Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmastime is Here

Or rather it was.
Russians don't celebrate Christmas like the west. Here, the big holiday is New Year's and when people do celebrate Christmas is pretty much a religious holiday and is celebrated on January 7th. (The Orthodox church still goes by the old calendar) however people here are aware of the Western Christmas tradition.

I told Joel the other day that the last time I was in Russia I felt like I had no holidays because Russian holidays are different than American holidays and I didn't have tradition for Russian holidays. He made the good point that I now have the advantage of being able to celebrate all the holidays. This means that my holidays started December 24th and extend until January 7th. I know you're all jealous.

So how did I pass American Christmas? Well, it was interesting times, that's for sure. I had decided that since December 24th was Christmas eve, I was taking the day off to celebrate.  (When you work for God you can do that sort of thing. You know, decide when you're going to have time off and such. Yeah it's pretty much awesome) The only problem was, I wasn't sure how to celebrate. You know, since stuff here doesn't start for another week. Usually when I have a day off I'll do something like wander in the city or go window shopping or something but since this was Christmas eve, I wanted to do something...well... Christmas-y. Like watch a Christmas movie in English or something. The only problem: I have no idea where to do that sort of thing in St. Petersberg. I was rescued however from complete Christmas blues by having connections.

There are three nice young computer guys who attend the discussion club I lead at American Corners. The last time I lead discussion club, they all left me their email addresses in case I ever had some technical problems. I had gathered from things they'd said that they are all three very interested in English and have been to many English events in the city. So I pulled out their email addresses the week before Christmas and basically said "Hey, I'm looking for something to do for Christmas eve. Any ideas?"

Not long after sending the email out, I got a reply saying the American Council for Education (Or something like that) was having a Christmas party, they were going and I was welcome to come. I agreed and I also invited Marina from church. So on the appointed day we met and off we went.

It was epic times. We watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and played getting to know you games and other silly little games and it was just fun. I had been a little worried that I would still have to feel like I was "on" or "working" but I didn't at all. I got to relax, kick back, laugh and almost forget that I'm in Russia. Afterwards, our little group wandered around looking for a suitable cafe in which to hang out. We settled on Pizza Hut which turned out very well. I hadn't had "real" pizza since coming here and so it was nice to have some. We all shared a pizza and I complemented it with "Unlimited Lemonade" Yeah, it was a good night. Not only that, but it was great to just hang out at the cafe and talk about all kinds of different subjects. Even though I was in a Pizza Hut in Russia, speaking Russian, and surrounded by foreignness, it just felt... normal. Like "This is what I do, it's just in a different place and language now."

I find it a lot easier to reconcile into one person who I am this time around. On exchange there were times I felt completely Russian. Here, I know that I'm different. But it's okay. I'm not an American. I'm not Russian. I can operate with ease in both cultures. I'm a Christian woman with a U.S. passport who lives in St. Petersburg and speaks Russian. But also English. That's who I am and honestly, I think I have the best of both worlds. Actually, being in St. Petersburg makes me feel more like a "citizen of the world" rather than of one country (Maybe it's cliche, but it's true)

Christmas day, our Choir performed at the end of the church service. It was my first experience actually performing with the choir and so that was fun. After church, I was invited for Christmas dinner at the Petty apartment. That was a lot of fun and again, I could kind of kick back and embrace my American self a little more. We were also visited by Grandfather Frost who brought presents for the three Petty children. Here in Russia, children kind of have to earn their presents. Grandfather Frost comes and the kids have to guess riddles, sing and recite poetry for him. It's really cute. To my surprise, Grandfather also had a present for me. It was a heart pillow with huggy arms to remind me that I am loved by God and by people here. It was the perfect present.

After our meal (which was also attended by Zhenya, Sergei and baby Varya) and some fun conversation, we all returned to our respective homes. I spent the rest of the evening watching "A Christmas Story" and crocheting.

