“You know living here is like being in Disneyland all the time. It never seems quite real.”
Elder Jeremy Spencer spoke these words of wisdom while we were on splits together in Yugo Zapadni in Novosibirsk during the summer of 1995. I stopped walking for a few moments to consider what he had just said. It was kind of funny, but he was right. After eight months in country, many aspects of life still seemed not quite real. In many ways this was a blessing. The cultural and linguistic separation between our investigators and me gave me the freedom to be bold in teaching and inviting. This separation also allowed me to enjoy situations and experiences that may have otherwise scared me into inaction. Life as a missionary in Russia, however, was fun…at least most days.
In fact Russia in the 1990s was all kinds of exciting, especially for a 19 year old from a small town in Utah. After I returned home I shared many of my “adventure” stories with my wife. At some point, once she had heard most of my fun stories two or three times, she asked me if I ever had any spiritual experiences. Once again, I was pulled up short. For whatever reason, I was hesitant to speak about my spiritual experiences. I faithfully recorded them in my journal and thought of them, but for some reason I wasn’t ready to share to many of them.
So, with this installment I hope to share a few more fun stories with a sprinkling of the serious.
Russian Cuisine vs. Missionary Cuisine
During my pre-mission years I was very careful about what foods I would eat or even consider trying. In terms of meat I was always happy to eat any normal cuts of meat from normal farm raised animals: pork, beef, and poultry. Occasionally I would venture to eat deer or elk, and even some moose my freshman year of college. My vegetable world was very limited: corn, peas, beans, potatoes and tomato sauce. I wasn’t very expansive with my fruits either: apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and watermelon.
Suddenly, here I was in a foreign country with foreign food. I was terrified of eating anything a Russian might fix me. How could I verify that it didn’t have anything I didn’t like? With Elder Wetzel I was lucky for the first little bit. We didn’t eat with any members or investigators for a couple of weeks. I never said anything to him, but I was happy to put the moment off for as long as possible. Unfortunately, our own meals weren’t anything worthy of mentioning in a letter home. In fact, I avoided writing about what we ate. A common meal, at least a few times, was canned beef from China with lentils. It looked amazingly disgusting, but often I was hungry enough to love it. (I need to find a picture of our stove in that apartment. We didn’t clean it for over a month. It became sort of a badge of honor.)
We did manage to find a few decent places to eat out. There was a hot dog place down on Krasniy Prospekt not far from the mission home. It was great. They take half a baguette and poke a hole in it. Next they take the hot dog and dip it in your condiment of choice—ketchup or mayonnaise. Finally they slide the dripping hot dog into the baguette and hand it to you. Their ketchup didn’t taste a lot like what we had back home, but it wasn’t bad. I could never get myself to eat a hot dog completely smothered in mayo. Another favorite was a little manti shack not too far from the hot dog joint. Manti is a dish from Central Asia. It is spiced, greasy meat wrapped in a type of pasta. You pick them up and eat them with your hands.
Our branch had a Christmas party with a dinner about a week and a half after I arrived. I was still in that dark phase of my mission—always tired, far from home, unable to understand anything anyone said. Being away from home on Christmas was weighing heavily on me as I considered having to eat something foreign and scary that night. My mood brightened considerably as a plate with a piece of fried steak and potatoes were set in front of me. The taste was wonderful.
My first meal in a Russian’s home was scary. Elder Wetzel was busy talking and I was too nervous to ask about the food. The food looked very strange, some kind of white, wrinkly ball. Several of them were put in a bowl and set in front of me. It was terrifying. I broke out in a cold sweat wondering what it could be with my imagination running wild. My hand was shaking as I lifted the spoon with one of the balls on it toward my mouth. I fought the urge to gag as I put in and began chewing. I was relieved to realize it was spiced meat wrapped in a sort of pasta. The food was Russian pelmini, one that would become one of my favorite dishes.
Within the first couple of months of my mission, I learned to love much of Russian cuisine. The soups and potato dishes were some of my favorites. Usually I tried to avoid most of the salads, especially the one that had mayo, beets and raw herring. That one almost emptied my stomach more than once. Another dish to avoid is kholodyets. This is a frozen gelatin dish with scraps of meat and vegetables. The gelatin is made as meat and bones are boiled down until the gelatin forms. It doesn’t taste good and the texture is horrific. I ate it once, after a member promised me that hers was better than everyone else’s. Now, you may say I can’t judge the dish after just tasting it once. But, I took the good sister at her word. If hers was the best, I never wanted to try one that might not be as good.
