Monday, October 26, 2009

After 6 Weeks...

For the past two years I have been living stressed-out, disappointed, broke and out of a suitcase. I can also add "bored" and "frustrated" to that list. Since coming to Russia I have been fairly content. A better description would be "optimistic". Hell, I could even say "happy"!
Although I am in a fairly upscale suburb of Moscow and I realize that my conditions here are vastly different than in other places in Russia, I can't help but feel that I really lucked-out!

When I had first applied to this job I was given three choices of location. My first choice was Rostov-On-Don, but all those positions with my company had been filled. My second choice was Samara but, like Rostov, that was filled as well. Then I chose, as my third option, one of the 5 Moscow Outskirt towns. They told me that Mytischi had a position open so I said "Sure."

I am glad that I did!

We have a tight little unit of six English teachers (3 from the U.S., one from Australia, one from Ireland and myself, from Canada) and we all get along great. In addition to the six teachers there are 3 Russian administrative staff. Our school in Mytischi isn't franchised like some of the farther-flung locations but is managed directly by the Central Office in Moscow. Because we turn a profit and everything, so far, seems to be going well they don't interfere much (I'm knocking on my faux-wood desk as I write this).

This town is filled with wide sidewalks and tree-filled parks and although it lacks the entertainment facilities of Moscow, the city centre is only 40 minutes away on the metro.

The EFL industry can be as vicious here in Russia as it is in Asia; that's just the nature of the beast. Some people get screwed around by their employers, others by their roomates and still others by their students. In Mytischi, however, things are laid back and peaceful and friendly.

The people are friendly, too. Russians still walk around here with a permanent scowl on their faces but once they get talking they're very nice. And direct. I messed up on the subtelties of flirtation with Anna Kornikova on Friday but there was no subtelty involved with a 95 lbs Rachel Weisz on Sunday, however that's a different story I won't post to this blog....

Friday, October 23, 2009

Canadian Rejection

I am a dummy with women. It doesn't matter which culture they are from, I just cannot pick up on the subtelties of female communication.

In my evening class of adults there is a blonde bombshell named Natasha who looks like a cross between Jewel and Anna Kornikova. She's 24 years old and has a Masters degree in international finance. She has long blonde hair down to the small of her back, big crystal-blue eyes and long legs that always end underneath a short black skirt. She asked me out tonight.

Me, being a dummy and an English teacher, didn't pick up on it right away.

"Do you like Russia?" She asked. "Yes, actually, I love Russia!" I responded, because I do love this country.
"What do you do on the weekends?" she asked.
"I don't know. It's been something different every weekend." I replied.
"Do you walk on Sunday?" She asked.
"No, I usually go into Moscow." I answered.

Doh! This whole conversation occured as the class was getting their jackets on to go home, and it wasn't until ten minutes after everybody had left that I realized that she meant "Would you like to go for a walk on Sunday?"!!!

In Russia, the first date is traditionally a walk through a park followed by tea followed by sex, and here is the stupid Canadian, Mr. Atethepaint.

After I had figured out that a simple error in grammar had ruined a potentially fantastic weekend, I recounted the story to Ms. Australia, Ms. Tenessee, Quagmire and Wonderpants, and they all roared with laughter at me. They have seen this girl and agree that she is particularly hot, even by Russian standards. "You Canadians are dense!" Ms. Australia mocked.

Seriously, though. I am an English teacher and we've been plugging the past simple and present perfect for two weeks now. "Do you walk on Sunday?" has a completely different meaning from "Would you like to go for a walk on Sunday?"

Stupid New English File textbook series. Why couldn't they start the first chapter off with prepositions? That way English teachers could date their students without such awkwardness. I'm going to write an EFL textbook called "Real World English" and it will involve..well, real English.

Otherwise, how do people expect to pick up their English teachers?

Friday English

Today is Friday.

Friday's are my busiest day of the week. From 3 pm until 9:30 pm I have back-to-back classes and the strain of teaching for nearly 7 hours straight is exhausting! My Fridays consist of a real mix of students. From a one-on-one class with an advanced 11-year-old who says things like "My father considers Boston the cultural heart of America, but I much prefer Buffalo!", to a class with 10 intermediate-level 16-18 year old girls who say things like "Kiss my ass" and "Oh ya? Make me practise grammar", to two classes of 10-year old boys who don't say anything in English, to a class of tired adults who have just got off work and elected to spend 2 hours learning English in the evening.

By 10 pm on Friday evenings I am not only mentally drained but I also feel like a bad teacher! By the time I start the adult class I've pretty much run out of momentum. Teaching English is not only about getting vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar into the students head, it's also about entertaining. An EFL teacher is an entertainer through-and-through and it takes a lot of energy to keep so many different groups of people entertained and engaged for so long. When Friday evening rolls around I just want to give out some copies of grammar exercises and sit back.

Of course, that is not why they pay good money to learn from a native speaker. So I must struggle to keep everyone happy and entertained and, most importantly, feeling as if though they are getting their money's worth.

Thankfully Russians have an easier time learning English than Koreans do and they are able to pick up on the language much faster. Perhaps it is because, in comparison to Koreans, Russians are able to learn for themselves rather than rely on rote memorization of stock phrases. They are also a lot more engaging than Koreans, particularly the teenagers and adults, and they are always willing to launch into a conversation (particularly if it involves making fun of their tired teacher).

Lesson planning for a Friday evening takes more than an hour, and very shortly I'm going to have a shower, get dressed, walk the 20-minutes to the school, pull out my little notebook and begin planning. Perhaps today will involve a lot grammar practise!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Oaf

I feel like an oaf here in Russia. This really is a country where knowledge of the language is necessary. This isn't like Korea or any other Asian country where the bare minimum will get me by; in Russia one is expected to know the language.

Korean has very little grammar. There are no past-tenses or future-tenses and everything depends on the context. I can say "Yesterday I car drive" and it will mean the same as "I was driving a car yesterday", which is great if you're learning a new language. Russian, however, is much more complicated.

Russian has six cases that change the ending of the words, as well as gender-specific nouns (like Latin languages: there are masculine and feminine words). The number 1, for instance, in Russian is "adin" but if it comes before a feminine noun it is "adna", however, that all depends on the case, which will help determine the gender of the noun. Simply learning some verbs and nouns in Russia won't do anything for you. I have enough vocabulary to say "I car drive yesterday" but it will sound as barbaric in Russian as it does in English. Add to that the need for correct pronunciation and I'm pretty much a retard in this country.

Most of the expats I've met here have studied Russian and speak Russian to a certain extent (Mr. Irish is 100% fluent), while I can order cigarettes from a store and that's about it. I have tried to learn the numbers but what I've learned and what I hear are two different things.

Surrounded by a classical language and expats who speak it, I feel like a dumb, uncultured oaf. I like beef and barbecues and hockey and bonfires and trucks and girls and rock music. I can pitch a tent in the dark and light a fire out of nothing and survive in the woods and clean and load a rifle and pack a snowball and navigate a canoe like nobody's business and drink myself stupid, yet I can't speak Russian and therefore I'm uncivilized.

Okay, maybe I am uncivilized but I can speak French and read and write in Korean and I'm not an idiot. I will learn enough Russian, eventually, to get by. However, as I'm surrounded by cultured people, both Russian and expat, and I'm the only one who can't speak the language, I feel like an oaf.

Monday, October 19, 2009


130 km west of Moscow is the small provincial village of Borodino. On this site, in September of 1812, Napolean's Grande Armee of over 250,000 soldiers clashed with the Imperial Russian Army of over 124,000 troops. In the 15-hour battle, more than 70,000 men were killed in the single bloodiest battle in history up until the Somme in 1916.
Although Napolean won the battle, he lost the war at Borodino. His army was shattered and he could not replace the veterans of his conquests of Europe. The Russians suffered appalling casualties, as well, but they withdrew north of Moscow and replenished their forces while Napolean was stuck deep in Russia with a much smaller force. Winter came and Napolean was forced to retreat back to Germany with the Russian army harrassing him the whole way. Less than 20,000 of Napolean's troops made it back alive.

