Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Shopping in Tongues - Part 1

One of the very first things we did when we arrived in Russia was shop. Immediately upon unloading our luggage at our apartment I proceeded to find the nearest little shop and purchase the basic necessities of life; eggs, milk, bread, etc. Shopping for food over here has been one of the richer cultural experiences we have had thus far. My Russian is in the...um..."developing" stage which means I can grasp anywhere from about 20-50 percent of what's going on around me in everyday life. Yes, sometimes if the right combination of words are said I can understand everything, but currently I live in a state of having a perplexed look upon my face while I try to determine what verb of motion was just used and whether or not the word for "chicken" was just used in the genitive case.

On planet Yazoo City Cristy and I had shopping down to a science.

A. Load up the car with freezer bags and head off to Wal-Mart in Jackson or Madison.
B. Stock up on a month's worth of food.
C. Come home and load up the fridge freezer and cabinets.
D. Drop into Sunflower over the next month for milk, bread and eggs and "little" things.

Here on planet Russia things are a bit different. One has two choices of the manner in which he or she wants to buy food. First of all there are little shops where one can get items. Most of the time these are little hole-in-the-wall places that sell a little bit of everything. All of the items are behind a chest-high counter usually guarded by anywhere from one to three women. Anyone who wants a product or products will line up at the counter and when it is his turn he will tell the lady behind the counter what he wants...one product at a time. The lady will go and get the one product (everyone is still waiting in line), come back, ring it up and usually say the words "shto yesho" ("what more?"). One then proceeds to say the next item he wants. If he wants a cut of meat, everybody waits while the lady goes and gets the meat out, cuts it wraps it, rings it up and again asks, "shto yesho." When one is finally done he responds "vsyo" literally meaning "all." The final total is given, money is exchanged and the next customer is called upon.

There are a number of factors that make this type of shopping experience particularly exciting for the foreigner like me who is learning the language. First of all, just like in America, there are multiple brands of the same kind of product. Some people like Lays potato chips, some like Ruffles, and some like Pringles. On top of it all, there are plain potato chips, sour cream & onion, sea salt and vinegar...you get the picture.

So the fun begins while standing in line to order from the lady behind the counter. All the while I'm going through my list of items in my head. I want milk, bread, sour cream and some cheese. Now remember, the products are behind the counter, sometimes out of site. I know the basic items that I want, but I haven't the slightest clue as to which brand or style. Suddenly my turn arrives.

Thomas: "Hello"
Lady: unimpressed with my Russian "Hello"
Thomas: "I would like some milk please."
Lady: still unimpressed "What kind?"
Thomas: "It doesn't matter." (Note: thought this little phrase would save me some stress)
Lady: even less impressed "Doesn't matter? You've got to be more specific, what kind of milk do you want?"
Thomas: "Three percent"
Lady: annoyed "Which brand and what type?"
Thomas: "It doesn't matter."
Lady: rolling eyes while walking over to the milk. She brings it back and sets in on the counter ringing it up. "What else?"
Thomas: "I would like some sour cream."
Lady: perturbed "What kind?"
Thomas: "It doesn't matter."
Lady: Gives me a dirty look

I soon learned why the phrase "it doesn't matter" was not the best one to use. When I got back to the apartment after this little transaction I discovered that I had been given condensed milk. The packaging looked just like the regular milk with the exception of the Russian word for "condensed" on the front. Trust me, "condensed" is not one of the first words you learn when you learn Russian.

So there's one way to get your products. The next way is more like the "American" way which I will tell you about in part two of this exciting drama.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Past Few Days

We've found an apartment! Praise the Lord.

The search both began and ended yesterday. We had been put in contact with an agent named Svetlana. An agent over here helps people find apartments to rent, and for said services also gets a full months rent as commission, but it's the only way to go. Svetlana proved to be very helpful in the process.

We started out going to see a place on the south side of the city just about 15 minutes walk from a metro stop. This is important as the metro is the way that we will do most of our traveling around the city. As we walked to the place Svetlana told us it was newly renovated, but it was on the 23rd floor. The "lift" (elevator) apparently work, but in all my ventures in Russia I've learned that elevators are not very reliable. But we pressed on.

We arrived outside of the building and met the owner of the apartment. He was a man, mid-forties, and the first words out of his mouth were "I didn't know there was a baby." In less than twenty seconds the transaction ended. He told Svetlana "nyet" and walked away. Svetlana explained that the man was afraid that Isaiah would tear up his newly renovated place. We recognized the Lord's hand of mercy. Even if this guy had conceded to letting us stay there, he didn't seem like the kind of guy we would want as our landlord.

