Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Water, water everywhere

I am sitting at this Internet cafe with Veeka on my lap; me cramming pieces of bread in her mouth to keep her from shrieking and disturbing everyone. Folks here let you know if they disapprove of things. If they think your kid is not dressed well enough for the weather, they shake their finger at you and say, "Oy, oy, oy." (shame, shame, shame).
Anyway, the night before last, Veeka was bouncing against the walls. I had JUST gotten her down at 11:45 p.m. (!) when I heard a KASPLOOSH. It seemed to be coming from the bathroom so I dashed in to find the water pipe had broken and water was flooding my bathroom. Fortunately the bathroom is about 2 inches below the rest of the hotel room, but I knew the water would rise quickly. I picked up the phone but noone was at the front desk. I grabbed my Berlitz phrase book but there was no line saying, "Some pipe has burst and we will drown soon if you don't do something." Grabbing Veeka and throwing on my bathrobe, I ran down four flights barefoot to the guard on the ground floor. Pinting upstairs, I yelled "Problem!!" pronouncing it like they do in Russian: "problame."
Anyway, I must have looked like a wild banshee for the guard raced after me 4 flights back up to the rapidly rising waters. He got on his walkie-talkie and frantically called someone and figured out which faucet to turn off. "Zaftra," I said to him as he left, which means "tomorrow."
Sure enough, 2 plummers showed up at my door yesterday morning at 9. Other than that, I went out to lunch with a Kazak friend, met another visiting friend from New Zealand who is in town and hosted 2 other people (Aida and Madina) who dropped by just when I was trying to put Veeka down. Of course she didn't mind; anything that delays her bedtime is fine with her.
Am closing photos of her sleeping and her in her carriage all bundled up for a walk in the park. Notice the snow and the birch trees. Does this look like a Russian novel?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The daily routine

She fell asleep! I was walking her back and forth, through the park, past the pigeons, doing EVERYTHING to try to get her to nap and finally she dozed off in her stroller. So into the I-cafe I sprinted.
We are kind of settling into a routine. We get up 7:30-8-ish and slog down 4 flights to the hotel restaurant. The help there was absolutely snotty to me but when I started showing up with Veeka (or Vicka as someone suggested-must think about that)I was then OK in their eyes. Anyway, the hotel got a list from the baby house as to accepted cuisine for the 2 adopted kids (mine and Mike and Carol's little Andrew). So the kids are served kasha or buckwheat groats, which was what was on for this morning. Usually I get either a meatloaf-rice combo (I know, weird for breakfast but that's what's served here) or more often, two crepes with jam. Veeka is a very polite eater and gets almost nothing on her unless I try to feed her something messy like pasta or grated carrots. She also has not figured out what to do with a straw yet.
Then it's back to the room for potty time and then some play while Mommy tries to study some Russian. I am now studying how to say "January" and "February," etc. Also how to say "first" and "second" and so on. Russian has a way of jamming together as many as 5 consonants in a word, sans vowels. This morning Mike had a kiddie video of Dr. Dolittle and his animals or something like that. Veeka didn't take to it much - I do not think she processes TV all that well because last night's "Princess Bride" didn't hold her attention.
Then it's back down 4 flights to the ground floor where I say "Minya noojna kalasku, p'shalsta" (I need the stroller, please) and the concierge runs and gets it out of storage. Veeka is dressed to the nines because the locals around here will come up and lecture you if your child is not dressed warmly enough (in their opinion) for the cold weather. Today it is -6 Celsius - about 22 degrees F?
Then we drop by the 2 spots where the stray kitties hang out and leave some kitty food there. Then today we went and picked up some cute Kazakh souvenirs which will serve as presents and house gifts for at least the next year. Then it was off to the local mall where I nodded and pointed at what I wanted for lunch. Usually these snack bars have some kind of meat pastry, borsht or something like it, an American soft drink and a shrimp-and-corn salad. They don't really seem to have lettuce in this country. The salads are good, but they tend to consist of peas, tomatoes, celery, etc. but no greens. Whenever I deal with a cashier, I try to repeat the amount I am paying back to them so I can practice my numbers; problem is, they think I am contesting the price, so out comes their adding machine while they insist they are not cheating me. Valentin told me to respond, "Ya trenyoorooyoo moy Russki!" (I am practicing my Russian!)
Sigh. WHY are they playing rap music in this cafe? Anyway, I try to keep Veeka active til noon, then feed her lunch (again, she is great in restaurants - very quiet and makes no scenes), then try to get her to nap, hopefully in her stroller and within a few blocks of the cafe. Today I will take her to a play date with an American couple staying at another (and more expensive) hotel. They are here for their 2nd child and their plight makes my time here seem like heaven. Their judge yesterday just told them their adoption agency's papers were outdated (and there's no excuse for an agency to let this happen)plus they want the parents and their coordinator to go find the birth mother somewhere in the Kazakh countryside to sign off on one more document. This poor couple is just tearing out their hair over this (the birth mom disappeared a long time ago) so I am taking them a CD of Russian "new age" music to brighten their day. So their adoption procedure has been put on hold until they can straighten everything out and who knows when that will be?
I have heard other bad stories about various from several Americans who are in country like I am. There's a lot of corruption in this adoption business; once you're here, you are pretty much on your own. There is not much your US agency can do for you nor the US embassy, for that matter. If a local prosecutor takes a dislike to you or wants to vent against Americans, you can lose your child. And some people have.
Note to Alison - yes, Veeka and Charlie must meet! And amusing Veeka is taking lots of energy. She gets bored easily with the same toys. Today Mike blew up some huge balloons for her he found at the local toy store.
Evenings - well, Veeka should be asleep by 7 but lately she's not been. Must get her to bed early tonight; will be watching "The Shawshank Redemption;" don't think she'll be into that.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Party, party

