I wanted to share some of my hard-won wisdom with you, if you are a prospective adoptive parent traveling to Russia or one of the former soviet bloc countries. I have been to Russia 4 times and to Kazakhstan twice.
Do not expect Russia to be anything like the US. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, which are huge cities, Russia is like a third-world country.
Do not be shocked by what you see in Russia outside of Moscow. In the regions, most buildings are old and derelict, people don’t bathe as often as we and can be odiferous, and the streets are not nearly as clean as here. Streets are usually filthy with slush and mud, so take sturdy shoes.
People don’t smile a lot. Russians are usually nice, but not smiley.
Most stores will not let you use their bathrooms.
Most stores will charge you if they give you a bag for your purchases. Take your own tote bag, is my advice.
You will not find snack machines and drink machines on every corner. Take snacks [crackers, protein bars, etc.]. Many times I’ve had to eat snacks for a meal, as I was delayed getting to a restaurant to eat. If you put them in your suitcase nobody will bother you about them.
Any time you’re in Russia and see American candy bars, buy them. I bought Snickers bars every time I saw them, like in the airport. My daughter’s first breakfast with me was a large Snickers bar, because she woke up at 6:30 and the dining room in the hotel didn’t open until 8.
Buy bottled water only. Ask for “vada beeyez gaz” – water without carbonation. The carbonated water tastes nasty. Brush your teeth with bottled water. Their water standards are totally different and you do not want to take a chance on a nasty stomach virus.
Important phrases for you: [emphasized syllables are highlighted]
Yah eez Ameri-kee = I am American
Yah knee gava-roo pah-russiki – I don’t speak Russian
Skol-kuh ett-uh? = how much? [how much does this cost?]
Spah-see-bah = thank you
Pah-zhal-stah = please, and you’re welcome
Gut-zay-uh? = where?
Pah-mah gee meen-yah = help!
Comb-net-uh = room
Telephone and computer are the same words as in English
If you find yourself in a restaurant and don’t have a translator, say “Ya ha-choo soup!” the word “soup” in Russian is almost identical but they say it more like “see-yoop” – also, Russian soups are usually good and filling. They usually serve it with bread, but if not, order the bread – it’s great. The Russian word for bread is hard to pronounce, but say “huh-lep” and they will probably know what you want. Also, “salat” is the word for salad. Russian salads almost never have lettuce, but are cold chopped veggies in a small dish. Pickles and cucumbers are common.
Russians usually eat first and have a beverage afterwards. If you want to drink and eat at the same time you will have to make that clear.
Coca Cola is universal. You can always get it, but not with ice. Diet Coke is “coke light.”
Russia is always cold, except in June-September. However, the buildings tend to be overheated. You will want a good heavy coat and boots or heavy sneakers, but inside you will want sleeveless shirts most of the time. The government overheats the buildings and you usually cannot control it, even in a hotel. Wear layers.
Take medicines you use like Advil or Pepcid – you won’t find American style drugstores anywhere. I urge you to take good vitamins and take them every day. It’s easy to get sick with the jet lag and strange climate. I got bronchitis while adopting my daughter and was miserable. On subsequent trips I took cold medicine, just in case.
Russians don’t sleep under sheets, not outside Moscow hotels at least. There’s usually a bottom sheet and a heavy duvet, usually scratchy wool. You will likely want to take a set of sheets and pillowcases from home. Find out if your hotel in the region has twin beds – most do, not double beds.
Outside Moscow, TV is mostly in Russian, not English. You will want to take books to read, or a laptop, or a portable DVD player. You will spend a lot of time waiting in airports, on long flights, etc.
Put a small calculator in your purse or bag and take it everywhere, so you can figure the exchange rate. Rubles to dollars can be very confusing.
Take all your important documents and valuables on the plane with you in a backpack or carryon – never in a checked bag. On one Russian trip I had a suitcase literally torn to shreds. Don’t bother locking the suitcase either, because it will be unlocked forcefully in customs.
On my first trip to Russia, when we landed in Khabarovsk, the suitcases were delivered to us in the hotel covered with filthy ice.
In Russia, gift-giving is the way of all adoptions and social interactions. Talk to your agency about how many gifts and get suggestions.
Put a copy of your passport in your suitcase in case it’s lost, and leave a copy of your passport at home with a trusted friend. If you lose your passport, you can get the copy and go to the embassy for a new one, and replacement is easy if you have a copy.
Put money and passports in a money belt you wear strapped to your waist or hanging down from your neck. Keep only maybe $20 in rubles in an outside pocket or bag. Thefts are common. Never leave anything valuable in the hotel room. I put my camera, etc. in a backpack and took that everywhere. I never took my money belt off except to shower, and then I hid it in the room.
