Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Settling in-October, 2011

For the rest of the month, we began to settle into a routine.  Wednesdays and Saturdays were focused on Institute and Home Evening at the Center for Young Adults, which we have responsibility for.  The Institute teacher is Marsel Hoxha, and he does a great job every time.  One of the challenges for him has been the lack of teaching materials in Albanian.  Fortunately, he also speaks Italian and English, which has made it possible for him to prepare.

'First we'll be jack-o-lanterns, then pie!'
The Institute program is for young adults ages 18-30.  At this important time in their lives, the church provides educational programs to help them succeed in their lives.  The Center provides a wholesome place to gather, learn and grow together.  It was Elder Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who championed this cause.  He had a dream/vision that made him realize that the future of the Church in Europe is with the Young Single Adults.  His focus has become our focus.  These are great young people, and they have a great desire to do good and be good.  When they are taught, they usually begin to implement those teachings right away.  Their discussions on gospel principles are frank and honest, and we love being here to watch them learn and grow.  They are an inspiration.

Activity night at the Center
After the lesson time, we always have the center open for games and fun activities, along with a home baked treat from the kitchen.  It gives everyone time to relax and strengthen their friendships.  It gives us time to get to know each one of them better.  With all of our boys grown up and living on their own, it is fun to see that we have almost all young men here!  We have a few girls, but mostly boys and we are right at home.  Been there, done that!  We love it.  Clark especially loves playing ping pong or dominoes with the kids.  They love it too!

We also began going to visit the orphanage in October, on Thursday mornings.  The children there are so cute!  The range in age from babies to about 4 years old, and there are more children who attend school during the day.  Some of the babies have parents who are not able to care for them, but still visit.  These are the lucky ones, as these mothers are working hard to be able to take their child home again.  Most of them fall into the other category, and we do not know how the adoption process works here.  But the children are wonderful and love to be played with, read to and held just like any other kids.  We love visiting the orphanage.

Fresh Mandarin Oranges-Yumm!
On Sunday, October 29th we attended the District Conference in Tirana.  The whole branch traveled by bus, and the ride was much smoother over the bumpy roads because we did.  We had about 55 people on the bus when we left Vlore.  We were a little surprised that not all of them attended conference, though.  Some thought it was a great way to get a free ride to Tirana, and went shopping or visiting family instead.  We'll work on that some more-I understand this is not a new problem ;o)

Elders Street Teaching
Another great start in October was our English Class.  On the first night, we had 32 people who came and registered for the class.  Many of these would later become members of the church.  It was exciting to see so many new faces.

October ended on a Monday with a Family Home Evening for the missionaries at our house.  We love being with them, working with them, and feel that our association with them helps us to be better.  We see them working all the time, and we know the Lord is grateful for their strong testimonies of His Son, and the great desire they have to share that with everyone who will listen.

On our own! Our First Week in Albania-October 17-23,2011

Our Monday evening was spent at the branch.  A Home Evening event had been planned to say good-bye to the Smith's.  The great love that the member's had for them was evident.  There were lots of hugs, and kisses on the cheeks, and tears.  This couple had been not only the senior missionaries here, but also the Branch President and wife-so their hearts are forever entwined with the great members here in Vlore.  It was a happy/sad occasion for all of them.

We looked at all the new faces and wondered how we would ever learn their names?  It seemed like an insurmountable task to me then, but now, looking back only five months, their hearts are forever entwined with mine, and I know all of their names If we had to leave our mission today, I would never forget these wonderful people and the love they have extended to us already.  This is just a wonderful assignment.

Our first week started off just like it would at home if we had just moved into a new place.  We looked it all over, moved the furniture around, did some cleaning and organizing and by the end of the week we were pretty comfortable.  We had district meeting at our house on Tuesday with the young elders and sisters and our first Institute/activity night on Wednesday.  I didn't know what to do for refreshments, so I baked banana bread-since there is someone selling bananas on every corner in Vlore.  I think they enjoyed it-they ate it all up!  (Now I know they will eat anything-all up!  They are always hungry!)

