Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.

On the Mend – (Reunions – Chapter 13)


(Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)


Our pediatrician of almost 17 years retired recently. My first thought was to feel sorry for all the soon-to-be new parents around here. Dr. P had provided my daughters – and us (!) – with excellent care and even became something of a friend.

The first time I met him was in his own home on a Sunday. We were about to leave for Ethiopia where Mitzi was waiting for her hopelessly inexperienced new parents. Dr. P had done some research before our arrival and, over breakfast, he gave us all sorts of advice, answered our questions and wrote out prescriptions for medications that might be needed, depending on Mitzi’s state of health. Even more important, though, is that he calmed us down. That was his specialty after decades of dealing with slightly hysterical, young parent-hypochondriacs. We left his house feeling that things would be alright. And they were.

In our second adoption of Lily, our first action on returning home was a trip to Dr. P’s office – and once again, it was a specially arranged appointment outside of his normal practicing hours. He observed Lily as we told him about our trip and how she was recovering from the measles. He did a few quick reflex tests and some physical examination. He checked her responses to different stimuli.

“How old did you say she is?” he asked.

We explained how we had been asked to decide on her birthdate based on pictures and information from police reports. (Which, by the way, is a very strange thing to have to do!) Our guess at the time was that she was about five months old, so we suggested May 5th (the birthday of a dear childhood friend). The answer came back that it was too early, and were we okay with June 2nd? A month later, the trip to Ethiopia behind us, we told Dr. P that she was now five months old. He looked intensely at Lily and tried a few more things.

“This child is much older than 5 months,” he said. “In fact, I’d say she is somewhere between 3 to 6 months older.”

I stared at my new 9 pound baby and tried to imagine her as 11 months old – it didn’t seem possible.

Then Dr. P explained that her motor skills and intellectual capabilities were way beyond what a 5 month old would normally have. He seemed very convinced.

Over the years, I have come halfway around to his opinion. I had learned earlier that the miraculous infant brain will protect its own development by slowing bodily growth if need be while devoting all nutritional resources to itself. So, undernourished babies will often remain very small even as they develop mentally. A specialist once told me that once regular good nutrition is restored, it can still take up to three years before the child catches up to his/her genetically pre-determined height and weight. On the other hand, I have also read that evolution has led to faster infant development in poorer countries. It is said that a two year old Ethiopian child – if abandoned – can survive on its own, finding food and shelter of some sort in the streets. I don’t know if that is true, but it is absolutely unimaginable that an Austrian child of two could do such a thing. And Lily comes from a particularly poor part of Ethiopia where the average life expectancy is less than 50 years. It would make sense that people there, over the centuries, would develop faster and reach reproductive age earlier.

Questions. Questions.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter if Lily was born in January or March or June, but I can’t help wondering how it must feel not to know this about oneself? What we do know of her story is extremely low on facts, filled out somewhat by oral reports. The rest is supposition. There is a police report which says she was found “under the cactus tree in A….” The problem here is that “A….” is such a huge area. It is the equivalent of saying something like “under the maple tree in Delaware.” We heard secondhand that she got her name from the policeman who went to get her and took her to the nearest orphanage. The way Lily moved when I held her made me believe that she had been breastfed – so possibly her birth mother fed and cared for her for a while until the day she no longer could. Lily’s delighted reactions to older men with white hair – in stark contrast to the reserve she showed to other people – made me think that there might have been a kind and affectionate grandpa in her earliest months. And finally, it is absolutely clear to us that whoever her biological parents were, they had beauty and intelligence and music in their genes.

These are the things (we think) we know. They are the elements of Lily’s story. In a way, hers is not so different to anyone else’s. Memory is a strange thing – blogging has taught me that. When we tell our own stories, facts tend to get intertwined with rumors, family legends, myths, guesses and details which have morphed over time. And from things others have told me, I believe we all have gaps – little mysteries about ourselves that we may never solve. There’s the woman who spent her childhood fearing she was actually adopted. Another who found out that her father had an entire second wife and family in another town – leading her to meeting her half-siblings for the first time in her thirties. I, myself, often wondered whether I was a planned fifth child or an accidental one. I doubt there is a person on this planet who can truly answer the three most basic existential questions: who am I? where did I come from? and why am I here?

Questions. Questions.

Dr. P may have instigated a mystery that we will never solve, but he did give Lily great care – and a lot of it! There were a lot of after-effects from her bouts of the measles and scabies – an ear infection, stomach troubles, a respiratory infection, rashes, the Epstein-Barr virus . . . It seemed like I was hauling her to Dr. P every week with something new. I spent many an hour worrying in his overcrowded waiting room and often felt that he was hectic and rushing when our turn finally came. I even briefly considered finding a different pediatrician with more time and fewer patients. But then, during a classically speedy appointment, I blurted out how guilty I felt that Lily was sick once again. He stopped what he was doing, sat down, and talked slowly and calmly, taking his time.

“Just look at her and how well she is developing! You may not see it, but she keeps growing and filling out and getting stronger. Her skin has cleared up and started to glow. Each time you come here, it’s like I’m seeing a different baby.”

My guilt subsided and loyalty was restored.

Once we had gotten through all these follow-up illnesses, Lily turned into an eerily healthy child. Her immune system had been massively kick-started, I guess. And now, many years later, with Lily’s 15th birthday just around the corner, those old worries and feelings of helplessness or guilt have faded from memory. Couples adopting internationally are often more worried than biological parents about what illnesses their future children might have. But in some ways, helping my daughters back to good health – seeing how quickly they responded to loving care and how fully they recovered – has become a special and enriching part of my adoption experiences. Thanks, as well, to a little help from a friend.




The back story:
Reunions – The Prologue
Part 1 – The Decision
Part 2 – Nine Months
Part 3 – The 4 o’clock 10 o’clock Man
Part 4- Seeing is Believing
Part 5 – Whirlwind Departure
Part 6 – Out of the Question
Part 7 – Body Language
Part 8 – International Kidnapping
Part 9 – The Well-being of the Child
Part 10 – Poons and Moons
 Part 11 – Oh No, Not Lily
Part 12 – Running On Empty


Bureaucratic Baby Steps

So. The deed is done. My application for US citizenship for my adopted daughters is in the mail. My nearly yearlong odyssey to make this happen is nearing its conclusion. Now it is Wait and See time.

I can’t believe how convoluted this process has been from the very onset. And, of course, there were a few more stumbling blocks set in our path through the second to last stretch. Like the fact that permission from the Austrian government for dual citizenship took over six (!) months, meaning that the time window is now very small. (Although, when I picked up the documents, I saw that they were dated October 10th 2016. Seems like we could have had them five months ago, but no one got around to notifying us . . .)

Then, there was a new version of the application form – now 13 pages long instead of the 8-page one I filled out last summer. If I had sent that one in, it would have been immediately rejected. I only stumbled across the new form through sheer dumb luck.

