January 25, 2012 from Stacy

Another week in the life of Russia...

We attended a cultural event on Saturday night with all of the missionaries in the district as well as some branch members and investigators.  It was a chorale concert in the Philharmonic Hall entitled "Ave Maria."  We listened to 12 or so different renderings of Ave Maria, the melody we're most familiar with in both Schubert and Bach arrangements and several other renditions that were completely unfamiliar, quiet, and slow!  The group of 6 men and 6 women also performed "The Prayer," and although it wasn't Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, it was still pleasant to hear a more contemporary song with some English lyrics! One thing that was particularly interesting was that the audience applauds all together in rhythm at the end of each song like you would at a hoe down or something.  Maybe that is common in many countries but the first time we had experienced it.  Another interesting thing was that at the end of a soloist's performance, people would come up out of the audience to give them flowers instead of waiting until the end of the entire production like we are more accustomed to.  One of our Russian friends told us that formerly choral performances were allowed but only singing, not any instrumental accompaniment.  This performance had piano accompaniment, as well as taped music for a couple of the numbers.

We spent some time with President Zolotov and his family.  They are so warm and welcoming of us.  We had some things to discuss for an upcoming District meeting, so they invited us to their home to talk and cook Russian Borsch!  This is the second time we have eaten in their home; the first time President cooked us Plov, a rice and chicken dish, and it was delicious.  He also cooked the borsch with the help of Elder Peterson.  Sister Zolotov and I looked at pictures of her trip to America to visit her sister who lives in Seattle.  When we were called into the kitchen for soup, we sat and enjoyed a delicious meal.  As soon as we were done with the Borsch, on came the next course of mashed potatoes, meatballs, and a cabbage salad very similar to coleslaw.  I had no idea they were making all that food.  They always serve from the stove, and I had to repeatedly ask for smaller portions.  It was all very delicious; they just eat large portions, and I was completely satisfied after the soup!  Sister Zolotov and their daughter Soosha speak English so they are very helpful to translate.

Yesterday was our first "solo" meetings without interpreters!  That was interesting!  We understand some of what people say, but we seem to be able to communicate somewhat between our limited Russian and their incredible patience.  We show pictures of our family and they show us pictures of theirs.  Ken is a good map reader and has been able to find our way around town.  I don't have a clue so I just follow.  Tonight we weren't so lucky with our meetings.  We went to meet some missionaries in New City, and when we all showed up for our scheduled meeting, we discovered it was an Amway presentation--hilarious!!   So we just left and went out on the street to find a bus to our next destination.  However, the bus number we needed wasn't coming so after waiting for 15 minutes in -15C temperatures, we called it a night and came home.  That's the first time we have been cold.  Our toes were numb, our fingers were cold, and our noses were running!  But at least we were able to get onto a warm bus to ride home, unlike the proselyting missionaries who would be out in it the rest of the night.      

We splurged and went to McDonald's this week.  We each had a burger, drink, and shared some fries for $13.  Unfortunately, they don't have a value menu, but it was good for a change.  McDonald's isn't our favorite anywhere, but, hey, it was American!
We had some interesting marshutka rides last week.  Marshutkas are the 12-passenger vans that we use to transport from one city to another.  The first one we got on, a gentleman asked us if we spoke English.  It didn't take long to discover he was quite drunk.  We tried to ignore him, but he kept tapping us and wanting to talk.  He said he'd get off the bus with us and we could go together.  We kept saying "NYET," but he persisted.  When we got off the bus, we had to walk quickly to lose him.  I don't think he would have hurt us or anything; it's just obviously better to avoid those kind of people.  Later that day, we were on another marshutka with the elders in the city, and a rather loud and rude drunk passenger spoke very harshly at the one elder to tell him to be quiet and leave people alone.  Elder Peterson was looking for something to use to knock the guy with just in case things got ugly, but they didn't.  Then on the way home that night a bunch of drunk teenagers got on the bus.  I don't know what was up with that day!  We generally haven't had any problems with the people; we must have been abundantly lucky that day!

