Thursday, July 29, 2010


Despite what the image this blog may convey, I'm not actually an alcoholic. Many, if not most, of my entries have been made while I've been completely lucid. Some of them have been made while under the influence, which is something that is not unheard of in Russia. In fact, if somebody has a moral or physical aversion to alcohol I would suggest avoiding Russia.

As for those better-than-thou "let me give you some advice about alcohol" do-gooders who stumble across this blog from time to time, and send me emails about the evils of drinking and Jesus Christ and what not (you know who you are), all I can say is: "Welcome to Russia".

For those who have spent any amount of time reading what I write here, you may have noticed that my thoughts and opinions have turned vile as of late. This sudden turn to negativity from an otherwise usually positive outlook on life has everything to do with the unprecedented heatwave which is scorching Russia into dust and my forced move from Mytischi to Moscow. I have lately become what we in Canada call an "unhappy camper".

My friends have all left. Wonderpants and Ms. Australia went home and although I stay in regular Facebook touch with them, they are no longer physical entities in my life. Gem still floats in and out of my life but my contact with her was always through Ms. Australia and we lead pretty much separate lives. Quagmire is long-gone. Katya is my anchor in this over-heated country but the fact of the matter is that I have a difficult time getting smashed, talking about hot chicks at the bar, puking into a bush and passing out in a bus shelter with her. She's not really into that and has a completely different idea about how her future husband should behave (here's a note to all women: any man you are interested in has done/will do the same things I've described above, unless he is gay in which case you don't have a chance...even if he is gay he'll probably do those things anyways).

Combine the heat with the loss of friends and social status and sprinkle in some professional disgruntlement and mix it up with the overall shitty quality of life of Moscow and voila! You have one unhappy blogger!

Tonight after work I got drunk with a few British colleagues at a little kiosk outside the school. Then I came home and turned my fan to "high", quickly got bored and started writing. And that's all I have to say about that.

Monday, July 26, 2010


The Russian dacha has no real direct translation into English. Part cottage, part country-home, part mini-farm, the dacha can only best be described by using the Russian word for it.

A dacha is a small house on a little plot of land out in the country. During the warm seasons city dwellers flock to their peaceful little dachas to get away from the traffic and noise of urban living. Most people have gardens and fresh herbs and vegetables on their dacha, and although a hundred dachas can all be clustered together, it really is more peaceful and relaxed than the impersonal cities of Russia.

Historically only the ruling classes in St. Petersburg and Moscow enjoyed the use of a dacha. Even during Soviet times only a few of the elite were entitled to such privileges. During the 1990s policy started to change and real estate economics came into play: those who could afford a dacha could buy one. People who serve a certain length of time in the armed forces also receive a plot of land in the country for free, where most immediately build a dacha.

Katya's father, thanks to his 30 years of service in the Red Army, received just such a plot of land ten years ago, and this past weekend Katya and I went out to visit. I had never been to a dacha before although I have wanted to since before I came to Russia.

Katya's father and mother split up more than a year ago and while her mother stayed in their flat in Shyolkova, her father established a permanent residence at his dacha. Like all Russian men he is veritable handyman and has turned his plot of land into a rustic paradise.

Katya and I spent an hour on a bus and hopped off at a peaceful little village whose name I never learned, where her father met us in his Lada and, after purchasing some beer and cake, drove us the rest of the way.

He has built a two-story wooden cottage with a garage for his car, dug a well and built an outhouse, erected a fully-functioning banya (Russian sauna) complete with birch branches to thrash oneself with (a Russian tradition before entering the banya), a greenhouse and a garden, a chicken coup and a wooden honey bee contraption. He has also adopted two little puppies he found wandering around in the woods with no mother, who I named "Bitey" (on account of chewing on everything, incuding my toes) and "Stupid" (on account of being stupid).

The first thing I noticed at the dacha was that the oppressive heat of Moscow was nowhere to be found, and as the sun set in the west the temperature was a comfortable 25 C with a nice cool breeze blowing through the house. Needless to say I had the most comfortable sleep I've had in over a month, since this atrocious heatwave began.

I had been very excited to eat shashleek, a delicious kabob-style dish cooked over red coals. This mouth-watering meal comes from the Caucausus and is a favourite with Russians and anyone who tries it, really. Wonderpants and I ate a lot of shashleek during the spring, and our method of cooking it involved spearing some marinated pork and vegetables on a metal stick and placing it over the red-hot coals in a little metal grill Wonderpants had brought. We would, of course, add some beer to the meat during the cooking process. When it was finished we would peel the chunks of pork off the kabob into a piece of flatbread and chow down.

Shashleek, apparently, is a much more intricate meal and deserves a special cooking process, as Katya's father kept grabbing the meat from my hands while I speared the chunks onto the kabob. "Nyet! Nyet!" He kept shouting. Then he would gingerly show me how to spear meat properly. I honestly couldn't tell the difference between my method and his, but he took all the meat away from me and did it himself. Katya, who has been with me at previous shashleek cook-outs and never complained, make clucking sounds at me and told me I didn't know what I was doing. Rather than risk more loss of dignity in my shashleek-methodology, I sat back with a beer and let them cook the entire dinner for me. Who has the wrong methodology now?!

The food was delicious in the end, and we sat under the stars drinking beer with bad 80s pop playing while her father, through Katya's translations, berated me for my limited knowledge of the Russian language. I realized at this point that he doesn't really like me. I fired back when he tried teaching me the correct way of pronouncing the "Russian" words "escalator", "elevator" and "bizness lonch". He wouldn't believe me that those were English words (escalator and elevator borrowing from Latin) borrowed by the Russians, and that Russians were pronouncing "business lunch" incorrectly. Although I like the Russian language (it is a very poetic, passionate language full of creative idioms and interesting dictation), I was being linguistically abused and had to defend myself.

The next day we went off to a vast forest that surrounds the area. I grew up in and around forests and a year of living in one of the biggest metropolis' in the world was grinding me down, so it was such a pleasant treat to hike for a few hours among pines, birch, maple and all the other trees that I grew up with.

Finally, it was time to leave and her father drove us all the way back to Shyolkova. When we were about 30 km out of the city the temperature skyrocketted suddenly and we all immediately burst into sweat despite the wind through the car windows (concrete retains heat and doesn't let it off, thus large cities create a sort of bubble of heat around them, making them even more unbearable to live in than they already are. The heat from Moscow has expanded to nearly 50 km around the city in this record-breaking heatwave).

All in all the weekend was blissful and interesting. I am sincerely grateful to Katya's father for having us out there and although I can tell he doesn't like me, or at least he likes to torment me, I like him. He's an interesting character, stubborn and opinionated, but after everything he has done in his life I guess he's earned the right to be. Katya had a good time, too, and we both felt much more rejuvenated upon returning to the shittiness of city life.

We said our goodbyes and spaciba bolshoi to her father and came back to my place in Moscow, where I found that some of the plastic items in my room were actually melting! Welcome back to Moscow.

A farm on the way to the dacha

An angry rooster at the dacha

Bitey and Stupid, two of the cutest puppies I have ever met

Shashleek, PROPERLY skewered, unlike the barbaric ways of us ignorant westerners. See the difference? I don't.

Sunflowers at the dacha

Peaceful pond in the beautiful forest around the dacha. It felt like home.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Canadian Men

Canadian men have a good reputation in Russia for being honest, practical, handsome, strong and even stoic. The image of the proud Mountie standing on guard or the hard-working manly lumberjack providing for his family is what comes to mind when Russian people think of Canadian men.

