Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Canned Christmas

Christmas, as we understand it in the west, isn't celebrated in Russia on December 25. They reserve that for New Years, thanks in large part to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist regime Russians lived under for three-quarters of a century.

The Orthodox Church never changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, meaning that they remained about 13 days ahead of Europe (who changed to the modern Gregorian calendar a few centuries ago). So while, technically, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in Russia, it is in actual fact January 7.

The Communists, on the other hand, in their war on religion, set out to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church (which was a HUGE part of Russia's national make-up) and in addition to demolishing historic churches and arresting clergy, they also banished Christmas. They recognized that the people needed something to celebrate, so they moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar and made New Years the big celebration in Russia. As a result, after three generations of forced celebration on December 31st, New Years is today the big holiday in Russia.

New Years has all the trappings of Christmas, including "New Years" trees, "New Years" gifts and cards, Grandfather Frost who brings gifts to children on "New Years Eve" and everything else one would expect on Christmas, with the added tradition of drinking until one nearly dies.

Because I am from the west and December 25 is still the biggest day of the year in my mind (and soul), I decided to celebrate Christmas as best as I could. Katya and I travelled to the historic town of Suzdal, about 280 km south-west of Moscow.

We both took Friday (Christmas Eve) off work and boarded a train bound for Lake Baikal, in Siberia, for the three-hour journey. There were only second-class seats left but we felt like splurging so we forked over 500 RUB each and found our car. Two army men were sitting in our compartment (2nd class on Russian trains consists of a private compartment with 4 bunks for 4 people).

At first Katya and ignored the two soldiers, who had a dignified air about them, and we chatted away in English. On Russian trains one cannot use the toilet until the train has left city limits, so after thirty minutes, when the train had departed from Moscow and the jungle of apartment blocks and rusting factories had changed to snow-covered birch and pine forests, Katya left the compartment to find the little girls room. I sat in silence with the two soldiers.

Suddenly, one of the soldiers, a young man with a soft face and two silver stars on his shoulder boards, turned to me and in perfect English asked "Where are you from?" I was surprised and answered "Canada. And you?" He looked at me in a strange way for a moment and then began to laugh. "Russia, of course!" he answered. "I'm Anton, and this is Sergey" He motioned to the incredibly large young man sitting across from him with piercing blue eyes. Sergey must have been at least six-foot-four and was bulging with muscle, even in his baggy camouflaged army uniform.

By the time Katya returned to our compartment the three of us were swapping jokes and laughing and acting like old friends. Katya looked a little confused but sat down anyways (she later admitted she thought she had entered the wrong compartment). Anton was a lieutenant and he was taking Sergey, a private who had just finished boot camp, to his first posting in Siberia. They had a 3-day journey and then once Lt. Anton had safely delivered his young charge, he had a 3-day journey back to Moscow. Anton was a true slavophile, who told me numerous time that he "loves Russia" and held his hand on his heart every time.

When I asked about the black panther patch on their uniforms, he told me that they were internal military security forces. "In Stalin's time we were called NKVD" he informed me, and then pulled out a bottle of vodka and a sausauge and some bread, and we all began to drink. "I like Canada" Anton explained to me. "I thought you were American at first, and didn't want to talk to you." As he drank more vodka, he began to repeat "I love my country. I like Canada. I don't like America."

When the train reached the city of Vladimir, mine and Katya's point of debarkation, we gathered our things and said our goodbyes. "Wait!" Anton exclaimed, and he pulled out of his duffle bag a big box of Russian army rations. "Merry Christmas!" he said and thrust the box at me. "Umm" I stammered, not sure what to do. He was drunk and would probably miss them later, and I also had no room to carry 2kg of canned food around with me. His gift was thoughtful and he was genuinely being kind, however. "Thanks!" I replied. "Merry Christmas to you! And S Novom Godom (Happy New Year)!"

Anton smiled proudly. "Nobody will believe that I was drinking with a Canadian!" he declared.
"Nobody will believe I was drinking with NKVD!" I replied, and we both laughed. Then the kind and drunk security lieutenant gave me a big Russian bear hug, and Katya and I left the train.

With our own bags and a bulky 2kg box of powdered and canned army rations under my arm, we struggled through the snow of Vladimir until we found the bus station. There is no train station in Suzdal itself. so we had to take the train to Vladimir (another historic city and once the capital of Russia in the 15th Century) and then a 1-hour bus ride to Suzdal.

Suzdal is a Russian showpiece. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it is completely devoid of factories and highrises and highways. All the houses are little and ornately decorated in rich carvings and colours, in the traditional Russian way. More brilliantly still, there are nearly 150 bright Orthodox churches in the town and surrounding country side, so hundreds of multi-coloured, multi-shaped steeples poke up into the air from Suzdal's skyline. The roads were small and tree-lined and with a rich blanket of thick white snow, the town had a fairy-tale quality to it. Best of all, the rude and aggressive crowds of assholes that is Moscow were far behind us. The entire town was silent.

Katya and I spent two nights in Suzdal, exploring the churches and museums. On Christmas morning I awoke to find a small, luggage-sized Christmas tree with one sock under it. Katya, knowing Christmas is my favourite time of year (she calls me Clark Griswald), had packed a little tree and begun knitting me socks, but didn't have time to finish the second one. Across the small street from us was a huge convent surrounded by a big white wall. This convent is where the Tsars sent unwanted wives.

