Emilie Aleksandra Fischl…Sasha
Smart, funny, warm with a streak of sardonic mischievousness, we lost our Sasha to the scourge of our time—Fentanyl. She was two weeks shy of her 25th birthday.
Her life began in St. Petersburg, Russia where she had a difficult birth and then was placed in an orphanage whose condition could only be described as horrific. From the stench of boiled cabbage and disinfectant to the factory-like care, Sasha endured there for more than a year. She came to America with us in 1998 after we spent nearly a month in St. Petersburg living with host families there and in Moscow and procuring the needed paperwork for her to arrive on our shores as an American citizen. Greeting us at the airport on her arrival were many friends and her new Grandma Emmi after whom she was named. She also met her new, older brother who doted on her and became her best and closest friend.
Her early life was fun-filled, with friends and family who provided unconditional love. At first she lived in the Park Avenue neighborhood and we’d often ski or sled to a local coffee house for hot chocolate. Yearly trips to visit Grandma, to Myrtle Beach, camping and hiking rounded out her early adventures.
In early 2003 our family moved to its current home in Honeoye Falls where Sasha began second grade at the Manor School. She was a good student and well liked.
At the Middle School, she played trombone in the band and was often heard practicing by anyone who came to visit and wondered what the strange sounds emanating from the upstairs were all about. Sasha’s high school years were very challenging but she received exceptional aid from the HF/L staff and a particularly kind, helpful teacher, Heather Bell. But as she grew older a darker side from the pain of her early years in Russia emerged.
She graduated early in January of 2014 and shortly after her 18th birthday moved to the Bay Area of California. There she met and found great joy in her friends, most notably Mary Bailey, Trevor Holminski, Emily Graham and Joe & Noelle Kahn. She lived on her own for nearly four years, returning to the Rochester area in November 2018.
Working odd jobs and as a delivery driver for Amazon, Sasha dreamed about going back to school to get a degree in nursing. She was a caring and engaging young woman who spent her final weeks with happiness and joy, even going skiing for the first time in years with her Papa.
She leaves behind her parents, Robert Fischl and Patricia Mallon, her brother Julian, her Grandma, Aunt Jacky as well as many friends and loved ones. She was a free spirit from the start and we hope she has now found the peace that was so elusive in her young life. We will all miss her very, very much.
Back In the Former U.S.S.R
The Adventure of Emilie Aleksandra “Sasha”
January 27/28, 1998
It’s been another long, jet-lagged day like the one more than two years ago when we went to Siberia for Julian. But this is St. Petersburg, window of Russia to the west. Actually the trip was somehow easier, less anxiety filled and more known than before. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that this is what we are supposed to do – to reach out for this little girl and draw her close with love. As we were whisked from the airport at high speed, so many images blurred together to form a mosaic of sights I know I’ve seen before. Maybe in a dream or maybe... Tomorrow we go to the orphanage to meet our new daughter and I’m so excited yet exhausted. The tedium of the waiting, of meeting more new people, of wondering whether or not all will go well, all plods forth until my brain pounds with over stimulation. I can’t sleep yet I’m bone tired. I can’t make time go faster, I can only wait and hope. My thoughts turn to Julian and Grandma and how they’re doing. I’m convinced that all will proceed without a hitch and that we will become one happy family. I can’t wait to be home with Pat and Julian and Emmi A.
January 29, 1998
Today I met my daughter and she cried with fear and terror in her eyes. Surrounded by well-meaning but foreign strangers. But I cried, too, with love for a little child whose life was now to be measured by the fates in my care. She’s so small and serious and unsmiling. In her short, little life so far she’s known nothing but forced care. Today she became real to me and to Pat in a way that only meeting her could provide. I sang a little song in her ear to quiet her as I rocked and waltzed around the room. The short time we spent together vanished like a distant echo, leaving me spent but full of the same joy I experienced upon meeting my son Julian. We bundled Sasha up and took her out into the brilliant sun and cold, cold world of St. Petersburg to have her photo taken for her passport. Upon our return to the orphanage, we presented gifts and our two duffel bags of toys and other donations from our good friend’s back home. A matronly female aide then took Sasha away. We could return the next day if we wanted, and we truly wanted to take her right there. But patience and many smiles were the rules of the journey, smiles I hope she can someday share with us, too.
