Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 In Review

A little personal tradition that I've maintained since I was 15 years old is to choose, on New Year's, one song, one movie, one book, etc that will remind me of the year past. Since the advent of computers I have been able to keep track of my growing list of annual favourites, and now I present it here.

This year I have chosen the movie "Elf", starring Will Farrell, as the movie that will remind me of 2009 (because I watched it so damn much in my classes over the past two weeks). The song I chose for 2009 is "Sweet Harmony" by Beloved because it will always remind me of my year in Ottawa with my family. My book for 2009 is 1812: Napolean's Fateful March on Moscow, not only because I am currently in Moscow and visited the Borodino battlefield, but also because it was one of the best damn books I've ever read!

The TV show for 2009 is Criminal Minds because, at the start of the year, I watched the first three seasons on DVD with my mother and have since become a fan.

None of the "nominees" need be new that year; they must merely remind of the year. Also, I started the tradition in 1992 by choosing a song to represent that year, and have since added more categories (Movies, Books, etc).
Because I'm a lover of music, the choice of song to represent the previous year remains my most important category, and the choice of Sweet Harmony is only fitting for 2009 (for me). Here is a video I made of my time in Ottawa, set to the song.


1995: Happy Gilmore
1996: Legends of the Fall
1997: Titanic
1998: Saving Private Ryan
1999: The Thin Red Line
2000: Casino
2001: Gladiator
2002: Dumb & Dumber
2003: The Two Towers
2004: Farenheit 9/11
2005: Napolean Dynamite
2006: Hostel
2007: Superbad
2008: Office Space
2009: Elf

TV Shows

2000: Survivor: Australia
2001: The Simpsons
2002: The Simpsons
2003: Hockey Night In Canada
2004: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
2005: The Sopranos
2006: The Colbert Report
2007: Battlestar Galactica
2008: Rome
2009: Criminal Minds


1992: Lost Together (Blue Rodeo)
1993: Scenario (A Tribe Called Quest)
1994: Born On The Bayou (CCR)
1995: Starseed (Our Lady Peace)
1996: Champagne Supernova (Oasis)
1997: Every Breath You Take (The Police)
1998: The Man Who Sold The World (Nirvana)
1999: Freak On A Leash (Korn)
2000: Endangered Species (Sepultura)
2001: Yellow (Coldplay)
2002: Sail Away (David Gray)
2003: If I Had $1,000,000 (Barenaked Ladies)
2004: Hey Ya! (Outkast)
2005: Edge Hill (Groove Armada)
2006: Lucky Man (The Verve)
2007: Miss Me (Bob Sinclair)
2008: Flake (Jack Johnson)
2009: Sweet Harmony (Beloved)


1996: The Lost Regiment: Terrible Swift Sword (William R. Forstchen)
1997: Talisman (Sam Lewis)
1998: Shogun (James Clavell)
1999: Sophie's World (Jostein Gaarder)
2000: The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
2001: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (Douglas Adams)
2002: Cosmos (Carl Sagan)
2003: War of the Rats (David L. Robbins)
2004: Shogun (James Clavell)
2005: Aquariums of Pyongyang (Kang Chol Hwan)
2006: When, Where, Why & How It Happened (Micheal Worth Davison)
2007: A Short History of the World (H.G. Wells)
2008: The White Slaves of Maquinna (John R. Jewitt)
2009: 1812: Napolean's Fateful March on Moscow (Adam Zamoyski)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Small Victory (or Merry Christmas to Me)

Tonight I am celebrating my own personal victory over the rigors of teaching English in a foreign country. After an extremely hectic 3 1/2 months I have finally reached the winter holidays! For the next 12 days, until January 11th 2010, I am going to enjoy the fruits of my labours.

Mr. Irish, Quagmire and I are the only 3 teachers who stayed behind in Mytischi for the break so we've been conspiring to enjoy ourselves in a more traditional Russian sense. In the new year we will be going to a dacha, which is a country home not unlike a cottage where Russians go to get away from the stresses of city life. I'm also going to visit Suzdal, a medieval Russian town made of wood west of Moscow. On Thursday we're celebrating the New Year at our Russian friend's home, Russian style. Tomorrow Mr. Irish and I are going to the Moscow Conservatory to see a piano and cello concerto. Tonight I'm breaking my "never drink alone" rule and I'm enjoying vodka and Pall Mall cigarettes after a second consecutive 11 hour work day.

Ms. Tennessee and Wonderpants opted for a 2 week vacation in December and went home to America to spend Christmas with family. Ms. Australia went to England to spend Christmas with Gem, and Mr. Irish, Quagmire and I were stuck covering all their classes in addition to our own. For the past two weeks we've been working our butts off, teaching English to groups of students we don't know. Of course, a lot of that teaching was Christmas-related, which means watching movies and cutting snowflakes out of printer paper. Nevertheless, my workdays increased from an average of 6 hours per day to over 10 hours per day.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent teaching English. I found a 4' plastic Christmas tree under a bunch of junk on my enclosed balcony and, together with Katerina, went to Ashan, a Wal-Mart style superstore in Moscow, and bought decor for it. I also bought myself a 250 GB external hard drive to store my growing collection of downloaded movies and a dark blue acoustic guitar and traveling case. Santa was kind.

With a decorated tree and some new toys, Mr. Irish and I kicked off Boxing Day by waking up to Bailey's and coffee. By mid-afternoon we were feeling pretty good and as I cleaned the place Mr. Irish cooked up a roast beef feast. In the evening Katerina, Quagmire and Sasha came over and we drank Irish whiskey and beer and wine and vodka and listened to Christmas carols. I had put stockings stuffed with little gifts out for everyone "from Santa" and Katerina brought over gift bags. I received a nice tie with a silver tie clip and cuff links. Her expectations of me are misplaced.

By 11 pm Katerina was very drunk and passed out in my bed. I think I passed out shortly after. It was a good Boxing Day/Christmas.

The traditional Eastern Orthodox Christmas is January 6th but it's not as big a deal, thanks to the Soviets, as Christmas is in the west. New Years Eve is the big day in Russia, so it should be interesting to see.

In hindsight, this has been a dynamic year for me. A year ago I had just left Port Hardy and was planning on coming to Russia. When that didn't pan out I tried to make a go of it in Ottawa but that's a difficult city to live in. Job prospects aren't hot if you're not fluently bilingual and housing is expensive. Then I had a crazy summer in Owen Sound and Kitchener, and then I came to Russia and have spent the past months settling in. I am definitely not the same person I was nearly 2 years ago when my ex and I broke up, and I have since reconnected with family and old friends, made some incredibly good new friends and have seen some of the sights that have been on the top of my "Must-See-Before-I-Die" list.