Borodino was not only one of the biggest battles in history (until the First World War), it also became the scene of a huge battle between Nazi German and Soviet Russian forces in the Second World War.

Here the Soviet 38th Rifle Division held back the advancing Wermacht for 6 days during the German drive on Moscow. The Soviets suffered 14,500 casualties while the Germans lost 9,300 men. The fighting took place around the monuments erected to commemorate the 1812 battle.

Wonderpants and I went to Borodino yesterday. It was a sunny (but cool) autumn day and the Russian countryside was incredibly peaceful compared to the bustle of Moscow. We took a train from Byeloruskaya Station to a town called Mazhaisk and then a bus from there to Borodino. The trip took just over 2 hours. The bus, however, dropped us off on the side of a country road in the middle of nowhere and we had no idea where we were.

Fortunately Wonderpants speaks a bit of Russian and we saw a produkt (convenience store) with a couple of people smoking cigarettes around a car in the parking lot. They were in their early twenties and were blaring techno music and chatting. Wonderpants asked them "Where's the Borodino Battlefield Museum?" and they laughed. "It's 10 miles down the road!"

I couldn't understand what they were saying but I did hear the words "mashina" and "dyetd" ("car" and "drive") and realized they were offering us a ride! We got in the car with two of the guys and they drove us to the battlefield.

The battlefield was incredible. Many of the trenches and pillboxes of the Soviet defences in 1941 still remain, as do the monuments to the battle with Napolean. The 105 square km battlefield is preserved and untilled, so today it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1812!

We spent several hours walking through the fields and trenches, had a picnic lunch at a memorial, and toured the little Borodino Museum.

We were getting tired and it was getting late, so we decided to head back. The only problem was that there were no buses coming to Borodino! They do have limited service but on Sundays one must wait for hours before the next bus comes by. We decided to walk to the village of Borodino, about 2.4 km away from the battlefield.

Along this peaceful route we came across random monuments to the battles. The sun was in the west and the tree-lined road was gold and red with autumn leaves. The odd car drove past but otherwise there wasn't a sound to be heard save for birds and wind. We passed through a couple of provincial villages on the way, which seemed quaint and peaceful. I think that Wonderpants was thoroughly fed up with the entire day and I watched his mood get pissier as the time went by, but I enjoyed myself.

After a couple of hours of walking we reached Borodino and two goats ran past us, chased by a black dog. One of the goats stopped and turned and faced off with the dog (who was jumping and barking and about as excited as a dog can get). The goat stood its ground and lowered its head, as if to charge the yappy mutt. Then there was a sharp "crack" and both the goat and dog jumped in surprise. I looked to my left and there was a guy with a pellet gun shooting at the goat!

The other goat ran down the street after a woman walking a German sheppard, which started barking and the goat changed its mind. The first goat and dog chased each other through a park with the guy shooting at them.

Wonderpants and I decided to get the hell out of there and caught a train back to Moscow, only we misread the time. A train was waiting at the platform so we got on and, thinking we had 20 minutes before it left, I got off again to use the toilet at the side of the platform. When I emerged from the little WC, the train was pulling away from the station! Thankfully Wonderpants grabbed our bags and jumped off at the last moment, or else I would have been screwed. We checked the big schedule board again and saw that another 'Sunday Only' train was due in 20 minutes, so we made it back home alive.

It's weird things like perfectly preserved battlefields, goats chasing dogs while guys shoot at goats and getting stranded in strange towns that make me realize that I'm once again overseas!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The State Tretyakov Gallery

Yesterday Mr. Irish and I went to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This is the "second" national art gallery of Russia, after the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

The Tretyakov was in a strangely-laid out building with two floors of artwork and sculptures showcasing Russian art history from the 18th Century onwards (with one exhibit, that we didn't have time to see, showcasing pre-Mongolian art). All the paintings were originals as were most of the frames.

Although I'm not too familiar with Russian artists, the layout of the gallery was well-planned. Walking from room to room I was able to trace the development and increasing sophistication of the artists. For instance, in the 18th Century only a few of the world's masters could properly paint facial features, which is why most portraits of European royalty and generals in this period look alike (round, pinkish faces and large oval eyes). This was also an imperial period in Europe and it was no different in Russia. Large portraits of the Czars were everywhere and Catherine the Great was obviously the favourite personage of Russian artists at this time, judging from the amount of portraits and sculptures dedicated to her.

It's not until the 19th Century that Russian art takes on a life of its own. The complication of the artists becomes apparent and still-life scenes and paintings of rural, pastoral Russia is all the rage. This is interesting because Russian artists started painting nature fifty years before European artists did, and the Russians were good at it!

There was one artist by the name of I. Kuindzhi who had a showcase room all to himself (he lived in the early to mid 1800s) and his use of light and shadows is amazing! I have never heard of this painter before but he's made the single best painting I have ever seen. It was a night scene of an almost neon-green moon over a river, and the way he played with the reflection of the moon was captivating. I want to find some reproductions of his works for my home.

We made it to the pre-revolutionary period of art which was very cubist and had a wannabe feel to it as the artists of this period attempted to mimic the masters in western Europe. Russian art, in my opinion, hit its zenith in the early 19th Century and I don't think anybody can match what Russian artists were doing. This was probably because more Russians were being allowed to travel abroad while the Czars', wanting to bring Russia up to European standards, were attracting artisans and engineers from other countries as well as becoming sponsors of the arts. A sort of art-liberalism was allowed to flourish in Russia in this period, and it really shows in the works.

We were tired and decided to save the next floor of galleries for another day, so we went to a coffee house, met up with Mr. Irish's friend Ms. Ireland, and then went home.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Teaching English To Russian Adults

Thankfully I received my first class of adults last week. For the past month I have been teaching, exclusively, kids and teenagers and one class of 40-somethings. What's with the kids? "You are very good with children." my handlers told me (my handlers are the 3 Russian women who make up our branch administrative staff). Because of that I've been saddled with class after class of kids.

It was such a nice change to start teaching adults in their 20s. This is a group that I can understand yet I'm old enough and experienced enough that I am able to maintain their respect.

When I taught in Korea I was sent to the client's location; that is, if they wanted lessons at home or at their office I had to travel there. With my company in Russia we have a location that is equipped with four classrooms and the students come to us. These classrooms are cozy and decorated in the blue and white colours of our company as well as various phonetic charts, the odd flag from an American state and posters that children have made. They come equiped with white boards and CD players and books and games (including two of my favourites, Scrabble and Balderdash).

Don't get me wrong, I love kids. The little bastards are so adorable and I find it fascinating that kids from Asia, North America and Russia are all the same. They just want to laugh and be engaged and feel safe and loved. That's something I find I can do naturally with the ankle biters and I grow incredibly attached and slightly protective of them. Still, that doesn't make up for the fact that helping a 24-year old blonde with brown eyes and cleavage bursting out of her low-cut shirt is vastly more satisfying.

Slightly Homesick

Perhaps it's the early stages of homesickness. Perhaps it's the language difficulties. Whatever it is, a feeling of being uncomfortable and self-conscious has crept over me the past few days.

I was fully prepared for some homesickness to set in once the shock of travel had worn off, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon. In my experience it takes a couple of months to begin and then drags on for several more months. When I first arrived in South Korea in September 2003 I didn't get hit with the first pangs of homesickness until close to Christmas, and it didn't wear off until the following summer.

Of course, Korea is so much more foreign than Russia. The food is vastly different, whereas Russian food is basically the same as it is in the west. The people and the geography and the culture in Korea is very north-east Asian and unlike anything else in the world, whereas those things in Russia are somewhat similar to back home. That's not to say that Russian people and culture are the same, but there are some similarities.

I don't stand out too much in Russia; if I don't open my mouth and I keep a stern look on my face, I can blend in here without much trouble. In Korea, the genetics behind my racial make-up made me stand out no matter where I went! In Russia there is a strong love for individualism while in Korea there was a strong love for being a clone. Also, in Russia, there are lots of trees and parks and European architecture whereas Korea was a land encased in concrete and quickly constructed buildings that all looked alike.

