Sunday, June 21, 2009

Russia, Ukraine, and a Long Flight

Made it home. If this was a cheesy church video from the early '90's I would say something here like, "it's funny, I just got home but I sort of feel more like I just left it" as I look out the window into the rain, clearly thinking about all the good times in Russia. But the truth is, it's very sad to be back already. Of course it's great to see the family again but the return feels so premature.

This last week was an adventure for sure. One which I'll be recovering from for a while but one which I would live again in a heartbeat. Uncle Will,
Krishelle, my two cousins Megan and Matthew, and two close friends of ours (through Uncle Will) Andrea and Stacee, all made the mass trek to the other side of the world to meet me in Moscow about nine days ago. We hit three cities in two countries over the next week and had the time of our lives. I'll drop some pictures on the blog later (when I collect them from the others; again--too lazy to take my own) but for now I'll just give the super short update.

Moscow was great; the group was basically functioning on adrenaline the entire time as they were severely jet-lagged but not allowed to sleep since we only had about a day and a half there and three weeks of stuff to see. It was Russia Day which complicated things greatly, leaving Red Square and the Kremlin closed the entire time they were there. Nonetheless, we were able to see a lot of amazing things and walk all around the outside of Red Square and the Kremlin before flying out to
L'viv on Saturday morning from the very small and strange Vnukova airport in Moscow where one woman jumped over about twelve stations to target Andrea and ask her whether she had any eggs or cold-cuts in her bag, which we thought was odd of course.

L'viv Ukraine was fantastic! We were there for about three days and loved every minute of it. I forgot how much I love that city. I could walk up and down the old gorgeous cobble-stone streets all day. The town is completely quaint and friendly and I immediately felt at home there just as much as when I lived there for nine months five years ago. The best part of it all was getting to see and spend some time with some of my long lost friends there who I have missed every single day for the last five years. The reunion was sweet and our little farewell at the train station on our last night where several of the members came to see us off was really hard. Everybody there was pretty emotional including my entire travel group of friends and family who had just met all of these people last week.

After a long night on the train we made it to
Kyiv. Everyone was getting pretty burned out by this time but we were still able to cram quite a bit in to our last couple of days there. Kyiv was gorgeous as always (in its own way) and I was able to see a few friends there as well.

The group left on Friday, a day before me, so I was able to get out and do some exploring and hang out with some friends there as well. Friday night I somehow ended up getting a really strange Thai massage from some Thai lady who only knew two
English phrases that usually came in order after I answered a tearful "yes" to the first one: "You pain?" and "RELAX!!!"

The 24 hours of flying home and layovers yesterday just about did me in. A baby just the row in front of me screamed the entire nine hours of the flight from Germany to Chicago. You can only imagine how excited I was to find out that that same baby would be sitting next to me on my flight from Chicago to Salt Lake as well. But if the baby didn't stop me from catching some shut-eye on the last flight, the crazy retired
extremely talkative cop sitting on the other side of me would have. He, as often happens, immediately told me everything he knows about court as soon as he found out I'm in law school, telling me no less than 30 times that I'm obviously not getting a good education because I didn't have the same list of court-room etiquette checkpoints he was taught in the academy in 1953. On a side note, this sort of thing frequently happens. About twice a month I will run into someone who finds out I'm in law school and that person will immediately remember some tiny very specific list of something law related that they learned in business law 101 freshmen year of college at Shequera Community College and the following conversation will take place:

Annoying: Oh, you're in law school?!


Ok, so then you know the five things that a witness should always know.

. . .

What are they?

I don't know what you're talking about.

(Lists the five things out in explicit detail; none of them are predicable in any way but all of them are common sense and usually just the same thing repeated five different ways like "first, never lie. Second, don't give too much information. Third, think before you speak so you don't tell too much. Forth, tell the whole story but not more than you need to. Fifth, tell the truth).


I can't believe you've made it this far in law school and they haven't even taught you that yet.

Well there is a lot to learn.

Yeah but this is pretty basic. I don't know how you could ever be a good lawyer without knowing that.