Veeka has already made the social scene here in swinging Kostenai by putting in an appearance last night at not one, but two peoples' homes where she charmed everyone with her love of music, dancing and stuffed toys. The aforementioned Madina, who has a passle of Kazakh relatives in town, has been so helpful! I called her yesterday (Sunday) to say I was going stir-crazy in the hotel and did she want to do something?
Well, she arrived in a taxi driven by Dimas, a *very* handsome Russian who scooted us to some strange apartment building way north of Kostenai where we hopped out and zipped up a smelly stairwell to a very nice apartment (this country has NO elevators, it seems and so I am always hauling this child up 4-5 flights of steps)where Madina's sister, Nazee-gul (means "gentle flower" in Kazakh) dished us up salad and meat and cake - well, Veeka snarfed down everything she could get her little mits on. I could not believe how she was packing away huge quantities of rice, corn and whatever candy she could grab off the table. She's also into dairy products big time - loves cheese and yogurt. Anyway, she also managed to talk Sasha, Nazeel-gul's Russian husband, out of a green stuffed bunny.
Stuffed bunny in hand, we then got back in the taxi and zoomed to Madina's place where her 11-year-old son, Jangeldy - who is a national judo champ for his age category - and Madina poured more food, ie gummies into the Little One. Veeka bounced around and talked Jangeldy out of one of his stuffed toys as well - it plays music. You should see how this kid adores any tune at all. Every time I take her to the local supermarket, she starts swaying and smiling to the muzak. The clerks get the biggest kick out of her. So today I went to a used CD place and got some New Age music and some classical. Need to prep her for that harp.
I do however need to teach her some discernment. The trashiest English-language MTV videos get played everywhere here and she loves to watch them all. This morning while eating breakfast in the hotel cafe, we got to watch Pink Floyd's "I Don't Want No Education;" - over the top, I thought.
Sunday morning we also went out to visit a small evangelical church south of town. Veeka let it be known she would implode after 2 hours - in fact as the sermon dragged, she got restless. So I took her into the church office where I saw some really interesting evangelistic literature, including a child's Kazakh Bible. A lot of the evangelical Christian stuff gets printed in Germany, then shipped here. For you historians, remember Stalin exiled a lot of Germans to Kazakhstan way back when. Finally, circa 1989-91, they were permitted to leave the country and go back to Germany, which most of them did. You can still see remnants of Germany culture here - several restaurants; buses with German signs on them but most of the Germans are gone.
Things are going well. Saturday night, we sat down for a mother-daughter movie night, courtesy of a DVD someone loaned me to play on my laptop. So she sat there with her apple juice and me with my hot tea and we watched "Finding Neverland" or "Leaving Neverland" whatever the name of that movie starring Dustin Hoffman was. Tonight, we'll watch "Princess Bride."
Oops - she is starting to is very tough, like I said, to get her in a long enough nap in her stroller to allow me to come here. Today, after going to the local mall to get her some PJs (she wet the only pair we had last night), I brought her here but instead of going to sleep in the nice, warm Internet cafe, she started to screech. So I finally took her for a walk in the 35-degree weather and she dozed off. Go figure.
For those of you having difficulties posting comments, I am sorry - is being ornery with me as well. Am trying to solve these difficulties.
Am enclosing 2 photos - one of our interpreter Valentin admiring a belly dancer we saw at a restaurant a week ago. The other is of Yulia - the cute 3-year-old who was dumped at the orphanage was well. Yulia has spina bifida so she cannot walk - her legs are folded under her so barring a miracle, she is confined to a wheelchair for life. But she's the sweetest thing - very smart and talkative - and she's shut in with the mentally ill kids cuz she's been assigned to the disabled wing. But from the waist up, she's great! I've included a photo of her so that if any of you know someone with a heart for adopting a disabled orphan, let me know and I will send you more details. The orphanage director said she'd be happy to put Yulia's name on the registery...she had given up hope of finding anyone who'd take her.
Veeka is stirring...Auf Wiedersehn!

