Saturday, January 24, 2009

Another haircut

Today I approached the beauty shop again and was pleased and grateful to learn that the receptionist spoke some English. And there was someone available right then who could cut my hair--and she spoke some English.

The first haircut lasted 5-6 weeks and I came to feel it was the best haircut I've ever received, other than the bangs being cut too short. I tried to ask for the same stylist but didn't have the name close enough for the receptionist to know who I was talking about, or maybe she's no longer there. Anyway, Alla cut my hair this time and she did a very good job. It's not quite as short but should last at least 4-5 weeks. And still no perm. I think I've had a perm in my hair ever since I was about 10 years old (except perhaps through the high school years--dont' remember for sure then). So, it's nice to not have to have a perm. Of course, couldn't do it without mousse and hairspray.


If you think potholes in Utah (and other places I'm sure) are bad, you should see the gulleys on the streets around our apartment complex. And they don't ever seem to do anything about them. I wonder what they do to the frames of the cars.

People who live in the apartment complexs park their cars just anywhere. One person parks their car directly in front of the step up to our building. Others just pull off onto the grass, wherever there is a spot, and park.

I do have to say, though, that the drivers in Riga seem to be the most polite and courteous I've ever seen. I saw one the other morning stop well before a driveway where he noticed a car backing out. Sis. Harper said if you are crossing the street in front of a car that is stopped for traffic ahead of it, you don't have to worry that the driver will run over you if the traffic starts up again. And the traffic lights turn yellow before red and before green. The traffic stops immediately when the light turns yellow--unlike in Bountiful where drivers were making left turns through red lights.

The economy in Latvia

You may have read or heard on TV about the rioting that took place in Riga's Olde Towne last week. It began with people gathering together and certain ones acting as spokesmen to express their concern about the economic situation in Latvia (it's serious) and their displeasure with the Government. According to our landlord (a very interesting person about whom I wrote once before and a man who is very aware of the politics in Latvia), it began peacefully, with talks and singing. Then the older, more mature people went to their homes. The younger people went into the bars, proceeded to drink and then began rioting in the town, burning police vehicles and throwing bricks through windows of buildings.

The embassy had warned Americans to stay away from Olde Towne that evening. It's nice to have an American Embassy here.

A couple of days later we read that the President was responding to the rioting and calling for some dramatic changes in Parliament, even threatening to dissolve Parliament if they didn't make the changes. They have until March 31 to come up with solutions that meet the needs of the people, or they will be dissolved.

One of the problems the people want resolved is the 10% unemployment. Another is the 21% tax rate on all goods. They don't have an income tax, but all goods are taxed 21%.

Eight more departing elders

This Thursday evening Sister Harper and I were again invited to the mission home for the departing missionary dinner and testimony meeting.

We had made rolls to bring and we went early to help Sister Dance prepare Elder Ray's lemon chicken (a recipe from the Baltic Baker that we tried a couple of weeks ago--very simple and very tasty).

There were 8 young elders, six had served in Lithuania--one of them Russian-speaking--and two in Estonia--one of them also Russian-speaking.

We had a lovely dinner with enjoyable conversation. The Lithuanian elders had worked closely together and knew each other well.

Dinner was followed by the opportunity for each of us to share our testimonies. What a beautiful experience. What fine young men. One of them said that people say a mission is our gift to God, but through his experiences, he came to believe a mission is God's gift to each missionary. I thought that was very profound, and very true. That's certainly what I am feeling after only two months into my mission.

Another young elder shared how much joy he felt through his service. He said "joy" was just the best word he could think of to say what he felt for having had the privilege of serving people he had grown to love, and serving with the members and other missionaries he had also grown to love. Another elder talked about the gifts of God that he had received, from other missionaries, from the members, from the people of Lithuania, and from growing in his understanding of our Savior Jesus Christ. Each expressed how much they have changed in two years and how much they have come to feel the love of the Lord for them and for all of God's children.

We sang a few hymns and ended with "God Be With You Until We Meet Again." These are choice and tender times for me as I think about the great work of the Lord that is taking place here in the Baltic Mission.

Video conferencing

Monday morning the office staff gathered in the Conference room and joined people from many places in the world, some of which I don't know, but including BYU, Church Headquarters in SLC, Area office in Moscow (that's Russia, not Idaho). The BYU students represented 100 students who form the global service desk to help offices throughout the world with computer program problems.

We were seated around the conference table and there is a camera on us, and on each of the other 12-13 groups. The meeting was conducted in Russian (the BYU students were all returned missionaries from Russia (or Russian-speaking countries). We had one of our young Russian-speaking elders translating for us. There is a capability of 16 groups (and maybe more), each in a square on the TV screen. So, everyone can see everyone else at the same time.

At the end there was Q&A and we were told to wave our hands in an exaggerated fashion if we had a question or comment. It looked a little strange to see someone suddenly begin waving their hands/arms in front of their camera. I think people felt a little silly doing it, but it was the best way of getting the attention of the moderator.

