Saturday, February 28, 2009

Finally a good meal at a restaurant--and no chocolate

Yesterday afternoon, the senior missionaries (4 couples and Sister Harper and me), met with President and Sister Dance at the Mission Home for some training. I hadn't met one of the couples previously. Elder and Sister Pehrson serve in Estonia. She emigrated to America as a young child. More accurately, she and her family escaped from Estonia just before the borders were closed. He emigrated from Sweden to America and that's where they met and married. She still speaks Estonian fluently and they had a who served previously in Estonia and one son who completed his mission to Lithuania just prior to their arrival here. Very nice people, doing a great work in Estonia.

We then took a bus (and walked) to an Oriental restaurant (no decision as to whether it was Chinese, Japanese, something else, or a combination). The food was very good, whatever kind it was, and there was no chocolate anywhere to be seen! We each ordered off the menu and it was set up so that you chose from rice or noodles (a couple varieties of each available), chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or veggies, and then chose a sauce. I had the sweet and sour chicken with spinach noodles. It was a generous serving, presentation included strands of grass on top.

We left the restaurant and walked (in rain/snow) to the Dome Cathedral for a concert. This time the concert was poorly attended and I can understand why. It began with a very heavy/dark organ solo, followed by about 30 minutes of organ solos, most of which were dark/heavy. Elder Gubler said he kept watching for the chandelier to fall (it reminded us of Phantom of the Opera in places). Then 8 women came out, dressed in long billowy skirts and wearing fur jackets (remember this is the place that is not heated). They had beautiful voices and sang more notes than words. They would sing a note and let it reverberate through the cathedral and then sing another one. They were very talented. The "leader" had a very deep voice. Then a violinist performed, together with the organ. A portion of that number was very pretty, but much of it was very intense, too.

As we left the Cathedral, we walked out into a bitter cold Baltic wind, and walked over cobblestone streets, down "alleys" to the bus stop, and home. Even here, it's always nice to arrive safely home.

Latvian translation of the Scriptures

I have learned recently that the Book of Mormon was only translated in Latvian perhaps 8 years ago. Elder Guido Senkans, the first person baptized in Latvia, assisted in the Translation. Just one year ago, the Doctrine & Covenants became available in Latvia.

It continues to amaze me to think about these members receiving, in their own language, the scriptures so recently. And they do love reading them.

Of course, they have had the Bible for many years, but what a blessing to have these additional scriptures available now.

Koncert (or Concert) by the Russian-speaking missionaries

Last Saturday evening we took a bus into downtown Riga, to the building the Church uses for a meetinghouse for two branches there. The Russian-speaking missionaries had prepared a concert to which they had invited the public. What an impressive group of missionaries, and very talented. Elder Eddington played a piece by Rachmaninoff, with such feeling and, later in the program, sang in Russian "I Know That My Redeemer Lives." He truly bore his testimony of the Savior as he sang. One sister played a few numbers on the violin, including one fiddler number. Another sister played the piano--2 or 3 numbers, including one for which she laid on her back on the piano bench, reaching over her head, to play "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin. She said afterwards that she had seen that done once and decided to learn how to do it. She also played a beautiful classical number. Another young elder (the one who accompanied us to Tallinn) played the piano beautifully. He told me he took lessons for 5-6 years and just enjoys playing. Two other sisters sang a duet. One of them has a beautiful, rich, trained voice and just radiated joy as she sang. The other sister has a very nice voice, too. A Latvian young man who will leave for his mission to Russian soon, played the piano. He plays by ear and taught himself to play--a very gifted pianist. Three other sisters sang a medly of Negro spirituals. All of the missionaries gathered together at the end and sang a hymn in Russian. It was a great concert.

We had been told they expected 70 people there. Skeptic that I am, I thought they would be doing well to have 30 there. I had forgotten how much the Latvian people love concerts. There were 98 people there!!! They stayed afterward and mingled and ate cookies and fruit.

