Monday, September 29, 2008

The Heat's on & the Post Office 9/29/08

The Heat's on & the Post Office 
Weather Report: This morning, 3.1 c (38 f)
Currently @ 10:51 pm4.4 c (41 f)
The forecast is for -1c tonight (29 f)

In the apartment, that is. We have been using plug-in space heaters to take the chill off the apartment for the past few weeks. To improve efficiency, I experimented with a small fan turned up toward the ceiling to circulate the cold air on the floor up to the ceiling and get a better mix of heated air down to the floor. I found that I could raise the temperature at table top height 2 degrees Celsius in this way which is almost 4 degrees without an additional heat source. It also tickles the wind chime that I found in the storage, Cabo, sun-room and put up in the parlor during the good weather in August.

We received our first real refrigerator magnet today in a birthday card from Herb and Carol Shouse. Cindy was really excited to have her first magnet on the new fridge so I took her picture with it. It reads, "Friends like you are Heaven sent." What a nice inauguration of the fridge. Maybe some of our other friends will send us magnets and we can have a collection.

I looked at the names of those who have registered as followers of this blog and found a new friend. Hi Emily! I had no idea you were reading "me". I knew Kathy and Steph where readers, but you are a surprise; welcome. Oh, I hope you are enjoying your new baby and getting some sleep. You sure have a nice sized family now. Good for you!

Thanks also to Scott, Shannon, Trisha, Marilyn, and Grandma (Barbara) Walker for signing up as followers. It is so fun to see your names and in some cases pictures as a reminder of who I'm sharing with. Thank you so much for making the time to register. That few minutes of your time means a lot to me. Thx.

I had a small adventure today; I went to the post office. Yep, Sister Simmons gave me the assignment along with the Church's real estate agent who looks for property for our chapels. His name is Ivan, pronounced "Evon", but his nickname (everyone has a nickname) is Vanya. With President Gushin on vacation for a month, the "pickup slips" were piling up on Sister Simmons' desk and she was afraid they might start returning some of the packages because they weren't picked up, so off we went to get them.

To pickup a piece of mail addressed to another person, we had to have a power-of-attorney printed up, stamped officially in our office, and signed by the person who was authorizing the pickup along with the courier (Vanya).

We drove just a few minutes to the post office, took our place in line at what we believed was the right window, and waited to do our business. When it was our turn, Vanya introduced himself as the authorized courier, gave the clerk his document and showed her his passport for identification. Up to this point, it was all pretty reasonable, even in the states. Now it starts to get interesting.

We gave her the 9 pickup slips and she scowled. Why did we wait so long? This is going to disrupt the whole post office. I think Vanya apologized and looked appropriately chastened as she looked through the slips, which helped her disposition a little.

The clerk pulled out two slips and said that we would have to go to another window, less than 10 feet down the line of closed windows to get the other items. She then went into the back room grumbling in Russian and began bringing out the same heavy plastic bags that Elder Lunt's box (contents) came in a month or so earlier. Each bag was made of that stiff plastic like the cheap, blue tarps are made of except they were limp and a beige color. Each was the size of a large gunny-sack and clamped off at the neck with a heavy purple plastic cable tie with a big manilla tag attached.

She checked each tag against the pickup slip and cut the plastic tie. She then turned each bag up-side-down in succession on a counter and dumped out the box it held. Most of them were the U.S. Postal Service Flat Rate boxes, but two were not.

One of them was a simple, grocery store cardboard box, originally closed with multiple layers of packing tape that now hung limp from every side and corner of the box. At first, I thought the box looked peculiarly dark, sort of a milk chocolate color and obviously in sad shape. As she dumped it out, it made a definitely wet plop sound as it hit the counter. When she picked it up to locate the customs slip in its now ragged plastic pouch hanging from one corner of it's formerly sticky adhesive backing she drew back her hand, looked at it and muttered something in Russian as she looked for a rag.

Vanya signed for it and as it was slid across the counter toward us, it left a trail like a giant snail on the formica. As I grabbed it to set it aside, it oozed like a soaked sponge, but it was not water; it was oil. The best we can discover is that some package above it in some truck or container leaked cooking oil on it and it soaked up all it would hold. Nothing stuck to the cardboard, and when I lifted it up, and away from my clothes, it sort of sagged and threatened to disgorge its contents right there on the post office floor.