January 30, 1998 “Our Day in Court”
After a fitful night of half sleep, we awoke to the chime of the antique clock in our host family’s kitchen. Like all days this far to the north, it began in darkness only to gradually emerge from twilight. The day was cold and snowy, adding an almost pristine quality to the grim, gritty reality of what Russia looks like in winter. Breakfast was “kasha” and brown bread and coffee so strong it made my brain snap awake with a jolt. We bundled up against the cold and rode over to the courthouse where we saw another American couple from the day before at the “adoption center”, a clearinghouse for children of all sorts in Russia’s former capital city. The jet lag was still slow in resolving itself, which meant no return to my normal bodily schedule. So I found myself with an incredible need to relieve myself just when we were supposed to appear before the judge of the court. I was shown the “facility” but it was so raw, crude (a hole in the floor) and filthy (not to mention wide open to full public view) that I could not bring myself to use it. Instead, I went back to the hallway and tried my best to smile and carry on. We were finally summoned and stood while a kindly, young judge pronounced us the parents of a beautiful baby girl. We left and returned to the apartment of our host family where, much to my relief, the bathroom was empty. After a quick lunch, we returned to the orphanage with a bag of Cheerios and a few toys to meet with Sasha again. This time there were no tears, just quiet acquiesce and a genuine hunger for the Cheerios. We talked with the orphanage director and played for a while with our new daughter. She almost smiled as we made faces in the mirror but then it was time to go – for the orphanage staff left work early on Friday. We would not be allowed to see our Sasha until the following Monday but I was ready to snatch her up and run the hell out of there. No. No. That’s not the way it would be, so after more patience and smiles we went on our way. We stopped at the Russian museum to buy gifts for friends and family back home and then visited a department store nearby. The contrasts on this trip were so stark in comparison to our experience in Siberia. Here things were plentiful and people looked happier and healthier. Here, too, were centuries of history on every corner. We cruised past Dostoyevsky’s apartment and the fortress of Peter and Paul. Statues and palaces were everywhere until my mind went numb from the mention of still another splendid residence. It was time to return to our host family and prepare for a long weekend of sightseeing and fun. Yet without Sasha in my arms all I can think of is how lonely she must be in that dismal orphanage and how nice it will be when we’re all finally together and home.
January 31, 1998
Upon entering the summer palace of Catherine the Great, I immediately understood why revolution was such a common occurrence in this part of the world. A short, half-hour drive from the city brought us to a world of opulence unknown in our own country. Even the lavish excess of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, or the pompously grand, sparkling Versailles were no match for the splendor of the royal Russian Romanovs. Room after room after room was filled with gold gilt and magnificent works of art. The floors, the walls, the ceilings were adorned with ornate and intricate carvings that made my mind reel with awe and astonishment. Shortly before we arrived at the palace, we visited the monument to the siege of St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) during World War Two. What a sobering place this was, with bunker-like walls in tribute to those who fell during the war. And what a fall it was. We viewed a short video that summed it up vividly. The sheer force of will exhibited by the Russian people left me wondering how I would have responded to such an awful experience. The few artifacts in glass, coffin-like displays were grim reminders of how easy it was to die and how difficult to survive. The sheer waste of it all left me pondering why. But I wasn’t searching for answers, merely meaning. It was like trying to make sense of senselessness. It could not be done yet I couldn’t help but to try.
