to dawn on us: We were parents, and we were CLUELESS!

When we arrived at the Kirov train station, we received a pleasant surprise: the train to Moscow was a newer train. Each of our previous trips had been on the "old" train, so this was a nice change. There were more media options, the decor was much nicer, and the AC worked a lot better (and faster).

Alan's Gripe of the Blog:
I got so flipping frustrated getting onto and off of the trains (dealing with luggage). The hallways are no wider than a standard large bag, so it's a pain to get to your room. We had 2 large bags, 2 computer bags, 2 smaller bags, a child, and his bag. There is always a rush to get on the train, so I wanted to wait and load things slowly. Kathy was holding Aleks, so she stayed outside where it was cooler. My plan was to get on and off the train, loading one bag at a time. Unfortunately our coordinator decided to help, tossing our bags onto the train all at once. That meant our bags were blocking the hallways for everyone else. So I had to rush through the hallway, cramming the bags into the room. In the mad rush, I broke a glass sitting on the table in our room (broken glass and new parents aren't a good mix). Why the heck did he make me hurry up so dang much, the train doesn't leave for another 30 minutes!?!?!

With all of our baggage packed into the room, it was time to go. How would our first night as parents go? You'll have to wait to find out!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trip 2, Day 16: 3 Cities, 2 Trains, and no luggage

Our last day in St. Petersburg started very early thanks to thunderstorms during the night. We had the windows open, due to the heat and humidity the night before. The pounding rain rattled off the tin roofs of the surrounding buildings, and the thunder boomed through the courtyard. As the morning came, the sun came out. It was much cooler than it had been the past few days, finally approaching a comfortable heat and humidity level. Our train did not leave St. Petersburg until 1pm, so we were able to have a leisurely breakfast, and read while waiting for our transportation.

During our two trips, we each spent a lot of time reading. Kathy mostly stuck with her favorite genre, TRN (Trashy Romance Novels). She also used "Eat, Pray, Love" as a sleeping aid. Alan decided to spread his choices across a few genres. He read books 4, 5, 6, and 7 of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. He also read two Dan Brown novels, two Steve Berry books, and the first two Stieg Larsson "The Girl" books. Lots of free time meant lots of reading.

Once our driver arrived, we made our way to the train station. We were happy to board the train, and head back to Moscow. Our second trip on the "fast train" was fairly sedate; we knew that we were going to have a hectic 90 minutes in Moscow before we left for Kirov, so we rested.

Around 5pm, we arrived in Moscow. As we got off the train, we quickly realized that the rain and cooler temperatures had NOT made it to Moscow. It was nearly 100 degrees as we exited the train. Our mountain of bags trailed us out of the train berth, through the train station, down a flight of stairs (NOT FUN), out to the sidewalk, and then 1/4 mile to the coffee shop on the opposite side of the station. That was where we would be meeting our coordinator, his son, and the two other couples we had made our 2nd trip with. We were nervous making our way over, as we knew that the other train was scheduled to leave by 7pm, and our coordinator had our tickets.

When we arrived at the coffee shop, we discovered two things. First: We were the first to arrive. Good news! Second: There was no place for us to sit downstairs. Bad news. The idea of lugging our bags up a narrow flight of stairs to a smoking room (for 10 minutes) was not appealing, so Alan volunteered to stay outside with the bags. Soon, the German couple arrived with our coordinator's son Ilya. They relayed some bad news: The Irish couple's luggage had not arrived in Moscow, so they would not have any supplies for the next 3 days!

A few minutes later, they arrived. Sure enough, they had made their transfer in Hamburg, but their luggage did not. They now faced a 12 hour train ride on a very hot and humid train without a change of clothes. As we made our way to the rail car, all of the families loaded up on water, snacks, and soda. With the heat beating down on us, I believe we each bought 2-3 liters of liquid per person.

After settling in our rooms, we looked for offerings we could make to our Irish friends. Alan lent a pair of shorts, Kathy lent some of her shirts. The German couple also found some clothing they could lend, so no one would get too overheated. We visited for a short time, talking about all of the adventures that we had encountered in the nine days since we had separated. Their experiences were much different from ours, as each of them had been able to return home, and even work for a few days.

The ride to Kirov that night was surreal. The heat inside the train was oppressive; the first two hours of travel felt like riding in a sauna. Outside of our train, the sky was streaked with many unnatural colors. This was caused by the setting sun, and the fires moving through the countryside. In addition, we swore that our train took a different path from our previous trips. In each of the 4 previous rides, there was a large town that we stopped in about 2 hours outside of Moscow. On this trip, the large town appeared much later, and was not laid out anything like the other. In addition, at one point we passed a very high, long bridge that crossed a river. The bridge was strung with red, blue, and white lights along it's entire length.

In the morning, we quickly gave ourselves baby wipe showers (not particularly effective or fun) and made our way to the Kirov hotel for the last time. With all of the tension of traveling and court complete, there was a lot of joking going on in the van. Our coordinator Andre (who did not speak or understand much English) was howling with laughter after Alan acted out a joke about Andre's wife only being happy to see him until after he gave her everything in his wallet.

At the hotel, we learned that there would be 4 more families arriving in Kirov the next morning. They would be coming in for their 2nd trip. It was very odd to finally be the veteran families, who knew what to expect, and where to go.