Tonight I am celebrating a small victory in my life. Tonight, I feel I have earned the right to drink vodka on my own! Plus, the demon kitty is back at Quagmire's!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hello Demon Kitty

Ms. Tennessee went home to the U.S. to visit family over Christmas, and the small adorable kitten she acquired last month was sent to Quagmire to watch over for the next month. His landlord, however, was coming over to inspect the place on Sunday so he and Wonderpants asked me and Mr. Irish if we could take the cat just for the afternoon.

Tomorrow will be day 3 that we've had her here, and in that time I've learned that she's not an adorable little ball of purring fur, but a monster demon sent straight from hell to destroy the world.

We transported her to our place by stuffing her into Mr. Irish's jacket while I carried her litter box and other accessories. We hailed a gypsy cab and made it home, by which point the kitten had worked it's way around to Mr. Irish's back and was clawing at his shoulder blades. When he took his jacket off the kitten (who I have named "Monster" regardless of whatever Ms. Tennessee had opted to call it) was clinging to his shirt with all four paws outstretched, and I had to peel her off him.

She then immediately set about destroying the place, rather than investigate it like most cats do. The ornamental red tablecloth on my coffee table was one of the first to come crashing down. Monster thought "Oh, cool! Look at all the toys that rained out of the sky!". Next up was the captain's bench in our kitchen, which received a sustained clawing.

Following the toppling of all the wired electronic devices on my desk, Monster had a well-earned shit in the hallway, four feet from her litter box.

That night I curled up in bed and Monster jumped up with me and burst into loud purring. This was alright with me, as I assumed that she was exhausted after her libations. At first it seemed that my assumption was correct. Like a little angel she curled up in the crook of my arm as I read my book, and I fell asleep dreaming of little kitty cats and rainbows.

I'm not sure what time it was when my finger became a late-night snack, but I was awoken with a sharp pain in my right pointer. The Monster was on her side, all four paws clawing at my hand and her little pointy teeth chewing on my finger. "Hey!" I snarled at her. She made a little squeaking sound and then jumped up with her back arched to pounce on the little mountain of blankets my feet make at the end of the bed. "Ow!" I shouted.

She looked over her shoulder at me with a stare that said "What? Your face want some next?"

I fell back asleep. It must have been around 4 or 5 in the morning when I was awoken by her very loud purring. I was laying on my back and when I opened my eyes I met the Monster's face a few inches from mine. She was laying on my chest and staring at me. "What now?" I asked her, to which she replied by immediately pouncing on my face with her claws extended. I took two needle-sharp claws in the forehead, one on either cheek and a bite-mark on my nose. Needless to say that she discovered the laws of gravity, and that she couldn't fly. I flung her off the bed.

That didn't deter her, however, as I was awoken four more times throughout the night either by being eaten alive or by something in my room crashing to the ground. I tried putting her out in the hallway but she just cried endlessly in front of my door and I'm a sucker for her little helpless "meow meow meow". The moment I let her back in she went to town again.

Finally, at 8 am my alarm went off and I awoke without enough sleep. She was there, clawing at the power cord to my laptop. She pounced after my feet as I groggily stumbled to the shower. When I was finally dressed and had a cup of coffee and was putting on my coat and shoes, she looked at me as if to say "That was fun! Goodnight!" and she curled up on my pillow and fell fast asleep.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Little Nazi & The Big One

"The big one is hungry!!" the Little Nazi exclaimed, pointing at the poor 12 year-old girl who is, in fact, very large. The Big One roared in anger and in an instant she was out of her seat and charging at the Little Nazi, flinging chairs and desks out of her way as she charged like an enraged gorilla.

"Hey!" I shouted, my back turned to the class. "Sit down!" The moment the Little Nazi had said "The big one is hungry" I had spat the mouthful of tea I had just sipped into my hand and turned my back to the class so they couldn't see my laughter. We had been practicing adjectives and their opposites. I would give the class an adjective, in this case, the word "small" and ask what the opposite is. When the class replied "big" I said "Good! Somebody use that in a sentence now."

The Little Nazi and the Big One were always at each other's throat, so much so that I had exiled them to opposite ends of the classroom. The Little Nazi is a poster-boy for Goebbel's master-race propoganda, with piercing blue eyes, a square jaw and perfect blonde hair styled in an Oxford-cum-Prince-William-like coiffure. He's also a mouthy trouble-maker and the alpha-male of the students, but he can do it all with perfect accent-free English. He's also a complete brat, and I have a hard time trying not to let on to the other students that he's my favourite.

The Big One is just the opposite of the Little Nazi. In a country where sleek stylish feminine beauty is worshipped, this pre-teen girl experienced a freak growth spurt and shot upwards and outwards. She stands nearly 6 feet tall and probably weighs more than I do. Her short neck-length hair and pudgy black eyes give her a menacing air. The rest of the 11 and 12 year olds in that class are small and frail by comparison. She is incredibly artistic and carries a permanently-angered attitude, most likely due to constant teasing in a cruel kid's world. Throughout her day I'm sure she runs into a hundred brats like the Little Nazi, so she is constantly on guard against his type.

Nevertheless, when the Little Nazi shouted out, knowing damn-well exactly what he was saying, "The big one is hungry!" (he immediately burst into bratty laughter after shouting it), I was wracked with laughter. With my back to the class and my shoulders shaking as I failed to keep the laughter inside, I tried to recover some type of teacher's dignity. "Good use of articles." I said meekly.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Day In The Life

Last night I set my alarm, which is also my cell phone, for 8 am, and then I curled up in my sofa bed with the book "Alexander II" by Edvard Radzinsky and read for half an hour or so before falling asleep (I always read when I go to bed).

My alarm went off at 8 and I hit "snooze". It went off at 8:04 and I hit "snooze" again. This continued until 9 am when I finally got up. If I had simply set it for 9 I would hit "snooze" for an hour and end up late for work. It's always better to set the alarm for a time earlier than you need.

After a shower, a cup of instant coffee (I don't own an actual coffee maker) with whitener, a smoke and a scan of the headlines on Yahoo! Canada news, I walked 1/4 of the way to work. It was -20 C and, despite fleece-lined pants, a hardy Ottawa-winter-worthy coat, scarf, hat and gloves, I said "Fuck this" and hopped on a marshrutka mini-bus, which deposited me in front of my work.

My DOS, Ms. Tennessee, had gone home to America for the holidays and many of us have had to cover her classes. Because I don't really give a damn whether I teach her 10-year old starters any English or not, I decided that the next two weeks would be movie time! I watched "Elf" and "Home Alone" with her classes, and then, because it's the Christmas season (even if Russia doesn't celebrate Christmas...a left-over from the atheistic Soviet era) I decided to watch "Elf" and "Home Alone" with my classes, too!

After work, around 8 pm, I stepped outside under a dark star-filled sky for a cigarette and thought "Fuck this!" The temperature had dropped to a biting -25 C. I called up Quagmire, who lives 2 minutes from our school, and told him I was coming up. "Come on over." He said.