Svetlana immediately suggested another place that she said was "very nice." It was also located closer to a metro stop, and we could go see it in about two hours. We agreed to meet her at the metro stop in two hours, and we headed off to that section of town.

The metro stop was Petrogradskaiya (if that means anything to you). This stop is just two stops down from the downtown area, which is great. Sure enough at 2:30 we met Svetlana and went to see the apartment. I'll summarize the details.

-It's a two room apartment (two bedrooms, and a kitchen, no living area which is normal)
-The apartment is already furnished with antiques and fine china that we are free to use.
-There's a grand piano
-The landlady is putting in a brand new bed
-It has an almost new washing machine
-The apartment has its own water heater so that when the hot water gets cut off we'll still have hot water
-The landlady is a trained musician and singer
-Her husband is a physicist who speaks English
-Both were taken with Isaiah
-The agreed to lower the rent 1000 Roubles for the first six months.

As we examined the situation, it just got better and better.

Now the price of the rent was a bit more than what we had originally wanted to spend, but we had discovered when we arrived here that all rents had gone up significantly over the past few months. But as we looked at the situation something quite amazing made itself clear. We had originally expected to have to furnish our own apartment as well as buy a washing machine. In all we were expecting to spend about $1000. When you subtract that amount from what we're spending on rent the monthly average goes down to just about what we had hoped to spend on rent each month. The Lord has truly blessed us.

So last night at 8 o'clock Will and I went out to the apartment again and signed a year lease. We made a deposit, and the rest of the money should be transferred to our Russian account by Monday. We'll then pay the rest of the first month's rent. Lord willing we will move in Tuesday or Wednesday.

The next step is to start our language studies. We've contacted one of our teachers, and our lessons should hopefully begin by the second week of August.

The Lord continues to be faithful. Thank you all so much for your prayers and love.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Life in the Burg

It's now Monday afternoon here in St. Petersburg, and most of our friends and family back in the States are either waking up or about to in the next few hours. What I can say is this, that God has been very gracious and merciful to us thus far. He continues to sustain us, and he has made our landing here in St. Petersburg to be a very "soft" one.

There is no way we could tell you everything that has been going on and everything that we've learned. So from time to time we will simply try to answer some of the big questions that come up.

Living in General

It takes a fair amount of time to just live over here. What takes an hour or two in the States generally takes three to four times that amount of time here. For example, there were four things that we needed to get the other day, a rain jacket for Cristy, a boiling kettle for boiling water, cups, and house slippers. There's a "mall" of sorts just down from us that sells these products. The raincoat goes for about $100, the boiling kettle for over $50, the cups for about $35 and the house slippers for about $10 each. These are extremely nice shops where the few Russians who make extremely nice incomes go. But most Russians do not make extremely nice incomes, so what do they do? They go the Renok.

Renoks (pronounced "ree-knock") are kind of like open-air markets where people set up little booths and sell their products. In one section of a renok you might find clothes, in another shoes, in another hardware type products. At renoks you can bargain, talk the vendor down, and if you don't like the price walk down about ten feet to the next place. The renoks seem to almost always be much much cheaper.

So here were our two options.

1. Walk down to the "mall" and buy all of our stuff for about $205, be done in about an hour and a half and come home.

2. Walk to the metro (10 minutes), take the metro ride down town (30 minutes), walk from the metro to the renok (30 minutes), spend two and a half hours looking around the renok for the items we needed.

We chose option two. "Inefficient" you say? Of course it is. But here's hour our journey turned out.

We paid about $32 for Cristy's rain coat. We found a boiling kettle for about $13, a set of glasses for about $16, and two pairs of house slippers for about $8. All total we spent about $69, and the whole ordeal took about 5 hours.

But you say "what about all of that time?"

Granted we could have saved a lot of time and energy just paying more down the road, but there are a number of things we would have missed. First of all, most Russians do not make a lot of money. By going to the renok we were going to the place where most Russians go. We got to practice a lot of Russian. I got the opportunity to bargain with a woman about Cristy's coat. In short we got to see and experience more of what real Russian life is like, and learn about these people with whom we hope to communicate.

When you email us and ask us "What did you do today" and we say "We went grocery shopping and washed clothes (that's a whole other story by the way), don't be shocked. We are learning fast that life runs at a different pace here. If we move at that pace we will move with the people who live here. If we, because we can "afford to" choose to move at our own pace we will pass them by.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ten "Random" Things

Years ago during the undergrad days I kept a "blog" that only about 7 people read. I started doing a regular post that I called "Ten Random Thing" which allowed me post information for people to read without having to worry about putting it in some nice neat paragraph replete with proper layout and pictures. Don't worry, we'll still continue to do those kinds of posts, but on a day-to-day basis being able to simply communicate a bunch of information to you without paragraph transitions will be helpful to us. So here they are in no particular order, Ten Random Things.