We have been in the mission field for one full cycle (6 weeks) already!  It's hard to believe!  We are definitely finding our way around on the busses and discovering where the cheaper places to buy certain things are.  Our vocabulary is increasing somewhat, but we still don't understand much of what people are saying.  We serve with 8 other missionaries in this geographical area of which four were transferred this week to different areas.  So half of our district is new.  We are looking forward to meeting and serving with these new missionaries.  Both of the missionaries in our specific town are new and are already so helpful.  They are proficient Russian speakers, one of them having his college degree in Russian and Eastern Europe Studies.  They are helping us with the language which is so great.  We also have a couple of Russian girls from the church who help us.  They came over on Monday, and we learned words around the house.  So now we have green post-it notes stuck all over the house to help us learn the words.  We also Skype with our MTC tutors daily.  Geez, you'd think we'd be starting to learn something!!  We just need to be patient and continue to work harder than ever.  The missionaries say it took them several months before they started to grasp the language and they have young minds!  Us old fogies are going to take a long time!

The sun has been shining all week which is such a blessing with temperatures at -15C or -20C.  It is starting to stay light longer, probably similar to where many of you are.  It still doesn't get light in the morning until close to 9 though.  On our walk to the store today we were noticing the two-foot ice layers that we're walking on.  Some areas have been cleared, and so you can see how thick the ice is.  I don't know if I'm looking forward to the thaw or not; it will be messy!

January 18, 2012 from Stacy

We have met with a couple of less-active members this last week who we enjoyed meeting. One sister, Anotina, is a seamstress and had repaired Elder Ross' suit pants so we went and picked them up. She loves to cook and talked to us about some wonderful Russian dishes she wants to prepare for us. We are hoping to go back next week and help with that. Her husband Uri was there, too. An interesting thing about him is that his voice sounds EXACTLY like Darth Vader, and he wasn't talking through a voice enhancer! I shared a spiritual thought and then Anotina offered the closing prayer. There was such a wonderful spirit in the room as she humbly bore a simple prayer. We would love to see her come back to church and hope that warmer days will help her weak knees be able to do so.

We also met with Ana and her family who live in Old City.  Ana is Armenian.  She is married to Karin; they have two children, a 12-year old boy and 8-year old girl.  Ana has been a member for a couple of years but hasn't been to church for a while.  She did come with her daughter this last Sunday so that was awesome.  We had an instant connection with her and know we will grow to become good friends.  Her first language is Armenian and that is what she speaks in her home.  We have found the Armenian people to be so friendly, and she is no exception.  Her husband has recently lost his job after 20 years so they are down on their luck right now.  They graciously offered us herbal tea and fruit, a common custom here, which was very nice.  This is the first family we have visited who live in a single dwelling.  Karin expresses interest in the church but has for some time.  Maybe his current situation will provide an opportunity to become more humble and want to make a change for himself and his family.  

We had our second Family Home Evening with the Young Single Adults (YSA) last night.  Our attendance doubled from the previous time (from 4 to 8) so that was great!  We played a couple of games, one of the YSA  prepared a spiritual thought, and we ate a disgusting cocoa fudge cake (all the recipes are trial and error here:)).  Our goal is to have 15 YSA attending regularly by the end of the year.  They enjoy being together and have said it would be better to meet every other week instead of once a month.  So I will search for better treat recipes along with ones you can eat with your fingers!  Every spoon and bowl in the house was used!

We had some additional guests for Family Home Evening last night, as well as for dinner.  The Area doctor and his wife were in our area touring medical facilities.  The zone leaders, who are assigned in our city, called and asked if this couple could come over and stay for FHE.  A couple of their appointments had fallen through, and they didn't want to just go to their hotel for the rest of the day.  Of course!  Come on over!  The elders didn't have time to wait for me to cook dinner (hmmm, what to fix at the last minute?) so we gave them a PB&J sandwich while throwing together pasta goulash for the rest of us.  Not soon after, the doorbell rang, and it was the elders from our neighboring city and their investigator arriving for FHE--an hour early and just in time for dinner:)!!  So two for dinner quickly turned into 7, and we experienced the miracle of the two loaves of bread and five fishes!  We ate what there was with enough to spare (knowing that everyone would have eaten more if they weren't so polite).  Sister Sartori, our Mission President's wife, mentioned to me when we arrived the principle of being flexible, and I'm learning to embrace that!