We signed for the rest of the items, went to the other window to pick up two padded envelopes and headed or the office. The"oily mystery box" was captivating to the office staff and missionaries present and we didn't have to open it to discover that it contained about 10 bags of "Hot" Cheetos snacks. Unfortunately, the mailing label came off somewhere between clean and oily and we didn't know who the lucky recipient might be. A couple of the missionaries volunteered to take it off our hands, but Cindy and Olga were determined to get it to the right elder.

As a stroke of pure genius, and a little dumb luck, I discovered the customs slip in my shirt pocket when I was changing clothes later in our apartment. It contained the recipient's name and the return address in Wyoming. That elder's mother or sister had spent a lot of money sending him bags of, I suppose, his favorite snack. What loyalty. What love. What a mess it turned out to be.

When we got back to the office, we discovered that the mail man had just left more pickup slips at the office and after some sleuthing, we determined that these were new packages still at the post office. Vanya couldn't make another trip so I was attached to another driver, brother Drachev, the CES Director who was temporarily housed in our office while his was being remodeled.

Armed with another "document", we made another trip to the post office with me as the courier this time. Brother Drachev did not have his passport with him, so I was elected to carry the document. After the same greeting by the same clerk, she made the same determination that several slips had to be presented at another window where the clerk wanted our "documents". Drachev said the other clerk had it, to which this clerk said that we would have to bring the "document" to HER window with the slips before she could release the mail. So, back to the office, another "document" was prepared, and back to the post office to pick up the two, count them, two, bills with postage due of 100 rubles.

It was a waste of several hours in my day, but it was a cultural experience. These folks seem to love rubber stamps and they stamp with vigor and even ferocity at times, maybe for emphasis or maybe just to impress the peasants. They also seem to love "documents" and your papers MUST be in order to get what you came for. The officialness of anything worth being official is often determined by the stamping technique of the person on the other side of the window and the volume of documents needed to get your business done. What ever the motivation or the reason, the Russians I have met know how to do "official" with aplomb and near abandon.

What a country.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Picture

A Picture
Weather Report:
This morning, Bright & sunny
Clear blue sky with a few scattered clouds
14c light breeze

5:30 pm cold rain and high winds
10:30 pm 6.6c (43f) and windy, no rain

We had a nice surprise at church this morning. A young adult sister gave us a water-color picture she had painted and wanted us to have it. She offered us the original or a color photocopy and we took the original.

She is a very kind, considerate, and beautiful young lady with the quick mannerisms of a cannery. She is quick to move and glances about often, seeming to always want to be aware of her surroundings. She has pretty long red hair and a quick smile. She is very much aware of Sister Simmons and takes special pains to be sure she is taken care of, often coming back to where we sit in the back to make sure that we have someone to translate for us. We like her very much and appreciate her kind attention.

We plan to get a frame for the picture and hang it in the parlor. She was reluctant to sign the front because she copied a Christmas card for the painting, and since it was not an original she signed the back. here she is talking to Cindy after relief society meeting.

We really like her and appreciate her giving us that painting. It was a gift of love.

What a girl. What a country

Music, 9/28/08

Before I get started, I would like to invite those of you who read this blog somewhat regularly to sign up as a follower of the blog. I know most people don't have time to leave comments or don't know how, but if you would just leave your "footprints" by noting that you do read it, it would be very nice to see that you are there.

OK, last night as I was ironing my lazy "wrinkle-free" white shirts, I played a DVD that the Coops had given me some time ago called "A Thanksgiving of American Folk Songs" done by all of the choirs and orchestra of Brigham Young University. It is one of my favorite collections of music and it had special impact in seeing the students with their intensity and earnestness in following the directors and portraying the music that moves them. Their concentration and devotion to the directors is intense.

I also enjoy seeing the expressions of the directors, each portraying and evoking the music they feel as they wring every drop of energy out of those musicians. There is one part in one very powerful section of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" when the massed choirs and orchestra are poised to deliver and Mac Wilberg raises both arms over his head and brings them down like a woodsman with an axe and the expression on his face, I can just hear him saying to those kids, "OK lets give it to them, NOW! It is wonderful. That moment is as captivating as anything I can remember right now.

I guess it is especially thrilling to me because of my few years directing our ward choir. I miss them so much. That was the pinnacle of my church career as far as pure enjoyment goes. I have had fun in scouting and my years as bishop of Arden Ward were very precious to me, but directing that choir was pure joy. I have never invested the time or energy to become a real musician like many of my friends have, but with the little natural talent and the deep feeling for music that I have combined with the energy I get from it, it was a powerful experience that was a wonderful gift to me from Heavenly Father.

