Thanksgiving on Ice
There...Bing Crosby is now radiating out of my tinny speakers, effulgent and sublime, gliding from Adeste Fidelis to Silent Night with impassioned pleas to support our boys fighting in Europe by purchasing war bonds. I think I'll take a few myself.
Sometime in the late afternoon on Thursday, after the tryptophan had already blessed me with hazy euphoria and I was languishing dopily on the divan in the sunroom of my in-law's log cabin/palace, my thoughts drifted back to Thanksgiving nine years ago...a story that begins, like so many others that I've found myself telling of late, on a train in the icy depths of a Russian winter night.
There were four of us. Blazer, Gunn, and Smith were all packed in a tiny train cabin filled with all our earthly belongings, pamphlets, Books of Mormon, water filters, and fifteen thousand dollars' worth of cash (a sum that would have fit in just a few hefty bundles in American Dollars, but which took up considerably more room when changed, as they had been, into multicolor mountains of an unfathomable number of roubles). We were to be the first Mormon missionaries in the city of Petrozavodsk, an island of civilization in the morose Russian wasteland that becomes more utopian in my memory with every year that passes. The closest missionaries, and any sort of support, was three hundred miles to the southwest, in St. Petersburg. As we vainly tried to make out the dark landscape rushing past our frosted cabin window, none of us could muster our powers of speech, so consumed we were with our own haze of jumbled thoughts.
For myself, I was just happy to leave downtown St. Petersburg, the gaudy majesty of which had been sullied for me at the time by the constant companionship of a different Elder Smith, whose desire to wade out each day into the murky tedium of life in Russia had long since been extinguished. I had spent most mornings playing amateur psychologist to a gloomy, blanket-covered lump whose constant refrain was a mixture of grunting sighs and sniffling. My powers of empathy taxed to their limits, I leapt with ecstatic relief the morning that the Mission President had called to tell me that I would be taking the Petersburg-Petrozavodsk express the following evening. I smiled at the snowbound blur outside the train...I would miss the pancakes though...that clinically depressed doughboy did make damn fine pancakes.
The feeling of giddy anticipation when we finally disembarked onto the ice-glazed Petrozavodsk platform was unrivaled by anything I had experienced since stepping off the plane in St. Petersburg seven months previously. The early-morning midnight-blue sky stood in contrast against the unnaturally bluish glow of the deep-frozen snow that clung to the trees lining Lenin Prospect...a huge fir adorned with a red, eerily Soviet star towered over the square directly in front of the station- the people of Petrozavodsk had started their holiday preparations early. I smiled, wrapped my scarf more tightly around my face to shield it from the sting of the frost, and turned to Smith. "Happy Thanksgiving, man."
We all loaded up with the ungodly amount of supplies and luggage that we had brought with us on the train, and set off to find a hotel where we could stay until we could negotiate the lease of a couple of apartments. After checking in to the ludicrously overpriced Hotel Petrozavodsk (where the shower in our suite was a tiled closet with a drain and a garden hose), we opened our bank account, and set out to find the lone member of our church in the city. When we found Andrej, he was overjoyed. He had been in Petrozavodsk for two years since being baptized in St. Petersburg, and he had spent much of that time contacting the Mission President, imploring for missionaries to be sent to his city. In a sense, he had been profoundly lonely, and the gratitude he showed us just for being there left an indelible impression on me.
Afterward, as we were strolling through the city, chatting and taking in the lakeside splendor of the Karelian capitol, we rounded a corner and beheld a site as inspiring and beautiful as any natural vista. I breathed in sharp, unbelieving gasps as I beheld it, a tiny hint of a tear freezing at the corner of my eye. There, in the tundra of Northern Russia, desperately far from all things familiar and comforting to us, was a Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlor, shining like a fatty beacon in the culinary wilderness of Russia, a land of gustatory masochism. Apparently, Petrozavodsk is the sister city to the Vermont town where first the hippie compatriots set their hands to an ice cream churn...and the fruits of that blessed connection glimmered in unspeakable glory before us.
Breathless moments later, we emerged from the parlor clutching our individual pints. I eyed my container of Chubby Hubby lustily as we set out to find a bar/restaurant where we could feast and make our deepest Thanksgiving. Eventually, we got a table in a cozy, wood-paneled cafe, where we dined on Pel'meny (fried Russian ravioli) and ice cream. Every one of us downed our 80 grams of glorious fat and joy, and we spent the rest of the evening resplendent in the dawning of what we sure was to be our bright new day in the thick black of the Arctic winter.