Monday, October 25, 2010

Back To The Rodina Matre

Visa: Check.
Train ticket to Toronto: Check.
Flight to Moscow: Check.
Suitcase full of gifts: Check.
Last $10 To My Name: Check

It appears I am ready to head back to the motherland (well, not my motherland but it's catchy) for who-knows-how-long this time.

It's a little bitter-sweet leaving family and home behind, again, but at least this time I know what I'm getting myself into. The rather intense reverse-culture shock that I experienced when I returned to Canada has long since worn off and I have enjoyed the past month or so, particularly hanging out with my siblings.

Last night one of my sisters and I joined my brother and 8 of his guy friends for a night of drinking at a trashy dive of a bar in Ottawa's Little Italy district. Following several shots of Moscovskaya Vodka (even here I can't escape it!!!) we proceeded to down pitcher after pitcher of beer. There were three hockey games on and the Phillies-Giants baseball game, and after 4 or 5 hours of steady drinking we were all sufficiently inebriated to not notice the $350 bar tab we had run up. Oh well. Good times never came cheap.

I'm off to Russia again where, despite my strong love of Moscow and the Russian people, I will miss being surrounded by English and, surprisingly, I'll miss TV here. I don't watch a lot of TV, but when I do I love some of the programming, particularly the culture that revolves around CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. It reminds me of evenings cuddled warmly in my house sipping on drinks while the snow falls past street lights outside. Workplace conversations revolve around "the game". Complete strangers at Tim Horton's will begin discussing it when waiting in line. Won't see any of that in Russia.

So, once again, adieux, Canada. One day I will return to your snug, comfortable, hockey-crazed beer-loving free-health-care embrace. For the time being I'm off to drink vodka, stammer away in a language I can barely pronounce, lose hair to the polluted rainfall and dodge insane drivers and furious old ladies.

Masochistic Love of Russia: Check

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tom Brokaw Explains Canada to Americans

As the US congressional elections heat up the closer November 2nd gets, Republicans have started throwing a lot of mud towards America's northern neighbour, Canada. Most of it is complete nonsense, like a lot of the garbage spewing forth from the mouths of the far-right in the US.

For instance, take the T-Party backed GOP candidate for Nevada, Sharon Angle, when speaking to a group of latino high school students. Her campaign ads focus on illegal immigration and show scene after scene of Mexicans jumping over fences. The latino students challenged her on this, to which she replied that the scenes portrayed, in not so many words, terrorists hopping the border from Canada.

Fox News recently described Canada as a "wasteland haven for terrorists intent on attacking the USA". Ann Coulter has said "..Canada is lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent as us" and, when discussing the end of Canada's Afghanistan mission next year, she insulted the thousands of soldiers who have fought, and the hundreds who have died, alongside American soldiers as "...a bunch of gays wearing colourful uniforms who wouldn't know what a rifle even looked like".

Pat Buchanan described Canada as "Soviet Canuckstan" (actually that one is funny and probably the most clever joke to ever come out of that douchebag's mouth). When Canada refused to partake in the illegal invasion of Iraq, despite walking side by side with America in the War on Terror, Tucker Carlson said, on Fox, "Canada is basically Honduras, but less interesting" and "What Canadians need are a few US bombs dropped on some of their families to bring them into line."

All this despite not a single 9/11 terrorist ever having set foot in Canada (they all came from other countries on US visas issued by INS), despite over 5500 troops (nearly 1/3 of our military resources) serving in a combat role in Afghanistan, despite being America's largest trading partner (more trade crosses the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit in a single month than all US trade to Japan in a year) and despite being America's safest, closest and friendliest neighbour. It's a great way to treat one's friends.

George "Double-ya" Bush broke NAFTA by imposing tariffs on softwood lumber, despite three NAFTA rulings and one world court ruling. In 2002, American F-16s accidentally bombed a Canadian military convoy in Afghanistan, killing 4 soldiers and wounding 7. The US government refused to apologize for this, and added insult to injury a month later when a Marine Guard of Honor hung the Canadian flag upside down during the Prime-Minister's visit to the White House. A reporter (for BBC) asked George W. Bush about this a week later, to which he replied "They should stop being babies about everything." Babies? You killed our troops and insulted our Prime-Minister!

