Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Friends, Photos and a Passport

When I had first set out for Russia, just over a year ago, I had no intentions or expectations, nor did I have a valid reason for giving up a life of considerable comfort on Vancouver Island. The weeks and days leading up to the hour I would leave for the great unknown were filled with excitement and dread, although I had no long-term plan. I began to have second-doubts and the well-intentioned critiscisms of my family and peers didn't help.

Why had I given up a $50,000 a year job in a quaint little harbour town on Canada's stunning west coast? Why wasn't I taking that time to further develop my future opportunities? What about savings? What about student debt? What about all the communists and criminals I would find in Russia?

As I left for Russia these thoughts swirled around in my head. I had given up everything I owned in exchange for a couple of suitcases and a few facebook pictures. When I set out for Moscow I literally owned nothing.

One year later I have returned to Canada with the same suitcase, albeit with a lot more facebook photos. And a lot of quality friends from all corners of the world. And a beautiful wife whom I adore. And, perhaps most important, without realizing it or even trying to, I acquired myself along the way.

It was in Russia and particularly after arriving back in Canada that I realized that I am not cut out for Canada's middle-class. Nor am I cut out for the upper or lower classes. I am of a different class altogether. This class is an international class of semi-homeless people who roam the world with a bag and a passport. This is a new class of people as the ability to roam the globe and establish lives in far-flung places is relatively new in human history. There are quite a few of us in this class but in proportion to the overall population we are quite a small group. Most of us teach English for a living, although a few us manage to roam around doing other jobs and a very fortunate minority, the upper-echelons of this classless class, get to do it all without a day's labour.

Because we share experiences and mindset and, usually, a common language in foreign places, the members of this class tend to form very close bonds very quickly.

Not everybody who travels can claim to be among this small global group of people; there are those who only travel for a few months with a backpack. They don't count. There are those who travel for a year but bitch about every thing that is different from "home" and only aspire to return from whence they came. They don't count, either. There are those who travel only for flesh and vice. They have their own class and can keep out of ours altogether. International students, expats working at American-owned companies on big payrolls, diplomats and their children as well as researchers are not part of this class as, by definition, they have their own classes back home as well as the luxury of secure financing.

The people in this internationalist class are a different breed and we can spot one another right away. We are not elitist in any way; in fact, we are quite humble and laugh at ourselves for the very lifestyles that bring us together.

I have met and immediately bonded with most of my compatriots who have lived the same lifestyle as me, that is, overseas with no real end-goal and limited financial means but a deep-rooted desire to see the world in this lifetime and make the best of it. Many of these people I have not met, but I have done my best to include their tales on my blog. To the right you can see a list of other great travel blogs which, I feel, are quality examples of this globe-trotting class of people.

It was in Russia that I realized that I was much happier, much more fulfilled and much more confident of my place in the world when I'm out in the actual world, and not slowly dying day by day in the middle class of North America. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually I felt awed and rejuvenated in Russia, much as I did in England, Thailand and, to some extent, South Korea (although the last few months of life in that country became unbearable, but that's a different story). For sure the summer was nearly intolerable, what with the heat and smoke of Moscow, but as soon as it all cleared up life was back to normal.

As I read the blogs of two particular young women who have taken my place (as well as Wonderpant's, Ms. Australia's and Quagmire's places) in Mytischi in the new year, I am brought back to those first few months in Russia when I immediately fell in love with the country and the people and myself for choosing to go there despite the fears and critiscisms. Having already met one of the bloggers, who runs The Rheal World, and reading through the blog of another one, The Devushka Diaries (both blogs have fantastic names and both these woman are incredible writers with good spelling...rare in North America), I immediately recognized members of my class and feel a longing for Mytischi and the Russian autumn that impacted me so strongly a year ago. I can't wait to return in a few weeks.

Being home in Canada has been depressing but, more importantly, eye-opening, as I've come in to sharp contact with a former life which, due to the sum of all my travels, I now fear and loathe. Nevertheless I am glad that I returned here. It has ultimately provided the final piece of the puzzle in my identity and philosophy.

One day I know I will settle back here (although not in Ontario, or "Onterrible" as many call it) and will be forced into a middle-class lifestyle. It happens to everyone. Passports and visas expire on everybody. Nevertheless, this is my one shot at life and I am happy that I have not wasted it by grinding away in a "normal" North American existence.

It was going to Russia that I can thank for all this. For the memories, for the photos and the friends, for the loving wife and, ultimately, for myself.

