Greetings from Russia! We have now begun our second year here in Rostov. On January 7th, we celebrated old calendar Christmas with much fanfare! A wonderful midnight Christmas liturgy on a beautiful, snowy night was enjoyed by quite a crowd at our church, just under the famous Rostov Bells. The babushkas and other parishioners of the church ensured our children received a deluge of candies and gifts.
On January 13th, our family was treated to another amazing performance at the Yolka festival. Since Russians focus on fasting and prayer prior to celebrating the birth of Christ, they celebrate with Christmas music programs and festivals after Christmas! Local kids dressed up, sang, danced, and acted out famous Russian fairytales. And once again, each of our eight children received an abundance of candy as a treat.
From January 27th until February 9th, we had the privilege of receiving guests from America. The Conrads (our cousins) were treated to lots of sightseeing, including a few grand road trips. We really enjoyed seeing them, and we enjoyed showing them around Moscow, Rostov, Suzdal, Vladimir, Borisoglebsky, and Sergiev Posad. We all got to see several famous Orthodox churches and monasteries. While they were here, we also got to experience a record snowfall. A big “Thank you!” to them for making the journey to experience Russia with us!
Just prior to Great Lent, we celebrated the festival of Maslenitsa in the community of Davydovo. The celebration began at 3:30 p.m. with the women and girls of the community at one end of the main road, and the men and boys at the other end of the road. They came together singing an old Russian folk song. A proclamation was read, and this kicked off the celebration. Lots of games were played including tug of war, jump rope, balancing on log and trying to knock your opponent off, climbing a pole to retrieve a message, snow ball fights, and much more. There was an abundance of blini (thin pancakes) and hot tea to offset the chilly, snowy weather. Lots of singing and dancing were also enjoyed by all. Fr. Vladimir and Fr. Joseph enjoyed each other’s company, while the children ran and played in the snow.
On the way home the kids and I got to experience sliding off the road into a snowbank. No one was hurt, including the car. Within five minutes five cars had stopped to help us. Like a well-oiled machine the men in those cars worked together to not only get our car back on the road, but also another car that slide off right after us. From trying to “lift our car” out, to calling for others to help, to comforting Kenneth when he was scared after the rope broke, those men went well out of their way to ensure we were safe and taken care of. We are extremely grateful to them for their help. Indeed, there is never a dull moment in Russia!
As I’m writing this, it is now Forgiveness Sunday, and we are entering Great Lent. I ask everyone to forgive me for any hurt I have caused because of what I have said or left unsaid, done or left undone. Please forgive me, a sinner. May God forgive us all, and grant us a spiritually beneficial Lent.
In the autumn of 2017, after Fr. Joseph had recovered from cancer and chemo, we decided it was time to hit the road and do some sight-seeing. We began our journey by heading to the ancient town of Suzdal, the smallest city of the Golden Ring. It is quite beautiful, and is full of impressive sights to see.
We began our tour by having a delicious lunch at a museum restaurant. This restaurant had a many things to look at while waiting for our lunch. They even had their menu translated into English. Major bonus points from me for that one. The food was excellent. After filling our bellies, we began our tour of the city. A person could easily spend a week taking in all the impressive sights, but we only had a few hours.
There are two convents, a monastery, the Kremlin, and FIFTY-SEVEN churches to behold. We were only able to see a few of them, but they were definitely worth it. The iconography in them was so amazing. Some of them were like pictures taken by camera, so lifelike and beautiful.
We also visited an amazing park with a log cabin, giant wooden swings, a wooden teeter-totter, and numerous wooden carvings of characters from Russian fairytales. Our kids had a hard time leaving it. Each carved wooden statue was more amazing than the one before.
Our tour of Suzdal ended at the Kremlin, and it didn’t disappoint either. It is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful. After we left Suzdal we headed to Vladimir where we were staying for the night. Just north of Vladimir, we stayed at the monastery in Bogolyubovo.