(I attempt to explain that that specific list of things in that particular order is not some kind of standard by which all attorneys must measure themselves and the whole list is completely common sense anyway).

It may seem like common sense but you didn't know it.

Yes, I had no idea that a witness should tell the truth from the stand and try to get their story out. I wish we had spent a whole semester talking about that rather than contracts so I would be so much more prepared to have this ridiculous conversation with you.

Eventually the old cop changed the subject and decided that the middle of the night on a plane when I hadn't slept for over 24 hours (and I made sure he knew this by the way) was as good a time as any to lecture me for two hours about why all homosexuals are going straight to hell and deserve to be put in prison for the rest of their lives. I, quite cranky by this point, didn't think it was the best time for me to explain to him all the ways I disagreed with just about everything he had to say. So I just rolled my eyes and turned to the window to try to catch some sleep. Which didn't work well as he still wanted to tell me all the reasons I'll never be a real man if I don't serve in the army for a while.

I'm pretty jet-lagged now so I think I'll try to jump back into bed. I hope everyone is doing well!

~It Just Gets Stranger

Thursday, June 11, 2009

St. Petersburg

On Monday at lunch the following conversation took place between Kimberly and myself:

Eli: Darn, it's too bad I never made it to St. Petersburg.
Kimberly: Shoot. That is too bad.
Eli: I really want some vafly.
Kimberly: We can't have vafly today because it's not vafly Vednesday yet.
Eli: No!
Kimberly: We should totally go to St. Petersburg tonight.
Eli: Yeah. What? What about our jobs?
Kimberly: ah . . .
Eli: O.k.

Three hours later we were traveling to three very frustrating train stations in a frantic daze to try to buy last minute, reasonably priced tickets. We waited in lines for hours on end only to get yelled at and told that the tickets we just located online didn't actually exist until we finally got to the last of the train stations around 10:00PM and got to the window of a bob with a moustache who we lovingly refer to now as "Olga Voksal" as we never did get her real name. Olga Voksal helped us like a champ and even made sure we understood our itinerary before we left. I would have jumped over the counter and proposed to her on the spot had there not been bullet proof glass between us. The moustache might have been enough as well.

So we did the communal train thing with about 12,000,000 other people and kept ourselves entertained for quite a while trying to figure out how the heck to maneuver ourselves correctly to fit in the top bunks. Eight hours later we arrived in a cold and rainy St. Pete's where we took a bus tour of the city, went to multiple churches, stood in line at the Hermatage for about an hour and half, walked around the Hermitage/Winter Palace for a couple of hours (mostly because it was so huge that we couldn't figure out how the heck to get out; we still think there were entire wings of the palace we didn't even get close to---it was absolutely gorgeous as well), took a cold but beautiful boat cruise down the rivers, and ate at every food place we could find in the whole city. Our train left again that night after 1:00AM. It didn't feel that late however because of White Nights--we never did see it get dark.

The city was absolutely gorgeous and worth a trip all by itself. I will definitely go back (and hopefully when it's warm) and spend days there.

Don't have too much time to write now; I've got to go pick up the travel group at the airport in a bit but I just wanted to get these pictures out.

For those of you who have followed this blog for a while, I just got word that Great Grandma Whittle died yesterday. I got to see her one last time before I came to Moscow for her 102nd birthday and was happy to see that she was doing very well at that time. I'm sorry I will just miss the funeral. I'm going to miss her very much.

Love you all-

Some building
Colorful buildings along the river cruise
River Cruise
River Cruise
River Cruise
Tired, Cold, and Wet but Happy on the River Cruise
Choir Singing for Petro's Birthday

In the Hermitage/Winter Palace
Hermitage/Winter Palace

Hermitage/Winter Palace
Hermitage/Winter Palace
Hermitage/Winter Palace
Hermitage/Winter Palace
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (looks like St. Basil's on the outside)
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Giant Church
Beautiful White Church with and Unhelpful Bob Inside Who would not Help us Buy Something

Clastrophobic on the Top Bunk on the Train
~It Just Gets Stranger

Monday, June 8, 2009

Top 10 Worst Foods I've Had in Moscow

10- Jelly Chocolate Cookie in the Banya: I know, I ate something in the banya. I formally apologize to all of you who I may have offended by my doing so. Normally I would never put something in my mouth that has even flown 50,000 miles over a banya, but I had lost the ability to make good decisions while in there. The cookie tasted exactly like a fat sweaty Russian man covered in chocolate and jelly with maybe a little more sugar.