Russia is different than the west in many ways as well. For starters there are the crowds of large macho men in leather jackets who hang out and get pissed in parks, on sidewalks, in dark alleyways, etc all throughout the night. The women here are incredibly beautiful and wear weird combinations of high-heeled boots over tight designer jeans and fur coats. Traffic is near-suicidal here in Russia and one must be vigilant when crossing the street. Russians don't make eye-contact on the streets, and stare off into space with scowls on their face as they walk, seemingly lost in deep thought about how crappy everything is. Russian beef sucks.

Strangely enough it is the partial lack of foreigness that has helped to prematurely bring on the first pangs of homesickness. Having experienced it before I know what to expect and how to deal, but it is not a comfortable process. Right now I'm going through a period of insecurity, a reaction I have to strong emotional shocks. This makes it more difficult for me to venture out on my own, bond closely with other people and also to completely relax and sleep well.

I recognize it as homesickness and not culture shock because for the past week or so I've been thinking of how relaxed and comfortable I would be were I back in Owen Sound or British Columbia, and I've been daydreaming of what my life will be like when I go home. That's a bad cycle to get into and thinking like that will only prolong homesickness.

To defeat homesickness and settle comfortably into the new circumstances one must grab the bull by the horns, so to speak. I must constantly force myself to take trips on my own and navigate the impossible communication problems I deal with on a day-to-day basis. I must force myself to relax when alone and in the company of new friends. I must devote time and energy to learning the language and, finally, I must dream of what my life will look like here in Russia in a month or two, rather than what life back home will look like in a year or two. That's the only way to break the homesick fever.

A lot of alcohol helps, too.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nova Scotia, Vodka & Irish Girls

I want to talk about three things in this blog post: Nova Scotia, vodka, and Irish girls.

Okay. So, as you read this pretend that you know that I'm really drunk. It's a Monday night and Mr. Irish and I just polished off two bottles of vodka and chased them with pickles and orange juice. The telephone just rang about ten minutes ago. I answered because Mr. Irish stumbled off to bed a few moments before. "Allyo?" I answered, as is standard in Russia. Some babushka flew a stream of Russian at me. "Ya nye gavaroo pa-Rooski!" I replied ("I don't speak Russian" Russian). She kept swearing at me in Russian and, for some reason but probably related to two bottles of vodka, I said to her in French "Mercis Madame, mais maintenant je ne comprends pas la Rus. Bon soir!" and I hung up the phone.

The reason she had called is because Mr. Irish and I had been watching traditional Irish folk songs on YouTube. Last week I bought some speakers for my laptop at a chain called "Ion" and they have some good volume capality. I introduced Mr. Irish to 'Barrett's Privateers', which is one of my favourite Nova Scotia songs and reflects a HUGE part of the difference between Americans and Canadians and Mr. Irish loved it! We were both banging our fists on the the chair and singing away.

"I was told we'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears...
I'm a broken man on the Halifax pier
The last of Barret's Privateers"

I love Nova Scotia. I love it so much...anyways.....

Mr. Irish typed up some Irish folk songs and they were all so damn beautiful. The history and sense of cultural/ethnical pride in Irish songs is beyond words. It's beautiful. It really is. And these were YouTube videos of both celebrities and regular folk singing. One thing I noticed, and I've noticed in all my experiences, is that the Irish-Scottish look is so damn beautiful. Some men have an Asian fetish; I have a Celtic fetish. Irish and Scottish women, to me, are the most beautiful creatures on the planet. There is nothing more intoxicating, more soul-wrenching or more feminine than an Irish lass singing an Irish song. She need not be a pencil-thin
Asian or Russian but she can still be so damn beautiful!

Goddamn vodka. I can't escape it here in Russia. Even on a quiet Monday night my flatmate and I polished off two bottles. Fortunately I don't have a class until 17:15. For some strange reason an "hour" in Russian schools counts as 45 minutes. These are "academic hours". A real hour of 60 minutes is considered an "astronomical hour" (because one hour is so damn astronomical). So my Tuesday class is 2 academic hours starting at 17:15. Where else in the world can you get completely pissed on vodka, dream of Irish girls, work for an hour and a half late in the evening the next day, and get paid $2,000 a month? Not in Canada. Not anywhere but Russia!

A woman's voice singing Irish folk songs while you drink Russian vodka and dream of Nova Scotia makes for a fantastic Monday evening!


Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Weird Weekend In Russia

Three of my work colleagues share a large 3-bedroom flat above the school we work at, which is lucky for them because Mr. Irish and I have a 20-minute walk to get to work. Those three are Ms. Australia, a funny and rambunctious but cute girl from Perth; Quagmire, an American who looks like the Family Guy character and is also, strangely enough, a pilot; and Wonderpants, a hilarious and witty Virginian guy who already had that nickname when I got here (he's in his second year in Russia).

I spent quite a bit of time at their place over the past week, culminating in a messy weekend. It started on Friday night when I received a text from Wonderpants around 9 pm as I was finishing up my final class for the day. "Do you want to go get a pint somewhere?" it read. "Sure, just one." I replied, because I have a 10 am class on Saturdays and don't like teaching hungover.
After my class I went up to their place. Ms. Australia had a friend over named Ms. California and they had just cracked a bottle of vodka. "Ya, we'll probably just stay in and have a few drinks." Wonderpants informed me. "No problem" I replied. Then a shot of vodka appeared in front of me. Just one won't hurt, I thought to myself (but knowing that there's no such thing as just one shot of vodka).

By midnight we were done the second bottle and I was as drunk as I've ever been or at least it counts as one of the top ten drunkest states I've been in. Somewhere in my mind a voice kept saying "You have a class of adults to teach in the morning!" so I decided it would be wise to go home.

"Hey, do you guys want to go to the local nightclub?" Wonderpants asked. "Sure!" I responded.

I can't describe the nightclub in too much detail because my memory of the place is foggy. I do remember it being a real sausage fest, with ten guys on the dance floor and two girls sitting in a corner chatting.

I lurched home around 2 am and passed out on my sofa in my clothes. At 08:00 my phone alarm went off and I got up, shaky but functioning, to teach a class. The students recognized my hangover immediately and made fun of me and we all laughed. Hardy har har. After class I went back to the Australia/Quagmire/Wonderpants flat (Ausquagpants?). Ms. Australia and Ms. California were still in bed but awake. Ms. Australia had her face buried in her pillow. "I've been crying!" she shouted as I walked by her room. "Crying? Why?" I asked, and climbed into the big bed with the two girls.
"I lost my purse and my passport last night."
"Yes, and look at my face!" Ms. Australia lifted her face out of the pillow and a huge, fist-sized welt on her cheek greeted me. It's a shame, too, because she has really nice skin."Holy fuck!" I shouted. "Did you get mugged?"
"I don't know! I don't even remember going to the club!" was her reply.

Then I walked to the kitchen where Quagmire was washing some dishes. His entire face was red and swollen. "I played a punching game with some Russians." He explained to me. He went on to tell me that Ms. Australia wasn't mugged, she had simply come to a crashing halt at the club and passed out, smacking her face off the ground. Wonderpants got them a taxi and as he was wrestling to put Ms. Australia in it she must have lost her passport. Quagmire didn't see the point in taking a taxi when they live three blocks away, so he decided to walk home. That's when he ran into four drunk Russians.

One of them punched him in the face. Quagmire responded by punching the guy back, who then hugged him and laughed and patted him on the shoulder. Suddenly, a second guy punched him in the face, so he punched him back and this guy laughed and gave him high five. Quagmire was pissed off at this point so he wound up to punch the guy a second time but the Russians said "No! No! Only one time!" And then a third guy punched him. Quagmire was incredibly confused, but punched that guy in the face. Then the fourth guy punched him and Quagmire punched him back. Then he decided that this weird game wasn't for him, so he stumbled away with a swollen face.

A few hours after Quagmire recounted the story to me, a large group of people came over (all teachers but in different parts of Moscow). There were 3 pretty American girls as well as Ms. Tenessee, an American guy and a British guy. Ms. Australia and Ms. California were up by this point, so, together with Wonderpants, we all went to a hockey game.