We arrived much later than planned, but were greeted with warmth and hospitality. Our family stayed in a room with four bunk beds, and two other beds pushed together. Everyone enjoyed a nice peaceful sleep. In the morning we went to liturgy, where again we were met with lots of kindness. We were standing in the back of the church, and one of the head nuns came and ushered us up to the front. After the service we were treated to a wonderful breakfast. Then we were shown where the Theotokos appeared and told St. Andrey Bogolyubskyto stop his journey with her icon and build a church there.
Next we met with and received a blessing from Fr. Peter. He is 91 years old and hard of hearing, but loves children and was delighted to meet us crazy Americans. He and his staff won our children’s affection with their shower of candy and stuffed animals. Father personally greeted each of our children, and listened as Fr. Joseph told him our story of coming to Russia. He was very generous and kind to us.
Next we walked down to the springs near the monastery, and looked at the Klyazma River. Then we began our trek to the Church. This entailed climbing up a bunch of stairs to a bridge over a railway station, then back down on the other side, followed by another half a mile walk to the Church. You can only reach this church by foot! It was well worth the effect, and we all got our exercise for the day!
Both of these cities have magnificent churches, monasteries, Kremlins, and so much more to behold. We plan on visiting again really soon, so we can see more of it!!!
By now you have heard about the Christian revival which is sweeping across Russia, with thousands of churches being restored and built on an unprecedented scale. One of these restorations is happening right here in Rostov, literally in our own backyard. This church is dedicated to Saint Leontius, bishop and martyr of Rostov.
We are currently living next door to this church. Most days the workers arrive around 8 a.m. and work until 6 or 7 p.m. We watch with fascination as they climb up the scaffolding. An enormous crane lifts pallets of bricks and mortar up to the top, where the workers skillfully turn them into a work of art.
This whole process is totally fascinating to our little son, Kenneth. Whenever he hears the crane, which is usually during breakfast time, he wants out of his high chair. Once free, he quickly walks to the window and points to the church. He stands and watches until the crane leaves.
I must admit, he isn’t the only who stands or sits and watches the construction. The rest of our family is often mesmerized as well, as we watch the renewal of Orthodox Russia, happening one brick at a time. These workers appear fearless as they scurry up and down the scaffolding, building this masterpiece.
St. Leontius was originally from Constantinople. He moved to Slavic lands and joined the Monastery of the Kiev Caves. He was their first monk to become a bishop, and was appointed to serve in Rostov, where he successfully converted pagans to the Christian faith. He reposed in the year 1073, and was Russia’s first bishop to be recognized as a saint and martyr. His relics are at the Rostov Kremlin, inside the Dormition Cathedral.
The church of St. Leontius was built in the 1790s, during the reign of Catherine the Great. It was badly damaged during the communist regime of the 20th century, but thankfully, it was not completely destroyed. Today, Russia is experiencing an unprecedented revival of Christian faith, and the church of St. Leontius is being restored to its former glory.
When we first arrived here in Rostov, this church was covered in snow. We could see the basic outline of the Church, and the scaffolding. Once the snow started to melt, the beauty of this Church began to appear. Warmer temperatures brought the workers to continue the transformation. Broken bricks were chiseled off, and new scaffolding was built even higher.
A lot of restoration work has already been done on the sides of the church, and they are now working on restoring the middle dome. There are about six weeks of warm weather left here in Rostov this year, when work on this church can still be done. In order to finish the middle dome, about $16,000 still needs to be raised.
This is a chance to contribute to the renewal of Orthodox Christian worship in Russia, helping with the restoration of a historic Orthodox church. How often does an opportunity like this become available? Please pray for the success of this project. Lord-willing, we hope this church will soon be fully restored, full of worshipers offering up praises to God.
It has been a long time since I posted an article here. No, we didn’t get sent to prison or banished to Siberia. CANCER happened!!! Now that we are on the other side of it, hopefully I will be posting more regularly again. To begin, we would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers, money, time, advice, and so many other things that helped get us through the past six months. Here is a brief summary of the events that led to our being missing-in-action:
Fr. Joseph, my husband, found out in March that he had testicular cancer. Yeah, I heard a lot of jokes about it, most of them from Fr. Joseph!!! He had surgery right away to remove the testicle and tumor. However, he ended up being in the hospital for almost three weeks. He wasn’t healing as quickly as expected, and here in Russia they keep you in the hospital until they are sure you are well. Thankfully, Fr. Joseph was able to make visits to church during this time, because there is a beautiful Orthodox church inside the hospital. Finally, he was released to come home.