We have had quite a bit of snow in the last couple of days--6 to 7 inches, and it is still flurrying.  We have seen many fender benders and cars being towed out of places here and there because they get stuck.  This is the first substantial snowfall since we have been here which just adds to the piles.  It doesn't melt so the piles that are here have just remained here from whenever they had snow last.  I braved the storm to shop for an electric hand mixer, rubber spatula. whisk, fridge magnets, and wooden spoon.  My exciting find was powdered sugar!  It is not easily available in the stores!  I have a member and her mom who speak English and are always so willing to help us.  They take us on our shopping sprees because they know where to go to find things.  It's not a one-stop shop here like WalMart!!!  Actually, it's just business as usual here.  Moms are out with their kids on sleds and babies in strollers.  You don't wait for a nice day--they're all nice!!!  I have become quite fascinated with the snow babushka in front of our building.  From what I can tell, she chisels and shovels snow from about 5:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. every day.  She has a hoe-sized tool that she uses to pound the ice which is a good 6 or seven inches deep.  One day she cleared an area of about a 4-foot square.  Today you can't even see where it was.  She uses a common snow shovel just like the ones you have hanging in your garage to shovel snow from the street.  If there's just a dusting of snow, she sweeps it with a broom.  I don't know how she holds up day after day; my back aches just watching her!  None of the sidewalks are shoveled or plowed.  We wear our "Yak Traks" over our boots to help from slipping, but it can still be real slippery.  Elder Peterson says I walk like a turtle, but I'm paranoid of falling and breaking something.  So all of the snow has been nice because it has made it much easier to walk around.

Elder Peterson has been working diligently with the District President and his council here to put together their plan for the year which includes, in large part, strengthening the non-existent home and visiting teaching program in the three branches here.  We are working towards and praying for a miracle.  It is the hope that the members will "catch the vision" and that we will be able to rescue some less actives.

We are staying warm, fed, and happy!  We appreciate the love, prayers, and support we feel from all of our family and friends at home!  We really do feel it!  We love you!

January 11, 2012 from Ken

Being in Russian is still a new experience. The sights, smells, language, culture is so different. I have traveled a good deal through my career but was not ready for this. Speaking the language where we are is a necessity. It is rare to find anybody who can speak any English. It stretches us daily and we are trying to get better. We keep our sense of humor and make daily mistakes. Yesterday my wife asked for milk (or so she thought). The person was confused because she was asking for “cat milk.” They didn’t know if you could get milk from a cat. Everyone around was laughing. We finally figured it out.

New years day after we had dinner with a family in Novie Gorod (New City) the father asked if I would pray to bring the new year in. I thought I was asking if he minded if I stood up to do this. Evidently I told everyone to stand up in what we call the “command form” of language. The all stood made a circle held hands and then I prayed. It actually worked out great. More unity and a great spirit. Of course, I sound like a three-year old speaking, but they don’t seem to care as long as we are trying.

It is dark until 10:00AM and then again at 4:30PM. This is taking some getting used to.

We have been busy helping with the local church branches (congregations) here. They have a District President over all three congregations and a Branch President over each separate city. I have been helping to set the vision for 2012 with goals and objectives for each city. We began presenting this to each branch yesterday. They are new at running a church organization, and I am helping with a good deal of training. The people here are doing a wonderful job!

The people are very converted to Jesus Christ. To give you an example, we have a blind man (captain in army who lost his sight in a bomb blast) who comes every week, studies his lesson, and provides service to our city. He is a real inspiration to me. He is humble and in many respects sees better than I do. Those who are teaching others are very young in the gospel. Last week I helped a recent convert of three months with his Sunday School lesson. He is teaching gospel doctrine to others who have been church members for several years. His testimony of Jesus Christ is growing, but as he prepares each lesson, he is introduced to several new concepts that he has to decide to accept before he can get up and share them as truth. He will be a future leader in the church here. We need more like him!