The swirling snow mixed with the grit of road sand as Vasily, our driver, expertly guided his Ford Escort through the weaving traffic of belching trucks, buses, streetcars and automobiles. At speeds that were high enough to unnerve even the most adroit travelers, we made our way back to the apartment of our host family – Mikhail, Irina and their son Sergy. Pat persuaded me to leave that warm comfort and venture out into the city, unaccompanied except for our wits, for a short walking tour of the immediate area. We stopped as kiosks and small shops just to look and be looked at relentlessly by the passing people. To say we stood out would be a gross understatement. With our purple fleece headbands and neck gaiters, we were a walking carnival of color in a culture of muted grays and browns. After searching unsuccessfully for a place to exchange currency, we returned to our apartment womb only to have Sergy volunteer to assist us. Out we went once again, partially just to kill time and partly from a desire to be prepared for our excursion the following day to the Hermitage Museum and the Bolshoi Ballet at the Merinksky Theater. We found an exchange office and then wandered back to the apartment where a meal to be remembered awaited us. The meal was a sort of fat-meat pie that was served cold. It was so terrible tasting that we sneaked most of it back into the refrigerator and retired to our room for the night. I keep counting the minutes until our departure with Emilie Aleksandra but it doesn’t help.
February 1, 1998
While waiting for our driver’s battery to warm up enough to start the car, I can write of our experiences from the previous day – first at the Hermitage and then later at the Merinsky Theater where it was our pleasure to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform Adam’s “Giselle.” Words cannot do justice to the sights and sounds of the day. The Hermitage is home to one of the most extensive art collections. It actually rivals the Louvre in Paris. Room after gilt-laden room was filled with such treasures that my eyes began to hurt from the marvel of it all. We saw Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin, Rembrant, and so many other master works, some of which have never even appeared in artistic books. An entire section was devoted to the sculptures of Rodin. Another wing housed numerous treasures of Carl Faberge. On top of that were the splendors of a long line of Tsars, dating back to Peter the Great and before. We hardly touched the surface of it all in the four hours we spent wandering. Since picture taking was severely restricted, we elected to buy books that showcased but a smidgen of what we had seen. The Winter Palace itself was a testament to the lavish ways of the times. Italian marble staircases, ebony and oak parquet floors, majestic, multi-tiered crystal chandeliers and enormous, sun-drenched rooms contributed to the sheer wonder of the experience.
After leaving the Hermitage, we returned to our apartment for a quick freshening up. Each time our translator leaves we descend into a nether world of non-communication with our host family. While their 15-year old son, Sergei, speaks some English we communicate mostly with smiles, nods, grunts and sign language. After a while this whole process leaves me exhausted while my mouth hurts from making faces. It was no easier I'm sure, for our hosts who have opened up their private home to complete strangers. Not only are we foreign in custom and culture but they regard us with a mix of envy, fear, curiosity and respect for the fact that we are supplementing their income with our presence. This made for an unusual blend of customer-merchant and guest-host that was both awkward and endearing. After two hours, our driver arrived to usher us to the Merinsky Theatre for a precious evening of the Bolshoi Ballet performing Giselle. The ballet was exquisite, with exceptional dancers who seemed to float across the stage. It was an extra special performance due to the fact that the famous fashion design Claude Givency had personally created the costumes for this show and he sat in the Tsar’s box located in the center back of what can only be described as a superb, historic theatre. After the performance ended, Givency took bows with the cast to thunderous applause from the audience. Somehow we retrieved our coats and found our driver who whisked us home and another day was done.
