Serbia Trip - Recap part one!

OK, so we did a horrible job keeping up the blog while on our trip, between illness, bad internet and the desire to spend a lot of time enjoying our new daughter we just didn't get around to it much. We did take a bunch of photos of Sara and Serbia and I hope to post some more while I cover some of the high points of the trip. So jumping from the last post to this post the cat is out of the bag, our new daughters name is Saramina Ivana Green or just Sara for short. You will figure out the meaning behind the name soon.

We had our meeting to get the process going on Monday the 4th of November and then made arrangements to travel to meet her the next day. Zoran drove us to Topola the town her foster family lives in. He got us settled into our first hotel and then we made the drive out to the home she lived in. It was a very cute farm area and and Sara lived in an adorable house with chickens, cats, dogs and I believe a cow out back in the barn area. This is one of those post card areas where you can see the hills for miles around and it has these cute little houses all over the place. An incredibly nice community for our little carrot to grow up in.

Ivana was Sara's foster mother and did a fantastic job in the year and a half that they had Sara. She obviously was very well taken care of and loved, not only by Ivana, but her husband Sasha, Ivana's mother and many others throughout the village who would visit her from time to time. We could not have asked for a better family to have taken care of Sara. Ivana explained that when she came from the institute she could not walk or talk and was very weak with extremely low muscle tone. She tended to sleep in a frog like position and wasn't strong enough to even manage to get a cell phone to her head. The little girl we met was bright and very active, a far cry from the institutionalized girl we were envisioning. Ivana was able to get Sara's strength up, managed to get her to sleep in a less damaging position and walking and talking. In-fact Sara is a bit of a chatter bug when you get her going and she has the most adorable little voice.

We spent three days visiting Sara at her foster home, over those days we spent time playing with her in an effort to get her comfortable with us. She immediately took to Sheila but wasn't very excited to play with daddy much, my streak of having 3 daddy's girls looked like it was coming to an end. We also got to spend a fair amount of time talking with Ivana and getting fed by her, she is an incredible cook and although we were very active on this trip, I felt like I was gaining weight. We had never experienced getting a child from a foster family and didn't know what to expect, it was actually a little sad knowing how much they cared for her, we felt a little guilty that we were taking her from them. We are going to make sure they get to see her growing up via Facebook, our blog, and Skype and I hope in a few years time we can return to visit them in Serbia.

 We had to make a change in accommodations after the first night of being in really dingy rundown hotel that wreaked of smoke and mildew. The staff was very friendly and helpful, but it was a hotel that time forgot. I cannot tell you how glad we were to find the the hotel Trio, it was more centrally located in town and was much more appropriate for a small child. We brought her to stay with us on Friday 11/8 and were a little nervous, Ivana had said she was not sleeping well and seemed to have some anxiety over everything. Luckily for Sara, Sheila and I are kind of goofballs, this is our 5th child and 3rd adoption. Every kid is different, but we felt like we knew how to get her out of her shell and make her feel at ease. We spent part of our first night with her walking around town and I discovered that between recovering from a bad cold and the hilliness of the town we really needed a stroller. It just happened there was a kids store right in the middle of town so we made the wise purchase of a nice stroller that we will leave at Mary's place for other families to use.

Cruising around town in her new stroller seemed to make Sara pretty happy, she watched everything that was going on. Although the town seemed big when we first got there after a few days we realized how small it was, it didn't take us long to go from one end to the other, but did get a good workout from all the hills. Feeding Sara was our biggest challenge so far, she can't chew at all which is very common for Serbian children who spent time in a institution. They seem to feed the children using a large nippled bottle like you would feed a farm animal with, both for their convenience and because they don't seem to think the children can learn to chew. Ivana wasn't able to make much progress on the feeding issue and we will have to continue to work on that. So even though she is five, we essentially have to feed her like a baby using mashed up foods and cereals.

After getting Sara to eat on her first night with us, it was onto bathing. The hotel did not have a bathtub or a large sink, so it was a shower for her. She looked a little curious about what was going on until we got her skinny little body in the shower, this girl is a little peanut and smaller than either of our adopted children were, the first thing you notice is the big scar on her chest from her heart surgery, she does take medications for the condition and all records indicate the surgery did what it was supposed to do, but we cannot wait to get her checked out stateside. In the shower she immediately began to sob, so we made haste and got everything done as quick as we could, she was shivering afterward so I turned on the hair dryer which also made her nervous and cry a bit. Into warm pajamas she went and then time for snuggling which calmed her down really fast. The little girl had a long week and now a long day with these strangers. We made a spot on the couch/bed for her and I laid down next to her and put my hand on her tummy. She didn't make any effort to move it and seemed to be comforted by it a bit. Two minutes later she was snoring softly and proceeded to sleep almost twelve hours.

