Wow, I'm here. I'm glad that on the flight schedule they changed the times to reflect the destination, so it wasn't actually 29 hours of travel time with a 15 hour flight, it ended up being only about 18 hours travel time with an 8 hour flight, so it wasn't that bad! The Salt Lake to Denver was in a tiny Canadair regional jet, pretty bumpy. The Denver to Chicago was a lot nicer in a big 'ol B777. The Chicago to Frankfurt was in a B777 too, I think. I tried to catch a few z's, I think I got like an hour or so. I'm really proud of my iron bladder; I never got up from my seat the whole 8 hours. I guess I should've moved around a bit to get the blood flowing, though: when we got to Frankfurt my foot started hurting a lot, but that worked itself out pretty fast. Frankfurt to Munich was pretty uneventful, and so was Munich to Tirana. We got there and pretty much just showed our passport and went right on through. We were picked up by the President and his wife and the assistants to the president.
Driving in Albania is quite an adventure. The goal seems to be to accelerate to 50mph if you have more than 10 feet of clear road ahead. Pretty much, you're responsible for everything in front of you, honking if someone tries to move all up in your business or if someone's backing into the street. I'm glad I won't have to drive unless I'm an AP. It's also fun walking around. You get missed by inches all the time, but that's ok: everyone is very aware when they drive, and they have pretty good maneuvering skills.
After we dropped our stuff off at the mission home, we went to the US Embassy to get our permission to stay certificate or something like that. Here, you don't need a visa, you just pay some money and get a document that says you can stay for a year and you're good. We'll have to renew it later, but it's a pretty easy process. We went back to the mission home and from there split up. The other Elders went out and street contacted a bit, and I stayed back and sat in on a lesson. It was a teenage boy who had committed to baptism and we were just reviewing some lessons to get him ready.
We stayed the night in the mission office, then woke up early and played a game of basketball with the office elders, the APs and president Niel. Later that morning, we had a bit of training and orientation, then lots of other elders came over and we all had pizza. The pizza had some kind of Kosovar sausage; pretty tasty. Then we found out where we were going. I'm in Tirana Third branch, being trained by Elder Seevers! He's a great trainer. He's only been out about 6 months, so neither of us are masters of the language, but it's all good. As long as our language skills are good enough to get the people to feel the Spirit, the Lord will take care of the rest.
Yeah, the language is pretty hard. I can pick out about every 5th word at the speed people speak, and I have a general idea of what they're talking about. So far, my most common phrases are "Sorry, I'm new in Albania" and "Yes, very good!". But I'm working at it, talking with people every day and praying for the Gift of Tongues, and you know what? The Lord is helping, and I'll be fine. It will come in time, and eventually I'll be good enough to be independent in talking to people. In the lessons we're giving (we usually have 2 or 3 a day) I give my testimony on one point or another and Elder Seevers does most of the talking. Even though my skills aren't the best, the Lord can still work through my limited vocabulary and help people feel the Spirit. We went to the baptism of a family recently, and the cool thing was that after they got baptized and were bearing their testimonies, I could understand every word.
Ah, the people! I never really felt comfortable talking to people back home, and I'd get nervous giving talks or lessons. Lo and behold, the Lord is helping out a TON with that: my voice doesn't get shaky when we talk to people, I can smile and greet people on the street, and I wink at the younger generation (don't worry, it's the cool thing to do, like the head nod back home). In lessons when I give my little part, I can speak clearly, and even though I make mistakes, my heart isn't racing like it usually would. Something about knowing that the Lord is with us makes all fear go away.
The people of Albania are pretty neat in my view. They've been held down by that darn Chinese Communism (by their own choice, strangely) for years, and they're just now emerging from that. You can see the strength of the people in the way they carry themselves, and how they deal with one another. They don't have much to be happy about and not much money, but everyone we've met has been kind and respectful to us, especially when saying "no thanks" to our message. They're very open about religion and very tolerant of one another, it's awesome to see.
We went tracting for the first time on Saturday. Our area is called Ali Demi. Our house is about half a mile from the Church building (the first 3 floors of a rented out house/small apartment place), and our tracting area is about a mile from our house in the opposite direction of the Church. This presents a problem. Usually we invite people to meet us at the church building to teach them; because of communism people are reluctant to give out their address. If we wait for someone at the church and they don't show, we can't just decide to go tracting because the tracting area is about a 30 minute walk from the church. By the time we get there, we can only knock a few doors before we have to start heading back.
Anyways, we walked a pretty long ways to get to these "Pilates" (communist-era apartments). It's in kind of scary territory ("the Bronx of Tirana", as my companion put it), where if there's a group of more than 3 mean-looking people we stop talking until we've passed them by. But really, the only danger from them is they'll try out their "English" on us and see our reaction, nobody's really harassed us yet. If someone does stick around trying to get us mad, I'll just say stuff in German and they'll apologize and leave. The Lord definitely walks with his servants.
Here's a few pictures of Tirana from the Memorial of the Heroes monument overlooking the city. I didn't get that good of a picture of the monument itself, but you can probably find pictures of that floating around if you really wanted to see it.
If you'd like to write me, the best address to use would be:
P.O. Box 2984
Rruga Qemal Stafa, Vila 1
Përballë Postës Nr. 22
I'm in Tirana, so I'll get the letters semi-regularly.
Until next time!