9- Variety Pizza: I was darn hungry so I stopped by a pizza place that only advertised three things: “Fish pizza,” “Meat filled rolls,” and “Variety Pizza.” Foolishly thinking that variety pizza sounded like the safest bet, I ordered a slice. It was handed out to me on a napkin, which it was stuck to as the crust on the bottom was little more than soggy dough. The top was piled with what looked like chopped up everything found in some drawer in the back. The only topping I identified with 100% accuracy was corn which was cold and looked like leftovers from Egypt’s 7 years of bumper crops during Joseph’s time. And yes, I did just start spontaneously singing every song from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.”

8- Rock Bread: The bread itself wasn’t bad, although it did have enough oil in it that the moment it was walked into the room my face immediately broke out into a severe case of acne, bad enough to send me all the way back to Ms. Rideout’s 7th grade health class on a day when we talked about our changing bodies. Part way through this bread I felt something hard in my mouth. Spitting it out I discovered it was black and about the size of a pebble. I’m going to call it a rock because that freaks me out much less than anything else it may have been.

7- Potato Roll from Crap Cafeteria: A coworker of mine took me to Crap Cafeteria on my first week in Moscow. For reasons I’ll never be able to justify, I returned several times afterwards for lunch. Crap Cafeteria is dark enough that you can’t see the food very well and nothing is labeled so you basically have to take chances and guess every time. On my first visit I experienced the potato roll which was a soggy piece of bread stuffed with what looked like some slosh scooped out of the bottom of a dumpster with a ladle at a fast-food place called “Shakey’s” just off the highway about an hour south of Manti in a town that got its name from the Bible and still builds bomb shelters.

6- Roll Stuffed with Cabbage: A bob at the orphanage made these for us over the weekend as a thank you for our service. At least that’s what she claims. I didn’t know what it was when I bit into it. Then I saw it. What looked like rotten cabbage scooped up by the same ladle found at Shakey’s in number 7 was spewing out of the center of this thing as though the roll was barfing (which was sort of like foreshadowing, I suppose). Then the smell hit me. My eyes started watering so badly that I felt the government would have been in its right to quarantine the entire village until New Years when everyone could drown away the memory with several liters of vodka.

5- Russian-Shvarma: Angry looking men sit in thousand degree telephone booth sized rooms cutting “meat” off of a rotating mass of something that looks red and layered, then stuff the shavings into a tortilla along with an array of sauces and vegetables that I never knew existed. The Shvarma isn’t bad, as long as you don’t think about what could possibly be in it, until you get to the last few bites where all the sauces have run to the bottom and leave what looks like a red swamp wrapped in soggy tortilla. I always leave feeling badly about myself.

4- Dacha Fish: The family I live with (who I absolutely LOVE) is much braver than I am about a lot of things. Besides going to the banya on a regular basis and relishing in all sorts of odd practices you find there, they occasionally bring home food that I think I used to have nightmares about as a child. One such occasion was about 3 weeks ago when they had a dacha fish that a friend had given to them (a dacha is a small farm out in a little village). I still don’t understand exactly how it was prepared but there was some sort of a vague explanation involving a box, string, power, and fire. We started ripping into it with our bare fingers. It tasted like a fire log that had been used to slaughter an entire community of sick deep sea creatures. I can still smell it on me.

3- Fish Egg Roll: Call it what you want, it’s still fish eggs. I didn’t realize what I was eating until I bit into it and felt the slimy little balls roll all over my tongue and burst open. I swear I heard baby screams. I immediately spit with such force that they took a few teeth out with them and landed somewhere near Rostov. I then, although having just exited the metro and not yet performed my traditional bathing in hand-sanitizer, scraped my tongue with my bare fingernails while bouncing up and down in an absolute daze. When I finally came to I was laying across a bob’s lap in a dark alley telling stories about the army while she stroked my hair. I’m so traumatized that this even exists that I somehow remembered the word for it although I hadn’t used or heard it in four years when Kimberly read it aloud several weeks ago immediately making me a little light-headed. “Ikra”; you just got the chills.