And then came the dilemma of how to pay the (discouragingly hefty) filing fee from abroad? After reading every square inch of the website and consulting its Avatar “Emma”, who answered each of my questions by directing me back to a webpage, I took the desperate step of trying to call our – in this case, frigging useless  – embassy.

Unfortunately, there are only two telephone numbers listed on the embassy website – one for visa questions and one for dire emergencies. I dialed the visa number and went through an endless series of “Press 1 for lahdeedah. Press 2 for weebeejeebee . . . Press 269 for zippowingo. Hold the line to talk to a human being.”  I held. After what seemed like two days – finally! – a voice of a real person. To keep a short story short, here’s what he told me. He doesn’t know anything about my situation except that he knows that I can’t pay the fee through the embassy and, no, he can’t connect me to anyone else there who might know, and, no, it won’t help to come in person.

So how do I pay this stupid fee? The website makes clear that the application will be rejected if the cash is not forked over upfront and that the money has to come from a US bank.

I was without options.

Time to call Sister Ambassador.

We hatched a plan. I filled out the form for credit card payment that is used for different type of application and then wrote a cover letter saying that if it was the wrong one, my sister would write a check. Here’s all her contact information. Please work it out with her!  And then, in a blind leap of faith, I stacked it all up – my cover letter, my G-1450 form, my G-1145 form, my N-600K application form, my thick folders full of supporting documents (with certified translations!) – and I stuffed it all into a bubble envelope and addressed it to the USCIS. I drove to the post office.

May the fates be merciful.

Best case scenario: The payment is accepted. The application is accepted. We are notified. No more documents are requested. No specialized visa is necessary which would require me to visit the US embassy. We get an interview appointment in the Milwaukee Field Office during the time period I suggested. The interviews go well. My daughters are handed their Certificates of Citizenship. We celebrate.

And then, sometime next fall, my daughters and I go to the embassy and we watch with gratification as they hand over the US passports. A small part of the world has been righted: adopted children DO have all the same rights as biological ones. It just requires some extra paperwork. And a flight or two across an ocean.


Running on Empty – (Reunions – Chapter 12)

Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)

Despite the whirlwind of last minute activity before my second trip to Ethiopia, it took every last iota of my energy to keep tamping down my worries. How is Lily doing? Is it really just chicken pox or is it . . . god forbid . . . the measles? Surely Monty would tell me! I had the hour count in my head of how much longer it would be before I had Lily in my arms. As I ticked them off one by one, each hour seemed to be longer than the previous. Time was slowing down. Still, by the time we got to the airport, my count had made it down to a maximum of 15 hours till I would see her, hold her – and with a little luck, maybe 14 or even 13!

My arrival in Addis Ababa for the second time was quite the opposite of the first experience – with one little exception. To begin with, I personally knew Monty who would be there to meet us at the airport in the middle of the night and I was ready when she flung herself at me and began a series of traditional three cheek kisses interspersed with strong hugs. She chattered away and began organizing us all for the drive while simultaneously being introduced to the others and laughing and then coming back to me for yet another hug. Somewhere in there I managed to work in my burning question: “Are the babies okay?”

“Yes yes yes, the babies are good!” she said and then got back to the business of distributing suitcases and passengers into the two cars.

I was surprised to find her husband, (I’ll call him “Daniel”), in attendance too. In contrast to Monty (not to mention the hapless, Mr. T) this man was quiet, reserved, distinguished. I would find out that he was a former Economics professor and an author, now self-employed and working to patiently reform the Ethiopian economy. His English was impeccable. His presence there was meant to honor us and thank us for our help to his son in Austria.

After the initial introductions, we headed to their two cars – neither of which needed any duct tape to hold it together. I ended up riding shotgun with Daniel. As we approached the one large intersection with traffic lights, I remembered how, two years earlier, Mr. T. had simply shot through it obliviously, despite the red light. It surprised me to see this man gunning toward the red light in the same way, with no hint of him even considering using the brakes. After barreling through, I asked him if it was customary there to simply ignore stoplights. He looked at me with a tiny smile. “When no other cars are around?” he responded. He seemed to be questioning me. I liked the twinkle in his eyes.

We got to the Mission we were staying at around 4:00 in the morning. After helping us with our luggage, Monty brought in bag after bag full of food, water, bananas, bread . . . Anything and everything she thought we might need in the next 7 hours before we would meet again. She ordered us to go right to sleep and then to be ready at 11:00 am the next morning, when they would pick us up again.

“And then we will go to the orphanage?” I asked.

“No, no. We will have lunch first. Sister Mariska said Visiting Hours are between 4 and 6 pm. Then we go.”

Monty made her vivacious goodbyes, ordered us to go to sleep once again, hugged and kissed me several times and then handed me a banana and told me to sleep well. And then she was gone.

I was so disappointed. 4 o’clock pm! Twelve more hours! How would I make it that long?!  I was so close to Lily now (or at least I thought) and still had to wait! Life was cruel.

I ate a banana. As ordered. And I went to bed. But I didn’t really sleep.

I waited till it was light and I heard noises of the others – the other adopting couple and my sister-in-law who had come with me. (My husband had stayed at home with our elder daughter.) We whiled away the time as best we could, battling impatience. We wandered around the garden and took strange pictures. Time had slowed almost to a halt. Monty and Daniel’s arrival felt like redemption.running1



Our lunch was wonderful but I could hardly wait for it to be over. It was followed by an almost painfully long traditional coffee ceremony (which begins with roasting the beans). We asked intermittently about the babies, but Monty kept her answers short and quickly changed the subject. Once the coffee had been drunk and cups returned, I assumed we would be off to the orphanage – a bit early, but not by much. Monty had other plans and we proceeded to drive up the mountain Entoto by one of the back roads. We would take in the view of Addis and maybe look at the churches.

running3 running4

Never before and never since have I been so ungrateful for such kindness – but I was wilting inside. It wasn’t even nervous energy keeping me going anymore, it was just the fumes. It was already 4 pm when we entered the second church. My brain was calculating the shortest period of time we could spend pretending to look at it without being rude. That’s when the curator came over and offered us a private guided tour. I thanked him and tried to beg off by explaining how we were on our way to the orphanage, but Monty stopped me. She whispered “This is great honor!” So we traipsed from artefact to artefact as the curator droned on unintelligibly about which king or priest did which historical thing in which year, after which he stopped and waited for me to translate it all for the German speakers while I was dying inside.

It was . . . excruciating.

The other adopting couple – let’s call them Ellen and Ronny – looked at me with something like pain in their eyes. This was their first time in Ethiopia and their first adoption. My nervousness and anxiety were nothing compared to theirs. They both looked like they were about to throw up. So, instead of translating the wonders of the next artefact, I said in German, “I should be telling you what he just said – which I didn’t really understand – but I’ll use this chance to ask you two how you are holding up.” I then added a bit louder: “King Fasilides in the 17th century.” Ronny then asked me in German how much longer this was going to go on and weren’t we going to miss the visiting hours? I told them I would try to get us out of there and then pointed out the pattern on the artefact as if I were explaining it.

