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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Like Pigs and Cats...

Russia and Korea are like night and day, or chalk and honey, or whatever.

I had a hard time taking Korea seriously. It seemed like a made-up Disneyland country that was desperately trying to get people to notice it, and there seemed to be little heritage. My director once took me out for lunch. "I take you to traditional Korean sandwich restaurant." I was curious, because traditionally Koreans didn't have sandwiches, or bread for that matter. He took me to a Subway. I tried the traditional Korean meatball sub. The traditional Korean map of the New York City subway system was on the wallpaper.

Every temple I went to in Korea was touted as being "ancient...after it was rebuilt ten years ago..."

I couldn't even take the authorities in Korea seriously because the police wore a cartoon pig on their shoulder badges. In the early '90s the Korean government wanted to improve the reputation of their police force, and heard a lot of people in American movies referring to police as "pigs", so they thought that this was a good thing and chose a happy smiling Porky-the-Pig figure for the symbol of the national police force. If you have been to Korea you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, take my word for it; they actually have a cartoon pig as their symbol of law enforcement.

Everything in Korea seemed cartoony and surreal (although the food was fucking fantistic!).

Russia, on the other hand, is very real. Russian culture is alive and well. The historic buildings that were put up in the medieval ages are still standing. Russian, Georgian, Kazak, Ukrainian and Scandinavian restaurants are everywhere and there are only two Subway Sandwiches in Russia; one at Byeloruskaya Station in Moscow and one on Nevskiy Prospekt in Saint Petersburg.

Russian police look like their Soviet ancestors in the movies, but drunker and more corrupt. Their big hats and leather jackets and skull-smashing truncheons dangling from their belts, coupled with their greedy eyes looking for an excuse to take your money, make them a menacing sight. They have built a reputation for themselves, and they travel in groups of five or more. They don't fuck around, and they are best avoided.

Russians love their cats. I have seen cat statues in the Hermitage, and toy cats at the stores, and cat videos on youtube, and cat food at the grocery stores and very few street cats.

This love of cats is nice to see, and is very different from Korea where cats were considered lower than rodents. Wild cats ran everywhere and my Korean director (to whom I gave the English name "Scott" for some unknown reason) used to go out of his way to kick them if he saw one on the street.

Koreans hated cats. When asked about the myth of Chinese eating cats, Scott once told me, in his broken English "I would rather eat monkey feces than eat a cat. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a delicious dog to eat." He didn't actually say that, but I always suspected he was thinking it...

Russians, on the other hand, love their cats and their dogs. There were a lot of barking dogs in fenced-off backyards as Wonderpants and I trekked through Borodino, and the Gucci Princesses of Moscow walk around with little purse-sized their purses. None of these dogs, from what I've been able to tell, are considered a meal (or a snack).

Russians adore cats. Russians don't eat dogs. Russians have a real culture going for them. This isn't Korea. Now, if only they would stop driving like Koreans...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Absolutely Nothing To Report

Nothing interesting has happened this past week. I bought a pair of jeans and a shirt from a strange little market, but that's not very interesting. I've been teaching the Present Perfect Simple vs. the Past Simple (I have eaten vs I ate) but that's not interesting at all. Even when living overseas the odd week or two can be mundane.

Despite being in Moscow I have absolutely nothing to write about, so I'll post some funny videos, instead!

I first saw those videos in 2003 in Korea. My friend, Mr. Halifax (who married a Korean girl and is now a successful investment manager in Toronto, but I knew him when he was a lowly English teacher...) introduced them to me and I find it very strange that friends of mine here Russia showed me the exact same videos!

That video was shown to me by my ex's friend, Ms. Margarita (who is the only friend of my ex that I'm still friends with, because not only is she one of the most interesting people I've ever met, she also kinda became my friend).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day

This is a striking photo. I make it my desktop wallpaper every Remembrance Day (Nov. 11th).

The British Columbia Rifle's Regiment embarking for Europe, 1940.

A Canadian war cemetery in France.

Some other photos of Canada at war are below.