Now as I watch the Tabernacle Choir perform or see things like this DVD of these wonderful young musicians, I get some of that same thrill and most of the time I end up in tears. Sometimes those tears are of regret at never fulfilling my dream of singing in the Tab Choir, sometimes they are of admiration for the performers' and the composer's ability to create the music that I am experiencing, sometimes they are for the memories that the music evokes (like my father's love of bagpipes), and sometimes they are of pure emotion brought out by the music and the moment. Great music done well by a mass of voices is thrilling to me, and to be a part of it, to sing in such a production, is better than food, better than sex, better than a thrill ride at Disneyland, better than anything I can imagine that we can experience here.

I cannot quite grasp how it is done in God's world, but I look forward to singing there with the great choruses of heaven. Maybe I can even have a chance to direct some small ensemble of 2 or 300 angels apprenticing for the big choir in one of those moving, great pieces of music God has inspired. Maybe . . . maybe, but isn't it wonderful to contemplate such things?

The salt burns my eyes and makes it hard to type, but I just want to thank God for music and the people that have made music with me over the years. It is the smell that makes the rose. It is the sweetness that makes the fruit. It is the light that makes the rainbow. It is the music that makes the life. I cannot imagine life without music.

What a life.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Day in the Life 9/26/08

A Day in the Life 
Weather Report: Same as yesterday

Several (2) people have asked, "What do you do all day?" It sounded a little accusatory, but as I thought about it, I sometimes have the same question. It's like when our kids were small and Cindy would try to tell me what she did that day as I was changing out of my business clothes into my family suit. It would take her about 45 seconds, then she would pause and say, "Well, it doesn't seem like much, but it took me all day."

I am finding my days are like that. I plan things with some inclination to be organized and get the most important things done first, and Cindy has even helped me to make a daily schedule of what I am going to do each hour (She is the queen of organization), but you can't organize an ant hill very well and I feel a little overwhelmed.

The picture on the right is the schedule I began for this past week. I started out very well, but something happened Tuesday afternoon and I lost the rest of the week.

OK, here was my list of things to do this past week.
  1. Fund the native missionary going to the MTC
  2. Krasnoyarsk rent problem
  3. Count the mission cash box & reconcile
  4. Record Irkutsk apartment change
  5. Retrieve money given for the Irkutsk old apartment
  6. Rent issues in Tomsk
  7. Sasha returns-review office repairs with him
  8. Passport duplicate forms process (Cindy)
  9. Work with branch president to find error in books
  10. Mission presidency meeting agenda
  11. Mission presidency meeting
  12. Meeting summary emailed
  13. Review & update rent chart
  14. Follow-up on branch audits
  15. Print calendar
  16. Zone Leader Conference materials gathered
  17. ZLC handouts
  18. Prepare and print New Visa Trip funding memo
  19. I hate my desk. Rearrange things somehow
  20. Get cell phone for Cindy
  21. Office coordination and calendaring meeting agenda
As you can see from the picture of my week's planner, Monday started in focus, and I got most of the hourly stuff done Monday, but after the Mission Presidency meeting Tuesday, I lost it. Here is a list of the phone calls for Tuesday.
  1. Moscow MSR office re tithing deposits
  2. Elder re $
  3. Moscow Audit office
  4. Elder Branch Pres re bank deposits
  5. Tomsk re rent
  6. Tomsk re repairs
  7. Tomsk re closing an apartment
  8. Irkutsk re new apartment I didn't know about
  9. Barnaul re tithing deposits
  10. Krasnoyarsk re apply $ received to Sr Couple rent
  11. Kemerovo re rent for meeting place
  12. Ulan-Ude, was rent paid for August
  13. Elders in Kazakhstan need more finances
  14. Kazakhstan Sr Couple re elders' needs and time table
  15. Kazakhstan bound elders leaving Omsk
Other unscheduled stuff
  1. Changed the batteries in the four clocks by Pyotr
  2. Re-write the Visa Trip funding memo for ZLC
  3. Look for Family Needs Assessment for Alcotts
  4. Sisters need more funds for transportation
  5. Completely revise rent chart so I can follow it. The current one is all wrong
  6. Talk to, with, and about the Kazakhstan bound elders
  7. Calculate the Kazak elders' financial needs by several scenarios that are possible
  8. Research the Kazak-Rouble exchange rate. Translate that into dollars for the funding. Guess what the exchange rate will be three days after I request it when the elders try to take the money off their debit cards.
  9. The Local Unit Budget Allowance (LUBA) notification for the 4th quarter came by email from Moscow with some branches blacked out and no explanation. Called for clarification. Suggested, maybe, they could send the explanation along with the email next time SO I DON'T HAVE TO CALL THEM, HUH?!!!!!
Wednesday morning the Zone Leaders started to come in from the outlying cities for the ZLC Wednesday night and Thursday. They come in the morning for the soccer game in the afternoon and sort of hang out in the office 'til game time. They are such great young men. I love all of them, BUT, you might as well try to work in the stadium during a hockey game. They are so glad to see one another, you'd think they really love one another.