Computer technology is amazing!

Then yesterday I answered the phone and it was someone from the Area office in Moscow, asking if someone here could help him perform a test on the equipment in preparation for a conference to be held this morning between the Baltic Mission and the Armenian Mission. I following the step-by-step instructions and there I was on the screen, and I could see the Area office man in Moscow. The Armenian segment was having a problem and they were trouble-shooting so it would work this morning.

It's our preparation day so we don't know if it worked this morning or not.

The autobuss, rhymes with moose

I had my first ride on the autobuss this week. I'm still learning the difference between each mode of transportation and its correct name. Autobusses (is that the plural?) are like American buses--no wires above or tracks beneath--just a regular bus. The interesting difference here is that there is a conductor seated on a raised platform to receive your money (no paper tickets used on these) 40 santies (about .80 US). It's best of have correct change. If you give her (or him) a lat (smallest paper money--about $2 US), according to Sis. Harper, you are apt to receive a handful of santies in return.

Our conductor was a large, older woman (I've got to quit calling people older---older than who, certainly not than me) who wore her glasses way down on her nose and carefully eyed everyone who got on the bus to make sure no one slipped in a back door without paying.

This morning we were waiting for a trolley bus (bus with wires connected above) and an autobuss came by. It had a sign in the window advising there was no conductor on board, so only one half of the "folding" door was opened and the driver had to collect and give the tickets to everyone boarding.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Speaking Latvian

I had my first experience speaking the language last Sunday. I was asked to offer the benediction in Relief Society and was told I could do it in English. I opted to do it in Latvian, brief and halting, but in Latvian nevertheless. The sisters were so pleased and thanked me for trying to learn their language.

I have also found that some women are responding when I say Labrit (pronounced "lah breet" -good morning) as we pass on the street. The people here tend to just look straight forward or down to the ground. I've had a few actually look up, smile and respond when I spoke. I feel comfortable saying "paldies" (pronounced "pall di es" - thank you) to clerks or others.

I'm still caught somewhat off guard when I hear children speaking Latvian!!! Imagine that. If I start to say something to a child, I stop, realizing that they don't understand me, nor would I understand what they might say to me.

I did say to a little 5-year old girl, the daughter of a woman I was visiting teaching last evening, "Ka jus sauc?" (pronounced "kah yous sows") That means what is your name. She understood me and told me her name. Little by little, I will be more comfortable, and more capable, of speaking to people.

Zone Conference picture at the Gulf of Riga

Just wanted you to see the snowy beach and us missionaries huddled together. The Baltic Sea or, maybe more accurately, the Gulf of Riga, is in the background. Don't know if you can see it well enough to identify me. I'm in the center front with the tan coat and the white hat/scarf. Sister Harper is two people to my left, in the black coat with the gray hat and scarf. If you happen to be able to enlarge the picture enough, you will notice my insulated "winter whites" (thanks to Gayle Billings for telling me about them) showing below my coat. They have been a life saver when it's been so cold. They only showed below my coat because I had my arms around the two young sisters. By the way, Hallie, the tall sister on my left is Sister Burton who plays the violin so beautifully.
What looks like a flashlight is a reflector on Sis. Dance's coat or arm. It's required that you wear a reflector on your coat or purse at night. I have one on my purse. Everyone just wears them all the time, so we are legal if it happens to get dark when we are out. Does it look cold enough?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Snow and children

Children are the same everywhere. There is a hill behind our apartment building (nothing like Cheese Park in Bountiful) and the children were out in full force. They have sleds of various types. Some are like the sleds you see in a Thomas Kinkade painting--old fashioned with the runners that keep the "seat" several inches off the ground.

One of the most interesting kind is one that looks like a deflated whoopee cushion. I don't know what it's made of, but they sit on it and go down the hill.

The advantage to having shorter hills is that it's a lot easier to climb back again.

Across the street from the office is a park with a hill that drops down to a ledge or wall and there were children tubing down that and "flying" off the ledge.

The children are bundled up very warmly here. Sister Harper made the observation that you never see parents carrying children. Babies are in buggies and from toddlers up, they are walking beside adults--parents or grandparents.

American history discussed and taught by Latvians

In Sunday School last week, in preparation for our year's study of the Doctrine & Covenants, the teacher talked about the events leading up to the founding of America and those who sought religious freedom there which, we know, was necessary for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be restored to the earth.

As I sat in the class, it suddenly occurred to me that these people have not been taught about American history and, most being relatively new members of the Church, may not have even understood some of the background about the Church being restored. It gave me a new perspective.

The teacher and her family traveled to America a year or so ago, and visited the historic sites in Philadelphia and other places and she was quite well-informed. It was interesting for those of us Americans there to search our memories for historical facts.

Having never been outside of the United States before, I am having many such moments of awareness.