Now, in celebration, I'm going to go get drunk in Ottawa and flip off all the hard-working yuppies who have never left their province. Za S'droviya!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The streets in Canada are much cleaner than most of the cities in Russia, but the architecture is definitely a lot more boring. As a complete couch-surfing bum, I've been bouncing around from sofa to sofa, mostly with my family, while I await a new visa to Russia, and so life has been fairly boring.

With a plague of boredom, dwindling reserves of cash and clean streets, I decided to wander aimlessly around Ottawa for old time's sake.

First I went up Bank St. to Parliament Hill, a good starting point for any Ottawa excursion, and then wound over the Rideau Canal to the Byward Market where, I was hoping, a good pub with Alberta beef burgers and pints of draught would await me. Alas, most of the pubs in the Byward Market have closed down save for a couple of bigger ones. Part of a new "Alcohol-free zoning" initiative undertaken by city hall with the help of concerned citizen's groups. Nevertheless I found one decent-looking pub and stopped in to enjoy a burger and a pint of over-priced Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale.

The pub was filled with people, most of them wearing business-casual and most of them middle-aged yuppy baby boomers. I couldn't help listening in on their conversations, alone as I was, and that's when something profound occured to me. I hate my own people!

One woman was regaling her table of colleagues about her friend or sister or somebody. "Her therapist told her to take herbal sleeping pills and she got a week off work. Hitting that cat on the side of the road was very traumatizing for her." All the fat old woman high on themselves nodded in agreement. "Oh yes. Yes."

Another table consisted of two guys, one of whom, at least, was Quebecois, as well as two women. The French guy had closely-cropped greying hair and tiny round spectacles. Under his polo shirt he couldn't have weighed more than 160 lbs. He was spewing out a story, in very accented English, about the evils of eating meat. "Ourr boday's cannot deegist eet und wee prodoose carbones as a reesult, soo it iz bad four de environemant" His compatriots nodded in sheep-like agreement.

Disgusted with people, I quickly chugged back the last quarter pint of beer and asked the girl for my cheque. After paying I left the pub and walked outside, where I lit a cigarette. Immediately, before I had even finished putting my lighter back in my pocket, another middle-aged woman was in my face. "You can't smoke within five metres of a door, mister!" she barked at me. "Oh, sorry." I replied, and took a few steps away from the door (I think in feet, not metres, so wasn't really sure how far that was supposed to be). "What are you going to do? Flick your cigarette on the ground?!?" She snarled. She was flushed red with anger at my smoking.

I stood silently for a few moments, staring in utter amazement at this slug-like creature. Then, without saying a word but never breaking my hard stare, I lazily took a drag off my cigarette.

I can't help it, but being back in Canada, with all these vegetable-eating non-smoking better-than-thou idiots around has made me extremely reactionary. My sister and her fiance made burgers the other night and offered me one. I was starving and my mouth watered at the mention of the word "burger" so I leapt at the chance but, with a sinking heart, I was informed that they were veggie-burgers. One of their friends, who was visiting, doesn't eat anything that has touched meat.

"Oh, sorry." I told them. "I don't eat anything that has touched vegetables."

If we're not supposed to eat animals, then why are they made out of meat? And since when did anybody have the right to stick their nose in other people's faces and preach to them about what they can and can't do? If some yuppy preaches to people about the ills of smoking, or the ills of eating meat, or the ills of oggling women, or anything else, how do they know that they won't get stabbed in the eye? Really it's a sense of sudden, furious pain that kept people in line, but in our modern society that fear is gone and people are beginning to behave like mindless animals, despite believing themselves to be progressive enlightened thinkers.

With a huff my fat ugly yuppy assailant waddled away like an overweight penguin, and I stayed in that spot and smoked my cigarette. Then I flicked the butt on the ground. Out of principle.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Home, Home, Where Art Thou?

What is this place I call home? Who are these well-meaning people who I don't understand anymore? I recognize these symbols and flags, yet they touch no chord with me. The language is free-flowing and easy; it surrounds me on the street and in the restaurant, and I comprehend but I don't understand. Why has home ceased to be home?

Better yet, why the hell have I fallen in love with Moscow?

What is it about Moscow that has seeped into my heart and attached itself like the root of a weed? Is it the stunning array of architecture from 1200 years of history, lit up in soft spotlights in the evening, that leaves an indelible impression? Certainly there are few buildings in Canada to rival the purity of history that can be seen in Moscow. Old and new are intertwined in Moscow in beautiful Slavic glory.