As we walked to the next display case, I whispered to Monty that Ellen wasn’t feeling well and needed some air. Monty and the curator then had an intense discussion during which he seemed a bit affronted and she talked a mile a minute. At one point he looked over at us and seemed to soften a bit. We all thanked him profusely and he almost smiled. (I think Monty’s donation to the church helped a bit too.) We were free! We were finally on our way to Lily!


running6To be honest, I have almost no true memories of the next hour. I only have the ones my mind later constructed around the pictures we took. The red couch. The bundle. Lily in my arms, confused, straining away from this stranger and looking around for Monty or Sister Mariska. Those two women were in intense conversation, interrupted occasionally by one of them telling me “On the mend! On the mend!” In the pictures, a black splotch is visible on the corner of Lily’s mouth, but I don’t remember seeing it in those first moments. I do remember realizing suddenly that I had forgotten the Baby Bjorn back at the mission. I kicked myself mentally. I had had Lily for all of ten minutes and had already made my first mistake. I took off my sweater and tied it around my waist to fashion a make-shift baby carrier. It would have to do.

(Years later, Monty told me a story. She said that Daniel had watched me doing this with some fascination and then said, “Now THAT is a mother!”)

Sister Mariska had a lot of work to do, so she kicked us out after a fairly short time. Before I knew it, we were back at the mission and I had a sick baby to take care of. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know what I would have done without Monty and my sister-in-law (– I’ll call her “Sue”). Both of them were experts in childcare. (Despite having a surgeon, two dentists and a gynecologist in the family, it was Sue that we all called when we needed medical advice – and especially when it was for a sick baby.) In those first hours, Monty and Sue prepared the antibiotics for Lily and discussed how and when they should be administered. They helped me bathe Lily in specially prepared water to treat her scabies. It was Sue who sat next to me as I gave Lily her first formula. Sue kept me from panicking when I realized that Lily was too weak to suck it out of the bottle – even after we painstakingly enlarged the nipple hole with a pin. It was Sue’s idea to try spoon-feeding. We began pouring the formula drop by drop onto Lily’s lips and saw that she was taking it in. We kept this up for hours and through much of the next day until Lily was strong enough to use the bottle.

At some point, this longest day of my life had to end. Lily was sleeping (if somewhat fitfully) when I placed her in the crib and then lay down. I listened to her wheezy, rattly breathing and worried. Then the sound stopped and I worried more, so I got up to check her breathing. After the third time, I realized this wasn’t going to work. I had read in a baby book somewhere that it is dangerous to have an infant in your bed, but I saw no other option. I rolled up extra blankets and laid them to the left and right of me. Then I got Lily and laid her on my chest and covered her up. Her breathing quieted, but I could still feel her lungs expanding and contracting. I drifted off and woke hours later in the exact same position.


Between the Baby Bjorn and this sleeping arrangement, Lily spent about 100 of the next 120 hours at my chest. Heart to heart. We were soon both on the mend.


We spent another five days in Ethiopia during which Monty spoilt us rotten with attention. We were chauffeured around to sights and restaurants and visits to families of other children adopted by Austrian friends. We brought presents to people and went shopping for souvenirs. We watched Lily get stronger and stronger. We learned her noises and her ways. Once she seemed out of the woods, I finally maneuvered Monty into a corner. We were in the car on our way somewhere when I told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted to know the truth. “Lily had the measles, not the chicken pox, didn’t she?” I asked. There was a long silence.

“Yes,” Monty finally admitted.

“How bad was it?”

“You do not need to know this.”

We drove on in more silence for a while. And then I said, “Okay. But I want a promise from you. Someday in the future you will tell me the truth.”

She thought about it for a while and then made the promise.


In the absence of facts, theories and stories and, eventually, legends emerged about Lily and her medical history. Sue has come to believe and say that if we had arrived just one day later, Lily would not have made it. I know that she is telling her own truth and that with her expertise, I should believe her, and yet I don’t. Because I can’t. The what if’s are simply too awful to contemplate. And then there is the memory of Sister Mariska’s confidence. Lily was already “On the mend!” when I first held her . . .

And then there was Monty’s version of the truth, which I heard a half year later when she visited us in Austria. She told me that two nights before our arrival, she had visited Lily in the orphanage. Her condition was dire and Monty didn’t think she would survive the night. She recognized that it was in God’s hands now, and that if Lily was still alive the next morning, then everything would be alright. And that was what happened.

I know Monty was telling her own truth. And I should believe her. But I can’t.

Adopted children do not like hearing that their experiences were “meant to be” and I understand fully why that it is so. How could it ever be “meant to be” that a person loses his/her mother or father in infancy? Beginning one’s life in loss can only be bad luck and never destiny.

And yet.

I cannot and will never stop feeling that Lily and Mitzi and Hubby and I belong together for no other reason than there is no alternative. We four are NOT simply the product of a string of decisions and coincidences and timing and luck . . .

We are meant to be. It is my own truth. And I believe it.



The back story:
Reunions – The Prologue
Part 1 – The Decision
Part 2 – Nine Months
Part 3 – The 4 o’clock 10 o’clock Man
Part 4- Seeing is Believing
Part 5 – Whirlwind Departure
Part 6 – Out of the Question
Part 7 – Body Language
Part 8 – International Kidnapping
Part 9 – The Well-being of the Child
Part 10 – Poons and Moons
 Part 11 – Oh No, Not Lily


Monty – (Reunions – Fast Forward)

We got an unexpected phone call a few days ago. Our Ethiopian friend, Monty – the same one I am currently writing about in the next chapter of my adoption story – was in Austria and wanted to know if there was any way we could meet up before she flew home. Of course there was a way. This was, after all, the woman who saved my younger daughter’s life. I will love her till the day I die. My husband saw her two years ago on his school trip to Ethiopia, but it had been six years for my daughters and me. Here’s a shot of that last visit:


So instead of a lazy Sunday, we all jumped in the car and drove for two hours to see her. We sort of crashed a party being given for her by four Viennese families (and ended up monopolizing her a bit) but they were all gracious about it. They had had her for two days and we only had two hours. It was such a wonderful reunion. Just too short.

As we said goodbye, Monty stuttered out, “Miss C., you . . . your lovely family . . . the most . . . all of you . . . my heart . . . you know what I am saying . . .”

I knew.


Oh, No, Not Lily – (Reunions – Chapter 11)

Note: This is part of a longer story. To read the earlier chapters, click on the category “Adoption Stories” (and read from the bottom up!)


The third time I brought up the idea of adopting another child, a loud and reflexive “NO!!” came shooting out of my husband’s mouth. The explosiveness of it was pretty effective in making me drop the subject. The second time I brought it up, though, his response was the opposite. Not only was he immediately open to the idea, but I was pretty sure he had already been thinking about it himself. The first time we had considered adoption, he had literally needed years to come around to yes, so it was something of a shock to realize within seconds that “We are going to do this.”


