Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Sad Week (in this part of the world)

I will continue my Armenia series very soon, but I needed to post something about world events, to hold space during this time and to look back on in the future.

I go back and forth between being heartbroken for Ukrainians and then for Russians. Amid the pain caused by the reality of war and violence, there is the deep ache of a seeing a generation of progress threatened and hopes for the future dashed. 

Here is my post about our visit to Kyiv (preferred Ukrainian spelling), in 2013-just one year before conflict broke out. This is the one with photos. Having been there made it even more surreal picturing what was happening. Being in Ukraine back then did have more of a European feel, but it ended up going off in a different direction.

We have visited Odessa as well, though I don't think I posted about it at the time. Andrei visited the Black Sea as a child. I think it's hard for us Americans to get our heads around what it was like to live in the Soviet Union as well as live through the changes that came afterward. What do the borders feel like? Who is a foreigner? Does it feel at all like traveling through different regions of the U.S.?

Both countries in this conflict (as well as some of the neighboring countries involved) have endured so much suffering through the years at different times, but I was personally called to serve in Russia. Even though I've studied Ukrainian history as well, it's Russia that has been on my heart since 1996. And the local needs as this tragedy unfolds will be different. I can tell you that Russian people are broken right now. Our hands here are tied just the same as everyone's across the ocean. I remember discussing with ministry partners how Russia gets hit by turmoil again and again and again, and you can go through so many of the Psalms, praying them with Russia in mind. 

We are nowhere near the border with Ukraine. We live in St. Petersburg, the Hero City of Leningrad, which once endured a 900-day siege (Kiev and other cities in Ukraine actually got the Hero City title later as well). I know so many brave and resilient people, which is needed in a land whose citizens often experience oppression. We anticipate hard times once more, but the needs aren't as tangible and obvious as donating to refugees (which is so needed right now for Ukrainians). There will likely be financial hardships, though, as the world imposes sanctions on Russia. For now, we look forward to coming out of Covid quarantine in order to reconnect with our local friends and support each other emotionally and spiritually. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

Where were you when...? (Olympics edition)

 If there's anything that makes an expat nostalgic or homesick, it's the Olympic Games.

As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, I amassed a set of memories from before there were Internet spoilers and the ability to rewind (besides via VHS). It was one of the few times where family members of all ages would watch TV together. It was (often) live action. And as an American, the NBC Olympics commentary and theme song will always be tied to those memories. 

We rolled our eyes at the commentating and "behind the scenes" extras, but the heartfelt stories made it even more interesting to watch. We witnessed not only the breaking of world records, but "firsts" from certain countries and regions, great comebacks, and performances poignantly dedicated to a loved one's memory.

Sometimes I go down a rabbit-hole of "where are they now?" of former Olympic champions and their contemporaries, following one Wikipedia link after another to jog my memory and get caught up.

The first event that I remember must have been the Calgary winter Olympics in 1988. I can still hear the music and imagine my 5 year old self running in when the ad break was over. The next ones are easier to remember: Barcelona, Lillehammer, Atlanta...

My best friend then was a gymnast (still is) and there were lots of role models for little girls in the sports world. On an early trip to Russia, someone asked (through an interpreter) whom kids looked to as role models in American culture. Athletes were the first group that came to my mind. The Atlanta Olympics were actually in 1996 around the time of our first Russia trip, with the bombing happening on our way home.

Then there were the years when I didn't have TV access, although my mom got to go to Salt Lake City in 2002! It was fun hearing about that from my dorm room.

I remember watching the marathon in Greece when the crazy spectator ran out and spooked the competitors. That was so unexpected and upsetting!

Then I moved to St. Petersburg, where the lady I was staying with the first few years actually did have a TV. We rarely turned it on, though we sometimes watched old movies on VHS. One year I came back from Christmas break to find her daughter home on break for an exam session. It turned out she was a big sports fan and I remember her raving about the "biatlon" (biathlon), a previous unknown sport to me. We are all good friends now, by the way...the daughter is married and lives in Montenegro.

There was the Michael Phelps year when I was home visiting and my sister gave me some swim goggles for my birthday, after we visited the YMCA pool a total of one (1) time to get in shape.

For the next 2 Summer Olympics, I had new babies! You'd think it would have been the perfect excuse to sit on the couch watching sports. But somehow the timing was never right. My days consisted of chasing birth certificates, diapers, and lactation consultants.

(Insert intermission here for the World Cup hosted in Russia in 2018, which was fun! We didn't watch a single match but got to see the fan zone and visitors from around the world infiltrating our city.)

Then we got to 2020....delayed to 2021. I was getting that itch to get in on the Olympics action, so I did some research and fiddled around with my internet settings until I was able to get some streaming coverage, which I did again for the Winter Olympics this month.

To be honest, though, the viewing experience just isn't the same as back in the 80s. Is it the news spoilers? The computer instead of a TV screen? The company? With the option to replay some events, I find myself unable to commit to a couch-sitting session. There are plenty of ads to preserve that opportunity to grab a snack or fold some laundry. But there isn't that same feeling of everyone who's awake watching the same event together.