As I’ve mentioned previously, my first two or three weeks in Russia were not entirely enjoyable. Staying busy and tired gave me little time to think about myself. Elder Wetzel did a great job at keeping us working all day, every day. Occasionally I would start to feel sorry for myself in the mornings during our study time.
One day I was sitting in my chair as the melancholy feeling began to come on me. It must have been around seven in the morning and it was still pitch black outside. Rather than reading my scriptures or studying the language, I felt like reading my letters from home again which I knew would only make me feel homesick.
Suddenly Elder Wetzel began to sing a hymn from his corner of the room. I’m not sure if many of you have heard him sing before, but it was amazingly beautiful. There I was worrying about myself, feeling alone in the midst of an internal storm. At that moment he chose to sing Be Still My Soul, a hymn that I didn’t remember hearing before that day. I sat there quietly listening to the words as tears began to build and slide down my cheeks. I knew that was a changing point in my mission, a point where the Lord reached out to me to let me know that He loved me and was aware of my struggle. Being a missionary in Siberia didn’t suddenly become easy, but I had a reference point that allowed me to get my bearings whenever I felt overwhelmed. That morning I don’t remember saying anything to Elder Wetzel about the hymn, but at our next district meeting I asked if we could sing that same hymn. I had to ask the title of the hymn. It’s been one of my favorites ever since.
Doc Martins and Father Winter
Siberia is cold. That may seem obvious, but it’s difficult to appropriately express the magnitude of the cold. We experienced it first hand every day. About eighty percent of our travel was by foot exposing us directly to Father Winter. The buildings funneled the wind nicely down each street. I became a huge fan of my muskrat shapka, with the earflaps pulled low and tied under my shin. Winter boots with wool socks also helped make life bearable.
One day while we were out and about, Elder Wetzel tripped over a piece of metal, tearing a large hole between the leather and sole of his boot. Being a thrifty individual, Elder Wetzel took his boots to a local repair shop rather than buying a new pair. The gentleman told us it would be two or three days before his boots would be ready to go. That left him with only his pair of Doc Martins to wear.
As Cliff from Cheers would say, “Here’s an interesting fact for ya’, at temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius the sole of your standard Doc Martin will freeze hard like glass and you’ll slide all over the place.” For two or three days, Elder Wetzel slid everywhere and fell down repeatedly. He would scramble to get up on a sidewalk only to slide off one side. The lack of professional construction and uneven surfaces made his situation extra challenging. At first, being as sensitive as I am, I found it very amusing. But after three days of pulling him everywhere, literally, I was ready for his boots to be repaired.
I can’t make too much fun of Kevyn for sliding all over the place in his frozen Docs. I prided myself on slipping and falling on the ice only very rarely. One day, however, we were walking back to our apartment after stopping by a small gastronom, or type of grocery store. We bought a few supplies including a bag of twenty eggs that I carried in my hand as we walked to the apartment. Coming down a steep hill not too far from our apartment, I slipped onto my back. As I was falling I did my best to hold the bag of eggs up off the ground. Unfortunately my elbow hit the ground throwing my hand forward and into the bag of eggs. In one fell swoop, I managed to break all twenty eggs at once…with one hand and an assist from the ground.
Missionaries are expected to look for service opportunities, donating a couple of hours each week. In Russia the default option was to teach English at a school, a library, a museum, or anywhere they would have you. Teaching English was great fun and a wonderful way to meet new people. In Novosibirsk we met a great group of young people who were hari krishnas. It wasn’t my favorite form of service though. I preferred looking for ways to help people in real need.
One week Elder Wetzel and I showed up at the school where we normally taught the students English. The class had something else going on that day, so we were left to look for something else. We decided to head over to a member’s apartment while we tried to think of something else to do. They weren’t home so we headed back outside, still unsure what to do.
As we stepped onto the courtyard in front of the apartment building, we noticed a car stuck in the deep snow that had fallen recently. Cars usually didn’t pull up to the front of apartment buildings in Novosibirsk back then. Parking spaces most often were made of hodge-podge garages separated from the buildings. Only drivers going to pick someone up or drop someone or something off would drive to the front of the buildings. None of the snow had been cleared by the dvorniki, those in charge of keeping the courtyards clear. We walked over to offer our assistance to the driver. He was at one end of the lane in front of the long building and needed to make it all the way across. It took us awhile but we eventually got him out and on his way.
Brushing the snow off my coat and pants, I turned around only to see another car at the beginning of the same lane already stuck. The driver looked at us expectantly. Over the course of the next hour or so we helped four or five cars get unstuck. The physical labor, without the need to speak hardly any Russian, was so enjoyable that I was happy to stay as long as we could. Finally our supply of bold drivers dwindled to nothing. We headed back to our apartment, our service for the week accomplished.