Among Russian women, in particular, Canadian men rank among the top most suitable foreign husbands in the world. When I ask my female students "If there were no Russian men left and you HAD to marry a foreigner, in which country would you look?" Almost all of them answer "Spain" and "Canada". As with all questions posed in English class, there is the obligatory follow-up question: "Why?"

The girls usually respond that Spanish men are sexy and sensual and know how to dance and have a sexy accent, while Canadian men are strong and dependable and intelligent and know a man's role in a family (most Russian women are proudly traditional). While these stereotypes may or may not be true, it doesn't hurt that as a Canadian male I'm looked upon favourably by the women in Russia!

I recently took to exploring this concept of being a part of the top most-desirable men in the world, a notion that I have hitherto never entertained, and did a bit of online research. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across lots of articles and information that indicate that not only Russian women but most women around the world believe that Canadian men are top-notch marriage material! Imagine my surprise!

Cosmopolitan magazine, the most widely-circulated woman's magazine in the world (translated and published in over 85 languages globally), runs an annual survey of its female readers concerning the "Top 10 Sexiest Men In The World". For 12 years in a row Canadian men have ranked in the top 10 (while American men have, regrettably, never made the list). Spanish men continue to come in first place year after year, but in 2008 Canadian men made it to third place before falling back to 6th place.

Apparently Canadian men have a reputation, outside of Canada, of being strong, hard-working manly men with firm family values and big hands while at the same time being doting fathers and caring husbands AND at the same time being highly intelligent and cultured. Just look at this excerpt from an article I dug up from the Russian website (and used google webpage translator to read it):

"[Canadian men] are some of the best husbands and fathers [in the] world....with one hand they will [can?] pull a car from a ditch while feeding a baby with the other...tall and rugged, the Canadian [man] knows how to be [a] man and at the same time be his wife's best friend...[he] will put his family before all else and use his strength of body and mind to protect and nurture his loved [ones]...."

As a Canadian man myself I had to laugh at this article. It usually takes both hands to pull a car from a ditch.

Another, much more practical blog entry on from a Russian woman living in Vancouver read..:

"I've been living amongst these species of men for seven years and when comparing to Russian men, there is no comparison. Canadian men are my ideal [men]. Most of them are tall and good looking and that [only] improves with age. They are much like big, loyal, well-behaved dogs who don't need a leash and chase away bears and burglars at night. In their eyes and bearing there is a relaxed confidence, confidence that comes from knowing they are strong and intelligent and being proud (sic) of their abilities. They don't smoke and rarely do they drink. They fight only for just reasons and prefer to sort out problems with diplomacy [rather than] fists, whereas Russian men simply throw childish tantrums and smash each other's, and their wives', faces in."

After reading a couple of more articles and blog entries about Canadian men, my feathers were proudly preened and I started to read what I wanted, thinking "Yes, that's right. That describes us (Canadian men) perfectly!" Of course that isn't all true. There are a lot of alcoholics, junkies, wife-beaters, trailer trash, assholes and complete morons in Canada, just like anywhere else. And because the Canadian diaspora is made up of hundreds of different nationalities and ethnicities, it is impossible to place any one type of label on "Canadian men". I'm sure a proud and beautiful Slavic princess from Moscow would find a different type of man, with a different set of qualities, in a third-generation Chinese-Canadian living in Vancouver than she would from a first-generation Polish-Canadian living in Toronto.

Nevertheless I decided to look further into this phenomenon. Russian women have a Canuck fetish (I can imagine a Russian girl fainting at the mere sight of a Spanish-Canadian!). I used to search for impressions of Canadian men from around the world.

British women also think of Canadians as rugged, nature-loving, dependable, strong and stoically-handsome Mounties, although this doesn't appeal to the British girl as much as it does to the Russian girl: Canadians ranked 12th in Britain's idea of desirable men.

Japanese and Korean girls ranked Canadians as the sexiest and most desirable men in the world, believing that Canadian men are very family-oriented and make fantastic fathers and husbands while putting their wives/girlfriends/lovers before their careers (does that say something about the overworked cultures of Japan and Korea?). Also, Japanese and Korean girls ranked Canadian men as being the best lovers in bed!!! I know there are a lot of Canadian ESL teachers in Japan and Korea, but surely they haven't slept with ALL the Cosmo-reading girls in those countries yet? Still....yeah, baby....

Australians ranked Canadians rather poorly, and I wasn't able to find much information about what the hotties down under think of Canadian men, except that they are "..boringly normal, although with nice bodies..." Well, we could care less about you too, Australia. That's not true. You have a lot of hot women...

Europeans also gave Canadian men an average rating, although keeping them in the top 10. Again, the image of the proud man fending off circling wolves in the Yukon while his sled dogs tire prevailed (I supplied the imagery but you get the picture). Interestingly, the further east in Europe you travel, the sexier Canadian men become in the public mindset. This is probably because "sexy" for a French woman means something completely different than it does for a Ukrainian woman (tanned, rippling muscles, chiselled face and beautiful long locks compared to a dependable, loving family man).

Spanish women chose Spanish men as the hottest men in the world, followed by Brazilian men and then Spanish-American men. In fact, I noticed a bit of nationalist pride there, and Canadian men ranked extremely low in the eyes of Spanish beauties. Brazilians, however, ranked Canadian men extremely high, as the third sexiest men in the world! In fact, Brazilian women, when asked if they would prefer to have a one-night stand with a Canadian or marry him, responded positively to both! Again, that myth of the tall and strong stoic intellectual has travelled to the warm bikini-covered beaches of Brazil.

American women, on the other hand, apparently don't even spend their time thinking of Canadian men. Results were incredibly low and nearly 40% of those polled had "no opinion" (probably because they're not sure where Canada is on a map, or what it is). Contrary to gun-toting flag-waving American patriotism, however, they also ranked their own American men very low (too sensitive/not confident/unsure of themselves/too stupid were the most common reasons given), while most American women, it would seem, are busy drooling over the Spanish men.

As a proud member of a much-sought-after group of men in the world, I asked Katya what she thought of Canadian men. "I only know you." She answered. I reminded her that she met my friend two months ago, to which she replied "Yes, but I didn't sleep with him". Typical Russian answer. I pressed her to tell me what she had believed about Canadian men before she met me, to which she replied "That Canadian men were tall, strong and handsome, and took care of babies and helped their wives but were also good at fixing things and building things and loved the outdoors and....."

So there you have it. The tall and proud Mountie, despite having disappeared in his traditional form 100 years ago (except for the tourists), continues to represent the ideal Canadian man to the women of the world, or at least part of the world (why won't those Spanish knock-outs come over...?). And while I hold my head high after reading these articles, I know that when my soon-to-be Russian wife makes the big move to Canada, the vast mix of races and the fact that Canadian men are really no different than men in the rest of the world will probably be a disappointment to her, and then it will be time to buy a red uniform with a wide-brimmed hat and role-play some kinky Mountie stuff...

"Okay baby, do want the Chief or the Mountie tonight?"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Brings Out The A**hole In Me

Life in Moscow is so much more different than life in Mytischi. Although Mytischi is a suburb of Moscow and the bustling metropolis is accesible by bus, train and subway, life in Mytischi is friendlier, cozier and...well....better.

I wrote a few posts about how I love Moscow but, like any big city, I love it from a distance. Now I friggin' hate it!

