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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…!

What Not to Wear to Russian Court

Always a hot topic among adoptive parents is what to wear to court in Russia. This is the big day when they declare the child to be your lawful son or daughter. I’ve been through it, and have the birth certificates proving that I was in deep labor and delivery a dozen or so years ago in the regional hinterlands. So for such an auspicious occasion, why do many Americans want to dress to the lowest common denominator-?

Comfort, pure comfort. I can tell you, this word does not exist in most foreign language dictionaries.

I am packing my bag for court. I still have time, which is part of the point. It requires some thoughtfulness, though not an undue amount. As usual, I plan on dressing fairly businesslike. The outfit includes a fashionable black skirt suit, patent leather belt, bright silk blouse, and attractive pumps. A couple of modest baubles, sensible tank watch, makeup slightly verging on the garish in order to fit in with the other Russian ladies. Or that’s my story, anyway. I feel it’s a de rigeur look for any business setting, court included. Some variation of this type of uniform has served me well on our previous two adoptions.

Once I had it all picked out and set aside, that’s when I received an e-mail from our agency which gives the helpful tip of “business casual” for court. Now maybe I’m the only person on the face of the earth who believes that business casual is a mutually exclusive term. What many wear when following such instructions, I would not think to wear to mop my floor. (Not that I’ve been known to mop any floors in recent history….)

Here we will be, representing ourselves and our country, our ability to parent and assume the responsibility of more mouths to feed. What am I supposed to wear:  tennis togs? Strappy sandals and a sundress? Maybe my equestrian jodphurs? Where, exactly, does the “casual” overlap with the “business”? Believe me, when we set foot in that Russian court of law, we will mean business with a capital B, and that B can stand for boundaries, as well.

True story: I have a cyber-friend who headed to Russian court years ago. She was a paralegal at the time, able to come and go from US courts, familiar with the setting and decorum. She pulled out her name-brand, grey wool pantsuit. To her, it spoke of professionalism and propriety.

The day of court arrived. She and her husband were nervous about becoming parents to two adorable children, and reviewed their list of most likely interrogatories. When meeting early that morning with their adoption coordinator, the facilitator recoiled in shock.

“You cannot go to court looking like dat!” she shrieked in heavy Russian accent. “Vhat else do you have to vear?”

The drab, understated classic suit did not have the power statement nor the pizzazz that their handler deemed necessary for such an occasion. My acquaintance explained that she had packed this particular suit for its understated, serious impact and that she imagined that she and her husband would be doing the talking, rather than asking her suit to give any statement one way or the other.

The adoption facilitator was not amused. They were going into the courtroom, and not much could be done at the last minute. Thus, my friend heard an apology being given to the court on her behalf: her suitcase had never arrived and this was all she had to wear to court, if they could find it in their hearts to overlook it for this one day.

Add to the confusion that no matter what the locals do, you need to do what you know to be right. And then upgrade a notch or two. Or three. Or four. You people know who you are. They don’t call us the “ugly Americans” for no good reason.

On our first trip (out of two) for our first son, we met with a couple from small-town America. They were afraid to come out of their hotel room and breathed an audible sigh of relief when the adoption facilitator told them we were there in region. He wore jeans, hiking boots, and a knit cap pulled low over his head, his stubbly beard making him appear ready for a hunting trip. She dressed in a similar vein.

“Russians look at me like I’m a Chechen rebel, or something!” he guffawed.

Gee, I wonder why.

Our facilitator sat them down and told them how to dress for their appointment with the Ministry of Education officials the next day. Despite many a faux pas on their part, I felt for them. No one had this little chit chat with them that we’re having today. They were simply out of their element. No frame of reference.

As most Europeans, Russian young ladies are taught to “dress”. It could possibly be for a picnic in the park, but they will sport full makeup, high heels, a top-drawer outfit, and expensive perfume. Whereas in our custom, refined culture often dictates that an impeccably dressed woman put on her jewelry and then remove a piece, to ensure “good taste”. Or focus on one part of the face when it comes to makeup:  whether bright lips, or eyes, or cheeks:  decide on one feature and play that up. Not over there. When it comes to Russia, a little bit of over-the-top is good.

Your “before” picture may be Susan Boyle, the Scottish singing sensation with the voice of an angel, but an appearance that needs Divine intervention. Corral the eyebrows, tame the hair, maybe add a pretty lipgloss or some mascara. No need to become Hilary Duff, but aiming high always gets you somewhere better than where you currently stand.

We might need to start a Russian adoptive parents’ TV program, fashioned along the lines of TLC’s “What Not to Wear”. My countrymen often have a hard time understanding why, even if they live in flipflops at home, they should squelch those feelings of freedom when touring another civilized country. If you are an adult and wear shorts in a European city, you will garner nothing but disdain. Not to mention if you jog down the street, onlookers may inquire if someone is chasing you:  do you need the militsia? And when standing to give testimony in a Russian court of law, leave the clunky white tennis shoes, baseball cap, and polyester American flag tie at home. As they say, there is a time and place for most everything. Court is not the time, and Russia is not the place.

So much about culture and customs is untranslatable. Our first time in a Russian court, one of the court reporters dressed approximating what we would call garb appropriate for a street-walker, a woman of the night. Her white see-through blouse, black lace bra underneath, and wide-legged jeans with ripped cuffs made quite a splash. The judge, on the other hand, was dressed in suit and tie, while all other parties were clothed in elegant wool suits of one kind or another.

Our second time in court, the grandmotherly judge wore a gold lame headband, matching her gold and cork-wedged sandals. This was in the heat of summer when she still entered in black judicial robe. Nice. Suitable for the situation. The prosecutor wore a military uniform and sat in his own box off to the side. Austere and appropriate.

However, all those testifying on our behalf, from social workers, to orphanage reps, to our coordinator, were in stiletto sandals and yes, skimpy sundresses. I was so embarrassed until I saw our retiree driver, who had his short-sleeved shirt totally unbuttoned, his bare and bronzed chest leading our scantily-clad procession toward the court building. Our coordinator told him to button it up, literally.

“Vhat? I am Russian man!” he protested and rolled his eyes at us, like she was asking the unthinkable. I can only imagine if Benedetto showed up to court, dressed similarly. First, it would be divorce court.

The moral of this “When in Rome” story: When in Russia, go as an American in upgraded format. Even computers need the latest operating systems for peak performance. You are presenting closing arguments to bring home your son or daughter:  give it all you’ve got for the performance of a lifetime.

Remember that first impressions go a long way. It’s always best to dress well on the plane, if indeed your bags never make it. A three-day-old warm-up suit in a Russian court, with Bill-the-Cat hair, is not a pretty thought.

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