Ms. Australia arrived a few minutes after me, and, because I had my Dell laptop loaded up with movies I've downloaded, we watched "A Christmas Story" while Quagmire made dinner. He's a superb cook and whipped up a sauteed chicken breast-mashed potato-diced vegetable feast. Then Wonderpants arrived. We called up Mr. Irish and invited him over. With his arrival every teacher in Mytischi was under one roof, and a simply fire would have taken out the entire Mytischi operation.

With all the English teachers at the kitchen table we watched "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" on my laptop. When it had finished Mr. Irish and I bundled up in scarves, coats, hats, etc and said our goodbyes.

Then we went outside and hailed a gypsy cab. A young guy in a rusty Lada pulled up, his girlfriend in the passenger seat, and asked where we wanted to go and for how much. "150" Mr. Irish told him and the guy said "Get in". The interior of a Lada looks pretty much the same as the exterior; small, boxy and utilitarian. With a grinding, sputtering engine he drove us down Novamytischinskiy Prospekt, past snow-covered buildings touting clothing, alcohol, stationary, food and dancing. We zipped through intersections where other Ladas, mixed with BMWs, Lexus', Toyotas, Citroens and Fords waited. Pedestrians buddled up like the sand people from Star Wars hobbled along the sidewalks. Finally we reached our building, I paid 100 and Mr. Irish paid 50, we said "Spaseeba" and "Das Vidanya" to the driver and his girlfriend, and went inside.

This seems to be a fairly typical day in my winter life in Russia. Then, after writing this entry, I'll set my alarm (which is also my cell phone) for 8 am and curl up in bed with "Alexander II".

Monday, December 14, 2009

Friggin' Cold

If you think about it, meteorologists are the only people who can be wrong 70% of the time and still keep their jobs. That's why they've come up with a hundred different ways to justify their inability to actually predict the weather by using lots of technical jargon. Words like "apparent temperatures" and "chronoanemoisothermal diagram" and "advisory" abound when discussing the weather. Like legal loopholes, these allow meteorologists to keep their careers.

I have a better system to describe the weather, and so far it has worked for me. Coming from a colder climate such as Canada (which people from several northern states of the U.S. will be able to concur) I am quite good at predicting the weather for free. It is working for me in Moscow.

For instance, today it is "friggin' cold" with the sun shining down from a friggin' cold clear blue sky, with a 100% chance that it will be friggin' colder once the sun goes down. The thermometer says it is -18 C. Point proven. Friggin' cold.

Tomorrow it will still be friggin' cold. In fact, my weather prediction is that it will be friggin' cold for the next 3 1/2 months, then change to friggin' wet and muddy as the temperature warms, and then "friggin' fantastic" as spring arrives and all the Moscow girls start wearing short skirts, and then "friggin' hot" as the summer arrives.

You can put money on my predictions. I've been right all my life in this department.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Girls Of The World

There's a lot of hype about how western women care only about career and money. There's a lot of complaining about so-called man-hating "feministas" in the west.

The image of the western woman (by this I mean American women and their Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, etc sisters), portrayed not only in some popular media but also amongst the opinions of much of the rest of the world, is of blood-sucking she-devils with overly ambitious expectations of their spouses, who would rather eat their own children than let a career advancement opportunity pass them by.

Here are some quotes I have been able to dig up from various sources:

"...most women in Western countries have that cold, bitchy, superficial, stuck up attitude. A lot of Western women hold themselves as the pure center of the relationship. If the men don't fit a rigid and unrealistic criteria or she doesn't feel the man can take care of her enough (even if she has a higher paying job) then she will drop him like a hot potato, regardless of his character or commitment to the relationship." -

"American women are:
  • high maintenance
  • overweight and don't care about their natural feminine beauty
  • likely to cheat and then blame it on their partner
  • bitchy
  • nag constantly
  • hate men
  • believe family is evil and care only for themselves
  • can't cook
  • sleep with lots of guys but are incapable of loving just one" - Atlanta Journal article "Why Men Marry Foreign Women", 2008
That's just a small sampling of the popular belief amongst American men and the rest of the world concerning western women. I say it's all crap.

I have dated a fair number of women in my life, all of them Western save for my current Russian angel, Katerina, and I can say from a position of experience that the image of American (ie: Western) women is incorrect.

I'll start my argument by giving some credit to what makes foreign women different from western women.

Katerina is Russian. She is beautiful and funny and caring and she looks up at me with incredibly soft, sparkling eyes in such a way that I am unable to refuse her most ridiculous command. Okay, well, I am able to refuse but I'm trying to illustrate a point. Katerina also has a strange habit of walking into my room and attacking the pile of clothes I have neatly crumpled into a pile on the floor (as a result of performing a super-fast-tidying-up moments before she comes over). She folds them all neatly, makes my bed and then says, in her sexy Russian accent, "Let's go to the store and pick up some food. I want to cook dinner."

I have insisted that she leave the clothes alone, that she doesn't make the bed because we'll just unmake it anyways, and that ordering pizza would save her a lot of work, but it is an uphill battle. I've tried helping her in the past but she just waves me away. Once, I told her that it made me uncomfortable when she was cleaning my mess and cooking me dinner, and she got insulted. "What, you want me to be a man?!?" She said, her eyes narrowing and her voice rising. "I'm a woman! A beautiful, strong and fantastic woman!"
"Okay, okay. I didn't mean to insult you." I replied, backing up against the wall (I found out later that she's half-cossack, so I'm glad there were no horses or swords laying about my room).

What she was saying was that she was proud of her ability to fold my laundry and cook me dinner (she's a fantastic cook, and every meal she makes is a veritable feast). I decided to change strategies and started to cook her dinners because I, too, am a fantastic cook. I also started to hide my laundry before she came over (in drawers, in the computer desk, folded up in the fold-out sofa bed, etc). She still finds other ways of showing me what a great woman she is, though. When she comes out of the washroom the towels are neatly arranged and mine and Mr. Irish's toothbrushes put back in the holder, instead of laying about the countertop.

That's one example of the differences between eastern and western women. Another would be that when we are on the Moscow Metro and there are no seats, Katerina, rather than hold onto the bars for steadiness, throws her arms around my waist and clutches me for dear life. I must support both our weights as the car sways and shudders. When I look around I see other couples standing in the exact same manner. So far I haven't taken us both for a tumble but eventually the inevitable will happen...

Those differences are small. The hogwash line that "Western women are not women" is completely false, and probably invented by guys who can't get dates.

Western women aren't bitchy. If you are bitchy to a woman from any culture, chances are she will be bitchy in return. Women, as a group, are particularly strong-willed.

Western women aren't high maintenance or materialistic. Of course there are exceptions but there are everywhere. As an example, not all guys are pigs. Western women have been raised in a society and an age with the highest standards of living in human history. Because a girl wants a comfortable sofa to rest on after a hard day of work doesn't make her high-maintenance. It merely proves that she is human.

