I woke up entirely around 5am, wondering where on Earth, literally, we were. I listened at each of the stops, wanting some indication of our location. Time passed, 6 am, 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, 10 am, 11 am. We played cards and munched on snacks that we had packed, while I craned my neck to peer out the window at the foggy Ukrainian countryside.
The train stopped again, and this station was a bit busier. A woman smiled at me, then jolted, as gracefully as a person can, towards the train. We heard her talking to the conductor for a minute, before she came to our car, instructing us to gather our luggage in a hurry. She introduced herself as Sasha. “I knew it was you right away. They told me you looked very young. And, you look American… so, apartment or baby house first?”
Sasha is awesome. Warm, friendly. Ukrainians, along with Russians and other Eastern Europeans, are known for their stoicism. Their smiles are rare and only if truly earned. I think this is a wonderful idea, more honest than our American plastic smiles. But, Sasha has mastered the art of connecting with Americans with the warm smile and kind chatter that we need. We both instantly felt comfortable with her.
We picked apartment. Perhaps it sounds silly, to pick before the much-awaited baby house trip, but I was desperate to change out of my going on 26-hour outfit. Oh, and a bathroom. Maybe TMI, but if you’ve ever tried to pee in a Eastern European train bathroom, I know you understand.
A quick trip to drop off our stuff and change, before we began our long, exciting day of many stops. By this point, nerves were boiling up. What if they said we were too young. What if the kids hated us. What if we didn’t react appropriately at our first meeting.
First, we had to meet a social worker. We went to a large building, almost resembling a university building, up a flight of stairs and were instructed to sit and wait. Waited a bit longer, while Sasha made small talk. I can’t imagine I was much for conversation, with all of the nerves. The social worker was out to lunch, so we’d have to wait a bit longer. Just a few minutes more and we were pulled into her office.
This is one of those moments were culture shock struck me hard. First, the social worker was beautiful. But, far more made up than what you would see in an American office. Her nails, her hair, her jewelry. Please understand, this is not a judgement, only an observation. But, I think her style would have given her some trouble in an American office.
The next culture shock, the escalating voices, eventually yelling. I knew this was how Ukrainians communicate, but it still left me wondering if something was wrong. Was the social worker saying we were not suitable and Sasha was arguing back? This went on for a couple of minutes, before Sasha began translating for us. The questions were mild, about us, where we lived, our age, too, but the social worker was pleased with us.
She gather some papers, and now, we all headed back out to the car, social worker included, where we piled in. Aaron, Sasha and I squished in the back, social worker up front with the driver. Ukrainians have no issues squishing in a car.
This was it, off to the baby house. Twists and turns and bumpy roads. We had seen a bit of Ukraine, but now for the real stuff. Babushkas, bundled up, slogging up the side of dirty roads. Laundry lines hung on balconies. Women in heels and mini-skirts traipsing up tree-lined streets to important looking buildings. Children bundled up in every possible layer of clothing. Wild dogs, looking more cold and hungry than dangerous. Each day of our trip to Ukraine, we saw all of these sights and more, but it was incredible to see it all for the first time.
(This is not my photo– click for source. This is likely not even Ukraine, but is a similar sight to what we saw.)
The trip to the baby house took us out of the bigger city of Donetsk into the neighboring, industrial city of Makiivka. You could almost see the change as we slowed down a bit for the train tracks and passed by a blue and white sign, defining the border. Up a small hill, then down a street. The pavement breaking up down, our driver dodging pot holes, babushkas and wild dogs. Then, another turn, onto a dirt road. Slowing down to let the three men in leather jackets, with cigarettes in their hands, move off to the side. Passing by two dogs, one black and white with longing eyes. And slowing down for the finally turn.
Past the bare trees and the colorful playground equipment to our right, there stood the baby house.
Except that you approach it from the other side, but I do not have a photo of that.
It’s amazing that I could climb out of the car, my nerves as wild as they were. Out of the car, through the two heavy sets of doors. Then, upstairs. Two flights, I think. Then down a hall to the director’s office. But, the director was on holiday, a vacation. So, to meet the head doctor and deputy director instead. Another thing that may be botched in my memory now, but I think her name is Ludmila.
It’s funny I don’t remember her name, because I am fond of that woman. The first thing you notice is her presence. Strong, firm and intimidating. But, the second thing that you notice is her smile. Another rare, warm smile. So genuinely happy to see someone here for her children.
She sat us down and read us their files. Before they brought the children in, so that we could focus. This was a bit of a game, her reading, Sasha translating. And Sasha saying “do you understand? do you know this word?” Often, it was a bit of charades before we’d realize it was only her accent, not the medical terminology that was confusing us. We had a bit of apprehension when we had been read Lena’s file in Kiev, based on some of the language that was in it, but hearing these records put us at ease. Nothing too scary.
We finished up the records and waited, awkward small talk filling the silence. Then, a knock on the door.
To be continued. Like that suspense there?