Friday, January 29, 2010

The Glitter of Teaching

As I walked home at 3 am, the snow on the sidewalk looked like glitter. Little perfectly-square dots of sparkly light reflected from the street lamps danced across the path in front of me and I couldn't help but wonder how I could possibly describe this to other people. It was as if though I were walking across a cold white disco ball.

I have spent the past several weeks in a state of normal day-to-day-ESL-teaching living, with the exception that I no longer have to work on Saturdays and I now have 2 consecutive days off work. It's about time, too, because I was offered a job with a competing company in November but I really like the company I'm working for now, and the only reason I would have changed is because of my schedule.

Last Saturday I went to the Red Army Museum with Wonderpants, Quagmire and Katerina (who wanted to bring a couple of girlfriends because Quagmire needs "a good Russian girl" but her girlfriends weren't interested in Red Army history and thus failed to show up). The museum was fascinating and dissapointing at the same time, which I guess sums up Russia. The eagle and swastika from the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin were brought back to Moscow in 1945 and were laying in a bed of gravel amongst captured nazi banners, and there were other interesting exhibits, but for the most part it was a small museum.

Then on Sunday I slept in, and on Monday began work. On Thursday I have no classes and went into Moscow with Katerina. She had a job interview at 9 am and we planned on going to another museum, so I escorted her to her interview and waited, walking around a snowy park for over an hour. Suddenly my phone rang, and it was Mr. Irish. My handlers (the girls in the office) had, in a very Russian passive-aggressive way, called him to tell him that Ms. Tennessee had called in sick and they needed me to cover one of her classes. The fuckers.

Katerina got the job (an office supplies sales job which paid less than what she wanted) but wasn't sure if she would take it, so I took her out to lunch at a cafe and broke the bad news that I had to work and wouldn't be going to a museum after all. It was a shame, too, because I was really enjoying our lovey-dovey morning together and was looking forward to spending some quality time alone with my girl in one of the most famous cities in the world.

We said goodbye and I went and taught English to a bunch of 10 year olds who acted like bastards the entire time.

Today I taught English to my own classes and then went for pizza with Ms. Australia and Quagmire. "Going for pizza" involves, of course, drinking 4 or more pints of beer.

Now I'm writing this entry.

So there's not much to write about. It has been a boring couple of weeks which, by Russian standards, means something pretty retarded is bound to happen soon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Brief History of Mytischi

The first known signs of human habitation around Moscow date from the Stone Age, where the remains of settlements from pre-historic societies have been found. Several of these sites have been found near Mytischi and some are still under excavation today.

Not much is known about the region during the birth of European culture in Greece and, later, Rome, but it is known that the Huns, responsible for turning Roman Europe upside-down during their vast invasions, came through what is today the Ukraine. It can be logical to assume that the inhabints of the Moscow region also had some contact with the Huns.

It is known that by the end of the first millenium AD the region was inhabited by Slavic tribes. Moscow itself was originally built as a kremlin (fortress) so that the local prince, Yuri Dolgoruky, could control the important Moscow River (which joined the Volga further south and allowed important trade with the flourishing Kievan Rus civilization growing in the Ukraine and Southern Russia). Mytischi, in this period, seems to have had little importance.

In 1237 Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde swept across continent and razed Moscow to the ground in the process. There is a good chance that whatever was around Mytischi was destroyed as the archeological evidence vanishes around this period.

The Mongols set up a Khanate under the rule of the Golden Horde, whereby the local boyars (dukes) would pay an annual tribute and submit to Mongol rule. Moscow was rebuilt but was under the rule of the boyars of Vladimir-Suzdal. In 1304, Ivan the First overthrew the other boyars and became the ruler of the region. He moved the capital from Vladimir-Suzdal to Moscow and increased his tax payments to the Golden Horde. A century later Mytischi came into importance.

Mytischi is situated on the confluence of the Yauza and Klyazma rivers, tributaries of the Moscow River. Because of the vast natural waterways and man-made canals in this part of the world, boats have been able to travel from the White Sea to the Black Sea for centuries. Mytischi became an important juntion in this trade and Ivan 1 and his successors were able to extract duties and tariffs from those who went through the small town. The duty merchants had to pay was called a myt.