Western women don't jump from relationship to relationship as cheating whores with no sense of loyalty. Some do, but so do some men. Some don't; again, same with the men. I have been with cheating heartbreakers and completely devoted angels, and painting all western women with this brush is unfair.

Western women aren't overweight. In comparison to the rest of the world there is a far larger percentage of overweight women in the west, but there are A LOT of incredibly sexy, beautiful girls as well. I like curves and thick hair and I find that there is a lot of eye candy to be found in the west.

Western women don't hate men. They just hate whiny bitchy man-boys who write things like "western women hate men".

Western women are very tuned into their families. Find me a mother who doesn't care about her children and I will tell you that she has mental issues. Women in the west DO work 40+ hours a week and then come home and do 75% of the housework, which includes giving love and support to her children and partner. If a woman didn't care about family, would she do all this? I doubt it. Most women I know want to have a family (or already do). Even lesbian couples want to have children. Also, every single girl I've ever dated had a very close relationship to her parents, siblings, etc.

I would say that 50% of the western girls I know can cook. I don't know what the number is for Russian girls because I've only ever had one cook for me, so I can't make a comparison, but I can say that a generalization such "western women can't cook" is unfounded. Cooking is a learned skill, and if a person, man or woman, is taught to cook then voila! They can cook!

Finally, western woman are capable of love. When a woman is in love it is usually pretty intense and impossible for her to hide. This crosses borders and cultures and by saying that western women are incapable of love is the same as saying that western women aren't human. Western women are just incapable of loving the type of guys who say things like this.

As you can tell, I was bored and had nothing to write. Also, the movie "District 9" sucks.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Meet The Parents

Yesterday was Katerina's birthday, so after work I met up with my friend Sasha at the Red Whale shopping mall in Mytischi (Krasnyi Kyt), bought a gift, and took the elektrishka to Shyolkova.

Sasha and I bought her flowers at a little flower shop and went to her place. Sasha's giflriend, Gal, was already there and the two girls were busy preparing a feast. They were slicing and dicing and seasoning and boiling and baking. Sasha and I were shooed out of the kitchen so we watched YouTube clips on Katerina's laptop.

Then her parents came home, and got to meet them. Her mother speaks no English and I could tell the moment we met that she didn't like her daughter dating a foreigner. Her mother is a silent type, and after the obligatory "Zastroot-vye" (formal "hello") she didn't say anything to me or use anybody to interpret for her.

Her father was a lively guy. He handed his daughter a birthday card filled with roubles and poured everyone a glass of champagne and then led us in toast after toast after toast. When the champagne was gone he grabbed a bottle of Martini and did the same.

He was curious about me, and liked that I was from Canada. Although he had limited English he used Katerina and Sasha as translators. "I have family in Canada." he told me. I asked him "Are you Ukrainian?" to which he replied "Of course I'm Ukrainian! I am NOT Russian!" and with the word "Russian" he made a spitting motion, as if the word tasted bad. "Here, try some Amaretto!"

Dinner pretty much followed this pattern, with Gal and Sasha yapping at me in English, Katerina's mother doing everything to ignore me and her father doing everything to get everyone completely drunk, Russian style (or should I say Ukrainian style?). He even gave me one of his 'Ukrainian' cigarettes to try.

With Katerina translating I learned that the Soviet authorities had taken him from his home in the Ukraine when he was 17 and put him through engineering school, although he just wanted to be a farmer. After University he was drafted into the military as a Red Army engineer, and spent 10 years building army bases along the Russian-Chinese border. He met Katerina's mother, a Don Cossack from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and they married and he's lived in Moscow ever since. Learning that Katerina was half Cossack helped to explain her incredibly stubborn demeanour when she gets an idea in her head.

After dinner we were all slightly drunk and us "youngsters" made our way to the Shyolkova bowling alley, which was lit in black lighting and blaring trance music. We ordered drinks and pizza and an ashtray and proceeded to bowl for the next few hours.

Katerina at the bowling alley.
It turns out that Katerina is a bit of a bowling-pro, as she proceeded to cream the rest of us with strike after strike. Although she's only 24, she is a divorcee and her and her ex-husband used to be on a bowling league, so it wasn't really fair competition.

Katerina scores yet another strike.

I was doing horribly until I caught sight of one lonely blue 10-pound ball sitting on a rack behind our table. For some reason it called out to me. I stuck my fingers in the holes and they fit perfectly. Like Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone, I hoisted the ball into the air and then flung it down the lane. Strike! After that my lucky ball scored well for me, and I ended up coming in second after Katerina.

When it was time to go, around 3 am, we walked through the snow that had fallen that day, over a little bridge above a river, and to a park that was lit in soft lights reflecting off the snow-covered ground. Then we proceeded to horse around, sufficiently intoxicated so as not to feel the cold. My Russian friends made the mistake of picking a snowball fight with me, and I taught them a thing or two about fastball pitching and leading a moving target, so that the snowball and the victim meet the same point of space at the same time. Katerina wasn't happy when my snowball got her in the face as she was running, but I was impressed!

Fun in the snow!
After a couple of snow angels and some drunken pictures, we took a taxi back to Katerina's and went to bed. Sasha and Gal slept in Katerina's bed while Katerina and I slept on her fold-out sofa and her cat, Moisha, clawed at my feet all night.
Hanging out with Russians is different than with westerners. Russians have a certain "joie du vivre" that my western compratiots lack, and although we had innocent fun it wasn't the same type of falling-down-puke-in-my-shoes chaos that us westerners are good at.
Or maybe it is.

Katerina's snow angel

Pearl Harbor

"Yesterday, December 7th 1941 - a date that will live in infamy- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

That is the first line of the speech U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt gave to a joint house of Congress on December 8th, 1941, asking for a formal declaration of war against Japan. Japan's transgression was a surprising and violent attack against the United States' naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor brought America into the Second World War. It was an event that altered history. Up until that point the "Axis", as the formal alliance between Germany, Japan and Italy was called, was completely victorious. Germany was at the gates of Moscow with the rest of Europe under her domination. Throughout the 1930s and 1940 Japan had embarked upon a campaign of Imperial expansion throughout China and the Pacific. German and Italian forces were driving the British back through Egypt and looked ready to capture the Suez Canal and move into the middle-east oil fields. America was one of the few neutral countries in the world. Pearl Harbor brought the industrial giant into the global conflict.

During the late 1800s Japan had embarked upon a program of modernization and industrialization. With a lot of help from the United States, she had built factories, a modern navy and army, roads, cars and set up a modern infrastructure complete with electricity and telephones in nearly every home. In the First World War Japan had been on the side of the Allies, helping the British and French maintain their Imperial colonies in Asia. As a result, Japan was granted several outposts throughout the Pacific during the Versailles peace talks in 1919. Japan had already annexed Korea in 1910.

