We are in our second day of travel and this may be the last day I’ll be able to post anything due to lack of wi-fi access. On the Friday of our return, I might be able to post but it’s unlikely with 4 flights home and two of them very long flights.

We had a really wonderful time touring the inside of Catherine the Great’s palace in Pushkin, Russia (outside of St. Pete). The opulence was staggering. We were overwhelmed at how someone could live in such extreme wealth. It was a reminder that living for acquiring “stuff” is such vanity! This woman is dead and she created a name for herself but is she in heaven? I certainly hope she trusted in Christ alone for eternal life. Sad to see so many Americans chasing after material things rather than running after Christ and advancing His kingdom.

We entered our first Russian home yesterday in St. Petersburg. Pastor Igor and his wife Lyana (sp?) fed us lunch and showed us some videos of their church’s rehab center and Christmas outreach. The outreach was cool because two new church plants sprang from those efforts. I also love the rehab center which was built by an American missions team working with Pastor Igor. I love the rehab center’s approach because they depend only upon the Word of God and no other teachings. What a powerful faith statement to say that Christ is the answer and the Holy Spirit will transform you as you study and obey the Bible alone!

Today, we entered our second Russian home but this time in Kemerovo, Siberia. Yes, we landed in Siberia where people actually live. I had my doubts but no more. The town is bleak and you can tell has very low incomes but the home we are in is wonderful. The bed we napped in this morning was the best bed I’ve slept in since landing in Russia. Later today, we are headed to a museum that commemorates the coal mining industry in Kemerovo. Tomorrow, I will preach in the church where the training is and then we’ll spend 4 nights sleeping in that church building which I am told is fairly primitive.

We are now officially 12 hours ahead of Birmingham local time. So when it is noon here, it is midnight there. It has been really hard to adjust to this new Siberian time.

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What has surprised me about Russian culture is that the people here are not all that fired up about Americans. It’s really no big deal that one is an American and that’s a good thing. We can try to blend in though our dress gives us away. We are treated like everyone else and that’s nice.

Also surprising is how dark everyone’s clothing is. Few wear bright colors of any sort: rare to see red, yellow, white, light blue, etc. Black, gray, navy blue, etc. seems to be the primary color choice. We gave Pastor Igor’s wife one of the scarves that my daughters made as gifts to give those who allow us into their homes and she LOVED it. “Ooohhhh” she said as she accepted our gift. Pastor Igor seemed to like his gift, too.

The Russian people are so kind and polite. They really treat one another with great respect, opening doors for each other, respecting women, etc. They are not afraid of stealing or purse-snatching on the streets. People are very decent to strangers though they rarely smile at each other.

Russian culture in many ways is refreshing. I have not seen one flamboyant man acting like a feminine man nor have I seen a woman act like a butch-like man. Other aspects of Russian culture are really wonderful and I am not afraid or concerned at all when walking the streets in the day.

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Changing gears, some funny things that have happened on our trip:

1) We showered in a tube-like container that looks like a stand-up coffin. I couldn’t get the water the right temperature this morning and it both froze and then melted me. Thankfully, I could keep it on the spray feature rather than the pouring down on the top of your head feature in the middle of the coffin at the top. That last feature is no fun when the water is set to the middle but comes out either freezing cold or boiling, lava hot.

2) We are running low on our clothing and will have to repeat-wear some of them. I won’t tell you which ones and I won’t remind you that I perspire heavily, especially on a packed subway with 5 million people in one car where it can get oven-like hot. We definitely now have a distinct odor. Don’t meet us at the airport when we get back to Birmingham. If you do, you will not want to hug us. Just a warning.

3) No one makes eye contact here with strangers. That’s a bummer for a guy like me who likes to smile and say “hello” to folks. I may have freaked thousands of people out until I finally figured out that a) they don’t speak English b) they look away with terror in their eyes when you glance at them and smile. I am learning to be less friendly but it feels so rude.

4) I tried making up my own words that I thought were similar to words I had just heard but I missed the target. I wouldn’t recommend it.

5) Burger King has the best chicken wings this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

6) Burger King has the worst “barbecue” dipping sauce this side of anywhere. It’s a sin to call that “barbecue sauce.” It was just wrong.

7) We drink hot tea after every meal. I made mine slightly sweet tea.

8) Crushed pop tarts are good in the morning when you have precious few other options for a quick breakfast.

9) Russians/Ukrainians walk fast and take long strides. It’s hard for big guys to stay with them. At one point, I got behind two elderly Russians and one had a cane. Artyom and Mark Jr. were well ahead of this couple and I was behind them walking in the path with snow, ice, and of course, scattered dog droppings. Sadly, not only could I not catch Artyom and Jr., but I couldn’t even catch the older Russian couple with the cane!

10) I say “good” in Russian all of the time because it sounds like the American words: “horror show.” Love it!

11) My son had a funny line he said to me in the St. Pete airport: “It smells like Frequent Flyer miles to me.”

12) People love to bump into you. They don’t follow the idea of personal space here very much. One guy in the Siberian airport physically put his arm on my left shoulder and pushed me to the right.

13) We played ping pong in Siberia and I was the big winner!

14) We played Risk on the flight to Siberia and I was the big winner vs. Artyom and Mark Jr. and the computer player! World domination!

(maybe you can tell that I am competitive?)

15) I didn’t know what she said but I am people savvy and I heard the word “American” stated in a negative way by the woman in the Siberian convenience store where we purchased water and peanuts. I used a $1,000 Ruble bill and she had to give me change so I am quite confident that she didn’t like it. The others in the store just laughed and looked at me and then down. I smiled and tried to say something but to no avail. They don’t speak English and I don’t speak Russian.

Have a great week, you spoiled Americans reading this! Nothing like Siberia…nothing!

-Mark (having fun at my own expense in a country that has surprised me completely)

P.S. If I can post, I will but Artyom is warning us about our upcoming conditions. We are staying at the Bishop’s home for 1 night before leaving for the church which is 70 km south of civilization according to him. Roughing it is fun, kinda…

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