Canadian troops at Paschendale, 1917

Canadian dead at Dieppe, 1942

Canadian corvette hunting German U-Boats in the Atlantic.

A Canadian soldier following a battle in Korea, 1952

Canadian peacekeeper in Rwanda, 1993

Another Canadian is sent home from Afghanistan, 2009

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Monday, November 9, 2009

Stay Calm & Carry On

It takes a lot of energy to maintain constant optimism. When dealing with the Russian commuter train system (the Elektrishka) it takes every molecule of positivity I have to keep it together.

Katerina sent me a text while I was at work, asking if I wanted to go to Shyokova, where she lives, for dinner. Shyokova lies about 30 km to the south-east of Mytischi, and although it is part of the Moscow Oblast it is not part of any of Moscow's transit systems save for the damn Elektrishka.

These slow-moving suburban trains run on their own rail lines, laid down sometime before the last ice age, and although they are cheap they are consistently aggravating. Not only are the cars an invention of some cruel and psychotic Soviet bureaucrat and the benches are hard wood, but these trains are filled with the strangest people in Moscow. One after another, babushkas and vagabonds stand at the front of the car and peddle cheap wares in a bag by yelling an advertisement at the top of their lungs. These wares are usually completely useless, such as plastic magnifying glasses (in case you were on the train and thought "Oh crap! I forgot my magnifying glass!"), pirated CD-ROMs and bags filled with Swiss Army knives. Sometimes they come into the car with an accordion and sing about their wares, which is a grating and surprising shock when it happens suddenly behind you.

Just getting on the trains is a hassle. Customer service in Russia has yet to be invented, and the surly middle-aged women who run the kassa (ticket desks) at the train stations haven't smiled since they were children. To make everything so much more Russian, there are few signs telling you which of the dozen platforms your particular train is arriving on. I suppose people are just supposed to guess.

With all that in mind, I didn't want to go to Shyokova. Katerina had a different idea, however, and she called me up and in her sweetest voice convinced me that the Elektrishka ride to her town wasn't all that bad. "It's only six stops. Just count six stations and get off" she said with her cute Russian accent. "I really want to see you tonight, but if you can't, I understand...." Damnit! Now I was going to Shyokova.

After work I took one of the small marshrutki mini-buses that follow the exact same route as the large articulated city buses (but weave through traffic much faster) to the Mytischi train station, and that's when my eternal friendliness, goodwill towards all people, undying optimism and belief in the basic decency of humankind started to unravel.

"Shyokova" I said to the humorless cow in the ticket booth. "Shto? Shyoko..shto eta?" she grumbled (What? Shyoko...what's that?). With a sigh I pulled out a piece of paper with the name of the town written in Cyrillic and slapped it up against the glass separating us. "SHEE-OH-KO-VA." I repeated slowly, like I would to a four-year-old with down-syndrome. That was a mistake, because she started yelling at me in Russian and pointing at my paper. I shrugged my shoulders and slapped 20 roubles under the glass, and the old bitch gave up and printed a ticket for me.

After purchasing my ticket I wound my way through the crowds of people in the station and attempted to read the digital signs that hung from the ceiling.

Platforma 1: Moskva
Platforma 2: Moskva
Platforma 3: Moskva
Platforma 4: Moskva

I gathered by this point that nobody, including the rail line, had heard of Shyokova so I walked to the platform where I know I've said goodbye to Katerina in the past. I logically assumed that trains would only be running in one direction at the same time on one railway, so when the clattering green elektrishka pulled up to my platform I jostled with a crowd of commuters to get on it. I managed to wedge myself on a bench between a cute blonde who smelled of flowers and an old man who smelled of whiskey, and I began to count the train stations.

One, two, each station an incredibly uninterested voice attempted to crackle over blown speakers to inform people which station was coming up, but I don't know why they even bother. "Psshhhtttt...crkrkrkr...otoskaya pal...ckrkrkrk" is all I managed to hear.