But this island nation of over 130 million people required massive amounts of raw materials to maintain modernization programs, and over 90% of these materials had to be imported. With the major economic and political changes that occurred in the world as a result of the Versailles Treaty and the Wilsonian politics of national self-determination, these resources became increasingly difficult and expensive for Japan to obtain. The global market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression made it even more difficult for Japan.

Japan was ruled, at the time, by a military junta which had seized power from a semi-democratic government in 1908, and the ruling general staff embarked upon a program of Imperial expansion in order to take the resources the nation required to survive. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (now a part of northern China but an independent nation at the time) from bases in Korea. Manchuria had no real army of it's own and the Imperial Japanese Army was able to overrun the country in no time. Manchuria gave Japan access to rubber and coal as well as a strong launching-pad for an invasion into China itself.

In 1937 Japan attacked China. The goal was to take the Chinese coast and gain control over the massive offshore oil reserves, but the Chinese fought back and the Japanese advance became bogged down in a bitter war of attrition.

In 1938 the U.S. officially condemned the Japanese attack and Congress implemented oil and steel sanctions on Japan as well as a demand that Japan withdraw to Manchuria. The U.S. sanctions cut off nearly 80% of Japan's crude oil supply.

In 1939, when war broke out in Europe with the nazi invasion of Poland, the public mood in the United States was one of isolationism. Poll after poll showed that the American public had no stomach for involvement in foreign wars. When, in 1940, Germany conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, public opinion started to shift and U.S. started to mobilize it's industry for war, albeit in a limited manner. After the fall of France Great Britain stood alone against a massive German military machine, and as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over south-east England Roosevelt and Churchill signed a "Lend-Lease" deal, whereby the U.S. would supply Britain with war resources and naval ships in exchange for access to military bases and an "IOU" to repay the debt after the war. Public sentiment in America was still strongly against involvement, even during the height of the German blitz on London.

It was while America's attention was focused on developments in Europe that the Japanese high command started to plan for a major imperial expansion throughout the Pacific. Their goal was to seize all the resources of the entire Pacific ocean, including the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea but there were several obstacles in their path.

First, there were the British garrison colonies at Hong Kong and Singapore. Second, Japan knew that there was no way Australia was going to let a powerful military seize New Guinea. Finally, and most importantly, was the fact that the Philippines, the most resource-rich country in the region and the main target for Japanese plans, was an American colony.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941 Japan believed that they had a real opportunity to put their plans in motion. Japan wanted the Philippines. The war in China was still dragging on and the need for raw materials was more important now than at any other time. In order to seize the Philippines Japan would be forced to fight a war with the United States, which they didn't want. The Japanese high command believed that if they could deliver a knock-out blow to the U.S. Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbor, then they could achieve two aims. First, the U.S., without a navy, would be unable to stop the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Their second, and most important, goal was to bring America to the negotiating table. The general staff believed that a spectacular display of Japanese strength would force the Americans to sue for peace and simply "hand over" the Philippines.

So the plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor was put in motion. The bulk of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) would sail, in secret, across the Pacific Ocean to a point 200 km west of Hawaii. This fleet would consist of six heavy aircraft carriers, including the flagships Akagi and Hiryu, protected by battleships and cruisers and destroyers. Japanese naval aircraft would launch from the carriers, swoop down on the U.S. fleet at anchor and destroy it in one blow. The key to the entire plan was surprise. Japanese counter-intelligence agents started a campaign of misinformation. In the months leading up Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy was reported to be at anchor in Tokyo, then it was sighted off the coast of Thailand, then reports fed to U.S. spies indicated that it was on exercises off the coast of New Zealand. U.S. intelligence was completely unable to figure out where the IJN actually was.

In fact, the IJN carrier task force was sailing across the vast expanse of the central Pacific Ocean, towards Hawaii, out of range of recconaisance aircraft. The U.S. Navy was nervous and the three American aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet, the Hornet, the Enterprise and the Yorktown were ordered out of Pearl Harbor to patrol the Ocean closer to the U.S. mainland. On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the IJN believed the carriers were still at anchor, and it was in position.

That morning in Honolulu was a typical Hawaiian morning. People were going about their day, getting ready for work. It was the Christmas season and stores had christmas trees up and holiday shopping sales displayed. At the naval base of Pearl Harbor battleships, cruisers and destroyers as well as the oil and supply ships required to keep a modern navy operating were all at anchor and lined up in perfect rows. The crews were busy swabbing decks, cooks were preparing breakfast and officers were getting ready to go Christmas shopping with their sweethearts.

On top of a large hill a single American radar base had been set up. At 7 am they picked up a signal showing a large "blob" of aircraft quickly approaching Hawaii from the west. They telephoned their controllers back in Honolulu who told them that a flight of American B-17 heavy bombers from California were due in that day, and that must be what they see. The radar controllers ignored the flight.

The "blob" wasn't a flight of B-17 bombers, however, but a swarm of nearly 360 Japanese torpedo and dive bombers escorted by Zero fighters. They were heading straight for Pearl Harbor. When they were 50 miles from the island they picked up Radio Honolulu on their headsets, playing Benny Goodman jazz. The Japanese leader of the attack, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, gave the code for the attack to commence. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" he radioed to his air armada.

The Japanese flight broke off into three groups and all of them dove below radar. They crossed the Hawaiian coast only 80 feet off the ground, and passed a group of school boys playing baseball. The boys stared in stunned silence at the hundreds of white warplanes with the red ball of Japan painted on their fuselage.

At Pearl Harbor, everything was peaceful and another beautiful day in Hawaii was starting when the drone of approaching aircraft could be heard. Most sailors ignored the sound; this was a major military base, after all. But some sailors noticed the approaching danger and tried to warn their comrades. It was too late. At 7:40 am the first flight of IJN torpedo bombers swooped into the harbor and dropped their lethal "long lance" torpedos into the water. The torpedos sped toward their targets. Some men looked over the rails of their ships in disbelief as the torpedos, traveling at 80 km/hour just under the surface, streaked towards the ships and then exploded into the hulls.

Within moments all hell broke loose. Waves of dive bombers climbed high and then dropped down in vertical dives onto the rows of battleships. Bombs detached from their bellies and exploded onto the decks and superstructures of the American warships. Zero fighters swooped down over the base and machine-gunned cars, people and buildings. One flight of Zeros zipped up the main street of Honolulu, machine guns clattering, and blew up several cars, a packed city bus and a garbage truck. Store windows were destroyed and the bodies of women in flowery dresses were left on the sidewalks.

Within the first five minutes of the attack sixteen American warships were in flames. Burning oil from exploding ships spread across the water so that men who leaped off their sinking ships landed in an inferno.