Friday, January 26, 2007

My big day

Well, folks, I woke up this morning (Friday) with a little person sleeping beside me!
Let me go back 24 hours: At the crack of dawn on Thursday (the 25th), I got up and put on a nice dress (a change from the several layers of jeans and winter underwear I usually wear) and caught the van to Rudny at 7:45 a.m. Although I'd been slated for the afternoon hearing, it was moved to 9 a.m. the day before, so I was dropped off at a non-descript building which was the regional courthouse. My court-appointed interpreter, Alyssa, came up and introduced herself and I learned mine was the first case she was to translate. She'd just been hired. Well, okaaaaay, she and I and Rima, the orphanage director and Natalia, the court-appointed guardian, walked up a few flights, then showed up in the judge's chambers. The building was what you'd expect from a former Soviet republic; kind of shabby and run down.
But the judge was dressed in a tailored maroon robe which was kind of pretty, I thought, and across from her was a court reporter (who wrote in longhand!) and the prosecutor, whose job it was to ask me any tough questions.
The whole thing took about an hour. First the judge read outloud from a booklet listing some of the local laws; basically reading me my rights. Then I was asked: Why did I want to adopt? And why Kazakhstan? Then the guardian stood up and talked about how Veeka's mother abandoned this poor prematurely-born child in the hospital; how she never even bothered to call and check up on the child and how things were touch-and-go for a long time and that she was so tiny and thin, she wasn't even put on the adoption register until this past fall. Then Rima said how they had watched me interact with Veeka at the baby house and how she and I took to each other and how I'd turned down 2 boys in favor of Veeka, what a loving person I was, how Veeka looked forward to seeing me; then the guardian chimed in about how I make such a good salary and although I am older than most new mothers, I will be excellent with Veeka, etc. etc. - I raised my eyebrows at some of these things but knew it was best to just smile and nod. The one very odd thing was how the judge's phone would ring in the middle of someone's testimony and she'd interrupt the hearing to answer it.
The only thing that caught me unawares was our discussion on the birth certificate; they asked if I wanted to put myself down as the mother and my mind went blank - couldn't remember what other adoptive parents did in foreign countries. Kazakhstan will change the certificate if you want. And the interpreter was a bit confused at this point as well; we were both kind of looking at each other until the guardian stepped in and in very brisk Russian tried to set me straight. So finally I said yes - put me down as the mom - then they wanted the name of someone as the dad! Hmmmm. Finally I said to put down her grandfather (!) so there is a "Robert Duin" listed as the father of little Veeka in the Rudny courthouse.
Finally it was all over and I had to wait 20 minutes until the judge gave her opinion. We all shuffled back into her office where she said she had agreed with the orphanage's opinion that I should be given custody of Veeka and that herewith according to Rudny's district court I'd be known as her mother. It was about 10:30 a.m. I was so happy to have it over, that I lined up several of us involved in the hearing for a photo on the ground floor of the court house (from left to right: me, Baha the adoption coordinator, Rima and Alyssa) until the guard yelled at us - no photos allowed, apparently. Then some of us went out for lunch at a Korean restaurant to celebrate.
I spent the afternoon at the orphanage waiting for Mike and Carol to get through their hearing. Igave out gifts to a few of the people I'd worked with (Baha, our driver and Valentin the translator). Mike and Carol didn't get back til after 6, so we each then got a list of the childrens' schedules and what foods they liked to eat. Then we got a quick tour of their sleeping and play rooms. Unfortunately all the other kids were asleep by then (7 pm.) so it was pretty rushed.
Then, we bundled the 2 kids in their snow suits and then, the falling snow, we took them out to the waiting van for their last trip out of that orphanage. It was dark, of course, but the kids were wide-eyed the whole trip back to Kostenai. Veeka was totally bewildered at being dumped in my hotel room but I got her to sleep by pushing our beds together and holding her til she dozed off.
This morning, I got a call from Gail - thank you! - and the hotel restaurant was closed for some odd reason so breakfast was Chocolo-Chips or some odd Soviet cereal - anyway, got much of it down Veeka. She let me know she preferred a trail mix bar. Well...I poured some kefir down her instead. The little thing then walked out, totally destroying my hotel room and getting into all sorts of things she shouldn't. BUT she knows how to use the kiddie potty so we're halfway into toilet training - kids at the baby house are just plunked on the toilet at set times, so they learn how to go.
It was obvious I needed more clothes for the munchkin - everything I brought was too large - so off I went to a baby clothing store where Veeka began to scream and scream. I could not make my wishes (wanted to buy a pacifier, some shoes, 2 shirts and a woolen hat) known to the women in the store but who should walk up but 2 English majors at Kostenai State University. They were so helpful - plus one of the women in the store knew kids REALLY well and distracted Veeka with toys and a candy bar. The two college students, named Masha and Anya, then accompanied me to the supermarket where they helped me with the stroller and translating some of the items. It is the worst weather out - about 40 degrees and raining. Then I treated them to lunch at a local restaurant and Veeka acted beautifully - sat there and gulped down pizza and apple juice and didn't whimper a bit. Then while I was trudging back to the hotel in the slush, she conked out in her stroller SO I detoured to the Internet cafe so I could post this. She is still snoozing - were she not, the cafe folks would eject me, I'm sure.
Anyway, I will post when I can but dragging the stroller about 5 blocks away and timing my visits with Veeka's naps is difficult! Anyway, I am so enjoying having my own daughter and she's behaving beautifully considering she's left the only home she has ever known. The photo you see of her - snowsuit and striped socks and fluffy hat - is what she looked like as she waved goodbye.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


A future musician?

Tomorrow (Thursday the 25th) is a big day: Up at the crack of dawn to go to the Rudny courthouse where Mike and Carol have their hearing at 9 a.m. Then we hang out at the orphanage, then go to lunch somewhere in town, then back to the orphanage and then I have my hearing before the judge at 4:30. Then it's back to the orphanage to pick up the children, get a list of all their foods, their daily schedules and whatnot and then I dress Veeka up in the clothes I bought (she takes nothing with her) and then back to Kostenai we go. It's a very long day. By then she'll be getting tired so I will put her to bed as soon as I can. Fortunately I get to use the hotel's one crib. I don't have a kitchen, so it's hard to fix the porridge (they call it kasha) she has for breakfast. Lunch is whatever I can persuade the canteen 2 floors below me to microwave (must ask them in Russian). Dinner - have only planned through Friday at this point.
Am posting photos of Veeka's purple dress day listening to music and posing by some toys. Today is sunny and comparitively warm. I have just learned the local pigeons here really like my cat food. Tonight Madina has invited me over to her cousin's place for dinner; my last childless night! Maybe my last night to get some decent sleep but we won't go there right now. I've already assembled gifts for the driver, Veeka's chief caregiver, the interpreter, etc.
Wish me well...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Siberian wind