While they are playing soccer, I do my final preparation for my ZLC 15 minute presentation and we leave about 4:30 for the Mission Home and dinner with everyone (2 Traveler's Coffee sandwiches, fruit salad, and chips) prior to the meeting at 6 pm.

Thursday is quiet because Pyotr is still on holiday, Olga is here working, Cindy is here, Yulia is in the back office, and the elders are all at the Mission Home. Quiet. It is so quiet.

I took the time to try and rearrange my desk situation; to very little avail. I wanted to turn the desk facing the window so I'd get daylight on my work. The only light in my spot is about 4 feet off center of the desk and it is dark. As things often go, the desk is 2 inches too long for the space. I kept measuring it and willing it to be shorter, but the string I was using (no tape measure) was still 2 inches too long. I considered the saw, but surgery was out of the question. I searched the office for shorter desks, but the two other desks that are shorter were in a space where they too could not use a longer one.

I worked for 2 hours on different configurations and working my faith to shorten the desk. The desk's will to remain the same won the day and I finally succumbed to reality. From the scratch marks on the floor, I think that many financial elders before me had probably come to the same conclusion after exhausting their will against the same desk. So, I guess what I have will do.

I finally got most of the week's work done during the rest of Thursday until the elders started arriving after their meeting adjourned to pick up the renic (flee-market) bags with the mail for their cities, but it was OK. I have learned to love these missionaries. They are the strength of the church, truly Saturday's Warriors. They do what I was not able to do at their age and what I still cannot do now at my age. I admire and respect them for what they do and who they are. Awesome is too weak a word.

Friday we fed the 5,000 (actually only 15) out of our cupboard and new refrigerator because Sister Hughes ( CES couple on the left bank) was too ill to host them, so we didn't get into the office until about 2pm. Then we had to leave at 4:30 to get ready to feed the assistants and the zone leaders before we all went to the quarterly cultural activity; this time it was the ballet. That's a whole 'nuther blog.

I hope this helps some of my friends see what my days are like here in Novosibirsk. It is never dull. It is rarely what I planned to do. It is stimulating and challenging. It is frustrating and humbling, especially when someone asks if I have done something that I didn't yet know I was to do. I love my job, most of the time, mostly because what I do keeps the elders and sisters on the streets (or off the streets at night) where they can find the elect, the lost sheep, that needle in this big haystack called Siberia.

What a country.

And that was the week up to Thursday. Thursday was

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Office Tour 9-25-08

Office Tour 
Weather Report: High today 11 c (53 f)
Low 0 c (32 f), Wind nil
Partly cloudy (That means some patch of blue sky happened to be observed during the day)

Our office is located a brisk walk from our apartment. We tried to time it today and forgot to look at my watch when we got there. I would guess it was about 7 or 8 minutes; 10 at the outside.

We turn right out of our front door, cross Sacco & Vanzetti street to the other side, walk past the construction, the housing authority office, and turn left at our newly paved street, down past the dry cleaner, the school, and the new apartment building on the left and turn right on our driveway. We then walk the length of our building to the corner where our office door is located.

The outside door is unlocked during business hours, but the interior security door is another electronic door using the magnetic button or someone inside pushes a release. Inside the office you look straight ahead at Brat Pyotr's (brother Peter's) desk behind a counter. Turning to the left you see Sister Olga's desk behind another counter. turning another 90 degrees you see Sister Cindy's desk in her Lost Sheep/Found Sheep corner. turning 180 degrees from Cindy you walk through an archway toward President Mickelsen's office, to the right is my "space", and to the left is the duplication and supply area. If you step next to the copier and turn 90 degrees to the right you look down a long hall to the restrooms and kitchen. That's it.

Well, it's nice having you in the office. Come again sometime. Dasfidonya! Oh, you want a little more in depth tour. Ok, here are some pictures to help with your visualization.

If you came inside the door and did a 360, you'd see the coat rack on your right, Brat Pyotr's desk. Brat Pyotr has been on holidy for the past 10 days and will be out a like time more until October 1. Today, Olga is taking her driving test and we are all praying for her. That is why their desks are empty.