All in all, I would say it was a very successful Christmas and I immensely enjoyed it. Now I'm gearing up for round two as I'm attending the New Year party that's taking place at the Church on Saturday. Then after that it's off to Ukraine! Busy busy times! 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Everyday Life

I walked to the Gulf of Finland today. I know, right? Let me say it again. I walked to the Gulf of Finland today. Why? Just because I could. Well that and because I drank half a liter of Coke at McDonald's and wanted to walk off the caffeine. Speaking of McDonald's it's always crowded in Russia. I was sitting at a table enjoying just being by myself when three teenage boys asked if they could sit there too since there was no room. I am not exaggerating this either. Each boy had on his tray a Big Mac, A Big and Tasty, Six Chicken Nuggets, a Medium Fry and a medium drink. And those sandwiches are about the same as they are in the states. Yeah. It was ridiculous. I told them so too. Or rather I told them we didn't even eat like that in America (And Americans stereotypically eat a lot) The one young man's reply was that this was Russia. Can't argue with that.

I feel like my point in writing all this is that living here is a place of contrasts. I'm not just talking about the culture, but my point is that on the one hand it's everyday life. I brush my teeth, I buy groceries, I do laundry, I go to work. On the other hand, I'm doing it in Russia. Not just in Russia, but in St. Petersburg. So the contrast is you have things like "I went walking on Nevsky prospect today, I went to Kazan Cathedral, Oh yeah, that's the Palace Square where the Hermitage is. No biggie."

I don't always write about the big things that go on, because honestly for me it's more about the every day stuff. It's about working with Sergei, Galina Mikhailovna and Marina to prepare dinner for Poisk. It's about sitting with Sasha, baby Ilya and Marina just having a nice conversation. The little everyday things. And it may sound cool because it's happening in Russia but people are people and somethings never change.

For example, yesterday I was leading a discussion about American Christmas Traditions at the American Corner (Which is a place where people interested in learning and practicing English can go and attend different events such as movie showings, reading clubs, singing clubs etc. to help them practice) At the end of said discussion I had one gentleman inform me that his son was 26 and basically told me I should marry him. And I thought that sort of thing wouldn't happen once I left the states. Guess I was wrong. ha ha.

I think maybe that's the whole point of my sporadic blog posts. I feel like when I was on exchange, I tried my best to show not only the awesome cool parts of exchange, but the seamy underbelly as well. It's the same with this mission work. Yeah it's so cool to be like "Hey! I'm serving God overseas and look at all the cool stuff I get to do!" But a lot of times missionaries don't talk about how hard it can be. How lonely. As I told one of my friends from college the other day, I have never felt so close to God yet at the same time so far away from him. It's kind of a weird feeling.

Anyway, I don't want to end on a depressing note. Feeling down isn't something that happens everyday. And it's something that happens a lot less here than it did in Yakutsk. Not only that but I'm a lot better at handling it this time around. I just have nice long chats with God and try to find the good in being here. Honestly, this experience so far as been an amazing one and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dialogue Reading With Pasta Salad and Strange Little Girls

Yup, the title says it all. It was just a really good day.

It started with me going to Natasha's school. I've been showing up there about once a week to interact with different English classes, usually Natasha's. The first few times I went, I gave presentations. Now, I read out loud and do dialogues with the kids so they can hear a native speaker. It's always interesting times. Today however, I was invited specially.

The 8th grade English class was putting on a short version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Alla Vasilevna, one of the English teachers called me over the weekend to invite me. I said I would come and was so glad I did. You could tell the kids put a lot of effort into memorizing their English lines and practicing the emotions and things. Although sometimes they smashed the English words together so they were hard to understand, they did an amazing job. It was hilarious and I really enjoyed myself.