Our trip to the Palace (no king or queen in residence)

Last Saturday, Elder and Sister Carson, the CES couple in our mission, took Sister Harper and me to Rundale Palace. They have a car, as they travel throughout all 3 countries in their assignment. It was so nice to travel by car! The palace is about 1 1/2 hours away from Riga (as the crow flies perhaps--and there are plenty of crows), but it took us more like 2-3 hours to get there, as we went by way of Jelgava, which is on the border with Lithuania.

It was cold and lots of snow on the ground, but the Carsons wanted Sister Harper to be able to see the Palace before she leaves (on the 9th of March). It is located on a large acreage, with not much but farm land and/or open fields around it, so you see it from a distance (no mountains or hills to block your view).

We parked and walked a distance, including over a moat (no drawbridge now). The palace was built in the mid-1740s and is being restored. Only 1/3 is available to tourists and even it is in need of additional restoration. But, it is grand and opulent. There are large stairways, with wooden floors, leading upstairs to two ballrooms and some bedrooms and other rooms. The ballrooms have parquet flooring (original-thick wooden planks) and the ceilings and walls are decorated with 3-dimensional cherubs and flowers, etc. The artisanship and craftsmanship are amazing. There were also paintings throughout, many of them were family members at various ages. One room was devoted to paintings of the Savior, depicting various times of His life. The bedrooms were enormous. The colors of the walls, upholstery, wall coverings and window coverings were really beautiful. A shade of blue was used in more than one room and it was a beautiful color. One bedroom was in emerald greens; one in rose.

One thing that took us awhile to identify was a very large, blue and white ceramic tile, nearly floor to ceiling, square object in nearly every room. We finally learned they were the source of heat. We didn't learn how they operated, but they were very decorative and much more effective, I imagine, than a fireplace would have been, with the ceramic tiles retaining the heat.

The thing we didn't get to see, but hope to be able to go back for, are the grounds. They have well-manicured orchards in front and back and, according to picture postcards available for purchase, beautiful gardens.

It cost 5 lats (about $9-10 USD) to tour the palace, which we felt was very reasonable.

Grocery shopping and food

I've been asked about the food available here. I think I've mentioned a few things over the last 3 months, but I've had 3 months more experience now. We shop almost exclusively at Super Netto. That's the name, but it isn't descriptive of the store at all. It's not much bigger than a corner grocery store from my youth. As you enter, you can pick up a basket or you can pay to have a shopping cart. Few pay for a cart, and the aisles are so narrow that a cart is probably more of a handicap than a help.

There are no glass door refrigerator cases. The dairy products are setting out on shelves that are cooled, but nothing like home. So, we reach back as far as we can for the carton of milk, which comes only in 1 liter size--no half gallons or gallons. We had enjoyed a certain yogurt and it was always available--until 2 weeks ago. It was gone from the shelves. We even went to a Rimi's (larger but still nothing like home) and that brand/type was nowhere to be seen. The yogurt here is almost liquid. In fact, some of it is a drink. The missionaries pour it on their cereal. The one we liked was more comparable to Yoplait in consistency. They are now carrying Activia and so we are buying that. It's good, but it's not the same as what we enjoyed.

Veggies and fruit and available and take up about as much space as one "carousel" in Dick's market. Potatoes are in a waist-height cardboard box, fresh from the field--at least they are very dirty. You can never depend on finding any given item. We are always pleased, and surprised, to find green seedless grapes. They are very good (even after being chlorinated). Don't know where they come from. There is a very small canned fruits/veggies section. They have peas and corn (haven't found any canned green beans). The corn is very good, but the peas are starchy and large, except for one brand we've found. We found and tried frozen peas last week, but they, too, were starchy. It seems they pick the veggies late.

As you walk into the store, on both sides are drinks. No soda, I don't believe, but lots of alcohol and water, on both sides as you walk down the aisle.

But, we find enough things that we enjoy and that are nutritious.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

You wanted pictures!