February 2, 1998
Today we returned to the important business that we had come to consummate. We started late due to the increasingly cold temperatures – today it was -16c or around 0øF –and our driver’s car wouldn’t start. Another driver was summoned but shortly after he arrived at our apartment, his car wouldn’t start either — so much for the idea of rising early to get on with the day. Finally with much cajoling, the tired old machine rumbled to life. We sped down Nevsky Prospect toward some bureaucratic office to have our documents prepared. Then we zigzagged around the city for more paperwork and to pick up a typewriter for the orphanage. Another memorable lunch and we were off once again to see our little Sasha. The forced separation over the weekend (the orphanage was closed) made our re-introduction somewhat difficult. But after a few handfuls of Cheerios, we were back connecting with this sad, unsmiling little girl. Both Pat and I hated this watchful, re-bonding effort and we both looked forward to the next day when we could finally take Sasha from the horrible confines that had been her only home. Patience and smiles were wearing thin. The worst part of the orphanage, aside from the dreadful appearance of the place, was the smell. It was a mixture of cabbage, garlic, and disinfectant and bleached clothing that gave off an aroma of otherworldliness. The staff members all wore white lab coats and again, like Julian’s orphanage, were comprised exclusively of women. This made Sasha’s reaction to me somewhat predictable. She was terrified and kept looking at me with eyes that seemed to say “what the hell are you.” I am grateful for my past experience in Siberia and didn’t care that she was fearful. Things will be fine all in good time, my sweet young child — patience and smiles. For nearly two hours we cooed and cuddled and fed Sasha Cheerios, which she hungrily devoured. When our time was up, Sasha was wretched from Pat’s arms to be taken back to the group. If this poor child felt even a part of the separation anxiety we both were feeling, then I was even angrier. But here in this foreign place my anger has no meaning and no place to go. So I bottled it up and swallowed it down, knowing that in only short time this would all be a distant memory that we’d marvel at in the future. It hurt but the pain would subside in time to be replaced with a happy, secure child who might someday smile for us and take her place by our side. For those who feel that time passes too quickly I would add the agony of adoption to my earlier prescription for dental work. Time slows down to a slow-motion crawl where every second takes forever. Only the prescience of what lies ahead can soothe the endlessness of this journey. I know it can’t last and I take comfort from the vision of tomorrow and the thought that this too shall pass.
February 3, 1998
Finally, finally, finally she is in my arms and with us, away from that awful place and into a new day. It’s as if we’re passed some major milestone by no longer having to visit the orphanage; no longer having to pay homage to untrusting people who view our actions with intense scrutiny; no longer attaching and then wretchedly detaching from our sweet Sasha. She is ours in law and in spirit and most importantly, in person. The weight I’ve felt lifted has left me giddy with delight. Already our Emmi-Sasha has responded with the thing I longed for most – a smile. Her delight at playing ball with her papa on the floor of our room was worth the entire effort of this journey. Maybe now time will return to its normal, harried pace and we shall be out of this place, to return to our home. The day began like all others. We arose at 9:30 am to the first rays of light. After a quick breakfast of kasha (oatmeal) and brown bread, our driver arrived with Marina our translator. It was then off to pick up General Tamara as we’ve jokingly begun to refer to our adoption coordinator. Tamara is a tough bird of a woman – a typical matronly Russian with an authoritarian manner as she barks out orders for Marina to translate. She brought a cake with her for the small celebration we were about to have at the orphanage. Only later would we find out that she would charge us $25 for this cake. It seems that Tamara takes a cut of every aspect in the process – quite a large cut from what we’re seeing. But at this point I don’t even care although it irritates Pat much more. We’ve spent so much and gone through such bullshit that another $25 is hardly worth the upset. My sights are now set on Friday when we’re to travel by overnight train to Moscow. Another exciting adventure for sure but strangely, it doesn’t worry me much. At this point, I feel as if I could take on the entire Russian army, if necessary, to get out of here. Hopefully it won’t come to that so long as we smile profusely and have patience. After cake and tea with the orphanage director, we were taken through the building to where Sasha was waiting. She was dressed in the outfit we had brought for her, a pretty, blue-green wool dress with a black velvet collar and cuffs. The state of this orphanage was dreadful to the eye and offensive to the nose. It was worn and dirty, with concrete walls and stairs that were crumbling. We passed the kitchen where three of the staff sat at a table drinking tea. The hallway we traversed was partitioned every 15 feet by dirty curtains. We