The fishing on the Volga River is very good. Daily I walk through town and look at the catches. All kinds of fish. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to eat fish due to the heavy metal content.

We are starting a young adult program and putting together activities for them. We have a student council of four right now but plan to grow that number to 15 by year’s end. We had our first activity last week at our home. It was a lot of fun. One of them speaks a little English; that helps significantly.

We love you!
 New year’s feast with Brat Vageek and family.  Armenian delight.  Wonderful family who showed us such a good time.
 P-Day hike into the forest
 Branch members and our English tutor on Saturday mornings
 Oshpkov family from Stari Gorod (Old City)

January 1, 2012 from Stacy

Snowvem Godom (Happy New Year)!!  We had a feast of feasts today at the Vagik’s.   The “spread” looked like a feast for a king!  The leg of pork was HUGE with the knife and fork protruding from the top of the roast.  There was so much food, the plates were layered on top of each other.  Olives, cheeses, salamis, caviar, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, flat breads, rolled sausages of this and that and who knows what, pickles, peppers, sliced meats, mixed nuts, fruits, Armenian salad, assorted fruits both fresh and dried, Armenian cakes and sweetbreads…and we tasted it ALL; well, almost all of it.  We couldn’t handle the caviar.  I have never seen so much food in my entire life!!!  We won’t have to eat for another week!  We felt so appreciated and welcomed.  They are so generous to include us in their family tradition.  The elders in the branch were allowed to come with us to translate which was a treat for them, too.  All of the elders and sisters were supposed to be in their apartments right after church for the rest of the day due to the holiday.  One funny thing that happened is Brother Vagik asked Elder Peterson to pray at the end of the meal after we had been eating for literally two hours.  Elder Peterson asked if he could stand to pray which was interpreted that everyone should stand for the prayer, and they did. The family’s friends who were also there drove us home.  We managed to somehow communicate for the 20-minute drive home.  That was a small miracle!