We spent Christmas Day walking through the town, and visited the Suzdal Kremlin and the Museum of Wooden Architecture (a big, open-spaced museum where wooden buildings have been reconstructed and period-actors roam about).

One problem with Suzdal is that it is pretentiously over-priced. The service is no better than in Moscow, nor is the quality of the food at restaurants, yet the prices were 20% higher. One restaurant was decent, however. Sokol, on the main street, has a nice little bar tucked into a corner of the second floor and they serve food from the restaurant upstairs. The barman is friendly and courteous, although the prices still suck.

Our hotel was wooden and the room was made of big wood logs, in the Russian tradition. We were the only guests in the hotel and the staff even went home at night, so on Christmas night, after a day walking through the town, we got drunk at the bar and sat in the lounge listening to music and playing chess, eating kalbasa and cheese on crackers.

On Boxing Day, December 26, we took the bus back to Vladimir and caught an elektrishka back to Moscow. I was hoping for another train, with it's comfortable bunks and drunk soldiers, but there were none that day, so we were stuck with a Moscow commuter train, complete with asshole babushkas and panhandlers who crowded and annoyed us for 3 1/2 hours.

On the elektrishka my stomach began to growl. We hadn't had time to eat that day, and we had just barely made the train so didn't have time to pick up food. With no prospect of sustenance for five or six hours (after arriving in Moscow we had to take another elektrishka to Shyelkova, and then a bus to Katya's home), and beginning to feel positively famished, I did the only thing I could think of. I opened the box of army rations the friendly NKVD officer had given me.

Inside were cans of preserved meat, packs of preserve jams, vacuum-sealed high-energy crackers, packets of vitamins, powdered juice and tea, and four little burners to cook food with. There was also a can of buckwheat porridge, which I immediately resolved to NEVER open.

One of the cans had a picture of a cow on it, so I picked that one out of the box and opened some sealed crackers. There was a little thumb-sized metal blad with a tiny notch in the handle which I assumed (correctly...I think) was a can-opener and so, surrounded by idiots and assholes on an uncomfortable wooden elektrishka seat, I began to saw away at the can of preserved beef.

I was surprisingly succesful, as I slowly but surely pried the lid off the can. A putrid sweet odour from the can spread throughout the elektrishka car, and people began looking over at us (especially the fat old woman sitting next to me) as I hacked and sawed. Fatty, oily juice sloshed over the sides of the can onto the floor and seat. Finally I opened the can and peeled back the tin lid.

Inside were big, disgusting chunks of brown and grey beef, with a thick layer of waxy white fat on the top. Katya looked at me in a strange way, knowing how picky I am about food. I was starving (and a little hung-over) and I had just gone through so much to open the can, so I was committed at that point to eating it. I grabbed a cracker and jammed it into the disgusting cesspool of meat and fat and oil I held in my hand, and scooped up a big, dripping piece of what I assumed was beef. And I ate it.

I ate the whole can of it, in fact. It was absolutely putrid. It ranks high on my list as one of the most disgusting things I've ever eaten, next to steamed silkworm larvae (Korea) and baked bat (Thailand). It was filling, however, and after I had eaten the can, fat and all, I threw it in a plastic bag and resolved to never eat that stuff again. Later that night my stomach revolted and I spent spent several hours running to the toilet, which begs the question "How do soldiers eat this and perform their duties"?

On Monday I returned to work, and so ended my second Christmas in Russia.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010 In Photos

2010 was a very interesting year for me. The moment it started, in the early minutes of January 1st, I was greeted by a cacaphony of noisy fireworks, and the year progressed in much the same manner. Below is my 2010 captured in photographs, from the cold snows of wintery Moscow to the epic history of Volgograd to the brilliant colours of an Ontario autumn.

Industrial-sized fireworks being lit in Shyolkova. January 1st 2010

Quagmire, Mr. Irish and Mr. Irish's friend. January 1st 2010

During the New Year holidays Quagmire and I did a drinking tour of Moscow, and despite getting extremely drunk (and spending all our money) we saw some interesting sights. January 2010.

Park Pabyedi (Victory Park). February 2010

In the metro going to the Moscow Ballet Company. February 2010

Winter Wonderland! Shyolkova, February 2010

Watching the Olympic gold-medal hockey game between Canada and the US. Katya made these mittens herself. February 2010.

Quagmire and Ms. Australia. Their uneasy relationship is easy to see. March 2010

Surrounded by beautiful women at one of our house parties. April 2010

Dutchie, Katya and Q in Volgograd. May 2010

The mighty Volga River. May 2010

The Rodina Matr statue on the top of Mamaev Kurgan. Volgograd, May 2010

The flour mill memorial to the fighting at Stalingrad. Volgograd, May 2010

Sexy girls and interesting fashions. Volgograd, 2010

On the train from Volgograd to Moscow. May 2010.

Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. May 9, 2010

A Russian wedding: Sasha and Galya wed. June 2010.

My "handlers", Olga and Vlada, at our end-of-school-year party. June 2010.

Wonderpants' last night in Russia. The two of us got incredibly drunk alone together and sang sea shanties. June 2010.

Smoke from the burning peat bogs and forest fill Moscow, adding more misery to the +42 degree heat. July 2010.

Katya and I get married in ZAGS in Moscow. August 2010.

Thatched-roof pub in Daventry, England. September 2010.

Quagmire and I did a drinking tour of London, and despite getting extremely drunk (and spending all our money) we saw some interesting sights. September 2010.