A Japanese dive bomber dropped an armor-piercing bomb onto the deck of the battleship USS Arizona. The bomb cut through the top deck and exploded in the ammunition magazine. The 80,000 ton ship rose out of the water for a moment before exploding in a massive detonation that shattered windows 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, a second wave of attackers swooped in over two American air bases at Pearl Harbor. The bombers and fighters had been lined up in neat rows on the tarmac to defend against sabotage, and they presented easy targets for the Japanese. U.S. warplanes burst into flame as Zeros flew in straight lines down the runways with guns blazing.

The attack wasn't all one-sided. Many Americans managed to get to anti-aircraft guns and the skies over the harbor were soon filled with thousands of rounds of machine gun fire. Four American P-40 fighters managed to get airborne and they shot down 7 Japanese bombers before running out of ammo and flying away to safer airfields. In all, 21 Japanese planes were shot down over Pearl Harbor.

90 minutes after the attack began it was all over. A planned third wave of attackers was cancelled after reports indicated that the U.S. carriers weren't in harbor, and once all the Japanese aircraft had landed back on their carriers the IJN turned around and sailed back for Japan.

Pearl Harbor itself was left in ruins. 2,389 Americans were killed, including 55 civilians in Honolulu. 18 American warships were destroyed and a further 36 damaged. Over 5,000 people were injured, many of them from unexploded American anti-aircraft shells after the battle.

As the Japanese carrier task force sailed away there was jubilation on the ships. "What a great victory for the Emperor!" one officer shouted. Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack (and a former student of Yale), shook his head and said somberly "I'm afraid that the only thing we have accomplished is to awaken a sleeping giant."

He couldn't have been more right. When Congress declared war on Japan the next day Hitler flew into a rage. His Axis treaty with Japan obligated him to help his ally, and on December 10th Germany declared war on the United States.

Four years later the Axis ceased to exist. Germany and Italy were completely conquered and Japan suffered two atomic bombs. December 7th, 1941 changed history.

Friday, December 4, 2009

7-11 Anonymous

In Korea, we used to drink at 7-11s. I used to love drinking outside a 7-11. Every 7-11 would put a few plastic tables with chairs in its parking lot during the summer and groups of us expat English teachers would sit around and play drinking games and get drunk. If we ran out of beer then there was no problem; one of us would go into the 7-11 and buy another 2 litre plastic bottle of beer. If we got hungry then again there was no problem. Ramyun noodles! Run out of smokes? No worries, the door to the 7-11 is five feet away!

7-11 drinking brings back fond memories of a previous expat experience. Unfortunately they don't have 7-11s in Russia, nor are there convenience stores to drink at. They do sell beer in 2 litre plastic jugs at the store, and, like in Korea, one can buy beer at any hour of the day or night, but that's not the point. There's something to be said about sitting around a plastic table in a parking lot out front of a 7-11 and getting drunk with friends.

In Russia, we sit around kitchen tables and get drunk. Which brings me to the purpose of this blog entry; drinking. The casual reader of my blog may have noticed by this point that we drink a lot here. That's to be expected. We are English teachers. I "earned my stripes" in Korea as an expat EFL teacher and life for the lowly teacher in Russia is no different. I have heard from a nice young woman who reads this blog that her teaching experience in Turkey was the same.

Alcohol is the opiate of the EFL teaching masses. I'm not an alcoholic. I don't drink alone but I don't see a point in getting together with friends without alcohol, and judging by the copious amounts of booze my friends drink I can assume that they feel the same.

We don't actually spend all day sitting around drinking and teaching the Present Perfect to students. I actually only drink three or four nights a week; the rest of the time is spent watching TV shows from home on my laptop.

For instance, on Sunday I didn't drink (the vicious hangover from Saturday prevented that, which McDonald's cured, a trick I learned in Korea). Instead, Katerina came over and spent the night watching pirated movies with me. On Monday I didn't drink. After work I came home and watched The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Dogfights and The Rick Mercer Report on my computer. On Tuesday I didn't drink. I downloaded and watched Inglorious Basterds. On Wednesday I went to visit Katerina in Shyolkova, and we did, in fact, drink. Rum and coke, to be exact. On Thursday I drank. Wonderpants, Ms. Australia and Quagmire came over to my place and Mr. Irish made a delicious Irish stew and we drank a few beers. Tonight I drank. Mr. Irish, Quagmire and I went to a pizza restaurant (Espronto) and had a few pints and pizzas. Tomorrow I'll be drinking because it's Gem's birthday party and EVERYBODY is taking the hour-long metro trip to the south of Moscow. I'll probably get pretty shit-faced. On Sunday I'll have McDonald's and repeat the week.

So there you have it. I drink four nights a week, with only one of them being a brain-cell-killing blow-out. I'm not an alcoholic, at least, I'm not an alcoholic by EFL teacher standards. To be labelled an alcoholic by expat EFL teachers takes talent.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving & Vodka

On Saturday Ms. Tennessee hosted a Thanksgiving dinner/party, which was attended by Americans, Russians, an Australian, a Brit, a Canadian and one kitten.

Mr. Irish and I started the evening off by pre-drinking a couple of shots of vodka at our kitchen table. Once we had a nice fuzzy feeling we put on our coats, scarves, gloves, etc and made our way to SPAR, where we purchased 10 bottles of beer and I got a bottle of white wine from Chile. Then we hopped on the #4 bus and made our way to Ms. Tennessee's flat.

Despite being completely handicapped, Ms. Tennessee had cooked up a 14-pound turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, devilled eggs, a bunch of other trimmings and homemade cranberry sauce.

Wonderpants, Quagmire, Ms. Australia and Gem were there. Another American girl, Schwangledoodledandy, showed up an hour after Mr. Irish and I. There were also several Russians, including a balding but young man I'll call Young Homer, his girlfriend who I'll call Cafe (Cute And Friendly-e), and one of Ms. Tennessee's friends, a beautiful 6-foot tall blonde who I'll call, for lack of imagination, Tits.

I got into the beer that Mr. Irish and I had bought and played with the kitten that Ms. Tennessee has recently acquired (as she was waiting at a bus stop a car drove by and some guy threw a new-born kitten out the window. Luckily it landed in a small snowbank at Ms. Tennessee's feet,so she took it home).

After the oldest American male, Quagmire, carved the turkey we all chowed down, then continued to drink more.

After dinner we had a pageant, which Wonderpants had written. I can't remember who played who, but I do remember that I was "Chief Samoset" and Tits was my daughter. It was sort of funny in a Grade 2 way. The script was actually hilarious, filled with Wonderpants' special brand of sarcasm, but the simple fact that we were holding a pageant in the living room was, well, retarded.

Quagmire and I had to make a beer-run, so he and I went to the local produkty where we cleaned them out of beer. They don't sell beer in cases in Russia; one must buy the individual bottle. This means we had a few bags of beer to lug back to the party. No worries. We did it.