turned right and ascended a stairway that was flanked by dusty, plastic flowers. Another hallway led to the main great room of the orphanage. Here there were three little children who were about to eat their lunch of boiled cabbage and beef that smelled hideously and looked just like it smelled. In the adjacent room, Sasha stood playing with a little green Lego Duplo, obviously from someone’s previous donation. A huge playpen stood near another doorway that opened into a sleeping room. About 15 little crib beds were packed into this small room, with a little boy in one of them, peering over one of the rails at us. We took photographs of these rooms and then gathered up Sasha and the toy bear we’ve given her (courtesy of our friend Garry Geer) and that I had sprinkled with some of the cologne I wear. We then made our way back down the hallways and staircase to the office of Olga, the orphanage director who was still so stern and unsmiling. After fussing with Sasha’s shoes, we put on her winter coat that we had brought, along with a blue hat and mittens. The time had now come to say goodbye to the director and a few staff members who had come by for one last look. Then it was out the door to our waiting driver and the short hop back to our apartment. It was only after we’ve arrived at our host’s home that we could relax a bit while Sasha stared wide-eyed at the new sights and sounds. We were finally one family, only with five mothers all cooing and cuckolding at the new addition. Everyone had an opinion about what she should wear, what she should eat and how best to care for her. The rest of the day was spent cuddling and playing with a little girl who probably received more attention in that one afternoon than she’d had in her whole short life. I was spent but thrilled and when Sasha saw the cat she did a double take and then started to giggle. It is a sound that I shall always remember because it signaled the beginning of our new life. I thanked God for finally bringing us all together
Feb 4, 1998 – Our first full day
After a fitful night of tossing and turning while Emmi-Sasha slept soundly, the day began as all others before it. With a mix of dark gray and dull brown, we awoke and began to restlessly move around, partly to try and rouse our still sleeping Sasha. The day was pretty much ours, with no official business to conduct. So we approached the morning hours quite casually. Marina and our driver appeared to escort me downtown for a bit of shopping. I bought a battery for the camera plus two t-shirts and two pair of better-fitting PJs for Emmi A. I also bought a couple of half-liter bottles of St. Petersburg vodka to take home to our friends who’ve been so helpful during our long period away. It was then back to our apartment for a bite to eat before beginning our afternoon session of killing time. The days and hours are starting to move faster once again, perhaps because we’ve reached the halfway point of our stay and it’s all down hill from here. First, we visited the former home of Anna Akhmatova, a favorite Russian poet of mine. I always thought her verse was so dark but my appreciation of just why was dramatically vindicated by our visit to her home, now a museum that charges $5 admission for two plus an additional dollar if you want to take pictures. We did. What a life Anna led. First acclaimed then reviled then re-elevated to the level of a national treasure, a fate I’m sure she would have laughed about. But to lose her husband during the early Stalin purges and then her son just before the onset of World War II, it was easier to understand her dark, foreboding approach to lyrical poetry. Her home was so tiny and confined, her writing reflected the bleakness that would descend from everywhere merely because she thought what she thought and committed it to words. Her life was so difficult, yet it made her work all the more poignant because of it. We learned that she would often write, then read her thoughts out loud to a few close friends before putting the paper into an ashtray and setting it aflame – all to avoid any possibility of retribution by the authorities. As Americans, we cannot fathom what it might be like to persecute others merely for what we think and write. In fact, we defend the vilest, most hate-filled thoughts by Nazis and KKK Klansmen in an effort to remain free of the totalitarian mindset that they themselves espouse. This journey has been so liberating in this one area – to see up close the result of nearly a century of oppression on a people whose only crime has been to exist. I shall think of Anna often, I’m sure, whenever I feel like complaining.
Our next stop was the apartment of Dostoevsky, another giant of Russian literature from the late 1800’s. Such a contrast this was due to the well-kept, almost sterile environment that has been preserved for public view. Our touring ended with a quick pass through of a nearby public market that, while freezing, was very well stocked. It was then back to our apartment home where Emmi A. was just awakening from her nap. We played together for a while although Emmi A. is still quite wary of me. It was this way with Julian and I know it will pass but for now I would love to have her run to me a big smile and give me a hug and a kiss. Patience and smiles, another chapter in this segue from dark to light—all in good time, my precious, all in good time.