We had to stay in Topola until the following Tuesday so the social center could keep an eye on us and we would be near Ivana should something happen. Luckily Sara really seemed to take to us and we got to walk around town everyday and establish a little bit of a routine. During the hours of playing, walking and relaxing we also started feeding some stray dogs around town. I bought a big bag of dog food and carried it with us, more than being hungry these dogs would crave attention. Sometimes I would leave a pile of food for them and they would leave it and follow us around. I'm sure the locals would laugh seeing these Americans pushing a stroller up a big hill followed by a pack of dogs. If I could I would have brought some of these doggy's home with us. Next stop back to Belgrade!

Serbia Trip - Waiting in Belgrade -Days 2 and 3

Randy's cold seemed much worse with a nasty sore throat by Sunday morning.  Since our girls had been diagnosed with strep before we left, he started on antibiotics right away.  Our doctor was very kind to send us medications for common travel issues.  We are covered for strep, yeast and bacterial infections.  We have always taken cipro and amoxicillan with us when we travel overseas. There is nothing quite like trying to explain stomach flu to a non-english speaking pharmacist with gestures.

Sunday was our day to reset so that we could be alert for our Monday appointment with the Ministry.  This appointment involves lots of people all of which are responsible for seeing that the prospective parents are fully informed about the child they have come to adopt. There were so many people!  This government has representatives, the US Embassy had representatives, the center for social work in the child's region had social workers and her legal guardian and her foster mother was there.  All of these people who are there solely looking out for the best interest of the child.  It was very heartwarming after the corruption of other countries.  Actually, the only one who was paid by us to be there was the court translator (roughly $150 for those who are considering adopting from Serbia.  She is required twice - once for the 1st appointment and for the adoption ceremony) Our girl was very fortunate in that she had a foster mom who brought her into her family and helped her enormously.  She was pretty fragile when she was brought from the institution but had progressed really well in the year since she came to a loving home. We are still not allowed to call her by name, so we will call her little carrot.  This was the first word that made her smile for the foster mom.  We were very lucky to have her foster mom at this meeting because she obviously cared a great deal for our girl and knew her so well that she could answer all of our questions about what she was like

We heard about her biological family and the circumstances of her birth.  Her medical history including surgery to repair her heart and medications that she takes.  We got to ask lots of questions and our contact from the ministry asked if we felt the information given we were given before coming to Serbia was accurately given.  Yes, it was very accurate but we also asked specific questions before we agreed to accept her referral .  We understand what adopting an orphan can really entail and have a clear picture what will work with our children who are already home.

I probably should explain that Serbia has independent adoptions.  There is no fee paid to the Serbian government to adopt a child.  The costs that incurred are homestudy costs, apostilles, document fees in the USA, travel, passport for the child ($52), Visa for the child ($275), medical for child ($100). We are fortunate to have discovered COCI, who was a great help with logistics. They found us lodging (25 euro per day in Belgrade)  made sure our dossier was translated (10 euros a page (1600 words per page max)by the court translator and provided transportation in country.  COCI does not have anything to do with choosing a child, contacting the Serbian ministry or making a decision on this child.  We contacted the ministry after our dossier was complete with specific requirements that we had in mind for a child.  And we asked questions directly regarding this child.  You do not receive a photo until you have made the decision that this is a good fit for your family.  You still have the option of rejecting the child if you don't approve of the photo BUT keep in mind that photos frequently do not capture who that child is really.  Actually, you are asked at each step of the process if you still want this child for your own.

There were things that made us nervous about what shape she was in but we are practical by nature and having completed 2 adoptions previously, we know that our definitions are sometimes very different from other countries.  So finally, we were asked if after all of this information, did we still want this child?  Yes!

A tentative schedule was made: 1st visit- TOMORROW (Yay!), 1st report on the 6th, 2nd report on the 12th and adoption ceremony on the 15th.  The adoption ceremony is where she is officially ours.  It is also the one date the no one has real control over.  It requires a signature from the minister and sometimes he is gone for a few days.

So tonight we get to pack up most of our things and tomorrow we travel to her current home in Topola.  We are excited and nervous about meeting our new daughter.

Serbia Trip – Day 1 – Getting there!

Flying for Sheila and I is a relatively enjoyable experience, there is something really cool about getting on a plane and being someplace new in a few hours. Now flying overseas is a bit different, it’s not a few hours and generally involves layovers and many, many hours in a seat designed for hobbits. In this case it’s also a bit heartbreaking not taking the whole family, there is that little tiny aspect in the back of your mind where you know if the plane crashes your toast and will never see your kids again and you worry about who will take care of them. It’s a feeling I think every parent just needs to really bury deep and try to ignore. This trip we try to see as two wonderful things, one getting to explore a part of Eastern Europe which we both love and dream of doing more and two (the most important thing!!) is getting a new piece of our family puzzle. We set into this journey with a lot of happiness and a lot of optimism.