Beautiful autumn near Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. October 2010

My sister and brother in Ottawa. Over the past few years I have grown closer to my family and it was such a joy to spend two months with them in the fall. October 2010.

First snowfall of the new winter. Katya in Shyolkova. November 2010.

Doing something. I don't know what. Shyolkova, December 2010.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kill Me...Please

It has been a greuling month for me so far, and one that I will take measures to prevent from happening again.

As I'm now off-contract and fully-independent, I have worked very hard to build up a good schedule of private clients. While I have been succesful it is a lot more difficult to actually work that schedule than when I had a comfortable school to hang out in. Add to the fact that I'm living outside of the city and it takes nearly 2.5 hours to get to Moscow, and I have very long days. Language Link didn't help when they scheduled one of my Russian classes on Saturday afternoons, thus giving me only 1 day off per week.

I wake up between 7:30 and 8 am, Monday to Saturday, and spend 30 minutes on a marshrutka (mini bus) and then over an hour on the elektrishka, Moscow's commuter train system. Then I spend between 30 and 45 minutes on the metro and on some days have to walk another 20 - 30 minutes from the metro station to reach my class. After the class I'm back on the metro and do it again for the next class. After that I repeat the whole process again.

As most people want to study at 7 pm this means that I don't finish work until 9, and then it's a 2.5 hour ride back home. I get in the door around 11:30 every night, go to sleep, and wake up and do it again. I have no time to visit friends or enjoy a dinner or go to a bar. I spend every day fighting with the incredibly bitchy and stupid babushkas (I call them "babitchkas") on Moscow's public transit. I do this 6 days a week.

Katya also works in Moscow, and although she doesn't have to spend hours riding the metro and walking in the freezing snow with a pair of sneakers that are falling apart, she is out the door by 6:30 every morning and isn't home until after 9. This means we only really see each other on Sundays.

Sundays should at least be a relaxing day, except that we are living with Katya's mother, and on Sundays her sister and brother-in-law and her father come over and everyone has dinner and speaks very quickly in Russian I can't understand. There is no rest. Katya and I are both at our breaking point with only the promise of 10 days of peace during the New Year holidays in 3 weeks to keep us going.

In the new year we are getting a flat in Moscow, probably in February, and hoping and praying that she can get her Canadian permanent residency visa soon. The moment she has that we are off to a more relaxed country, where we will have a car to get around and regular work places that pay well and a comfortable place to live in.

Until then, we have no choice but to slug through our increasingly dreary existence and enjoy the few minutes of time we have alone together every week.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tikkanen Incident

Living overseas in South Korea and in Russia would seem like two completely different experiences, and until now they have been different, until two of my students took me to a Korean restaurant last week.

Meeting these two students is in itself a strange coincidence. They are a young man and woman, and they both study Korean language at University. The young man spent some time studying Korean martal arts at a Buddhist temple in Incheon and Seoul last summer and the woman is going there in the spring. They have an intimate knowledge of Korea and we have been swapping stories and comparing life there with life in Moscow.

When we walked into the Korean restaurant, about four blocks away from the last metro stop on the bottom of the red line, it was like I had been transported back to another period in my life. The restaurant was complete with in-table Korean barbeques, menus in Korean, Russian and English (and the awesomely hilarious Korean attempts at English, like the "Fried Friend Dumpling") and Korean, or possibly Chinese, staff who barely spoke Russian or English. We ordered delicious dwae-ji kalbi and it came with generous servings of kimchi, lettuce, pickled carrot slices and big chunks of fresh garlic to cook with the meat. There was also that delicious orange-brown chunky sauce that goes on the meat.

As I sat there eating kimchi and kalbi with metal chopsticks, I felt transported back to Korea, and I began replaying adventures and incidents I had enjoyed there in my head. For some reason, perhaps because I am in Russia, which is a hockey country, and perhaps because Moscow is only a 10-hour train ride from Finland, my mind settled on one particular incident: the Tikkanen Incident.

There's a bar in the Itaewon district of Seoul owned by two Canadian brothers. It's called the "Rocky Mountain Pub" and is an homage to Canadiana, complete with license plates and 24-hour hockey replays. It is a popular spot as it serves up delicious western food with proper western customer service, and is one of the few places in Korea where one can buy Molson Canadian on tap. Needless to say that my colleagues and I spent a fair amount of time there.

On one occasion a group of us, including my ex, her sister, our friend Mr. Korea, a friend named Mr. San Diego and a couple of other English teachers, were sitting at the most comfortable piece of real estate in the joint, a corner table sunk low in the ground with windows to our backs and big blue cushions. The waiter approached us and asked us to move to a different table, as there was a VIP coming and he had requested that particular table.

We obliged, not without grumbling, and relocated. Then the VIP walked in. He was a large man in his late 50s and he had with him two healthy-looking young blonde men who stood over six feet tall. I didn't recognize him right away, but Mr. Korea did. "It's fucking Esa Tikkanen!" he declared.
"What?!?" everybody answered.

Esa Tikkanen is a retired NHL hockey player from Finland. He played for the Edmonton Oilers alongside Wayne Gretzky and later the New York Rangers. He was on two Stanley Cup championship winning teams and was known as an enforcer (a goon in layman's terms) who led the league in penalty minutes during the 1980s. Indeed, his record for spending the most time in the penalty box has yet to be broken. And here he was in the Rocky Mountain Pub in friggin' Seoul, South Korea.

