Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts...

Well, I got my Christmas miracle...

That is, I made it home in the midst of snowstorms in Europe and before the snowstorm hit here (not that either of them were huge, but they certainly affected air travel).

After a long journey, I was paged at the baggage claim to let me know that my baggage was still in Paris. But on Christmas morning the AirFrance guy showed up with my suitcase, just in time for me to wrap my gifts!



We'll see what happens next week when I try to fly out of here...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Adjusting expectations

I should have been on a plane last night instead of in my bed in St. Petersburg!

But...I was glad to not be stranded in an airport somewhere.

It all started with the snow in Europe. As usual, I didn't pay much attention until I realized that it might affect me personally.

The timetable didn't show any changes, but when I got all the way through security and up to the check-in desk...2 hr delay. Okay, I'll deal with it. Then they asked if I was sure I wanted to check my bags all the way through. Were things THAT bad?

I weighed the consequences: a) get stuck in London for a few days with no change of clothes or b) have to lug my suitcase around everywhere and possibly recheck it during my increasingly short layover.

I decided I would rather be grubby and just buy whatever essentials I'd need if I got stuck. Computer cable+Kindle recharger in my suitcase could spell potential boredom and frustration if lost, but I just did not need my carry-on to be any heavier than it was.

Next stop: passport control. A very strange experience, this time around. read more/-

The ladies doing inspection are usually cold and serious, but not rude. I'm not sure what I did wrong, but this particular officer was not happy with me.

I stepped into the booth and slid my passport across the counter, with my boarding pass, migration card, and exit visa tucked neatly inside.

She GLARED at me. I stared back, waiting for instructions.

"Passport. Boarding pass. Migration card."

I took them out and lined them up on the counter, in that order, plus my exit visa. There was no way anything was missing or out of order.

She glared again and then finally took them and starting inspecting everything. Boy, was I glad to get out of that chamber!

I'm still stumped as to what the problem was. The way I said hello? The fact that I was wearing glasses? The wrong counter?

3 hours until boarding. Ugh. I stalled by sitting for a bit, then getting a snack, then taking a snooze near the boarding area, with my alarm on so I wouldn't miss boarding. I pondered how much I hate traveling alone and wished for a companion.



I woke up and the marquee now said "Frankfurt" instead of "London." I scouted around, found the new boarding area, and started to hover.

Why weren't we boarding yet?

Finally some representatives came out and told us the flight was cancelled. Everyone was hovering around with shouts of dismay and panic. I listened to the Russian and English exchanges at the same time, trying to hear where we could rebook our reservations so I could bolt over and get in line.

After it was clear nothing could be done that day, I headed back downstairs to do everything in reverse. First stop: passport control.


This was my favorite part: a guy writing "void" on my exit stamp with a ballpoint pen. He ignored my visa and I had to remind him that there was a stamp there, too.

Next, I got my luggage back.

Then I sat down to think about how to get home. It was so close, but heels+snow+suitcase meant that I probably needed someone to pick me up. 4-5 phone calls later, a friend was on his way.

Sort of. He had a few other stops to make, so I ended up waiting about 90 minutes. I stationed myself near the other passengers on my flight who were still asking questions. Maybe I would hear something useful. The closest I got was that we could call the next day after 11am.

It was interesting to observe how strangers bonded in this situation. Russians aren't particularly known for being friendly to strangers, but in this case I think that the "we vs. them" was the people/passengers vs. the airline. We must unite to demand action! Of course the "crisis" scenario added to the need for bonding, and before leaving I noticed a few Russians exchanging phone numbers and first names.

Meanwhile, there was a mother sitting with a number of children close in age. They weren't Russian; the discipline style (or lack thereof) was different. Maybe immigrants or refugees, or maybe just tourists. They were running around, so it took me awhile to figure out that there were four. I know it's rude to stare, but I love watching siblings interact. It looked like they were having a fun childhood. And the mom was brave for traveling alone.

A black British woman had been prancing about in a fashionable outfit, commenting loudly on various topics (even before the flight got canceled). Now she broke away from her traveling companions to approach the children. "You're beautiful. You're all SO beautiful."

Weirdo, they might not even speak English, I thought.