Is it the Moscow Metro that I miss? That monument of human achievement which no other city can rival? The crowds at rush-hour are certainly easy to miss, but the peace of the metro in the evening, as it carries the last few stragglers of the day along chandelier-and-frieze-and-marble guilded platforms, is wonderful. At each stop another citizen, whom I will never see again, leaves the train while one or two more get on. Some read books (and how Russians love to read!), some listen to their ipod and stare at their feet, while in the corner two teenage girls yap away at each other. At the far end of the car a man is passed out drunk. I love the Moscow Metro.

Perhaps it's the constant parade of beautiful people I miss? The city is filled with gorgeous women and handsome men, and almost everybody is dressed in European fashions (save for the odd Adidas track-suit and mullet). The women glide by gracefully in stilletos or, if enough of them are running for a train or bus, clatter along sounding like a cavalry charge. Now that I'm in Canada, I notice that there are so few beautiful people in this so-called home of mine. Fashions are non-existent and people walk around with a smug air of superiority, rather than the calm confidence of Moscow, yet they are overweight and wearing jogging suits. I even saw one woman at the supermarket wearing her pyjamas, her hair a tangled mess, and she sported an extremely better-than-thou look on her face and in her demeanour. That would be unheard-of in Moscow!

Is it the feeling of freedom and hedonistic abandonment and, strangely enough for such a large city, collective experience that I miss about Moscow? In Moscow, nobody scowls at or nags strangers for smoking. In Moscow, nobody pesters people about the sins of eating meat. In Moscow, one can drink a beer in a park. In Canada the police would treat a public beer-drinker like a hardened criminal. Nightclubs and bars in Moscow are a haven of flesh and touching and flirting and grinding. When I'm on the Moscow Metro at rush hour, and babushki are pushing me with their big purses and everybody is sqeezing onto the escalators, there is a feeling that EVERYONE is going through the same thing. I can make a joke to a Muscovite about Moscow, and they will instantly understand. In Canada everybody lives in their own individualistic bubble. In Canada women think you want to rape them if you try to talk to them. In Canada making a joke could result in a lawsuit, depending on what side of the political spectrum the recipient sits. How I miss Muscovites.

What is it about the underlying current of spirituality that persists in Moscow? Surely its not only the thousands of Orthodox churches that fill Moscow, their beautiful round spires and onion domes and bright colours giving proof to the thousands of years of influence the church has had on Russian culture. Compare those to the dreary gothic architecture or tacky new-age slabs of our churches. No, there's more to it than just the churches. There is an energy to Moscow, that can be felt in every park and pounding nightclub and grouchy produkty, and seen in every random firework and bad parking job and random beautiful face. Moscow is strangely powerful on the soul.

Why does Moscow feel more like home to me? Is this just a strange transition, a normal effect of reverse-culture shock, that I am suffering through? I feel like a foreigner, uncomfortable and uncertain in my own country. Do I love Moscow simply because it was my home for so long? Would having my own place again in Canada cure me of this melancholy? I'm living out of a suitcase in a spare bedroom, at the mercy of my family's generosity while my wife trudges through her workday alone 5000 miles away. Perhaps I just need a home again.

It is all these things combined. My home (wherever that is), the energy, the freedom and warped community, the beauty and the history of Moscow all have caused me to fall in love with the city. But ultimately there is one thing I miss. I didn't realize it until I went for a walk around the Rideau Canal in Ottawa today, and that's when it hit me. The one thing that is missing from Canada, but which can be found outside any metro stop or on any corner or in any park in Moscow, is this:

Trash cans on fire.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

End of Act I

Returning to Canada after a year in Russia and a week in England was, to say the least, anti-climatic. The past year that I spent in Russia was one of the most eventful and interesting years I've ever had and Canada just feels, well, boring. It's like I never left.

This fact could be attributed to being in Ottawa, the city that fun forgot. If I had returned to the west coast things would have been much different but, as it stands, my family lives in Ottawa thus I am in Ottawa.

My week touring around England may have helped to buffer some of the reverse-culture shock, as everyone there speaks English, has the same culture as my home and living standards are high, although driving on the left remains confusing. Also, customer service in England is only a few shades brighter than customer service in Russia, and I have yet to experience exceptional Canadian customer service (to be fair, the best customer service in the world is south of the Mason-Dixie Line in states such as South Carolina and Georgia).

One interesting thing about my visit to London stands out in my mind: meeting up with Quagmire!

A few days before I set out for the UK Quagmire emailed me and said he was passing through London on his way to a new destination. I told I was also passing through London at the same time! We arranged to meet at the stone lions at Trafalgar Square at 1 pm and on the specified day we met up.