In 1380 Dmitri Donskoy defeated the Golden Horde in a major battle and by 1480 Ivan III finally got rid of their rule over the region. He was crowned the first Tsar (and later got the name "Ivan the Terrible" for his incredible bloodlust). With the money collected from taxes and the trade route through Mytischi, Moscow grew to incredible size and became the largest city in Europe by the 16th Century.

In 1610 a Polish-Lithuanian alliance invaded Russia and conquered Moscow, which they then ruled until 1612 when a rebellion led by a prince and a butcher expelled the occupiers from Moscow. Mikhael Romanov was crowned Tsar and the Romanov dynasty began, which would not end until 1918 (only the Japanese Imperial family has had a longer dynasty).

In 1701 Tsar Peter Romanov (Peter the Great) founded St. Petersburg and moved the capital of Russia from Moscow. Mytischi seems to have faded in importance in this period. In 1812 Napolean invaded Russia and captured Moscow and while half of the city burned, Mytischi seems to have been left alone. In fact, merchants from all over Russia camped in Mytischi, hoping to get rich selling their goods to French troops. Napolean only spent six weeks in Moscow, however, and retreated with the onset of winter.

During the 20th Century Mytischi was spared the carnage of the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Civil War as both sides, "Red" and "White", collected taxes from the city. Under Stalin's industrialization programs a power plant and a train factory were set up on Mytischi. Several canals were extended and six massive water reservoirs were dug in a semi-circle around the city. Unlike many of the cities surrounding Moscow during the Soviet Union, Mytischi remained an "open" city and it's population grew from 65,000 in 1912 to 154,000 by 1991.

In the ealry 21st Century the mayor of Mytischi, Alexander Kazakov, undertook a massive beautification program and the main streets, notably Novamytischinsky Prospekt, were widened and the sidewalks cobbled. Trees were planted and parks opened and a massive new arena, Arena Mytischi, was built for the 2007 IIHF World Cup of Hockey. Most of the funding came from competent money management and good governance, although the national government in Moscow chipped in with some financing for the projects. An extension of the Moscow Metro to Mytischi has been on the drawing boards for several years but nobody has given the go-ahead.

Today Mytischi is a growing suburb for upper-middle-class Russians, most of whom work in Moscow and make the hellish commute through Moscow traffic every day. Most of the major rail lines heading east from Moscow pass through Mytischi, and there is a very efficient and well-organized bus system in place. The tap water is cleaner than in surrounding towns (although undrinkable) and Mytischi has one of the lowest crime rates in the Moscow Oblast. In 2006 Mytischi had the fastest growing real estate market in Russia, which lasted until the international financial crisis of 2008 began.

As with the rest of Russia (except for St. Petersburg), very few people speak English in Mytischi but the number of youth who speak the language is growing as international exposure through media, travel opportunities and the economic ability of Mytischi parents to send their kids to expensive language schools grows. Anyone who visits Moscow should take a trip to Mytischi, if only to see what suburban middle-of-the-road Russia looks like.

To get to Mytischi from Moscow, take the orange line north to Medvedkova metro station, at the very end of the line. Turn left as you exit the metro station and take either bus #169 or #199 (45 roubles), which will end their journey in Mytischi. From the Kremlin to Mytischi it takes about 50 minutes of travel.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Broken Children

On Mondays and Wednesdays I have a class of 16 year old girls (and one tiny, terrified 14 year old boy). They are at a pre-intermediate level and I have watched their English abilities grow since September.

Sometimes these babbling teenage girls give me a headache. Sometimes they are the sweetest angels I have ever met. It all depends on what they want from me. For the most part I have cultivated a positive rapport with them and we usually have a lot of laughs in class. Where many of the laughs happen, however, are with the other teachers in Mytischi once class is over and we recount funny incidents during our respective days. Last week I had a good one.

I had given my teenagers a writing assignment. They were to imagine that a super-casino was opening in Mytischi (an impossibility as Russia banned all casinos last year) and they were to write a letter of protest to the mayor of Mytischi. We reviewed how to use the passive voice in writing as well as how to ensure there is an introduction, body and conclusion. It took them 20 minutes to write and then I collected all the letters and marked them after class.

Most were well-written, some better than others. One stuck out and cracked me up.