Today Miss Veronika wore a pretty purple dress and was in a very good mood. This made things pleasurable for me, as I brought her for the first time a little pink CD player w/kiddie music on it. As soon as I put the earphones on her, she smiled and smiled. She'd never heard such music before. She swayed and swayed and told me to thank Karen Forsyth for giving it to her. Yes, I think I'll get her started on the harp when I get home.
I finally broke down and bought a 220-volt hairdryer w/European-style plugs which has improved my appearance considerably. Today, there were gale winds out, so I searched out 2 stray kitties and left food for them. Yes, I've discovered both their hideouts. Will try again to post a photo of the male tiger kitty - dedicated to my father WHO HAS YET TO GET A CAT. He's pretty roly-poly - must be lots of mice underneath these buildings but then I found a far scrawnier young black and white kitty. Was approaching the little furball when a gust of wind hit, almost knocking me over and sending the poor cat flying to the nearest crawlspace underneath a nearby restaurant. Went and searched out said cat, who was mighty grateful for the kitty kibble I left him/her in a little alcove out of the wind.
Am totally out of touch with what the news is around the world although did hear Bill Richardson is going for president. Knowing him from New Mexico days, that'll be interesting. Fortunately the religion beat has been more or less quiet.
I appear in court 4:30 p.m. Thursday which should be a quickie before a local judge. I have already filled out paperwork saying yes I want to take Veeka home with me and fatten her up with 4% milk and mom's fruitcake and sausage from New Ulm. Barring something unforeseen in court, we pick up the children Friday morning, after which time it will be considerably harder for me to get to the Internet cafe so posts will be far less frequent, I am afraid, until the modem my dad sent me arrives in the mail and I can post from the hotel. The connection speeds here are less than stellar and AOL seems to crash once a day on me. Sigh.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Meeting Madina

Today I'm feeling better, as I spent the weekend trying to get over a nasty cold. Today for the first time, Veeka did not cry when she was handed off to me. That is a victory. I continue to meet people here; Madina is the name of a woman I met at the internet cafe who speaks English! Not too many people do that here but Madina teaches English to teenagers here. I'm always grateful for anyone who can help me translate as I continually flub up here ordering things in restaurants, etc.
They say Kostenai is having a heat wave now; temps today were in the 30s which is considered postively tropical here. I am slowly meeting people; have extracted a promise from Madina that she'll have dinner with us later this week. I am slowly stocking up on food in my room for the Little One, as restaurants here have no baby seats. I bought some chocolate (!) breakfast cereal at the local supermarket as I was so sick of eating the odd breakfast at my hotel with the waitress who kind of throws the food at us. She is a bit grouchy. The couple traveling with me tried buying milk at the supermarket; when they returned to the hotel room, they found out they'd purchased fermented mare's milk. We're still laughing about it - however I did cajole Valentin to take me to the market and explain the difference between milk, butter, kefir and yogurt. The mare's milk is in there along with the rest of them.
Am including photos of the Russian kitty and me with Veeka in a good mood.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Beautiful downtown Rudny

I would post a photo of Veeka's birthplace, but one of the computers here at this Internet cafe flamed out my flashdrive. I tried buying one today at the electronics store but the way one goes about ordering one, paying, then picking it up at a different counter involved a lot more Russian than I can manage. Very disheartening. Must say I feel like a deaf-mute here; having to use sign language most of the time and just avoiding peoples' glances in general (as they stare at my ski coat). Unfortunately I've caught Veeka's cold, so I did have to negotiate the local pharmacist, but when I saw some HALL's menthol drops, I grabbed them.
Today was the end of our required 15 days of visitation at the orphanage. It was one of the worst days I've had there. Veeka either just sat and looked at the other couple with their angelic child or screamed bloody murder when I took her to a different room to get her to concentrate on me. Nothing would soothe her. The caretakers bought out some potato soup so I could have a chance at trying to feed her and she wouldn't let me get near her. She finally even threw a fit with the caretaker. Great.
Afterwards, our driver took us on a tour of Rudny, an industrial town of 100,000, they say, but it didn't look much larger than 60,000 if that. Lots of Soviet-style statues of brawny, block-like men and women and shabby apartment blocks. We took photos of the local maternity hospital and the local open market. People actually have open-air stalls here which they sell out of, in the snow and all. I tell you, these folks treat 20-degree weather like we'd treat something in the 70s. We passed by a local monument to the all the iron ore workers (Rudny is a national center for minerals and the local water tastes like it!) and I must say it is one drab place. The adoption agencies won't let their clients stay there; everyone stays in Kostenai where there's less crime and more to do.
Tonight we visit a local hot spot where there's a belly dancer and shish kebab. It's supposed to be one of the more swinging places in north-central Kazakhstan so stay tuned.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A sunny day at last

I was going to change money when what should I encounter but a Kazakh kitty - very thick fur - he was strolling about in the snow as if cats always like to traverse the white stuff. There are all manner of stray dogs and cats here; Valentin the interpreter said there is no such thing here as an animal pound. How these poor creatures survive the winter, I have no idea, but they do. One of my daily activities is to gather the bread left over from my breakfast and feed the pigeons in the nearby park.
Veeka has been feeling sick the past few days, so she has sniffled a lot and coughed. Today she didn't want to play at all; just wanted to suck on a baby bottle full of apple juice, then fall asleep in my arms. Which was kind of sweet. I, by the way, have been completely well since I came - haven't gotten sick a'tall.
I ate last night at an Italian place; the folks here have no concept of service with a smile. It's not as bad as the old USSR, but the concept of being pleasant just doesn't exist here. Someone was saying yesterday it's the idea of the nail whose head rises above the rest tends to get hammered; thus everyone here just tries to slink into the background and not stand out.
I just paid my hotel for another 2 weeks. Our first 15 days of visits is up tomorrow (Saturday). Our court date is next Thursday and then we have to stick around for another 2 weeks until the judge signs the adoption order, hopefully on Feb. 9. We will then leave for Almaty either that day or the next. I'd like to think I could get home by Feb. 16th or so...we shall see.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Snow continues to fall