Then a smile broke across the mother's face and she said something in reply.

"He's the little man, isn't he?" the British woman asked, gesturing to the oldest boy. The mother answered affirmatively. I was glad for her that someone was giving her positive feedback about her family.

Airports are interesting places...


Seven hours after I left, my friend was carrying my suitcase up to the fourth floor for me just as my mom was calling to suggest some alternate flight options.

So I have a new flight out on Thursday. Getting close to Christmas, but maybe travel conditions will be better by then.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Russian President and I

Is it possible that I actually agree with Medvedev on something? (not that I watch his every move)

Every once in a while, I'm alerted to something in the media that gives me hope that Russian orphans are going to receive some justice.

A ministry serving orphans in Moscow published a translation of Medvedev's recent comments to this effect.

"Unfortunately, in our country there are still 130,000 children remaining without family care. They have neither parents, not guardians, they are deprived of what's primary – the warmth of the family. And there is still very much left to do to make sure that the very concept of "throw-away" children is removed from our life. There should be guardianship/foster organizations focused on placing children with families and supporting those families. In general there must not be children in our country that are "nobody's".

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"The so-called 'correctional' children's homes are faced with such a serious problem. They, unfortunately, work in such a way as to lead to the increasing isolation of children, rather than their socialization. Therefore not only public services, but also civil society must pay attention to what is happening here. At each baby house, in orphanages and in correctional establishments it is necessary to create boards of trustees whose work should be completely open and transparent.
"Finally, we need programmes of social adaptation and support for those who have come out of orphanages. It is not enough to train and feed children – they need to be brought out into a new, adult life prepared and self-assured. Here the role not only of teachers, but also of local authorities is great. They could pay, for example, the cost for those who have come out of orphanages to take courses which would prepare them to enter the system of higher and further education and vocational training."

It sure sounds good. I appreciate the fact that Medvedev calls attention to the need for families (if briefly), and also the need for help with the transition to adult life. Yes, the orphans do need all this. Now, who is going to give this to them? They need a miracle.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

No bargaining

I opened up a magazine (delivered from the States recently) and was shocked to see the words "Negotiating with Evil."

My first thought was, we do not bargain with Evil.

I really had a flash of end-times panic as I pictured Americans "negotiating" for their souls. The Bible is pretty clear that we are not to have anything to do with Evil.
"For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them." (Eph. 5:8-11)
Then I looked up the author online, and my feelings changed...
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It turns out that there is a book called "Negotiating with Evil: How to Talk to Terrorists" by Mitchell B. Reiss. I believe that these kinds of books are written more out of fear than from love for mankind.

The production description explains, "in Negotiating with Evil, Reiss distills his experience to answer two questions more vital today than ever: Should we talk to terrorists? And if we do, how should we conduct the negotiations in order to gain what we want?"

What DO we want? And what would we have to sacrifice in order to keep the "peace"? Even if it is just keeping quiet about what we really believe, is it worth it?

It is interesting to consider: how do we separate Evil (the Devil) from people (who perform evil deeds)? After all, before we were with God, we were against Him ("...for you were once darkness...").

So while my first reaction is to want to avoid contact with evil-doers, I also remember Christ's example to love our enemies. I think about being a fool for Christ, and I also think about wanting to be "wise about what is good." (Rom. 16:19)

My thoughts go in circles...

How I decorated for Christmas

I know it can be boring to look at someone else's Christmas decorations, but you also find ideas in there, so I thought I would post a few photos and explanations of what I have around the apartment.

I haven't lived in one place for long enough to warrant buying specific decorations, but I like to use the little treasures I've collected over the years. No Christmas tree here as we wouldn't put presents under it anyway. But the ornaments I do have help me feel more at home and excited about the season.

Step 1. Removal

The first thing I did was take down a lot of the pictures and other decorations that had been hanging in my bedroom. I was thinking about even using the frames and replacing the images with Christmas pictures for this season, but I haven't gotten much of that done. Still, it's nice to have a different look for now. more/-

Step 2. A little hardware goes a long way

My roommate is quite handy and put up a shelf on our kitchen wall. It immediately made such a difference. I set up a bunch of trinkets on top and a few nails provided a way to hang other ornaments.





