Tuesday, April 27, 2010


As I progress through my 12-month contract with a "McSchool" in Mytischi, Russia (a moniquer that I protest against as the particular company I work for, LL, has been nothing but wonderful during the past 7 1/2 months), I often take time to stop and reflect upon what brought me here in the first place.

It has been an overwhelmingly pleasant experience in Moscow, and even the few inevitable speed bumps I've encountered haven't been unnavigable. I have been blessed with amazing friends here. The hilariously sarcastic realism of the patriotic Virginian, Wonderpants, constrasts brightly with the rambunctious and perky Ms. Australia, who tends to speak before the thought enters her head resulting in statements like "Don't put it in my mouth, just stick it in" (while eating dinner).

Mr. Irish has his own unique brand of ultra-cultured intellectual humour, and Ms. Australia's friend from England, Gem, brings an inquisitive and open mind tempered with good old fashioned British wit.

Our little ESL crew in Mytischi is a blessing, and although we lost one of our own when Quagmire was fired, the rest of us rallied and filled the vacuum by spending more time together. Of course, for the women of Moscow, both Russians and expats alike, there was a very audible collective sigh of relief when Quagmire went to Kiev.

Soon, however, all my new friends will be leaving. In one month Wonderpants heads back to the States, Ms. Australia returns to Perth, Mr Irish heads off to a camp in Finland, and Gem is going to the UK. I won't be alone, however, as I have Katya, who is now my new fiancee.

We had a very casual engagement, when we went to the store to get pizza toppings, swung by a jewellry shop, picked out a very cheap ring together, I put it on her finger on the walk home and by the time we entered my apartment we were engaged. Our future wedding, whenever that will be, won't be anything big and tacky. It will consist of registering our civil union at the local government office and then getting our papers officially translated and certified, and then beginning the sponsorship process so that Katya can become a permanent resident and eventual citizen of Canada.

So, how did I end up in a place like Moscow, Russia, teaching English alongside Australians and Americans and Brits and Irish and getting engaged to a beautiful Russian girl?

It all happened because of a cat.

In what seems a different life, in Port Hardy, British Columbia, I had a great neighbour named Debbie. Debbie was a recent divorcee and she was incredibly kind and friendly (although that describes most British Columbians). Debbie had a pet cat, named Georgy.

While I was still with my ex, Georgy would come around and hang out with our cat, Mr. Lee. The front of our house had a view of the ocean and the Rocky Mountains on the other side of the channel, but the back had a shrub-covered hill angling up from the driveway. This hill was nearly 20 feet high, and the bushes that covered it grew raspberries, blackberries and salmonberries during the summer. At the top of this hill was an old road that had been put out of use by the construction of a newer and wider road, so it was converted into a walking path through the forest.

One day my ex and I were walking along this old road when we came across our cat, Mr. Lee, Debbie's cat Georgy and another cat all laying down facing each other in the sun. If they had had beers with them I would have been convinced that cats do indeed party.

Debby would often ask me to watch over Georgy when she had to go to the mainland or "down-island" for the night, and during sunny days when the doors were open Georgy would wander into our house, eat the cat food and chill out with Mr. Lee. For some reason Georgy (who was a girl) hated my ex and clawed her hand up once, but that cat loved me.

After my ex left me Georgy would still come around to play with Mr. Lee, but one day while I was at work Mr. Lee explored a neighbours' backyard and ran into their vicious bull mastiff, who attacked my wonderful black cat. When I got home Debbie brought Mr. Lee to me, who was just barely alive and crying. I wrapped him in a blanket, threw him into the passenger seat of my Chevy and raced to the veterinarian hospital. I sped along at over 100 km/h on the narrow twisty road, but it didn't help. In the ten minutes it took me to reach the hospital, Mr. Lee had died in the seat beside me.