If your agency makes you take part of their fees in cash, to Russia, take only crisp, new $50 of $100 bills. Russians still deal mostly in cash, and a lot of places will not take credit cards. There also may not be at ATM anywhere nearby. Find out from the agency if the hotel will take a credit card, though. Visa is usually taken everywhere.
In Kazakhstan and Russia, I paid a slightly higher room rate at the hotel and got breakfast included. In Kaz, dinner was included, too.
Breakfast in Russia is usually not bacon and eggs, or cereal. Eggs are usually powdered and yucky. Cereal is served in hot milk, when you can find it. Chicken and rice is a common breakfast food. Hot cereal is usually good, and a fruit salad. Muffins are unknown, but there is a cheesy muffin thing called “seer-nik” and those are very tasty.
Just a word about kids in orphanages. They are always delayed, physically and emotionally. My son was 10 years old when he came home, and he was not even on the growth charts. He was the size of a 5 year old. My daughter was so emaciated I couldn’t find clothes to fit at first. They both had never lived in a normal family before, just with alcoholic moms the first 6-8 years of their lives, and so everything was new and weird. They had never been taught table manners. They were used to bathing maybe once or twice a week. They didn’t like meat because they had eaten it so seldom. They had trouble going to sleep in their own beds because they were used to the bedlam of noise in the orphanage. Culture shock was unreal.
Your toddler will likely have different issues, but there will be a real shock when he gets into your home.
I have read extensively about issues with toddlers, even though my kids were older. Read everything you can! This forum on adoption.com has always been a great place to read up on issues, from parents who are experienced and really talk honestly: http://forums.adoption.com/russia-adoption/. The FRUA website can be scary. Take it with a grain of salt.
Do not be alarmed by medicals in Russia. Medicine there is 20-40 years behind us. My daughter’s medicals made her sound very ill and she wasn’t. I brought her home and she was seen by our Russian pediatrician, Dr. Katsidatze, and he did a stool culture for parasites but otherwise she was OK. We found later she had a bacterial infection called H Pylori, but it’s very treatable.
Some orphanages are great, some not. Oftentimes toddlers are fed tea and porridge a lot, and the very poor diets are why they are so small. I took vitamins on the first trips to see my kids, and had the agency tell the caretakers to give the vitamins to my child between trips. Kids usually don’t get vitamins in orphanages.
Your toddler will probably never have seen a toothbrush and may already have dental issues. My kids were never told to brush teeth. My son had 6 cavities when he came here.
Russians are not as cuddly with children, and if it’s a crowded orphanage your child may be completely freaked out by hugs and kisses, at first. They also often rock or bang their heads to comfort themselves, though you likely won’t see that until after you get custody of the child.
I urge you to buy a small photo album and pack it with photos of you and your spouse, your home, any pets, Grandma and Grandpa, the child’s room, etc. The child will cherish this and learn a lot before you return. I did this with both kids, and put captions in Russian [from a website]. In your case, between trips the caretaker can show the baby, and say “mama, papa, etc.” So the child will feel more comfortable when you go to pick him up. It’s also good to leave a small teddy bear or toy, but make sure the caretakers are OK with the child taking it when you leave.
If you take clothes or toys to the orphanage they are donated, not used exclusively for your child, unless your agency arranges it.
When you take your child outside a building, while in Russia, bundle him up and put a hat on him, no matter how mild the day. All Russians will scream at you if you don’t put a hat on the child. Don’t ask – it’s a cultural thing.
You need to learn some child Russian, so you can comfort the child. It’s not so bad if you learn it phonetically. When my kids came home I said the Russian phrase, then English, then gradually just dropped the Russian. They learned quickly. I’d be glad to pronounce these for you sometime, on the phone or in person. My Russian pronunciation is excellent.
Here are some words and phrases I used a LOT, phonetically:
Yah teeb-ya looblue = I love you
Fuss-yoh boo-deet harrah show = everything will be OK
Bead nozsh ka = poor baby
Harrah show = fine, OK, good
Tee gal-oad-knee-ya? = are you hungry?
Tee hochish peet? = you want a drink?
Nee tro-gah = don’t touch
Oss tah rozh-nyah = be careful
Posh-lee = let’s go!
Ee dee so dah = come here!
See chass = now [nee see chas means not now]
Gut-zee-yah ball-eet? = where does it hurt?
Tee nye-eel-suh? = are you full?
Plo-hah = bad [if the child says “Yah ploha” something hurts or he’s sick]
I wrote down these phrases phonetically and carried a “cheat sheet” with me for months after my kids came home.
The first time you go to the orphanage, wear nice clothes, business casual. Russians don’t wear blue jeans and sweats very much. They tend to dress much more formally than we do. For court you will need to wear “church clothes.”