"Dear Sir," It began. "Mytischi is a town with many children." Good introduction and grammar. "If a casino were to open in Mytischi, sex men would come and break the children."

Grammatically correct and the idea was put across, but the vocabulary could use some work. I wonder, however, if this sort of writing is what is required to grab the attention of our politicians back home...

Saturday, January 16, 2010


"I'm married." The incredibly hot brunette who was grinding her ass into my crotch on the dance floor panted into my ear, her hand reaching over her shoulder and caressing my head and her other hand forcefully moving my fingers across her belly. "What?!!" I exlclaimed. "You'!" She took hold of my free hand and did a little tango-like spin before crushing her perky body into my chest and said "My husband is the bartender." I pulled away from this lithe little nympho and stopped dancing. "What?!?" I shouted above the pounding trance music that is blared in all Russian clubs. "He's 14!!!"

Quagmire and I had explored the Moscow region night scene during our holiday break and found this happening nightclub in Mytischi, called "Pulsar", where the women are super-hot and the music is corny and the beer is over-priced.

Tonight we had, together with Wonderpants, Gem and Ms. Australia, gone to Starlight Diner, a Russian take on American diner food, and drank several gallons of beer (and ate several pounds of beef). Gem writes for an English-language newspaper in Moscow and does reviews of Moscow's restaurants and clubs. Tonight she was reviewing a so-called karaoke bar in the center of Moscow, near the Kremlin.

We got in free (there was a 2,000 rouble cover charge...about $60) because of Gem's review and I ended up wailing out "Twist and Shout" with Gem and "Friends In Low Places" with Wonderpants in front of a dozen Russians. We drank a bunch of beer there, as well.

After the karaoke bar Wonderpants went to a Russian friend's flat while Quagmire, Gem, Ms. Australia and I went to a really happening nightclub in Moscow where University students congregated and cleavage exposed itself more than the beer flowed. A Russian rock band jammed on the stage and, for all intents and purposes, it was a great club (if only I can remember the name). Quagmire and I were chatting up two slavic blondes in tight black shirts when I spotted Gem and Ms. Australia making a break for the door. Suddenly we were alone and unable to speak Russian. Well, between the two of us we can get by. We finished our beers, went outside and hailed a gypsy cab.

"Mytischi stanzia. Vo-syet-sot roubli?" We asked the driver ("Mytischi station. 800 roubles?") The toothless old man in the Lada nodded his head "Da! Da!"

30 minutes later Quagmire and I had gone through feis kontrol and were drinking beer in Pulsar. All the Mytischi youth were out and Quagmire and I, after many hours of drinking, were in a "Let's talk to chicks" mood. We spotted two girls near the bar, one a long-haired brunette with a low-cut black blouse and tight jeans and the other a tall and short-haired girl wearing the same outfit. Quagmire, who is single, asked me to play wingman and distract the short-haired girl while he hit on the brunette beauty. I started up a conversation with the girl by using the most interesting thing any Russian girl hears in her life. "Hello. Do you speak English?"

The girl spoke English but she was boring as hell and I was hard-pressed to carry on a conversation until I saw that Quagmire was bombing hard with her friend. "Well, goodbye! Paka!" I said and grabbed Quagmire by the arm and dragged him back to the bar.

The club was blaring trance and house, spotlights were dancing across the sea of young people on the floor, and a hundred nubile Russian girls were shakin' and bakin' to the tunes. That's when we spotted a blonde beauty in an almost business-like suit and her brunette friend, wearing an extremely tight white t-shirt and low-cut, belly-revealing jeans sitting at the bar and giving us the "eye" (if you don't the "eye", stop reading this blog).

"I want the blonde" Quagmire stated. As a guy who has an incredibly hot Russian girlfriend, I wasn't cruising but was only there to admire and, if need be, help my buddy out. We went over to the two girls and opened a conversation with the standard "Hey, I speak English! Wanna fuck?"

The two girls knew us, however. They are both waitresses at Ekspronto, the Italian pizza place in Mytischi that we frequent. The blonde, who Quagmire had his sights set on, was not interested but the lithe little brunette was game for me. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun and she had glitter in her eye-shadow and her highlights, and her low-cut t-shirt and beautiful brown eyes created an aura of slutty seduction.

