Being a single parent in a foreign country like Russia is a complete burnout scenario. 95% of the time, I feel like I'm just holding the walls up and putting healthy food on the table by some kind of miracle. It's humbling as hell. I am proud to have a tabletop or little square of floor remain clean for more than four hours. My priorities are all about survival, about treading water in an ocean of expenses and the emotional weather report of this five year old girl.
By some bizarre luck and a lot of effort I have been able to keep my sense of humor, which is especially useful when dealing with a little girl that is full of anxiety, a girl who cries in her sleep when she stays with her mother, a girl brought to tears by the wind. I feel like we're recreating some of those scenes from Kramer vs. Kramer when we look for her socks in the morning, already a bit late for school. My french toast is much better, though. There is something fundamentally ridiculous about our situation, and I usually find myself laughing instead of getting angry. Well, Sisyphus is one of my heroes and that book by Camus left a lasting impression on me. In an absurd world, the hero laughs.
But today I took E from school, and she ran to me on the playground knowing we were going for a ciao bimbo ice cream cone, knowing there would be no school for three days. We named the birds that flew around us in a number of languages. Her tiny hand sweaty in mine, we navigated through crowds of people and entered the European shopping center. The girl behind the ice cream counter is stingy with the sprinkles and then pops the spoon into her mouth, eating them herself. E's face fell in disbelief. Those were her sprinkles, and she has new questions for me to answer somehow, about the random cruelty of the world.
And then crossing the street she announced it was time she had her first happy meal. We go to McDonald's very rarely, and I do believe a drop of poison builds your tolerance to large doses. Scarfing down hamburgers, sitting outside in the bright sunlight I felt my breathing relax. E got a pair of penguin binoculars as her surprise gift. She stared at, and commented on people passing us. There were groups of young women in those freakishly high heels, toppling along in tight white jeans and sequined tshirts. Young men in pairs smoked cigarettes and eyed up the girls, flipping phones open, squinting like cowboys in the bright sun. As usual, E speaks very loud in English and calls attention to us, so the tables close to ours inspire a lot of ambitious eavesdropping. Mothers and reckless children run in circles, stopping and glaring at us, then running back to their french fries. Women in giant white sunglasses smoke cigarettes and sip from tall soda cups. They stare at us, then whisper to each other. I smile at them, and nod to see if they act guilty. No, just that traditional icy look - like we are some flies buzzing around the garbage cans.
And then we walk through the park that will bring us home. Dotted with fountains, bridges and modern sculptures the place smells of fresh cut grass. E runs ahead of me to a playground overflowing with children. She joins the swirling flow of trips down the slide, the shuttling swings, the sandbox full of wet sand that forms into perfect cakes. And somehow, invisibly - we have passed into a moment of peace. I look at her running with her hands by her sides and she is just like the other kids. Her face is not asking impossible questions. The dark cloud in her eyes has passed. She plays with children from India, a half-French boy, a tiny Russian baby learning to walk. The hours pass, as her black Mary Janes are full of sand as her face is laughing and growing tired, as her pony tail disappears inside a jungle gym and then she takes the yellow slide one more time. I feel a sense of accomplishment, as if all the work holding the walls up was worth it - more than just rowing against the current, maybe we're finally getting somewhere.