2- Orange Juice Liver from Crap Cafeteria: As previously mentioned, I couldn’t tell what it was because it was too dark inside. What I now imagine was liver looked like pregnant worms soaked in a runny orange colored juice that tasted like a tangerine, salt, and all the moisture squeezed out of the Sharma meat from number 5. It was served cold (although not intentionally) over mashed potatoes. I just shuttered.

1-Goloptsy from crap cafeteria: The only food ever placed in front of me that actually caused my life to flash before my eyes. Goloptsy are tender cabbage rolls filled with rice and meat and sometimes cooked with a touch of tomato paste and garlic. They have been one of my favorite Russian/Ukrainian foods. So naturally I ordered two at crap cafeteria the LAST(!!!) time we were there and plopped myself down at the nearest sticky table. It was difficult to cut through it but I made it somehow. I got the cold goloptsy into my mouth and for one brief moment I no longer knew where I was or what I was doing. My heart started racing and I lost control of all four of my limbs as I instinctively went into panic mode. It was as though my brain completely rebooted with no warning. Then the smell hit me. If some Mormon candle making company only made two kinds of scented candles, the first being “Crap Cafeteria Goloptsy” and the second “Airport Bathroom During Mass Layovers Due to Influenza Outbreak” and I had to buy one, I would choose the latter. Kimberly then went to take a bite. About the time the goloptsy got to mouth level, she shrieked a little and dropped the fork. Then we noticed the bright red meat oozing out of the middle. I swear I saw something move inside. We covered it with a thin napkin, speed-walked out shuttering, and didn’t eat again for 24 straight hours. Acia still gets upset when we talk about it.

~It Just Gets Stranger

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Whenever Krishelle, Uncle Will and I travel anywhere (mostly thanks to Bridgette) we constantly sing the "Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut; McDonalds, McDonalds" song and we get really excited if we can spot all three places at once in whichever freaky third world country we're in. So, naturally, for the last few days from opposite ends of the world, and in preparation for the crew to make their trek east, we've been singing the song non-stop but replacing "McDonalds" with "Mc-banya" among other things. I think our most recent Russified version of the song is "Russian Fried Chicken and a Vodka Hut; Mc-Banya, Mc-Banya." As I type now, I'm laughing about this as though it's the first time I've heard it. I don't know why I just shared that with you. I've had little sleep this week.

Yesterday morning some friends and I got up bright and early and left Moscow for a large orphanage about an hour or so outside of the city. This wasn't the first Eastern European orphanage I've been to but it was by far the largest, having about 140 children of almost all ages and genders. To make it more interesting and sad this was an orphanage for children with special needs, or, as we were told by the friend that brought us there in a strong Russian accent, "psychologically disturbed kids." This seemed be a big range of problems. Some of the kids seemed relatively stable and others were completely out of it and most were somewhere in between. It was difficult to really get a great sense of this however as most of the children seemed heavily sedated and walked around looking like zombies. The building was huge and a couple of hundred years old. DHL was sponsoring a service project (I believe they go out there every few weeks) so my friends and I went to help. We helped put together playground equipment for a while outside where we were bitten by no less than 5 billion mosquitoes; as I type, 2 pints of my blood are hovering somewhere in a forest in western Russia. Hopefully it ends up in a blood bank eventually. After a while we went in and played with the kids who were so cute and sweet. One 5 year old boy kept coming over to give me hugs. I just wanted to take him home with me. All in all it was a really good experience for us to go out there. As always it was so heartbreaking to see so many kids with little chance for a better life. But I'm thankful that there are people out there willing to go to these places and donate time and money to make them a little better and sometimes going as far as adopting children from all over the world who need to be rescued.