Where to begin? Since the pioneer work we had done to have Mitzi, the entire adoption landscape in Austria had changed. News had travelled like wildfire that Ethiopian adoptions were possible and couples were networking and sharing information all over the country. Mitzi had been the third Ethiopian child to come to Austria in this wave and since then, dozens and dozens more had already followed. Austria had quietly signed the Hague Convention which allowed agencies to be established and to begin “facilitating” adopting couples. We were even indirectly involved in the creation of one of these. Within a month or two, however, we were already questioning how involved we really wanted to be.

The first priority of this organization was declared to be promoting aid projects and adoption assistance came in a distant second. Generally that was fine with us, but the freshly elected functionaries had a conservative and paternalistic approach to their adoption tasks. One of the first decisions was to set age limits for applying couples – a maximum of 50 years old for the father and 45 for the mother. Up to that point, couples only had to meet the Ethiopian “rule of thumb” requirements that the combined age of the parents should not exceed 100 years. I wondered about the organization’s decision to make it just a little harder for couples. More galling was the fact that they were placing themselves squarely behind Ethiopia in terms of gender equality. What was the point of that 5 year difference between the sexes? It wasn’t a good sign.

My (own and vicarious) experience has been that every adoption brings its own unique troubles. With some couples they began with uncooperative social workers. Other couples created their own problems with unrealistic expectations or arrogant demands (after all, the “customer” is always right, right?). Each time a problem cropped up, the organization created a new blanket rule – a new loop for the next couple to jump through and a new fee to pay. Before long they officiously forbade couples from contacting their representative in Ethiopia directly while instituting a “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” policy. And, of course, the costs started going up and up – including a “mandatory donation” to their current aid project – while the waiting periods got longer and longer. And what did the adopting couples do every time a new rule or requirement was instituted? They did what everyone in this situation does (including us), they shut up, paid up, and did what they were told. Anything not to screw this chance up.

So when we decided to adopt again, we knew we didn’t want to do it via this new agency. But there was a hitch.

Two years earlier, when we had to find a representative for Mitzi’s adoption, two women were suggested to us: a Mrs. Monty and a Mrs. Herewego. Jean and Arthur at the Austrian Embassy in Addis knew “Monty” and highly recommended her. But, unfortunately, she was out of the country for a few months at the time and we were not willing to wait for her return. Herewego it was.

After our experiences with the first adoption, the following couples all hired Monty and had wonderful things to say about her. In the meantime, Monty had many connections to Austria and eventually became the representative for all couples adopting through the new agency. How could we get her and bypass the organization?

Once again, destiny smiled on us.

Monty’s son was going to be studying in Austria and they were trying to decide between universities in Vienna and Graz (where I worked). One evening, an Austrian man – who I will call “Marvin” and who had also adopted an Ethiopian child  – called me out of the blue. He was helping Monty with arrangements for her son and needed to know some things about enrollment in Graz, accommodations, etc. My husband and I immediately offered to help in any way we could (and would have done so in any case), but to be honest, I also saw an opening.

So Monty and I started communicating back and forth and in one of those first conversations, I let her know that we were intending to adopt again. She thought that was wonderful news. Then I admitted that we didn’t really want to go through the agency and she immediately offered to do the work for us privately. Wouldn’t that be a problem for her, I asked? “Nooooo!” she answered, “I do not work exclusively for them!”

We had our representative. Let the paper chase begin!

Having gone through this process before, we were three times faster this time. Some of the documents we could use again and with others we saved ourselves a few “Ka-chings!” by getting originals already in English (so no translation costs were necessary). There were also couples flying regularly to Addis who could deliver files and down payments for us. At the same time, I was preparing the bureaucratic soil at the university for Monty’s son’s enrollment, and becoming friends with Marvin and his family who were officially sponsoring him. Meanwhile Monty was working at processing our adoption file in Ethiopia. In the midst of all this, she came to Austria for a short business trip and squeezed in a visit to us. She and Mitzi hit it off immediately and another lifelong friendship was formed.

The start of the university semester and the son’s arrival were fast approaching, when one evening the telephone rang. It was Monty. And she had news. A group of babies from an orphanage in northern Ethiopia had just been brought to Addis Ababa.

And Mitzi’s new sister was among them. She had seen this baby and was immediately reminded of Mitzi. She knew they were meant to be together.

We had a second daughter.

Oddly enough, my first question was exactly the same as the first time I got “The Call”.

“What is her name?”

Monty had to say it, pronounce it slowly and even spell it out several times. It was not exactly a name that just slipped off your lips. She told me it meant “Princess”.  Princess Lily. I don’t remember everything about the rest of the conversation, but she told me her son would be bringing pictures when he arrived the next week. And that I could probably come and get Lily about two or three weeks after that – she would let me know as soon as she had the court date. She said that another of the northern babies was going to Austria too, and that maybe we two families could come together. Oh yeah, and we should choose a birthday for Lily and let her know what it was.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait for the son to arrive. It was arranged that Marvin would pick him up from the airport and bring him to Graz. We would get a few details taken care of and then I would take him home with me.

We all met up in a university parking lot and the son’s big toothy smile made me like him immediately. I chatted a bit with Marvin and then noticed an envelope in my hand. “What’s this?” I thought in confusion. And then I realized my daughter was inside. I excused myself and walked about 10 yards away from them. I opened the envelope. I looked.

lily 1 lily 2

I looked again. And again. I quickly found my favorite picture and looked again. She was so beautiful. And so sad.

A year or two later, Marvin’s family was visiting us and we were having a nice dinner in a local wine tavern. We started reminiscing and he said, “I will never forget what you said after you saw those first pictures of Lily.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What did I say?” (I had no recollection of saying anything.)

He answered. “You said: ‘I have to see this little girl smile.’”

The next three weeks were a whirlwind of getting Monty’s son enrolled and settled, contacting the other adopting family, making decisions and travel arrangements. Mitzi kept a picture of her new “Sister Baby” by her at all times and the emails and phone calls flew back and forth between us and Monty almost daily. Things progressed fast and efficiently without a hitch until one evening about a week before my departure to Addis.

In a phone call, Monty informed me that she was visiting the babies daily now because they were sick. Chicken pox and fevers.

“Lily?” I asked.

“Oh, no! Not Lily.”

Three days before my departure, I gave Monty all our arrival information and then asked how the babies were doing. She said she was monitoring the situation and would be visiting them again the next day.

The next day, the phone rang. It was Monty. I was surprised because our last call had ended with “So . . . see you in Addis!!”

Her English was more convoluted than usual, but I got the message: that she was very worried about some of the babies. She thought I should know. It was the measles now, not chicken pox. She was not sure all of them would make it.

Measles in Ethiopia is bad. Measles, not Malaria, is the Number One Cause of Death for Ethiopian infants.  It’s not like here where most babies are well fed, cared for, have access to doctors and antibiotics and where many are vaccinated so that the disease does not spread like wildfire.

“But . . . not Lily . . .?” I asked.

“Oh, No. Not, Lily.” she answered. And then there was silence.