Next up was CHEMO!!! That wonderful treatment will either cure you or kill you! Fr. Joseph was advised that he would need either four or six rounds. Each round would mean a week in the hospital, constantly sick, being pumped full of delightful intravenous cocktails, and receiving multiple shots in the rump. Then he would get to come home for two weeks to “recover”. Sounds like fun, huh? Especially when you throw in the suppressed immune system and eight little “germ magnets” just waiting for his return. As we are always up for a good challenge, he was scheduled to begin treatment in Moscow in the early part of May.
His treatment was delayed a couple weeks, for a few reasons. One, he needed to finish healing up from his surgery. Two, PASCHA. Three, we had friends from America already scheduled to visit during Bright Week. Four, Fr. Joseph went to Mt. Athos to pray for healing from cancer. Five, all three of our sons’ birthdays are in May, and he didn’t want to miss them. There was no way to schedule the treatment so that he wouldn’t be in the hospital during one of their birthdays. The biggest reason was that we had to leave the country! Our visa status currently requires us to leave the country every six months. For us, that would have been in June, which would have been in the middle of his treatment. But it’s probably not a good idea to skip the country when you’re sick as a dog with a suppressed immune system, so Fr. Joseph decided to wait a little while longer to begin treatment. In early May, we took a road trip to the Pskov-Caves Monastery, and we walked across the border into Estonia. Soon afterwards, Fr. Joseph went to Moscow and began his first round of chemo.
Thankfully, he only had to do four rounds of chemo. I think God knew our sanity was about gone, so He decided to have mercy on us. Once he finished all four rounds, they did bloodwork, and a CT scan. Everything looked wonderful, so he was released with instructions to come back in six months for more bloodwork and another CT scan.
From the bottom of our hearts, we want to thank the doctors, nurses, priests, our family and friends, the Orthodox Christians Fight Cancer group, and anyone else who helped us through this challenge!!! We are very grateful, and we couldn’t have made it through this ordeal without each one of you. Above all, we thank God for His mercy in healing Fr. Joseph!!!
Russia is similar to America in that there are different categories of stores. In America near the small town where we lived, there were three main grocery stores you could choose from: The Dollar Store, The Wonder Market (family-owned store), and Wal-Mart. In Rostov, Russia, there are three main grocery stores too. Each store has its advantages and disadvantages. Among those are selection, convenience, prices, and whether you have to pay for bags.
The first option is Dixie (Дикси), and at least in our town, it is comparable to The Dollar Store. In the towns and cities I have visited, you can usually find a Dixie store fairly easily. These stores have a lot of the quick-stop type of things or last-minute things a person might be looking for. There is a pretty good choice of things a person could purchase. However, you might not find the size, brand, or variety of thing you are looking for. For instance, they have trash bags, but not the big size. They have toilet paper, but only four-roll packages. They have fresh vegetables and fruit, but not a vast variety you could find at one of the other stores. You don’t have to weigh the fresh vegetables and fruit. They do that at the checkout counter. You have to pay for the bags to carry the groceries. The bags are bigger than at Atroos.
A second option is Atroos (Атрус), which is comparable to the Wonder Market. It is a bigger store with more to chose from. There is a baby section, a decent toy section, variety of certain clothes, more options (brands) of cleaning products, hair products, personal products, kitchen items (including utensils, cookware, etc.), a bigger frozen food section, more bakery options, and a deli. The prices are comparable to Dixie, and you don’t have to pay for the bags to carry the groceries. The bags are not as good quality as at Dixie. Your children also get little toys for free, depending on how much you spend. Think of the little machines where you put in a quarter and get a ring, gumball, etc.