"Tikkanen!" Mr. Korea shouted out to him as he and his entourage sat at our recently-vacated table. "Hey!"
Tikkanen looked over and smiled and shouted back. "Hello!"
Mr. Korea, as excited as I've ever seen him, grabbed the waiter by the arm. "Get that table a round of tequila shots and a pitcher of beer, on me." The waiter, one of the Canadian owners, shook his head. "It's not a good idea to get Tikkanen drunk." he warned us.
"It's fine! Trust me!"
"I'm really trying to warn you, DO NOT GET ESA TIKKANEN DRUNK!"
"Just do it, okay?" Mr. Korea pleaded. With a sigh the waiter/owner shrugged like Pontas Pilate, as if to say "Okay, but it's your crucifixion, not mine." and he went to the bar.

When Tikkanen and his two companions received their drinks they seemed delighted. "Where are you from?" Esa called out to Mr. Korea. "Canada!" Mr. Korea answered. "Well, don't just sit there, come over here!" Tikkanen called back.

We changed tables, the girls not as enthusiastically as the guys, and were soon seated at our own table, this time with a washed-up, although still impressive, sports celebrity. We cheered with our tequila shots, poured a round of beer and then began talking.

Tikkanen had been contracted to coach South Korea's first ever hockey team in the newly-formed Asian League Hockey, which consisted, at the time, of one team from South Korea, four from Japan, six from China, and two from Russia (who creamed the Asians in every game and won the championships every year). Tikkanen's companions were Finnish hockey players who played in the Russian KHL and on Finland's national team during world championship and winter olympics events. They were all there to get Korea's hockey team up and running.

The conversation was lively and interesting, and Tikkanen, despite his bad-ass reputation and massive bulk which even at his age still rippled with barely-concealed muscle, was a charming and funny man. He loved Canada, he told us, and enjoyed his time in Edmonton and Toronto much more than in New York where, he told us, the beer wasn't as good. When he had heard there was a Canadian bar in town, he had gone there immediately and since become a regular.

More tequila shots followed, and more pitchers of beer. People became rowdier and livelier.

If anyone reading this has ever drank with English teachers living overseas, then you know that we are a fairly retarded bunch when we drink. Only overseas do we feel at liberty to do things we would never dream of doing back home. In this case, there was a small metal pail on the table filled with peanuts. Like at home, the concept is to munch on them and throw the shells on the floor, but somehow us ESL teachers in Korea had taken to whipping the peanuts, shells and all, at each other's heads when we were drunk (I won't bother explaining Mortal Combat Frisbee). Naturally this happened.

Tikkanen, red in the face and talking loudly and more aggressively after four pitchers of beer and three rounds of tequila, started to say "Hey, stop that." every time a peanut whizzed close to him. It didn't deter us degenerate teachers, however, and we continued to throw peanuts at each other while we chatted. In hindsight, Tikkanen had become silent, but nobody noticed it at the time.

Then my ex, a small blonde girl of about 100 lbs, whipped a badly-aimed peanut at Mr. Korea but nailed Esa Tikkanen square in the forehead by mistake, and Tikkanen snapped.

"DO YOU THINK THAT'S FUNNY???!!!??" he screamed at my ex. Veins were bulging on his massive and balding forehead. "IS THAT FUCKING FUNNY??!!??" My ex sat calmly and stared at him, saying nothing.

Tikkanen, red in the face and filled with rage, stood up so he was towering over her at the other side of the table. "YOU WANT TO FUCKING HIT ME IN THE EYE?" he screamed. The whole bar had gone silent. The waiter looked at us as if to say "I told you so". Tikkanen seemed to be getting angrier by the moment. "YOU CAN FUCKING KILL SOMEONE WITH ONE OF THESE! WELL? YOU WANT TO FUCKING KILL ME???" he screamed at the small girl, who sat and stared at him defiantly, no look of fear on her face.

Mr. Korea, trying to restore the table to the former joviality we had been enjoying, stood up and patted Tikkanen on the shoulder in a friendly manner. "Okay, let's just all stop throwing peanuts and calm down." He picked up Tikkanen's beer. "Here, I'll buy you another one."

Tikkanen turned on Mr. Korea, his massive body shaking in fury, looking for all the world like an angry bull. "SIT THE FUCK DOWN!" he hollered at Mr. Korea. "Okay!" Mr. Korea responded, and quickly sat down again. Tikkanen turned back to my ex. "YOU THINK THAT'S FUCKING FUNNY?" He shouted again, apparently the only phrase he knows when he gets drunk. She just calmly stared at him, saying nothing.

One of the young Finnish players grabbed Tikkanen by the arm and said something in Finnish to him (probably "Let's go") and Tikkanen, still fuming, allowed himself to be dragged away from our table. "FUCKING STUPID BITCH! IT'S NOT FUNNY!" he continued to holler. The other Finn joined them and they put their jackets on left the bar, Tikkanen still hollering like a madman. The bartender came over to our table. "More beer?" he asked, and we all started to laugh.

People from other tables came up to us. "Was that Esa Tikkanen? What did you say to him?" We had become minor celebrities ourselves, and I personally found it funny that my girlfriend was almost in a fist-fight with the feared Esa Tikkanen.

Naturally the next weekend we all flocked to the Suwon hockey stadium to see Esa lead team Korea in a game against Japan. The Tikkanen influence on Korea's team was obvious, as Korean players continued to smash the Japanese players into the boards, and despite having players spend nearly half the game in the penalty box, they came out on top. It helped that Tikkanen and the two Finns would occasionally hop onto the ice themselves during a line change, pass the pack through the legs of the opposing players and fire it into the Japanese net while the goalie dove for cover.

