The city of St. Petersburg is only about as old as the city of Boston. It’s hard to remember that because the history and the architecture makes the city seem ancient. For its 300th anniversary, St. Petersburg was getting a makeover. Roads and buildings that had fallen into disrepair over the years since the fall of Communism were getting some much needed attention, work crews and scaffolding were everywhere. March and April are tough times to visit Russia and really see its beauty. Not quite winter, not really spring, the first impression is grey and grimy. But you can’t miss the brightly colored buildings, palaces from tsarist times, now mostly museums. The churches and cathedrals with their stunning onion domes tell you immediately that you have arrived in Russia.
In many ways, St. Petersburg is a very European city. It considers itself the Venice of the north. Entire parts of the city are on separate islands, connected by bridges. More than once we saw people walking the frozen canals. But there would be plenty of time to explore the city after we met our child.
After Vika haggled with Air France for the swift return of our luggage, we were whisked off to the Ministry of Education to get the referral for a two-year old boy residing in Orphanage #6. Waiting in that office with other prospective parents, we noticed that it was occupied by mostly women in high heeled boots who walked briskly and loudly through the halls, slamming doors behind them; an intimidating first impression. But our “invitation” meeting went smoothly and then it was off to the baby home.
Detsky Dom 6 is a dilapidated yellow building that houses about 85 children in groups of 10-15. We were asked to don blue plastic booties to keep the city dirt off the floors. The orphange is old but essentially clean despite the smells of cabbage soup and diapers. We were introduced to Viktor, who would be our primary facilitator. We then met the orphanage director and were shown to a small sitting room where we would meet our child.
When they brought our two-year old boy into the room he cried at first until I picked him up. When I put him down again he pointed at my husband and said “dadda.” Or so I thought. The facilitators quickly corrected my impression - the word he used meant “man.” Orphanage children don’t see a lot of men, and those they do see are usually doctors who are going to give shots. It takes a while for these kids to warm up to their new fathers.
After a few minutes, the facilitators left us with the baby and we attempted to get to know each other. T. was wide-eyed and cautious. He regarded us warily. I suppose we did the same.
So much goes into “meeting your child.” I guess there are few decisions in life as big as this one. Can you bond with the child? Is he healthy? If he has health issues, are they ones you can cope with? We’ve met parents who have had to turn down an initial referral because of health issues. The specter of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome hangs over the whole decision, though I’ve come to suspect that the fear is greater than the actual occurrence.
They tell you to bring food, as that is the best way connect with your child. Feeding your child facilitates the bonding process. Bring toys, particularly toys they have to do something with. Neither of our children were even remotely interested in stuffed animals until months after they came home, and toys like blocks will help you get an impression of where the child is developmentally.
By the time the facilitators returned, I had T. in my lap with his head on my chest, rubbing his back, and watching him look up at me from to time. I had, in those short moments, found the key to connecting with my son. He LOVES to have his back rubbed. I think Viktor might even have looked a little surprised when he came in to read from T’s medical history.
Another quirk about Russian adoptions is that the Russians don’t want healthy children to leave the country, so Russian medical records are often littered with scary-sound diagnoses like “perinatal encephalapathy.” Expect to hear about allergies to fruits. You may need an American doctor to consult with.
Visits with your child are never long enough. When ours was over we returned T. to his group and the door to his little world was quickly closed. Pak-kah!
Our hotel, the Angleterre, was a welcome retreat after our long trip, our encounter with the ministry, and the experience of the orphanage. Fairly luxurious, it was an odd place to be doing laundry in the sink until our luggage could be recovered. But we desperately needed sleep, we needed a real meal, and of course, there was a lot to think about.