The old man beside me passed out and his head lolled dangerously close to my shoulder. My general kindness and gentle nature was giving away to hardly contained irritation and I gave a quick push upwards with my shoulder. The man snapped awake with a gurgling sound and stared at the floor, as if in deep thought.

Fourth station...crackle-crackle-something-in-Russian...fifth station...the blonde got off, leaving me alone on the bench with the drunk guy. Sixth station.

I jumped out the creaking door onto a dead platform. I was the only one who got off here, and there was not a single light. A big sign in Cyrillic read "Ipreevoti Station". I had taken the wrong train.

By this point, the last threads of decency I had began to dissolve and I had to force myself to keep from setting fire to the boarded-up train station in front of me. My phone vibrated in my pocket. Katerina.

"Where are you?" She asked sweetly. I paused and swallowed back a torrent of bitching that had been brewing for thirty minutes. "Umm...Ipreevoti." I said as happily as I could, then, very slowly so that I didn't lose my cool, I asked her "Where am I?"

"Ipreevoti? What are you doing there? Which train did you take?" She yelled in panic. The worried tone in her voice didn't help my struggle with self-control .

"I took the goddamn train to Shyokova!" I wanted to yell, but instead I laughed and said "I guess the wrong one. That doesn't matter now. How do I get to where you are?"
"I will call you right back." She stated, and hung up.

I looked at my phone for a moment in surprise and then, with nothing else to do, I lit a cigarette. Then she called me back. "Okay, I called a taxi. Walk to the road and get in the green car with the number 1-4-0. He will take you to the restaurant I am at."

The road was in a forest just past the dead station, so I made my way to the side of it. It was extremely dark and very cold, but I wasn't afraid. There were no groups of drunk Russian men in leather jackets around, so I was fairly safe. After ten minutes there were no cars, however, so I called Katerina. "Umm, you did tell him where I was, right?" I asked (kindly). "Yes. You are still there?" she replied, her panic rising in her voice. I wanted to ask her why she was so worried about my location but decided against it. Finding out that I was in the middle of Hades wouldn't have done anything to help my situation.

A set of headlights came down the road, and an orange light bobbed on the roof of the car. A taxi! It was white, not green, and had no numbers on it but I flagged it down anyways. The driver rolled down the window and I handed the phone (with Katerina on the other end) to him. She gave him directions, he motioned for me to get in, and fifteen minutes and two hundred roubles later I was in Shyokova, sitting down at a nice Russian-cuisine restaurant where karaoke blared from another room.

It took two pints of beer and a pot of chicken and mushrooms covered in melted cheese to return my normally good nature, but Katerina wasn't any the wiser. "How can you be so calm all the time? Do you know how dangerous Ipreevoti is? There are skinhead gangs there! Don't you ever worry about anything?"

"What, me worry?" I replied, and then laughed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Hunt For A Cheers

In every town I've lived in I've always had my hangout pub. My Cheers, if you will, where I can go and everybody knows my name and the servers know what I drink and I can unwind after a week (or a day) of work.

In Korea I had the Wa-Bar, which was taken over by us English teacher-expats. In Port Hardy I had Sporty's which became not only my personal local pub but my coffee house, my restaurant and my club. Here in Mytischi I have yet to find a place. I have been actively searching, however.

On Friday night Wonderpants, Mr. Irish and I went to "The Mustang", a low wooden building with a big neon sign on the main drag in Mytischi. It was very obviously an American-style country & western bar. I had passed by this place many times and was curious to see how far Russians could run with this theme.

Being Russian, they ran all the way.

Immediately inside the big wooden doors there were two covered wagons, the type settlers would circle when the 'injuns attacked. Through another door and down a flight of stairs was the main restaurant, which was done in the theme of a wild-west homesteader's ranch (complete with wooden barrels, hard wooden benches and Colt Peacemaker revolvers hanging on the unsanded wooden walls). On two flat screen TVs Legends of the Fall played on a continuous loop. Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton played over the sound system.

Our waiter was wearing a checkered shirt tucked into tight jeans and a big-buckled belt.