Turning further left you see inside the library where we keep the missionary and branch supplies. This is Sister Gushchina's domain, but she is also gone on holiday to see her sick mother in Germany and then to Utah to visit her daughter, Dasha, and go to Conference. Above Pyotr's desk you will see 5 clocks. The big one is local time. Each smaller clock is the time in another city. The far right is Ulan-Ude, our most eastern city that is two timezones away. The second in Krasnoyarsk which is one timezone away, the third is Moscow time, three timezones to the west, and the fourth is Utah time, 13 hours west.

My work area is through the archway and right. It is a little snug, but with my loosing weight I am more comfortable than at first. The president's office is as large as the entry room and has a conference table, couch, and the conferencing system that lets us have interactive meetings with other missions through the Moscow Service Center.

Down the hall you can see the pictures of all the missionaries who have served in this mission. There are many empty spaces waiting for the new arrivals, but they will not be American names under those pictures. I had better get busy with my Russian studies.

Two-thirds down the hall is the computer room where the Assistants to the President hold court and our office-elders to the real work of the office. Here, the assistants are getting ready for the east-west soccer game between the zone leaders the morning before Zone Leaders Conference starts at 6pm.

This is also the place where Yulia works. She is our 20-something bookkeeper who pays the "official" bills and keeps the "real" books of the mission.

Finally our restrooms are at the end of the hall and the kitchen is on the far left. We have all the comforts of a home kitchen including refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, dishes, etc. Very comfortable.

The office is warm, with a friendly atmosphere. We greet one another when each one comes in. It is surprising how warm and thoughtful these Russians are compared to those you see on the street. As I have read about Russian culture, I am more convinced that their "mask" is not so much a personal dislike to everyone as it is a protection against unwanted intrusion. I enjoy the people I have met.

What a country

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Around the House 9-20-08

Around the House 
Weather Report: A balmy 58 F high today, Expected low 33 F
Currently 48 F winds 2 mph from the west

I thought it had been a while since I recapped our apartment and its various comforts. First, let me remind all how we get into our place. I have an electric (magnetic) button that I place on the electric door latch and go through three doors; Steel outside and two heavy wooden weather doors. Then up two flights of stairs to the elevator that has worked every day except one. The urine smell is almost gove now and all we get is the mold. Life is good.

On our floor we have a steel security door, a wood-covered second steel door, and a final wood patterned contact paper covered apartment door. That means I use 4 keys to get through the 7 doors and into the apartment. As mentioned before, that doesn't count the bathroom door that Cindy accesses upon arrival.

Our 5 foot wide entry contains a large shoe rack and wardrobe cupboard that holds our clothes and food supplies. As you can see, I have three overcoats coats, one for each seasonal condition. The first is for rain, the second down to minus 5 c, and the third is for below that down to 40 c below O. Cindy has a large selection of business suites, wool coat, wool poncho, and puffy down coat that she inherited from another senior sister who gleefully went home before winter set in. She can now wear it since she has lost 20+ lbs. (Does anyone know how to shrink skin?)

The cupboard between the closets is bulging with what we can find here. It takes a lot of any one thing to feed 16 of us after the Zone meetings at our home. With the reduction in forces we have experienced, Novosibirsk has lost one companionship so the meetings are for 14 most of the time with an occasional transient missionary going or coming from a visa trip or transfer. We get serious looks from the MEGAS supermarket cashiers when they see our two heaping carts of food compared to the 6 to 8 items in most shoppers' carts. Hording is a sin here. Our driver, President Gushin, always giggles and explains that we feed a lot of people. They probably think we are feeding the homeless on the streets; actually we are, sort of.

Between the wardrobe and the entry is the shoe rack. It is customary to remove your shoes when entering a home here, much like we did in our home in Sacramento. The shoes you see here are Cindy's. Oh, I have a pair there too.Most of the time the missionaries just line up their shoes along the hall.

Turning around 180 degrees from the wardrobe you see into the parlor. My "desk" is a pull-down door of the credenza that lines the east wall of the parlor. I also have my laptop on a pull-out under the TV. Lest you think we are couch-potatoes, the only thing on TV is 9 channels of Russian language programming, of which we can actually see 6, and whatever church video we have time to watch; again. I tried to watch a Russian dubbed "Search for Red October" one night, but couldn't make it for more than 10 minutes. We are hoping for a new supply of used, G-rated DVD's from one of our Santas.