A weird aspect of this hockey game was the attempt to sexualize it with cheer-strippers on a platform above the rink. These incredibly sexy young women (with fantastic bodies) were wearing the skimpiest of outfits and performed strip-club-like dances throughout the entire game. Whenever the Mytischi Atlant scored, these girls put on a performance that was almost pornographic. Whenever the Kazan Ak-Bars scored they would turn their backs to the ice. I don't believe that cheerleaders have any business being at a hockey game.

Afterwards we all went back to the Ausquagpants apartment and more people came over and everybody got incredibly drunk. At 5 am I stumbled home and, in the park near my residence, a group of Russian men were standing on the sidewalk with beers in their hand. I was really drunk and walking with vigor and determination. They saw me coming at them but refused to move out of the way, and I refused to alter my trajectory. After a hockey game and thinking of Quagmire's story I wasn't in the mood for any potential trouble. The best defense is a good offense. I bowled through the group of them, slamming my body into the press. Russians flew left and right as I went through them like a cannon ball and emerged out the other side. Russian curses flew after me on the night air but I was at my door before they could recover and pummel me.

It was an interesting weekend.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Vodka Phenomena

The effects of drinking vodka follow a consistent pattern that I have witnessed in everybody save for highly-experienced Russian men, and it goes something like this (taken from personal experience on several occasions):

First, you meet up with an acquaintance or two in the evening, either in one’s apartment kitchen or, as happens at least once per week, in a park where Russians are drinking around a statue or fountain. From there the decision is made to purchase “just a couple of beers” and have “a quiet night”. So you and your companions walk to the local booze-and-cigarette stand and purchase a couple of 1 litre bottles of Baltika 7 beer for 25 roubles a piece but there, right next to the Baltikas, are large bottles of vodka with fancy labels for 60 roubles. You start to second-guess how much beer you will require for a “quiet night” and decide to grab a ridiculously-cheap bottle of vodka “just in case we run out of beer before the night ends.”

With bottles either jammed into coat pockets or plastic bags, you walk to the nearest kitchen where surplus beer is put into the fridge. At this early point in the evening plans begin to break down as somebody inevitably pulls out shot glasses and fills them up with vodka (often times before the first beer is even opened). Pickles or bread magically appear on the table to chase the vodka. You think “Well, one shot of vodka won’t hurt”. Everybody involved clinks their glasses and exhales quickly (it helps dull the taste) and then they pound the shots back and follow them up with an uncontrollable shudder of the body and a pickle. Perhaps you chase it with your first swig of beer.

Everyone then settles down and begins chatting about random stuff. If you are anywhere near Mr. Irish it will involve grammatical rules of English and Russian and some comparisons to absolutely useless Irish vocabulary. If you are with Ms. Montana and Ms. Wisconsin the conversation will involve Ms. Wisconsin talking about America and Ms. Montana laughing at her. If you are with them AND Mr. Irish it will involve Mr. Irish talking about grammar and the girls making fun of him. If you are with Mr. Wonderpants chit-chat will involve a hilarious recounting of a drunken evening in Russia. If you are drinking shots of vodka alone you should seek help.

The conversations will continue for a few minutes before somebody pours more shots of vodka. “Cheers!” or “Za Sdroviya!” or even a toast in Russian will follow, and again the shudder and the pickle. Then the conversation resumes. Then another shot of vodka after several minutes, which, for some reason, seems to go down much smoother and there is no shudder (but there’s still a pickle or piece of bread to chase it). Then again, the process repeats itself.

By the time the bottle is finished you do not feel completely drunk. It has been, at the most, an hour since the first shots were consumed and everybody is very talkative and somewhat obnoxious. The volume in the kitchen is much higher than it needs to be, and everybody thinks they’re a fucking comedian. You have only drunk half your beer.

Somebody notices that the bottle of vodka is no longer on the table (it’s very bad manners to keep an empty bottle on the table in goes on the floor beside the table) and says “We should get another bottle”. Everyone agrees and one person offers to buy it ($2-$3 doesn’t really put you out) but sometimes nobody wants to be the one walking to the store. You offer to go because you don’t speak Russian and can’t order the booze, thus forcing a Russian speaker (or even a Russian if they are drinking with you) to go with you. You don’t know why it amuses you to do this but you take a certain sense of satisfaction from forcing somebody to go to the store (after one bottle of vodka it is surprising what sort of things you find amusing).

You and the hapless translator put on your shoes and coats, unlock the door (in these apartments you must lock and unlock the door using a big jailer’s key from the inside as well as the outside), take a harrowing ride in an elevator or walk down several flights of stairs, depending on whose kitchen you are at, and go back to the booze stand. Your translator and the attendant laugh at you in Russian and you hear the odd “Kanadianski”, but the bottle is purchased and you walk back. By this point, even after one bottle of 40%-50% proof vodka, you aren’t stumbling. The walk is nice and you and your translator carry on a civil conversation, maybe stopping to look at a statue of a cosmonaut or old poet or soldier or stoic working woman (there are statues EVERYWHERE in Russia).

You return to the kitchen but nobody says “Welcome back” or “How did you make out?” because they are too busy being loud obnoxious comedians to each other. That doesn’t matter, though, because you instantly transform from being a civil and pleasant walking partner back to being a loud and obnoxious retard. You still don’t feel drunk.

Then the second bottle of vodka is cracked open and the rounds of shots continue. However, this time they are going down much harder. Everybody is pausing before shooting them, in much the same way that people hesitate before jumping into a cold pool. You notice that the pickles have been polished off and the only thing in the flat to chase the vodka with is dry macaroni noodles (because you’re single and an expat, you don’t have much in the way of juice or anything else, really). Oh well. Better than nothing.

These shots aren’t going down as well, and the loud conversations aren’t making much sense anymore. You find yourself gapping out in the middle of a discussion. “ then this guy walks up to the horse and but the water wouldn’t boil because there was no power.”
“Wait!” You suddenly shout. “What?”

If you are with Mr. Irish the singing starts without warning, and it’s always some Irish folk song or anthem and its sung in Irish and it doesn’t sound good. Actually, it sounds much like the opposite of good, but Mr. Irish believes that it sounds wonderful and sings as loud as he can.

And then, all of a sudden, the vodka hits you and you’re stupidly, stupidly drunk. It’s taken two hours of constant consumption but every single shot of vodka you’ve had hits you all at once. The kitchen table appears to be in orbit around your head, your body has slumped over and almost melted to the chair, and you want to kill whatever dying dog is singing those Irish songs. Oh wait. Is that Mr. Irish? He’s all blurry. It is. Okay. When is he going to stop singing? Soon? You hope so. Oh good, Ms. Wisconsin is making fun of him to his face and everybody is laughing. He’s stopped singing now.

Suddenly someone finds the ability to stand up and with every ounce of concentration and determination declares “I’m going to bed!” and then they half-stumble, half-lurch out of the kitchen and disappear into a bedroom somewhere. They don’t even live in this apartment.

All at once everyone slurs their agreement, and then it’s the morning and you’re in your clothes and draped over a sofa and the roof of your mouth is welded to your tongue with dryness. Strangely enough you don’t have that much of a headache (just a general grogginess), because you didn’t drink much beer and your brain didn’t dehydrate. You don’t remember the part between saying you are going to bed and actually falling asleep on the sofa. Perhaps it was all those pickles.

That is how vodka works and without fail. Every single time you drink vodka in Russia, it works the exact same way. It’s very consistent, like the McDonald’s of life.

Battle of Moscow

The war for Russia was a true war of conquest and survival. The Germans had a plan for Lebensraum (living room) and the vast lands of Russia were to be it. Under Nazi ideology the Slavic race was inferior. Russia was to become a slave state with the weak and the elderly being ‘liquidated’, the men being worked to death at hard labour and the women being used to ‘breed the Slav out’ with ‘pure’ Germanic blood. The vast oil and mineral resources of the USSR were to be exploited by the Nazi war machine.

On June 21st 1941 Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion in history up until that time. The Germans assembled 2.1 million troops, 11,000 tanks, 14,000 artillery guns and over 3,500 warplanes in 3 large Army Groups that stretched along a 2,000 km front, from the Baltic Sea to the Balkans.