Today my alarm went off at 06:00 and I hit "snooze" for 30 minutes. Katya was in bed beside me and she, also, had to work at 9 am. We both struggled out of the incredibly-uncomfortable and low bed that I've been stuck with since I moved into this flat and went through a strange daily routine (brush teeth, splash water on face, coffee and a cigarette for me, tea and a pastry for Katya).

I threw on a pair of black trousers and a green button-up t-shirt that is suitable for work and the heat from this damned drought hit me immediately. Within a few moments of getting dressed, with my only physical exertions consisting of lifting my hand to my face, I was drenched through in sweat. Thankfully I have a strong anti-persperant and don't really smell to begin with (courtesy of a British-German heritage who are, by default, not smelly people). However, if I did have a gland problem I would probably be able to clear two or three seats on the metro in this kind of weather!

Katya was looking beautiful in a summery-country-girl white dress with red flowers on it which ended at her knees and billowed in a classical kinda way in the wind. We walked to the metro station, kissed each other goodbye and went to work, me heading one way and her another.

The classroom was like a furnace and my students and I, perhaps spurred on by each other's stubborness, endured the sweltering heat. After class my students, at a pre-intermediate level, invited me to join them in a little cafeteria in the same building as the school so I did and then made my way home.

It was when I was just kicking my shoes off that my mobile rang. It was the Central Office number on my screen, so I answered it. "Hello?" It's very strange for Central Office to be calling unless you're in trouble for something you may or may not have done.

Sure enough, I was in trouble. When they made me move from my near-palace to this shitty apartment in Moscow I found myself sharing a flat with a new roomy, Ira (because he's from north Ireland, and so is the IRA, so Ira...get it?) At first Ira and I seemed to get along fine. We even discovered that we were both living in Bundang, South Korea at the same time, only a few buildings apart from each other! I thought it strange that we never met, but today I learned why.

Apparently Ira is incredibly unhappy with the fact that he's sharing a flat with somebody, and even more pissed off that that somebody has his fiancee stay over a few nights a week. Like a little whining child, Ira had gone to Central Office and complained about Katya staying here sometimes, about me being here, and who knows what else. The phone call from Central Office was full-on bitching out.

They told me that I was to be "written up" for having a guest stay over, and that from now on I am allowed NO visitors. Also, on certain days and nights I cannot be here (in my own fucking apartment, which they FORCED me to move into, and where all my stuff is!). I was so shocked by this retarded phone call that I couldn't even answer. I hung up on the girl from Central Office and went looking for my little bitch of a roomate but, luckily for him, he wasn't home. I called Katya at told her that she was no longer able to stay with me.

Because we work such opposite schedules (that is, she works a normal schedule and I work a Language Link schedule) this new rule means that we can only see each other for four hours a week, on Sundays. Rather than talk to me like an adult Ira acted like a spoiled little bitch and if I could break his nose and get away with it I would, unfortunately I would be the first suspect so I just have to seethe in anger rather than resort to violence.

After my evening classes I joined a couple of other Central School teachers at a little kiosk in Novoslobodskaya and we drank beer, and I recounted this tale to them. A couple of them were shocked, a couple refused to believe me that such a person as Ira exists, and another one, a veteran of Language Link, simply said "Ya, that happens..."

Because I wasn't "allowed" to go home after work I instead got plastered with my colleagues, even though I have to teach in the morning (explain that: I have 9 am classes but I'm not allowed home now until 11 pm???!!!???). I came home VERY late, completely shit-faced (as I am now) and I am intentionally going to school in my sweaty clothes from the day before, hung over and maybe still drunk, and then if my students complain to me I will explain to them why, and then we'll see what happens.

Tomorrow I have a big break from 1 pm to 7 pm but because of my bitchy little Irish roomate I'm not allowed to go to my own place, because that is his "alone" time. I won't follow this rule, however, and I am going home and to hell with what happens.

After going to class dirty and hungover and then breaking a new rule Central Office has magically established, I may get fired, but this is a battle worth fighting. If I get fired and deported from Russia I will at least have done so knowing that I'm not the little whiny bitch. I'm the big drunk asshole.

Monday, July 19, 2010

US Lend-Lease

Russian history books today teach children that Russia fought the war against Hitler alone; that the west did nothing and that only Russian endurance and determination won the war. Most Russians are unaware that there even was a war in the west, in North Africa and Italy and the massive sacrifices America made in the Pacific fighting Japan. What most Russians are taught is that this war was a purely Russian war.Another important aspect of Russia's war that people are not taught, and indeed have never been taught, is the massive amount of aid the U.S. gave Russia during the struggle through Lend-Lease.

In 1939, when war broke out in Europe following Hitler's invasion of Poland, US President Franklyn D. Roosevelt passed through congress the Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States of America, also known as the Lend-Lease Act. This Act allowed the US to supply Britain, France, China, Canada and Australia will massive amounts of military equipment and raw materials, in exchange for a fifty year repayment scheme or leases on military bases of interest to the United States (such supplying Britain with 10 destroyers in exchange for naval bases in Iceland).

President Roosevelt signs Lend-Lease into law.

America at this time was a neutral country. There was a strong neutrality lobby in the US and Roosevelt, although his sympathies lay with England during the struggle against nazism, was politically handcuffed against getting involved. Lend-Lease was his answer. Between 1939 and 1941 the US supplied nearly $15 billion (nearly $225 billion today) in supplies to the allies. This included raw materials for industrial production and armaments produced in the United States. In order to maintain within the bizarre laws of neutrality, US warplanes bound for Britain could not fly directly to the UK. Instead, they had to be flown to the US-Canadian border and towed across by tractors, from whence they could fly to the conflict zone.

In June 1941, when Hitler attacked the USSR and nearly succeeded in destroying it, Congress extended the Lend-Lease Act to include Russia. By this point the neutrality lobby in America was losing steam as, following the occupation of all of Europe (save for England, who stood alone against tyranny) by fascist forces, public opinion swung towards getting involved.US ships began to bring goods bound for Russia to British ports and then British and Canadian convoys were to transport them to Murmansk and Arkangelsk in Russia's arctic. As Germany was occupying Norway, this meant the convoys had to brave ferocious German attempts to stop the convoys by submarine and air attacks in what became known as the "Arctic Run". When ships were bombed and torpedoed, the sailors who ended up in the Arctic sea with no protection lasted less than 20 seconds before hypothermia killed them.

Losses in the first few convoys were so heavy that the British Admiralty decided to stop the runs, and US Lend-Lease materials bound for Russia piled up in British warehouses. Meanwhile, Leningrad was besieged, the Ukraine overrun and Moscow barely saved.

Hitler recognized that Lend-Lease was barely-disguised American involvement in the war and from June 1941 German U-boats were authorized to begin sinking US ships outside of American waters. By October of 1941 US losses to German submarines reached over 100,000 tonnes of shipping.In December, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, American neutrality was over and the industrial giant geared up for total war. In an attempt to stop increased Lend-Lease to Britain and Russia, a massive German U-boat assault was carried out along the US coastline.

A German U-boat on patrol for Allied shipping.

Far away from the theatres of war, American cities were under no blackout restrictions and ships sailed independently from port to port. This meant that for the U-boats ships were perfectly silhouetted against lit-up city skylines from New York and Boston to Miami. German U-boat crews called this period "The Happy Time", as nearly a million tonnes of American shipping was sent to the bottom along the Atlantic seaboard.By January 1942 British and Canadian naval advisors, who had been fighting the U-boat menace for over two years, convinced the US admiralty to run their ships in protected convoys and to blackout their coastal cities. By March 1942 American lend-lease began to arrive in Russia in earnest.