Her voice was strange. She had said that strangely. And then there was the silence. I didn’t know what to make of it all. A question started to formulate in my mind . . . was she . . . telling me  . . . ? But then I quickly and desperately stifled the thought.

Everything had gone so smoothly so far. This time around, there had been no obstacles, or confusion, or moments of desperation. I had not had to take any blind leap of faith.

I thanked Monty for the call and for letting me know how the other babies were doing. I told her how much I was looking forward to seeing her in just 48 hours. We hung up.

And then I leapt.



There are some words that are simply never uttered in my household. One of them was a “Daily Post – One-word Prompt” (and if you want to know what the word is, you can click on that link to find out.)

If only my daughters could find the answers to their questions so easily – with just a simple click of the mouse. “Who was my birth mother?” Click. “What was her name?” Click. “What did she look like?” Click. “Why didn’t she want me?” Click.

Both of my daughters have heard “their” stories many times. At very young ages, they asked me to tell them the stories again and again. So, my elder knows that she was born in the “Black Lion” Hospital and was brought to Sister Mariska in the Missionaries of Charity on the same day –  after her birth mother disappeared. (Though, at that time, I used the terms “Birth Mama” and “Life Mama”. After a year or two, I realized that my daughter had misheard me and was saying “Earth Mama”. We cleared up the misunderstanding and we both laughed about it. But the term “Earth Mama” was there to stay.)

My younger daughter knows that (according to the police report) she was found “under the cactus tree” in a (huge) northern region of Ethiopia. The policeman who brought her to the nearest orphanage was the one who named her. He called her the Ethiopian word for “little princess”. The name stuck. Later, she also came to Addis Ababa, and to the same Sister Mariska who cared for her till we arrived.

In all of the retellings of these stories, the sentence that never crossed my lips was “You were (Daily Post – One-word Prompt).”

Throughout their early childhoods, my younger daughter had few questions. The older one, on the other hand, was occupied with this topic repeatedly and over many years. She worried about her Earth Mama and wanted to meet her. She cried after hearing that we would try everything we could, but that she should know this might never happen. She articulated her most burning question straight out – “Why didn’t she want me?”

I especially remember one conversation in our kitchen. She was asking many questions again that I still couldn’t answer (and maybe never could). Here is an approximate and cleaned-up version of what I told her – and not for the first time:

“Mitzi – there ARE some things I can tell you about her. She probably looked a lot like you – so she was beautiful. She was probably very young. She probably had nowhere to go and knew she couldn’t take care of you, feed you, on her own. I’m sure that she loved you and that she wanted you to have a better life than the one she could give you. She knew that you were surrounded by doctors and nurses who would take care of you when she left. It was probably the hardest thing she ever did, leaving the hospital, but she did it for you. So that you would have a better life.”

I remember the tears streaming down my daughter’s face as she said:

“You mean . . . my Earth Mama did a good thing, not a bad thing?”

“Yes, honey, she did a very, very hard and good thing.”


Poons and Moons – (Reunions – Chapter 10)

mitzi blanket 1Mitzi lying on a blanket on the living room floor, swatting away at the mobile above her.

Mitzi in the highchair by the table playing her favorite game: “poons” (banging various spoons on the table and then dropping them one by one on the floor for mama to pick up).

mr brownMitzi voraciously devouring another book – literally. She sucked on the corners of Mr. Brown so much that the cover now reads “Mr. Bro Can Mo Can yo – Dr. Seuss’s Book of Wonderful No”.

Me starting to sing again. I had stopped 30 years earlier when a grade school teacher told me to. But to be fair, she might have had a point. My husband used to say my singing wasn’t putting Mitzi to sleep, it was making her lose consciousness.

Later . . . Mitzi on the swing (“wing . . . push . . . lustig!”) and in the water (“bahdee bahdee bathtub”). Mitzi’s first wobbly steps – after which she immediately attained a state of perpetual motion and remained in it until puberty. Mitzi bringing us a book and sort of sitting through the first four pages. Mitzi playing with papa’s box of magic tricks (“ma ga ga”), singing the Snood song (“doo doo DOO doo”), going with papa to basketball games (“baskeebah”). Mitzi pouncing on Dog Two, turning knobs on the oven (“heiss! hot!”), emptying out cabinets (“mess”), emptying out garbage cans (“mess”), opening bottles and tubes (“mess”), tipping over the dog’s water bowl (“mess”) , generally throwing things around (“mess”) . . . Mitzi squirming away from the comb (“Stop it!”)

I remember that first year and a half of tag-team parenting as the most romantic period of my life. Having waited eleven years for mother-/fatherhood, we threw ourselves into it with a passion. I never felt for a moment that I was missing out on some other possible, free and childless, lifestyle. My husband and I had spent enough time as a couple of Dinks – years of being ridiculously over-prepared for our respective teaching gigs. We had bought a home and renovated it. We had travelled and partied and changed jobs and started new hobbies and spent money freely on un-necessities. I had gone back to grad school and he had run a few marathons. Various friends had moved into our house for a while and out again. Pets were added to the domestic mix and became our replacement children (except for that first cat – Gina the B. . . .  I’m gonna say “Beast” even though it doesn’t rhyme with “witch”. She had her own ideas about her role in our household.) We had been every there and done all that.

But now THIS . . . this parenthood thing . . . THIS was something new every day!

mitzi chairTo be honest, it was a bit like playing house in the beginning. My husband was a 50/50 dad and Mitzi was an easy, sunny baby. She also started her life as a great sleeper – but, never fear, we somehow managed to rid her of those good habits by the age of six months. (Oh, those painful bedtime traumas! To this day, I still get impatient and uptight when she stays up too late. Almost 16 years old now, she tells me – rightly – that I am being hysterical. I shoot back that it is her own darn fault.) The moon wasn’t a big help either, though. At some point I realized that her bedtime stress came in regular intervals. I had never believed in astrology or that the alignment of planets affects us here on Earth – but I started to wonder after I noticed that her sleep troubles were always in the last three days before a full moon. When her first word after “mama” and “papa” turned out to be “moon”, I became a believer.

mitzi sheepThat was one of many unexpected revelations in parenthood. Another was that having a child is like getting a big and powerful friendship magnet. I had lived outside our village for 11 years but knew hardly any of its citizens. I had a knack for forming close friendships with women who were only temporarily here. One after another, they took off for bigger and better places (like Berlin – to name just one example off the top of my head.) My job being in another city 50 miles away, I hadn’t met local people through work, so most new relationships came via the hubby and remained fairly cool. Now, with Mitzi by me, I suddenly started connecting with other young (and mostly younger) mothers. Play groups formed. Later, each time Mitzi was institutionalized (nursery school, kindergarten, grade school . . .) I ended up forming another new friendship or three – many of which are still going strong today. You think of young mothers as being isolated somehow, but in my case, it opened all sorts of doors to new people. Even my friendship with my nearest neighbor only began after Mitzi came home to us. In the 11 years before that we had maintained a polite, Frosty relationship – you know, the “good fences make good neighbors” idea. Now we meet up several times a week for dog walks and we celebrate every Christmas and Easter together. No Mitzi, still Frosty.