We went to a dozen more games, and in true hockey fashion, heckled the players to no end. "Tiiiikaaanen! Tiiiikaaaanen!" We would chant, to which Tikkanen, probably with no idea that we were the same people he had wanted to kill, would bow to us with a big goofy grin on his face, no doubt reliving his glory days when he played, and fought, alongside Wayne Gretzky in the NHL.

Tikkanen leads Team Korea to a bone-crushing victory

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Adventures In Speaking

Taking Russian classes in Moscow has been both interesting and exciting. For me, learning to speak Russian is a source of great interest, and adds a third language to my linguistic abilities.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, Russian is a difficult language to learn. Navigating the grammar is a constant source of headache yet is vital to the language. Russian is a grammar-heavy language filled with feminine/masculine/neuter nouns, pronouns that must agree with the subject and case endings for the verbs that vary depending on the context.

Living with Katya's mother has helped, as she is only just learning to read the Latin alphabet and thus can't speak any English (except for the words "good" and "happy"), so I am forced to speak to her in badly butchered Russian. Yesterday she told me to smoke in the kitchen and not the balcony, as temperatures have dropped to -18 centigrade. I declined and told her the balcony was fine, and then explained to her, in Russian, that in Canada I can't smoke anywhere BUT outside, so smoking on the balcony in Russia is a treat. I was quite relieved when I actually got the sentence out without mistakes, complete with proper case endings!

Russian is a very emotive and poetic language, and I personally find it sexy, but it wasn't always so.

When I first arrived in Russia I was completely unable to communicate with anyone. I had learned to read Cyrillic before I came, which helped, but even the stock-phrases I had practised were pronounced wrong and came in very little use. After a few harrowing run-ins with bitchy clerks at the stores, I was terrified to open my mouth in public. Thankfully I had Quagmire and Ms. Australia.

Quagmire had a commendable ability to bully his way through any situation in English. He went to the hair salon and in English demanded a haircut. When the hairdresser said "Shto?" (What?) he pointed repeatedly at his head and told them "What the hell do you think I want? A taco?" or something like that. He got his hair cut. He could aggressively cow any Russian service worker into giving him what he wanted.

Both Quagmire and I, however, always had problems at the deli counter in grocery stores. We would both point to what we wanted and say "Moizhna kilogram" (Give me a kilogram). The clerk would do as requested and then ask us something in Russian. For some reason, we both always thought they were asking if that's what we wanted, to which we would reply "Da". Then the clerk would yell at us.

This happened for many months on many occasions, but then after talking to Katya about it, we realized the clerk was asking us "Do you want anything else?" To which we were replying "Yes" and then standing there like idiots.

Ms. Australia was also entertaining to watch with the Russian language. Unlike Quagmire, she made attempts to speak in Russian, and had studied some Russian with a tutor in Perth before coming to Moscow. Her problem, however, was that somehow she managed to import her Australian accent into her Russian speech, a phenomenon even I could hear. It confused the hell out of Russians.

One time Ms. Australia and I walked to the local produkty to buy some chips and drinks. Ms. Australia asked the clerk "Moizhna Red Bull banki bolshoi" (Give me a big can of Red Bull), but the clerk looked at her in puzzlement. "Shto?" came the inevitable reply. "Red Bull...banki" Ms. Australia asked. "Ya tebya nye panamayou" (I don't understand you) the clerk said. Ms. Australia, getting frustrated now, tried the same phrase but in a louder voice. "Red Bull! Banki!" The clerk just stared at her in amazement.

I interjected and repeated the exact same phrase as Ms. Australia. "Moizhna Red Bull banki bolshoi". The woman's face lit up. "Oh! Red Bull banki bolshoi!" and she gave Ms. Australia her can of Red Bull. Ms. Australia glared long and hard at me while I laughed. It wasn't my fault that while she has a strong western Australian accent, I was born with a plain North American one.

Since I've met Katya her English has gone from a pre-intermediate level to an upper-intermediate level, with no formal lessons. She has even begun talking in her sleep in English, and her mother has remarked how we speak to each other a lot faster in English now than we did a year ago. It is my hope that my Russian classes combined with some gentle conversations in Russian with Katya and her family will eventually have the same effect on me.

Until then, however, I will continue to stumble and bully and, ultimately, laugh my way through in Enlish.

Monday, November 22, 2010


When I woke up on Thursday morning and prepared for my day, a new thought entered my head that would lead me on a mission in Moscow. The thought stayed with me throughout the day, tormented me with such a clarity that it caused me to salivate. I thought of a meatball sub from Subway.

When I had lived off-contract and taught privates in my second year in South Korea, I had made it a tradition every Friday to stop in at Subway and order a meatball sub. I like them a certain way: tomatoes, green peppers and olives, all warmed up in the microwave so the layer of cheese at the top melts over the saucy meatballs. As I brushed my teeth that Thursday morning in Moscow, I realized that I was doing much the same thing here in Russia as I had done in Korea, and there were indeed Subway restaurants dotted around the city.

Part of the reason for the fanatiscism with which I set out to sink my teeth into a meatball sub was because I hadn't had one in over a year. Another reason was because I had eaten nothing for 3 days.