The Arctic Run to Murmansk was resumed, this time with a heavy US presence. Although the U-boats and the Luftwaffe continued to cause serious losses on the convoys, aid got through. Only a few convoys reached the northern Russian ports without incident; most had to endure a week-long gauntlet of submarines, dive-bombers, machine-guns and fast German torpedo attack boats. A few heavy German battlecruisers threw their weight in but most were tied down in Norwegian fjords as a "fleet in being": that is, their mere presence in Norway kept the mighty British Home Fleet on standby off the coast of Norway in case they ventured out. This meant that no heavy British warships were available to protect the convoys to Russia, and the small British, American and Canadian destroyers and corvettes had to do all the work.

The most famous Arctic convoy was PQ17, which left Reykjavik, Iceland on June 28 1942 bound for Murmansk. 33 merchant ships escorted by 21 warships set out. Off the northern coast of Norway it was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf FW-200 Condor, which radioed the convoy's position and course back to HQ.

The German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, Germany's only 4-engined warplane type, was used extensively to intercept Russian-bound convoys in the Arctic.

A few hours later the first flight of Stuka dive-bombers swooped in on the convoy. 2 merchant ships went down in that first attack and an American destroyer was heavily damaged and had to turn back. That night a wolf pack of German U-boats pounced on the ships, sending 5 to the bottom with all their crews. The U-boat assault continued throughout the morning when daylight brought more German aircraft down on the defenseless ships.PQ17 lost 21 of its 33 ships and the convoy scattered in confusion and terror. Only 4 ships reached Murmansk three days later, one loaded with tins of SPAM for the Russian war effort. PQ17 was the worst maritime disaster of the war, with thousands of men and tens of thousands of tonnes of shipping lost to the Arctic waters.

Nevertheless the convoys to Russia continued, and the weight of their material began to be felt by the Germans on the Russian front.

Despite what Russian history books teach today, by 1943 nearly 1/3 of all Russian trucks and cars were American. 50% of the iron ore Russia was using for weapons production was American. 1/4 of the grain and non-perishable food Russia was surviving on came from American and Canadian farms. The US even managed to supply over 1,200 warplanes and 5,000 aircraft engines to Russia. It was only because of US Lend-Lease that Russia was able to replace the losses she was taking at the front, while Allied bombing of Germany was preventing the nazis from doing likewise.

The famed Russian katyusha rocket launchers were mounted on the flatbeds of American Ford and Chevrolet trucks, paid for and supplied, at great cost in lives, by the Americans. Russia, to this day, has still not repayed the US for the Lend-Lease agreement they actively signed on to at their moment of greatest despair, a fact which, 60 years later, continues to sour US-Russian relations.

After the war most of the vehicles and equipment with American markings on them was melted down and made into "Soviet" vehicles and equipment. Veterans of the war who talked about American food and vehicles were quickly arrested and exiled to GULAG camps for "counter-revolutionary" talk, and all memory of US Lend-Lease, and the sacrifices of American, British and Canadian sailors in delivering it, was erased from the national consciousness.

A rare photo of Russian soldiers with an American jeep. This photo was confiscated by the NKVD and the owner "disappeared", until it was released in 1991 by the Russian state archives.

In all, Lend-Lease supplied nearly 40% of the Soviet Union's total war output and may be one of the key reasons why the USSR was able to absorb the ferocious German assault and throw them back. Between 1941 and 1945, America supplied Russia with $12 billion worth of Lend-Lease (nearly $200 billion adjusted for today's prices). Rather than repay or even thank the US for the mighty effort involved to keep Russia fighting, the Soviet Union's leaders instead chose to engage in a near-world-ending cold war and geopolitical brinksmanship for 50 years, and refuses to even acknowledge this effort today. To do so would run contrary to the myth that has developed in Russia that the Second World War was a purely Russian war, and that Russian stubborness saved the country and freed the world of fascism forever after.

The facts, of course, run contrary to the official Russian school book history, and while those Russians who go on to study history in higher learning or have a keen interest in the history of the Second World War know the truth, most Russians today have no idea that their great salvation and victory over fascism was won with Ford, GM, Chevrolet, SPAM and the lives of thousands of sailors.

The Lights Are On But Nobody's Home

A month ago the company I work for moved me from my cool and comfortable apartment in Mytischi to a stinking hot and uncomfortable apartment near Fili in Moscow. The weather has been abnormally hot and this new apartment has no airflow. The oven doesn't work and the landlord refuses to fix it, there is noisy traffic 24-hours a day outside my bedroom window and my bed has a hard wooden beam running down the center of the mattress.

In short, it sucks. In addition to that, my schedule at the Moscow central school is retarded. Everyday I work split shifts, with 9 am classes running to the early afternoon and then 7 pm classes running until 9:30 at night. By the time I get home I have to return to the school 10 hours later for my morning classes. I also do not have 2 consecutive days off, meaning that I cannot plan to go anywhere or do anything. While the students in my classes are wonderful (I love my students), the administrators who run the show are quite the opposite.

When I was living in Mytischi a month ago, I was planning on returning to Russia after my 12-month visa expired and staying on as a student for another 6-12 months, but my outook has since changed. A combination of the intense heat, a crappy work schedule, an uncomfortable apartment and the noise and bustle of Moscow has made me incredibly unhappy. It is nearly impossible for me to appreciate anything in this city now, so I am planning on returning to my home in British Columbia, Canada.

This doesn't sadden me. In fact, I'm quite happy with the decision. The past 2 years (and the past year in particular) have been an intense ride for me and I'm glad that I did it, but like I wrote in this blog a year ago, the night before I flew out of Ottawa for Moscow, I just want a place I can call my own and not worry about having to leave again.

There is nothing of excitement happening in Moscow right now. My work schedule is a hindrance to going out and doing anything and as I save money for my future plans I am simply plodding though my day. With less than 7 weeks remaining in Moscow, my thoughts have already left for cleaner waters while my body simply goes through the routine. Every day I dream of life back in British Columbia, what my home will look like (once I find one), what job I'll have (once I find one) and what the weather will be like. My sleeping dreams are filled with images of life on the west coast and far away from Moscow.

While I stagnate in boredom and heat, I wait with no little amount of impatience for my return home. In the meantime, I can only offer this advice: don't work for LL central school in Moscow!

Friday, July 16, 2010

British Columbia

Once a person spends a bit of time in the west coast Canadian province of British Columbia (called "BC" by locals for ease sake), something strange and remarkable comes over them that stays with them for the rest of their lives. It becomes impossible for them to dream of living anywhere else. Their dreams become filled with visions of mountains, beaches, rainforests and beautiful people. They are, in short, captivated.

British Columbia is home to nearly 5 million people, with half of them, 2.5 million, living in the paradise city of Vancouver. The province has 940,000 square km of land, from the Alaskan and Yukon borders in the north to the border with Washington state in the south. and yet nearly 52% of the land is uninhabited, making BC one of the least-densely populated areas in the world. The United Nations determined that for every person living in BC, there is 520 square metres of land!