1. The hot water in our apartment still does not get hot, though occasionally it gets tepid. Sometimes it doesn't even come on at all.

2. The metro system is great. We've had no problem getting around on it with Isaiah. People will always give up their seat to Cristy when she's holding him.

3. We saw some Russian graffiti on the side of a building yesterday. One phrase said lyoubov yest' Bog which means "God is love." Someone had spray painted a line through that phrase and had written above it Bog nyet, which means "No God."

4. 2008 has been declared to be "The Year of the Family" in Russia. With one of our main emphasis being family ministry could the timing be any better?

5. We found a Rynok (a mostly open-air market) yesterday that sells products quite a bit cheaper than one can find in the stores. We bought a boiling kettle for 370 Roubles (about $14.57). Later in the day we saw them in the store a store for no less than 1300 Roubles (over $50.00) We are pleased.

6. When our stove is plugged in all of the burners turn on. Therefore we must unplug the stove whenever we're not using it.

7. Isaiah continues to make people smile everywhere we go.

8. The less sensible the shoe, the more popular it is.

9. We're headed to church today at 3PM. It's the same church I visited when I was here in March. We pray that this congregation might be one that we could perhaps connect with.

10. There is a delegation of about 15 people here from the PCA for the next week, exploring how the Reformed Faith can be furthered here in St. Petersburg. They are trying to find a local Reformed Church to connect with.

-The Slawsons
(Thomas, Cristy & Isaiah)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Time Has Come

I'm sitting here in bed at the home of our friends Bill and Robin Harris on the eve of our departure. My mind is so full right now it could burst. There is so much that has gone on over the past few months that I could not begin to put into words everything. This event of packing up and moving overseas ranks right up there with other major life events. On the way here I commented to Cristy that I was feeling almost like I did before our wedding day. There is an overwhelming sense of excitement coupled with an overwhelming sense of terror. Fatherly concerns roll around in my mind: "Am I going to be able to care for my family? What if this or that happens? Am I doing the right thing for their benefit?" etc.

When things get complicated I need to go back to the basics. I need the fundamentals rehashed in my mind and heart to give me clarity and focus again. So here are my points of clarity.

1. God is Good - He has never failed me yet, and he never will. He is always faithful, and will continue to be. We rest assured that he will give us no situation above what he has given us grace to endure.

2. This is Our Calling - We've prayed, sought counsel, prayed, took vision trips to Russia, prayed, pursued what burdened our heart for the kingdom, prayed (you get the picture). I have neither the time nor the energy to recount to you the events that have led to this day, but they are astounding, and nothing but the divine hand of God's providence could have brought them about.

3. We Are Blessed - In so many ways, of course, but specifically in that we have this amazing privilege to take the gospel to Russia. What an amazing thought that God is bringing to pass what he has prepared and enabled us to do.

4. Our Hope Lies Beyond - Yes, we have said some very sad goodbyes to family and friends. Yes the "what if?" thoughts have crossed my mind regarding our own lives and the lives of others. What greater comfort to know that, come what may, this life is only the beginning. We're simply preparing for eternity.

5. All Things Work Together for Good - Nothing can happen that is not part of God's perfect plan and will. Whatever frustrations may come, whatever stresses my arise, whatever moments of hardship may erupt, all is working together for good for us.

6. Jesus Wins! - It's settled. It's done. The "not yet" is as sure as the "already." The elect will be saved, Christ will return, Satan will be destroyed and the saints will reign forever and ever in the New Heavens and the New Earth, sinless, perfect and happy. Nothing can stop this. Amen.

I know that some of the points overlap, but these basics are a source of great comfort right now. I pray they are a comfort to you.


And, we're off!

In an hour we will be pulling out from Baton Rouge and heading for Atlanta! Thanks for all your prayers as we continue our journeys, this time the big one! We will post again as soon as we can, maybe from Atlanta, but definitely from St. Petersburg, to let everyone know that we arrived safely.

Packing has been a challenge, but thankfully I had some wonderful help!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Christmas in July

Well, Thomas has been working hard the last two days to make something extra special for Isaiah. But first a little history...

Whenever Thomas opens his guitar case, Isaiah gets really excited! If he's not close to his daddy he tries to get to him or at least be able to see him. He has excellent hearing; he really does hear the case being opened. Then when Thomas gets the guitar out and starts playing, Isaiah thinks that he MUST touch the guitar. He reaches for it with such strength that if I am holding him he nearly throws himself out of my arms. Thomas will sometimes let him strum the guitar, which immediately brings Isaiah incredible joy.

