I didn't think that there was very much that went on during the month, but after making a list this may turn out to be a long post. After returning from Germany, that same night I took the train to Smolensk to be reunited with my companion and district. For the next few weeks I was especially grateful to be able to continue serving as a missionary.
Every week I felt like I was beginning to understand the language better and better. The understanding certainly came more quickly than being able to speak well. A new group of missionaries from the MTC came to our mission this month. I was excited to no longer be the greenest of the elders in the city. Unfortunately, the new elder that was assigned to Smolensk had studied Russian in high school and spoke pretty well. I then had the members of the branch asking me why the new missionary spoke way better than I did.
A couple of times during the month we took the night train to Moscow to attend zone leader meetings and zone conference. It was always exhausting to spend two short nights in a row on the train. I always really loved returning to Moscow in those early days of my mission. It was a magical city with so many amenities. I loved serving in the city of Smolensk with its small branch, but I envied the missionaries that were in Moscow. On one of the visits to Moscow, I made a stop at the Church doctor's apartment for him to look at my eye. He treated us to McDonald's for the first time while in Russia.
My companion was the group leader for the small branch so we spent a lot of time visiting and interviewing the members. There was a lot of contention in the branch and we were trying to figure out why. One single sister that we visited a couple of times lived a 1 1/2 hour bus ride from the city (right near Russia's border with Belarus). Her small log house was another hours walk on a little trail from the bus stop. She did not have running water, electricity or gas. We would help her carry water up from the river a couple hundred yards down the hill as well as chop wood for her stove. It was such a humbling place to visit. Right in the middle of her one-bedroom house was a huge wood-burning stove (built right into the house). During the winter everybody slept on top of the stove. I remember once waiting for my companion while I was up on top of the stove and falling asleep. I'm embarrassed to say that I actually fell asleep a few times at member's houses. Not understanding the language with a companion that could talk for hours, would just lull me to sleep.
The members were often so kind and would feed us from their scarce supplies. During the month I had the chance to eat calamari for the first time, sugared-liver, kholodets (a cold meat jelly) and salo (raw pig fat-and often with the hairy skin still attached). Aside from the calamari, which was surprisingly good, I would not recommend any of the other dishes.
I had been on my mission for 4 months. In that time I had now read the Book of Mormon 4 times. I don't recall if I had any intention of reading it 24 times during my mission, but I don't believe that was the case. Regardless, I gained a deeper testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. I realized that it was the keystone of our religion and much of the truth of our religion hinged upon whether or not the Book of Mormon was true. I knew it then and I still know it today that the Book of Mormon is true!
This month was also the first time that I was able to be a pall-bearer. A young member of the branch's grandmother had died. I believe that many Russians have a superstition against family members carrying the casket so we were asked to help. The lady had died on the fourth floor of an apartment building and we had to carry the casket (with her body in it) down the four narrow flights of stairs. It was a miserable feeling maneuvering the casket down the stairs, but we were on our missions to serve and we were always glad for the opportunity to help.
I started teaching piano lessons to a couple of the members of the branch who were interested. I played the piano every week in sacrament meeting, for the choir and any other time that an accompanist was needed. During this same time we went from having a two-hour church block to trying out a three-hour block. It was amazing to see the branch grow together. We had some difficulty registering The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the city. The mission accountant from Moscow had to come and help us work through the red-tape and pay a significant amount in taxes.
January in Russia is obviously a cold time of year, but it is also very icy. As all of the snow falls on public sidewalks or in front of apartment buildings, nobody has the initiative of clearing it off in front of their buildings. I knew that I would succumb to the slipperiness of the ice and I went down a couple of times during the month. Luckily I was not injured badly, but branch members and even a missionary in our zone were knocked unconscious after falling on the dangerous ice.
On one p-day my companion and I were walking to the internet cafe. We took a shortcut across one of the streets and were whistled at by a policeman. He ticketed my companion for jay-walking (15 ruble fine - which is less than $.50). He then turned to me to ask if I had any money. I told him I didn't (I lied...) and so he decided not to ticket me. The money would have only gone into his pocket anyways, but I probably should have been more honest. :)