The days seem to blend together here. Of great help have been Mike and Carol, the couple traveling with me to the same orphanage day after day. We often compare notes when something suspicious or strange seems to be going on and it helps to have someone else English-speaking around. There are other folks in town who are adopting but they are all visiting a much large orphanage here in Kostenai which has a whole different set of rules. Last night at a restaurant I met a couple who'd adopted a little boy 2 years ago and who are back for #2. Another couple had a 9-year-old girl with them they adopted 2 years ago and now they are in town to adopt an 8-year-old.
The restaurant was very bohemian. A pianist was playing "Moonlight Sonata" in the background. A salad and Russian soup and a Kazakh beer - all for about $5-$6 - fills one up. They serve sour cream with everything here and vodka abounds.
Yesterday Veeka was sniffly - with the beginnings of a cold, I think. I asked the caretakers for tissues and got handed a handkerchief - I guess Kleenex boxes cost too much?! There's so much going on here behind the scenes that I've yet to figure out. Like the orphanage personnel don't want us to see some of the really disabled kids there - and there's a whole wing of kiddies with various deformities. We really do not get the run of the orphanage at all - we are limited to 1-2 rooms. They say if we wander about, we will scare the other kids. Am not sure I buy that.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Learning Russian

It's Wednesday, I think - one tends to lose track of time here. Veeka continues to do well and I am starting to recognize her cries in the crowd. Yesterday we listening to nursery rhyme music. She continues to work on her 2nd trail mix bar.
The 45-minute drive to the orphanage is usually my day's Russian lessons as I sit there in the van with my "Beginner's Russian" in hand, asking the interpreter how to pronounce certain words. Most of what I say, the folks here cannot understand! Sigh. Just figuring out how to say "I need my laundry done" to the maid is a major undertaking. Conjugating verbs is still beyond me. So we take Valentin with us on even the most minor errands, ie buying fruit in the local market or looking for light-weight strollers.
Finally bought a pair of boots yesterday; my apres-ski books had no traction and were causing me to do things like slip on roads and in front of oncoming cars. So my footwear looks like something out of Lapland, with long leather ties that go round and round my shins.
Keep those cards and letters coming!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Going Orthodox

"Veeka always likes to read instructions first."

"Rudny baby house."

One addendum - Just wanted to say I *tried* attending a Russian Orthodox church yesterday. It didn't help that Valentin got the time wrong and we walked in 2 hours late. I knew when I saw the congregants kissing the cross (which is always done near the end of the service)that we had missed something. Turns out we missed the whole thing...oh well. Then one woman walked up and snapped at me for removing my hat - oops. Then another walked up and buttonholed my translator as to why we were whispering during the service. My goodness...
In the afternoon I walked down to the local mosque but didn't go in. All the signs were in Russian or Kazakh and I knew that if I entered via the mens' entrance instead of the womens', I'd be in BIG trouble.
Hopefully with this post will be images of the Rudny baby house and Veeka with her toys. Trying to get these in the right way is a challenge...

A Day in the Life (3)

(This is now Monday) For the record, I typed out part 2 on Saturday and *thought* I was posting it...but the instructions on were all in German! So I pushed the "save as draft" button instead. Oops. I just fished out part 2 and posted that and now here comes part 3. I am going to try to post some photos but knowing my luck so far with the Internet here - we will see...
Just wanted to say it is a balmy minus 8 degrees Celsius here. I took my interpreter Valentin to lunch today and bribed him with a pizza so he'd translate some Russian fairy tale books I bought the other day. Today I bought a Christmas tree ornament shaped like a yurt. Cannot say I have gotten into the local culture much - the van ride to the orphanage features Cossak lite music on CDs provided by Sasha the driver. Lots of deep-voiced men singing war-like songs while rowing down the Volga sort of thing.
Today Veeka continued her munching of my 2nd Trail Mix bar and decided to tackle some of the board books I'd brought along. The doctor told me she's a picky eater - well not when it comes to sweets. Note to Karen - she really liked your book about the bears.
If any of you have money to burn for an international phone call, I would welcome some! My parents and Gail Dall have managed to say (in Russian) my room number so I guess my instructions aren't too hard to follow. Note: either do it via Skype or hopefully you have an international plan cuz these calls can be pricey! Email me if you're interested..
Da svedanya, all..

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Day in the Life (2)

"Veeka gets excited over Mommy's reading glasses."