Although most of the revelations of motherhood were good ones, there are one or two dirty little secrets that no one tells you about beforehand.

I have read somewhere that the worst tragedy a person can endure is the loss of a child – worse than that of a partner or a parent or a sibling. Possibly the ONLY good thing about involuntary childlessness is that, at least, this is one worry you are spared. The minute you hold your child in your arms, the idea that something could harm him or her is overwhelming. For the rest of your life, there will be the potential of this tragedy looming over your head. I assume every new parent has to deal with this in some way (and I suspect many go the road of denial – just blocking it out and carrying on.) Many of my new young-mother acquaintances had a harder time dealing with their fears. They remained at DEFCON 1 around the clock. They hovered and fussed and used thermometers fervently. When their child wandered over to the slide, they followed. When the child tried to climb the ladder, they held on and said “Here, let me help you.”

One young mother in our play group had a particularly hard time dealing with her fears. She simply refused to drive anywhere with her husband unless the child was also in the car. Her reasoning: what if something happens? Our child would be an orphan! Her house was pristine. It reeked of soap, disinfectants, and strong, anti-bacterial cleansers – so much so that Mitzi often started sneezing when the play group met there. When this mother’s baby developed rashes and dermatitis and allergies, it only confirmed her fears. She once came over to my house and brought her own mother along. I saw the Grandma’s disapproving eyes scanning my living room, looking suspiciously at the baby blanket full of toys on the floor where Mitzi often lay and then the dogs roaming past it, shedding hairs. The first thing this mother’s mother did was feel Mitzi’s bare feet and proclaim them to be cold. I checked quickly and they seemed perfectly warm to me, but I put some socks on her anyway.

I was lucky in that my own mom, my mother-in-law, my pediatrician, and the only baby book I ever bought (and even perused parts of) kept sending me the same messages. “Relax. Stop comparing. Trust your child. Trust your instincts.”

“What instincts?” I thought. I was not only a worrywart by genetic pre-determination, I was also never pregnant. My hordes of nieces and nephews were off at too great a distance for me to pick up vicarious childcare skills through them. Our parenting was going to be learning by doing and we were going to make mistakes along the way. And thank goodness for that. If you ask me, the concept of “the perfect mother” is a pretty frightening one.

Over the years, I have crystallized parenting down to two simple things: 1) you have to love your child and want him/her to be happy and 2) your child has to know – and I mean really know, deep down – that you love them and want them to be happy. If those two things happen you can go ahead and make your mistakes. Things will turn out okay.

The other little secret of parenting no one tells you is that time speeds up. You get what seems like about a month to revel in having a new baby in the house. Then you turn around in a circle once and she is pulling herself up and taking those first steps. You turn around a second time and she is getting on a school bus. Turn around a third time and she is riding away from you on her bike for the first time. The very next day she drives off on her new Vespa and you realize you have about 15 more minutes before she flies off to the States for her high school exchange year.

mitzi race

Mitzi was less two years old when she took part in her first running event. I stood on the sidelines, watching as she raced past me. This was all going by too fast. I missed the baby blanket on the living room floor and the colorful toys scattered around it. I missed the bassinet and the cute little booties and darling size 56 jumpsuits. I missed singing lullabies and reading Dr. Seuss and playing finger games. The memories of our 9 months of adoption labor pains and the traumatic moments during the birth of our family had faded. My thoughts turned toward Ethiopia.

The Well-being of the Child – (Reunions – Chapter 9)

As it turns out, once you get across the border, kidnapping is a piece of cake. In fact, everyone and their uncle seem happy to help you get away with it – even a whole lot of government officials.

Our arrival in Vienna was one of the top three moments in my life. The relief, the excitement of the family, the stork sign, the new grandma’s tears, the new grandpa’s face bright red with joy and excitement, the champagne cork popping, the hundreds of passing strangers staring at us with smiles on their faces and stories to tell when they got home about the crazy family who had a baby shower in the arrival hall of the airport . . .

All of the family members perfectly hid their shock about how tiny Mitzi was and – despite her beauty – how sickly and malnourished she apparently looked. They only confessed these impressions months and months later. If they had said something at the time, my husband and I would have been surprised. In our eyes, she was already soooo much better than she had been at the start. She had gone from 4 ½ pounds to pushing 6. We had already jokingly called her “Chubs” a few times.

Despite all the drama of our adoption on the legal side, we had been typical young parents for two weeks – almost totally focused on our baby. Together with Arthur and Jean, we had spent hours discussing the color and texture of the poop we examined in diapers, the pros and cons of various formulas, bottles and diaper brands, the importance of finding a good pediatrician, the various habits and movements and sounds and special qualities and idiosyncrasies of our very similar babies. Having the benefit of living in the country, they had been able to take their daughter home from the orphanage very early – I think she was only two or three weeks old and in even worse condition than Mitzi. On our first visit to them, we took this picture of the two babies sleeping on the couch. These two girls had been born within hours of one another, but their daughter had had the benefit of over two weeks, rather than two days, in their care – and it showed:

mitzi and leni

We saw in their baby how quickly our Mitzi could recover now that she was getting warmth, food, care, attention and love around the clock. We were confident that it would happen for us too. And over those two weeks we obsessively monitored her progress in milliliters drunk and grams gained. By the time we arrived in Vienna, we were so proud of her progress and knew in our hearts that she was going to recover completely.

And yet . . . after my first good night’s sleep at home, we went directly to the pediatrician – as we had arranged to do beforehand. This was a man who had had thousands and thousands of tiny patients in his long career, but this appointment was clearly something completely new for him. Something outside of his usual experience. He took an immense amount of time observing and testing Mitzi. He asked us 100 questions, only half of which we could answer. I have a memory seared into my brain of him taking a blood sample from her. He did it from a vein in her head. I had to turn away after a few seconds. He gave us a bunch of great advice and we arranged to come again the following week.

When we arrived at the second appointment, he took one look at Mitzi and almost shouted “Now THAT’S a baby!” and then complimented us on how much she had improved in just those seven days. A week after that, she had gone

from this:                                               to this:

mitzi bath 1  mitzi bath 2

(She never liked having baths!)

So, in terms of Mitzi’s health, we were out of the woods fairly quickly. Legally, things were a bit more . . .  sticky.

I called our social worker in the first week to make an appointment. Our conversation was short, but I did let her know about the unexpected turn of events in Ethiopia and that the adoption process was still ongoing. Now, years later, I wonder what she made of our situation. Mitzi entered this country as a citizen of Ethiopia with no known legal parents. That made her immediately a ward of the State. We were the people that brought her here. Did that make us . . . (strictly legally speaking) . . criminals? This woman had signed off on an Ethiopian adoption and now she had to deal with just an Ethiopian.

I brought Mitzi with me to the appointment which assured that the first 10 minutes would be filled with cooing and gooing. Each second made it harder for this woman to become officious. She decided that the best way of going forward was to issue us permission to foster and made that happen within the next few hours. From there it was a matter of minutes to get Mitzi covered by national health insurance. A day or two later, I was notified that I would start receiving the Austrian family assistance payments – about $200 a month for the next 26 years.