Another strange segue for February 5, 1998, too. My sense of time is so interrupted by sleepless nights and unfamiliar light. I’m writing this at 1 AM on Feb. 6th Russia time yet I’m thinking both about the day and the night before. It was a long night, stretching toward 3 AM before sleep finally prevailed. We had spent the evening playing and doing the normal, daily routines of living. The routines are comforting to all for a measure of predictability. But those routines are most pleasurable to me because it’s a quiet time of forced mental inactivity all the while I’m physically active. The feeling of isolation is both hot and cold, too. At 3 AM, finally some privacy. The communication that normally connects me to the outside world doesn’t work here. I’m reduced to a single English phone call once every two days or so when our coordinator in Washington, DC calls in to see how everyone’s doing. But the time has given me a rare gift to enjoy. I wrote a little song for Emmi A, which is now what I’m increasingly using in place of Sasha for her name…
“My Emmi A, is the apple of my eye and I just think she’s fine
With her pretty little nose and her hair tied up in bows
I’m so glad she’s mine
Emmi A., I just think she’s fine
Emmi A., I’m so glad she’s mine.”
I sang it for her today, early morning on Feb. 5 and she looked at me and I think she understood. I’m becoming more interactively involved in her life as she is in mine. Already I don’t remember and don’t want to even think about life without her. The never-ending time has given me the ability to nurture love and watch the first reactions as it bursts into bloom. It is a marvelous feeling. And now she’ll sit on my lap when I’m reading the paper. I got the paper (ah…news) at the Grand Europe Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg after riding the metro following an accident just as we set off with our driver and Marina, our interpreter, to see two last great cathedrals in the city – St. Issacs and Cathedral of Spilled Blood.
What a day! To start, the driver who began with us, Vasily, disappeared after driving us to the ballet. No one knows (or tells) what happened to him. He drover very fast but he was good, alert and seemed to really pay attention to the snarl of traffic, endless snow and grit-covered roads, navigating it all. Our new driver, unfortunately, was a much more jovial fellow who possessed none of the first driver’s skill or aptitude. Our accident happened because he didn’t look and made an abrupt turn. BAM! A shiny new Opel, with an obviously Russian, no NEW RUSSIAN, businessman replete with cell phone, hit us. The impact was only at 5 mph so the damage to his car was minimal while our driver’s car door was heavily smashed. The businessman flips out his phone, makes a call, and tells our driver it will be $300 for repairs. I know this because our driver asked us, through Marina, to lend him the money to pay the businessman or else he’d have to surrender his license. After the disappearance of our first driver, I was hardly inclined to give this guy $300 on a promise that he’d return the next day to pay us back. So he had to give the guy his license and he then drove us back — a few blocks — to our apartment. He was gone and it left me wondering who might take us along with our luggage to the train station at 11 PM the next evening. Not to fear, we talked Marina into going to see these sights today by Metro and bus. It was amazing. The Metro is very, very deep underground due to the closeness of the River Neva and the generally boggy, low-lying qualities of the land. By deep I mean you descend on a fast-moving escalator down a slope of nearly 25º to a depth of maybe four or five stories of a building. No, make it six or seven stories because the main line of the Metro is seventy feet down. Riding was great and very fast. We emerged close to the St. Issac Cathedral and again we were thunderstruck by the massive beauty of this national treasure. The doors, the marble, the gilt, the mosaics were of a dimension maybe only comparable to St. Peters in Rome. From there, a short bus/trolley ride brought us to Cathedral of Spilled Blood, which is a smaller replica of St. Basil’s in Moscow, but covered floor to ceiling in mosaics of all the saints, icons and deities.
My neck and mouth hurt from looking at the wonder of it all. We bought more books and I realized that the one thing we buy most on our travels are documents to what we’ve seen, especially where photos were forbidden. We returned to our apartment just as Emmi A was awakening from her nap. Perfect timing and secure knowledge that we will make the train to Moscow, even if by Metro, and even if I have to roll the total tonnage down to the station myself. I sang Emmi A her song some more and she started to smile. There’s an old, Russian-made guitar here that plays terribly and won’t stay in tune — with electric bass guitar strings and classical nylon treble strings. It plays like a baseball bat but I could pluck out Emmi A’s song. She’s starting to respond and it’s such a lovely sight that I want to rush headlong yet know I must hold back and let her do it in her time and in her way. Love can be given but then it takes time to be absorbed and maybe returned. Here we have nothing but time and I’m not wasting a minute. Finally, the household is quiet. It’s 2 AM on the day/night of our departure. Everyone’s gone to bed and I have one last opportunity to take advantage of time before succumbing to sleep. Today/tomorrow will be a long one, but the clock is moving forward faster. I only hope I can now slow it some or at least remember forever the sensation that is mine tonight. I love you Emmi A and you, too, Pat! Night, night.