Katya and I are at the end of our money for the month, and we've both been waiting to get paid. In the meantime, we have run out of food. As a Russian, Katya is quite happy eating a bowl of salty buckwheat gruel every day, and her company feeds her lunch every day. I personally won't eat buckwheat. I hate the stuff. In 1812, as Napolean's Grand Armee marched towards Moscow, living off what food they could force from the peasants, many French soldiers died of starvation because the only food that could be found was buckwheat, and the French refused to eat it and starved to death instead. I can now sympathize with them.

But just the day before I had been compensated by some students and on that day, I was going to get a meatball sub, and I knew just the place. To the left of the place where Old Arbat joins New Arbat there is a Subway Sandwiches. As Arbat lies on the blue line, and I was travelling on the blue line that day, it seemed like fate.

I set out full of joy. It felt like Christmas, I was so excited to eat that delicious sandwich with it's dried-up balls of processed pork-like meat product, which have sat in a slowly fermenting pool of tomato sauce all day. Mmmmm, delicious!

It had began to rain and snow when I emerged from the metro. Although it was only 5:30, it was already dark, and fat drops of rain intermixed with swirling snowflakes fell down across the street lights. Arbat was its normal bustle of business men, people handing out Mir Tattoo flyers, beautiful women in skirts and heels, and buskers playing guitars and even one on a trumpet.

I made my way to Subway. It wasn't very busy. There were two big young guys in black leather jackets sitting and eating, and an older lady was arguing with the girl at the counter about the process of making her a sub. The normal Subway decor was there, complete with a map of the New York subway system, the yellow walls and fake plants, and the L-shaped counter where one orders the sub and pays for it at the end. But as I perused the menu, I realized with a sinking feeling that in Russia, they DIDN'T HAVE THE MEATBALL SUB!!!

With an inspection of the different toppings to make sure I wasn't reading the menu wrong, it was confirmed. There were no meatballs bobbing about pathetically in disgusting (yet delicious) tomato sauce, usually with a silver ladel sticking out of one side.

"Can I help you?" The woman, a large creature with a heavy mongoloid face and jet-black hair, was staring at me. With her white t-shirt covered by a black Subway apron, she looked a lot like a penguin "Umm.." I replied wittily. Glancing over the menu, I saw the Subway staple. B.M.T. "Moizhna bolshoi Bay-Em-Tay. Bilayi hlyeb (Give me a large B.M.T. White bread)".

The penguin grunted her response and grabbed a long white baton from the oven-thingy and began making my sub. Apparently in Russia one doesn't choose which toppings you get, however, because she just started piling on lettuce and other useless vegetables. *

*I hate lettuce. It serves no function. It has no flavour, nor does it even contain any nutritional content. It is mearly a leafy decoration and I would probably get more satisfaction out of putting hay on my sub.

"Wait a moment. No lettuce, please." I instructed. The penguin gave me a hard look and then barked aggressively at me in Russian I didn't understand. She started piling lettuce on (ah, Russian customer service). Then she went for the onions. "Nyet!" I cried out, and the large Mongol woman literally snarled at me. After she had placed the lettuce and onions on, and refused to put green peppers on it as I instructed, she turned and put the sub into the toaster. "Nooooo!" I cried out. If I wanted toast, I would have gone to Quiznos! Except there are no Quiznos in Russia, thank god (I also hate Quiznos, with their cheap 1 ounce of meat and vegetables and stale bread that always burns).

I sat down dejectedly with my half-burnt BMT and the toasted pieces of lettuce and onion sticking out of the sides. Thankfully it was still wrapped and I was hungry enough to actually eat it. Just then a soft female voice said, in English "Excuse me, but maybe I can help you?" I looked up to see a red-haired angel. She was tall and slim and curvy beneath her white wool sweater, with beautiful long, thick red hair flowing down her back. Her face was the typical soft, small Slavic work of art and she had such lovely brown eyes that my stomach tightened when I saw them. Or perhaps that was the third day of hunger setting in?

"Umm, well, its too late now!" I replied. She giggled. "I guess." She had that cute and sexy Russian accent that all women who speak English here have. Sometimes I think they practise it from James Bond films.

Remembering my manners, I stood. "What's your name?" I asked. She smiled warmly. "Masha." Then, noticing my wedding ring, she said "You're married?" I suddenly felt very guilty, for I am indeed married but instinct had, when presented with such a beauty, automatically gone into flirting mode. What to do? Lie? Tell the truth? Pursue? Back off? Eat my sub? I took the noble path. "Yes, I'm married!" I exclaimed with pride. This seemed to please Masha, who patted my forearm and said "Good for you. Married men are such good men." And she smiled and stared straight at me. I gulped.

Just then one of the guys in the leather jackets who had been eating when I walked in shouted and leapt to his feet. He barelled straight at us. "Oi! Ti bla-bla-bla-bla-ka!" He was quite pissed off. Maybe Masha was his girlfriend? She apparently didn't know him because she shouted angrily to him in Russian. He ignored her and, standing a few inches from me he continued to shout. I understood a few of the words, including the word "foreigner" and "American".

So this was it. Russia has always been torn between two camps, the Westerners, who want Russia to embrace the rest of the world and be more progressive, and the Slavophiles, who believe Russia has their own thing going and should be the cultural and political home of the Slavic peoples. There is a long history of paranoia towards all foreigners in Russia, and under Putin and his United Russia party, the passionate power of the Slavophile camp has been harnessed. This young man in front of me, then, was obviously the neo-nazi version of a Slavophile. How to explain that I am a friend of Russia, that I love the Slavs and their culture and hope to see Russia take its rightful place in the world?