That was easy!

As we settled into our new life as a family of three, the courts in Ethiopia reopened. The judge finalized our adoption and the documents were sent to us in November.

But it seems Mr. T still had one last screw-up in him. Of course he did. The court papers were all there, but the original adoption contract they all referred to was missing. It made it nearly impossible to get the adoption recognized here in this country. We were in a Catch-22. The judge said we needed to apply for citizenship for Mitzi first and immigration officials said the adoption had to be legitimized first. We needed that contract. Despite having no immediate solutions to offer, all of these officials clearly wanted to help. We kept hearing “Don’t worry, somehow we will work it all out.”

And once again – Jean and Arthur to the rescue. They hunted down Mr. T and Mrs. Herewego and got the missing document. Then they came to Austria for Christmas and visited us – with the contract in hand. I stared at it in disbelief – not because our problem was finally over, but because it was the cheesiest looking thing you’ve ever seen. Written on one crumpled sheet of smeary paper was some barely intelligible English full of basic mistakes. It was covered in weird scribbles and smudged stamps. How was this scrap of paper ever going to be taken seriously as a legal document?

As I attempted to translate it into German, I found myself getting freer and freer in my word choices – to the point where the official translation sounds quite different from the original. I then made use of another personal connection – a friend with an agency and the power to certify translations as true and accurate. Once again, like all the previous officials before her (including, to be fair, quite a few Ethiopian ones), she averted her eyes from the glaring legal irregularities and focused on “the well-being of the child”.  She was more than ready to help us out and slammed her stamp on my German version of the contract without even glancing at it or the original. We were now on the home stretch.

That was easy!

International Kidnapping – (Reunions – Chapter 8)

Note: This is part of a longer story. To read earlier chapters, click on the category “Adoption Stories” (and work from the bottom up!)



Mr. T and Mrs. Herewego abruptly stopped their heated and frantic whispering and stared at me.

“I want to know what is going on here,” my husband added almost as loudly. “Do you two even know what you are doing?”

Mr. T spoke up first, saying “The judges refused to deal with the case.”

“Well, we figured out that much for ourselves! So what are we supposed to do now?”

Mitzi was waking up in my arms. She started squirming a little. And she wasn’t the only one squirming. Mr. T was too. He signaled “One moment, please” and returned to his nervous discussion in Amharic with Mrs. Herewego. After minutes of this, she turned to us and said quietly, “We will go to the President now.” They turned and started walking; my husband and I had no choice but to follow.

There were, of course, several offices to visit, signatures to get, discussions to listen to, and fees to be paid before we found ourselves in the waiting room outside the office of the Court President. I could feel myself losing it in waves, each time it got harder to hold myself together. Looking down at sleeping Mitzi seemed to help. But as we were finally ushered into the president’s office, my eyes were tearing up. I blinked through his unfriendly discussion with our representatives. He then turned to me and began speaking in perfect English. He grilled me for a while about why this is an emergency case. Is it really about Mitzi’s health? Or is it just because we don’t want to stay in Ethiopia any longer? He then started lecturing me about how there are very good doctors here in Ethiopia too.

Suddenly I felt Mrs. Herewego nudging me. She whispered forcefully, “Say something! Speak!”

I have no idea what I said. I doubt it was even intelligible. But it was enough that this man sensed he was dealing with a woman on the edge of a breakdown. He seemed to take pity on me and the tone of his voice changed. He ended up telling us to re-petition the next day – but this time to make a stronger case about Mitzi’s health. He even suggested we get our letter from the clinic translated. We thanked him and left.

Outside the office, Mr. T was suddenly all upbeat and confident again – but he was alone in that feeling. It dawned on us at that moment how incompetent this man really was. Why was he even here? He wasn’t our representative. He was a social worker whose job was to process our file, not lead us through every step of the adoption. His mere presence seemed to irritate every official we had seen so far. What was going on? We had originally thought he was a person of influence who would be important for us, but now we could see that his authority was just another borrowed car that he was trying to drive through red lights. We had been distracted, by our new daughter, her health issues and our beginning parenthood for too long. We had to turn our attention to the legal side of our adoption and give this man a good strong push. And we needed help.

Enter the two White Knights of this story.

I still have a mental image of the first time I saw . . . let’s call him “Arthur”. We were standing on a street corner in Addis attracting the attention of every sort of Ethiopian, pretending not to hear the requests for money, hoping we would not get surrounded by excited children again. Then Arthur came sweeping up in his big, new four-wheel drive car – appropriately white just like the proverbial steed. We piled in, all smiles, and all said how nice it was to finally meet in person.

You see, we had first contacted Arthur and his wife, “Jean”, weeks earlier. Jean was the secretary in the Austrian Embassy in Ethiopia and as luck or fate would have it – they were also in the process of adopting their first baby. That made them not only an excellent contact and source of information, but also meant that they were always gracious no matter how often we peppered them with emails and calls (even the one my husband made in the middle of the night and for which I apologized profusely the next day.) In all of those conversations, a long-distance friendship had formed. They were ready and eager to keep helping us from the moment we arrived in Addis. At that first meeting in person, Arthur was picking us up and bringing us to the Swedish Clinic to have Mitzi checked out. Later in the day, we met Jean after work. The first thing she did was supply us with preemie-sized baby clothes that their new daughter – just one day older than Mitzi – had already grown out of. We met up with them almost every other day and they suffered with us through our series of adoption pitfalls, offering vital advice, help and the missing information we needed to solve our sticky situation. They were our first call when we finally got back to the mission after that botched court date.

flying papers“I’m so sorry,” I remember Arthur saying when we told him the story of our adoption file being thrown across the room and the machine gun escort out. “And you really have to go through this all again tomorrow?” he added.

Well, my husband did, at any rate. I was in no shape to go through it a second time. Stress had been wreaking havoc on my ability to eat and digest food. The pounds were dropping off me. And Mitzi was in no shape to spend another day in cold and damp concrete rooms. So we decided that my husband would go alone with our representative and that I would stay back at the Mission with Mitzi. On Court Day Two, he came home empty handed. Despite waiting for hours, only two of three judges showed up so he never even made it into the chambers. Court Day Three turned out to be a repeat of Day One, right down to the soldier escort. Once outside the court, my husband basically exploded. He yelled at Mr. T that “This is NOT WORKING!” It was time to try something different. WHAT were we going to do? Mr. T assured him that he had a plan and would contact us soon. And then we didn’t hear from him for three days. In the meantime, we postponed our flight home and I started to come to terms with the idea of staying in Ethiopia for another 8 weeks.

You see, we had been dealing with the Emergency Higher Courts all the while because the lower courts were closed down for two months. There were two problems attached to this approach, as we eventually found out. The first was that our little adoption was of no real concern to the judges at this level to begin with. It was like the equivalent of taking a parking ticket all the way to the Supreme Court. The second problem is that they were given no reason to overturn the original judgment. This wasn’t an appeal – Mr. T was basically asking them to ignore it, pretend it never happened. And that was never going to fly. Our file did instead.