Well, we want to encourage Isaiah's apparent love of music. Thomas called me the other day to tell me that he had a surprise for someone else that I would really like. When I came home, he showed me the largest part of the body of an Isaiah-sized guitar. He finished it last night, including a paint job, strings, and tuning (yes, it really plays "just like Daddy's").

This morning, Thomas gave Isaiah the guitar.
Isaiah was enthralled. You would have thought that it was Christmas morning. He has played with it off and on all day with more attention than anything else that he has. Yes, he seems to LOVE his guitar.

Once I figure out how to upload videos, I'm sure that there will be video posted! We're so proud of our little man!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Visa, Visa, Visa!

We have our visas! Wooooohooooo! We are good to go as far as paperwork is concerned.

Praise the Lord.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A cry in the night

There's nothing like being awakened from a sound, coma-like sleep at 5:00am (or earlier) by the frantic cries of your child. Sometimes the cry is obviously one that can be "ignored" as a cry that will soon disappear. Other times the cry is not as easy to figure out, like this morning, for instance. Let me elaborate, as briefly as possible, I promise. Sunday morning about 5:30am Isaiah let out a terrified cry that set my heart racing. I went into his room to check on him to discover him cold and, I think, scared. I took him into our room (I didn't want to have to clean off the extra bed in his room), and he snuggled in and went back to sleep while still whimpering a bit. It was clear that something was wrong.
This morning at 4:56am Isaiah began to cry again. This time I couldn't tell what was wrong. I stood outside his door for a few minutes, knowing that as soon as I entered his room all hope was lost of him returning to sleep on his own. He stopped crying. I went back to bed. Ten minutes later he started crying again. I remained in bed this time for a few minutes, listening to my baby on the monitor. After 5 minutes or so, he stopped crying. Ten minutes later he began crying again. This time the crying had intensified to high-pitched squeals that could have been pain. After getting advice from my husband (making this decision at 5:30 in them morning is never easy), I went to check and make sure that Isaiah wasn't in a position in the bed that he couldn't change (this happens occasionally--he'll be sort of stuck against the side of his bed, and once moved, he'll stop crying and go to sleep). Well, I peeked in, trying desperately not to be noticed by my ever-vigilant 17 month old. Nothing doing. He was in a slightly awkward position, but I don't think that was the problem. He actually didn't notice me at first, but rather he heard the door close, I believe. He continued to cry. I couldn't hold out any longer.

(Sidebar--for those of you who are wondering what kind of a mother I am for letting him cry it out, I just have to say that that method has worked well for us, and until recently Isaiah has been sleeping really, really well. In the last week or two there have been some random occasions such as the one that I am describing to you.) Back to the facts...

I took Isaiah into our room. He had the "crying hiccups" (for lack of a better word) for several minutes before I felt his body relax back into sleep. His breathing was still slightly troubled, but nothing in comparison to before. A while later, maybe 15 minutes or more, he began crying in his sleep, even though I was holding him. At this point I became convinced that he was having a nightmare or some type of bad dream. I felt so helpless. I tried to comfort him and pray with him and asked Thomas to pray, too. I didn't know what else to do, and finally he calmed again to sleep for an hour and a half, I suppose.

I was thinking about this today, trying to decide what to do if/when this happens again. As I was thinking about it, I was again struck with the utter helplessness that I felt in wanting to do what was best for Isaiah, but having no idea really what that was. I started to think about how as parents we often give our children a picture of Who God is (don't worry, I'm going to be careful here!). By being trustworthy and good to our children, we can help them learn faster and better that they can trust God and that He will always do what is best for them (as we are teaching them about Him, of course). I am thankful that even though I don't know what is best for Isaiah in this situation, that God does. I pray that He will help me to know what to do. I pray that He will reveal Himself to Isaiah. I am thankful that God isn't up in heaven looking down and feeling helpless like me. Praise God for His sovereign wisdom and care for His children.

Happy 4th of July--a little late

Isaiah's second Fourth of July was spent with lots of family. We are still in Baton Rouge with Thomas' parents, and having a great time, I might add. We were able to spend the day with Thomas' parents; brother and sister-in-law and their four children; sister and brother-in-law (no children yet, but they do have a really cute dog who stayed at home); and sister-in-law's brother and his two children. And if that's not confusing enough I have a few Trivial Pursuit questions for you from the game that we played. :)

Thankfully Isaiah took a good afternoon nap, which hasn't happened in several days. We were hoping he would get to have his first water playing day (other than the bathtub, of course), but we had a great big storm. Oh well, the swim diapers will have to stay in the package a little longer, I suppose.