Walking to the parlor window that faces the street and turning around you see the rest of the room with its long sectional couch that has a pull-out medieval torture rack masquerading as a trundle bed. The mirror seen in the doorway is on the pantry doors. We bought the coffee table and blue pillows at IKEA because Cindy didn't have a place to put her church magazines and we needed something to balance the room anyway, and of course we needed a plant on the table. You can see how this kind of thing grows. The plant is a live gardenia that has survived since early August; still has buds but no action yet. The room stays at a tropical 66 degrees most of the time now, but it doesn't seem to be at home yet.

Back out the door and heading left toward the entry door we come to the utility closet, a gathering place for most guests since it is also in the kitchen entry hall. I will spare you the closet picture and go right to the kitchen where Sister Simmons is basking in the luxury of the gigantic refrigerator that our friends bought for us. We are soo enjoying the convenience of cooking things ahead for these big meals.

Speaking of feeding missionaries, here are our guests for tonight; sisters Cropper and Berlutskaya. Sister B is about 5 foot nothing and weighs maybe 75 pounds, but she can sure put away the bread and butter. She likes potatoes so Cindy made fried potatoes and scrambled eggs with Yorkshire Pudding for the bread; big hit. Sister Cropper is a real lady and adds much to the Zone, just being there.

The ice cream here comes in tubes. You just peal back the plastic and cut off a hunk. It is so much easier than gouging it out with a scooper or bending one of your good spoons on a hard carton of Ben & Jerry's. It comes only in vanilla, but you've got to get your bourgeois mind off of all those 32 flavor choices and enjoy the best vanilla in the world. Russians invented vanilla you know. Besides, how many flavors could you eat at one time? You Americans consume more of the world's ice cream resources than you have a right to anyway. You Americans . . . well, anyway, back to the tour.

From the kitchen hall and entry combination (never say we waste space), turning right past the parlor door you see down the entry hall that becomes the parlor hall and then becomes the boudoir hall to the toilet closet (wc), tub/sink/laundry room, and bedrooms. Nothing's wasted. Here, Sister Simmons is emerging from her periodic visits to the wc closet where I'm sure she is praying in secret on most of those visits as Matthew 6:6 directs.

Turning to the left we enter Cindy's office, that often doubles as a guest room, which is also my clothes drying room now that the Cabo room is about 4 c and won't dry my sheets. You can see the space-heater in front of the bed that gives some warmth to the room and the fan on the shelf to the left circulates the air to promote evaporation.

Sister Simmons is so great, she never complains about my sheets covering the entry to her desk. What a trooper. She can go to her other desk in the bedroom if she wants, but she doesn't complain about my laundry being in her way, ever. Actually, it makes kind of a nice entry, sort of softens the place a little.

Turning around and leaving the Cindy office, laundry-drying, storage, Cabo-entry room we go to the other end of the hall to the master bedroom, go to the windows that look out onto the street and turn around to see where Cindy has her other work station. This is where those newsy emails are created by her nimble fingers and quick wit.

Back into the hall and to the right we see the tub, sink, and laundry facilities on the right which are my home-away from-home most days. I have come to love my little washing machine and we get along fine.

Finally we come to the beautification station that I have made for Sister Simmons with her own mirror and clock so that she can get herself ready while keeping me in time to leave for the office or church. The small white chest contains two very short drawers that surprise you occasionally with an opportunity to rearrange it on the floor. Under the drawers is a space where we store the hair dryer, curling iron, and sundry other beautification tools.

Our home has become comfortable and serves us well after much cleaning, repairing, rearranging, purchasing, and living. Each day we are adding something to it that makes it ours; our home. We also daily adjust our expectations which makes what we have more valuable.

We bought a water-color painting of Prague Castle while we were there and plan to frame it and begin a gallery of pictures from the places we go for visa renewal each 90 days. We have also started putting up on the guestroom wall the names of those who have slept here. Sort of a historical marker of sorts.

Russia is a wonderful place, filled with challenges for the weak and rewards for the strong. Personal freedom is the prime directive. One has the freedom to do anything one can imagine or have the impulse to do as long as there is not someone bigger, stronger, or more powerful present. The strong are respected and the weak are used.

The only thing that can change this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only with the gift of the Holy Ghost and the stronger conscience that comes from hearing the truth in your mind can these head-strong, willful people find the peace and joy of life with love and charity; the pure love of Christ. That change is essential for their personal salvation. There is no other way.

Each day brings new experiences for a mission financial secretary and I learn something that I had never even imagined. It is fascinating.