"Do you dance?" She asked me, after exchanging information and realizing that we sort-of knew each other. I looked at the smooth tanned skin of the nape of her neck and cleavage and said "Damn right I dance!" She took me by the hand and dragged me to the center of the sea of dancing people and proceeded to writhe and grind me. As a typical North American prude I was conservative (Russians can't dance; 90 years of Soviet conservatism has ingrained itself so much into the culture that the ability to bop one's head in rythm to the music makes one as good of a dancer as, say, Micheal Jackson).

She grabbed my hands and forced them to feel her up. From her tight belly with it's sparkling faux-diamond jewel to her perky breasts, I had a near-pornographic dance. Then, out of nowhere, she told me that she was married.

That's when I stopped dancing and stared at her in shock. "Won't your husband be angry?" I asked, looking back at the skinny 14-year old behind the bar. "No, we like group sex." she replied, matter-of-factly. I might have choked on my own saliva. At the very least I nearly fell over. I don't quite remember.

Then, at the worst possible moment, Quagmire started to shove and fight with a Russian guy in a pin-striped shirt. Unable to leave Quagmire to fend for himself, I left the nubile, perky, beautiful orgy-loving girl and moved in behind the guy Quagmire was wrestling with. Apparently the blonde that Quagmire was intent on taking home was the "property" of the Russian mafia, and her boyfriend was not happy about the American's intrusion.

"Mafia! I am mafia! Fuck you!" The guy in the striped shirt kept shouting. "Fuck off! You loser!" Quagmire shouted back. "Dude!" I shouted at both of them.

To make a long story short, and for reasons I can't explain, Quagmire ended up going home alone, the hot brunette swinging waitress vanished into the dance floor, and I ended up with the mafia guy's phone number.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fish Tales

Last night I had a strange series of dreams about my former life in Canada. These dreams brought me, with incredible realism, back to a time before I had conjured up the idea to teach English in Russia. Since I woke up I've had the memories of my life in Port Hardy on my mind.

When I lived in Port Hardy, more than a year ago, I was the Port Supervisor for a fisheries monitoring program with an environmental consulting company. There's a lot of fancy titles there but it's really not all that complicated.

Canada's commercial fisheries, one of the three largest in the world and representing 30% of Canada's gross GDP, is managed by the Department of Fisheries & Oceans, or DFO. Because DFO doesn't have the money or personnel to monitor the entire fisheries in both oceans, they contract private companies to do it. By law there must be a government-certified "observer" at every fish offload at a Canadian port to record what was caught and how much, to ensure compliance with regulations, and to report all this information. Fishing trawlers require an At-Sea-Observer on board when they are out fishing as well as a Dockside Monitor when they offload. The company I worked for provided both services.

I was the supervisor for the Dockside Monitoring Program in Port Hardy. When commercials vessels were returning to port after a week of fishing on the Pacific Ocean they would "hail in" by calling an 800 number. The hail would then be registered in a computer somewhere and on my big Blackberry-like phone I would receive a "ping" and all the hail information. I would then call the fishing plant the vessel was offloading at to confirm the time, and then call one of my staff of observers and "deploy" them to the offload. I was also responsible for hiring, training and supervising the dockside observers, as well as ensuring accuracy of information, maintaining good PR with the commercial fisheries, DFO and the community in general. I also observed a million offloads myself.

Because of my job I had to pass a series of government exams showing that I could properly identify the bulk of the Pacific fish species. Russian factory ships would park off the coast of Canadian and US waters so that domestic boats could sell their catch directly to them. These giant JV ships (Joint-Venture) took millions of pounds of fish back to Russian markets, and it was interesting when I spotted a Yellowtail Rockfish, a species native to the north-east Pacific, in a Russian grocery store a few months ago.

At one point in my Port Hardy-fisheries life, I had a nice house near the beach with a view of the Rocky Mountains on the mainland, a Cavalier Z22, a beautiful blonde fiance, a good salary and job with a great company, and a lot of power. My job was stressful, particularly at the start of the fishing season (March) when 20+ boats a day would want to offload in Port Hardy and I only had 5 observers. The trick was to not burn out my observers so I developed a system whereby I would rotate half of them for night shifts and the other half for day shifts. I would observe whatever was left and created a "mobile office" so I could keep doing my supervisor duties while observing at the dock.