Elder Hansen took our picture when we returned to the Embassy. How do you like my new haircut? And that's 2 weeks after it was cut. I have no perm, nor bend to my hair at all. I'm thankful I have a lot of hair, but it's looking a lot like a man's haircut, and not a good one at that.

Well, I can see that you are going to have to be creative in matching the pictures to my description. Each time I upload another 3 pictures, the arrangement changes. I hope my description of each is sufficient for you to figure out which picture goes with which description.

The picture below right is of the Tallinn Bussjaam (depot) as we approached it. Elder Alex Hansen traveled with Sister Harper and I. Our purpose in going was for Elder Hansen and I to obtain our Latvian living permit. Center picture is Elder Hansen (who was a lifesaver for us English-speaking sisters). He's only been here 2 months but his Russian is very good. This picture is at the Latvia Embassy and he's speaking through an intercom to get us into the Embassy. He had also obtained our return bus tickets and got a taxi for us, all with his Russian capability.

The Latvian Government is corrupt and obtaining living permits is a frustrating and expensive experience. Sister Harper (whose assignment is to work with the finances) had brought the maximum amount of money that had ever been needed, and then some. When we got inside the Embassy, we were told we needed more. And it had to be in Euros. So, we walked a few blocks to a bank (the picture of the Church was taken on the way back). Sister Harper had brought Euros, Kroons (Estonian money) and a credit card. The bank we went to would only exchange money, not allow the use of the credit card. We needed 70 Euros and 150 kroon. It cost 1098 kroon to get 70 Euros! We got the needed money and walked back to the Embassy and completed the paperwork, paid the money, which included 145Lats (Latvian money) to expedite my paperwork so that I could (hopefully) receive my invitation to go to the Migration Office in Riga to obtain my living permit on or before February 26, or leave the country, back to the U.S.
The cost in USD was 497, plus $38.10 for the bus ticket. The frustration is that the amount changes. Also, my paperwork had been submitted within the week after I arrived here and it took more than 2 months to process (we are allowed to be in the country 90 days before we have to have the living permit). We were told at the Embassy that the pouch had gone out the day before and wouldn't go out again until the next Monday (Tuesday afternoon and Thursday morning are the only times they are open for us to come), hence the extra money to expedite mine. Elder Hansen arrived here on December 8 so he has a little more time. Tuesday morning was the earliest we could have gone to Tallinn.
The next day another Elder, who is serving in Lithuania, went to the Latvian Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, and they charged him only 195 USD, so there is huge discrepancy. Another young Elder was over his time and it was expected that he would have to pay a big fine, and they renewed his permit for the minimum amount. So, there's no rhyme or reason to what they charge or how they handle things, and we are at their mercy.

As we entered Tallinn, I was surprised to see the Tallinn Lexus dealership (on the left) The middle picture I took to show the most popular color for buildings--at least those that have been painted.

Picture above left is a typical baby carriage, or buggy as they were called when I was growing up. Parents don't carry their babies. The buggies are very well made to keep the baby warm and protected from the elements. It's not uncommon at all to see the father pushing the carriage, or walking with small children. In this case, the mother had run ahead to go into the store. This was in Paarnu, Estonia.

Above: I tried to capture the density of the forests. From Riga to Tallinn, there is either forest land or farmland (at least that's all we saw from the highway, which was a 2-3 lane 2-way road all the way. The forests are mostly very tall, thin trunks, with the branches very, very high. At least during the winter, you could not hide in the forest.

Taking pictures out a bus window is a challenge and this sign of Tallinn and Paarnu did have how many kilometers, but I didn't capture that part.

I tried to take a picture of a stop sign in Tallinn. One way you know you are in Estonia is that they use a lot of double vowels and consonants. Stop signs read "stopp."

I can see I have much to learn about adding pictures to my blog. It looks like you will have be "traveling" backwards--from Tallinn to Riga. The picture above on the left is a windmill, like we have in America, but there were only two (and I couldn't get them in the same picture), as opposed to a row of them in America. Middle is a picture of a typical Church in the area; in the foreground, the road signs all look similar to this. The picture on the right is about the highest elevation in the countries. They do ski here, but not downhill.