After the quiet airport dinner we felt great and ready to go, the flight was scheduled to leave at 7:00 PM with a 2 hour layover in Chicago, when the plane finally arrived in Minneapolis around 8:45 and we got boarded around 9:00 and in the air around 9:15 we thought we still had plenty of time to get to our connection in O’Hare. The plane to Chicago was a smaller and this was only its third flight, so it was decked out with the latest and greatest in aviation technology (i.e…looked like the old ones but smelled new) we upgraded our seats to economy plus in the 5th row which gives you an extra six inches of leg room. I would recommend this to anyone over 5’5” and for those of us over 6’ it’s almost a requirement. This leg was a breeze and a pretty short flight, we were kind of happy not to have that longer layover in Chicago. The flight attendant told us exactly where we needed to go to get to the Turkish Airlines terminal at O’Hare. In order to get to it we had to walk fairly quickly and find the tram, this meant leaving the secure zone and going through security again at the other terminal. I’ve been through lots of airports, but never O’Hare so we didn’t realize these facts. Once we found the tram it was just waiting for it to arrive, the recorded message said a tram would arrive every 8 minutes. OK 8 minutes, we can handle that, until the tram arrived and wouldn’t leave, something broke down and they were already down to one tram instead of two. It sat there and sat there minutes ticking by, we started to panic a little, boarding time for our flight was 10:20 and it was 10:30 already with a departure of 11:00 scheduled. We asked someone who appeared to work at the airport if there was another way to the terminal and he said nothing that wouldn’t take an hour.

Freaking out we started texting our friend Leah who was checking the flight schedule, it appeared the plane to Istanbul was running late, a small reprieve although oddly enough we couldn’t find a gate posting for that flight anywhere. Finally the tram starts running again, unfortunately for us the wrong way, it had to go to terminals 1 & 2 first, so 4 minutes later we are on the tram and heading to terminal 5. Thank goodness we checked everything but our back packs because we were running up the stairs and into the terminal hoping beyond all belief that security was not busy, which thankfully it was not. I don’t think I have ever actually gone through security so fast, they commended us on how well we knew the process…lol. Once in the main concourse we found our gate number and sprinted again to find the happy people at Turkish Air waiting anxiously for their last missing passengers. I did make the failed attempt to see if there was any first class upgrades. The last flight although short was wreaking havoc on Sheila's sinuses causing some major headaches, so I was hoping we could at least get her a first class seat so she could lie down, no such luck though and onto the plane we went.

Now this was one of the big planes, many rows of seats deep, 8 seats across from side to side and the tiniest aisles that even hobbits couldn’t fit through. We were the last on board, sweating and carrying what appeared, on this plane anyway huge backpacks which I had to constantly apologize to people for hitting them with as we were taking the walk of shame to the back of the airplane. We instantly knew we were not on an American airline as there was Turkish music playing and it was literally 90 degrees according to my phone.  The seats on this flight were tiny compared to the last flight, but most importantly we were on and did not have to hassle with rebooking and staying in Chicago any longer. 10 minutes after boarding we were heading for Europe.

Thankfully once we were in the air it started to cool down. The sinus pressure came back for Sheila and I was starting to feel a little run down. My intention was to take some Nyquil and sleep through most of this flight but man I have a hard time sleeping sitting up and I think we were both wide awake from the rush of adrenaline of almost missing the flight. We decided to stay awake until the food service came, which was a surprisingly delicious meal of a chicken and pasta dish with red wine, a tiny salad, some type of quinoa looking thing with a tomato in it, bread and a desert that was kind of like cheesecake. Very tasty for airline food! Well-fed, now it was time to sleep until the turbulence started, this was the kind of turbulence that had the stewards put the carts away and buckle up and dinner to think about revisiting your lap. Not cool or fun, but the time it stopped we were about half way through the flight and finally both started to fall asleep, but it was that kind of sleep where you are sitting straight up and open your eyes every 10 minutes, look around and remember you’re on a plane still. All in all I think we both got maybe 3-4 hours of this restless sleep before they turned all the lights up and served breakfast. I wish I could remember what breakfast was, I do know I ate something relatively tasty and sat there in a daze for the final hour of this flight.

Coming into Istanbul it was cloudy and raining so we couldn’t see anything cool from the sky. The airport in Istanbul was not as big as I imagined or as nice, it’s not the worst but definitely not the best as far as airports go. We only had about an hour to be there so we people watched and reminisced about how you notice while travelling to overseas the changes you go through. Obviously in the US you hear plenty of English and on your flight out of country some accents and dual languages, in this case Turkish and English. Once in Istanbul you primarily hear foreign tongues with plenty of English mixed in and most of these airports have English signage so you can make you way around. Then usually you are going into a non-hub final destination where you are lucky to hear any English and most signs have none either. It’s like each step becomes more and more disorienting. This was true of our flight into Serbia. The last leg was also Turkish Air going into Belgrade, this flight is just a bit longer than the Minneapolis to Chicago, but instead of Turkish and English it has switched to Turkish and Serbian announcements.