Magnit (Магнит) is a third option, and it is more comparable to Wal-Mart. It is a much bigger store with a lot more to chose from. In addition, it also has a pet store, a jewelry store, a home-decorating store, and an electronics store. The selection of items available is much better, as is the variety. There are groceries, household items, tools, clothing, shoes, a seafood counter, deli, and bakery. The amount of choices and variety is greater too. You can also purchase bigger quantities (sizes) of items. You have to weigh the fresh vegetables and fruit yourself, as well as certain frozen food items. They have packaged frozen food, or you can bag your own. You have to pay for the bags to carry the groceries, but they are even better quality than the ones from Atroos. The prices are slightly lower than at the other two stores.
I like each of these stores for different reasons. Dixie and Atroos are just a couple blocks from where we currently live, so they were very convenient for us when we didn’t have a car. They are still very convenient when I just need to get bread or juice. Magnit is about ten minutes away, so I don’t frequent it as often. I usually go there only if I need something in particular that I can’t get at one of the other two stores.
Since storage space is currently limited, we have to go to the store at least twice a week to buy food. Once we have our own house with more storage space, we will be able to “stock up” more, like we used to do in America. All three stores have debit card machines which are very helpful, so I don’t have to worry about having cash with me. They all have ATM machines too. All three stores are very clean and well-stocked. There’s also no problem finding a salesperson to ask a question. All three stores have some American brand-name products too.
In an upcoming article, I’ll discuss prices of various items that we have purchased, giving an idea of what it takes to feed our family of ten.
CLOTHING – So we knew when we moved here, that we were coming in the “dead of winter”. With the exception of the baby, all of us have heavy winter coats with hoods, gloves, and boots. For the baby, I have a car seat cover-all. It basically covers up the whole car seat and baby. We also brought mostly winter clothes, i.e. long sleeve shirts, sweaters, blue jeans, long blue jean skirts, etc. I knew that the baby would need a coat, but I didn’t want to buy one before we left because he was growing so fast. My hope was that we could wait until next fall to buy him one. I had also brought sweat pants for the girls to wear when playing in the snow.
God has a REALLY funny sense of humor, because THIS Christmas (January 7th) turned out to be the coldest Russia has had in 120 years. So I think that I have everyone all bundled up really well for the Christmas Eve service. Everyone had on winter clothes, coats zipped up, with hoods, gloves, and boots on. The baby had on a fleece sleeper, a hat, and was completely wrapped in TWO fleece blankets.
When we arrived at the church, we were ushered into the office, and this was where the fun began. A lady from the church about lost her mind when she saw me unwrapping Kenneth in the heated office. The baby was sweating, and wanted out of his “cocoon”. She kept saying, “Poor boy” over and over again along with some other choice words. My Russian was good enough to catch that part. We were sitting on couches, and she couldn’t believe the boots Kelsey had on. So she took them off, and went got another pair of “snow boots” for her to wear. This was also when she REALLY lost her mind. None of us girls had on “leggings”. We had on long skirts, socks, and boots. Julie’s skirt apparently wasn’t thick enough, so she went and got another skirt and tied it on her. Our translator that was with us just kept laughing and shaking her head.
Within a few days of this event, a gift bag of hats, two more winter coats, several sweaters, a pair of snow pants, and four pair of leggings, all arrived at our house. The next several times we went to church, we were “checked” to see if we were wearing leggings or sweat pants, and had hats on. One lady literally lifted Katie’s skirt to see if she had leggings on. Poor Kimberly couldn’t win. Her leggings were “skin” colored, so they never thought she had her leggings on. We have all taken to just wearing the sweat pants under our skirts to be done with it.
A snow suit was given to us for Kenneth. Remember the boy in the movie, “A Christmas Story”, who can’t move his arms? Oh, yes! This bad boy has a furry inner-suit that you put the baby in first. Then you put the baby in the “suit”. First time we put Kenneth in it, he looked at us like we had lost our minds. I thought I would make them all so happy to see him in his new “suit”. But I had forgotten to put his hat on under the hood, and to put on his wool booties under the outer booties of the suit.
In America, we take our coats, hats, and gloves off when we come into church. In Russia, a lot of people stand through an entire two-hour liturgy with coats on (and zipped up), snow pants on, women with hats on, and babies and small children trapped in their straight-jackets (I mean snow-suits).