Obama has only helped to worsen relations by repeating the myth that "Canada is a haven for terrorists" and, following his last visit to Ottawa, by saying that "I enjoyed my visit to Toronto".

Canada has recently begun drawing away from political and economic trade with the US. New deals with the EU and the "emerging" countries has seen an 8% drop in Canadian resources going to the US and a 7% rise in those same resources going to other countries. Canadian tourism to the US, which made up 72% of tourist dollars to the US before 2003, has declined by 21% since then. Anti-American sentiment in Canada, traditionally a pro-US country, has risen dramatically with 76% of Canadians saying "I really dislike America" in a recent Gallup poll compared to only 24% ten years ago. Hell, there's even a public boycot on goods that say "Made In America", something unheard of before 2003.

All this is very reactionary to basic US idiocy/ignorance of America's largest trading partner, closest neighbour and most loyal friend. After a decade of abuse by what used to be our best friend, Canada is slowly but surely flipping the US the finger and finding new friends in the world.

It was very relieving, then, to come across this wonderful presentation by NBC's Tom Brokaw, titled "Explaining Canada to Americans". I have included it here for your viewing pleasure, because Mr. Brokaw has summed up in 3 minutes everything Americans SHOULD know about Canada.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


If hatred is caused by fear, then I have an abnormal fear of telephones. When a telephone rings the hairs on the back of my head stand up and my stomach tightens up into a knot. The irritating, grating sound of ringtones and bells and digital alerts causes me no small amount of stress.

A telephone conversation with me is most usually one-sided. I issue a lot of "Yups" and "Uh-uhs" and "Hmmms" with not much else to say, despite being a good people-person when face-to-face. I am, however, a great third-party conversationalist. If somebody else in the room with me is on the phone I can carry on a lively conversation with the caller through an intermediary. "Who's that?" "Tell them I say hi!" "What are they up to tomorrow?" etc etc.

With this fear of talking on the telephone I rather surprised myself when my sister's phone rang and I answered it. Call display showed an unknown number and the phone was conveniently located near me as I drank a beer and watched the Toronto Maple Leafs on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada. It was about 8 in the evening.

"Hello?" I enquired upon answering.
"Yes. Can I speak to Mr. AteThePaint [not my real name]?"
"This is Beth at National Credit Centre. You have an oustanding OSAP loan."

OSAP stands for Ontario Student Assistance Program. In short the Government of the Province of Ontario issues low-interest guaranteed loans to students for post-secondary education. I enjoyed four years of living it up on what I viewed at the time as buttloads of free money.

My first year I spent a lot of time at The Keg, sampling different cocktails and scallop-bacon-garlic butter dishes with a variety of interesting college girls. In my second year I appropriated a black leather Lay-Z-Boy and a TV. In my third year I enjoyed Toronto's nightlife quite a bit and in my fourth year...actually, I don't remember my fourth year all that much. There was 9/11. And a house with six guys renting rooms. And a foozball table that saw the invention of "Flaming Foozball" (plastic balls and lighter I barely remember some more college girls, and a lot of whiskey and marijuana.

After I finished school I ignored my OSAP loans with all good intentions (my intentions basically being "If I can scam a free education, I will"...I'm also notorious for cheating at Monopoly). Thankfully I managed to pay it down some with the occasional large cheque, most often at tax-return time.

Then I spent a few years in South Korea and Russia. I've been staying at my sister's place for a month while I await a new visa to Russia. I haven't used my credit card or bank card or opened a mobile phone account or anything, really. Basically I've been laying low and might as well not even be in the damn country. Not only that, but my sister just recently moved to Ottawa from North Bay, so her phone number has only been in existence for a couple of months.

So when credit collectors somehow tracked me down to this very number I was utterly speechless. I said the only thing that came to mind. "Wow. You're good!" The woman on the other end (Beth) actually laughed. "So, about your debt."
" much do I owe? I forget."
"You owe [X amount]. You need to pay it all now or we'll take legal action."
"Oh. Okay. I'll send a cheque tomorrow."
"That's good."
"Thank you. Have a good evening."
"Wait! Don't you want our address?"

