Friday, December 26, 2008

Two subjects: my haircut and my white elephant gift

After receiving many requests to see my haircut, here it is! Although you really don't see the full effect, as it has grown in nearly 2 weeks. So imagine what it might have looked like 2 weeks ago. You can see some of the Christmas letters and cards I received, on the white board above my desk. I really appreciated them and the e-cards and e-mail messages I received from family and friends.
I told some of you about the white elephant gift exchange with the missionaries on Christmas eve. This gift was opened and then ignored as everyone chose other gifts. I finally traded another gift for this one. It was part curiosity as to what on earth they could be, and partly because the candy bar that went with it had a lovely picture of Riga on it, and that's what I really wanted. When we were through exchanging gifts, I opened the package and passed them around for everyone to see. They looked like very large styrofoam Cheetos, only pale yellow. Imagine my surprise when we all realized they were white chocolate covered something like Cheetos, only not orange and not as good. But, they are gone because they were such a novelty and they actually tasted kind of good.
I hope you all had a lovely Christmas. I was able to talk with each of my children and grandchildren and that made it a great Christmas for me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another restaurant experience--and chocolate!

The 8 of us senior missionaries went to dinner to a nice restaurant in Old Towne Thursday evening. I ordered lasagne which was very good, but on one side of the plate was a dollop of a ranch-type dressing and on the outer edge of it was chocolate! I really don't know what the obsession with chocolate on an entree' is.

This was a more upscale restaurant so they did have water on the table. We trusted that it was filtered, but who knows. You usually have to order water--either plain/simple or with gas (carbonated) and there is a charge for either. This restaurant also had a basket with very tasty bread slices (I think there was just one slice each for the 8 of us) and they don't refill--water or the bread. It's not like Olive Garden, for sure. The lasagne was good and was a fair sized piece (European, not American). There was no salad or soup or veggies or anything served with it and it cost 3.8 lats (approximately $7 USD).

chlorinating produce and filtering water

I have failed to share with you the process we go through in order to eat and drink water. The water is not safe for drinking, so each apartment occupied by missionaries, as well as the mission office, has a filtering system. We can only run cold water through that system. It's not difficult once you get in the habit of not just turning on the faucet for a drink of water. There are 3 filters and they have to be changed, each one at a different period of time.

The more challenging thing for me is that all produce (except bananas and oranges or anything else you remove a thick peeling from) have to be soaked in filtered water to which has been added a few drops of bleach. They are soaked and rinsed and drained. That has, on more than one occasion, kept me from buying apples here. (The apples don't look all that good anyway.) The bananas and oranges have been excellent so I'm eating a lot of them.

We bought potatoes and sweet potatoes to cook up for a Christmas eve dinner we will have here at the office with the 10 young missionaries serving in our area. Sis. Harper washed and scrubbed them and set them out to dry off. We have to do that even though we will peel the regular potatoes before cooking them.

We also are advised not to eat fish here. There is a high rate of mercury in the rivers.

A Christmas reading

Sister Dance read from the Book of Mormon about the Savior. I will give you the scriptures with which she began each portion. Sometimes it was just that single verse, and sometimes she went a few verses. So, I encourage each of you, this Christmas week, to look these scriptures up and continue reading each portion until that thought about the Savior ends.
Ether 3:14
1 Nephi 11:13; 19:7
2 Nephi 2:26; 25:19
Mosiah 3:5; 15:1
Alma 5:48; 7:7; 9:26; 19:13
Helaman 8:22; 14:2
3 Nephi 1:12; 9:15

We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and read of it in the Bible. It was wonderful to realize how the Book of Mormon celebrates not only His birth, but His purpose in coming to this earth, and how he fulfilled that purpose, out of His pure love for God's children. Truly the Book of Mormon is another witness of Jesus Christ, together with the Holy Bible.

Have a blessed Christmas and may you feel the love the Lord has for each of you.

Christmas Zone Conference

Late Friday morning we boarded a bus to downtown Riga for my first Latvian zone conference. We got off the bus and walked 3-4 blocks and then into a building and up a flight of stairs to the meetinghouse for the members of the Church in that part of Riga. It occupies an entire floor of the building and has a chapel, kitchen, and classrooms, etc.

Unlike in America and other places where the Church is well-established, the two chapels I have been in here are large open rooms with hardwood floors and chairs, as opposed to benches. The chairs had been arranged in the back half of the room and tables, festively decorated for Christmas, were set up in the front half of the room. There are between 40-50 missionaries (including 3 senior couples and Sister Harper and me). We began with musical numbers from very talented young missionaries, and sang Christmas hymns.