While Canada has consistently maintained one of the highest standards of living in the world for the past four decades as determined by the United Nation's Human Development Index (switching places every year with Australia and Denmark for the top 3 countries), British Columbia is consistently ranked as having the highest standards of living within Canada. Vancouver has been awarded Best City in the World 8 years in a row by a variety of sources: the UN, Forbes, the US Organization of Mayors, and National Geographic. Vancouver is rated as having the best infrastructure, lowest crime rates, best schools, best air quality, best health care, highest employment rates, stable housing markets, etc etc of all the cities in the world. All this despite a global economic crisis (which left Canada, and BC in particular, fairly untouched due to vast natural resources, a smart banking sector, prudent government planning and a touch of good luck).

Vancouver, of course, takes all the credit for BC's wonders, but there are so many more to behold. Drive north of Vancouver for a couple of hours and you'll find yourself in the Okanogan Valley, a huge valley between two mountain ranges with excellent black earth. This has been developed into a vast agricultural area and the third largest wine-making area in North America. Drive north for 12 hours and you find yourself in Prince Rupert, a bustling little city with the feel of an old gold-rush-era frontier town. A bit further north from there and you find yourself in Alaska. Along the way you'll pass through the Sunshine Coast area, along the Pacific Ocean, with some breathtaking geography and a well-groomed highway.

Off the coast lies a series of islands, the biggest and most populated of which is Vancouver Island. This island is a little bigger than Denmark. The city of Victoria is on the sourthern tip, jutting into American waters and only a 40 minute catameran ride from Seattle. Victoria is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's population, 400,000, is mostly engaged in IT, finance and government work (Victoria is the provincial capital of BC), but a little known secret about Victoria is that it is sub-tropical and the only place in Canada where palm trees grow naturally!

Drive north of Victoria along the west coast of the island for 2 hours and you reach Tofino and Ucluelet (called "Ukee" by locals), the western-most points in North America where the Pacific crashes onto breathtaking cliffs and people swim and surf off long, sandy beaches. Several resorts offer "storm watching" packages in the winter. Sit in a comfortable room with a fireplace and giant wrap-around windows overlooking the cliffs of Tofino and watch as massive waves batter the rocky shore.

The people of BC are incredibly friendly. One time in Vancouver my ex and I were sitting in a bar where a live band was playing 90's alternative covers, and we were talking about how it is hard to find people to hang out with in big cities. Just as we finished saying this, a pretty blonde girl sitting at the table next to us leaned over and said, with a big smile on her face, "Hello! What's your name?" It is very easy to make friends in BC because people are very laid back. Time moves a bit slower in BC.

Finally, BC is one of the most dreamy and spiritual places I have ever been. The culture is a blend of US pop, old English, spicy Asian and earthy native. With eagles overhead, mountains and ocean all around, orca, blue and sperm whales nearby and gigantic 1000-year-old trees everywhere, it is impossible not to feel a touch of the divine. This may be why BC is home to both new-age hippy-types and moderately-liberal Christian denomitions. In BC, God is all around.

Here are some videos I've dug up from the internet showcasing British Columbia. If you want to take a vacation or even immigrate anywhere in this world, I highly recommend British Columbia, Canada.

A tourism promotion video for BC.

A video showcasing Vancouver.

A video showcasing the Okanagan wine region.

A video showcasing Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

The Heat Is On

40 C degree weather (104 F). No rain. Humidity. No wind. A hazy, burning sun. Hot concrete. Millions of cars. No air conditioners. No relief.

Although last summer I was whining about the 30 C weather in Ottawa, this year has to be one of the hottest summers I've ever endured. At least in Ottawa everyone has air conditioners. For relief from the heat one can simply go to the nearest 7-11 and "browse" for fifteen minutes; not so in Moscow.

Strangely enough it was with a sense of relief that I read about the abnormal heatwave and drought that is scorching Europe into dust. I wasn't relieved because Europe is being baked like clay in an oven, instead, I was relieved to read that I'm not the only one suffering. Russians have a tendency to silently bear their suffering without complaint (possibly a cultural trait steeped in their grim history) whereas myself and my American and west-European colleagues can do nothing but bitch.

As I understand it, there is normally a ridge of high pressure over the arctic and low pressure over Europe, causing cool air to blow down and although it can still get hot, it brings rain and wind. This year, however, there is low pressure over the entire European continent, from England in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east, and high pressure over the African continent, causing scorching heat to sweep over Europe and thus we have a weather crisis on our hands.

Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Austria and Germany are suffering the brunt of it. It has only rained 35 mm since early April and the worst drought in 130 years is setting in. In Russia a state of emergency has been declared as farms are drying up and grain stocks are dwindling. The Ukraine, traditionally the breadbasket of Europe, is nearly plum out of grain and is relying on imports from less-affected areas. In the past 3 weeks no less than 2300 forest fires have been reported across the continent, and infrastructure is starting to break down under the strain of tens of millions of people sweltering, quite literally in some cases, to death.

I read in the news that air conditioners and fans are sold-out in Moscow (thankfully I bought a fan back in June), although I have yet to see one of these so-called air conditioners. The odd restaurant or cafe is equipped but most places are just baking ovens.

The Moscow commuter train system, the elektrishka, is being overwhelmed by overheated people climbing onto the roofs of the trains (and falling off), passing out from the heat or, in nearly 40 cases in 3 weeks, dying from heat stroke while riding to and from work. 5 years ago the Moscow Oblast government gave $5 million US to the train system to install air conditioners and better ventilation in the cars, but immediately upon receiving the payment 3 members of the commission disappeared with all $5 million to another country and the government has been wary of handing down any more money. After this year they will have to do something about it.

I can complain and whine all I want about the stinking heat in Moscow but there is nothing I can do about it. There is nowhere to get relief, and from here to Brussels everyone is suffering (although in Brussels they can browse their local convenience store in air conditioned comfort), so all I can do is take a cue from the Russians and bear it. After all, it can't last forever, can it?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Russian Jokes

Russians have a fantastically dark and sarcastic sense of humour, with an almost fatalist spice that allows them to make fun of themselves, their country and the rest of the world. Russian humour is closer in kin to British and Commonwealth humour than to slapstick American comedy, and Russians love a good joke.

My classes are filled with laughter, whether from myself or my students, and the Russian adults whom I'm teaching this summer can fire off witty comments and jokes at the drop of a hat, especially if it concerns making fun of Moscow traffic, corrupt Russian officials and mean babushki.

Most Russians consider American humour to be dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator to understand (yet The Simpsons, Dumb & Dumber and American Pie still rank as their favourite comedies), but they love British humour and their own brand of self-effacing comedy.

Here are some of the best Russian jokes I've heard during my year in Moscow.

A Russian bus driver and a Russian priest both die at the same time. The bus driver goes to Heaven but the priest ends up in Hell. Confused, the priest asks God "Why am I in Hell? I've devoted my life to your service and have never sinned. I don't understand." God replies "When people came to your church they fell asleep, but when people rode the bus they prayed for their lives!"

Little Sergey is sitting in class and his teacher is trying to explain geometry. She draws a shape on the board and Little Sergey starts laughing. "Sergey!" The teacher screams. "Why are you misbehaving again?!" Sergey answers "You drew a big cock on the board!" The teacher, flustered and at her wits' end with Sergey, runs out of the classroom crying. A minute later the principle enters the class. "Sergey!" He shouts. "What did you do this time? And why did you draw a big cock on the board?!"