No wonder I hate the phone.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Autumn In Ontario

Despite its faults, Ontario is absolutely beautiful in the autumn. The whole province explodes into a multitude of dazzling colours as the trees shed their leaves. Reds, golds, yellows, browns and even some shades of green light up all 1.2 million square km of the province.

Growing up here, I have fond childhood memories of Octobers past, complete with spooky, pumpkin-filled Halloweens and corn-field mazes and multi-coloured forests and haunted hay-wagon rides.

Today I went for a hike in the maple-covered hills that surround Ottawa and revelled in the crisp October air and maple and birch forests. Here are some pictures of a good Ontario autumn!

Below are possibly the best jack-o-lanterns I have EVER seen!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Trouble With Canadians

"The three great themes of Canadian history are:

1) Keeping the Americans out.
2) Keeping the French in.
3) Trying to get the natives to somehow disappear.

These three themes represent the social/policital mission of Canadians. Americans: out. French: in. Natives: invisible. If Canada were a hockey team, this would be our chant.

These three forces push and pull us; they haunt us with doubts, they enrage us, they engage us...they are us.

There are other minor themes as well: Sucking Up To The Royal Family; Waxing Poetic About Nature While Huddling Inside A Shopping Mall; Electing Boneheads; Trusting Authority; Avoiding Extremes; and Resenting Success. All of which are played out against the larger myth of Being Nice.

Of these three great themes, the Americans are first. Why? Because without the Americans there would be no Canada, at least not in the political sense. The people living on the northern half of this continent would be an odd, introspective, stir-crazy bunch no matter what course history had taken, but the fact remains that two nations were created by the American Revolution.

Bloodied but still standing, the U. S. of A. - last of the superpowers - is at once obnoxious and enticing. Love them or hate them, and Canadians manage to do both better than any other non-Americans in the world. Americans are impossible to ignore.

Which brings me to the famous Skis on the Car Roof Mentality. Memo to any Canadian nationalist muttonheads out there: No American has ever - ever- shown up at the Canadian border in July with skis strapped to the roof of his car, asking "Where's the snow?"

I must have heard this stupid story a million times in my life and if I hear it one more time I'm going to punch somebody. So the next time some idiot Canuck starts in with the old "Skis On The Car Roof" story, I reserve two boots to the head.

And while we are at it, Americans do not think we all live in igloos. No one thinks we live in igloos. These folk legends reveal more about Canadian insecurities than they do about American ignorance. The fact is that Americans don't think about us at all!

Our feelings towards America are complex, but they can be summed up in the following five axiomatic propositions of Canadian nationalism:

1. Boy, we hate Americans.
2. We really do.
3. Really.
4. I'm not kidding. We really hate them.
5. So how come they never pay us any attention?

It's a classic love/hate relationship, and it defines us in ways we can never transcend. We measure ourselves against Americans. We crave their attention and their approval, we revel in their ignorance of us, and we take masochistic glee in slights, perceived or real. It is a form of neurosis, one step away from a compulsive high school crush. We pout, flirt, pass notes and talk maliciously about the object of our fears and desires. And they ignore us.

Canada's intense preoccupation with America is like one of those old black-and-white movies from the 1940s where the heroine beats her fists on the man's chest, sobbing "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you." only to collapse into his embrace.

America is sexy. It is exciting, dangerous, crass, brash and violent.

The problem isn't that America is screwing us regularly - which they are - but that they never send flowers or call afterwards. They barely remember our name. "See ya around, doll. Here," as they toss us a coin. "buy yourself somethin' nice." It is intercourse without foreplay, when all we need is a little respect (cue the sobbing, chest-beating litany of "I hate you's").

As the United States careens by like a parade on crack cocaine, amid fireworks and gunplay and racially-motivated riots, we watch from the sidelines, thankful we are not caught up in it and yet - and yet, somehow, wishing we were.