After all that turkey and beer I was extremely full and despite drinking copious amounts of ale I was as sober as a bran muffin, so I cracked open the bottle of wine I had bought. There were no clean glasses that I could find, so I ended up carrying the bottle around and drinking directly from it. This seemed to horrify the Russians but I was starting not to care.

Ms. Australia, Gem and I made a second beer run shortly after and once we were outside I realized that my shoes didn't match. I had put on one of mine and one of somebody else's, who has the same size shoes as me. I started to realize that I wasn't actually sober.

Later that night Ms. Tennessee gave us a few shots of vodka and then Quagmire, Mr. Irish and I took a gypsy cab to the Austquagwonder Flat (taking a 'gypsy cab' consists of walking to the curb, holding out your hand, and negotiating a price for a drive with the first car that pulls over).
The three of us went to a produkty and bought more beer and a giant bottle of vodka, then, once at Quagmire's we drank more. By this point the three of us had had between 10 and 20 beers (each), a bottle of wine (each) and within ten minutes of arriving we had downed four or five shots of vodka. Ms. Australia, Gem, Schwangledoodledand and Wonderpants arrived. Then things started to get weird.

Quagmire disappeared to another level of consciousness. Although he and I were on his balcony having a cigarette, he was making no sense at all.

"WHO?" He shouted at me.
"Who me? Who are you? What?" I replied.
"You know what I'm saying, but you don't know."
"That's what they all think I think but they don't" Quagmire mumbled, or something along those lines. Then he flung the balcony door open and pointed at the group of our companions around the kitchen table. "CHOOSE ONE!!!!" He growled.
"What? Why? What the hell are you talking about?" I asked.
"Ummm...for what, death?"
"You know what I'm saying!"
"I actually don't have a clue what you're saying, but I gotta use the toilet, so do your best to hold that thought" I said, and stumbled off to the bathroom. I was gone for not more than 30 seconds and when I came out of the bathroom Quagmire was sitting at the kitchen table and his hand was bleeding everywhere.

Mr. Irish was trying to soak up the blood with a napkin but Quagmire wouldn't let him. "Punch me!" He kept shouting at Mr. Irish. "Puuuunch Meeeee!" It was the strangest way to pick a fight that I've ever seen, but I started to realize why Quagmire keeps getting punched in the face by Russians when he's drunk. Ms. Australia started to freak out at him. "You're a freak! You stupid idiot! Fine! You don't want help? Go to your room!"

With that she pointed to Quagmire's door and he stood up and, bleeding all over himself, stumbled off to his room never to be seen again.

That's the last memory I have of Thanksgiving. The next time I was conscious it was Sunday morning and I was in bed with Ms. Australia and Gem (fully clothed). And my head hurt a lot.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The VVTs

At the VDNKh metro station on the orange line are the VVTs (ввц). This sprawling park was known in Soviet times as the Exhibition of Economic Achievements (VDNKh) but is known today as the All-Russia Exhibition Centre.

Originally opened in 1939 to showcase the glorious economic achievements of the world's first socialist system, but leaving out any trace of the 10+ million who died as a result of civil war, famine and brutal political oppression, the VVTs are a fascinating and anachronistic look at the USSR.

Outside the VVTs is the Space Museum, where a Soviet rocket lifting off greets all-comers.

Katerina and I went to the VVTs yesterday and despite the overcast and gloomy weather (a regular November day in Moscow, apparently) temperatures were mild and the VVTs were fascinating.
When we first exited the metro station three things met our eyes: a rocket, a ferris wheel and a giant statue dedicated to workers and farmers.

The rocket monument is on top of the Space Museum, one block from the entrance to the VVTs. We didn't go into the museum but the little sculpture of Sputnik that sat out front of it made me smile. The world's first orbiting sattelite was about the size of a basketball!

The main gate to the VVTs.

On top of the main gate to the VVTs is a giant bronze statue of two collective farmers triumphantly hoisting a shaft of wheat in the air. They look well-fed and defiant, and there is no sign of the mass starvation and near economic ruin that farm collectivization under Stalin's first 5-Year-Plan brought to the peasants.

Next to the main gate is the Soviet People's Funfair, complete with a giant ferris wheel. Each cart on the ferris wheel is topped by a red star which, I am told, light up at night. The ferris wheel, built in 1955, still operates but apparently the view from the top sucks, as tall glass skyscrapers have taken over the Moscow skyline.

Entrance to the VVTs is free, and they are open from 08:00 to 22:00 every day, year round. Katerina and I walked through the massive main gate and onto the main square, with the Russia pavilion at the far end. The tree-lined square was impressive in November, but Katerina told me that in the spring and summer it is filled with gardens as all the countries of Europe hold a botanical competition every year, and then visitors to the park can vote on their favourite. France won last year.

At the far end of the square, in front of the Russia Pavilion, is a giant statue of Lenin. I have seen several of these statues dotted around Moscow and St. Petersburg, but I've never had my camera on me so I was happy that I could finally take a picture of the founder of the Soviet Union.

The main square of the VVTs, with the Russia Pavilion.

Lenin statue in front of the Russia Pavilion

Beyond the Russia Pavilion lies an octagonal square surrounded by pavilions, each one dedicated to the cultural and economic achievements of each of the 16 Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazahkstan, Kirghizstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan). In the centre of this square is the Fountain of the Friendship of Peoples.

This giant gold-coloured fountain is ringed by 16 women, each one representing a different Soviet republic and wearing the traditional cultural costume of their particular republic.

Fountain of the Friendship of Peoples

The Armenia Pavilion

The Karelia Pavilion

Four of the Pavilions were named, such as the Russia, Armenia, Karelia and Ukraine pavilions, but the rest were simply numbered as Pavilion 12, Pavilion 62, etc. I wasn't sure which pavilion was from which country, but after entering one I realized that it was the Byelorus Pavilion.

Most of the VVT pavilions are now commercial shopping centres. Inside the Byeolorus Pavilion there were rows of stalls. Next to one stall selling traditional wood-carved peasant women there was a stall selling LG washing machines. Katerina and I wandered around the Byelorus pavilion for ten minutes or so and then left without purchasing any laundry appliances.

Unmarked pavilion

The Ukraine Pavilion

Behind the Ukraine Pavilion was a 1970s Aeroflot (the Russian airline) jet liner with the distinct CCCP on the tail (SSSR, better known in English as USSR).

Beside the airplane was a huge nuclear inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), of the variety that spent fifty years threatening the United States. This missile was suspended from a launch pad and, although the nuclear device has been removed from the warhead, this was, at one point, an operational missile! I couldn't help but wonder what sort of uproar there would be were the USA to showcase one of it's cold-war missiles!

A Soviet-era Aeroflot jet liner.

Nuclear ICBM on display at the VVTs, complete with launch pad.

Next to the plane and the ICBM was a long, low exposition centre that sits abandoned save for a small bar in one corner.