What a country

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Weather Report

Weather Report: low 34 f; high 42 f
Snow and wind 10-14 mph
Today and tomorrow are Transfer Days. That means that about a third of the missionaries are moving to another assignment. Sometimes this means a 7 hour plane ride. Sometimes a 4 hour bus ride. Often it means an overnight train trip in a coupe which is a compartment that sleeps 2 or 4 depending on how many elders are traveling on the train.

Speaking of the train, one temporary companionship (elders traveling together) missed their train this morning. We didn't hear about it until this afternoon when elder Watson, Cindy's new "travel" elder commented on it. It seems that one of the elders was a little poky this morning and since they have to stay together, both of them missed the train.

Being resourceful missionaries, they caught a cab and raced to the next city, to catch their train there as it stopped to exchange passengers. That cab ride probably cost several thousand roubles and will be worth a good scolding when they get to the office. They had better hope that I get to them first. President Mickelsen might get creative himself in getting their attention.

It is touching to see these elders meet one another in the office as they come and go during Transfers. They hug, they express love in many ways, they help each other to and from transportation. They truly value each other and the experience that they are sharing. Only they know what the others are doing and suffering. Very touching.

We are sending away two elders that we have become very close to these past three months. One of the Assistants, Elder Jones, on the left, is going to Barnaul as a straight missionary for his last transfer. he will be leaving the mission before November. He is a class act and a nice person on top of that. He's a great motivator and loves the missionaries. I am sorry to see him leave the office, but this is how he wants to finish out his mission. Elder Egan, on the right, will continue as an Assistant with Elder Robertson. I'm sure we will learn to love him too.

Elder Lunt, Cindy's "travel" elder is going to Ulan-Ude, the farthest city in the mission as a senior companion and Zone Leader. He has been so patient in teaching us our jobs that we will genuinely miss him. He is kind, patient, soft-spoken, and very good for Sister Simmons. She is going to feel the loss. Here he and Jones are pointing at the wall bearing the sheep with the names of those baptised this year in the mission; the found sheep. On the other wall ate sheep without names because they haven't been found yet.

We are sending our first elders to Kazakhstan next week. Actually, they left their cities for Omsk this week and will stay there until they get their Kazak visas. Four are going to the capital city and will be met by a senior humanitarian couple and stay in a daily-rate apartment. They will be there 3 days if all goes well. It is still expensive but maybe better time-wise.

Brat Pyotr, the travel agent, is gone for three weeks and Pres Gushin will be gone for 4 weeks starting Saturday. It is going to be hard on Sister Olga, doing her job and Pyotr's as well. It will be hard on us to loose President Gushin as our driver. We are shopping today and tomorrow to stock up.

Someone ( a missionary) asked me today how I was doing and an image came into my mind at that moment. I saw myself as snoopy in his Sopwith Camel flying along and suddenly the Red Baron would come swooping down from the clouds to rake him with his twin machine guns and then disappear into the clouds and wait for another pass.

When I come into the office each day I have plans as to what I want to do that day, but I don't know when the Red Baron, in the form of a telephone call from a desperate missionary will put my day into a tail-spin. I am keeping a log of my days and most of my time is spent putting out fires, answering questions, researching something for someone else, or getting cash into our out of the mission cash box to meet a need. In between emergencies I try to get my goals met and am satisfied at the end of the day that I served; maybe even well. That's why we are here, to serve others and not to get OUR work done.

The days are getting shorter with sunset about 8:30 pm now, but we try to get home before dark each night. After our visa trip we have been trying to get into an earlier routine of up at 7, scriptures and get ready by 9, and get home around 6pm. We have a lot to do at home each night and we are trying to get into bed before midnight. (says I)

The mission work is now becoming familiar and each task takes a little less time with each attempt. I hope to become efficient enough to get some long-term projects underway instead of constantly putting out fires. We'll see

The nights are colder and longer now and the sunsets more brilliant when we can see them under the cloud cover. The setting sun has moved to the west of the building across the street and sets where we can see it sometimes. This sunset was taken from the end of our office driveway-parking lot just before we turn left onto the newly paved road. Sometimes you just jave to stop and look.

This is a place of stark contrasts. People can be like ice or a warm marshmallow. The days can be balmy and comfortable or 40 below and chilled to the bone. The streets can be pocked with foot-deep potholes or newly paved for no apparent reason. The phones can be your best friend or your worst enemy depending on the message. The skyline can be clear and sharp or misty and veiled. And you often can't predict which it will be.