We were then treated to a delicious catered dinner: pork loin roast, delicious whipped potatoes, mushroom gravy, and a yummy green salad. The senior missionaries had brought desserts. It was the first whipped potatoes I've had in Latvia and the potatoes I've seen in the stores are not Idaho spuds!! They are very small, very dirty, and just not that appealing. However, after tasting them cooked and whipped, I decided it doesn't matter what they look like in the stores.

Following the dinner, we gathered again for wonderful training by President and Sister Dance and the Assistants to the President. I was so impressed with the young missionaries and their knowledge of the scriptures and their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. President and Sister Dance are very loving and caring people and are great leaders--building and teaching as the Savior did.

That was the most Christmas-y thing I've done this Christmas, other than my own study and pondering in the New Testament. As we left the Conference, it had begun to snow. That seemed perfect.

Looks like we might have a White Christmas

Yesterday (12/20) it snowed most of the day. It was beautiful and made everything look clean and fresh. I didn't even mind that we had to make 3 trips to grocery stores in it. It was much warmer than in Utah, I understand.
Anyway, our apartment windows look out on a park-like setting with lots of trees and grass. It seems like a lot of the people who live in the apartments have dogs and, no matter what the weather, they take them out for exercise each day. This scene is common. People come together and visit while the dogs run around and take care of business.
We probably had 2-3 inches of snow but it's warmed up and is slushy today. We'll see what the week brings.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Departure dinner for 14 young missionaries

Every month or so we receive new missionaries and lose some. On Tuesday we had two new young elders come, both Russian-speaking, begin their missions here, after 3 weeks in the MTC to learn the language.

On Thursday evening, Sister Harper and I rode a bus to the mission home. It's a lovely apartment, but nothing in Riga looks on the outside like it would in America. We had 10 young sister missionaries who finished their missions here and 4 young Elders. We had a delicious dinner of lasagne and salads (Sister Harper and I made a jello fruit salad and a green salad, which we transported on the bus).

It was so fun to see these great young people, full of enthusiasm for the experiences they had had, and excited to be going home to their families. Following the dinner, we sang a Christmas hymn and each of us had the opportunity to share our testimonies of the work in which we are involved. The young people each expressed love for the people they had served here and especially of the increased love they have gained for our Savior Jesus Christ.

It was a wonderful evening. This was my first real opportunity to get acquainted with Pres. & Sis. Dance. They are very warm and loving people. They are excited that their 3 grown children will be coming for Christmas.

My Mission haircut

Well, I waited an extra week for a haircut and was desperate to find someone who could speak English and cut my hair. I found a receptionist who spoke fair English and she asked how I wanted my hair cut and then told the hairdresser. Communication!!! I told her I wanted it just trimmed about 1/4", holding up my fingers to show her. I think she thought I meant I wanted it cut 1/4" all over. Well, at least on the sides I don't think it's any longer than that. And I don't have to worry about my perm--it's gone!

Actually I think she gave me a good haircut, but too short on the sides on the bangs. Oh, that was another communication problem. I pulled my hair back to reveal my very receding hairline and I guess she thought I was showing her how I wanted it cut--like a man, combed back. She had it cut and blow dried when I realized she was not going to give me any kind of bang. I reached up and pulled some hair forward and she got the message, but it is soooo short.

The good news is I won't need another haircut for a long time. Thankfully, a bad hair cut does grow out. Not sure what I will do next time, but I will find a way to better express what I want.

7 flights of 8 steps each

Our apartment is on the 4th floor of a large apartment building (called a dome). It is a very old building but seems substantial. We enter through a steel door with a push button combination lock. It looks like a door to a factory or something old and commercial. The first 8 steps lead to a landing with 4 doors, spaced a foot or so apart, each leading to an apartment. Then two more flights to another landing with 4 more doors, and so on. A friend of Sis. Harper's made a lot of little cut out hearts with sayings on them and stuck them top our door, so I'm always happy to see those little hearts as I head up the 7th flight of stairs. The doors to the apartments are also steel and are securely locked. It doesn't seem possible, having doors so close together, that the apartments could be very large, but ours is, and I assume the others are, also.
As you can imagine, we limit how much we buy at the store at any given trip. But between the two of us, we are able to stock up on what we need. We go shopping on Saturdays and Wednesday after work. Our fridge is an apartment-size with a tiny freezer space that determines what we fix for dinner at times--whatever is thawed is what we fix.
At the top of this post are pictures of the apartment (more will follow another time). On the left is our bedroom, taken from the window area with my bed in the foreground and Sis. Harper's on the right. The other picture is our living room, taken facing the window. I should have cleared off the table first.
The 3rd picture is the office Sis. Harper and I share (that's her at her desk). That's not a good picture of her. She's always very pleasant and smiling.