Antonetta on her baptism day
On Wednesday, Oct 19th I went with the sister missionaries to teach a woman named Antonetta at her bookstore near the church.  We also attended her baptism on Saturday, October 22nd-the first of many since we arrived here in Vlore.  Antonetta had been studying with the missionaries for some time, and had made the decision to be baptized.  She described a night when she was struggling with doubts and fears, which she attributed to the adversary trying to discourage her from making this important covenant with her Father in Heaven.  She said that when she would wake up worrying, she would get out of bed and kneel beside the bed and pray until she felt peace again.  Then she would get back into bed and try to sleep-only to wake up again worrying.  She repeated this process over and over through the night.  She said her husband thought she had gone crazy or something-getting up over and over again to kneel in prayer.  But, she announced, the struggle is over-I am ready to be baptized!  It was great to get to know her and she is now a dear friend to us.

On Thursday, October 20th, we had the opportunity to drive the car (makine) up to Fier.  There we met the Casady's, the couple serving there, for the first time.  We hitched a ride with them to Durres for a Couples Conference being held at 1 PM that day.  It was great to hear their story.  Pres. Casady is serving as the branch president in Fier.  He had been a dentist in southern California, and they have a large family.  I think 7 or 8 kids?  Sister Casady is really fun, and we loved getting to know her.  I remember hearing that little voice that sometimes whispers in my ear, saying "This woman will be one of your dearest friends while you are here".  I can tell you that the little voice was right.  I just love Sister Casady and she is already one of my dearest friends here.  We and they both volunteered for 23 month missions, so we will have a good long time to develop our relationship and to add more fond memories to our experience together.

On Friday, our District Leader, Elder Ireland, invited us to "District Lunch".  We'd never heard of a District Lunch before, but it sounded like fun so we said "Sure!"  We all gathered at a
restaurant right on the Bay of Vlore called "Sunset".  It had a beautiful view of the water, and we
were able to eat outside under the awnings, which was really nice.  We took some nice pictures there which we'll share.

Sunday was our first Sacrament meeting in Vlore and we were both looking forward to it so much.  But, I ended up sick in bed and could not attend.  It was a bummer, but I could not move.  I have a way of catching any flu or cold bug in the vicinity, and I caught a doozie that weekend.  I stayed in bed all day, and Clark went to meet the Albanians all on his own.  It's a good thing they're so friendly ;o) !

Our Orientation Day-October 17, 2012

Pres. & Sister Smith

We had breakfast at home, and soon the Smith's were at the door-ready to show us around town.  Vlore is a city of about 100,000 people, which seemed so big to us then.  President Smith had prepared a list of things to show us and to teach us so that we could function here on our own.  We were so grateful.  When they arrived at the beginning of their mission, their predecessors had already returned home, so this was a great blessing for us to have their help.

We learned how to find the electric bill (it's left in a little box beside the elevator on the first floor).  There would be two with the landlord's name on them, and we were to open them both and determine which matched the account number in our little book marked 'elektrik'.  Then, you would take both the little book and the bill and go down to the small post office on the main boulevard and wait there to pay.  Everything in Albania is done in cash-no checks or debit cards-so often this would require a withdrawal at the bank.

'Waiting' at the Post Office does not mean 'waiting in line' as we do it in America.  Our first experiences were a little disturbing as we waited 'in line' and watched the natives brush by us and go right to the front.  I'll have to admit that sometimes they 'push' past you to get waited on first.  We were a bit offended at first, but after talking with other missionaries we began to understand that this is just the Albanian way.  They don't mean to be rude.

The next lesson was about the water bill-'Uje' (pronounced oo-ee) as it is called here.  It also has a little book, which much be stamped at the office each time you pay.  The water bill is not in the little box downstairs.  It will arrive magically about the middle of the month under your door!  To pay this bill, you also must take the bill and the book through the small treg to the 'hole in the wall'.  During open hours, a small overhead door is rolled up to reveal a window where a worker waits to take your money and stamp your book.
A shepherd watching over his flock
A calf by the beach road

Our favorite part of the day came at the end.  The Smith's had told us about their favorite beach, and we really wanted to know how to find it.  We did find enough time at the end of the day.  The drive out was about 3 or 4 miles long, through an area of old abandoned pallati's and then through a grove of trees.  Eventually the road became very rough and we kept going.  President Smith pointed out places where he had baptized people during the warmer months.  It was just beautiful.  When we finally arrived, we had to take pictures.  This would be a place we would visit again and again.  It reminded us of home and of Lake Michigan.  It felt good.