All in all the day was quite relaxing and enjoyable. Isaiah even had his first game of catch, throwing a ball back and forth with Grandma. Naturally, though, by the time we were able to get someone outside with a camera, he decided to be more interested in the camera than in the game of catch. We'll get him eventually!

Thursday Thomas, Isaiah and I were able to go to Slidell and part of New Orleans to see how Thomas' old stomping ground was recovering from Katrina. This was my first opportunity to see firsthand any of the areas affected by Katrina. Some areas were completely abandoned, even two years after the storm. Other areas were works in progress. A few neighborhoods were absolutely perfect; I had to remind myself we hadn't left Slidell yet.

Kind of ironically we were caught in some flash flooding. We were eating lunch in a Mexican restaurant (not a bad place to be stuck, one of my friends said), when the rain started coming down. When we were ready to leave, the rain had all but stopped, but we had to wait a little while for the street to become visible. We finally braved the rapids in our sturdy little Camry and made the rounds of Thomas' old haunts. Being able to see the way that people have persevered and fought back to have their town again reminded me of the common grace of God. I know that there are Christians in that area and God has blessed them specifically. Then, think about how God gives grace to other people because there are Christians there, too; or how God gives grace just for His glory to be proclaimed. I pray that I will be faithful to give Him the glory for all that happens in our lives, what seems to be "good" and what seems to be "bad".

Monday, July 02, 2007

Settled at last...for a little while anyway

Well, we have returned to Baton Rouge for our last bit of rest before we make the final leg of our journey. We had a wonderful visit in Yazoo City. We were able to stay with the Nott family--Isaiah's honorary Aunt Wendy, Uncle Steve and cousins Stacy, John and Luke. Their home is a wonderful place to stay, which makes sense as they are a wonderful family. We were able to truly rest and to enjoy lots of fun!

Friday we had Isaiah's last appointment with the neurosurgeon in Jackson. Dr. Lancon gave his final approval and encouragement for our move. We were also able to see Isaiah's physical therapist (Becca) and occupational therapist (Lou Ann, pictured to the left with Isaiah). We had the extra pleasure of meeting
Lou Ann's children who have been longing to play with Isaiah for some time apparently. They were so sweet and gentle with Isaiah. He seemed to like them a lot, too! He has recently started interacting more with children his own age and a little older as he has been interacting with adults and "big people" for
some time--so much fun! We returned to the Nott's late that afternoon for dinner. We had been in the habit whenever we had a meal with them to end the evening with singing. Thankfully we were able to sing with them one more time. Thomas and Luke played guitar, and we all sang some of our favorite songs. I have to admit that as we ended the evening with Thomas' and my favorite songs that I had to fight back the tears. How blessed we have been to enjoy such wonderful Christian fellowship. But that wasn't all!

Saturday Thomas and the Nott men "went to war", paintball war that is. A friend of Thomas'
has built this paintball course on some of his family land. Lots of boys were able to talk proudly of "battle wounds" later that evening (I'll let Thomas have the pleasure of describing that event) as we gathered for a meal that the Notts hosted for some of our friends that evening. We enjoyed some spectacular food and some more running around as some people started a game of ultimate frisbee. I chose to just sit and visit. I was able to spend some time with several people, but especially Becca (pictured far right with Isaiah and the red cup) who was able to make the trip from Jackson and Michelle and her girls (that's us to the immediate right with Michelle's oldest girl Ella and youngest girl Savannah).

Sunday we went to First Pres in the morning. We were able to say goodbye to everyone there after the
service, and yes, I cried. That night we went to Second Pres to say goodbye to our friends there. Yes, I cried again.

Monday we said goodbye to the Notts.
I'm not even going to tell you, you can guess on your own what I did. As we drove away Thomas said, "It's our own fault. We chose to love these people!" I used to avoid such painful goodbyes by emotionally pulling away from people as I sensed the time drawing near. I thought that pulling away would be better for me, but now I think differently. Lord willing, I will see most of these people again, but some will have moved on in different ways when we return. I want to have every possible opportunity to tell people how important they are to me, how special they are and how God has used them in my life. I look forward to the future, but I want them to know how I will always treasure the time God has given me with them. I also can't wait to make more memories with them as God so ordains!

We still have a few more goodbyes to make, and
I don't want to even think about how blubbery I will be as we make them to our family. But as one of my dear friends says, "Glory of God, good of others"--I'll remember the plan that God has for us, a plan of good and not of evil to give us a hope; and Lord willing, we will be telling the Russian peoples of that glorious hope.

And here you see how exhausting all these goodbyes are! We have fun, but whew! :)