This came as a huge blow to me, following as it did on the heels of my breakup, and for the next several weeks the only company I had was Georgy, who came around to find Mr. Lee but couldn't figure out where he had gone. Georgy would wait at the front door all day for me to come home and let her in, and she would wander around the house, sniffing things, and then trot over to me and look up at me with big green quizzical eyes. "Sorry, Georgy, I don't know what to tell you." I would say. Then she would nuzzle my ankle and, choking back tears, I would pet her and she would hang out, waiting for Mr. Lee who would never return.

I took to talking to Georgy after work, as I sat on my deck sipping a beer in the autumn sun, a single hamburger for dinner cooking on my barbecue. "It's just you and me now, Georgy." I would say. "I know you're Debbie's cat and not mine." I would add.

My conversations with a cat eventually developed into deep discussions about the meaning of life and philosophy. As I chatted, Georgy would sit on my lap and purr, then jump down to swat at a passing butterfly, and then spend a few minutes licking her own ass with one leg stuck up in the air like a thanksgiving turkey.

It was during my discussions with Georgy that I pieced together my plan to come to Russia. "What am I going to do, Georgy?" I asked one day. "Am I going to stay here, counting fish, single in a town with no prospect of ever meeting somebody, growing old and then dying alone?" Georgy sniffed a pebble. "That's what I was thinking." She then stared intently at something in the distance that no human could ever see, and after a few moments she turned to me, winked both eyes, and wandered into the house to eat some of the cat food I continued to put out. "You're absolutely right, Georgy! And why shouldn't I?" I called out after her. "Why, Georgy? You are brilliant!"

After that particular discussion with a cat I decided to come to Russia.

In memory of my little buddy Mr. Lee.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Partisan War

An often-overlooked theatre of the Russian front during the Second World War is the vicious and brutal campaign waged by partisans behind the German lines. By the time the Red Army began its victorious drive west to the frontiers of the Third Reich in 1944, there were over half-a-million partisans operating deep within German-held territory. The partisans, men and women living in the woods and marshes of Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia, played a significant part in disrupting German supply, communications and transport to the front lines, and forced the SS and Wermacht to keep large formations of troops away from the front to secure their vulnerable logistical systems.

In the end it was, as in all wars, the civilian population that would suffer the most in the fighting between nazi German forces and the partisans. German reprisals consisted of killing 10 civilians from the nearest villages for every one German soldier killed by partisans, while the partisans themselves would raid their countrymen's villages for food and supplies and to root out and kill anyone suspected of collaborating with the Germans.

At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, explicit orders had been given to the German armed forces concerning resistance in the rear areas. Titled "Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia", this order read "Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people. This battle demands ruthless and energetic measures against Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs and Jews and the total eradication of any active or passive resistance." Many German officers, tried after the war for war crimes and crimes against humanity, would fall back on these 'guidelines' as proof that they were simply following orders. In any case, this order certainly gave the average German soldier a license to greatly mistreat the civilian population in occupied areas of the Soviet Union.

As German forces drove through the Baltic states and the Ukraine, the people at first welcomed them as liberators from Stalin and his ruthless secret police, the NKVD. Ukrainian girls kissed smiling German soldiers as they marched through captured villages, and in the Baltics flowers were thrown on tanks by the grateful population. The same scenes were repeated in western Belarus but, within a short time, it became apparent that no matter how totalitarian Stalin's rule had been, life under the nazis was infinitely worse.

The ruthless Einzatsgruppen of the SS were tasked with destroying the Jewish population of the Soviet Union but their mission quickly came to include terrorizing the non-Jewish civilian population. Members of the SS were generally fanatical Nazis, and as the elite praetorian guard of Hitler and the Nazi party, membership to the SS was only granted to the most devoted of National Socialists. As a result SS members believed in the theory of racial superiority and the threat that Jews, Slavs and other "subhumans" posed to the "pure" Germanic-Aryan race. The people of the Ukraine and the Baltics who had at first greeted the Germans with flowers were soon turning to acts of terrorism as SS atrocities against them increased.