Our first visit to a favorite place

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On to Vlore-Our New Home!

On our first Sunday in Albania, we attended church with President and Sister Ford at the "1-3" building.  You guessed it-the 1st and 3rd branches meet here and it is on the first and second floors of the Mission Home/Office building.  President Ford asked us to bear our testimonies, as it was our first Sacrament Meeting here.  We agreed, and I decided to share mine in Albanian.  We had been practicing this in our language lessons, and I decided there was no time like the present.  I had to read it, of course, but I did face my fears about the language and push through it. Clark shared his testimony with the help of an interpretor, and I am sure it made much more sense to them than mine did.  Anyway-that was our first Sacrament Meeting.  Afterward, one of the Elders came up to me and said "Do I know you?  You seem awfully familiar to me."  I admitted that I did not know him, but since I am writing this in March, I can tell you later more about this story.  It will come up again.

After church we had dinner with the Ford's and then began the  journey down to Vlore.  It is not such a long journey, if you look at it on the map.  But, when you see the roads you'll travel to get there, it takes about 3 hours.  We were not just amazed-I think we were 'flabbergasted' if that is a word anywhere beyond my country home in Michigan!  At times, it was a super highway, almost.  Then, suddenly, it would all end-pavement gone, gigantic ruts and holes in the stoney roadway-it was downright dangerous!  I thought of my Mother, and decided she would never survive a ride down that road from Durres to Vlore.  Too bumpy-too rough.  We were tired, and suffering from jet lag-we were grateful that President was driving and all we had to do was look out the windows in amazement at this strange new country called Albania.  The sights were so new to us-we were trying to drink it all in.  As quickly as one new scene would pass, another would come into view.

A Curious Cow

The highway is, for the most part, divided.  There is a concrete barrier between the northbound and the southbound lanes.  This is to keep accidents from happening, you would think.  The people, however, have different ideas about these barriers.  We have seen everything imaginable crossing over those barriers, including two men with a wheelbarrow!  Along the roadway, there are flocks of sheep, goats, turkeys and many carts drawn by horses and donkeys.  Life is old here-and young at the same time.  More on that later.

The view from our apartment
Our first view of the apartment

We arrived in Vlore and were driven directly to the couples apartment.  The Ford's took us to the door, introduced us, and then had to rush off to their next appointment.  We were in the care of the Smith's, whom we were replacing, for the next 24 hours.  They would introduce us to our new city, our new branch and our new life.

So This is Albania-October 15, 2011

I'll admit I don't remember much about the ride from the airport to the Mission Home.  I do remember thinking that I would never be able to drive here.  The traffic is unbelievable, and there are few rules that govern the operation of a vehicle here.  It was my first introduction to the many things that are different here.
Mission Home Gate from inside
The Ford's put us up in the apartment just above their home.  They had kindly purchased bread, ham and cheese for a sandwich and some juice and treats-so that we could have a snack and take a nap.  After 23 hours of traveling, we were ready for a nap!  They gave us the option of joining them for the Institute class at 6pm, and we were anxious to go.  The Center for Young Adults is the assignment that we'd been given, and we were curious to see how it was done.  We couldn't have guessed what a great 'first night' in Albania we would have.

Elder Johnson made us feel right at home
Our first views of Tirana

We drove to the "2-4" building in Tirana, where the 2nd and 4th branches meet.  The Young Adult Center is on the 2nd floor, and the room was packed with young single adults (ages 18-30).  We had a translator with us on the back row to help us understand what the teacher was sharing.  It was fun to hear the language spoken by the natives, and I had absolutely no idea what they were saying on my own.  We had a long way to go on language! 

C.D. with the Ford's and the Volz's
After the meeting, President asked if we would mind waiting for a bit.  There was a young man that he needed to talk to, and it should only take a short while.  The young man was C.D. and he was trying to make a decision about baptism.  The short while became a long while, so Sister Ford took us out to find some dinner.  She said, with her lovely English accent, "Follow me-I know a short-cut."  I decided I had come to Albania to follow her, and follow her I did!  She disappeared into a narrow space between the buildings.  It was dark outside by then, and super dark in the narrow passageway that she was leading me through.  She was laughing, and we laughed too.  Fearless, she is.  We came out on the main street in just a minute, and we caught up to the other couple missionaries who were out getting a bite to eat also.  We were introduced to the crepe-a basic food group in Albania.  My favorite is white chocolate with bananas and cookie crumbs, but we'll talk about that later.  We struck up a conversation with an Albanian man while we waited for the crepes to cook.  We were amazed that we could talk with him at all, but here we were, speaking and understanding (in very elementary terms) our new language.  It was great!