The Central Committee of the Communist Party decides to open a strip club in Moscow to draw more tourists to the city. Licenses are granted, facilities are appropriated and billboards are put up but, on the opening day, nobody turns out. "What happened?" The Central Committe asks the managers of the strip club. "We don't know." The managers reply. "It was superbly organized and all the strippers had a solid party record; they've been Bolsheviks since 1905 and knew Lenin personally!"

A beautiful, classy, charming young Russian woman marries an American man and moves to San Francisco with him, but a year later she returns to her family in Russia in tears. "What's wrong?" They ask her. "You had everything! Why have you returned?" The crying girls answers "I returned because I realized that my husband doesn't love me." "What?" the family asks in surprise. "How do you know? Did he have an affair?"
"No." The girl replies. "He wouldn't beat me."

A Russian fisherman is sleeping on the shores of the Gulf of Finland with his hat over his face when an American walks up to him. "Why are you sleeping?" The American asks. "You'd be better off catching fish!"
"Why?" Asks the Russian.
"If you catch some fish you can sell them, and buy yourself a boat. Then you could catch more fish and sell them and buy yourself a trawler. Then you could catch more fish and buy yourself a fish processing plant. Then you would be rich and could spend your day sleeping by the water."
The fisherman closes his eyes and says "But that's what I'm doing now!"

Three tourists are sitting in a restaurant in Moscow. The waiter approaches the table and asks for their orders. "I'll have a steak, medium-rare, with a peppercorn sauce and a side of baked potatoes." The first man says. The second man orders "I'll have a breaded veal cutlet with mixed vegetables." The third man says "I'll have roast beef with beef gravy and mashed potatoes." The waiter writes down the order. "Vanya!" he shouts to the kitchen. "Three meats!"

A man comes to visit his friend, a government minister, and asks him for help finding a job. "Of course." replies his friend. "I could make you my deputy. It pays 30,000 roubles a month."
"Oh no" the man says. "I was hoping for something less grand."
"Alright. I could make you the manager of a factory. 5,000 roubles a month."
"No." The man replies. "I was thinking about 100 roubles a month. Maybe as an engineer?"
"I'm sorry." Says the minister. "You need qualifications for that..."

An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian were debating about Adam & Eve's nationality. "They must have been English." declares the Englishman. "Only an English gentleman would share his last apple with his lady."
"Oh no!" says the Frenchman. "They were definitely French! Who else could seduce a woman so easily?"
The Russian laughs and says "They were obviously Russian. Who else could walk around naked, eat only one apple between the two of them and think they were in paradise?"

A man visits the doctor and complains that he can't sleep, his hands are shaking all the time and he's depressed. The doctor writes out a prescription. "This medecine is for insomnia, this medicine is to calm your nerves, and this one is to help with your depression." The man looks at the prescription and says "Thank you doctor, but do you have any other medecine besides vodka?"

Teacher: "Where are the best boys?"
Students: "In Russia!"
Teacher: "And where are the friendliest people?"
Students: "In Russia!"
Teacher: "And where are the tastiest candies?"
Students: "In Russia!"
Teacher: "And where are the nicest cities?"
Students: "In Russia"
Suddenly little Nadezhda starts to cry.
Teacher: "Nadya, why are you crying?"
Nadezhda: "Because I want to live in Russia!"

A man and his neighbour are drinking vodka in the kitchen. "I can see your naked wife when she's in the shower from from my kitchen window." The man tells his neighbour. "You should do something about it!"
"Where?" The neighbour replies. "I don't see anything."
"Just climb up on the counter and you will see..."

A Russian walks into a Duty Free store in an American airport. "Do you speak Russian?" He asks the shop assistant. "Yes." The girl replies. "A little"
"Phew!" says the Russian. "Marlboro."

A Russian returns from a resort in Egypt and tells his friends "I was the star of the resort. Every girl there couldn't take her eyes off me, what with my pink ADIDAS track suit and my fur hat...."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Moscow Spring

Because I like making such amateurish music videos, I put together some footage I captured throughout the spring in Moscow and coupled them with a great song by a Russian artist, Delphin.

This video shows the May 9th Victory Day celebrations, St. Basil's, Old Arbat, marching soldiers and President Medvyedev's motorcade, among other things.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ZAGS & Dave's ESL Cafe Get It Stuck To

In my previous less-than-eloquent post I railed against the stupidity of ZAGS bureaucrats and demanded that I have a new stupid bureaucrat to deal with.

Well, today I took matters into my own hands and, as I declared last week, took the "fight" (so to speak) to Moscow Wedding Palace No. 1. Armed with a freshly translated and notarized copy of everything I ever owned, Katya and I stormed into the central ZAGS office, ready for a fight and found, instead of a steely and plump middle-aged woman with no soul, a nice, young, well-dressed man with a smile on his face, sitting behind the desk.

This came as a shock because this was the first time that I have ever seen a Russian employed in some sort of service capacity with a smile on their face. It was unsettling.

Nevertheless, with all the fight instantly deflated out of us, we sat down in the office and Katya pushed all our documents across the desk to the man. He flipped through each page and, as he also spoke English, was able to compare the translations to the originals of my documents and then, with a flourish, he stapled everything together, smacked a big blue stamp on the front and set a wedding date: August 17th!

Katya and I couldn't believe it. After 2 months and (including the newest translations and notarizations of all my ID) 10,000 roubles, we had finally succesfully applied to ZAGS for a civil marriage!

I was almost married once before in what became (in hindsight) a hellish and elaborate process of bookings and planning and priests and caterers and invitations and deposits and a never-ending list of stupid little details that needed to be solved. This time I'm getting married with the simplicity of standing in front of an official with my bride-to-be, signing a form and walking out a married man 10 minutes later. I don't know why but for some reason this method seems to fit the path my life has taken thus far, and I'm quite satisfied with it.

What continues to piss me off, however, are the nay-sayers and naggers from Dave's ESL Cafe. "Don't come to Russia! It's horrible here! We're dying!" they whine. "Only backpackers with no interest in anything in life teach for a year in Russia!" they proclaim, beating their cyber-chests with self-justifying satisfaction. "The McSchools are evil (Language Link, English First and BKC-IH) and people who work for them are naive idiots!" They accuse.

Excuse me?

Okay, tough guy. Walk up to me on the streets of Moscow, preferrably after I've had a few drinks, and call me a naive idiot to my face.

A few of these ESL Cafe-types have wandered over to my blog in the past couple of months and decided to comment ESL Cafe-like things on my posts. At first I deleted a few but then I thought, nah, screw 'em, and left them there without any counter-comments (is that a word? If not, could it be?).

I'm getting married to a wonderful Russian woman and they're jerking off to porn at home, so I don't really care. So I stuck it to ZAGS today, and I want the miserable negative cynics who dominate Dave's ESL Cafe to know that I'm sticking it to them, too. If you're thinking of coming to Russia and working for a year at a McSchool for measly wages, then I highly suggest that you DO IT!

Friday, July 9, 2010


Getting married in Russia is a time-consuming and incredibly frustrating process, thanks to the complete idiocy and disorganization of the individual bureaucrats who run the Department of Public Services, called ZAGS (Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya).

ZAGS is where all births, deaths and marriages are registered, and where I taught one particular old hag a few unpleasant words in English.