SS Einzatsgruppen execute Jewish civilians in Belarus

The first partisans were disorganized and badly equipped. In the summer of 1941 the Germans had surrounded large pockets of Red Army troops at Minsk, in Belarus, and Smolensk in Western Russia. Most of these hapless soldiers surrendered to the Germans but many of them melted away into the dense forests of the area. In smaller battles across the front, and in areas by-passed by the German advance, Red Army units did the same. The Wermacht never had the resources to effectively police and control the vast territory of conquered Russia. The bulk of its fighting manpower was needed at the front, so the task of taming the rear areas fell to the SS.

These small groups of Red Army "leftovers" started ambushing German army transports heading to the front in order to steal food, clothing and weapons. The men were living in forests and hiding from the roving patrols of the SS. In some areas, like the Pripet Marshes in north-west Russia, Red Army units linked up to form partisan bands over 2,000 strong! Most of the bands, however, were no bigger than ten or twenty men surviving by raiding and stealing.

After the German defeat at the gates of Moscow and as the terror of the German occupation increased, more and more of the civilian population were disappearing into the forests, sometimes to join up with Red Army groups and many times to form their own partisan bands. In the Ukraine many of the civilian partisan bands fought with both the Germans and other Red Army groups, and they continued to fight the Red Army for years after the war had ended.

A young partisan woman milking a cow for her camp.

Partisans on the move in a Russian forest. Note the captured German uniforms and equipment.

The civilian groups were made up of both men and women, old and young. They were incredibly effective in wrecking German transport and supply lines and constituted a greater threat, at least at the beginning of the war, to German logistics than the Red Army partisans. Railways were mined and locomotives blown up. Groups of civilians, using captured German machine guns and rifles, would leap out of the forest and shoot up German trucks or cars unlucky enough to be travelling on their own. Small groups of German soldiers on leave behind the lines would be kidnapped and killed and left on display for other Germans to see. Fuel and ammunition dumps would be attacked and destroyed and their garrisons killed. Military airfields, with their larger garrisons, were not safe as partisans would storm the fences at night and blow up as many warplanes as possible before melting away into the surrounding forests again.

These partisans built up huge camps within the forests. Bunkers were dug and buildings erected out of felled trees. In some camps there were makeshift hospitals, mess halls and even nursuries for newborn children of partisan women.

Russian female partisans fought alongside their male counterparts. After the war the Soviet Union registered over 30,000 marriages between men and women who fought together as partisans.

The partisans also conducted raids on their own countrymen who collaborated with the Germans. Civilian police stations in the occupied territories were frequent targets, and assasinations of mayors, businessmen and other people who sought to profit off the German occupation were frequent. Villages which refused to supply local partisan groups with food were sometimes destroyed, although this was more common near Red Army partisan units than with civilian partisans.

The arch-enemy of the partisans remained the SS. As the war on the eastern front progressed the partisans were emboldened by Soviet victories at places such as Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk and by the relatively few German forces available to subdue the rear areas. Supply to the German front was becoming catastrophically disrupted due to partisan activity, so much so that Berlin ordered the creation of special SS combat groups to hunt down and destroy partisan units hiding out in the forests.

Supplied with aircraft, tanks, armored vehicles and light artillery, these SS groups were able to quickly move from one area to another whenever intelligence revealed the location of a partisan group. Gestapo investigators were attached to each combat group. Increased partisan activity in an area could reveal an approximate location of a unit, but diabolical schemes could also root them out of their forest hideouts. For example, it became a common, and effective, tactic to capture a couple of partisans and, after extensive torture, discover which local villages they enjoyed support from. The SS would then move in to those villages and round up the inhabitants and shoot or hang or, in some cases, crucify them all and then burn the village to the ground.

These acts would cause the local partisans to come out of hiding, whether to investigate the atrocity, to find new sources of supply or simply to seek revenge for the deaths of their families and destruction of their homes. The SS would be lying in wait and would ambush the partisans, and then chase the survivors back into the woods to overrun their camps.

These SS units became specialist partisan fighters. Recconaissance aircraft would also be used to locate partisan camps at which point the SS would storm the forest. Some incredibly vicious battles ensued behind the lines, with partisan units defending their camps and SS stormtroopers attacking the perimeters to crush them.