Fishermen themselves are not a friendly lot, and the majority of them feel that government observers counting their fish is an invasion of privacy. Add to that the fact that we then billed them for our services and you have a sometimes stressful situation on your hands. I remember one night in late October 2007. It was 9 pm and a hook-and-line boat was offloading at the government wharf. The skipper was drunk and angry and his crew were throwing insults at me. Finally I said "If you want I can leave, and your fish can rot. Or we can stop fucking around and get this offload finished." At which point the drunk skipper grabbed a tire-iron and swung it at my head. I managed to get out of the way, looked at him for a moment, and then walked away (thus forcing the offload to stop) and called DFO.

Aside from moments like that, however, it was a rewarding job. The data collected was used by government to monitor quotas, and research groups and universities used the data to determine fish migration patterns, stocks in the ocean and other important marine information. Although far from perfect, the system is one of the only like it in the world and the company has consulted with Norway, Australia and the United States to help them set up similar conservation programs.

When my fiance and I broke up I stayed with the job for 9 months, but I became restless and bored and lonely in Port Hardy, and started to panic that I would miss out on seeing the places I always dreamt of seeing, so I decided to come to Russia to teach English. I helped train my replacement (who promised to hire me the moment I returned to Port Hardy), packed a single suitcase, caught a Greyhound bus to Victoria and then a flight to Ottawa.

Every now and again I think that I made a big mistake in leaving my job and home in one of the most beautiful and peaceful parts of the world. Today is one of those days.

On the other side of the coin, however, I have been enjoying my time in Russia and I really enjoy the company of the friends I've made here so far. Some day this will be a memory and as I'm counting fish while eagles glide overhead on thermals and the Rocky Mountains poke through clouds on the horizon, I'll think back to my time in Russia and know that this will all be worth it.

Unless, of course, it isn't. In either case, I might as well enjoy myself.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Winter Wonderland

Over the past two weeks it has snowed constantly in this part of Russia, and everything is covered in a thick blanket of soft white snow. It may be that I'm off my rocker, or I'm a closet masochist, or simply because I'm Canadian, but I love this weather!

This is the Russia I always had images of in my mind; not the bleak grey Soviet Russia of popular culture but the snowy and cozy Russia of times past. The kind of Russia where men with big white beards rode their horse-drawn troika's through snowy birch forests while pretty peasant maidens with hankerchiefs over their hair cooked stew and dumplings over a fire in a wooden log cabin. The Russia where big deep laughter was brought on by shots of vodka. The Russia where the term "bear hug" came from.

So, because the winter here in the Moscow Oblast has conjured up romanticist images in my mind, I thought I would share some of the scenery with you!

Below my kitchen window is a snow-covered Stalin-era building.

From the elektrishka window: the village of Bolsheva, between Mytischi and Shyolkova.

Shyolkova war memorial in the snow.

The streets of Shyolkova. Strangely enough, Russians are NOT good winter drivers. Of course, they're not good summer drivers, either.

Near the Shyolkova train station.

On Thursday Quagmire and I, determined to do at least one touristy thing during our time off, went to Red Square. We paid 150 roubles each and went into St. Basil's cathedral which was surprisingly quite small inside. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible during the 1500s so there's a lot of stone passageways and things....

Red Square was beautiful in the winter but the wide-open spaces and the tall buildings on either side of the square created a wind-tunnel effect and the wind chill was at least -20 celsius, so we went into GUM. The world's 3rd most expensive shopping mall was overflowing with holiday decor and, because it was really cold outside and we decided against doing any more touristy stuff, we went to the Coffee House cafe on the second floor and ordered two pints of beer and an ashtray.

A few hours and a few beers later we changed scenery and took the metro to Novoslobodskaya and had chinese food and beer, and then we went to a bar and drank more beer. It was dark when we returned to Mytischi and figured "What the hell. Let's go the nightclub". All told we spent a good 10 hours drinking beer all over Moscow. It was touristy enough for us.

A tree outside the Kremlin.

Stalin, Napolean and Tzar Alexander II with Lenin hiding behind Stalin.