The prices sucked at The Mustang. For some reason Mytischi establishments keep Moscow-centre prices, so we were looking at over 100 roubles per beer. The food was low-quality. I had "ribs" which were meaty enough but un-flavoured and dry as a desert.

Nevertheless we checked out The Mustang and it didn't pass my personal tests as a potential hangout spot.

Last night we went to a pseudo-exclusive club called Barbarella, in the Kitay Gorod section of Moscow. Wonderpants, Ms. Australia and two British girls who I'll call Gem and Ms. Birmingham were with me (rather, I was with them). Tucked down a narrow cobbled street across from an abandoned turn-of-the-century block of flats, this super-trendy bar had feis kontrol at the door (but let us in).

Inside Barbarella the walls were light blue and the lighting was soft and dreamy. A fantastic sound system was blazing house music and mash-ups and I could feel each drum beat as it reverberated through my chest cavity. Dozens of disco balls hung from the ceiling and little dots of light spun across the entire place. A long leather-padded bar took up one side of the joint while low leather sofas and classy tables took up the other. The place was packed with people dressed in their best, that is, lots of cleavage and sparkly, stringy shirts. A small section of the bar, in front of the DJ booth, was reserved for dancing and it was filled with girls shaking their stuff (another reason I love Russia is because the girls here can't dance, so I don't feel bad).

Ms. Australia, Gem and Ms. Birmingham took off to the dance floor after checking their coats while Wonderpants and I bought a round of pints. Four pints of beer cost 1500 roubles (nearly $50)!

I bought the first round and then refused to buy any more at those prices, but I guess they were pretty standard for elitny clubs in the center of Moscow. Wonderpants bought the next round and we joined the girls on the dance floor.

It was a cool, super-exclusive club and we had been let in because Gem knew the DJ, but it was far from being a hangout spot. Not only does it take an hour to get to from Mytischi, but a few drinks a week there would bankrupt me. So I crossed it off my list.

So far the only place I have found that matches most of my criteria for a comfortable local watering hole is Beerokratia near Mytischi train station, where I met Katerina. I've only been there once but it is comfortable, the prices are affordable, it's not too far out of the way (15 minutes on the bus or 100 roubles in a taxi), the service is friendly enough for Russia, and the sausages and saurkraut are fantastic.

I'm keeping my options open, however, and I'm determined to find the right combination of price, ambience, quality and location so that I can have my own personal Cheers here in Russia!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

St. Petersburg

Clickity-clack. Clickity-clack.

That's the sound I spent 18 hours listening to on the way to and from Saint Petersburg. Katerina and I took a sleeper train from Leningradskaya Station in Moscow to Moskovskaya Station in St. Petersburg this past week. We left Moscow at 01:50, crowded into a car lined with bunk beds.

Everyone has their own and there is a little table between every two beds, so people can sit and drink and look out the window.

On each bunk there was a thin mattress rolled around a pillow and clean sheets in a plastic bag. I wasn't sure how the system worked but thankfully I had Katerina with me. She set about unrolling the mattresses, fitting sheets over them, and showing me where to stow my bag under the bunk. We had the top two bunks and a very nice-looking elderly couple had the bottom bunks.

The trip took 9 hours but thankfully, just like in Korea, I could smoke in the space between cars. After a bedtime cigarette I curled up onto my bunk (which was six inches too short for me) and the gentle swaying and rythmic clacking of the train put me to sleep within minutes.

When I awoke 8 hours later I looked out the window and saw snow-covered pines giving way to low, Soviet-style buildings. In the distance a series of Orthodox spires dominated the skyline. Saint Petersburg!

We got off the train and took a taxi to our hotel, which was also very 18th Century.

Our hotel room

After getting settled in we took the metro to Nevskiy Prospekt; the bustling, artsy main street in the city.

St. Petersburg and Moscow are like day and night. Moscow is a busy and aggressive city that never sleeps. People are either always angry or stuck-up, often both. St. Petersburg, in comparison, is gentle and cultured and peaceful. There were no skyscrapers. Old historic buildings with neon signs met us. Electric trams clanged down the street instead of carbon-spewing hummers and buses. There were what seemed like millions of beautiful women dressed in very elegant and stylish winter fashions walking leisurely along the sidewalks.