T.G.I.F in Riga

Last evening we met the office couple (the Gublers from Cedar City UT) and went to T.G.I.F. for dinner. It was great to see a menu in English and to recognize the food items. I ordered chicken fajitas. You'd think that would be a safe item for me to choose. Well, in Latvia they drizzle chocolate on the plate and over the top of the fajitas. For those who may read this and don't know, I do not eat chocolate period. Fortunately, Sister Gubler offered to trade me. She had considered ordered the fajitas so I didn't feel bad about trading. She had ordered tomato basil soup which was delicious and she said the fajitas were good but that the chocolate didn't add anything to them.

So, if I go again, I will have to stipulate that they not add chocolate to anything I order.

The office missionaries at the MTC

This is the group of missionaries with whom I learned the computer programs at the MTC. One couple went to Africa, one to Argentina, one to Louisiana, one to Texas, and one to Tennessee. The single sisters went to Indiana, California, Nebraska and me to Latvia. They are a great group of men and woman. Two of the women had little or no experience on the computer but in four days learned enough to go forward.

Here's some mission pictures

Sunday, December 7, 2008

I finally used the cash box (ATM)

Cash boxes are located all over (maybe no more than ATMs in America) and I used my missionary debit card to get some cash. It's so strange to live in a cash society. There are no checks and, although I'm told some business establishments will accept credit or debit cards, I haven't seen one used yet. You can choose which language in which you want to communicate, so that's very helpful.

I have been told that you never hand money to a clerk. There is a plate and that's what you put your money on, and that's what the clerk puts your change and receipt on. I didn't know that until after I had handed the clerk money yesterday. Then, the 2nd store we went to, I forgot and handed her money. They did accept it, but it is not the way things are done here.

Living in a strange land

It was a beautiful day yesterday--well, overcast, but not cold. We went to Rimi's Hypermarket for groceries. We walked to the office (about 4 short blocks) and then to the bus stop, a long block away. Another couple of blocks from the bus stop to the market but only a block back to the bus stop home.

Anyway, we wanted to buy crackers and Sis. Harper knew where they were the last time she bought them, but they were not there this time. We walked all over the store but couldn't find them anywhere. Finally, I asked a young clerk if she spoke English and she said a little. I asked where we would find crackers. She thought I meant cookies and my explanation for crackers--with soup, salty, didn't help. We finally found some in the bread department, but they weren't the kind we were looking for.

Today at Church, we again had the young missionaries serve as translators for us. They are very good and I'm thankful for their language skills, but it seems to me that Latvians must say about 5 words for every English word. I can pick out certain words, but can't put them into a context.

As I have mentioned before, the people are quite dour. No smiles as you pass them--in fact, most of them don't acknowledge you are even there. On the bus yesterday, I had my first "friendly" experience with a Latvian (or was she Russian?) woman. It was standing room only, and then a woman got up from her seat and exited the bus. The woman she had been sitting next to, motioned for me to come and sit down. I did so, and said "paldies."

Then, this morning, as we neared the train stop, we could see our train coming and no one was at the stop to get on, but the train "driver" (he's not the conductor, I don't think, but don't know what you call the one who drives the train), stopped and waited for us to run to the stop.

Small things, but nice.

Public Transportation and The Inspector!!!

There are four modes of public transportation here in Riga: bus, auto-bus, trolley and train. I've ridden all but the auto-bus, which is a van that you can take more directly to your destination, as opposed to getting on at a bus/trolley/train stop and getting off at a bus/train/trolley stop. Each time you get on one of these conveyances, you have to have a ticket punched in a "time-clock" machine. Twice now an inspector has come on board. Both times have been a woman. She boards, puts a ticket in the time-clock, and then flips out her badge and begins checking everyone's tickets to make sure they have punched them.

So far I haven't seen anyone confronted who did not have a ticket punched, but once I saw a young woman punch her ticket just as she got off. I asked Sister Harper about that and she said the woman thought the inspector was getting off at the same stop (and hadn't gotten to her to check her ticket) and didn't want to be stopped outside the bus with an unpunched ticket.

Another time a young man had been on the bus and hadn't punched his ticket. He saw the inspector boarding (perhaps noticed her badge under her jacket somehow, or maybe just thought she looked like an inspector. Anyway, he came and punched his ticket just ahead of the inspector and got by with it. Apparently, some take a chance that there won't be an inspector board the bus while they are on, and they don't punch their ticket.