What a country.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

To Prague and Beyond

To Prague and Beyond

First, the weather report:
Rain, wind from the north-west 18 mph, Temp 6c (42.8f) at 10:00 pm on 9/16/08

Last Wednesday morning we left for Prague, Czech Republic to renew our visas. It is a 4 hour flight to Moscow and we gain 3 time zones on the way. Then we enjoyed a 7 hour layover and a 2 1/2 hour flight to Prague landing around 8 pm, but being on the "road" for 15 plus hours.

Prague is a beautiful city with many locations over 1000 years old. The skyline is attractive with 600 year old churches mixed with modern buildings.

We were met at the airport by the courier who was to take our passports to the Russian Embassy for the visa renewal. She escorted us, by bus and then by Metro (subway) to our hotel and took the passports, to return them on Friday afternoon. We stayed at the Marriott near Wenceslas Square which is a business district leading from the old city to the National Museum
in the New Town section.
Before we made the trip I contacted the District President of Prague and asked if he knew someone who might want to earn some money by guiding us around the city for a couple of days. He suggested Martin Matejda, who turned out to be a 20 year old university student who was studying to be a tour guide. This was to be his first year of university and we would be his first clients. He was a delightful guide and companion for two days and we enjoyed his first attempts as a guide. He had notes from class and from research on the internet and really did a good job. Here he is with Cindy in front of the Town Hall in the Old Town Section of Prague.

We met Martin for the first time Thursday morning and off we went to see Prague Castle and the old town. We walked several blocks to a main street and caught a Tramvie (streetcar) for the ride do
wn to and over the river to the north side and over to the Strahov Monastery, the oldest continually occupied monastery in Europe, that houses an extensive library of ancient books and paintings dating back to the 8th and 9th century.

Prague began as 4 small settlements starting in the 8th century. Prague
castle, Hradcany, Lesser City or Old Town, and New Town were all built independently and were later joined by wooden bridges over the Vltava River and eventually merged into one city, retaining the individual character of each.

Martin took us through the monetary, to Loreta and other churches, Prague Castle (seat of the
Czech kings), down the hill to Charles Bridge, and across to the edge of Old Town and the National Theater before he had to leave to attend Institute at the church. We ate lunch at a street-side cafe near the castle and watched the castle guards come out of their barracks and go on their way to relieve other guards at their posts. The flag was up, symbolizing the presence of the Czech president in the castle.

That night, after Martin left, Cindy and I took two river boat cruises to see the town from another angle, ate dinner at a river=side restaurant, and attended a concert in one of the Old Town churches. It was a great day.

Martin taught us a number of new things. For example, Wensaslas was not a king. He was a count, a prince of the royal family who was a patron of the arts and the old city. Also, we learned that the symbol of the Czech Republic was a two-tailed lion, seen here on a crest held by a lion in the monastery courtyard.

Friday we toured Old Town, the Jewish Ghetto, the Old Town Square (we both thought we could spend an entire day in and around the square) and walked about 20 miles (actually only about half a mile) to Wensaslas Square and the National Museum.

The city was remembering the Soviet Union's invasion of 1968 and had poster=size pictures, placards, and editorial cartoons from the time mounted in the center of the square. They also had a captured Soviet tank on display in front of the museum. It was a solemn reminder of the Cold War days and the USSR's relations with its neighbors.

Saturday was poor weather and we were bushed, walking everywhere and feeling our age. During the morning we went out to a local mom-and-pop market and got some supplies for the day. On the way we stopped a the church at the end of our block to look around. This picture of a side door to the church symbolizes the condition of christianity in Prague. A neglected door with over-grown wild plant does it for me. There must be over 100 churches in the greater Prague area and almost none of them have active congregations. They are monuments to the former religous greatness of this beautiful city; witnesses against the disinterest of its citizens. It is a start contrast to the beauty and grandeur of this great place.

On Sunday we attended church in the only Branch in Prague and met many Americans, both missionaries and others there for various reasons. We also me a senior missionary couple who were assigned to Georgia and left during the crisis there. We also met Martin's mom, brother (a counselor in the Branch Presidency) and his girl friend.

We finally headed for the airport and spent until 6 am the next day getting to our home airport where president Gushin picked us up. On the way, we met a local Novo couple who helped us through the process of transfer to the domestic airport, getting checked in, and finally on the plane. It was a lot more complicated than it sounds, but I'm too tired to go into detail.

This could go on forever with pictures. In fact, I am attaching a large sample of our pictures tomorrow, so check back.

This is a unique mission in many ways. Where else could you be sent where the government invites you to tour neighboring countries every 90 days. It is so considerate of them to break up the normal missionary work to let you tour its neighbors.

What a country