Feb 6th—Happy Birthday, Mom!
Looking back now from my perch of completion, I can finally sort out the goings on of the past two days. Our embarking to Moscow from St. Petersburg was an event unlike any other I’d encountered on many travels through many years. We left Mikhail, Irina & son Sergei’s home at 11 PM. It took two trips to the station, one for the luggage and one for us. In the dead of night we arrived at this surreal, very Russian train station. “We’re to take the ‘Red Arrow,’ Tamara our coordinator says to Marina our interpreter.” Marina then tells us, with smiles and obvious displays of ‘don’t worry, very nice.’ We walked and walked our tonnage, past trains that were backed up to the platform, ready to take on or discharge passengers. We found our train car and marched inside to our compartment. Stuffing the suitcases into an area the size of a truck cab on an 18-wheeler proved rather amusing. But with much pulling and prodding, we managed to make enough room to sit upright at the small table by the window. Or we could recline with a little additional shifting. We opened the first of some beer that we smuggled on, past the watchful eyes of our coordinator, interpreter, and host family not to mention the train guard. We had a good toast when they’d all gone. But I’m jumping ahead. After we had everything situated, Tamara abruptly put Emmi A to sleep on the forward bunk. Then she sat down for a speech. “Don’t open the door for anyone. Don’t leave the room except for the bathroom at either end of the car. Don’t talk to anyone. Be careful with your money. And when you get to Moscow, someone will board the train, knock on your door and whisper the password ‘Stella’ so you’ll know it’s all right.” Pat and I looked at each other. She said all this with a straight face. Then she put us through the drill of locking the door. “Show me now,” she commanded. I went through the procedure with such deft speed and dexterity that even Marina smiled while the “General” absolutely glowed. After final instructions and good wishes, good luck and good god knows what or for how long, they finally left us alone for the first time in 10 days. Just Pat and me and baby made all the company I needed. The simple privacy that I took for granted in the past now rushed on like a new sensation. Our first toast to the more than halfway part of the journey began as the train lurched forward from the station. The sheer excitement of moving was so great that it left me wide-eyed full of youthful exuberance. No way was I going to sleep through this. After our first trip to the bathroom, which was truly clean and nice, we concluded that Tamara might have been exaggerating just a bit. Right! I set off to have a cigarette and just wander around on the train. Smoking is only allowed in a small space between cars that’s cold and drafty. You proceed car to car over a nasty metal ramp that was covered in ice, sliding downward toward the adjoining car. Yeah! Skiing always comes in handy. Instead of finding the Russian mob lurking, or bearded criminals talking in hushed voices while eying me like prey, what I did find were clean compartments with a little Russian lady-guard housed in the forward part of the car. It took four cars to get to the little restaurant and bar area. I went in and bought everyone there a round of vodka and toasted the Russian guards, the train, and all the passengers. A half hour later, I wandered back to our cabin and knocked two times, then three times all the while whispering ‘Stella.’ It became the standing joke. Emmi A had settled down to a fitful state of sleep. Pat and I sat up to gaze across the snow-covered steppes of Russia by moonlight. We raced past pines and rivers, and houses and towns. We talked about everything and nothing until we started fading off. Sleep was strange because my whole body vibrated to the cadence of the train. It felt like one of those quarter-operated vibrating beds at a cheap motel, only amplified by the impact of our speed. Passing trains, going the other way of course, appeared out of nowhere and looked like a carnival amusement park of neon lights and a glowing, pale yellow hues. As fast as this dazzling display appeared it also disappeared into the night leaving only silence in its wake.