So why should we care? There are many quiet, backwater countries that have attained a degree of civility and respect that Americans can only dream of. Sweden comes to mind. So does Switzerland. The problem is that Canada is still very much a North American country; we are a frontier-bred people and we will never be satisfied with mere comfort and security. We are nagged by dreams of greater things, of something more. It is a state of mind we share with Americans.

We worry far too much about America.

Why should we give a damn about how we stack up? Whether our gun laws are more civilized than theirs or whether our medicare is more human doesn't really matter. We have nothing to gain by using the Unites States as our yardstick. We should be setting our standards by who we are and want to be.

Let us put an end to the wailing, woeful lamentations about our impending Americanization. That we share many similarities with those foreigners to our south is not a cause for despair. Given the simalarities in geography, history and background, the surprising thing is that we are different at all. And we are. That Canada exists at all is remarkable. It is one of the enduring, and endearing, miracles of North American history. That we have made a damn good show of it, despite all odds, is even more impressive. We will always be something more - and less- than American."

-Will Ferguson, "Why I Hate Canadians"

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Maple Leaf Forever

When I got home to Canada I brought along with me a suitcase brimming over with gifts. Matryoshka (aka: nesting) dolls for my cousins, sisters, mother, and niece; vodka, Red Army hats from Volgograd, a Red Army field manual that was actually a drinking flask for my brother, traditional hand-made shawls for my sisters and little colourful Orthodox church christmas tree ornaments with brightly-painted onion domes. An illustrated book of Russian fairy tales. A calendar featuring traditional Russian recipes. Somehow I fit it all in my bag.

Going back to Russia in a couple of weeks will be no different, but this time I will have a bunch of Canadian crap. T-shirts with "Canada, eh?" logos, a warm white Team Canada Olympic hoody for Katya, a dream catcher for her mother, maple syrup in a bottle shaped like a maple leaf, a Canadian flag umbrella. A box of Red Rose tea.

This is a problem that Canada has. We don't have anything really unique to claim as our own aside from, maybe , a hockey puck. Instead we take any cheap product produced by child labour in Indonesia and slap a big ugly red maple leaf on it and pawn it off to tourists for $20 a pop.

Russia is also filled with gawdy touristy trinkets, but they come from history and culture and a sense of being a unique place in the world. What the hell does Canada have? Maple syrup? We've gone over-kill on that one and most of the rest of the world has maple syrup, too.

I need to find something really meaningful to bring back to Russia. It has to be something that will automatically make a Russian think of Canada, and it would be wonderful if it didn't have a blaring red-and-white maple leaf symbol on it.

A Mountie hat? Too big and without the red uniform and the horse it means nothing. A hockey stick? A case of Molson? A painting from the Group of Seven? A moose? Pierre Trudeau's shrunken head? A box of poutine?

There's something incredibly bothering about trying to look for meaningful trinkets that sum-up Canada. There are plenty of magnets that say "Canada". Oh look, a baseball hat that says "Canada". Over there a rack of t-shirts that say "Canada". Wait! There's something different! It's a spoon that says nothing! Never mind. It has a big Canadian flag on it. Oh, and it does say "Canada" in case you couldn't figure out what the flag meant.

I needed to find Katya one meaningful gift that can summarize everything there is to know about Canada. Something that conjures up the way I feel about the true north, strong and free. One gift that conveys the place Canada holds in the world. Running out of ideas I settled on something for Katya. Something that will remind her of Canada everytime she sees it. A white pair of sexy little boy-short underwear. With a big Canadian flag across the ass.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Great Russian War Documentary

In the lead-up to the big 65th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War, a series of documentaries were made in Russia covering almost every major battle of the war. I saw some of the episodes on TV and liked how they did them (and I am a war documentary connoisseur), my only problem was that I didn't understand most of what they were saying.

So it was with great joy that I came across the same shows on Youtube, complete with English subtitles! Although the grammar in the translation is horrendous it still gets the message across.

This show, called "The Great War", is broken into several series which are more akin to episodes. Each episode is 50 minutes long so is broken into 10-minute segments on Youtube but they are all lined up together so when one ends just click on the next one in line.

Here's a link to the first part of the first episode, covering Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union). Enjoy!