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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

A Modern International Family

Workaholics for many years, our Russian (me) Italian (him) American (us) union remained childfree by choice.  A heavy travel schedule made it difficult to imagine any other life.  But after 9/11, we started contemplating kids and dogs, and when we took the plunge, let’s just say we didn’t play around:  four older kids from Russia and two spunky Scottish terriers… with Russian names, of course.

Many were the urban myths we had heard surrounding older-child adoption:  they would burn the house down, kill the family pets, and cause the parents to divorce.  We knew some that tried all three.  Our experience proved otherwise:  cute kids craving love, and revelling in a family coming to claim them half a world away.

First there was Petya, seven-and-a-half years old, the young entrepreneur who insisted on making his way from table to table at breakfast in our regional Russian hotel, shaking hands and shmoozing with the traveling businessmen.  The child-orphan-turned-oligarch bemused the Russian men and befuddled us.

“Shtoh tee dyelaesh?” (What are you doing?) I asked him.

“Yah nyeh znahyoo,” (I don’t know) he replied, beaming.

Sounded plausible enough.

Petya settled into a jet-setting lifestyle, with no problem, flying her, there, and everywhere and ending up as the youngest mega-mile frequent flyer in history.  Flight attendants showered him with cookies and chips, chatting incessantly with him until 30 minutes later they realized that there had been no response on his end, just a sweet smile, and cheeks bulging with goodies.

“He doesn’t speak English, yet,” I intervened, explaining.

“Oh?” came their confused response as they edged away from the child, now thought to be a simpleton, while he learned three languages at once and plotted his takeover of the world.

I homeschooled him, something I would never have imagined in a million years because we did not:  a) have a pickup truck; b) have a gun rack in said pickup truck; nor c) live on a farm.  He had never been to school in Russia, which made it a distinct challenge to keep him on task.

“Are we done, yet?” he asked in Russian after five minutes of alphabet work.


Five minutes later:  “Now can we stop?”


Five minutes later, I beat him to the punch:  “Don’t even think about asking.”

Our second son we pursued with little success for four years.  He was a “known” child, Petya’s childhood friend from the orphanage.  The Russians were none too pleased.

“Nyelzah,” (Forbidden) came their official reply.


“Because you know about him.  How do you know about him?” they interrogated us as though we were career spies.

“Our son told us about his friend.”


And so it went until young Pasha’s mind and body had been so destroyed by Russia’s institutionalism behind high walls and heavy gates, that they finally gave up and gave in.

“He will ruin your lives.  The child is an oligophrenic on the imbecile level, a troublemaker, and an invalid, incapable of ever running or playing sports,” they declared, parading ten experts before us to prove to us as much.

“Who made these diagnoses, and based on what data?” we asked, seeing no clear indication of mental or physical weakness, except perhaps on the part of the “experts”.

“We cannot say.”

So, the emaciated boy came home at almost 12.  Other than wetting the bed out of sheer terror that we might want to chop him up and sell his body parts (a popular rumor among children of Eastern European orphanages), and affixing a rub-on tattoo on his bony arm, we could see no physical defects in the child, who in appearance at least, looked like an Ivy League-bound boy straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad.  His mind had been somewhat affected by years of neglect and abuse, but as any stroke victim would attest, the brain had a certain amount of bounce-back to it, and we were hopeful.  We took it slowly.

Mashenka and Sashenka came home a year later, two sisters who had been taken into custody and given a highly-improved life in the Russian orphanage, going to school for the first time in their pre-teen years and having the lice shaved out of their hair.  Looking for all the world like concentration camp victims, their anger and bitterness over the past peeled away like an onion’s skin, layer by layer.

They turned into blonde beauties once their hair grew and we fixed the 21 black holes in little one’s teeth.  These were kids who threw up in any moving vehicle (great for a jet-setting family), recoiled at the thought of school (even homeschool which we did in Russian and in English, better than one hour a day of pull-out ESL and bullies flushing their heads down the toilet), and seemed to have personal hygiene issues (“Wipe my butt?  Why?  We’ve never used toilet paper before.”).  This is why God gave most people babies in diapers, so we could wipe their popas with no questions asked.

Before you knew it, they’d be saying “Duty Free” and “Dior”, along with the best of them.  Bumpy beginnings, but forward progress, nonetheless.  They changed, we changed, and we all somehow became a modern, international family.

Diamonds in the rough were these older, internationally-adopted children who thought they were speaking English when they would mimic and repeat after others.

“Hello, how are you?” a store clerk greeted the girls.

“Hellow, how are you?” they echoed back.

“I’m fine, thank you,” the elderly woman answered.

“I’m fine, thank you,” the girls copied, pleased as peacocks, while the clerk narrowed her eyes and contemplated calling security.

Diamonds in the rough, emphasis on “rough.  But they polished up very nicely.  If only the dogs could learn some English now.


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