After the play, I had tea with Natasha and then I attended her 5th grade class. We read about "My Favorite Town" they were really excited to get to read with me. The best part about class today was that the classroom we were in is one of the math classes and the math teacher was sitting in the back grading papers. Afterwards, she came up and was talking to Natasha and I, asking about me. The woman wasn't sure why I wasn't properly interacting with the students and things. Natasha explained that I was a guest. The woman didn't get it. Finally Natasha explained that I wasn't a teacher. I was a guest and friend from America who was helping in class today. The woman thought this was interesting. She said that she thought I might be foreign but then she wasn't sure because I said a few things in Russian. So that made me feel good.

The day was also good because I successfully made an interesting sort of macaroni salad. I've been experimenting with cooking since coming here and am surprised how much I enjoy it. I think because if I were cooking at home, I'd follow recipes all the time. Here, I don't so it gives me a chance to be creative and see what does and doesn't work. My salad was macaroni, cucumber, crab and mayo. I was pretty proud of it.

Finally, the day was good because of this evening. On Tuesday nights a group of Christian Businessmen meet in our church building. Generally, they meet in the room that's my "office" so I have to be out before they come at 6:30. Today on my way out, I forgot to take the tupperware with me to put salad in to take home to eat tomorrow. So I was waiting for the meeting to get done so I could get salad and go home. The thing is, they were taking forever. There was a little girl there this evening with her mom and she was wandering up and down the halls and playing in the nursery. At one point I was like "Hi!" but she didn't say anything. So I went about my business.

The next thing I know, I'm in the kitchen playing Bejeweled on my iPod and I feel these eyes on me.  The little girl is literally standing in the doorway just staring at me. And Staring. So I look up and smile. She smiles back, I go back to my game, but I can feel her continuing to stare at me. It was really awkward. I was finally like "Can I help you?" She didn't respond.

So then I smiled at her a few more times and went about my business. At one point she was kind of following me around and so I turned around and teasingly scared her. Then I felt bad. I wasn't trying to make her go away, I was just playing.

Eventually, I asked her if she'd found the toys in the nursery. She said yes. I asked her if she wanted a cookie. She said no. Finally, she got up the nerve to ask me what my name was. I told her. I then asked her grade and name. She told me. Then she ran off. I continued getting my stuff together. A few minutes later, she was back asking me to repeat my name. I did and she ran off again. By this time I was pretty much ready to go and had successfully gotten my salad packed up. As I was walking past the business men, the little girl was talking to her mom and was like "That's Abigail"

So I stopped to talk to the mom and she remarked on the uniqueness of my name. I explained it was a Bible name and then she must've heard my accent because she was like "Oh, you're not Russian?" "No, I'm American. I work in the church." "Oh, I see. Your Russian is really good." "Thank you." We said it was nice to meet each other and then off I went to find Luka and Natasha with whom I usually walk home.

On our way home, we found ourselves behind a group of the businessmen including the woman and the little girl. The woman again complemented my Russian and asked how I knew it so well. I explained that I had lived in Yakutia. "Oh. Wow." Yeah. Saying that usually gets interesting comments.

But in any case, all of these things combined put me in a really good mood. I felt the need to share it because I feel like I'd been kind of "blah" of late. I'm also kind of excited because I'm working from home tomorrow. I have to do a presentation about Christmas for the American Corners on Saturday and I'm using Prezi which doesn't seem to like the wi-fi connection at the church. So am going to do it here. This also gives me an excuse to continue to rest my bruised knee which I hurt on Sunday. But anyway, life is good.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Touching God

I can't pinpoint one event. Maybe it's because I've been praying more. Maybe it's because I've been reading mass amounts of Bible every day. Or maybe it's just because. But I can tell you when it happened. Last night.

I've had a rough couple weeks. I've been sad, missing home, God felt far away. I got to the point where I was writing psalms asking God why he brought me here only to leave me. I daily questioned why I came and what I was doing. I figured if David could question God, so could I.

Last night I felt it. It wasn't like a thunderbolt realization from on high, but all of a sudden there was this deep sense of God's presence. I could feel him surrounding me, next to me like an actual person. A sense of fullness like I have never experienced before in my life. Words don't do it justice.