Russia is famous for having a surplus of extremely beautiful women but I was starting to believe that that was all hype until I went to Petersburg. Although I was there with an equally beautiful girl, I couldn't help but check out every second slavic princess who walked by me! "That's okay. You can look. I'm looking too!" Katerina said. People even smiled and nodded hello as they passed! After several months in Moscow I was not used to this strange display of human warmth.
Nevskiy Prospekt

This city, known as Leningrad during Soviet times (and Petrograd during the First World War because Petersburg sounded too German) is fantastic! If Moscow isn't Russia, than St. Petersburg surely is! I haven't been to Paris yet, but I would have to say that St. Petersburg rivals Paris as the most romantic city in the world. Every building is old, and 18th Century architecture is everywhere. Like Paris, cafes are squeezed between palaces along the canals and the Neva River, but with big flakes of snow falling through the soft Christmas-like lights and a pretty girl on my arm, I was swept away in old-fashioned romantic spirit. In addition, people spoke sexy Russian instead of pretentious French, so I say that St. Petersburg wins the prize.

We found a nice cafe and had borscht, blini and beer for lunch and then made our way to the Winter Palace.

This former seat of Czarist government, built by Peter the Great in 1701, is now a museum. It is so historic and beautiful that even the Communists left it alone during their 90-year reign! Alexander II (by far the best and most prolific of all the Czars) was obsessed with art, and he spent much of his career collecting pieces from all over Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He put everything in the Winter Palace and eventually collected so much that an entire wing of the palace had to be devoted to art.

This wing was renamed the "Hermitage" and rivals the L'ouvre in Paris. According to the best estimates, it would take 12 years to view every work of art in the Hermitage for 30 seconds
a piece!

After the Winter Palace we toured an old basilica and walked 200 stone steps up a spiral
staircase to "The Coppola". This is the highest structure in the city, and at the top we were greeted with a view of the St. Petersburg skyline. To the east a full moon was rising over the Winter Palace while to the west a brilliant orange sun was setting over the White Sea.

Katerina and I got back on the metro and stopped at a supermarket on the way to our hotel. We picked up some sausages, fresh buns, fruits and a bottle of wine and
then had a very simple Russian dinner in our hotel room. Katerina had brought some candles from home and we got slightly drunk and had a wonderful night in our classical hotel room.

The next day we woke up around noon, showered, and went back to Nevskiy Prospekt, this time for a sushi lunch. Then we hopped on a tour bus which stopped at many interesting places including the park where Lenin rallied the people to storm the Winter Palace during Red October in 1918, the St. Petersburg Military Academy where every Czar, Soviet leader and modern officer has studied, the battle cruiser Aurora which was commissioned in 1912 and withstood the Siege of Leningrad, the apartments where Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky lived, the spot where Pushkin was killed in a duel, and Catherine the Great's personal palace (as well as the building she had built entirely out of imported marble for her secret lover, so that he could live near her..her husband never caught on).

The battle-cruiser Aurora

After our two hour tour, with snow falling and soft lights illuminating this beautiful city, we had to kill more time. Our train back to Moscow didn't leave until 01:20 and we had checked out of the hotel, so we went to see a movie. I don't know the name, but it was whatever animated movie is out about a guy who makes a machine that rains food and all sorts of hilarity ensues. It was dubbed in Russian but it was in 3-D and I caught the gist of it.

After that we went to a small, dimly-lit cafe with stone walls and drank beer and ate, of all things, Korean kimchi soup and a sushi roll called "Kanadianskiy Roll" (salmon and avocado...apparently Canadian). Then we got a taxi to the train station, boarded the train, unrolled the mattresses and once again I was sleeping on the Russian rails.

Clickity-clack. Clickity-Clack.

When we got off the train at Leningraskaya Station in Moscow a big guy in a leather jacket with a scowl on his face shoulder-checked me as he stormed past and Katerina said "Ah, feels like home!"