An SS firing squad executing partisans in the Ukraine.

A Russian family left homeless after the SS swept through their village.

In 1942, after the battle of Stalingrad, the stavka, the Soviet military high command, took an interest in the strategic value of the partisans and began to parachute radio sets, weapons and experts in guerilla warfare to the partisans. The Red Army groups were organized into cohesive fighting units and massive operations behind the lines were conducted. As a result, in the lead-up to the decisive battle at Kursk, nearly 1/4 of all German supplies earmarked for the offensive never reached their frontline units. For example, in northern Ukraine an army train transport carrying new Panther and Tiger tanks, along with all their fuel, ammunition and crews, was ambushed by partisans. 36 of the valuable tanks were destroyed on the train flatbeds and over 100 of their crews were killed. Most of the fuel and ammunition was set on fire.

More and more German soldiers were forced to patrol and garrison behind the lines, thus keeping out of the battles at the front. Historical estimates put the number of frontline-worthy German troops, from both the Wermacht and the SS, that were stationed behind the lines because of partisan activity, at over 100,000, or enough to supply another whole German army.

Following the battle of Kursk the Red Army began its drive west, recapturing Soviet territory and eventually overrunning all of Eastern Europe and half of Germany. In this final phase of the war, partisan activity escalated beyond all means of the Germans to control it. As Soviet forces neared, partisans became more bold, attacking strong German garrisons and even the vaunted SS special combat groups. Retreating German soldiers, hoping to escape from the avenging Red Army that was nipping at their heals, found nowhere safe to escape. As German soldiers marched back the way they had come three years earlier, they found only the corpses of their comrades who had gone before them until they in turn were attacked by formations of furious partisans. Morale in the German army crumbled, and the constant attacks by partisans caused massed confusion among the retreating formations, making it impossible for commanders to assemble their units into defensive lines.

Carnage on the German rail lines, courtesy of the partisans.

Partisans investigate a Luftwaffe airfield they have just destroyed.

By 1944 partisan units controlled vast areas of territory, and instituted their own governments and enforced their own laws. As the Red Army swept through these areas, the partisans were rounded up and drafted into regular army units. Many resented this but dissenters, in typical Stalinist fashion, were executed or sent to Siberia by their own government in spite of the sacrifices they had made for the cause.

Stalin was so paranoid of the independence of these partisan units that after the war a mass roundup of all those who had fought in a civilian partisan unit was conducted. Over 100,000 former partisans were sent to the Gulag and it wasn't until after Stalin's death in 1955 that they were granted amnesty and allowed to return home.

The total number of partisans killed or Germans killed by partisans is impossible to calculate. There was no registration system in place for partisans, and the number of people who claimed to have fought with the partisans after the war must be suspect (Stalin had decreed that every Soviet citizen had a sacred duty to either fight or die and those people caught up in the German occupation were later punished by Soviet authorities, so many resorted to claiming that they were partisans). What is known is that many, if not most, of the partisans killed in the war lie in unmarked graves.

In 1960 it was decided that military medals should be awarded to veterans of the partisan war, and in 1995, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, special commemorative coins were minted celebrating the contributions that every man and woman who fought against Nazi tyranny made.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Canada

With nothing really exciting happening in my life in Russia lately, my thoughts have turned to home. I've been missing ordinary life in Canada, and it is the little things that I miss most.

I miss the smooth roads (compared to Russia they are paved with silk) and doing my grocery shopping at Sobey's and Zehr's, where cashiers are friendly and smile and put your food in a bag for you (rather than scowling and tossing a bag at you with disgust). I miss nodding my head "hello" to people on the street and hearing banter in a language I can understand and, yes, I even miss French/English signage.