Another quick meal of a turkey sandwich, salad, some type of crackers and cheese and a chocolate mousse were served. Not too bad, but honestly by this time we had been either in an airport or on an airplane for coming on 22 hours. Both Sheila and I were no longer feeling fresh and happy, we were both sick and incredibly tired. My cold had gone from in control and barely there to kicking my butt big time. It was time to get out of the airport. Passport control was a breeze, I learned after my trips to Ukraine and Russia that they sit in a dark booth, will not let you approach until called, will not speak to you in English even if they know it, will say some threatening sounding things to you before stamping your passport and then they give you back your passport and start glaring at the next person in line. It used to scare me, now I just want to get through and get my bags. Ours were the first on the belt and out we went through the green zone with nothing to declare. Going out the doors to the public area always make me feel like a celebrity, there are lots of smiling people there waiting for loved ones and many, many smiling cabbies and limo drivers looking for a fare. We fortunately we quickly found by Zoran the COCI coordinator for Serbia and very nice gentleman whom we will talk more about soon. For now we were just happy to be on the ground and heading for a place to sleep!

Serbia Trip – Day 0 – Getting ready!

Getting ready for Serbia was a whirlwind operation for us. We were scheduled to fly out at 7:00 PM November 1st, the day after Halloween. For those of you who know us, you know we take Halloween to next level with a pretty elaborate set up including a few animatronics, fog machines and way too many decorations. It has become an annual thing with us and even though we knew we had to leave we did not want to disappoint our kids let alone the hundreds of trick or treaters we usually get. Last year the number was 447, this year only 210, which is still a ton of kids! While this lead up to Halloween was going on we also had to pack for ourselves, and the 3 girls for their stay at grandpa’s house. That is a lot of packing to be done. All credit in this case goes to Sheila, I’m not very good at packing (just giving my opinion, which Sheila justifiably ignores!)

To pile onto the hustle and bustle we had virtually everyone in the house with colds, strep throat, bronchitis and various other ailments, all of which required doctors’ visits and many medications, nothing like good timing! Sheila annually in the fall gets bronchitis which more often than not leads to pneumonia.  She was determined that would not happen, so two trips to the doctor later she was happily taking prednisone, antibiotics, decongestants and lots of cough medicine for her  bronchitis AND sinus infection. Me, I was feeling that sore throat coming on, you know the one that you absolutely know is going to be a cold? So off I went to target to get some Zicam, Airborne and probiotics to fight off the cold. Of the two of us when we left Sheila was in far rougher shape. Halloween night was busy, the girls got to go out for a bit and Michael got to scare hundreds of neighbor kids with his friend Hunter. The next day was real crunch time.

Friday morning meant getting all the Halloween decorations down as quick as possible and juggling everything else. I needed to work for a couple hours that morning, then had lots of help from Michael, Hunter, my friend Tim and Sheila’s brother Ryan. The decorations got down, we got the house (relatively) clean, the final packing done, a few final runs for cash and essentials to leave for Michael. Good byes are always hard for us, to leave your kids for three weeks in any way, shape or form is hard. I just wish they weren't so happy to see us go. For Michael it meant the house to himself (relatively, my sister lives three houses away!) for 3 weeks. For the girls it meant 3 weeks at grandpa’s house. Grandpa is awesome, as far as father in-laws go I couldn't really ask for more, he has helped us so much with each adoption and is just a rock for the family. Unfortunately he also has grandpa’s prerogative and lets the girls eat what they want, when they want. I think the last adoption when we got Masha, Caelia and Lera each gained close to 10 pounds or so. Caelia kept saying “Momma, daddy go, Cae go to grandpas and get chips and cheese” which is Caelia speak for “See ya later, have fun”.

After the hugs and kisses off we went to the airport, we figured since the flight left at 7:00 we would beat rush hour and get there by 4:30, which we easily did thanks to my sister Colleen. More hugs and we were in the airport, bags checked and through security pretty quickly. We decided to have quiet dinner at Chili’s in the airport. I took more Zicam had a lite somewhat healthy meal and we both drank lots of water. All in all we both felt pretty good, I was pretty sure my cold was going to just go away and Sheila’s lungs and sinuses were feeling pretty good. I always like to start a trip off feeling good, clean and healthy, this being our third international adoption we like to think we have gotten pretty good at the process and can handle some curveballs here and there. All we had to do now was sit back and wait for the plane.