December 31, 2011 from Stacy

   We have been in Russia now for two weeks, but it seems to be quite longer than that with all of the learning we have been doing.   Each task is a small ordeal…looking up in the dictionary how to translate words into English in order to use the washing machine, construct ingredients into an unknown food concoction, trying to get the Internet working, converting money, converting measurements into metric, finding the right busses and bus stops to get on and off, etc., etc., etc.  It’s quite an adventure!!  But through all of it, I have had a calm assurance that everything will be okay. Ken’s language skills, limited as they are, get us where we need to be and communicate what we need.
   One of the things we worried most about was the cold weather.  It has definitely been cold, but I don’t think we’ve even begun to know what cold is.  January is typically the most frigid month so we’ll see how we survive the next month.  Temperatures have been in the low teens to mid thirties so that is not too bad.  I am thankful for my coat purchase!  I can honestly say I haven’t been cold yet.  It takes an extra few minutes to get ready in the mornings by the time you pile on layers of thermals, tights, clothes, hat, gloves, coat, scarf, and boots.  Everyone dresses quite warmly, and the Russian hats you envision are absolutely true to life.  Everyone wears hats.  The younger men and boys wear beanies, the older men wear the traditional Russian “shopkas.”  The women adorn beautiful fur coats and hats.  I’m the only woman in Russia who wears big Columbia-brand boots, but I’m all about warmth and stability, not fashion.  The women wear warm but fashionable boots, many with heels.  I even succumbed to adding the “yak traks” to them today which are like putting chains on car tires. Everywhere you walk is ice, and I don’t want to risk falling and breaking something.  So we dress to be warm outside but then sweat to death on a bus, in apartments or stores because they are heated so much.  But I can’t complain about that—I’m grateful to be warm!  In our own apartment, we have all of the radiators turned off.  There isn’t anything like a thermostat to regulate the temperature so we just turn off the steam flow, and it stays plenty warm enough.
   Our apartment is very comfortable.  All of the floors are linoleum or tile with large area rugs in the living spaces.  We live in a large “dome,” or apartment building, that was built during the Soviet years.  Most of the apartment buildings look alike.  You enter the building through a metal door.  The inside is pretty scarey looking—run down, chipped paint, odd smells, concrete stairs and walls, empty vegetable cans on each stair level for cigarette butt deposits.  On each level there are four apartments, two on each side of the stairs behind another large metal door.  When you unlock the metal door, you enter another small area where there are two apartment doors.  After you unlock the two deadbolts to your own door, you are officially in!  You never know what you’ll find behind each door.  Some apartments are very nice; some, not so nice.  We have been in very humble apartments and very few nicer apartments.  We feel very fortunate that the elders found us a nice, clean apartment.  We don’t have a garbage disposal or dishwasher so it’s back to “the good ol’ days!”  We also don’t have a clothes dryer, but no one does.  Clothes are hung on lines in your indoor balcony or on drying racks.  Needless to say, household chores involve more time than I’m used to.  We are on the fourth level, and we take the stairs every time.  There is an elevator, but it is quite small and Ken refuses to risk getting stuck in it!
   Grocery shopping is interesting.  There is no such thing as convenience foods so everything I make is from scratch—brownies, pancakes (no such thing as a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s), soups, mac&cheese, lunchmeat.  This has been the biggest challenge for me.  You can’t even buy a can of green beans!  But I’m sure it will get easier with time as I figure out what I can and can’t do.  Ken misses a good box of cereal most of all.  He is on his third box of cereal and still hasn’t found one to his liking.  We eat a lot of oatmeal and cream of wheat for breakfast.  We have to drink bottled water and wash all produce and eggs in Clorox and water.  We really only eat two meals a day because we are busy and away from home especially in the evenings.  The little store I shop at is right around the corner from our dome so that is convenient.  It is called “Magneet.”  We stopped at a larger Costco-type store when we were traveling between areas last week, and it had a larger selection.  The only problem with that is you have to carry everything you buy back home on the bus again so it’s impossible to really stock up.  I have to look up the Russian words for what I want to buy so I can ask for them in the store if I can’t find something.  It’s pretty hilarious!  Food is more expensive than we expected.  Milk is just over $1 for a quart of milk which is the largest portion you can buy.  If you find anything American, like Pringles, for example, it is ridiculously expensive!  We will be eating a lot of borsch!!
   Transportation consists of walking and “marshutkas,” small vans that seat about 10-12 people.  You stand at the bus stop and wave down the bus when it drives by.  We take the bus primarily from our area to the two other areas we are assigned to work with.  We probably walk at least two-three miles a day.  It’s a great opportunity to visit with each other and with the missionaries when we are with them.  The other day when we were driving back, the driver was listening to what sounded like Russian Latin music.  It was pretty funny.  Most of the time I feel safe, but from time to time we get a driver who thinks he’s on a racetrack, and I pray I arrive in one piece!  The cars are small and amazingly get around in this crazy weather.  There’s nothing like 4-wheel drive.  The roads have so many “ice potholes.”  It will be interesting to see what everything looks like once it thaws.