I miss seeing eagles and hawks, mountains and ocean and farms, and ultra-modern Petro-Canada gas stations. I miss watching playoff hockey on the CBC, especially with three Canadian teams still alive (the Ottawa Senators, aka "the Sens", the Montreal Canadiens, aka "the Habs" and the Vancouver Canucks, aka "the Vancouver Canucks"). I miss watching the evening news with Lloyd Mansbridge on CTV and The Hour with George Strombopolis or Snuffaluffagis or whatever on CBC.

I miss VIA Rail and Air Canada and WestJet. I miss seeing the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police aka "Mounties") in their traditional red uniforms for the tourists on Parliament Hill or in their more contemporary black uniforms with armored vests in their Dodge Chargers and Ford Crown-Vics on the highways. I even miss the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police), although because they cross-train with the LAPD one never knows if you're going to be shot when they pull you over.

I miss the 401 (the massive 10-lane highway that goes from Detroit to Toronto to Montreal, and is also the most heavily travelled highway in North America) and the Trans-Canada (a massive highway that stretches from Halifax in the east to Vancouver in the west). I miss the names of towns and cities I learned all my life from stories, news and travels.

Places like Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Banff, Whistler, Calgary, Edmonton, Cold Lake, Medicine Hat, Regina, Swift Current, Winnipeg, Brandon, Thunder Bay, Sault-St-Marie, North Bay, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Mississauga, Scarborough (although I don't really miss Canada's crime and murder capital), Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, Levis, Riviere-De-Loup, Fredericton, Truro, Halifax, Lunenburg, Antigonish, Mabou and St. John's.

I miss the 10 provinces of Newfoundland-Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (PEI), New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and I miss hearing about the 3 territories of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

I miss $1 and $2 coins (loonies and toonies, respectively) and drinking large double-doubles from Timmy's (large coffee with two cream and two sugars from the best coffee chain in the world, Tim Horton's). Oh and do I ever miss our beer! Russian beer sucks, and doesn't come anywhere close to Alexander Keith's, Molson Canadian, or even, and I know it's a stretch, Labbatt Blue.

I miss buying hardware and gardening tools and car supplies (and, for some reason, Christmas decor) at Canadian Tire where you can "Give like Santa and save like Scrooge" but Canadians have ultimately renamed the chain "Crappy Tire".

This habit of Canadians to rename things makes for an almost foreign language if a visiting American were to listen in. "I was on the way to Crappy Tire, sipping on a Timmy's when I reached for a toonie I saw on the floor and a fuckin' Mountie flashed his cherries and pulled me over!" (I was driving to Canadian Tire, drinking a Tim Horton's coffee when I saw a $2 coin on the floor and as I reached down to pick it up an RCMP officer turned on his sirens and pulled me over).

Although I have all my favourite Canadian bands on my itunes playlist, I still miss hearing them come up randomly on the radio (and Toronto has some amazing radion stations, better than most of the US ones save for one out of Buffalo which rocks). Bands like The Tragically Hip, Sam Roberts, Our Lady Peace, I Mother Earth, Mother Mother, Blue Rodeo, The Headstones, The Tea Party, Ashley MacIsaac, Sarah McLaughlin, Nelly Furtado, Bif Naked, Big Sugar and so many more.

There's even our older artists, like the Guess Who, Neil Young, Platinum Blonde, Men Without Hats, Tears for Fears, Tom Cochrane, Kim Mitchell, April Wine, Rush (fourth best-selling rock band in the world after The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith), Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Anka.

I could mention Brian Adams, Celine Dion, Creed and Nickelback but I won't, because I wish to apologize to the world for them on behalf of my country. Okay, I apologize for Corey Hart and Loverboy, as well.

That's enough. Here's a video I made by blatantly stealing other people's videos from YouTube and mashing them all together.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Burning Meat, Burning Rubber & Burnout

I've come down with a textbook case of Teacher Burnout. It's stressful teaching within the parametres of contract obligations. Lesson planning, satisfying students, grammar presentations, rowdy teenagers, emergency coverage, makeup lessons, split shifts, inter-company politics, etc etc.