Once we were back at the building, the questions had been answered and C.D. had announced that he wanted to be baptized right away!  So the font was being filled and we held a baptismal service at 9:30PM on our first night in Albania.  Now if that isn't a great welcome for new missionaries, I don't know what is!  We absolutely loved the Spirit that we felt in that room, and we will always have a special feeling for C.D.  It was a great first night.

The Journey to our Mission Assignment-October 14, 2011

The Willder's-Left to Right: Liam, Ethan,
Mark, Erin, Quinn, Alexa
with Oma and Grampa Volz on the right
We had a wonderful family gathering at Mark and Erin's home in Provo on the night before our departure.  Amanda and Austin came with their family, and also Jordan and Michelle.  There were several other friends who stopped in to say good-bye and we thoroughly enjoyed the evening.  After everyone had gone, we gathered our things and said our last good-byes.  Erin dropped us off at the MTC gate, and we both cried and held each other for a long time.  We knew there would be skype and phone calls and email, but leaving for two years is a big thing for any parent, and it was difficult.  Tears do not mean regret, or a change of heart-Erin is completely supportive of this mission and I am totally committed.  These tears meant love and a sacrifice of our time together while Clark and I go to serve the Lord.  We survived.
The Cole family-left to right: Austin, Dylan,
Amanda, London, Caleb, Oma, Grandpa
and baby Reagan
Jordan and Michelle with her parents

We were up late shuffling bags, then fell into bed for a long nap before the alarm went off.  The shuttle was right on time and we enjoyed our conversation with the young brother who drove us to the airport in Salt Lake City.  Our flight was on time-no problems.  Once on board, I began to take a mental inventory of all that I was leaving behind to go and serve the Lord in a country that I knew little about.  I made this entry in my little journal:

10/14/2011-"According to the moving map on our plane we are flying over the middle of Lake Michigan now.  In the next few minutes we'll pass over our loved ones below and fly on to New York.  Farewell for now--How we love you!!  How we love our home in Michigan!.  We passed over South Haven at 1:17pm (approx), a little north of Kalamazoo about 1:21pm, Battle Creek at 1:23pm, Marshall at 1:24PM and Detroit at 1:34PM.  We have traveled 1518 miles so far, and are traveling at 544 mph with a 67 mp tailwind".

At JFK we tried to get something to eat on the plane, and that put us behind in a very long line for the security check on international flights.  I was so worried that we would miss this important flight.  We were in one of those mazes, and we couldn't see anyway that we would get through on time.  Then as we rounded one end the airport person directed us right up the middle row--it was like the red sea parting, sort of!  We couldn't believe that we were back on schedule that quickly.  Praying in airports works just as well as praying anywhere else!

The flight across the Atlantic was a bit bumpy at first but it soon settled down.  We had the great good fortune to have the entire center section to ourselves, so we could stretch out and relax on the long flight to Vienna.  Well, I should be honest and say that I was able to stretch out and sleep-Clark takes such good care of me and he was worried that I would get sick if I didn't get some sleep.  He's wonderful and so kind to me.  We were in Vienna only about an hour and then we were off to Tirana and our mission 'home' for the next 23 months.  I was so nervous!  What would it be like there?

We made our way through the confusion at the Tirana airport without too much trouble, collected our bags and made our way into the sunshine outside.  Pres. and Sister Ford were right there to meet and greet us, thank goodness!  Sr. Ford shook my hand and then pulled me close so that she could 'smooch' beside my right ear, then switched to the other side and said quietly to me 'this is how it's done here'.  I smiled and thought 'I'm learning already!'.  Clark had our huge pile of luggage on one of those carts, which Pres. Ford insisted on pulling to the car.  Thanks to the pavement and sidewalks in Albania, the cart fell over two or three times on the way to the car.  It was like a Laurel and Hardy scene for sure, but we finally made it.  I'll write more about our first impressions on the next entry.