What controversy? My son and I have read all about Ancient Greece and the first Olympics for his classwork. The Olympics were supposed to be a time when wars temporarily ceased. Alas, that tradition has not been preserved. :( And everyone has their reasons for taking one position or another.

Next time, I do still plan to try to get some access, in order to create some new Olympics memories.

Do you have special Olympics memories? Do you remember any of the ones I mentioned?

Monday, February 14, 2022

Border trips in the time of Covid

We still do border runs every 6 months, which has been complicated by Covid-19! In 2020, foreigners' documents were extended so we were able to skip it once or twice. In 2021 (one year ago), we went to the U.S. for new visas...that's another story.

In November (2021), we'd been back for 6 months and needed to cross the border again. Sadly no Finland or Estonia this time as the border rules were a bit ambiguous. We really miss being able to easily access neighboring countries by train or bus! Finland was not accepting the Russian vaccine for entry, and Andrei didn't have an Estonian visa so we weren't sure he could get in with just a Finnish one. In non-Covid times, I could go across with the kids by myself. But I really didn't want to get stranded without Andrei.

Also, Russia requires a fresh PCR for entry. Now, if you are going out and in within 24 hours, how do you get the PCR test for re-entry? Many were simply getting the PCR test in Russia and using the same one to get back into Russia. Sounds easy enough, but could have picked up Covid during those few hours out of the country. We decided to call border control to confirm, and they said we needed to get a fresh PCR test from outside of Russia. Of course if we hadn't called, we might have just done it no problem.

So we determined that the safest thing would be for the 4 of us to find a visa-free country and spend a night while waiting for a fresh PCR.

With time ticking, we started hunting for direct flights to Georgia, Armenia, Serbia, etc. The cheapest direct flights left were for Yerevan (Armenia), so Andrei went ahead and made a booking.

When we came home from getting PCR tests (making it just as the lab was about to close), we had received a message that the booking had been changed. No big deal...but a short time later, it was canceled. So I took to my computer to redo the booking.

Upon check-out, my bank card was rejected. I tried again with another card and it worked out.

The next morning, one of the flights was canceled and the other wasn't. I went ahead and canceled the second one since it was within the 24-hour grace period. Now we were back at square one and needed to leave the next day so that we could be back in time for Andrei to go to work the next day.

Andrei and I had both lost track of our booking attempts, but our bank accounts were being charged each time. I looked at my balance and saw a PENDING notice even though my purchase had been rejected. Andrei was getting texts about hundreds of thousands of rubles being withdrawn. He transferred the last of our funds onto his card and set out for the airport.

The airport is pretty far by public transportation, 90 minutes or so. Andrei got there and went to the airline offices to ensure that he was making a legitimate booking. I kept my phone nearby in case he needed to call to verify something.

At that moment, my ringer stopped working. I have no idea what was going on, but my phone was silent, even though it was not in silent mode. The sounds in other apps were working. By the time I finally picked up my phone to look at it, Andrei had called 10-15 times. Of course we were both upset! But he hadn't given up and was able to book the tickets one-way. 

After that, he went to the other airline (a different one) to book the return ticket. He was successful...and it was cheaper than booking online, though the other charges had not been refunded yet.

My phone continued to not ring, probably up until the moment when Andrei arrived home, after dark, having spent the entire day at the airport. And we had to be there again the next day for our flight!

To be continued....

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

When there's too much on your mind

 Our conference ended yesterday and I need to catch my flight home. But what time is my flight, and from which airport? I open up my email to check, but search terms like "flight" and "airport" yield no results, which is weird considering not even previous trips show up.

I know there was something about taking a ferry to another airport that has direct flights. But I can't confirm since I don't have my travel itinerary. Meanwhile, the bus is leaving now.

I get on the bus and explain the situation to the driver, who answers in broken English (though I'm not sure where I am). He hands me a self-administered Covid test, but I have to decide when to take it. If my flight is today, I have to do it now. If my flight is tomorrow, I'll have to do a repeat. Maybe the driver can give me an extra? The bus is already moving and it's going to be pretty hard sticking this thing in my nose without incident. Maybe if I wait for a red light. Some passengers have already done theirs...

By now, I'm pretty sure I'm heading in the right direction. Instead of a ferry, I'm taking a bus to the next closest airport, which will get me a direct flight home. I just hope they will have me in the system since I don't have any flight confirmation. The guy next to me says that he can't find his, either!

The trip coordinator comes over to me, leans down, and hisses "where are my lunch receipts?" He keeps mixing me up with someone else and thinks I'm the one who made purchases for the group. I tell him he's mistaken.

A door opens and I hear running footsteps. My son is awake and we've all overslept. I'm exhausted from these types of dream segments! 

June 2022

So, we are 4 months into what's happening in our part of the world...though, of course, we live pretty far from the border!   Currently:...