As contracted teachers for a large language company we have absolutely no say in our classes and students. When our administrators add new students to an already established class, and those students are at the wrong level, nothing is done about it when we tell them. I have a few classes where some students can carry on a conversation but others are still learning the alphabet. Because the parents are paying money, our administrators do nothing about the situation.

Split shifts are among the worst. Working from 10 until noon and then from 3 until 9 is grinding after a while. Add the need for lesson planning and preparation, test marking, makeup lessons for students who were ill and sometimes the need to cover an ill teacher's classes and our week seems like a chaotic grind.

Thankfully we are on the home stretch now. The school closes in June and although I will probably end up teaching at our central school in Moscow (which will involve an even greater soul-destroying grind), I am holding out for that wonderful trip to Turkey and then that big airplane home. We take it day by day here, because to think of doing this still in 4 months time is depressing.

The worst part of the job is that we receive very little time off. 5 days in December and 5 days in May is about all we get, so we are basically bitches. English bitches. Teaching privately, off-contract, is the way to go but Russia's visa laws make that nearly impossible.

One thing I personally look forward to is the weekend, such as the past two weekends which involved cooking shashleek (Georgian kabobs) outdoors and drinking at a theme park.

Katya, Ms. Australia and I spent an afternoon last Sunday drinking beer and then went on bumper cars drunk and a tilt-a-whirl ride. The Russians aren't sure how to use bumper cars; they just drove around in circles while Ms. Australia and I smashed into each other at full speed, time and again. The ride attendant kept glaring at us but didn't know how to yell at us in English. Big Russian flags fluttered from the back of each car and after one particularly spectacular head-on crash delivered by rowdy Ms. Australia, the flag wrapped around my face and, blinded, I drove into a father and his little kid. Katya got stuck in a corner and couldn't figure out how to reverse, so Ms. Australia and I smashed into her a few times. Katya's excuse afterwards was "I'm too drunk to drive a normal car. Why would I drive these things?"

In hindsight, perhaps we were taking out some of our pent-up aggression from our jobs on the bumper cars. Perhaps we were simply using them as they are meant to be used. Whatever the reasons for enjoying high-speed head-on collisions, it was fun!

Ms. Australia and I then hopped on the Tilt-A-Whirl (Katya refused) and had more fun than everyone else. While the Russians on the ride sat respectfully quiet as the cars spun around and g-forces pushed our stomachs up into our throats, Ms. Australia and I were screaming and laughing and making a scene. Ms. Australia accidentally kicked the front of the car and a bolt came out, but we survived.

Later we went for sushi and sobered up, and then returned to our energy-draining jobs on Monday. I can't wait for next weekend.

Katya & Wonderpants build a shashleek grill

Wonderpants prepares some shashleek

The fire is lit

Drunk on the tilt-a-whirl with Ms. Australia

Monday, April 12, 2010

Let The Games Begin!

Unlike Korea, most Russians know the NHL, its teams and many of its players. Maybe this is because a large proportion of NHL players are Russian. Maybe its because Russians like hockey and are good at the sport. Maybe this is because it isn't an American sport per say, and sometimes that's all a Russian needs to like something.

It's fun to talk NHL hockey with some of my students in class. I've followed the race to the post-season and after much discussion with Russians and Wonderpants, here are my predictions.

Round 1: Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens

Despite Washington's domination of the league this past year, and the star lineup of its offence (including Russian superstar Alexei Ovechkin), this isn't a done deal. Montreal managed to scrape into a playoff spot by sheer stubborn determination, and Ovechkin's former teamate from his days with the KHL in Russia, Andrei Markov, will be facing off at the center line with the hockey rock star himself. I project a gritty first two games with Washington taking it in 6.

New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers

The Devils will have one of the best goalies of the year in net while the Flyers are the second strongest team in the league for goals against. Neither team is very strong in the goal-scoring department. This will make it a gritty defensive series with all the drama of First World War-style attrition...on ice. I call New Jersey in 5, only because they are slightly better at scoring goals.