I'm having a really hard time right now as this Moscow experience starts to wrap up. In the interest of not giving the wrong impression I must preface the next few thoughts by saying that I really miss my family and friends in the states and I am so excited to see everyone again. I love my life in Provo and I love what I'm doing there now. That said, I really don't want to leave Moscow right now. I have never felt so comfortable before. I feel like I fit in better here than anywhere I've ever been. I've made so many great friends. I love the city and I love the international branch I go to. I love the office I'm working in and the people I get to be with every day there. There's just something about this place that really fits me and I've never felt so content before. The only thing missing is all of you out there reading. That's the hard thing about moving around to different countries around the world; everywhere you go you leave a huge piece of yourself there and it makes it so that everywhere you go, you feel like something is missing. I suppose this is just something I'm going to have to learn to deal with.

Work has been busy and interesting as always. Church exploring has remained exciting and borsht eating has been fantastic as ever. I'm looking forward to seeing my travel group here in just a few days. Hopefully it will warm up by then. The last 2 days have been rainy and really cold, an extreme change from last week when I layed out on the beach for about three days and roasted in the hot hot sun. C'est la vie.

~It Just Gets Stranger

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Loving Moscow

I'm going to make this quick because it's later than I thought it was but I wanted to get an update out and post some pictures. I haven't been paying attention to the time lately so when I was walking home tonight (again through the most wonderful forest) I thought it was much earlier because it was still dusk out. Well it turns out it was after midnight. Apparently it stays light at least until midnight now and the sun comes up sometime before 4:30AM because that's when I wake up in a panic every morning thinking it's noon because the sun is planted firmly in the sky already. I love it.

President Uchtdorf and Elder Anderson came to Moscow on Monday and had a fantastic meeting here with the members. I sang in the Russian choir and got to sit up on the stage just right next to them. The members here in Moscow were so excited to have them come and their talks were so interesting and inspirational for the members here. Some neat things happened while they were in town. I would like to write more about one experience now but I don't think I'll do it justice because I'm so tired so I would rather wait. Just know it's a really neat story and feel warm and fuzzy about it.

Other than that this week has been another great week of touring and working. I went to one of the most beautiful services at my favorite Orthodox church the other day. My friend Jaclyn and I also got completely soaked in a terrible rain storm last night while trying to find a monastery. At least it hasn't been cold.

My Russian is all of the sudden getting a lot better this week. Don't get me wrong; I aint foolin' anyone into thinking I'm a native speaker but I'm communicating pretty well lately. It's like I just all of the sudden had this breakthrough. I've noticed that the guys in my office have stopped speaking English to me now which I take as a sign that they think my Russian has improved as they used to only speak English to me except for one who is from Ukraine and speaks only Ukrainian to me. But it's really nice; for the first time I feel fully confident and justified in calling myself tri-lingual without having to say "but" afterwards. I so wish I could stay the rest of the summer and keep working on it.

My friends and I had tickets to go to St. Pete's tomorrow but they could no longer go and I thought about just going alone but decided against it worrying that I would just spend the whole day lost and tired and without someone to laugh about it with. I'm kind of bummed about it but I've recently discovered some new things in Moscow that I would like some extra time for and I plan to return to Russia many many times for the rest of my life so there will be other opportunities. Fortunately we were able to get our money back on the tickets.

Ok I'll cut it off here. I'm safe and happy and having the time of my life. Would love to hear from you all wherever you are!

Singing in the area office for a farewell for two general authorities that are leaving soon.
Church of St. Nicholai of the Weavers. My FAVORITE church!!! Gorgeous inside and out!
Weavers church again.
Weavers Church.
Weavers Church.
Me and Dennis celebrating "Vafly Venesday." A day where I run around the office and make everyone eat a ton of vafly!
Me getting caught eating Vafly even though it's not Vafly Venesday. A BIG no no.
Crappy street band. I'm sitting in there in the middle listening to the street band.
St. Basil's looking amazing at night!!!
St. Basil's again. And the Kremlin to the right.
Lunch and Vafly for the day at the area office.
President Uchtdorf greeting the members.
Onion domes under construction.
Moscow State University: the biggest building I have ever seen. One of Stalin's "7 sisters."
One of Stalin's 7 Sisters.

~It Just Gets Stranger