Thursday, May 24, 2007

Galina, Queen of Caviar

Galina, do you like caviar?

I held out a 3-ounce jar filled with the luminous crimson eggs. Galina was my last chance.

For reasons which now evade me, I had chosen red caviar as the official souvenir for my trip to the States last March. I like to find a souvenir that I think will be a hit and buy it in quantity. Fortunately my splurge on caviar amounted to only five jars but little did I realize the challenge it would be to find takers.

I’ll admit that the taste for caviar is an acquired one – like pickles, gherkins, capers, olives. But there are people who relish caviar, including cousin-in-law, Les, married to cousin Diane in Chicago.

I love caviar. I absolutely love caviar, Les had once told me.

Caviar is quite the delicacy here in Russia. It would be served at the most elegant of occasions on dainty, open-faced sandwiches, for instance. Occasions for which the term hors d’oeuvre is reserved. But that’s Russia.

In Texas, Ohio and Tennessee, things hadn’t gone quite as planned with the caviar. Potential recipients weren’t as thrilled as cousin Les would have been. Not that I would blame them particularly.

There was one notable exception, however: a rather sophisticated class of first graders near Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d expect six year old to be the most finicky of eaters, wouldn’t you?

Well, dear sister-in-law Kelly had arranged for me to visit nephew Christopher’s class to talk about Russia. While we were in the planning stages, I considered my stash of 10 ruble notes as well as my stock of caviar, pondering how to distribute either of those to children. Aha, we hit on it. Why not use the rubles as a reward to any child willing to sample caviar? Amazingly, our idea worked with those children. What sophistication. What √©lan. All but one was willing to give it a go and not a one of them made a yucky face. I wonder, did they perhaps misunderstand the value of a 10 ruble note? Did I fail to mention that it would take 25 such 10 ruble notes to equal ten dollars? Hard to say. But there went one jar of caviar. Only four to go.

So here I was, packing up to head from Dallas back Russia the next day, and I was stuck with an inventory of caviar that I hadn’t managed to foist on anybody during five weeks in the States.

Galina was my last chance. I was staying with her and her dear parents those last days in Dallas.

Galina, it doesn’t happen, does it, that you like caviar? I asked in the round-about Russian way.

Her face lit up.

Ya loo-BLYU ee-KRA, she said! (I LOVE caviar!)

And so it happened. Galina with a smile wider than the Russian steppe, savoring a delicacy worthy of a princess. And me with a suitcase quite a bit lighter.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Of Potatoes and Priorities

Supplies: Two large glass jars and two trays.
Ingredients: We used medium potatoes and dry beans.

Method: There are several ways of going about this. Here is what worked for us.
First Jar: We filled the jar with potatoes, shaking it around a bit to make more space. Then we added dry beans, rotating the jar as necessary to get beans under and around, in every little nook and cranny, until the jar was full.

Second Jar: First, we used exactly the same volume of potatoes and beans as was in the first jar. But this time, we put the dry beans in first. Then we added the potatoes. Problem was, there wasn’t nearly enough room. Maybe half the potatoes fit in the jar.

The glass jar represents time – a day, a week, even a lifetime.
Each potato represents a priority. Priorities include work, studies, sleep, a deadline, an event, eating, exercise and such. For Christians, priorities include Sunday worship, prayer and Bible study. Priorities go in first.

The beans represent various tasks. These are things that need to be done, but can be fit in around the priorities. Grocery shopping, paying bills, car maintenance, laundry and running errands are examples. Of course, if a particular task isn’t taken care of, it can mushroom into a priority. For instance, not keeping gas in the vehicle will make getting fuel a major priority.

When we put tasks ahead of priorities, there won’t be room for the priorities. First things first.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

All the President's Men. . . are Matroshkas

Likenesses of Russian presidents and Soviet leaders painted on ma-TROSH-ka dolls, from today's Vladimir Putin to Vladimir Lenin.

The Matroshkas and the Tax Man

I shook my head in disbelief at the matroshkas I was cramming into my suitcase. Wooden nesting dolls or matroshkas (ma-TROSH-kas), are the most popular souvenir of Russia and over the years, I’ve hauled back quite a few. Most matroshkas are painted with predictably feminine designs such as a peasant-style dress, a headscarf, and a bouquet of flowers. More elaborate matroshkas might feature characters from Russian folk tales and nowadays you can find them of the British Royal Family or the University of Texas football team. Imagine.

Well, the matroshkas I was packing featured Russian presidents and Soviet leaders. The largest doll was of President Vladimir Putin and the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. In between were Boris Yeltsin – whose funeral you may have caught on the news recently – Michael Gorbochev, Leonid Breshnev, Nikita Khruschev and Joseph Stalin. What a collection of characters.

I must admit that matroshkas of the Russian presidents aren’t be something I would seek out for myself and so I chuckled to myself, These have to be the most gimmicky matroshkas ever.

On the other hand, what souvenir won’t a missionary buy at a hint from her tax accountant?

A round of applause please for E.B.Dotson, III, CPA. This man is a godsend to many of us missionaries: He does our taxes. For several years now, E.B. has donated his tax expertise as his own personal ministry, a torch he accepted from J. C. McCurdy, CPA, who, before he retired, handled taxes for as many as 150 missionary families. Now that’s a labor of love.

Back when I was preparing for the mission field, I had heard about Mr. McCurdy’s tax service but resisted because for one thing, I was uncomfortable asking for help. Besides that, another CPA was doing my taxes just fine. But little did I understand then about the value of having a tax pro who is into tax law for U.S. citizens living overseas.

Tax law for expatriates including foreign missionaries is quite complex. One common misunderstanding is that those who live outside the U.S. are exempt from filing a return. Another misunderstanding concerns the number of days the expat wage earner can be in the U.S. in a calendar year. That’s where it makes quite a difference to have a CPA who is into the nitty-gritty details.

Before I availed myself of Mr.McCurdy’s tax expertise, my visits to the States were nothing short of frenetic. I was careful to stay no longer than 35 days, often leaving on day 34 just to be safe. That meant five weeks of zipping across country from Washington to North Carolina to Ohio to Texas to work in family visits, medical checkups and reporting to sponsoring congregations. And after all of the rushing around, I would return to Russia worn out. More like semi-comatose.

Then I caught on to missionary friends elsewhere whose visits home sounded more reasonable. I asked what they knew about expat taxes that I didn’t know. Aha. They knew Mr. McCurdy. But it wasn’t until July of 2003 that I was compelled to contact him, the summer I needed to be in Ohio eight weeks to help my dad.

I called Mr. McCurdy at his west Texas home and in his soft drawl, he said,
Well, I’ve retired now that I’m in my eighties and so I’ve passed my work on to E.B. Dotson. But tell you what -- Let me get your taxes going real good and then I’ll pass them on to E.B. and let him take it from there.

I readily agreed.

Nowadays, my trips to the US are downright pleasant. I usually stay six to eight weeks but fall of 2005, I took a 12-week furlough which included my 30th college reunion. It happens that both Mr. McCurdy and E.B. Dotson live in that college town and I wanted to thank them in person. I knew I would be crossing paths with Mr. McCurdy at church but to meet E.B., I would need to stop by his office.

In the course of our conversation, E.B. let slip an interest in matroshkas of the Russian presidents. And that took the guesswork out of finding him the perfect souvenir.

A curtsey to the Russian leaders who have nudged Russia toward democracy. And a salute to E.B. and those like him, who offer their skills pro bono, working quietly and carefully all to the glory of God. Their eternal reward will be so much greater than metroshkas.