Buffalo Sabres vs Boston Bruins

Buffalo ranks last in the league for goal scoring. Boston ranks first in the league for goaltending. If there is to be a major upset in this year's playoffs, it will come from this match, otherwise I call Boston in 5.

Pittsburg Penguins vs Ottawa Senators

This marks the third time in four years that these two teams have met in the first round of the playoffs. Despite a poor start to the season, Ottawa rebounded and secured itself a comfortable playoff spot early on, while Pittsburg is the defending Stanley Cup champion and is led by Ovechkin's superstar rival, Sid the Kid Crosby. The question isn't how well will Crosby play; the question is how strangely will Ottawa screw this up? Ottawa, with their strong offensive lines and creative in-game strategies, will give Pittsburg a run for their money, but in the end it won't be enough. I predict Pittsburg in 7.

Western Conference

San Jose Sharks vs Colorado Avalanche

Danny Heatley left the Ottawa Senators and joined the Sharks, but hasn't really done anything spectacular for them. San Jose's goaltender, Yevgenie Nabokov, is aging and ready for the retirement home, while the Avalanche blasted into the 2009-2010 season like a rocket and quickly ran out of fuel. This will be a slow and slightly pathetic match-up. I call Colorado in 7.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators

I never could figure out what Nashville was doing with a hockey team, but they keep making it into the playoffs and ultimately, who am I to decide which geographical climates should have ice and which shouldn't? Nashville doesn't have much up front; they were only 18th in the league for goal scoring last year and their defense is average. Chicago, on the other hand, is bigger, faster, stronger, better. This is a clear cut case of Chicago kicking Nashville out of the playoffs in 4 games (the Preds might win one...)

Vancouver Canucks vs Los Angeles Kings

Vancouver has Roberto Luongo in net (Olympic gold-medal champion and one of the best goalies in the league), the Sedin twins up front (consistently high-scoring, hard hitting and fast as hell) and two more lines filled with elite talent. Los Angelese has Wayne Gretsky's jersey, and that's about it. The rest of the team are young and inexperienced and require a few more seasons before they are ready to play with the big boys. I call Vancouver in 5.

Phoenix Coyotes vs Detroit Red Wings

The Coyotes are the second best story in hockey all year, after Washington. They are becoming the darlings of hockey, and they've been playing with heart, grit and determination all year. In short, they've been playing playoff hockey since October. The Red Wings, on the other hand, are the third best team in the NHL and have a very deep team with lots of playoff experience. This will be, in my opinion, one of the most exciting matchups in the first round. The young and idealistic Coyotes vs the older and wiser Red Wings. It's a hard call, but I predict the Coyotes in 7.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


One thing that I think would be good to have with me is a stick. The kind of stick that is thick and heavy-looking and one or two feet long. I would walk around, twirling it lazily and smiling to myself in a snarky way. I'm willing to bet that nobody would mess with a guy swinging a big stick as he walks casually with a look on his face that reads "I know a big secret. It's the kind of secret that involves everyone but me dying. Tomorrow."

That way, shop keepers won't yell at me when I try to order 1 kilo of ground beef and mispronounce a word. Old drunk men won't hassle me for cigarettes and money on the street, and, most importantly, groups of youth won't bother me when I walk through a park. Heck, they might not even stare!

Ms. Australia and I went to drink in the local Mytischi Municipal Park on Tuesday after work. We bought a couple of beers and decided to take advantage of the beautiful spring weather. As we walked through the park, searching for a bench to sit on, large groups of teenagers and early 20-somethings who had infested the place stared at us. They were all drinking and the young men, in the slightly-latino-macho way with their black leather jackets and their bright white Adidas sneakers, and sporting mullets, were glaring at us with open hostility.

We couldn't figure it out. We weren't even speaking, so there was no way for them to know that we were foreign, yet one group of teenage girls stopped talking and carefully studied us as we walked by. An old man once told me that he can tell a westerner by our eyes. "You people have kind eyes." He had said. "Whereas Russians have hard eyes." I don't necessarily subscribe to this theory because many of the Russian youth who live in Mytischi have had a pretty easy life thus far. This is, after all, a suburban town filled with Russia's equivalent of yuppies.