Sometimes the 25-mile to Rudny is quite an adventure, as it was this morning when we slid the whole distance on the iciest, snow-drifty roads imaginable. Fortunately I am in the back seat of a van; the driver said I could sit up front where it's warmer, which I'd do if there were seatbelts! As we passed several accidents on the way, I decided discretion was the better part of valor.
The Rudny baby house, as they call it, is a brick structure on a side road in the next town south of Kostenai. I'll be posting a photo of it soon. It's clean enough inside but in some of the rooms, the smell of urine is enough to knock you over. The squalling of babies never stops. We walk up one flight of steps and into an airy play room which is where I spend my time with Veeka. She howls when she's first brought out but soon the sniffles stop and we're riding around on the truck or the tricycle. Unlike the little boy who's also getting adopted the same time, Veeka is not a stacker or a builder. Nope. That's too boring. She's into detailed stuff; folding and unfolding paper, pushing buttons on my Olympus camera and opening and shutting all manner of things. She's just getting the hang of zippers now. Re-sealable plastic bags are a bit beyond her ken but she's working on them. We stood by the huge picture windows to one side of the room and watched the birds. Then I put a piece of snow in her hand. That was too cold for Miss Veeka but she really got off on how it soon melted and then she could keep on dipping her finger in the resulting puddle.
Sometimes as we play, a passle of little boys will just stand there behind a glass door leading to another room, staring at us. It's so obvious they too would like a mommy. I have met some of the other kids, including a cute little blond who is 3-4 years old who's got huge attachment issues; runs around and hugs everyone, is very cross-eyed and bow-legged. Something is not working there. Then there's "Yulia," a little dark-haired girl with the loveliest face who will talk your ear off in Russian. Then I looked down and noticed her legs curled under her in a strange way. She scoots on her rear across the floor and there is a huge hump on her lower back. I assume her parents dumped her when they saw that. I'd take her in a minute as I hate to think what her fate will be. I assume in the States that could be remedied by surgery, whatever "that" is.
After 90 minutes or so, the caretakers come by to take them to "yum yum" or lunch. Then it's back in the van for our slip-and-slide back to Kostenai where I either 1. go to the supermarket or 2. haunt one of the Internet cafes or 3. go to the local mall. Kazakhstan is such a weird mixture of first and third-world. They have ramps for the handicapped on all their curbs but then again, they have a distressing habit of not taking credit cards in this part of the country, which keeps the spending down a bit. At night, the whole city is lit up in Christmas lights. This being a largely Muslim country, the lights are a bit odd just by themselves or strung on Christmas trees and there's nary a creche to be seen. The big amusement here is to bring bread crumbs for the pigeons in the park or drag your kid behind you not in a stroller but in a sled. Which makes sense as ice and snow are everywhere.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Day in the Life

In case any of you wonder what it's like spending 6+ weeks here, it can get very monotonous so one tries to vary things. I am usually up by 7:15, trying to take a shower with the impossible shower nozzle that spurts out either 1. very hot water or 2. boiling water. Then it's four flights downstairs to the in-house restaurant where I can either have dumplings or eggs and something like ham, or "bleeni" which are like crepes. I never get enough jam or butter for my liking so I've learned how to ask for more of each. The young waitress who's there each morning never smiles. What is it about this culture that is so dour? The way people push their way through doors, never say hello or indulge in even the smallest politnesses - it reminds me of the darkest days of the Soviets.
I've also learned how to ask for "tea with milk" which is "chai es molokom." Today I went back to my room and had this riotous conversation with the maid asking for a clean glass for my bathroom. Problem is, I could not figure out the word for "clean." So we all sat there and giggled until I could borrow a friend's dictionary down the hall. I have determined that, since I am in this country seemingly forever, I will do my best to learn as much Russian as possible. So I am forcing myself to say complete sentences and navigate about the city.
At 9 a.m. the driver picks us up in a freezing van for the 45-minute drive to Rudny, a city of 100,000. It's still dark out so I slide about in the snow, trying to get to the bus. My apres-ski boots are useless on the packed, icy snow all about this city, so I've taken to wearing my high-heeled boots, which are surprisingly stable. One uses the heel to position oneself in the snow and get some stability. Thus I make my way about the city, going by the park to feed the cluster of pigeons there with extra bread from breakfast (the whole city drops by there to feed the birds) or to visit the park. For fun, the folks here like to *sit* on the snowy park benches in freezing weather. But there's little or no cross-country skiing or outdoor ice skating so go figure.
Also...people REALLY know how to dress here for the cold. It's a PETA nightmare, this place, for everyone is decked in all manner of furs and maxi coats.
(Will continue tomorrow)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Yum, yum

Today little Veeka discovered a trail mix fruit and nut bar supplied by Oma that found its way into my purse. Did she like that! Much better than that boring orphanage stuff she usually gets. She also tried lying on my tummy and pretending to be an airplane. That was pretty cool.
Afterwards Valentin and I went to an ice castle (a huge playground that looks like a Snow White castle - but all out of ice) where I slid down the ice slide. Wheee! Then we found a bookstore that has tri-lingual Russian-Kazakh-English children's books. Won't find that at Borders.
I am having a tough time loading AOL so if some of you don't hear from me, it's cuz that #%$^* AOL is acting up. Overseas service is not AOL's speciality. Would use my gmail account but I forgot the password!

Monday, January 8, 2007

Today she smiled and smiled

The secret, I found out, was Mommy's purse! The felt octopus was passe and the felt block with all the cool holes in it was getting old and THEN we discovered that mysterious red bag over there. It had all sorts of interesting things in it, like rainbow-colored reading glasses (those were a big hit), perfumed pieces of paper cut from women's magazines (the one from DKNY that smelled like apples was especially yummy); Mommy's wallet with all those cool credit cards to throw about and all sorts of wonderful things to scrunch and fold and put in one's mouth.
She even showed Mommy how she could use a kleenex herself to wipe all the tears away (great motor skills there), especially if she got to play with that measuring tape that went zzzz-ii-pp!! Now THAT was different. We were having so much fun that when the caregiver arrived to take Veeka away for lunch, she kept on staring longingly at Mommy (or maybe at her purse).
For the record, Veeka's shoes measure 5 inches (does that make her a 5?)Today it is snowing. Tomorrow, her mom gets a field trip to the local flea market. Much fun!