Army Group North was tasked with capturing the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and then driving hard onto Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

Army Group Centre had the toughest fight; they were to smash through Soviet front-line defences and drive east to Moscow, overrunning eastern Poland, Belarus and nearly 1/3 of European Russia in the process.

From Romania and Yugoslavia Army Group South was to fight its way into the Ukraine, capture Kiev and then drive to the Don River, thus protecting Army Group Centre’s southern flank.

The whole process was to be a repeat of the stunning Blitzkrieg victories that Germany had enjoyed the year before, when France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Greece and Yugoslavia had all been conquered in only a few weeks.

Hitler was so confident of an easy victory over the Soviet Union that he had boasted to his uncertain Generals “All you need to do is kick in the door and the whole rotting structure will come crashing down!”

In a way he was right. Stalin’s purging of the Army had removed the most capable of the officer staff and replaced them with political cronies. The Red Army was demoralized and had suffered appalling casualties at the hands of the Finns the year before (the Winter War: the Soviets attempted to invade Finland and were repulsed with over 100,000 dead. Eventually they settled on a thin strip of Finnish land and never attempted it again). Soviet equipment was second-rate and corruption among the supply and logistics commands was rampant. Russian soldiers sometimes went without food or warm uniforms because quartermasters behind the lines were pilfering the supplies and selling them on the black market.

So on June 21st when Barbarossa got underway the Germans were able to break through the Soviet borders with little difficulty. In the North the Balkans were quickly overrun (in Lithuania the citizens welcomed the Nazis as liberators, cheering on the streets while girls threw flowers to the German panzers). The Soviet northern defences melted away in the face of the massive German army group.

In the south the German invasion of the Ukraine didn’t go as smoothly. At first Army Group South was able to surround and destroy 200,000 Soviet troops, but another million retreated into Kiev and the Germans were forced to fight house-to-house and hand-to-hand, a type of battle that rendered the panzers (tanks) and the Luftwaffe (air force) useless. Kiev took over 2 months to wrest from the hands of the Soviets and the city was destroyed in the process.

German troops fighting in the Ukraine

In the centre the Germans experienced some stunning successes. At Minsk, in Belarus, an entire Soviet Army Group was surrounded and forced to surrender. 630,000 Soviet soldiers went into captivity (of which less than 2,000 survived). Then again at Smolensk, in western Russia, the Germans surrounded and destroyed a further half-million Soviets. Army Group Centre was driving hard onto Moscow by the end of August 1941.

So surprising and shocking was the German invasion that Stalin himself retreated to his dacha (country home) and didn’t emerge for 10 days. When he did he was moody and despondent and his aides had to constantly cheer him up.

Behind the Wermacht (German army) came the SS, Hitler’s fanatical para-military organization. A reign of terror ensued over the conquered Russian lands as all perceived opposition was ruthlessly wiped out, men and women taken into slave labour, the elderly and weak and sick were shot and, for the large Jewish population of western Russia, there was the Holocaust.

The SS had established ‘Special Action Groups’ of heavily armed squads of troops in armoured vehicles to roam the country side and murder Jews. It is unknown how many Jews were killed by these Special Action Groups but 1 million is a conservative estimate. To the west of Kiev at a place called Babi Yar the SS murdered nearly 90,000 Jews. The people were loaded onto the back of military trucks and driven out to a ravine. There they were forced to undress and stand at the precipice where they were then shot with rifles and machine guns. Men, women and children all went into the ravine at Babi Yar.

All throughout occupied Russia villages burned, civilians were raped and murdered and brutally beaten and families were torn apart.

Meanwhile the German offensive continued with terrifying speed. Hitler had become concerned with the slow progress in the Ukraine, however, and ordered the Central Army Group to turn away from its drive on Moscow and help out in the south. Kiev fell in September and the Germans laid siege to Odessa.

Then the Central Group was allowed to resume its offensive on Moscow. By early October the Germans were only 200 km away from the Soviet capital. By mid-October they were 100 km away, but that’s when the autumn rains began. Most of the roads in Russia at this time were dirt and gravel. The long columns of heavy tanks, trucks and millions of marching soldiers had ruined the dirt roads. When the rains started these roads became quagmires. Trucks and tanks alike bogged down and soldiers sank up to their knees in mud. Quickly-constructed airfields became too muddy for planes to take off and land. The 1000-mile long supply train, from the industrial bases back in Europe to the front line, became almost impossible for trucks and trains to move on. The German advance on Moscow came to a muddy stop.

It was at this time that Stalin emerged onto the Kremlin reviewing stand on Red Square, looking more determined and confident than he had during the summer, and made an historic speech, imploring the Russian people to defend the motherland to the death, not for, as he said, Communist ideals or their political leaders but for their children, mothers, wives, husbands, homes and everything they had to love in the world. The citizens of Moscow (mostly women as all the healthy men had been drafted into the Red Army) rallied and started setting up defences in a ring around the city. Sandbag barricades were erected in major streets. 20-foot deep anti-tank ditches were dug. Bunkers were built out of logs and mud. Millions of miles of barbed wire was strung up. Mines were laid. And all the while it rained.

In November the rains stopped and the cold weather set in. The muddy roads and airfields froze and the tanks were able to move again. The Germans resumed their advance on Moscow.

The Red Army, however, had had time to reorganize after the disasters of the summer and the Germans faced increasingly stiff resistance the closer they got to Moscow. It took nearly a month to advance 50 km, as Red Army units refused to surrender or retreat and fought to the death. Every inch of ground was bitterly contested and between October and December the Germans lost nearly 10,000 troops in fighting against the Russians. Despite these losses they continued to battle their way eastwards.

Russian troops fighting to hold the Germans back near Moscow

By early December forward German units could see the spires of the Kremlin through their binoculars, and the women of Moscow could hear the booming of the heavy guns in the distance. There was fear in the city. Details of German atrocities behind the lines had been heavily circulated by the Soviet propaganda machine and everybody knew what life under the Nazis would entail. The Russian government evacuated the city to Samara in the south (although Stalin stayed in Moscow).The entire world waited with bated breath to see if the Russians could hold Moscow.

Then the German blitz on Moscow began. Day and night German bombers raided the city. Just like in London the year before, the citizens were forced to sleep in the metro stations at night to get away from the bombing. 20,000 Moscow citizens died in the blitz.

By the first week of December the Wermacht was only 20 km to the west of the city, but they would get no further. The cold weather that had at first allowed the army to move again soon turned into a freezing Russian winter. It was also one of the coldest winters in 40 years. The Germans were neither equipped for nor experienced with such winters. 5-foot snow drifts and -40 C temperatures bogged the Germans down. Soldiers’ fingers stuck to their metal triggers. Tank crews had to light fires under their engines because the gas lines had frozen. By mid-December over 100,000 German soldiers had been taken out of action by frostbite. There was a pneumonia pandemic. More men died by cold than by Russian bullets.

The Russians, meanwhile, were accustomed to such weather and chose this moment to strike back. Stalin transferred Marshall Zhukov, who had been leading the defence of Leningrad, to take over the defence of Moscow. Zhukov was one of the few high-ranking officers who had survived the purges of the 30s. He was educated at Russian and British military academies and had a good reputation for being an able commander, respected by his troops.

Zhukov transferred the Siberian divisions from the border with Manchuria to Moscow, using the Trans-Siberian railway. These hard troops were excellent winter fighters. They were all from towns and cities east of the Urals and had a warrior’s natural instinct. Zhukov also deployed the T-34 tank for the first time. This Soviet tank was able to operate in all weather conditions, had wide tracks for traction in the snow, a large 72mm main gun that could punch through German tanks, and sloped armour which made German shells ricochet off it rather than explode head on. The T-34 was rugged and easy for crews to maintain in the field. It was also incredibly easy and cheap to produce and any factory could be converted to T-34 production. It would go on to become the most mass-produced tank of all time and one of the definitive symbols of World War Two, much like the American Jeep or the Japanese Zero fighter.

As the German army hunkered down in front of Moscow to ride out the winter, Zhukov struck with his Siberians. 1.2 million Russians, with 10,000 tanks and 8,000 heavy artillery guns, hit the Germans to the north and south of Moscow. At Tula, in the south, the Russian artillery barrage that preceded the attack was so heavy that an entire German division was wiped out. When the white-clad Siberian soldiers charged into the town they found nothing but rubble and corpses.