Grandfather Frost and his niece, Snow Maiden, the traditional Slavic Santa Claus-like figures who ride a sleigh and bring gifts to children in person.

16th Century guards at the Moscow Historical Museum on Red Square.

Right in the center of Red Square is a huge festive skating rink with warm cafe-bars set up on either end.

St. Basil's in the snow.

A snowy Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible had this built for public beheadings on Red Square. It looks benign in the winter.

The chopping block where thousands lost their heads over the centuries.

Inside GUM.

Around Ploschad Revolutsii, Moscow.

A festive Marshall Zhukov.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

с новым годом

с новым годом (S Novim Godom) is Russian for Happy New Year, a phrase I learned in the course of one day. That day, not surprisingly, was New Year's Eve.

On the last afternoon of 2009 I took the elektrishka from Mytischi to Shyolkova and met up with Katerina. We bought some food and booze (several beers, a big bottle of Martini and a bottle of champagne...or was it two bottles?) and went to her house. Her mother was busy chopping and dicing food and Katerina quickly joined her while I mixed orange juice and Martini drinks for the three of us. As is traditional in Russian homes, a seven course meal was laid out for me as a "snack".

Katerina's mother left and Katerina and I drank while Christmas music played on the radio (Moscow has hundreds of radio stations, many of them good, and Relax FM was playing western Christmas tunes interspersed with Bob Marley and bad Russian pop). That evening Mr. Irish, Quagmire and one of Mr. Irish's friends visiting from Ireland, Neva, arrived. They too had booze.

Katerina then cooked up another giant feast consisting of pork and potatoes baked in a peppery Russian sauce, a couple of mayonaise salads, a cheese and kalbasa platter, fruits, vegetables, breads and a bunch of other stuff. After we ate we all drank more.

At ten minutes to midnight Katerina turned on the TV. Then we waited (and drank). Finally we reached the 10 second mark and we all counted down to the New Year. Ten, nine, eight...Quagmire and I 'cheersed'....six, five, four....I grabbed a bottle of champagne to pop...three, two...I noticed that my cell phone said it was already 12:01 but the TV said it was nearly, Happy New Year! Snovim Godom! Kiss kiss cheers cheers drink drink.
President Medvyedev appeard on the television and gave the President's traditional New Year's speech (Russia had a tough year, looking forward to better times this year, yada yada). Then all hell broke loose.

Katerina had warned me that every new year war breaks out across Russia. I wasn't sure what she meant until I witnessed it myself. Despite two layers of drapes across the huge windows in Katerina's room, brilliant flashes of exploding light danced across the walls followed by thunderous explosions. It was as if Hitler's Wermacht had returned to finish the job, or an alien invasion of earth was underway. Katerina seemed thrilled, however, and beckoned us to go outside.

We bundled up, pocketed bottles of booze (Mr. Irish thoughtfully grabbed a bottle of vodka) and went out to the firing line. All around us there was a dazzling display of fireworks. With the heavy white snow that covered everything reflecting the fireworks (salut in Russian) like a giant disco-ball, we were all suddenly as giddy as school children. Giggling and frolicking in the snow as the sky above was torn apart by colourful explosions, we slid and walked to a nearby park which seemed to be the nexus point of the barrage. It was packed with people and in the center of the park a group of young men were lighting giant industrial-sized fireworks, the kind that are heavily controlled and require licensed professionals to use in Canada. In Russia, if you have the money you can get whatever you want.

It didn't matter, because as we stood around with a hundred Russians we had a blast (no pun intended). Everybody was drinking and laughing and some people were holding hands and dancing around a big tree trimmed with lights and tinsel. Children ran about through people's legs and people came up and greeted us with big smiling "Snovim Godom!". Mr. Irish, Neva, Quagmire, Katerina and I passed around the bottle of vodka and Katerina met up with a group of her friends who didn't speak any English. All the while the big noisy show in the sky continued.

Eventually we got really drunk and I don't remember much of the rest of the night. I woke up in Katerina's mother's bed the next morning (with Katerina beside me, not her mother) and the rest of our group were passed out in Katerina's room. We ended up nursing hangovers all the next day, but that is no matter because everyone one of us was in agreement that New Year's 2010 was THE best New Year's we've ever had.

с новым 2010 годом!