Well, she's got a name

Today I had to give a name for her passport, so I wrote down "Olivia Veronika Duin." There you have it. At present, she's known as "Veeka;" maybe that will stick for the rest of her life - who knows - but I wanted to get my grandmother's name (and that of an aunt) in there somewhere. The Russian pronunciation of VeroNEEKa is quite pretty but the Americans, I am afraid, will mangle it to sound like the "Veronica" of "Archie and Veronica" comics which I am not so wild about. So we'll agonize later on whether to go with "Livvy" or "Veeka" or a combo.
Yesterday we did not go to the orphanage; wish I could say I had found a church but was not able to get my translator to help me find one. An Orthodox one would've been great (for Orthodox Christmas) and I hear there is a Baptist one somewhere but there is no such thing as Yellow Pages in this country so a church is hard to find. Instead, the translator, Valetin, took us to the local municipal museum which was quite interesting - all on the history of the Kazakh steppes and how the nasty Russians showed up to collectivize all the peasants whereupon the nomads killed their horses enmass rather than submit to the Soviets. Plus, seeing all the World War II stuff was amazing - so many of the men sent from here to fight the Germans never came back. I'd also forgotten that the Russian space program took place in these parts. Lots of steppe for them to land on and take off from. All the nuclear tests were in Semey, on the east side of the country.
Later Valentin took me to the "Victory Park" commemorating all the WW2 dead. There was a huge statue of Lenin there so we got into an interesting discussion of whether or not Lenin was evil. I said he was because Lenin laid the foundation for a godless society that made Stalin's mass murders possible. Valentin was puzzled as to why Lenin was bad, then proferred that he really didn't believe in God anyway because all religions were the same. WELL, that got me going as we slipped and slid through the snow in the late afternoon sun on our way back to the hotel - as I explained how Christianity is truly unique from other religions. Mind you, this is a city where the mosque is in the center of town and the Orthodox and Catholic churches are in the outskirts somewhere. Then Valentin volunteered that his grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness.
Tomorrow (Tuesday)I will have dinner with a local English translator - who is Muslim - and her daughter, the latter whom needs help with her French studies. So I will be conversing with this girl in French. Today Valentin helped me with my Russian numbers. The words "nine" and "nineteen" and "twenty" and "ninety" sound the same. The dipthongs here are horrendous - all the words have "dv" or "nv" or "py" or "sy" in them.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Well, at least she stopped crying

Today - Saturday, Veeka's favorite caretaker, Lena, put the little girl in my arms and took off - saying she needed to concentrate on me. The child screamed for about 10 minutes, then, realizing I wasn't going anywhere, resorted to sniffles. Putting her on a window ledge so she could look outside calmed her a lot. Then we sat down and played with a stuffed toy my sister-in-law Susan gave me - and the kid actually figured out the red fuzzy thing went in the red hole. Not bad for 20 months. At one point she calmed down enough to nearly fall asleep in my arms - until the photographer showed up to take her picture for the passport. It was a riot watching 2 men coo at her in Russian to try to get her to look straight at them.

The other bright spot was my parents' phone call at about 8 a.m. - they were calling 6 p.m. Seattle time - it was sure nice hearing from overseas. Anyone so minded is welcome to call my cell phone here - 011-7-7701-541-6476. Remember the 11-hour time difference from the east coast! I am usually in my room most evenings - a good time. Or 7:45 a.m. my time isn't bad either - that gives me time to talk before going down to breakfast then to the orphanage.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Julia meets the moppet

Folks -
These Russian keyboards are a gas! Am esconced at an Internet cafe in this city of 300,000 in the frozen wastes of north-central Kazakhstan. Think dreary Russian city with signposts painted the turquoise-and-yellow stripes of the Kazakh flag and you won't be far off. Wandering around the city square in 0-degree weather is St. Nicholas and his "grand-daughter;" a Kaz custom apparently. Didn't know there was a grand-daughter Claus.
The flight from Almaty got sidelined to Astana (the capital) because a snowstorm shut down Kostenai for several hours. So I sat and drank Russian cognac in the Astana airport lounge. A thrill. Finally got to Kostenai late at night via a Dr. Zhivago scenario; the night sky bright with full moon and snow flurries while we dragged our suitcases through the cold snow drifts to waiting van. The hotel at $67 is fair - can't complain too much - and it's a better deal than the $330/night Almaty Hyatt where they charged you every time you turned around. Nothing free there - not even matches.
The sun doesn't rise here til 9 a.m. so it's a dreary journey through the dawn light - if you can call it that - through frozen wastes out of a Tolstoy novel to Rudny, a town built around the iron ore industry. In the middle is an unmarked "baby house" with 50 kiddies therein. For an orphanage, it wasn't bad - very clean with a new wing just added built from all those contributions from foreigners who've spent their family fortunes adopting a Kaz child.
I was led fairly quickly to little "Veeka" as they called her who after one look at me turned tail and screamed her head off. Not a great start. She immediately ran to her caretaker, Lena, who valiantly tried to introduce her to me but Veeka would have none of that. The couple with me did much better with their little boy who just stood there and looked at them with big soulful eyes.
Well, what is she like? Very small for her age (20 mos) with long legs - appears to not have grown much at all since she was last measured for height, etc. I had a long talk with her doctor today and from all appearances she is healthy - amazing considering she was born breech two months early. The red or blonde hair I thought she had turns out to be brown. Ditto with her eyes. And she does not like me at all. My heart goes out to the poor lonely little girl but I am very discouraged at present.
Her name here is Veronika (Ver-o-NEE-ka is how they pronounce it. That will probably be her middle name.
What has added to my stress here is a horrible mess up here with my visa - the Kaz embassy in the states had me leaving Jan. 7 - I have no idea why that happened but it's been a mess trying to get that fixed. At one point I thought I might have to leave the country tomorrow (Saturday). I have made all sorts of international calls plus communicating with folks here has been a real trial since there's only one interpreter available. I've been socked with a $300 fee to have someone go to Astana tomorrow to remedy the problem - apparently there are more unpleasant surprises to come. Every day has brought a few.
Those of you who pray, I could use some now. As for the rest, a Happy Russian Orthodox Christmas!