In the north the German lines held but increasing Soviet pressure caused them to fall back. Zhukov’s plan was apparent; he would attempt to encircle Army Group Centre and wipe it out (as the Germans had done at Minsk and Smolensk). German commanders were able to see the trap in time and, in the midst of a vicious winter, started to retreat to avoid being encircled. The Russians pressed on.

They liberated villages which had endured the Nazi occupation. They found mass graves and bodies hanging from telephone poles. All the healthy young women had been taken off to Germany as slave labour and “breeding Slavs”. There is a famous picture of a Russian soldier holding a crying babushka in his arms, while the bodies of her family lay at their feet in the snow. In one village the Russians came across a big, snow-covered ditch filled with infants, some of whom were still moving. As the Germans retreated from Moscow they grabbed children from the villages and used them to give blood transfusions to wounded German soldiers, throwing the bodies into a ditch once they were drained.

By January Zhukov had driven the Germans back 100 km, but the Germans fell onto prepared defensive lines and the Soviet advance stalled.

Moscow had been saved and the Nazis pushed back. The Battle of Moscow ranks as one of the top ten bloodiest battles in history. All told, nearly 1 million soldiers from both sides lost their lives. A further 500,000 civilians were killed or died in Nazi concentration camps. It was an extremely strategic victory as the entire German advance; northern, central and southern, came to a halt. It was the first German defeat of the war, and it lifted the spirits of Russians everywhere as the battle proved that the Germans could be beaten. It demoralized the Germans as it showed them that conquering Russia would not be as easy as they had been promised. For the peoples of occupied Europe, who had been living under the Nazis for over a year, the Battle of Moscow brought hope that one day they would be liberated.

Marshall Zhukov was made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and awarded the Star of Lenin. The Germans would not resume their offensive until the following spring, this time with a goal towards capturing the Caucuses and driving into the mid-east oil fields. The Great Patriotic War would last for a further 3 and a half years.

Rouble Rousing

I still find it kind of confusing to work with roubles. The problem isn’t that I can’t add or subtract, as obviously if you have 500 roubles and something costs 300 roubles than you have 200 roubles left. That’s easy. Where I run into problems is that I am still always trying to convert amounts into dollars in my head so I can assess the value of something.

As an example, I offer the following story:

When I first arrived here I had about 11,000 roubles to my name (much more than when I landed in Korea and only had about 60,000 won). I found that living in Russia with 11,000 roubles is rather easy provided you don’t go out to expensive nightclubs and restaurants all the time.

With 11,000 roubles I was able to live for two weeks rather comfortably and buy vodka, beer, cigarettes, groceries, drink beer at a pizza parlour/bar once, eat at TGI Friday’s once, tour around Moscow for a weekend, and purchase sundry other goods (folders and notebooks and pens for school, etc). After two weeks I still had nearly 4,000 roubles left!

Everything I had been paying for up to this point cost between 15 and 300 roubles (TGI Friday’s being more expensive). At one point I wanted to purchase a day-planner so I could keep my classes in order. At the stationary store, however, I couldn’t find a day-planner for less than 1,100 roubles! I bought two weeks of groceries for less than 1,000 roubles, so it didn’t make sense to me that these day planners could possibly be worth that much.

I had to perform some mental mathematics in order to determine if 1,100 roubles was worth spending on a day planner.

First, I had to remember the last exchange rate I saw. It was around the 30-roubles-to-the-US-dollar mark. Here’s when it got complicated (especially when all the staff at this store are pretty and wear incredibly short skirts). 30 roubles = 1 dollar. So that means that 100 dollars is 3,000 roubles. One third of that is 1,000 roubles. What’s a third of 100 dollars? Wow, look at that girl...what was I saying? Oh yes, 1,000 dollars.

1,000 dollars? What cost a thousand dollars? No, a thousand roubles, right. So, if a thousand roubles is a third of a hundred dollars that would make it 33 dollars, right? Oh, she’s smiling at me and I can see her cleavage...umm, 33 dollars? Roubles? She’s so hot! Oh no, I smiled back and now she’s coming over to talk to me...I don’t know Russian. How do I say that in Russian? Umm...Ya nye parrot russki? No, that’s not it...oh good, someone else intercepted her...look at those legs, she could be a model!

Okay, 33 parrots. What? No, roubles. No, dollars. Yes, that’s it! These cheap day-planners cost more than 33 dollars? Forget that. I’m outta here!

I didn’t end up purchasing a day planner.


I had the incredible opportunity to tour some major points of interest in Moscow during my second weekend here. A very nice young lady who has been here before, Ms. Montana (who also speaks Russian) took another girl, Ms. Wisconsin, and I on a guided tour of the city.

We met up at the Novoslobodskaya Metro Station on the circle line and proceeded to head to the southern end of the city, where statues of Soviet soldiers and peasant partisans adorned the platform in honour of the heroes of the Great Patriotic War.

We left the station and emerged outside the gates to some park I can't pronounce, a large and sprawling piece of Moscow’s history.

This park used to be the Czars' Moscow dacha (country home) until the 1917 Revolution (when the last of the Romanov dynasty were executed by the Bolsheviks). This park had wide cobbled avenues running along perfectly manicured lawns with evenly spaced maples, willows and birch trees. There were also a couple of Orthodox cathedrals, a monastery and the remains of the palace gates. It was very Louis XIV.

Russian couples strolled leisurely around and a couple of beautiful blushing brides in full wedding gowns went waltzing past with photographers in tow.

We made our way to the banks of the Moscow River and had a seat on a bench, where we produced a picnic lunch of cheesy bread, cheese, sliced ham and turkey, some apples and a small box of wine. As the three of us ate our lunch along the banks of the river in this beautiful and serene park, two female police officers on gigantic cavalry horses came clip-clopping down the path. Ms. Wisconsin said “Oh, they want us to take their picture!” and pulled out her gigantic-lens camera and snapped a shot. Well, these were real militsia and not a tourist attraction. They stopped their horses and clip-clopped over to us where one of them pointed at our box of wine and snarled “No Alcohol!” Sorry, we said, and shoved the box into Ms. Montana’s purse. They gave us a hard look for a moment and then clip-clopped away, the horses snorting.

After our picnic (we finished off the wine by drinking it out of a bag) we took the metro to Ploschad Revolyutsii (Revolutionary Square) and emerged in front of some of the most famous architecture in the world! First, directly in front of us, was the Bolshoi Theatre where ballets, operas and symphony orchestras from around the world put on performances. I won’t get into the Bolshoi yet because I didn’t actually go inside, and I plan on seeing a ballet there within the next couple of months.

To our left was a towering red-brick wall, behind which spires and buildings of ancient architecture poked out of. This was the Kremlin Wall! I knew I was in Moscow when I spotted a gigantic bronze statue of a man in a Soviet uniform atop a horse, one hoof crushing the head of the fascist beast. I instantly knew that this was Marshall Zhukov, Stalin’s top general who led the defence of Leningrad, pushed the Germans back from the gates of Moscow, wiped out the Nazi 6th Army at Stalingrad, won the Battle of Kursk, liberated the Motherland, and drove the avenging Soviet armies into Germany to capture Berlin and end the Second World War. Kind of like an Eisenhower, Elvis and Julius Caesar all rolled into one for the Russian people.

Next to the statue of Zhukov was an impersonator of Joseph Stalin. You can have your picture taken with him for a few roubles, but I decided not to waste my money. Ms. Montana said “That is so wrong. It’s like having a Hitler impersonator in Berlin”. Still, an interesting curiosity. I would probably take a picture of a Hitler impersonator, too!

We walked through a gigantic red gate and laid out before us was Red Square itself, with the famous onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral at the far end and the enormous red walls of the Kremlin to our right. To our left was an old pre-revolutionary palace of Baroque French design (think Catherine the Great). This was the famous GUM (pronounced goom) shopping mall.