One thing I am seeing is the lack of entrepeneurship here. There is a high rate of unemployment and, like people from other countries who became free after years of oppression, they don't seem to know how to be "free." So many have turned to alcohol. The young people are education-minded and are going to "college" but their education often is not valued and does not translate into higher paying jobs. As a result, many young people leave Latvia and go to Ireland, England and Sweden. Ireland seems to be a big draw, but I don't know what kinds of jobs they get when they go there.

New Years Eve in Latvia

Fireworks are a very big thing here in Riga. In fact, we saw a package of Santa Clause sparklers!

Anyway, the evenings before New Year's Eve we saw people outside of our apartment shooting off fireworks and could hear some bigger ones coming from somewhere, but couldn't see them.

But on New Year's Eve, between 10 and 11 p.m. they began in full force. I went to bed and was able to go to sleep, only to be awakened at 2:00 a.m. with a huge blast--sounded like a canon, and people outside revelling.

The other thing they do on New Year's Eve is get drunk. This year was colder and more snow than a year ago. Sister Harper said last year there were people laying all over the ground the next morning, but we didn't see that. Alcoholism is a huge problem here.

Hard to believe it is 2009 already!!!

Zone Conference and the Bay of Riga

Tuesday was Zone Conference with just the Latvian-speaking missionaries and it was wonderful. President Dance challenged last month to read the Book of Mormon on a reading schedule, underlining each reference to our Savior Jesus Christ. It's been a wonderful experience. So, the first part of the conference was a discussion about what we are learning and anything we would like to share. I'm so impressed with these young elders and sisters. They are bright, sharp, and humble.

After eating a sack lunch, we boarded a Greyhound-type bus for a drive of about half an hour to Jurmala, which is a kind of resort-like place on the Bay of Riga. We had had quite a bit of snow in the area and there are so many trees that it was a winter wonderland and my first experience away from tall buildings and no open areas. Jurmala is a place with lovely homes and hotels. We got off the bus and walked perhaps a couple of blocks and there before us was a large beach and the beautiful Baltic Sea. It was quite breathtaking to see. Of course, the famous white sands were covered with several inches of white snow and the waves breaking against the shore were creating ice mounds.

We walked out onto the beach and gathered together--about 27 of us) and had our picture taken. We sang a hymn and then Sister Dance told us a bit about the beginnings of the Church in Latvia. President Dance then handed out laminated copies of the prayer offered by President James E. Faust on 17 March 1993, dedicating the country of Latvia for the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The prayer he offered was so tender and spoke of the love the Lord has for all of His children and His awareness of their situations. He desires to bless them.

It was a moving experience to be there where that prayer was offered, before when there were only two members of the Church living in Latvia (they had been baptized in Russia where they were students). The Church in these nearly 16 years now has three Districts and 16 branches, with a 17th soon to be organized.

The temperature was below zero and the wind was bitter cold, but it was a wonderful experience to be there.

And the people in the Baltic States are hardy people. There were quite a few people strolling on the snow-covered beach, and families with children playing on the beach. They do know how to dress for the weather here. Many women here wear fur coats, of all kinds of fur. I guess PETA hasn't arrived here yet.

As a side note, President Dance had asked me to type the dedicatory prayers for each of the three Baltic countries, in a font small enough to fit into the little white handbook folders the missionaries carry. It was a blessing for me to read each of the prayers, given by three different Apostles of the Lord. I typed them, printed enough copies, and then laminated them. So, there were things for me to learn and, as always, when we are challenged to learn something new, it's exciting to see the end result.

Winter finally came!

Last Sunday through Tuesday was bitter cold and I learned the value of layering clothes. I'm thankful I brought things that can be layered. The only think I lacked was one of those ski masks that show only your eyes. Can't quite see myself in one of those anyway. Thankfully, by Wednesday it had warmed to above bitter cold and today it's just crisp and nice and the sun came up.

Speaking of the sun coming up. That's not quite what it does--at least not like at home. It comes just above the horizon and then moves along the horizon, never going up overhead. I certainly haven't learned to tell what time of day it is by where the sun is, although if it comes out often enough, I may learn to do that. There was a beautiful sunset the other day, visible from my office window, looking across the street and through the trees--all pinks and oranges.

Anyway, with the bitter cold came about 4 inches of snow which they don't seem to know what to do with here. The streets are narrow and the one or two snow plows we have seen, keep the blade up several inches and come during rush hour traffic. I wonder if the blade is kept high so it doesn't interfere with the train (or tramvilj, pronounced tram vie) tracks. Don't know any other purpose in it.

Also, only some people shovel their walks (just like at home?) and so they became quite treacherous. We walk with baby steps. When they do shovel their walks, the shovel is unique. It has an inverted "U" shape handle that attaches to either side of the blade. The handles don't look that sturdy and it seems very awkward to manage shoveling and throwing the snow, but that's what they use. The blades are probably twice as wide as an "American" snow shovel blade. Those who are hired to do the shoveling, it seems, are older (well, not older than me) and often women.