In order for a foreigner to get married in Russia, there is a lot of red tape to cut through and quite a few hoops to jump through. First, you must get a letter from your embassy stating that you are free to marry. For different countries this is called a "Certificate of Non-Impediment to Marriage Abroad", basically stating that you are not married back home and that you are not wanted by the FBI or Interpol. Canada never signed on to this international agreement which standardized these forms, so I had to get, from the Canadian embassy, a "Declaration In-Lieu-of Certificate of Non-Impediment to Marriage Abroad". I had to find the embassy (tucked on a side street 1/2 a mile from Propotkinskaya Metro station) and then swear an oath in front of the woman at Consular Services (who was a Russian, because the Canadian government is too cheap to pay expat salaries) that I have no impediments to marriage.

She signed and stamped a form and gave me a translation of my passport, all for the price of 2,000 roubles ($60).

Then I had to take this "Declaration" to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Consular Services Department, on a side street called "Neopalimovskiy Pereulok", another 1/2 mile from Park Kultury Metro station, to have this document "legalized". This cost 400 roubles ($12) and took 5 days.

Then, armed with my "legalized" declaration and the translated copy of my passport, Katya and I went to the local ZAGS in her town. Of course there was a problem. The stamp the Canadian embassy had put on my passport translation was in English (Embassy of Canada in Moscow), which made this document invalid in Russia. So I had to go and get the stamp translated and notarized. 600 roubles ($18).

We went back to ZAGS. There was a new problem. The letterhead was in English (it reads "Canadian Embassy"). I had to get that translated and notarized. We went back to ZAGS. There was another problem. The "legalization" stamp from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was on the untranslated version of the the paper with the English letterhead. Fucking idiots.

So we left that ZAGS and went to the central ZAGS in Moscow where tens of thousands of foreigners have been married before. Everything was in order and the English letterhead wasn't a problem. What was a problem was that on the translation it reads "Citizenship: Canadian" and not "Citizenship: Canada". The old bitchy bureaucrat at the Moscow ZAGS acted as if though I was a criminal of the worst kind for this. I opened my passport and showed her that it also reads "Citizenship: Canadian" and this was a direct translation. She said she didn't care. Rules were rules.

A few days later Katya and I went to another ZAGS office in Fryazino, near her town, and the letterhead was alright and the translation was alright, but there was a new problem: they didn't have any forms for foreigners to get married. They told us to come back in a week.

A week later we went back and they had the correct forms, but there was a new problem. I didn't speak Russian and couldn't prove that I wasn't being tricked into marriage! Oh! This is a marriage place? I just wanted a cheeseburger! Fucking morons.

Katya and I had to take the ZAGS form to a notary and in front of them sign it and then they had to notarize that I had indeed signed it. 500 roubles ($15). We brought the form back to the Fryazino ZAGS and now there was a NEW problem! I had to fill out the form in English, have it officially translated and then that translation notarized! Also, I had to have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs "legalization" notarized! What the hell?

Up until that point I had been sitting quietly through every hellish translation and notarization and lecture by ZAGS bureaucrats, but I lost it on this machine-like woman. "Are you a fucking idiot?!!!???" I screamed, standing up. I don't actually remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of "Why the fuck didn't you just tell me all this at one time? Why the fuck does every stupid bureaucrat in this Department have different rules? Do you think I'm the first foreigner to ever get married in Russia?!!!?????" Then, turning to Katya, I ordered "Translate!"

Katya didn't and the woman starting talking again. "Hey!" I shouted at her. "Stop talking! Katya, translate everything I just said!" With a very embarrassed and shaky voice Katya translated, although I have no idea if she included my cursing and insults. Before the woman could answer I snatched up all the copies, notarizations, original documents and my passport from the woman's desk and said "Come on." to Katya and then stormed out of the office.

I dragged Katya onto a bus and Katya started to explain that we needed to get more translations and more notarizations. "I am getting no more translations and no more notarizations." I told her with finality. "We're going back to the Moscow ZAGS and that's where we're digging in."
"Digging what?" Katya asked, puzzled.
"Digging in. If we're going to fight, it will be there."
"But what about your passport translation?"
"I don't care. I just will not deal with this stupid bitch any more. I want a new stupid bitch."

It has taken us nearly 2 months and cost me nearly 5000 roubles (over $150) for a process which, according to the Russian government, is supposed to involve two pieces of paper and 200 roubles, and we are no closer to getting married than we were five months ago. Time is of the essence now, too, because my visa expires in 8 weeks and I have to leave the country.

I can't speak for others who have been through the ZAGS bureaucracy, but I can give this advice: get EVERYTHING translated and notarized, and then go to Greece to get married.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Near-Death Experience

The weather in Moscow is hot. It is friggin' hot and tops 40 degrees centigrade with the humidity. Unlike the rest of the world, Russians refuse to pay for air conditioning and simply swelter and suffer (not without the occasional burst of "Blin! It's hot!"). There is no air conditioning in the shops, in the restaurants or cafes or bars. The metro and the buses are like ovens. I went to a cinema to try and cool down but there was no air conditioning there, either!

So two weeks ago when, in the middle of my last class for the day, a sudden wave of feverish nausea swept over me, I attributed it to heat stroke. Unusually susceptible to heat stroke as I am (all my life I've suffered in anything above 20 degrees), I drank a glass of cold water and immediately I was wracked with a series of sharp, knife-stabbing-me-in-the-gut pains throughout my stomach which doubled me over. I ran to the toilet and the glass of water I drank a few seconds before left my body.

After shaking my fevered head in surprise, I made my way home, first stopping at the little outdoor McDonald's "walk-through" window at Novoslobodskaya for some dinner. Once home I took a big bite out of my quarter-pounder (a "Royal Cheeseburger" in Europe) and immediately ran to the washroom to get rid of it.

I suffered through that night in a series of feverish, fitful sleeps, sweating profusely for half an hour and then, despite the heat, shivering uncontrollably for another half an hour. Every hour or so I had to run to the toilet to drain whatever moisture remained in my body. This process repeated itself throughout that first night. I was forced to call in sick in the morning.

The next night Katya came over and, seeing my pale face and apparently sunken eyes, and watching me run to the toilet every thirty to sixty minutes, she immediately called the medical clinic my company provides insurance for and booked me an appointment. So it was that by the early afternoon of Friday I was laying on a bed in the doctor's office (in a very nice clinic, I might add, except that nobody speaks English) and the doctor was jamming her latex-covered fingertips up under my rib cage and touching my upper intestines, causing bolts of excruciating, tear-inducing pain to flash throughout my body.

She turned to Katya and said something in Russian to which Katya started to cry. "What? What is it?" I asked through clenched teeth. "They need to send you Moscow State Hospital #2." Katya replied, sobbing. "The Infectious Diseases Hospital!" I had heard nothing of this place before, but it sounded ominous, what with Katya sobbing and the doctor looking at me with a mixture of curiousity and pity. " that bad?" I asked, in hindsight, rather stupidly. "The only place worse is the Lubianka!" Katya choked, referring the infamous prison where the NKVD, and later the KGB (and now the FSB) tortured prisoners for years on end.

This wasn't good news for me, and as the pain from the doctor's probing subsided and the suffocating heat of the office once again stole the attention of my miserable nerve receptors (think there would be a/c in a medical clinic? Nope!), I tried to smile. "It will be alright. What, will they do some tests? What is wrong with me?" Katya translated to the doctor who looked over at me, laying on the table, and sadly patted my hand.

When someone asks a pleading question, the worst thing a person can do, as I learned last week, is to smile in a sad way and pat their hand. Rather than calming a person, that tends to panic them. "Tell her to stop looking at me like that!" I demanded of Katya, but she just sobbed.