The last I had seen of Quagmire was after he was canned in Mytischi for missing classes. Wonderpants, Mr. Irish and I had chipped in some cash to give Quagmire as he didn't have enough for a flight home and Language Link was cancelling his visa. He took a train to Kiev, Ukraine, and for a week or so stayed in touch but then vanished. That was in March. Now, in September, in London, England, Quagmire and I were sitting at a British pub eating steak and ale pies and drinking British Imperial pints of bitter.

Quagmire had been arrested in Ukraine for teaching illegally at a language school in L'viv and had spent some time in a Ukrainian prison, and then an immigration detention centre and then was finally booted out of the country. Naturally the police kept his laptop, cell phone and cash for themselves. He's now found a new job in Sri Lanka and while he was stopping in London on his way east I was stopping in London on my way west.

London is filled with tour companies; it is the fourth most-touristed city in the world, so Quagmire and I bought tickets for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour called "The Big Bus Company". They have open-top double-decker buses and follow a bus route which snakes through Westminster and London, stopping at every interesting site. The ticket is good for 24 hours so anybody can hop and off and catch another bus. They come by every 10 minutes.

In January Quagmire and I had conducted a beer tour of Moscow. It started when we got stinking drunk at a cafe in GUM (possibly the only idiots on the planet to get drunk in GUM) and in 12 hours saw us visit over 10 different bars and cafes and clubs. For old-times' sake, armed with our Big Bus tickets, we did it again in London. Piccadilly Circus! Drink! Soho! Drink! Whitehall! Drink! Big Ben! Drink! The Tower of London! Drink! Buckingham Palace! Drink!

At 9:30 the following morning I made my way to Heathrow and caught a flight back to Toronto and then a connecting flight to Ottawa, where it has been nice to see my family but completely lacking in anything resembling excitement, and thus the anti-climax of an epic year.

The good news, for me at least, is that I decided to return to Moscow but this time as a student of Russian. Katya and I paid for the first semester of courses and my Letter of Invitation is being processed in Moscow right now. In four weeks I'll fly back and Katya and I will rent a flat on the (cheaper) outskirts of the city, so the wonderful year I just experienced has, after all, a sequel!

Quagmire enjoys a pint of British ale

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Russia to Sweden to England

I flew out of Moscow on Saturday afternoon and touched down in Stockholm two hours later in what turned out to be an anti-climactic departure. With all my business with Language Link tied up including receiving my final pay-out and flight reimbursement (which all went rather smoothly), I said my goodbyes to dear friends and colleagues and boarded a Scandinavian Airlines Airbus at Sheremyetova International.

Stockholm was not as exciting as I was expecting. This centre of Scandinavian culture and history, as well as the capital of one of Europe's most prosperous and advanced countries, was surprisingly small. I never was able to get an exact population figure but it couldn't have been larger than 200,000 people. I'm too lazy to look it up.

I only had 18 hours in Sweden before my connecting to flight to London so I took the fast airport express train from Arlanda International to the city centre and walked around. By following a couple of the canals that snake through the city I was able to see a few interesting sights, such as the pictures below, but unfortunately I couldn't find my way to the Royal Palace where the King of Sweden lives.

From Stockholm I continued on my journey to London, England where I landed around 10 pm local time and my cousin and her husband, The Roberts', were waiting for me.

There was an interesting moment at the British Immigration desk at Heathrow when I was nearly denied entry to the United Kingdom. All non-EU passport holders have to fill out an immigration card and one of the questions on this card is "The address, including postal code and telephone number, of where you will be staying during your visit." I had no address and no telephone number for The Roberts', so I simply jotted down "Daventry". The woman at passport control didn't like this.
"Why don't you know where you're staying?" She asked me in a very accusing tone.
I shrugged.
"Let me see proof of a flight out of England." She demanded.
I handed over my e-ticket voucher for my flight to Canada.
"I need an actual ticket!" She barked.
"This is all I have." I replied and, for some reason "Look, I have a Union Jack and a crown on my passport, and it is issued in the Queen's name!"
She looked at me for a long time in uncomfortable silence while I stood there with an idiotic smile, and then she sighed and stamped my passport.
"Ok. Don't do it again." She advised me as I walked through the turnstile. I was in England!

I've been relaxing for a few days at my cousin's house in the rural English town of Daventry and spent yesterday picking blackberries in the rain, driving on the left side of the road (driving standard with the gear shift on my left was a strange experience but I quickly mastered it; the most difficult part I found was negotiating the ridiculously narrow British roads) and drinking true Imperial pints of bitter ale at true British pubs.

This is a ROAD, not a footpath!

I'm here for a few days and then I'm off to tour around London on my own and then flying home to Canada.

And then in October I'm returning to Moscow for more adventures.