We walked onto Red Square, which was packed with people of all nationalities. A Japanese couple asked me to take their picture in front of St. Basil’s. We snapped a lot of photos ourselves. To our right was Lenin’s Mausoleum (but it was closed...I am determined to see the preserved Lenin) and beyond that, jutting out from a clock tower on the south-western corner of the Kremlin wall, was the famous podium where Soviet leaders stood as tanks and missiles rolled along Red Square in the old footage. Stalin gave his speeches from there, and it was there that Gorbechov announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

While the girls talked about stuff and people waltzed by me from every direction, I stood for a moment and blocked everything out. Being a total history geek, I needed to absorb the fact that I was standing in the centre of one of the most famous places in world history: Red Square! My feet were actually touching the same cobblestones that Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, and many other great figures of history stood on! Trust me, for a history nerd this was one of the single greatest moments of my life, and I totally geeked it out for a moment or two.

Then I turned my attention to GUM. “Let’s go in!” I said, to which Ms. Montana and Ms. Wisconsin happily agreed.

GUM is the world’s third most expensive shopping mall after Macy’s and Harod’s, and it caters to the elitny. More specifically, it caters to women, as the moment we walked in the ornate doors we were greeted with perfumed air, sophisticated flower and plant arrangements, and over a hundred top-of-the-line designer shoe, purse and cosmetic stores. I had never seen a mall store with chandeliers until I walked into GUM!

We found a cozy little cafe at one end of the mall and ordered specialty coffees and an apple and chocolate pastry for 600 roubles (about $20). The waitress spoke English, as they would in such a high-end cafe in a heavily-touristy location, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, or at least, I did. I can’t speak on behalf of the girls.

After an hour or so we left GUM, snapped some photos of Red Square at night (beautiful...the buildings are lit up in soft-glowing spotlights and the multicoloured domes of St. Basil’s makes every ray of light appear to be a different colour), and got back on the metro.

We then went to Ms. Montana’s flat and got drunk on vodka.

The next day we went to the Arbat or, more specifically, the Old Arbat (after having lunch at a TGI Friday’s).

The Old Arbat is one of the most famous streets in Moscow. It is a pedestrian street of old cobblestones and 18th Century architecture. It is and has always been the place where the Russian intelligentsia hang out. Artists, writers, poets, musicians and philosophers used to live and work along the Arbat. In post-Soviet times it has become a mecca for the same sort of people.

Pushkin used to live here, and Tolstoy, when he needed to come to Moscow (he hated Moscow) would stay on the Arbat. It is like New York’s Soho or London’s Carnaby streets. It was also on the Arbat that Stalin’s NKVD goons attempted to assassinate Trotsky but he saw them coming in time and, in broad daylight (Stalin wanted the death of his biggest competitor for top-spot to appear accidental) led the secret agents on a mad chase down the cobblestones, knocking over street vendors and buskers as they went, where he managed to elude them and escape to Mexico.

The Arbat was filled with street artists, statues of Dostoevsky and Pushkin, cafes and beer gardens as well as street performers and a very intellectual-looking crowd. It reminded me of Paris or Milan, but with a very distinct Russian feel to it.

We walked to the end of the Arbat and I found the first of the Seven Sisters.

The Seven Sisters are seven enormous skyscrapers built in the 1930’s by Stalin to show the world the progress Russia was making under the Communists. They are in a New York King-Kong sort of style, and there are seven of them in a circle around Moscow. Once they used to dominate the skyline but now they are buried behind even taller glass and steel skyscrapers. I am determined to hunt down all seven of them, and at the end of the Arbat was the first. I only have six more to go.

That was my weekend as a turist, and it was one of the most memorable weekends I have ever had. So far, after only a week and a half, I love Russia! Of course, any Russian will tell you that “Moscow isn’t Russia”. Okay then, I love Moscow!

Photos From Moscow

I was surprised to see that the South Korean department store chain Lotte was in Moscow!

One of the Seven Sisters. Only 6 left to find!

Pushkin's house on the Old Arbat.

The Old Arbat

Red Square at night. It looked even more beautiful in person.

Inside GUM.

St. Basil's

The view I beheld when first walking onto Red Square.

Joseph Stalin. Too soon?

The Marshall Zhukov statue. Notice the horse crushing the head of the fascist beast.

The Czars Moscow dacha.

Not too sure about this guy, but I loved the pre-revolutionary uniform.

In case you couldn't find a big field...

The Czars' Moscow dacha

First Few Hours In Russia

My first glimpse of Russia actually occurred in Vienna. There, I was made to go through a special ‘Russia-bound’ security screening gate at the lobby to the aircraft, and that’s when I saw Russians. Oddly enough, they were dressed exactly the same as people back home and carried themselves the same way (that is, in the same bored and slightly forced manner of patient impatience which can only be found at airports).

For the short 3-hour flight from Vienna to Moscow I boarded a small, comfortable Airbus, which was a nice change from the bulky, crowded and uncomfortable Boeing I had spent 7 hours crossing the Atlantic on. Once aboard, 2 really cute Russian girls were seated next to me and, despite having been travelling in Austria, didn’t speak English. They giggled at my impression of “Gutentag” but otherwise we ignored each other.

Somewhere over the Belarus-Russian border the clouds parted and there below me were the vast forests and unending steppes of western Russia. It was just as I’d pictured it. I have always been fascinated by the accounts of German soldiers in World War 2 who felt completely lost in the vastness of Russia. Diaries and interviews reveal that it was the unending steppes and the vast forests that broke their morale, although I do have to wonder if the 12 million Soviet soldiers waiting just over the horizon had anything to do with it...

I digress.

On the plane I was handed a registration card with two identical halves. I had to fill out both halves (the giggling Russian girls stared at me in curious silence when I pulled out my Canadian passport). As the plane circled to land I tried to get a glimpse of Moscow but couldn’t see anything that stood out, aside from a bunch of apartment buildings, a couple of highways and some factories.

Once on the ground I was led along a corridor to Passport Control where, surprisingly, everybody lined up all nice. Of course, all the Russian nationals went down their own corridor. There were a lot of central-Asian-looking people in line from countries that end in ‘stan’. At the passport control booth a blonde woman with a pretty Slavic face unsmilingly took my passport from under a bullet-proof window, electronically scanned my identification page and then the visa, stamped it and handed it back to me. I was looking her right in the eyes and, to my complete surprise and contrary to what I had read concerning immigration officials, she smiled! It only lasted a second, but she did smile and nod to me, before the frown came back and her eyes shifted to the next person in line. I walked through a turnstile and suddenly I was in Russia.

My luggage was surprisingly all together on the conveyor belt (unlike in North America where one suitcase comes out after 10 minutes and the other comes out an hour later) as was everybody else’s. It’s as if though the handlers simply dumped the luggage container onto the conveyor all at once. It was actually very efficient. Next I passed through customs where four guys in uniforms stood around an x-ray machine. They just waved me through but stopped the ‘stan’ guy behind me.

Then past a line of people holding signs that read “CRC Symposium” and “Microsoft: David Peters” and a bunch in Russian and one in Japanese. I looked around but couldn’t find anything with my name on it or the company name. I did find a money-changer, however, and handed over several hundred dollars in Canadian twenties, for which I received about 11,000 roubles. Went to a small store selling Coke and chocolate bars and magazines and I attempted to purchase a small bottle of water. It cost half a rouble but the smallest denomination I had was a 100-rouble bill. I tried handing it to the girl but she just shook her head, so I walked away thirsty.

I looked along the line of people holding signs again but still there was nothing for me. Some dorky, balding American with thick glasses and a polo shirt, carrying a ridiculous bouquet of roses and looking for all the world like the most self-conscious guy on the planet, strode up to a beautiful brunette and gave her the flowers. Ah, mail-order-bride-love.

After realizing that my contact wasn’t here, I went outside for a smoke. There were lots of other people smoking there, too, which is something fairly normal with any airport in the world. I finished my cigarette and went back inside and did another circuit along the signs. Still, there was nothing for me.