I spent Tuesday on a bus, traveling from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia, and back to Riga, with a little time in between, to obtain a living permit at the Latvian Embassy in Tallinn. What a strange life this is. Anyway, for the first time in my life, I took pictures on the way up and while there which I will download (or is it upload?) here and will write about the experience.

After the Embassy, we saw a Taxi across the street, walked over to it and he said he wasn't available. We walked to another one, parked half a block further, and he said he was busy. So we headed down the street, not knowing where anything is, looking for another taxi. After walking about 4 blocks (and it was cold!), we saw street signs (they are on buildings, rather small, and not on every corner building at that) so Elder Hansen, again using his Russian, called for a Taxi. We rode back to the bus depot and then walked across the street to a New York Pizza place. It cost 98 kroon for a large pizza, which was made fresh and which we shared. It was very good pizza. The restaurant had a restroom, for "clients" only so the clerk had to push a button to let me in, but it was clean and it was free!
The ride back to Tallinn was uneventful, other than the two men sitting in front of Sister Harper and me, who shared their bottle of spirits with each other as we traveled. We visited with Elder Hansen, who is a sharp and dedicated young missionary.
I forgot to mention that on the way to Tallinn, there was a Latvian young man in the seat in front of me, who spoke English well. He was very friendly and answered our questions about the landscape and life in Latvia. We talked with him about the Gospel but he wasn't really interested. He is probably in his mid-20s and had spent a couple of years in England, working in a Stouffer factory (or something similar) and had also spent some time in Norway. He came back to Latvia because he missed the food (ugh!) and this is where his brothers live. But he had gone to England and Norway to work because the employment situation here is not good.

The picture on the right is the "toilette" in the bus depot in downtown Riga. In most public places, you pay to use the restroom--20 santies (40 cents US). You pay the money and then go around the corner where you are given a ration of TP. I didn't need to use the facility, thankfully. To the left, I'm pointing to the time we are going to leave for Tallinn on the bus schedule. The bus was a Greyhound-type, comfortable, with large windows.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Apartment hunting

With the news that I would be serving with a much younger woman, and for 14 months, Sister Harper and I felt it would be well to find a 2-bedroom apartment. They aren't plentiful here. And what they consider 2 bedrooms, most often just means two rooms with a fold-out couch in each, or perhaps a bed in one and a fold out couch in the other, and no "living room."

A real estate agent took us to look at two of them the other evening. The first one was almost American-quality. It was very clean, nicely furnished, spacious (well roomy) and had two bedrooms plus a nice living room. It was completely furnished with nice furniture. One bedroom had a bed and the other had a fold-out couch. It was clean and much more attractive than those I've seen here. The bathroom had even been remodeled (remounted is their word) and had tile and a corner shower with glass door. It looked very modern and clean. The kitchen had a lot of nice wood cabinets, a gas cook top but no oven--just a microwave. It had a large fridge (the one we have is small apt. size) The location was just one block further from the office than we now are. The catch is it costs 100 lats more than the one we are in, and that might not have included all of the utilities. They are a little cagey about what is included and how much.

We then went to a 2nd one which was about the same size but had nothing in the 2nd bedroom (not a problem because the mission owns some beds). The other bedroom had a queen or king-size bed in a room large enough for a twin, or maybe a double bed. But it just wasn't clean. It had a stove and oven and large fridge, but no table and chairs--a couch was in the kitchen. It was on the 6th floor so had an elevator but elevators here are about the size of a small closet.

So, for now we have quit looking. Pres. Dance is hoping to move the mission office closer to the mission home within the next 6 months so we'll probably wait until that's decided and then find an apt. close to that location.