Step 3. The postcards


I ended up making 3 Christmas card chains this year: one in the kitchen, one in my bedroom over the window, and one in my doorway. The idea might be losing its originality, but it is still a way to add some decorations when you're short on time, materials, and inspiration. Maybe next year I will get around to frames or something fancier.



Step 3. Bring out the antiques

Our landlord has some heirlooms hanging around, but told us to throw them away! We haven't had the heart to throw them away yet and are putting them to use. One box was full of old Christmas tree ornaments. This was my roommate's idea:



Step 4. The plants

Who says palms aren't Christmasy? Christ wasn't born in North America (or Russia). :)



Step 5. Color schemes

Just grouping things of one color or style can make a nice little display for one area.




Step 6. Candles

Whether you're planning on lighting them or not, candles make a nice statement. Here I had some leftovers from the Advent wreath, and placed them in a basket.



So the moral of the story is: use what you have and give old things new life, especially if they remind you of a special time or person. And even more importantly, if they help you focus on Christ.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Advent opposites

I've read a lot of uplifting personal reflections on Advent this year. Cultivating Advent traditions seems like a great way to help kids (and enthusiastic adults) find meaning in the period leading up to Dec. 25th each year.

Of course, as we get older, we realize that it's not about the presents, or the yummy food, or even the beauty of the decorations. We start to listen to the words of the songs we love so much, look up the meanings of the candles, maybe abstain from the more materialistic aspects of the present-day holiday. We meditate on themes like darkness and light, God's love and glory, the circle of life.

And we find that that the period of waiting actually holds plenty of joy, itself. But what does this mean for daily life? I've been musing about the following:
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The Wait

While some Christian denominations may fast somberly during the Advent period, I find it to be a joyous time, even if toned down with thoughtful reflections.

I was watching the "Nativity Story" recently and was moved once again by the gifts of the Magi. The gold, frankincense, and....myrrh, for burial. His sacrifice.

With these contrasting themes of birth and death, I thought to myself...I like this time. It holds almost as much joy as the holiday itself. And it adds joy to the holiday, because we have waited.

What if we could wait for all of the joys of life with the same reverence, expectation, and even creativity? If we bustled around setting up our hearts and homes for something wonderful?

The challenge here is that we don't know the date. Okay, maybe we have an estimated date for the wedding, or for when the baby comes, or for when someone special is coming home. Maybe it's the last exam or a deadline at work, after which we can breathe a sigh of relief. But many of the needs we have set before the Lord will be answered in His timing, unknown to us. What then? We can't make paper chains counting down the days before a sickness will go away, or light a candle indicating how many weeks until we are done grieving for someone.

The countdown doesn't work here. So if we are to find joy in the waiting, it will only come from trusting in the Lord. After all, the OT people of faith didn't have Advent calendars, and they still managed to live amazing lives for Him.

It's the "joy in the journey" that Michael Card sings about so poignantly.


The Crown

As I was observing the above, I thought, but a greater joy is yet to come.

We fight the secularization of Christmas by adding Advent, until this period of waiting becomes a holiday in itself. We learn to enjoy the expectation.

But I caught myself wondering, is it possible to enjoy the wait too much? So much that the holiday itself loses its flavor?

Is any enthusiasm left for the Big Event, for welcoming Christ at last?

What I mean is, if we enjoy life too much, are we forgetting about the joy that awaits us in heaven? Or is joy in the Lord limitless? Can we be totally content with Him in this life AND still look forward to the joy of Christ meeting His bride?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

More nuggets from Russia

The things you learn while living in Russia! A few ideas I've encountered lately have been eye-opening.

1) Opening your mouth outside when it's cold can make you sick. I observed a mother on the street telling her crying child to close his mouth because it was cold outside! From what I figure, it's pretty annoying to have dried tears, etc. frozen onto your face. And I guess it's not very good for your vocal cords to be breathing cold air a lot. But I don't know if it really makes you sick per se.

2) You're not supposed to rub your belly when you're pregnant because it could squish the unborn baby or traumatize him or something. I didn't really understand the explanation, and I've never been pregnant, but sounds kind of silly to me. Anyone?