Next up: Paperwork, Passports, and Gotcha Day

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trip 2, Day 15: Pushkin, Catherine Palace and a Naval Tour

When last we visited the story, Alan drank 3 glasses of soda at the local fast food restaurant. By the time we made it back to our apartment, he was regretting the decision. He realized that although he had built up a tolerance to Moscow tap water and ice cubes, St. Petersburg water had a bit funkier smell (most likely coming from the many canals and rivers running through the city). Soda fountains typically use tap water that is run through a carbonation machine, then mixed with the syrup. UH OH.

It was a long night, and Alan was extremely worried he wouldn't be able to venture out to Catherine Palace the next day. After a visit to the Apteka (drug store), he decided to risk it.

Once we arrived in Pushkin, we walked about 1/2 mile to reach the gates of the palace. We could see the iconic Blue and Gold building ahead of us, but it seemed like we were going around it, rather than directly to it. Our assumptions were correct. The palace is not laid out like the rest of the city, running at an angle to everything else.

Apparently, to allow everyone equal time to visit, they separate local and international groups entrances and times

We were happy to hear that we would be allowed to take pictures inside the palace. The first room we entered was the ballroom. Seeing the decorations, patterned wooden floors, and paintings in the room were very interesting, as were the stories. Apparently, wealthy Russians like to rent out the room for wedding receptions; Elton John has played private shows there many times over the years.

About 2/3rds of the way through the tour, we saw the room Alan had been waiting for. The Amber Room. After watching 2 hour long HD specials on the room, seeing it in person wasn't as impressive. However, it's hard to have a chance to be impressed when you are confined to a 4ft wide by 15 ft long section with 40-50 other people, and are given 30 seconds to view the room before being herded on to the next area.

With walls covered in pieces in decorative patterns, the Amber Room is one of the ongoing mysteries of World War II. The Russians were unable to evacuate the walls of the room before the Germans invaded. Yet somehow during the occupation, the Germans tore down the walls and transported them out of Russia. Somehow, the knowledge of where these gigantic sections of Amber were located was lost. Through large donations from the German and Russian governments, the walls have been recreated.

Another room we visited was more disturbing than impressive. One of the dining rooms was labeled the Hunting Room. A long dining table was laid out, but on all of the walls of the room, large paintings gave an eerie feel. They were scenes of deer, rabbits, and birds laid out on tables, dead but not yet field dressed. Very odd.

The final stop on our tour of Catherine Palace was a museum dedicated to documenting the restoration process. There were many photographs and paintings of the destruction left after World War II, along with the reconstruction process. It was a stark contrast between the burned out shell found by the Russians 65 years ago, and the beautiful restoration that exists today.

Outside the palace, we wandered through the many gardens and buildings on the palace property. There were many places to visit, but between the heat, the dehydration, and the pace we had set for the previous 3 days, we decided not to explore too much.

On our way back to the city, we passed many monuments and statues commemorating battles during the siege of World War II. I believe we may have passed the only remaining statue of Lenin in the city. It seems many residents are eager to forget the days of Stalin and Lenin. Today, very few monuments remain.

Once we returned to our apartment, we rested for a few hours. The weather was starting to change, and we wondered if our final plans would be canceled. We ate another fabulous dinner at our favorite restaurant, and then made our way to one of the canals.

Our final tour of St. Petersburg was by boat. Since so much of the city is made of canals, boat tours are able to show nearly every landmark of the city. We found a tour for English speakers, and off we went. The first thing that we noticed was how gritty the tour was. Since the streets were at a higher level than the water in the canal, all of the sand was blown into our faces. Most places were fine, but there was one area where the wind was very strong.

When our boat reached the Neva River, we suddenly felt very SMALL. The river is close to 1 mile wide at that point, so many large boats travel freely back and forth. Our 40 seat tour boat was tossed around a bit, luckily neither of us get seasick. Despite this, we had a great time on the boat, and would gladly take the tour again. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable, and had a very good sense of humor.

By the time we had returned to our dock, the weather was clearing up some. Since we still had a few hours of sunlight left(gotta love being within a few hundred miles of the Arctic Circle) we decided to walk to the Church on Spilled Blood.

Along with St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, this is one of the most easily recognizable "Russian" style churches. Built on the site of the assassination of Czar Alexander II, this site was more of a monument than functioning house of worship. As we toured the outside of the building, we noticed a mural that looked like Jesus flipping the double bird. Alan was more amused than Kathy was.

Our final stop before heading back to the apartment was Kazan Cathedral. We were both completely exhausted by this point, so we satisfied ourselves with taking pictures, and agreed that we'd check it out on our next trip back. Neither of us have any doubt that we will return, as visiting St. Petersburg has become a highlight of both our lives.

Since we were still about a 30 minute walk, we decided to venture into the subway system for the first time. Although not as extensive as the Moscow subway, St. Petersburg has a system that runs 6 or 7 lines. Unfortunately for us, these lines mostly avoid the historical areas. So in all of our walking around the city, this was the first time that riding the subway would be quicker than just walking there.

As we entered the subway station, we purchased our transit coins. I believe the trip cost a little over $1 US for the two of us. We dropped our coins into the slot, and made our way to the escalator. As residents of a city without subways, we weren't quite sure what to expect.

Impression #1 - This escalator was MUCH steeper than we expected. #2 - It took longer than we expected. Some of the stations are 325 feet deep!

Once we were underground, a train quickly arrived to take us to our apartment. We made our way back above ground (sighing in relief that the power didn't go out as it had a few days before), and walked the short distance to the apartment. We were a bit sad, as we would be leaving St. Petersburg the next day. However, we were also happy: We would be heading back to Kirov, to get our little guy!