Another wonderful zone conference

Yesterday was my 3rd zone conference and they are definitely my spiritual feast. It's wonderful to join together with 50 other missionaries (8 of us senior) and to be taught by President and Sister Dance. They are gifted and inspiring teachers who teach from the scriptures and with love.

Sister Dance posed the question: If God is no respecter of persons and yet some people are chosen, how do we reconcile the two? She walked us through many scriptures that teach of the love God has for each of His children and how, through the gift of agency, we choose whether we are "chosen of the Lord." Our Father in Heaven and our Savior invite every one to come unto Christ and partake of His Atonement and Their love. Each of us choose whether we will be obedient to the Commandments of the Lord. Those who choose to do so, are chosen of the Lord. It truly is up to each of us.

President Dance then commented on the choices, most of which have been small, which he has made through his life. He said that there are very few "major" choices he's made in his life (serving a mission, marrying Sister Dance) but that each day of his life, he makes choices that, when put together, have brought him to this point in his life.

He spent most of his time teaching from Moses 1 wherein we learn how God taught Moses who he was and what God's plan for him was, applying those teachings to our lives.

It was wonderful to be taught by the Spirit of the Lord.

In the middle of the day, we had lunch--my first pizza in Riga. It may be my last. It had a kind of funny taste to it. I'm not being "wowed" by the food in Riga. That's, of course, a good thing for my waistline.


I learned a week ago that I will have a new companion, due to arrive one month from today. We didn't have very much notice and I was surprised to learn she would be coming so early. Sister Harper wasn't scheduled to leave until March 25. She has moved her date up to March 9.

The new companion is Sister Humphery, a 47-year-old woman from Missouri. She joined the Church just 3 years ago. She is divorced, no children. Her office experience seems to be limited. This will be like having one of my children as my companion--except for the fact that I don't know her, of course. Not sure how excited she will be to have "her mother" as her companion.

Sister Harper and I have developed such a close friendship and I will miss her. She has truly been a blessing in my life these first 3 months in this very foreign land.

The language challenge continues

This past couple of weeks I've been involved in putting the quarterly report of membership activity together. The report forms come from Germany on pdf files and are in the language of the country. The challenge for me is to understand in 3 different languages what it is they say and what information they are asking for.

I sent the reports to the District Clerks in each country and they in turn worked with their branch presidents, all of whom speak the language and can read the forms. The challenge is that I have to compile the reports. I am learning to figure out some things.

I'm also communicating via email with these District Clerks and with the office in Germany in English. Of course, that is not the native language for any of them, so some of the communication is more miscommunication and some of it becomes humorous. For instance, I wrote to the office in Germany to Eric deMonder who has been an absolute gem with whom to work. He responded to one of my questions by saying, "I will await your feeding." I think he meant "feedback."

Thankfully none of the reports were in Russian. However, I do receive baptism and confirmation reports in Russian. The missionaries do translate the names and information into English.

This week I've written a letter to the branch presidents, in English, with a PS in their native language, telling them if they need help with the letter to talk with their district leaders or the missionaries in their branch. I had the missionaries translate the sentence into all 4 languages (including Russian) and then typed it into each letter. Yes, my keyboard is smarter than I am--it "speaks" 3 of the 4 languages and another computer in the office "speaks" the 4th language.

The amazing heating system

The heating system in Riga is unique. Our apartment has hot water radiators, one in each room, under the window. There is no fan or anything to circulate the heat and yet our apartment is kept very comfortable. It's a mystery to me how it works.

The other part of it is that we have no control over the temperature. I'm told that the "city" or someone turns it on in October and off in April. Reminds me of the Weber Water at home. Sometimes the pipes are almost too hot to touch (when the temperature outside hit -6 Celsius this week) or, on two occasions this week, cold to the touch. No, Spring had not arrived, and it was a temporary condition, thankfully. It certainly got my mind running to think of an alternative source of heat (there are lots of trees outside--could we cut one down and build a fire in the living room?). A better solution was that the office is heated with it's own boiler so we could always go there. Fortunately, the pipes soon got warm again and we were okay.