During the course of my mission I had a few other memorable service activities. Helping Brother Petr Nicholaichev and his family move from the ninth story of one apartment to the ninth story of another apartment was a highlight. The lack of a working elevator made it extra memorable. We moved a piano down nine stories and up nine stories, all on the stairs. In Yekaterinburg, Elder Petrov and I helped repair books at a local library. As a lover of books it was rewarding to tape, glue and sew bindings back together.
New Year’s Eve and Taxi Cabs
Serving a mission in a foreign country provides one a great opportunity to experience a new culture. You are forced to spend time with people from different backgrounds, a different kind of language, different foods, and strange behaviors…and that’s just referring to missionary companions. Getting to know the Russians and my companions was fun and challenging. Elder Wetzel and I were alike in a lot of ways, both from small towns. Within a couple of weeks of my arrival we were able to celebrate the New Year’s Russian style.
We spent the entire day of New Year’s Eve trying to find someone to teach. Most of the people we spoke with on the street or tracted into were busy preparing for the evening’s celebration. As evening rolled around we left for a New Year’s Eve party with some of the members. The trip to the party was an adventure. Running behind because Elder Wetzel kept us working until the last minute, we had to grab a taxi to get to the party in time.
Grabbing a taxi in Russia is a special experience. You stand next the side of the road and put your hand out. Anyone driving a car can pull over to see if you’re heading in the same direction and to negotiate a fare. Personally, I always hoped a Volga would pull over, but often we were stuck with a Lada. Often we had competitions to see who get a free taxi ride. The key was engaging the taxi drive in conversation was stimulating enough that they offered you a ride for free. Needless to say, the likelihood of success increases the longer one is in the country. Many taxi cab drivers would go out of their way to teach us new vocabulary, much of it unfortunately inappropriate.
As Elder Wetzel and I began looking for a car, it soon became clear that our choices were going to be limited since everyone was already partying. He held his hand out for the few cars that drove past before we finally had one pull over. With his friend in the front seat, the drive waived us into the back. My father is a police officer. Several times growing up I rode along with him and more than once watched drunk drivers pulled over and arrested. It quickly became obvious that our driver was more than slightly inebriated. The roads were wide open with very little traffic, which probably helped keep us alive, but at the same time allowed him to drive all over the place. Our entire experience was made more exciting by the ice and snow on the road. I was worried, on a serious level, that we may not survive the ride unscathed. (Little did I know that a few months later I would be even more scared during a taxi ride.)
Anyway, my frantic prayers were answered and we arrived safely to our destination. The evening was relaxing and exhausting at the same time. It was wonderful to spend time with several families from our branch, but as always the foreign language frazzled my brain. Luckily I was left alone most of the evening to speak with the children. The young children loved taking the new missionaries under their wings to help them with the language. Many times I sat in church meetings while the children whispered new words into my ear and made me repeat them back. In between all the courses of food for the evening, I was able to keep all the children entertained with my poor pronunciation. With all the people coming and going, it was also easy for me to avoid having to eat anything that looked dangerous.
At midnight we gathered on the balcony and around the windows to watch a number of fireworks in different areas of the city. By that point I was quite tired and ready to go to our apartment for bed. I wasn’t thrilled to find out that all of us, in keeping with tradition, were expected to go for a walk around the neighborhood. We walked with the members to a large park area where a very large slide had been constructed out of ice. I managed a few turns down the slide without ripping a hole in my slacks. On our way back to the member’s apartment building we walked on a trail through some woods. Kevyn started to get very excited, telling me how he loved to run through the woods back home. Before I knew it we were running through the woods in the snow and ice on a New Year’s night in Siberia. I thought it was a little crazy and dangerous, but after our taxicab ride it didn’t seem too bad.
At the end of the festivities the members walked each set of missionaries back to their apartments.
Serving with Elder Wetzel was a privilege. He kept me so busy that I ran out of time to feel sorry for myself. After only three months in the country he was able to show me what a person with faith and confidence in the Lord can do. While we were together that first time, (yes, I was blessed to serve with Elder Wetzel twice), we helped one person get baptized. Brother Alexander, the wonderful man who sold things for the mafia on the black market. A few other people we taught in that area eventually entered the waters of baptism as well. Those months were a great start to my mission. I don’t want to brag, but Elder Wetzel was very successful as a new trainer. He managed to keep me alive and in Russia.
- Jarad Van Wagoner