By the late 1980s western goods were pouring into the Soviet Union under Gorbechov's policies of glasnost and perestroika, and the VVTs lost whatever utopian conviction they might have once posessed. In 1990, as the USSR was on the eve of collapse, the VVTs lost their state funding and in the chaos that followed the overnight switch to a free-market the park was forced to sell-off it's spacecraft, airplanes and most of the interiors of the pavilions. The exposition centre nearly went-under until 2001, when a new governing board decided to use tourism as a way to draw capital. So far the VVTs have clawed their way back into sustainable operations and in 2005 the Putin government started state funding again in order to keep entrance to the park free.

Nevertheless, a couple of mammoth expo centres in the VVTs remain unused.

Empty exposition centre, which once showcased livestock from collective farms.

One ingenious idea the governing board had was to showcase model homes of a traditional peasant-style, and then to get into the real-estate market and sell the homes! These are quaint, cottage-like wooden homes of the type that the average Russian peasant has lived in for two thousand years. There is a nostalgia now, particularly in Moscow, for quiet traditional homes in the peaceful country, and the VVTs are making a financial killing with this concept.

Traditional model home for sale at the VVTs.

Katerina and I looped around to the northern end of the park and began walking back towards the main gates. We passed a couple of nice buildings and a massive, brand-new arena (another idea of the board; host concerts, figure skating and hockey games to draw money) and one of the last buildings we saw before we exited the park was the last Soviet building constructed here; the Museum of Socialist Culture.

We didn't go inside the museum because it was closed, but the Soviet symbology carved into it's facade was interesting. More importantly, however is the fact that outside the main gates, only a stone's throw from the Museum of Socialist Culture, is a....

Museum of Socialist Culture


McDonald's ouside the gates to the very Soviet VVTs

Aaah, Russia!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I got bored and didn't have anything to post. Wonderpants, Ms Australia and I went to a pub in Mytischi called "The Temple Bar" after a famous bar in Dublin, but that's about all that's happened. So I decided to share with you some of the mundane stuff found in my day-to-day life in Russia...

Some curiosities from around my home....

Above: Russian Course, my lifeline to getting by in Russia.

Below: My Russian Course studies, which I promptly forget.

Below: CD given to me by Sasha

Below: Mr. Irish and my fridge door

Below: My well-used Moscow Metro map

Below: A never-used treadmill and hoola-hoop that is in our flat for some reason

Above: Shower gel

Below: Soul gel...okay, it's vodka. This is the only remaining Soviet-era brand

Below: Mayonaise, the ubiquitous ingredient in everything

Below: I found Tobasco Sauce at the local supermarket! I can finally spice up my food!

Below: English-Russian/Russian-English dictionary

Below: Lonely Planet Russian phrasebook. My Lonely Planet Korean phrasebook was a lifesaver in South Korea, but the Russian one is about as useful as a bag of hammers.

Above: Pall Mall Sinii (dark blue), one of my vices which, at 27 roubles a pack (about 95 cents), I won't be quitting anytime soon.

Below: My 990 rouble cell phone.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bistro! Bistro!

Not wanting to remain unable to communicate in Russia, I have started to learn Russian using a variety of means. Last year, while I was still in Port Hardy but planning on coming to Russia, I got my hands on the Rosetta Stone program for the Russian language (actually for every language, but I won't describe how I got that...).

Rosetta Stone is good for learning completely random vocabulary, such as krasniy (red), footballka (t-shirt), koschka (cat) and dom (house). Other than that the Rosetta Stone is useless. The idea is that it will immerse the pupil in the language by throwing words and sentences at them over and over again until they are able to comprehend. It may work for other languages, but when Rosetta Stone attempts this with Russian it fails completely, and that's because of the Russian grammar.

Instead of Rosetta Stone I went to a large bookstore near the Kitay Gorod section of Moscow called BiblioGlobus. Interestingly, BiblioGlobus is next door to the infamous Lubianka prison, where the KGB tortured and kept political prisoners up until 1991. At this 3-story book store I found the English section on the second floor, filled with books in English. On a spinning rack there were Russian language course books for English speakers, and a group of University students from Britain who were studying in Moscow highly recommended a book with the simple title "Russian Course".

"Russian Course" is written by someone named Nicholas J. Brown and is designed for somebody with absolutely no background in Russian. It uses the EFL method of Presentation, Practice and Production to reinforce new materials, and so far I feel like it was designed specifically for my brain! Where Rosetta Stones utterly fails, Russian Course completely succeeds, and this is because it teaches Russian grammar very well.

Russian doesn't use prepositions; instead, Russian uses case endings to indicate the noun's role in a sentence. English has a couple of case endings, such as -ed on the end of regular verbs when used in the simple past-tense (washed, studied, etc). Russian has SIX cases!

If you're not aware of the six different case endings it makes Russian appear totally confusing. I remember thinking "Why is Moscow called Moskva, Moskvoi, and Moskvye in books and on signs? Why isn't it simply Moscow?" Now I know that it all depends on the role the word "Moskva" (the actual name of the city) plays in the sentence.

I have just learned the prepositional case, which is the ending -ye on the end of a noun if I am speaking about something in time or space. For instance, Moskva is the name of the city, but if I go into the city, then I am in Moskvye (adding -ye to the end). In Russian this comes across as "Ya v Moskvye" (я в москве). A bus in Russian is avtobus (автобус), but I go on the avtobusye (я еду на автобусе).

I seem to have the prepositional case figured out. There are five more to go and I have no idea what they are but eventually I'll come across them in Russian Course. For now I'm picking up more and more of the language. The fact that 30% of Russian seems to have French roots helps out a lot.

In the 1700s French was the language of culture and sophistication and all the upper classes of Russia could speak fluent French. This lasted until the Czar was overthrown by Bolsheviks in 1917, and so much French seeped into the Russian language that most Russians today don't realize they can almost speak French!

The word for floor in Russian is etagia. In French it is etage. The shellfish known as shrimp in English is Kreviettka in Russian, or Crevette in French. The word for ticket in Russian is billet (with the "L's" and the "T" pronounced), or billet in French (sounds like biyei in French).

Conversely, there is a very famous Russian word in the French language. In 1813 Napolean's empire crumbled after his failed conquest of Russia, and Field Marshall Kutosov chased what was left of Napolean's Grande Armee out of Russia, across Europe and into France, where Paris was conquered by the Russian army and Napolean defeated. As Russian peasant soldiers enjoyed themselves in the city of light, they brought some of their language. They sat at cafes along the Seine and demanded faster service. "Bistro! Bistro!" they would shout to the French servers, which means "Faster! Faster!" in Russian. Today we have bistros!

It took me over a year before I could order a pizza on the telephone in Korean, so I am hoping that, in time, I will be able to do the same in Russian.

In the meantime, I will continue to learn new vocabulary with Rosetta Stone, apply proper grammar with Russian Course, and teach the world how to ask for butter and cheese in English.