Sleep finally did come on the train a few hours before we reached Moscow. It was so hot all night that we’d kept the door open, and we were sitting there contentedly when Natasha, our new Moscow interpreter, knocked on our door. We were spirited away into the city mayhem and taken to our new host family’s home — Nick, Galina, Sushi and Marina. This was some kind of strange family we could tell, but we were so tired that we just smiled and said hi-bye and went to bed. We had three hours to sleep before we needed to be at the American Medical Clinic to get Emmi A’s physical. With that and additional passport photos completed, we were told we could leave Tuesday, not Wednesday as we expected. This one “call from the Governor” as I’ve referred to it really brightened us both up immediately. We called home but only got the answering machine. I left a long, detailed message and said I’d call again at the same time the next day. Finally, things were starting to click into place. Sunday, February 8th was a day off. We reluctantly left Emmi A with Sushi to babysit and then went off for one last shopping trip to GUM in Red Square, this time for a few more gifts for friends and a little looksee for ourselves. There’s just not much here that I care to buy for myself, except fur and then I’d get spray painted back in the States should I ever wear it. Pat found a few milk pitchers to add to her collection. I saw a nice, simple pipe but at $60 didn’t like it that much. So I’ll enjoy the books and ornaments and memories of images so magnificent that wanting anything else seems absurd and pointless. My head still reels from all I’ve seen and heard. I’m getting used to living in this time zone just in time to grind back to home. But I’m not complaining now since we’re getting back one day early.
Monday, Feb 9th
We arose early and headed to the American Embassy. The contrast with this trip was remarkable yet almost boring, as if by going through it once with anxiety was all those bureaucrats would ever get from me. So I patiently smiled and sat, smiled and signed, smiled and forked over $300 and sat some more. I raised my right hand and swore if ever…but it was over and that was it. Done. Finale. Finne. Now we only awaited the paperwork but at least our American bureaucratic system works faster. By 5 PM today we were packed and ready. Our plane leaves in the morning at 7 AM so we need to be at the airport by 5 AM but it takes an hour to get there. So be ready to go at 4 AM which means waking up before I’m even used to going to sleep. We’ll be ready. I can’t wait to see Julian and Grandma. Now I’ve got a bud and a sweetie and I couldn’t be a happier guy.
Tuesday, Feb 10th
Only now as we wing our way toward Zurich can I feel some certainty about what lies ahead. I’m so grateful to be leaving Russia to the Russians and feel that same patriotic fever about eh US that I’ve often felt on trips abroad. The day began early with our rising at 3:30 AM in preparation for our 4:30 AM departure to the Moscow airport. Our translator showed up late with Rudolph, our 70+ year-old driver and car to match. The final hour was one of total anxiety. After stuffing in our luggage, we rode only 20 minutes or so before Rudolph pulled over to the roadside. He wanted to turn off the heater so we’d be more comfortable. That meant raising the hood of the car and fiddling with the heater core cable. We implored our translator that this was not necessary as we could easily open a window (which worked). No, no, it would only take a minute. A full 20 minutes later we were back on the road but we seemed to be taking the scenic route to the airport instead of the expressway loop. Of course, it was pitch black outside so other than the colored lights of the casinos there wasn’t much to look at anyway. The car’s windshield washer didn’t work so seeing anything was a bit of a problem. With a mighty TWACK we hit a huge pothole and then heard the familiar sound of a flat tire. Why me?
At this point I was about to have a major departure from patience and smiles. Natasha, our translator, kept trying to calm us but the scene was anything but comforting. Here were two Americans and a baby along with two Russians and a pitiful wreck of a car. The fact that Rudolph had a spare tire and that it seemed to have air in it brought the frenzied pitch down just a bit. Another 20 minutes to fix and we were on the road again. We were late, but not too bad. The airport was only 20 minutes away we were told. Of course, we were driving blind because the passing cars and trucks would throw up a dirty spray against the windshield that the wiper would then smear over the surface. We chugged and weaved our way around and finally reached the airport. After short good-byes, we were left blissfully alone to get our boarding passes and cue up for passport control. We presented documents and were at last in the international “no man’s land” of the terminal. Only another 45 minutes to go before climbing on that plane and leaving this place for good. Now I could at last relax and await the start of our long journey home. There are no words that can do justice to my feelings of relief. I’ll feel even better after I hug Julian and Grandma from the comfort of my own kitchen.