Last October, as I came home on the Moscow metro, I looked up to see five young men seated across from me. They were all wearing black leather jackets, black jeans and black combat boots. They were all blonde with closely cropped hair. The one directly across from me had the most piercing blue eyes I've ever seen. I know this because, when I looked up, I realized that all five of them were glaring at me with a very chilling cool and cold calculation. One of them said something and they turned to him, laughed menacingly, and then turned those ruthless stares back at me again. I tried to stare down the one with the blue eyes, but thankfully the train came to a stop and the doors opened and, right before they closed again, I jumped out of the train. Ha!

How did they know I was foreign? Those young brutes were obviously some sort of nationalist Slavophile neo-nazi gang. The youth in the Mytischi park were obviously spoiled kids acting tough. If I had a menacing stick to carry around with me, I doubt any of them would have stared at me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hello Goodbye

April has arrived with all the glory of a sunny, slightly-warm spring. Flowers are beginning to grow and although the trees haven't started to bud yet, it is only a matter of time. Only small pockets of snow continue to resist the +15 C temperatures and while the ground remains muddy the sidewalks are dry and finally navigable.

It was on April 1st that I moved into Quagmire's old room following his termination from the company and expulsion from Russia. Quagmire, my drinking buddy and comrade-in-arms, failed to show up for a few-too-many classes due to excessive bouts of drinking and the company let him go, thus cancelling his Russian visa. His departure was sad because he and I had great fun together and he was always good for a laugh.

Despite the loss of a friend here in Russia, I did manage to profit from his departure by moving into his old room in the flat he shared with Wonderpants and Ms. Australia. The motivation behind moving was simple: it's a 45-second walk to work, as opposed to the 20 minute walk I had previously had to endure. On Monday's and Wednesdays I have split shifts, which means walking to work and back and then to work and back again, a total walking time of 80 minutes per day.

The first day I spent in my new room was relaxing. I looked at my watch and noted that I would normally have begun preparing to leave on my trek to work, which involves putting on shoes and coat, taking the elevator down, hiking around streets and then running the muddy cesspool of muck gauntlet beside Arena Mytischi before emerging, covered in dirt, at the intersection in front of my school. Another option was always to spend 25 roubles on a marshroutka; small mini-van-sized buses that zig through traffic (and require shouting out "Nasta novkye palzhasta!" in order for them to stop where you want, and then fighting my way through a crowd of grouchy babushki and teenagers wearing too much perfume to get off the bus). Instead of all that stress and exercise, I took a 30-minute nap.

Quagmire appears to be doing well, judging from the few messages I've received. He took the train to Kiev, in the Ukraine, where the only visa required is an entrance stamp in your passport, and he has set up shop there as a private English teacher. I may be happy with our warming weather here in the Moscow Oblast, but Quagmire states that he is quite happy with an additional five or ten degrees of warmth in the Ukraine, which lies much further south.

Of course, I will get to enjoy the warmer weather in one month, when an intense period of travel activity begins for me. My two friends from Canada, Q and Dutchy, are coming to Moscow in May and together with Katya we are taking the train to Volgograd to visit the Stalingrad battlefield. They are in Russia for two weeks and when they head back home I will be heading off to Turkey to teach at a summer camp our company runs there. This camp is on a Mediteranean beach only a few hours from Istanbul, so I plan on visiting the Hagia Sofia and seeing the ruins of Constantinople and getting a tan. Then Katya and I are talking about taking a week in Greece sometime this summer, provided I can get the time off work, and then in September I'm off to Canada for a couple of weeks to get my visa renewed. I am in no rush to return to a mundane life of work and forms and work and bills and work and death. There is still so much to see and do! I figure that I will spend the next couple of years travelling around Europe and the Mediteranean from my nice comfortable base in Russia, and it begins in one month!

Goodbye Quagmire. Hello summer!