20 February 2008

Looking Back...

(I started writing this on the 20th of February, because six years ago on that day I (Dan) started on a wonderfully exciting journey.) I left Colorado to work in Northern Afghanistan for about three months and then went on to return to Kosovo (I spent time there in 1999 and 2000) to work for another three months before I returned to the US to begin working on an M.Div. at Duke. In between these two places I visited some friends in Kazakhstan for about a week.

This morning I sat with a cup of tea remembering some of the amazing moments of God's provision and guidance during those six months. In doing so I had to ask myself, "Where is my reliance on God now? Do I still trust as intensely as I did then? Do I try to control circumstances more now?" I asked more questions, too. ... (I didn't know where this thought would end up, yet it just ended.)

Those six months held exciting times, difficult times, dangerous times, lonely times, uplifting times, searching and questioning times, times of community and friendship and sharing... Looking back now I can see that in all of those times God was present - I may not have always 'felt' it or 'seen' it, yet at other times God's presence was obvious and tangible.

This is a good reminder in this season of Court's and my life in Latvia - God is always present. It's the hope we hold onto when God seems anything but present, involved, loving, etc... The sky may be grey, yet that doesn't mean that the sun has stopped shining. The sun is always shining - we have to believe that even when circumstances seem other than that.

Even though it is an overcast day as I write, I don't feel my heart is overcast - and that is a good thing, a marvelous thing, a freeing feeling.

May you know hope and joy amidst whatever circumstances are out your window and in your heart.

15 February 2008

Frustrating (and inefficient) Beauracracy !

After numerous visits to the office of foreign affairs in Rīga we still do NOT have our residence permits for Latvia.

In order for us to submit our paperwork, the UMC's District office here has to submit paperwork. We checked the internet site of the foreign affairs office here, printed those instructions, and then went to the office just to make sure the information corresponded. We spent time asking detailed questions about which forms and how many of each, what letters need to be written and whose signature needed to appear, etc...

A few days later we returned with the proper documentation and we were told that one of the letters was wrong (even though it was exactly like they told us a few days before). We left and returned two days later with the proper letter (in two various formats to anticipate a change in plans) and they told us we had the correct format but we lacked a signature (one that they said was not required on the previous trip).

We went to that office only to find that they were moving - we phoned them and the lady said, "Come tomorrow, no problem, we'll sign and stamp the letter for you." (She said this even though they were moving. I have to say this office has been the only helpful one in this entire process!) So the next day I brought the letter and they signed and stamped it - no problem.
We brought this letter to foreign affairs and they said it was in the wrong format (even though they approved the format on the previous visit) and that we had to put it in a different format and get a new stamp and new signature. - Thankfully the office that was moving complied once again and helped us out by signing and stamping the letter.

During this entire process, I held on to a conversation I had with the Latvian Embassy in the U.S. (D.C.) before we arrived. I asked, "Where do I need to send my forms to have them processed? D.C., New York, somewhere else?" The cordial reply, "You can submit them to any embassy, or, if you happen to be in Riga, you can submit them to the proper office there." Astonished I asked, "Really, some countries require one to submit an application outside of their country - I can really submit them in Riga?" Again a pleasant voice, "Of course you can submit them in Riga - it is no problem."

So, imagine my surprise the other day when, after they finally accepted the District Office's forms and letters, they told us, "Now you know that you cannot turn the applications in here - the closest places are Estonia or Lithuania. You will have to schedule an appointment with the Latvian Consulate in those countries."

Here is the process - we travel to Estonia, meet with the official in their office, submit the application and pay the fee for that application (because of the long delay in this process, we now have to pay for expedited processing). Then we have to pay an additional "Consular processing fee" (because we submitted the application outside of the country (yet they won't accept the application within the country!) and they will send the applications via courier to the office in Riga where they will end up on the same person's desk that I could hand it to in person. Remember, at this point they don't read or process the applications - they simply take them from us, ask us what we plan to do in Latvia, and then place them in an envelope.
However, since they only send a courier twice a month, if we want to have the applications expedited, then we have to pay a courier fee on top of the expedited fee.

Frustrating and inefficient beauracracy!!
-just thought we would share the insanity with you...

12 February 2008

SUVs vs. SmartCars, Scooters & Cyclists

The other day while I walked down a busy side-walk, a cyclist passed me going in the other direction. I did a double-take primarily because the cyclist was walking his bicycle. At this point a lightbulb turned on in my head and I had a new observation regarding the difference between Riga and other European cities.
In some of the major European cities bicycles and/or motor-scooters serve as a major form of transportation for many people. SUVs are also a rare sight in these cities, while SmartCars (a sardine can on wheels, basically), and other smaller cars are the norm. To date, I have only seen one SmartCar in Latvia, yet at least a third of the vehicles I see are SUVs (American size).
Well, that's just a little observation from over here.

05 February 2008

a little superbowl goes a long way...