3) Changes in barometric pressure make people feel yucky and depressed. read more/-

I had just finished a shower singing session when I heard sobs coming from my flatmate's room. Worried that someone had died, I nervously stuck my head around the corner to where she was lying in bed.

"It hurts so bad." Okay, someone/something had broken her heart? (it happens)

"The pressure." O-kay. I have heard people walking around muttering something about "the pressure," but I never really took it seriously.

Yulia described it as feeling like she was a rag being twisted and squeezed and wrung out. I was still rather in the dark about what the problem was, but I said some of my friends got headaches (migraines) so bad they couldn't do anything. Yulia said her head didn't hurt. I still didn't understand exactly what hurt, but she said everyone always thought was making it up, so I tried to be sympathetic.

Then I read about barometric pressure headaches on the Internet, and it does seem to affect some people, although I hadn't heard about it before. I suppose the people wandering around muttering "the pressure, the pressure" really are suffering, even if the cause isn't completely understandable.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Freedom!

Well, after getting my residency permit and registration (which I never did finish writing about), I went right away the next week to apply for an exit visa. I wanted to get everything over with so I wouldn't have to see that office again for awhile.

This time, I didn't have to get in the registration line. This was a different category. How refreshing! I went in on a Friday when there was almost no line. In fact, it was a "live" line and I had to negotiate with everyone verbally to get into the office, but it worked out.

The lady gave me a two-sided application form and a little list of requirements including photocopies of passport pages, and passport photos. I left the building, planning to return the next week with the forms.

Wait a minute.

This was easy stuff, compared to what I had just done the week before. And there was no line. I kicked into "rush" mode, found the nearest photo place, filled out the form, and was back at the place just before they closed for lunch. The officer helped me answer the remaining questions and told me to come back in 20 business days. I was their last "customer" of the day.

This was so easy compared to everything else in the whole process! Or maybe my definition of "easy" had changed?

About a month later, I showed up, breezed through, as there was no line at all, and got my 3-year multi-entry exit visa! Now I can pretty much come and go whenever I want, although I'm supposed to be in Russia at least 6 months for residency.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Some of my characters and their destinies

I've probably mentioned before that there are a few kids at the orphanage that are rather skittish and seem afraid of me. This is probably a combination of the trauma of being orphaned, teenage angst, and apprehension about practicing English with a native speaker (not that I push them too hard, but maybe they expect it). Whew.

I'm often drawn to shy kids because I can identify with them, but there are times when you recognize fear and not just a quiet nature. With the boys especially you long to see them sitting up straight, making eye contact, finding something to be confident about.

There are a few teenage boys that have slowly gotten used to interacting with me over the years. One of them seems quite wounded and childlike sometimes. I've written about him before. The good news is that a family in the States is potentially adopting him and his younger sister. I'm excited that they'll be able to stay together, and that they'll have a home.

But there are others who are still on my heart. Another of the boys is positively impish, and reminds me a little of a teenage Dennis the Menace. I was chuckling while thinking about writing this post, because I realized that his name is, in fact, Denis. :) So funny and mischievous. Please, Lord, help him find his place in this world!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First day of winter in the northern capital

The view I see when walking home at 3 pm...


It's unusually cold for this time of year, but a little frost is much preferred to slush!

Shedding light

The beginning of winter feels like a roller coaster. On the one hand, I'm falling in love again with the beauty of the low winter sunlight reflecting on the snowy city. A Russian kind of winter wonderland.


On the other hand, there is the depression of the darkness. Were our bodies even designed to live this far north? Everything in me screams "no" each time I prepare to go outside. Every day during the daylight hours (from about 10-4) I force myself to look out the window or maybe take a little walk if possible, just to remind myself that daytime still exists.

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But on a positive note, I find it a gift to prepare for Christmas in this part of the world. Maybe Christ wasn't born in winter in a cold climate, but it makes waiting for the Light so meaningful when it is dark outside. Maybe my life isn't shrouded in spiritual darkness, but the metaphor works. When it is dark, we feel miserable. Therefore, I can imagine the feelings of despair when one has not yet found Christ, or when He seems far away.

If you are in a different climate, maybe God speaks to you in a different way through nature. But this is the way He is speaking to me in this place, at this time. And I'm thankful for it.