Three hours later I was laying on a hard wooden board mounted on scaffolding-like poles mounted on wheels in State Hospital #2. There was, without any exaggeration, shit and blood and puke on the floors and walls all around me. A woman, somewhere (maybe even on another floor) was screaming with either grief or agony, a sound which lent to the surreal Halloween-cum-Hostel atmosphere in the hospital. There were armed guards standing outside the doors to the hallway I was wheeled down and they locked them after I was wheeled through!

It suddenly dawned on me, as a large central-asian woman with mean, uncaring eyes roughly pushed my wooden board down this hallway, that I was effectively a prisoner!

With all the attention that someone would pay to a trolley filled with garbage, the woman pushed my wooden slab down a brown and browner-stained corridor, past ominous-looking doorways with heavy locks on them and small peepholes for orderlies to look in. Laying as I was on my back, my view consisted of the passing of bare lightbulbs and lots of rusting pipes traversing the ceiling in a chaos of directions. At one point I tried to sit up (I had a fever and the runs, I wasn't dead) but the woman barked something in Russian at me and I quickly laid down again.

After twenty or so lightbulbs passed across my vision the ceiling suddenly turned to the right and I passed through a doorframe. "Vot!" The woman shouted, pointing to a bed with a plastic mattress. There was a single, dim lightbulb in the room and no windows. Three other beds, two of which were occupied, shared the room with the bed she was pointing at. There was a single rough woolen blanket bunched up on this bed, which, hot as it was (again, no friggin' air conditioning) I used as a pillow.

The woman made sure I was laying on the bed and then abruptly left, but my door wasn't closed or locked like the doors I had seen in the corridor.

In the bed beside me was a grizzled old Russian man whose mouth seemed to be pulled back into a sneer, until I realized that his skin was decaying while he was alive and I was effectively looking at a living skull! Grey stubble speckled his chin and he slept with a ghastly gurgling, wheezing breath. I decided to call him Fyodor, because I always liked that name. Across the aisle at my feet was another man with an IV drip pouring into his arm and a small machine that beeped every ten minutes or so, to what purpose I don't know.

Both my companions were fast asleep. I lay there in my bed and, having a high fever and no choice about my circumstances, I decided that the best course of action was to sleep. A good motto that has carried me through many strange circumstances is "Stay calm and carry on."

I drifted off to an uncomfortable sleep with little strings of wool from my brown blanket-pillow tickling my cheeks.

I don't know how long I was out for, but something strange happened. I awoke not because of noise, but because of a lack of noise. Fyodor, in the bed beside mine, had stopped gurgling and wheezing. I opened my eyes and turned my head towards him and was given a shock. His head was laying at a precarious angle off the side of his mattress and his eyes were staring at me! That skullish sneer was still on his face, but unblinking gray eyes were looking right at me!

I haven't been around death a lot in my life. The only corpse I've ever seen was at my grandmother's wake, and then she was dressed in her best and laying peacefully in her coffin with a bouquet of roses on her chest. The family was gathered around, some sobbing, and, young as I was, I didn't feel much grief because she looked so damn content.

Not so with Fyodor. Here was death quite literally staring at me, skull and all, and although in movies it is pretty terrifying in real life I felt nothing. I studied him for a few moments and said a silent prayer in my head for his departed soul, all the while those grey eyes stared through me, with a look of infinite knowledge. I don't know how I'm supposed to react in such a situation. It wasn't in my guide book, but I decided that the only humane thing left to do was to call for help.

"Hello?" I shouted in the direction of the door. "Prostitsye? (Excuse me?)" There was no response. "Hey! Come on! People are dying here!" I yelled as loud as I could. For a while there was no answer but finally a large, middle-aged blonde woman with breasts larger than my head stormed into the room and barked something to me in Russian. I pointed at Fyodor's body and said "He's dead. Morte." She didn't even glance at Fyodor but instead marched to my bedside and yelled something to me in Russian. "I don't know what you're saying! Ya nye gavaroo pa-Russki (I don't speak Russian). But he's dead!" I shouted that last part, which I learned that she didn't like because she slapped me across the head and stormed out of the room. Although she was dressed in a nurses' uniform, she was very obviously a jailer. Had I known the correct grammar, I would have demanded to see her medical credentials. As it was I received a slap on my forehead, and Fyodor was still staring at me.

Those eyes were starting to freak me out, so, gingerly at first but then with confidence, I reached across the void seperating our two beds and, in effect, the living and the dead, and I brushed his eyelids closed. Just like in the movies they closed incredibly easily, although they were cold (not even room-temperature...the only things in Russia that are cooler than the stinking heat are the dead...).

"Hey nurse!" I cried out one last time, determined to get her to understand that I was laying next to a corpse. "HEY!" The same jailor came storming into my room again, this time completely enraged, and slapped me across my forehead again. "Hey! Stop th-" I started to shout, but she had slapped me again. I stared at her with in stunned disbelief, maybe even with a bit of hatred, and she turned on her heels and practically goose-stepped out.

Then she came back, this time with a woman in a clean white lab-coat and a stethoscope around her neck. Finally, a real doctor! I pointed at poor Fyodor but they ignored me and the doctor beckoned me to follow her. I stood up (why I was allowed to now and not earlier I don't know) and followed the doctor to a little office next door. There was another small doctor's bed in there and she motioned me to lay down in the fetal position, facing the wall. I thought this was strange, but before I did as she requested she motioned for me to pull my pants down. Oh crap.

With my ass sticking out I laid on my side while behind me I heard a strange grating sound of metal on metal, like a Turkey knife being sharpened, and realized that I was in for a really bad day.

Four hours and several painful probes later, I emerged, blinking, from State Hospital #2 to find Katya, loyally waiting outside (how long she would have waited I don't know. The Russian woman is fiercely loyal, as evidenced by those wives who followed their husbands into Siberian exile in the times of the Tsars and then to the battlefronts and the GULAG prison camps in the times of the Soviets...never mess with a Russian woman's family!). I had a nice green piece of paper covered in official blue stamps, which I proferred to Katya. "What is wrong with me?" I asked.

That was how I found out that I had dysentery.

Dysentery is most commonly found throughout the third world and has been making a resurgence in Russia and Ukraine. It is contracted, normally, though infected water or fruits. It is a bacterial parasite that attacks the digestive system and causes extreme fevers and a draining of bodily fluids. After two weeks of dysentery most people are lucky if they have survived. Thankfully it is fairly easy to treat if identified in time.

With my little green stamp-covered piece of paper we went back to the nice medical clinic where I started my day, and the doctor prescribed a real cocktail of anti-bacterial medications and then a slough of medicine to counter the damaging effects of anti-bacterials. She also wrote out, for Katya, my diet for the next week. Only small portions of rice or mashed potatoes with no salt or butter. And definitely no alcohol. Oh, how I craved for a cold beer in that hot Moscow summer heat!

We went to an Aptyeka (pharmacy) and bought all the medicine and then decided to go to Katya's in Shyolkova, where there is a large forest and fewer cars and temperatures are a good ten degrees lower than in the concrete jungle of Moscow.

A week later I sat down in an American-style restaurant (with, miraculously, air conditioning!) and stared with gratitude at a big juicy bacon-cheeseburger and a large pint of cold beer. As I bit into into that heavenly burger and washed it down with deliciously cold ale, I realized that I had had a brush with death and come out the other end with an experience to remember. Plus, I had air conditioning, if only for an hour or so.