Well, I (Dan) did it - I stayed up until 5am Monday morning watching Superbowl XLII. Earlier in the week I was 50/50 about whether or not to watch it. On Sunday afternoon I decided I would find a way to watch it. When I'm in the US, I will watch it, yet I'm more excited to hang out with friends.

During halftime I reflected upon other times when I have been abroad during Superbowl ('98 - Belfast; '04 - Germany; '06 - Paris). I realized that one reason I really wanted to watch it is that I find it helps me connect with some things that are familiar - things that I usually find fulfilled in other ways when I'm in the US. (Wow, it's already 10 years ago that I sat with friends in Belfast and watched the Broncos beat the Packers.)

So, a little Superbowl this past Monday morning went a long way to help my heart and mind during this time of transition.

I hope these thoughts make sense - I am still feeling the sleep deprivation from the other night, so I'm off to bed.

01 February 2008

hamburg church photos

here are some picts of the churches mentioned in our blog about our time in Hamburg (19 Jan). These first few are of St. Nikolai's church which was bombed during WWII and now stands as a peace memorial. This one is St. Michael's

This one is St. Katherine
The next two are St. James' (the aerial photo was taken from the steeple of St. Peter's, which is the last photo.

whacky weather and olive oil

I read on BBC today that many places have experienced weird weather these past couple of weeks. My brother said that he saw snow in Iraq two weeks ago.
Well, in preparation for Latvia, Court and I read some different websites and different guide books. While each one had different things to say, they all had a common denominator - Winter! It is COLD, and it last from the end of October through March. Apparently, that is usually the case. However, many Latvians have told us that this has been a strange winter. Many thought it had come with the New Year when the Daugava River froze , the snow started consistently falling, and the temperature started to steadily descend. However, the past two weeks have been a bit of a reprieve - for which we are thankful because we are still trying to figure out a heating scheme for out apartment that actually keeps us warm.
But Courtney and I know it is warmer outside for a reason other than the river melting and rain instead of snow. See, our kitchen is a temperature gauge of sorts - if its cold outside, then it is cold in the kitchen. If it is warm outside (okay - wait a minute did I just admit that 39F is warm? Well, our bodies are at least adjusting to the cooler weather), then the kitchen is still cold. Courtney laughed/cried a couple of weeks ago when she went into the kitchen and found the olive oil congealed. This past week the olive oil was more like thick honey than a stick of butter - that's how we know it is warmer outside!
Anyway, many Latvians tell us that February should get cold (i.e. the river freezing so solidly that cars can drive on it, etc...). We think we'll survive though as we figured out that 30 minutes before we cook we should put the olive oil on the electric radiator, which warms it up quite nicely.

I guess they are used to waiting...

We are learning that sometimes things just take longer here - a reality that most people here just seem to accept. Now some of the drivers in Riga could benefit from a defensive driving class or anti-roadrage seminar, but most seem content to sit in traffic.
Yesterday we were in the supermarket and the bar code on our bag of onions didn't register. The cashier said, "Do you really want these?" I said, "Yes." But I thought, "Well, that is why I put them in the basket and brought them up here..." Her body language said, "Okay," even if her voice didn't. She stood up, locked the cash drawer, locked the cigarette display, and then walked away with the bag of onions. After a few minutes she returned with a different sticker, rang it in and told me the total. What shocked us the most about this transaction was the reaction of people around us. Courtney observed that in the states if that had happened, many of the people in the line behind me would have been miffed and got into different lanes to get out of the store more quickly. And while a person or two did, most of the people just stood and kept talking to each other...I guess they are used to waiting.
We went to a clinic last week because we needed to get chest x-rays for our visa applications (checking for TB and other lung disease). The receptionist told us that we should just take a seat and in a couple of hours they could do it, unless of course we wanted to come in on Monday or Tuesday at 8am when there would be no line. We opted for this past Monday, and we were in and out in 15 minutes. On the way back to the office we talked about why everyone didn't try to come in at 8am - yet people seemed content to stand and sit for hours just to get an x-ray...I guess they are used to waiting.

'Les Mis' is in Latvia

We saw advertisements for 'Les Mis' on our way to language class last week. On the way home from class we stopped by the opera house to buy tickets for Court's birthday. We decided to take the bus as public transportation is usually reliable. We didn't want to rush so we decided to take an early bus - only it never came. So after waiting for 45-minutes the proper bus came and we were on our way. Then our bus got stuck in traffic. We thought that we would miss the first half because if we got there late we wouldn't be allowed in to the show. Even though bus stop was 3/4 mile from the hall, we actually laughed as we jogged in mist. We arrived, checked our coats, and ran to the entrance hoping the usher would allow us to pass (it was 7.39pm and the showtime was 7.30pm). We walked into what turned out to be an arena and the usher said since they weren't sold out that we could sit anywhere we wanted. We slid into our bleacher seats just as the curtain opened. The entire musical was translated into Latvian - and we even followed some it! The Set: fantastic. The Costumes: brilliant. The Voices: brilliantly fantastic. We enjoyed our night out.