I didn't have time because the Slav-nazi jabbed his finger into my chest as he screamed a torrent of abuse at me. I was still wearing my heavy black winter coat so it didn't hurt, but my pride was injured and, forgetting that this guy could probably kill me I placed my sub down on the table and prepared to hit him square in the nose.

Just then a large grey uniform pushed its way between us. We were both forced apart and I saw two men in uniforms with fur caps and gold double-headed eagle badges. The militsia! I looked around. Masha was nowhere to be seen. The penguin, who had obviously run out and flagged down the police during the altercation, was rambling away excitedly to the cop and pointing at me. The nazi was standing there while his eating companion quietly slipped out the door, probably the same way Masha had gone.

The cops looked bored and patiently listened to the penguin, who was very excited but seemed to be full of spite towards me. The cop who had pushed us apart pulled out a notepad and began to take notes. The nazi, realizing nobody was paying attention to him, did a little side-step to the door and then ran off. It was only me, the penguin and two Russian militsia.

I have, in 14 months, managed to stay out of trouble and have not once been harassed by the police in Russia. Stories aboud about unprovoked document checks of foreigners (everyone must carry their passport, visa and registration in Russia at all times), followed by the remark that something is out of order with the paperwork, followed by a heavy bribe to make "everything" in order again. Katya and I don't have a lot of money and I had just spent 200 roubles on a nasty sub, which I was determined to eat.

As the penguin rattled on, following, it seemed, the anti-foreigner attitude of the nazi, the cops scribbled notes and looked at the ground. They were obviously not very interested. I realized that in the past minute or two since their arrival, they had hardly glanced at me. Not waiting for the inevitable "Dokumenti, palzhasta", I did a little sidestep towards the door. Nobody noticed me. I took another step and stopped. My heart was pounding. Nobody even looked at me. The door was only one more step away. Like a crab scurrying sideways along the beach, I did a quick shuffle to the door, slowly opened it and stepped out into the rain and snow along Arbat. I was free!

I walked briskly for about ten seconds, aiming for the metro past the underground walkway when I suddenly remembered my BMT. I had left it on the table!

Perhaps it was hunger, or the feeling that I had so far gone through too much to simply leave it behind. Perhaps it was guilt at spending the little money we had left. Whatever the reason, without much thought I turned back towards the door to Subway.

It was only a few feet away from me and I could see that the penguin was still talking, pointing at the bread ovens now, and the cops were seemingly sleeping. I quietly opened the door and slipped inside, then did a little side-shuffle back to the table. My sub was still there. One of the cops, perhaps noticing movement, looked over at me with an inquisitive look, but I just stood there and smiled stupidly. "See?" I tried to tell him with my face. "I'm just a stupid foreigner!" He looked away. I quickly shot my hand out and grabbed my sub, still wrapped in wax paper which made a small crackling sound. Nobody noticed. Then I repeated my earlier escape.

Once outside I beelined as fast as I could for the underground walkway that crosses noisy New Arbat. My heart was pounding fast. Surely they would give chase? I glanced behind me as I walked double-time but saw only the usual crowd of people. When I reached the metro station I took a last look, but apparently I wasn't worth going after. Surely they had noticed me missing by now, but I really had done nothing wrong, the nazi had disappeared and the penguin was complaining about bread. For the cops it must have been a relief to see me gone. Case closed. Let's go sit in our car and smoke.

As I rode the metro to my evening class I laughed heartily to myself (in my head, so as not to seem insane). I had evaded trouble! I had nearly fought a nazi! I had escaped from the clutches of corruption not once but twice! Haha!

When the train came to my stop I stepped off, still laughing. "Haha! You'll never catch me, coppers, see?" I made my way to the long, steep escalators and as I rode up I continued to think of my daring escape. "I can't believe I went back for the sub!" I thought to myself. "And now I am going to enjoy it even more!" I looked down at my sub, except it wasn't there. "No!" I actually shouted out.

I had left the damn thing on the train.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


As an avid hockey fan (the Canadian stereotype is true) I have enjoyed going to a couple of KHL games in Russia and watching quite a few on television. The KHL is home to a lot of hockey talent, many of whom end up in the NHL in North America.

Hockey superstars from Russia such as Alexei Ovechkin, Marion Hossa, Alexander Eremenko, Z'Dno Chara and Alexandre Yashin all came from the KHL. Indeed, Russia has always been a hockey super-power, and the Soviet Union won gold in every competition until 1972 when, four years before the Americans did it (and took all the credit..."Miracle On Ice" my ass...more like "We Finally Managed To Do It After Canada Did It Twice And Sweden Once...On Ice"), a team of plucky young men from Canada defeated the Soviets in game seven of a nail-biting international series.

The KHL has 23 teams divided into two conferences, east and west. In May of every year the two teams left standing after a grueling playoff season compete in the Gagarin Cup (named after the famous first man in space). One thing I've noticed from watching KHL games is that there seems to be a no-checking rule in place, much like in Olympic and women's hockey. As a result there is a greater emphasis on puck-handling and passing, although the strategic element of running roughshod over one's opponent is lacking. The stadiums are also much smaller than the gigantic colosseums of the NHL, and as a result I find the NHL, with it's good balance of skillful European skating and bone-crushing North-American hits, much more entertaining.

The teams of the KHL are as follows:


Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo: A decent team and home to the Soviet goaltending legend Viktor Konovalenko.

Yaroslav Lokomotive: Founded in 1949, Lokomotiv has since spawned a football club by the same name. In 2002 and 2003 they won the Gagarin Cup.