Some of the cultural traditions we have been learning is that it is impolite to shake hands with someone when you come to their home initially at the door.  You need to come through the doorway first and then greet them with a handshake.  Generally, women do not handshake.  If you are on the street or wherever, you always take your glove off to shake someone’s hand.  We have visited several families in branches, and they always have a refreshment prepared for us.  It always consists of a drink, either compote (fresh fruit bottled from their gardens such as cherries or raspberries mixed with water…kinda like watered-down koolaid) or chai, tea.  All of the Russians drink chai, and the members have had to adjust to the strictly fruit- and herbal-type teas.  When in Russia, adopt the Russian way, I say, so we went to the store and asked for “fructovwe chai.”  We were shown what to buy, brought it home, and were ready to prepare it for the two sisters from the branch who were coming to visit us that night.  I had them help me in the kitchen to show me what to do, and they told me it was a black tea.  Oops!!  It had raspberries pictures on the front, but I guess I didn’t (or couldn’t!) read the fine print.  So I put the box of tea on a window sill in the apartment stairwell, and it was gone the next morning. The District President fixed us a rice dish called Plov that was quite tasty and had a side dish of coleslaw.  Our favorite was an apple-filled pastry that one of the families served us.  They don’t bake things that are very sweet like we are used to in America.  Their holiday season is very different.  Christmas is basically not celebrated at all.  It’s like any other day of the week.  They celebrate New Year’s Eve in a big way with parties and staying up ALL night followed by ten days of rest.  January 7 is more of their Christmas celebration.  We haven’t experienced that yet and will have to fill in the holes next week.  Parents have babies in rubber-wheeled strollers; it’s amazing they get anywhere!  The babies are so bundled up all you can see are their little round faces peeking out from layers of blankets and coats.  Toddlers and children are pulled by their parents on little sleds with ice skate-type bottoms.  I wish I had one for me!
   Our daily schedule starts with exercise.  We finally found a mat to buy which makes sit ups on a concrete floor much more enjoyable!  We study together for an hour and then on our own.  We have been without the Internet until just yesterday, so we are hoping to be able to start our MTC Tutoring Skypes beginning on Monday.  We will have a tutor session for one hour and need to study the language for an additional hour.  We really have a desire to learn as much of the language as we can.  It’s frustrating not being able to communicate with the people.  These first two weeks have also consisted of just getting settled – locating the bank, finding places to buy soup bowls or even just a baking pan.  The apartment is furnished, but the kitchen lacks a lot of basic items.  I would still like to find a hand mixer, wooden spoon, and rubber spatula!  Most every night we work with the elders and sisters and help them with their investigators.  We have also been meeting with the core active members of the branches to get to know them and hopefully develop relationships of friendship and trust so that they will be willing to help us with the less active members.  We go to bed tired every night!
   Right now it gets dark around 5 p.m. and light around 9 a.m.  Yesterday was the first day since we have been here that we had blue skies all day long.  We could even see stars at night!  Most days are gray and bleak so the sun is a cheerful blessing.
   We have been assigned to work in the Toliatti District which consists of three branches; Old City (where we live), New City and Komsolmoski.  Each branch has a set of elder missionaries, and the New City branch also has a set of sister missionaries.  Each branch is about 20-50 minutes either direction of us.  The church schedule has been unusual with the holidays since we have been here, but we will probably have to rotate from week to week with each of the branches since their meeting schedules are identical.  The Old City Branch is the smallest with about 20 active members.  New City has 40-50 active members; Komsolmoski, about 40.  These members are first-generation members and are so strong.  The difficulty is there are few to rely on each other so it is a desire of ours to try and strengthen the branches while we are here.  We have been able to bear our testimonies from the pulpit in each of the branches; I am grateful we were prepared to do that.  The members have been very welcoming.  In fact, one family, the Vagik’s, called and invited us to their home tomorrow for a large Armenian feast.  Brother Vagik speaks as poor English as we speak poor Russian so it will be interesting to see how the evening goes.  We visited with him and his family soon after arrived, and they have invited us again so that is very kind of them.  His wife’s name is Maria, and they have two older sons Eric and Arthur.
   I had a direct answer to prayer the first Sunday we were here.  We attended the Old City Branch where we live and are able to walk to.  I had prayed that morning that despite our language barriers and differences that my love for them and the gospel would shine through my eyes.  The branch president’s wife spoke at the end of the meeting and expressed her gratitude for our being there, our testimonies, and that our love for the gospel shone through our eyes.  I knew that the Lord was aware of us and would help and direct us in our missionary efforts here in Russia.
   We met a sister and her daughter in Old City Branch who have been very helpful.  Natasha and her daughter Rada speak some English and have taken us shopping and answered questions when we needed help.  They call regularly to check up on us, and we appreciate them so much.