We discovered these things out slowly with the help of information from Arthur, Jean, and Mrs. Herewego, who dropped by to visit while we were waiting for Mr. T’s next great new plan. I made a point of building a relationship with her – with mixed success. There was something amiss in her relationship to Mr. T that we couldn’t quite figure out. Was he her employer in some way? Did she have to share our fee with him? Was she his way of avoiding those nasty lawyers he hated so much (the same lawyers that might have been more helpful to us in the courtroom than a social worker turned out to be?) We discussed all this and theorized with Arthur many times as he drove us around Addis. As we weaved and honked and swerved around little skinny goat herds and barefooted beggars and old bent over women with huge bundles of sticks on their backs, I realized that I was growing accustomed to this strange African city. I could imagine staying awhile after all, which was good, because I really had no choice. I could not leave here till Mitzi could go with me.

Our drives back and forth from the Mission to A&J’s house always took us past the slaughterhouse yard. The first time we passed I noticed the smell but not much more. The next time that smell came up, I took a closer look. Arthur and my husband were discussing Mr. T. once again in the front seat. They had started referring to him as “the Weasel”. As I stared at the tall wall and the huge white-grayish piles behind them – hills, really – I wondered . . . what was that?? Could those all be animal bones? Large black birds were perched everywhere on the piles and walls. Arthur was talking about how much corruption was a problem in this country and that the fee of $1500 we were paying was more than most Ethiopians earned in a year – definitely enough to tempt some official into vying for his share. Maybe that was the reason the Weasel originally got so involved in our case, why he disliked the lawyers. It would be harder with them to get his cut. Some of the big black birds were flapping and sparring.

“Are those . . . vultures?” I asked incredulously.

vultures1 vultures2

When the Weasel finally showed up again, he reported having a meeting with the original judge, but that it was not a success. The judge said he couldn’t do anything until the courts reopened. But never fear, Mr. T had a new idea. He was going to ask for special permission from the Immigration Bureau for us to take Mitzi to Austria for medical treatment. Our adoption could be finalized by our representative in October and the papers sent on to us. He was checking it out and would tell us the next day if that could work.

I rejected this idea out of hand and was surprised when my husband, Jean and Arthur later talked about it as a real option. They theorized that if Mitzi could get an Ethiopian passport issued to her with an exit permission stamp, and if the Austrian Embassy (where Jean had some pull) could put an entry visa stamp in there, well . . . what could go wrong? I couldn’t believe they were seriously considering this insane plan.

“So . . . you are saying that we come to Ethiopia, take a child out of an orphanage and bring her back to Austria without us having any legal attachment to her? Tell me,” I asked, “how is that different from an international kidnapping?”

Those three started throwing out more ideas and options. I put Mitzi in my husband’s arms and set off – once again – to use the bathroom. (My intestines had become something of an issue.) When I returned, Jean asked me, “Would it help if I called the Foreign Ministry in Vienna and got their okay on this plan?”

Would it? I felt a tiny glimmer of hope, and for the first time in over two weeks, a little twinge of hunger.

We had a Sunday to get through at the Mission House first. I spent it dodging the pious (who were constantly wanting to pray with us) and pushing the thought out of my head that we would actually be home now, if things had gone as originally planned. On Monday, Mr. T called with the news that his latest scheme was working. We just had to show up at the Immigration Bureau with a letter he was writing and they would issue a passport to Mitzi. Mrs. Herewego would pick us up after lunch.

She arrived as promised, but instead of going to Immigration, we found ourselves in Mr. T’s office where he was nervously still trying to compose the letter. He kept getting up and mumbling about “doing it later” and we kept coercing him back into the chair. Finally, Mrs. H stood behind him and dictated as he typed. Immigration was due to close in an hour by the time we set off. There were only 20 minutes left to the work day when we finally reached the Director’s Office.

He was a friendly man who spoke English well, but he also began by lecturing us. He made it very clear that he did not see any real emergency here – Ethiopia has excellent doctors. But then he added that he thought we were doing a very good thing in adopting a baby and so he was happy to help us. He asked Mr. T for the letter and began to read it. His face changed. He was obviously irritated and he began berating the Weasel. It seemed Mr.T still had one last screw up in him – of course he had! – and now this wasn’t going to work either. I felt panic rising inside me. I asked Mrs. Herewego what was going on and she said quietly, “The letter doesn’t have the proper signature.” Then she stepped into the fray.

Somehow, they worked out a plan. Mrs. H. and my husband rushed off to get the necessary signature and I was taken back to the Mission with Mitzi and, unfortunately, the Weasel. We sat there for two hours as he chatted away happily. I could barely look at him. Finally, I saw the front door open and my husband walk through. He had a strange look in his eyes. He walked over and stopped next to me. An Ethiopian passport plopped into my lap. Mr. T happily congratulated us and then himself on his work well done.



The passport gave off an energy that kept me going through the whirlwind of the next 36 hours. We started packing and preparing to leave – last minute shopping, paying bills, delivering donations, etc. Of course the first thing on the list was racing to the Austrian Embassy to get an entry visa and extra letter for emergency’s sake. From there it was off to the travel agency where we begged our way onto a flight for the next day. Here we experienced our last little pitfall.

“I can get you all on a flight to Milan,” the agent said, “but from there to Vienna, there is only one seat available. I will put you on the priority waiting list for the second seat.”

We took it. I couldn’t be bothered to think about this minor hitch at the moment. I knew the only thing that mattered was feeling our plane take off from the ground in Addis. At that moment, no one would be coming to take Mitzi away from me anymore. I barely remember anything else from our last day in Ethiopia, but I do remember the lift off. The three of us had made it. Kidnapping accomplished.

At least to Italy.

“I’m sorry, but only one of you can board this plane with the baby. The other will have to take the next flight (12 hours later).”

We were stunned. There we were, just a one-hour puddle jump from our homecoming, and we couldn’t get there together. The plane was boarding any minute and we had to make a decision. My husband’s family was probably already on the way to the airport in Vienna with their stork signs and presents and champagne. It was his family, so I told him to go. I would follow on the next flight. He refused, deciding we would all wait, but I put my foot down. I wanted Mitzi on Austrian soil. He gave in, then checked in, and we took seats in the waiting area.

And then I burst out crying.

The airline employees at the check-in looked over at us with sympathy and nervous concern in their eyes.

A few minutes later a flight attendant walked up to us and said “We have found you a second seat on this flight. Here let me help you.”  She escorted us all the way into the plane, carrying my bag for me. Once inside, she went to some passengers in the emergency row seats (with extra legroom) and asked them – or more accurately, told them –  to move. She helped us get settled, asked us what we needed, chatted with us and generally stayed close by. I loved her. I watched Mitzi sleep in the basket at our feet as the plane picked up speed on the runway and then lifted off the ground. We were going home.