We could stand keeping our coats on, but poor Kenneth was dying of heat exhaustion in his snow suit. So I unzipped it some, took off his hat, and let him “air out” a little. Within five minutes, a lady wanted to know where his hat was. I pulled it out of my coat pocket and smiled. 🙂
Strollers – I asked Fr. Joseph to acquire us a stroller, because after our Moscow trip I decided Kenneth needed his own “ride”. I was thinking of a simple umbrella stroller like we had in America (that stroller the airline said we couldn’t check, but that we could have checked after all). Now in hindsight I can see God’s sense of humor kicking in. THAT stroller would not have met muster in Russia!
So Fr. Joseph goes off to the store, and I wait for his phone call. He gives me the three options, I tell him how much money I want to spend, and ultimately I let him decide which one he thinks is best since he is looking at them. He comes back with Kenneth’s new Cadillac.
I had heard about Russians covering babies up. I had experienced Russians telling me how to cover up babies, but nothing prepared me for this stroller. It literally has a bassinet (think Moses-basket) that you put the baby in. You put that in the stroller, and then you zip a covering up over the baby, so all you can see are the whites of the baby’s eyes! Most of the covering will unzip off when warmer weather arrives. The picture will speak for itself.
The tires are grand too. They are comparable to bicycle tires. Plus, it comes with a matching diaper bag! We are totally styling now. And lest you think I’m alone with this kind of stroller, we have encountered several versions of it on our walks around Rostov!
Our first road trip to Moscow took place this past Sunday, January 22nd. After church, we came home, ate a quick lunch, and loaded the kids up in the van we are borrowing. Our plan was to drive to Moscow on Sunday, spend the night at a friend’s house, and then get up early Monday to do all the things we needed, and drive back to Rostov arriving Monday evening. You know what they say about “plans”? Make some plans, and then watch them change!
The trip from Rostov to Moscow should take about three hours. It didn’t. One word: TRAFFIC! If I thought New York City traffic was bad, Moscow has it beat by a long shot.
We arrived at our friend’s house just south of Moscow in time for a late supper. They live in a four story house (yes, I said four story), and they have six children who are similar in age to our children. Our kids hit it off with their kids, and we really enjoyed our time with them.
They gently informed us there was no way we were going to accomplish what we wanted to in Moscow, and still get home Monday evening. Moscow traffic says, “No way”! We decided to extend our stay with them until Tuesday, with the hope of leaving early Tuesday morning to beat the “Moscow traffic”.
Monday morning we drove to the Metro (subway). This took longer than the 30 minutes it was supposed to take, because of …..wait for it…..TRAFFIC. We walked quickly (as quickly as you can on snowy ice carrying a baby and a backpack) to the station.
After some discussion, we got our passes, and boarded the train to Moscow. About 30 minutes later we arrived in downtown Moscow. We met up with another friend and translator to begin our tour.
First up we saw the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. All of this was breathtaking and well worth the trip!
After our tour, Kenneth needed a diaper change, and it was almost lunchtime. We headed over to the mall to kill two birds with one stone. To enter the mall, we had to go through security. I’m not kidding.
If I hadn’t known I was in Moscow, I would have thought I was in a mall in America. Kenneth got a fresh diaper, and we ate lunch at a café in the mall. By the time we finished it was time to head to the American Embassy for our appointment.
We hopped back on the Metro, and headed toward the Embassy. After a brisk walk, we arrived at the Embassy, and started the process of getting in. At the gate (on the street), our translator told them we had an appointment, and we showed our passports.
The guard takes our passports, looks in his book, looks at our passports again, looks at his book again, and then hands our passports back to us. He asks our translator about all these children. Our translator says they are our children. Now the guard needs to see their passports. We show him their passports. He decides they can come in too.
Next we have to show him all of our backpacks (me and each of the 7 children have one, plus Fr. Joseph has his laptop bag).
Then each one of us gets “wanded” by the security guard. Finally we get in the gate, and go up the stairs into the Embassy.
The next room is barely big enough for all ten of us to even squeeze into. We have to show our passports again, our bags have to be x-rayed, and we have to walk through a metal detector.