December 12, 2011 from Stacy

   Well, we have arrived in Samara in one piece!  Our trip was uneventful which is good, just long!  We traveled with 8 other elders from the MTC; three coming to our mission, three to Novosibirsk, and two to Rustov.  We all went to Moscow together and then separated from there.  BRENT!!!, guess who one of them is?!  Nate Harper!  How cool is that!  We were asking all the elders where they are from so when he said Orem we figured it out.  We didn't recognize each other which is crazy, but it was fun to see him.  We took a picture that we'll send to you once we have more time. He said to tell you hello. 
   Dad and I were in the "refrigerator" section on the airplane from New York to Moscow--we were on the exit row with lots of leg space in front of us, but it was also very cold.  I was glad to be wearing my Russian boots, smart wool socks, and layers of clothing!  Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep, but the 10-hour plane ride went by faster than I was expecting.  We were greeted in Moscow by two sisters (not missionaries, but wives of men who are employed by the church and live in Moscow) who helped us exchange some money and load our luggage into a van to take us to the US Embassy where we had to apply for a second passport.     
   We only had to stop once to let dad up into the front seat because he was getting car sick.  The driving in Moscow was crazy!!  The traffic is the worse I've ever seen, even compared to NY or LA.  Lots of stop and go and jerking around and nauseating gas fumes.  I guess after 15 hours on a plane it just got to him.  We have to get a second passport in order to leave the country every three months to renew our visas and not have to stay out of the country for an extended period of time.  We go out on one passport and come back in on another.  On the way back to the airport, the driver stopped at McDonald's so we could get something to eat.  First meal in Russia--McDonald's!!  Then we had a six-hour wait in the airport before our flight to Samara.  We worried about getting our luggage on w/o high costs for weight; but fortunately, dad had his Delta card which enabled us to check three of our bags for free so we only had to pay for one bag which the church will reimburse us for.  So it all worked out!
   The mission president and his wife and the two AP's met us at the airport just after midnight.  We were so happy to see them, and they gave us such a loving welcome!  We have such great love and admiration for these leaders who are so busy and function on very little sleep!  They had to go again last night to greet another elder coming from the Ukraine at 1 in the morning.    We needed to be at breakfast at 8:30 in the morning the day we arrived, after going to bed at 3.  Sister Sartori made a wonderful breakfast for all of us.  So we are staying here at the mission home until tomorrow, Friday, before we head to our assignment in Toliatti.  Yesterday, President Sartori interviewed each of us (me, dad, the three new elders, and a new sister); we were trained in the programs of the mission; received instruction on our finances, rental lease, etc., etc.; Sister Sartori showed me some of the foods that are good and safe to buy and spent some time talking about her family; we had Subway sandwiches for lunch with all the missionaries and the new trainers who had arrived from outlying towns; I squeaked in a 30-minute nap; and then we had dinner with the President and his wife and the office couple.  I could barely keep my eyes open during dinner!  I was asleep by 9 and wide awake by 3:30 in the morning--it's going to take a while to adjust!
   The mission home is very nice.  The president and his wife are in one apartment, there is a second apartment which we are staying in and where the general authorities and others stay when they visit, and the office in the basement.  The furnishings and accommodations are very comfortable and nice.  President Sartori calls it "The Ivory Tower."  They brought their prelit Christmas tree from home which adds a wonderful spirit.  We haven't seen much of the surrounding area yet but will see a little more as we attend zone conference today and tomorrow at a church building here in the area.  It is mind boggling seeing the work that is required to have missionaries serving here, an evidence of the importance of this work!  
Christmas is not a big celebration here.  There are very few decorations around.  The sisters who met us in Moscow told us that Christmas will seem just like any other day here.  That will be weird!  The big Russian holiday is on New Year's Eve when they exchange gifts, stay up all night.  I'm sure the Americans and missionaries celebrate Christmas traditionally.  
There is a lot of snow here.  The temp was 34 or close to when we came in the other night so that wasn't bad.  It was 10 the next morning!  The apartment building is kept very warm; we even have to open the window to sleep.  I'm sure we will be experiencing the Russian cold weather soon!