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Julia does Almaty

It's 4 a.m here Central Asian time or whatever slot this is 11 time zones away from Washington, DC; a perfect time for the jetlagged to be up and moving. Of much help is Phyllis Tickle's new book "The Night Offices;" all liturgical prayers for the sleep-deprived.
Getting Here was dreary but non-eventful. The flight from DC to Frankfurt ws 6 hours; arrived about 1:30 a.m. my time - what a purgatory of an airport! There's nary a drinking fountain available and any food must be paid for in euros of which of course I had none - plus the change machines to convert one's dollar bills into that currency were down. So I wandered about looking for a free Internet spot - unfortunately there are no Paneras at this airport - then found a lounge chair to rest in between A&B terminals but didn't dare sleep because all my belongings were parked next to me. Finally caught the Lufthansa flight east - there were all of 20 passengers on board for the 5 hours to Astana, then another hour to Almaty, the main city for Barat's favorite country, Kazakhstan. All the luggage deplaned with me and the two Kazakhs who met me: Dmitry and Lili were as pleasant as one could be at 2 a.m. They took me to the Hyatt with its highway robbery rates of $330 a night.
Slept a few hours, then reviewed what little Russian vocabulary I have as I sauntered downstairs for the Hyatt's not-so-budget breakfast at $23 for the buffet. Didn't know I'd be getting New York prices here. However, I bumped into several Americans or English-speaking folks in the dining room; a Columbia University prof who works for USAID in Tajikistan; a friendly Kazakh student who invited me to look her up when I get back to town a few weeks from now and an American pilot who flies for Air Astana.
Snow was falling but it was time to brave the outdoors and go get myself a SIM card for my mobile phone. To get there meant tromping through the slushy grounds of a circus next door to the Hyatt where I saw these cool Bactrian camels one only sees in movies about Mongolia. Finally found the cell phone place but could not figure out how to ask the clerk things like: How many minutes does this buy me? Or: How do I dial this number in-country? I was tearing out my hair while other Kazakhs were standing at the booth giving me weird glances when I heard a couple walk by speaking in English. I dashed after them and got them to translate. That accomplished, I set out to explore Beautiful Glorious Almaty, as Borat would say.
Turns out these folks don't seem to believe in street plows (I did finally spot one) and the sidewalks were ankle deep in snow, which meant one slid around everywhere. Plus I had on a black-and-white-checked ski jacket that in American climes would look pretty understated but not here. EVERYONE has on very dark, fur-lined outfits so my ski jacket glowed in the dark by comparison. The hotel help had told which buses to catch to go to Panifilov Park, a major landmark with a gorgeous Orthodox cathedral so I managed to make known to the driver that's where I wanted to go. (Remember I know about 20 words of Russian at this point. It's my 7th foreign language). He drove 1-2 miles, then stopped at a terminus and ordered everyone out. But the creep had not pointed out the park to me; as it turned out, we were at Gorky Park some 4 blocks away. Furious, I leapt out and headed west down Gogol Street toward Panifilov.
Trying to do anything in Russian was so difficult. I cannot wrap my mind around that language and say things like "I do not understand" without looking at my crib notes. And it's impossible to look at any notes when you have people on the bus yelling instructions to you in Russian as you're zipping down the snowy streets. Finally located the park which, like all of Almaty, is under a thick umbrella of trees. This city must be great in the spring and fall. Even as cold as it was here, I was not uncomfortable but it was getting dark so I headed for the shopping promenades. One, "Silky Way City," was junky, so I continued down Zhibek Zholy which suddenly turned into a pedestrian mall with garish, huge Christmas trees with flashing lights. Finally wandered into ZHUM - sort of like Moscow's GUM store but much smaller but with great handicrafts I'll pick up when back in town. By this time it was dark and I was in no mood to try those nasty buses because I had no idea where they'd dump me this time. I just stood in a snow bank looking forlorn when I noticed 2 young Kazakh women trying to flag down a taxi. Turns out they spoke English and were willing to help me get a ride back to the circus (one of the few words I could pronounce) for 300 tenge (the going rate here for taxis - about $2). Getting a taxi here is an exercise in trust; there aren't official yellow cars per se but it's just regular citizens who drive about and offer you rides if you can agree on a price. What happens if they realize you're a clueless foreigner and take you somewhere out of the way and leave you there unless you pony up big bills did cross my mind as we skidded through town. Fortunately this driver was honest.
Dinner was a $20 chicken sandwich courtesy of the Hyatt. Note to self: Get cheaper digs next time at a place much closer in to town.

Monday, January 1, 2007


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