I had been at the airport for about an hour now and I was starting to panic. I had no contact number or address for my employers. I only had an email and a fax number, which did me no good at Domededovo International. Since I had no other choice, I found a chair at a little cafe which was located across from the line of signs and sat down to wait. About 30 minutes later I saw some rough-looking bald guy with a t-shirt and black leather racing gloves holding a sign that had my company name on it. I strolled over to him and said “Hi! I think you might be waiting for me.” He shrugged and shook his head. I pulled out my passport, which has my name in Cyrillic on the visa and he read it and then nodded his head, motioned for me to follow, and then abruptly turned and walked off before I could grab my luggage.

I can’t remember his name but he didn’t speak a word of English. He took me to his minivan where he proceeded to eat a sandwich while I sat in the passenger seat in uncomfortable silence. Then he muttered something and pulled out. We left the airport and got onto a giant 8-lane highway that was packed with traffic. This was the Moscow Ring Road, a 108-km-long highway that circles the city, and it was here that I got my first taste of Russian driving. At first it came as a shock, with the insane accelerations followed by the sudden slamming of the brakes inches before driving into someone’s trunk, and then passing a semi on the shoulder before darting in between a speeding SUV and a slow moving Lada. The shock didn’t last long, however, as 2 years of experience with drivers in South Korea returned and I found myself, much as I did after a while in Korea, ignoring the death-defying driving that would lose a person their license, and possibly their liberty, in Canada.

After an incredibly awkward hour we reached Mytischi and I met my DOS (Director of Studies), who I’ll call Ms. Tennessee, and another teacher, who I’ll call Ms. Australia. Ms. Tennessee took me to my flat. She was incredibly kind and patient and almost mothering and was genuinely concerned that I settled in with the least amount of discomfort. As a Russian-American she speaks fluent Russian so she took me to the local grocery store for beer, cigarettes and laundry detergent (I was so happy to see that my flat had a washing machine, TV, DVD player, microwave and computer desk). My flat is on the 13th floor of a huge Brezhnev-era apartment building and, although the elevators scare the crap out of me, the interior is warm and spacious.

After she left I began to unpack my things. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for nearly two months and it was nice to have a place I could, even temporarily, call home. Then my new flatmate came home. I’ll call him Mr. Irish (guess where he’s from). He’s a 22-year-old recent grad who studied Russian and spent a year here in 2008 and speaks fluent Russian. He cracked a bottle of vodka and we proceeded to get completely smashed. We had to stagger to a little outdoor booze stand around the corner at 2 am to get another bottle, which we polished off.
Just as I suspected, Russian vodka goes down much smoother than the gasoline we get in North America, and I do enjoy drinking straight shots of Russian vodka. I just don’t like the morning after, but that’s a different story altogether.

Author's Note

After reading through my blog entries over the past year I realized that there is a certain crassness inherent which falsely reflects my actual perception of things. True, I faced increasing frustration while in Ottawa because of the bureaucracy, high prices and general lack of ambience and entertainment in Canada’s capital, however, the way in which I described this frustration was far out of proportion with my actual level of discontent.

As a result I have re-vamped this blog to be more aesthetically pleasing. The message of each entry, dating to the autumn of 2008, remains the same. In some places I have made significant changes that affect the overall theme of the message. For instance, rather than naming this blog “Atethepaint’s Mis-Adventures” I have decided to name it “Mission To Moscow” after the book with the same title by U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Joseph E. Davies in the late 1930’s. This book was given to me by my sister and her boyfriend the day before I left Canada for Russia and it is a fascinating look at the Soviet Union in the time of Stalin’s purges and farm collectivization.

Of course, there is nothing like that in the new Russia, but the title is fitting.

Some previous entries have been deleted altogether. For instance, there was an entry from late August 2009 entitled “Kitchener Slut”, which was a very vulgar tirade against my ex-fiancĂ© who cheated on me. I had originally written this entry while drunk and angry at her but I really didn’t like how crude it was. The general theme of that entry was that because she cheated on me once, she sullied 6 years of pleasant memories that I had had.

I toyed with the wording of this entry for some time, trying to make it less vulgar without changing the overall meaning. For instance, I changed the sentence “..she probably fucked the intersection itself, because it has four long poles instead of just one, and apparently she needs more than one.” to “...she may even have had a passionate coupling with the intersection...”, which was still crude AND pretentious, so I changed it again to “...she may have been vaginally penetrated by four telephone poles...” and so on and so forth. None of these edits were satisfactory, so I ended up deleting the post entirely. Besides, I do not bear that bad of a grudge against her.

Another entry which was deleted was an open letter to Canada, in which I railed against the bureaucracy and the copious amount of ‘fees’ that companies and governments are allowed to tack on to prices. While this practise irritates me to no end, I do not hate my home country as that entry would have the reader believe. I am, in fact, quite patriotic and love the freedom, comfort and unbeatable beauty of my homeland. That entry, too, was removed.

While I don’t believe that anybody is actually reading this blog, these changes were made to be more aligned with my actual perception. In the unlikely event that somebody is following these accounts, then I hope that they continue to enjoy the new format.

I have the pleasure to be your humble blogger.


A Slice Of Cheese

The quality of food in Russia, or at least in the Moscow Oblast, is impressive!

The night I arrived my DOS took me to the local grocery store, called SPAR, to pick up some basics (instant coffee, laundry detergent, beer, etc) and I walked in expecting a Korea-like store, in that everything would be completely insane and bass-ackwards and I would end up purchasing 20 bowls of the Russian equivalent of instant ramyen noodles.

Instead of a Korean-style mega-mart overflowing with strange and exotic products, SPAR was nicely laid out, clean, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of dairy (Russians love their dairy) and cheeses, a gigantic meat counter and all sorts of delicious breads. Plus there was an entire aisle devoted to wine and vodka (they put those two things together in Russia, apparently). It was very similar to any grocery store back home.

Thankfully my DOS speaks fluent Russian and I didn’t have to open my mouth at the check-out, because my interaction with Russian customer-service has been shaky and problematic. Russian words are long, contain a lot of rolling ‘R’s and ‘ZH’ combos, have stress placed on seemingly random vowels, and are spoken incredibly fast. If you read a Russian word out of a book and apply any sort of English pronunciation to it then you won’t make any sense. For instance, in my phrase book it reads that “thank you” in Russia is “spa-see-bo”. What “thank you” in Russian really sounds like is “spseeb a“. Just to add to the flavour, NOBODY speaks a word of English.

On my fourth day I decided that, since food is a basic need required to sustain life, I should probably buy some. I walked into SPAR and immediately realized that all the meat, salads, cheeses, etc were behind a counter. If I wanted, say, ground beef I would need to ask the deli attendant to measure an amount out for me. I still can’t say “Hello” in a way that Russians understand, so I veered away from the counters and concentrated on the pre-packaged and frozen goods. I ended up buying a pack of cheese slices, a pack of sliced sandwich ham, and a loaf of bread (all the stuff I wanted was behind those damn counters). At the check-out the bored middle-aged woman said “Zevksayaspezhkshettasplabskaya” or something to that effect, to which I responded with a smile and a heartfelt “spseeb a?” She looked at me strangely and tossed a plastic bag at me, took my money and turned to the next customer in line.

When I got home I decided to cram a slice of processed cheese into my mouth. Once again I was expecting a Korean-like rough imitation of Kraft cheese slices, in that they looked like them but tasted much like the plastic wraps they came in. When I bit into the slice, expecting a complete lack of flavour but at least some sort of nutritional content, I was surprised at how delicious it was! It tasted like real cheese! It had a dominant cheddar flavour with undertones of mozzarella. Kraft has nothing on these cheese slices. I quickly ate another and then made myself a ham and cheese sandwich.

One of my favourite foods in Russia so far is blini, which is cheese and ham wrapped in a thin pancake and grilled until all the cheese inside melts (actually blini comes with all sorts of stuff inside, but cheese and ham are my favourite). It is fabulous! The yogurt here is unlike anything in North America; it’s bursting with giant chunks of real fruits and deliciousness. The apples are juicier, the bread is softer, and the meat less fatty than anything in North America. And it’s a lot cheaper, too! My Irish roommate scoffs at the idea that Russian food is superior. “Pah, do they not have cheese in North America?” he asks. “Not processed cheese like this!” I reply as I jam yet another slice in my mouth. If processed cheese in Ireland is superior to this, then I need to include Ireland in my travel plans.