I weep from the beauty of it though. Because all my life I thought I'd given it up to God. All my life, I thought I had a good relationship with him. And in a sense, I did. But everything I ever thought I had pales in comparison to what I have now. It's like all my life I'd been satisfied eating vanilla ice cream and suddenly I learn there are other flavors. Once I've tried them, I never want to go back to plain old vanilla.

Suddenly these things I've been hearing my entire life make much more sense. "Taste and see that the Lord is good." I have truly tasted his richness. I truly understand what it means to say "He's everything I need." because he is. I feel warm and I feel safe. It's like he's permanently got his arms wrapped around me.

And now everything is a lot easier. It no longer matters if I miss people back home. If something were to happen and I would never hear from them again would I be sad? Yes. But it would be okay. Because of this richness. Because of this feeling, I have been able to deal with some things that I've needed to take care of for a while but hadn't truly given up to him. It no longer matters that I'm far away, if I'm not married, if I'm doing something different with my life. Because of his Spirit, I am able to face anything. It's no longer something I'm just reading about in the Bible. I'm part of it.

I never want to lose this feeling. I know, there are up and down parts of life. There are times when things come and go, but now that I've experienced it, I thirst... no... I ache for more. For that living water. Because if this relationship is like this now, imagine what it would be like in a few months or a few years.

I have briefly touched the presence of God. I have tasted heaven. If I had joy in him before, my joy is now tenfold. If I had peace in him, my peace is now a hundred fold. I would gladly go through this again; This loneliness, this wondering, a thousand times if it would mean that I would be able to remain like this, in the presence of God. Because that is all I truly want.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

2 months?!

I'm starting my third month here. Which is kind of weird for me actually. As Zhenya N. put it at the women's meeting yesterday. "You've only been here two months? It seems like you've been here a lot longer. You're already one of us."

When Americans come for example it's kind of interesting. I do things like help interpret and such, but I'm not actually one of them because I live here. I belong here. I know people,  I work here, I'm part of the rhythm of life. It feels like I've been here a lot longer, but not in a bad way. I keep busy. For the most part, things are going pretty well. I mean, I have down times of course. I'm at that point. The point where I get tired of people, tired of giving, tired of not always understanding, tired of not getting jokes, tired of sometimes being treated like I don't know anything. But this too shall pass.

What's been happening? Well, generally the same old same old. I study English with a few people, the other day I did a transcription of a clip in English for a woman who's a Christian and teaches English. It's the same woman whose class I visited during Thanksgiving where I had a great time. I'm going back to visit them again on the 12th. Hoping to make some connections that way.

I volunteered to lead a discussion group at the American Corner this Saturday and next. Basically, people who want to practice English come and participate in the various events they have. This week I'm doing a presentation about myself. Next week I'll probably present about Christmas. Again, trying to find ways to make connections with people.

I'm going to be taking a trip to Ukraine for purposes of visa acquisition in January. Going to leave right after the holidays and have a little holiday of my own. Honestly though I'm rather stressed about having to go. It's traveling on my own in a foreign country I'm not used to. For two weeks. Hoping to find some people to connect with through the church who will help me out with a place to stay. We shall see how that goes.

The good news is that I'm not too terribly upset about not being home for the holidays. I mean, yeah it's kind of sad that I'm not going to be there, but it's also okay. I mean, I'm on my own, don't have a family or anything and honestly in some ways I'm not much of a holiday person anyway. So it doesn't really feel like they're coming. And the holidays are a little different when you're an adult anyway.

That's the other thing. It's fun being an adult, but sometimes it's just a pain. Today for example. I realized that I'm out of food pretty much. It's like "Aw man, now I have to go shopping and then I have to fix myself food" Sometimes I just don't feel like it's convenient to stop to eat. Unfortunately, eating is kind of a necessity. It would be nice if I could get some kind of IV or drink so that I wouldn't have to stop and fix something.