We also have to surrender our cell phones. Not turn them off, but hand them over to the guard. I’m not kidding. He buzzes us through the door, and we sit down to wait. By now it is a good 30 minutes past our appointment time.
Thankfully, we paid for the notary, we signed the paper, and then we asked where the nearest FedEx office was so we could mail the paper back to America. After some consulting, they told Fr. Joseph where they thought one was nearby.
They were WRONG! Our first translator had gone to do some errands of his own, so we were on our own. Fr. Joseph searched for the nearest FedEx office, found one on Google Maps, and we set off in search of it.
Here’s a visual picture for you: Imagine two adults (one carrying an 8 month old baby), and 7 children carrying backpacks, wandering up and down the snowy streets of Moscow following a blue dot on a cell phone! Oh yes, we were a sight!
A mile later, we ended up at the place where the map said a FedEx office was located. We go in, and the man at the desk informs us that NO, there is not a FedEx office here. We all collapse on their couches, and groan.
The kids are CERTAIN they are NOT going to ever see a Lego store, and I’m certain my feet and arms are going to fall off. We go back outside, and lo-and-behold, Christ the Savior Cathedral is about a block away from where we are standing. Thank you, Jesus!
We walked to the Cathedral, taking in the beauty of it. For a Christmas present, Katie and Kimberly had gotten a puzzle with a picture of this Cathedral, so it was even more special to see it.
This Cathedral was awesome to behold! There’s a Church upstairs, and then you go downstairs, and there’s another complete church down there too.
While there, we also met up with Anna, a friend of ours who is also a translator. She and her friend (also named Anna) guided us to our next and final destination for the day.
At this point it is about 4:30 p.m. We hop back on the Metro, and head to the big toy store.
This toy store is right outside the Metro! THANK YOU, JESUS! It is three floors, and after riding the escalator up and down to the wrong floors, we finally arrived at the Lego store. Our kids could hear angels singing “Halleluah”.
I passed the baby off to our friend, and started systematically helping our children spend their Christmas money (a gift from their Grammy) as quickly as possible.
The nice saleswoman must have seen a “big spender” sign on us. She quickly got brought out a basket for the many boxes of Legos to go in.
We finished in about 15 minutes, and we headed back to the Metro. But not before we ran into an owl! Yes, we got to pet a real live owl in the Metro. Jeremy and Andrew even got to hold it. There’s never a dull moment in our lives, I’m telling you.
We hop on the Metro, and begin the trip back to the Metro station where we left our van. It is the last stop. And the Metro is PACKED!!!
We have 8 children, plus backpacks, plus three big bags of Legos on a packed train that is moving at a high rate of speed.
Eventually the train started emptying out, and we were all able to sit down. Oh yes, we were a sight!
We arrived back at the train station, and walked back across the snowy ice to the van.
After loading everyone up, we began our trip back to our friend’s house. Remember it is only supposed to take about 30 minutes. An hour and a half later we arrived, and had a late supper.
The original plan was to get up really early and leave to come back to Rostov. However, we hadn’t found a FedEx office yet to mail off the paper, so that still had to be done in the morning.
Next morning we got up at 6:00 a.m., had breakfast with our friends, and said goodbye to them. We headed back toward Moscow with the hope of finding the right FedEx office.
About noon, we pulled into the parking garage of a building that was supposed to have a FedEx office in it. It turned out that this van was too big to fit properly in this parking garage, but sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.
The kids and I sat in the van while Fr. Joseph and our translator friend went into the building. About 30 minutes later they came back, and the paper is supposed to be on its way to America.
We started our trip back to Rostov. By now the kids are coming unglued because they are hungry, and Fr. Joseph just wants to get away from Moscow traffic.
We stopped to fill up with diesel, and then Fr. Joseph visited the local “Pomponchik” fast food restaurant. He brought us chicken nuggets, fries, and fresh, warm doughnuts. This made us all less grouchy about the trip that seemed like it would never end.
We arrived home about 4:30 p.m., and the kids got right to work, putting together all their Legos.
All in all it was a good trip. We saw some really amazing sights, spent time with some very hospitable Orthodox friends, ate fast food that reminded us of America, and conquered Moscow traffic.
I think it will be a little while before we do another road trip though!