Moscow Spartak: Founded in 1946, Spartak (Spartans) is also the name of a rough-and-tumble Moscow football club whose fans are famous hooligans. The hockey team attracts the same following by sake of the name alone.

Spartak has not won a Gagarin Cup since 1991.

Chekhov Vityaz: The Vityaz (Knights) were founded in 2004 and have not yet won any championships. Nevertheless, their fans are quite passionate and they are one of the only KHL teams to consistently sell-out seats.

Cherepovyets Severstal: Founded in 1956 and owned by a large steel company, they won the cup in 2000.

Minsk Dynamo: The first and only team from Belarus to join the KHL in 2008, Minsk Dynamo is also the current team of up-and-coming NHL draft pick Jordan Henry, a Canadian playing in Minsk.

St. Petersburg SKA: SKA (Sports Klub of the Army), despite it's Soviet-era name, is no longer a military club but owned by Gazprom. They won the championships in 1970, 1971 and 1977, but have since fizzled. They are, however, home to Minnesota Wild right-winger Maxim Sushinksi.

Moscow CSKA: Like the St. Petersburg team, CSKA was a Soviet-era army club but has since gone mercenary (ie: private). CSKA has won more Russian championships and European League cups than any other team in history; 33, all told. Since 1989, however, their star has waned. Between 1975 and 1989 CSKA played 36 games against NHL teams and won 17 of them.

Mytischi Atlant: Formed in 1998, the Atlant won the cup in 2007. They are now the current team of disgraced NHL goaltender, former Ottawa Senator Ray Emery. In keeping with his reputation he earned while in the Stanley Cup finals between Ottawa and Anaheim in 2007, Emery has since, in Mytischi, attacked his coach and been suspended for cocaine use. The Atlant are also the home team of next year's probably first-round NHL draft pick Sergei Mozyakin.

Riga Dynamo: Founded in 2008, they are the first team from Latvia to join the KHL. They are the home team of hockey legend Marcel Hossa. Both Riga Dynamo and Minsk Dynamo were formed at the same time, and by a strange coincidence both teams chose the same name.

Moscow Dynamo: Formed this past year in 2010 and taking the same name as the famous Moscow football club, they have yet to achieve anything other than to add a third Dynamo to the KHL's western conference.


Khabarovsk Amur: Founded in 1966, the Amur are named after the nearby River Amur. They are the most isolated of the KHL teams; the nearest team is 3000 km away! Nevertheless, they manage to continuously win games and took home the championships in 1986 and 2006. They also had NHL veteran Nolan Pratt playing for them for a while.

Khanti-Manskisk Yugra: Since their foundation in 2006, Yugra has continued the tradition of providing top-notch Siberian teams to the world of hockey. They are likely contenders for the 2010-2011 Gagarin Cup.

Novokuznetsk Metallurg: Another fast and powerful team from Siberia, Metallurg won the championships in 1964 and 1966.

Chelyabinsk Traktor: Founded in 1947, Traktor is one of the only teams in the KHL to have beaten Moscow CSKA in the championships. Traktor has also played in the International Hockey League and won it twice. They are currently coached by former NHL veteran Andrei Nazarov, who was born and raised in Chelyabinsk.

Astana Baris: They played their first KHL game in 2008, and I can find little other information about them.

Kazan Ak-Bars: The current super-team of the KHL, the Ak-Bars have won the past three Gagarin Cups and have yet to lose a game in the European Hockey League. Founded in 1958, the Ak-Bars (Tatar for "Snow Leopards") carries on the tradition of it's Mongol namesake by being one of the roughest and fastest teams in the KHL. NHL superstars Alexei Kovalev and Alexei Morozov have played for the Ak-Bars, and the NHL asked Canadian Ak-Bar defenceman Ray Giroux to sign on, but he refused and has stayed loyal to this tough team from Kazan.

Ufa Salavat Yulaev: From the city of Ufa, in southern Siberia, Salavat Yulaev has won 66 of the 77 games they have played, and are likely contenders for this year's championships.

Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik: From the Russian republic of Tatarstan, the Neftekhimik (Petrochemists) have yet to achieve anything spectacular.

Yekaterinburg Avtomobilist: The "Automobilists", despite their incredibly silly name, are a top-notch hockey team with a lot of high-scoring players who we may eventually see in the NHL.

Omsk Avangard: Established in 1950, the Avangard (Avante-Guarde) won the championships in 2004 and then the European Cup in the same year. In 2009 they signed NHL superstars Jamori Jagr and Stanislav Chistov. In the spring of 2010 they were involved in an on-ice, bench-clearing brawl that went viral on YouTube, partly because it was a fight amongst fellow team-members jealous over the ice time Jagr was getting.

Novosibirsk Sibir: The Sibir (Siberians) were formed in 1947 after Russian sports writer Ivan Ivanovich brought the first Canadian hockey stick to Novosibirsk and showed the people what ice hockey was. Fittingly, the Sibir were the first Soviet hockey team to import foreign talent...all of them from Canada.

Magnitogorsk Metallurg: There's something fishy about the large number of teams in the KHL that have the same name, but the Metallurg from Magnitogorsk are the more famous team after they played the New York Rangers in the Victoria Cup and beat them 3-0.

That is the KHL, the second largest hockey league in the world after the NHL, and home to nearly 40% of the NHL's talent, including a long list of hockey superstars whose names are household items (in some houses).