Monday, January 31, 2011

Redneck Rampage

Not every fun thing has to happen overseas. Think back to your childhood: you were perfectly content getting into all sorts of mischief at home (at least, I was). So with nothing happening at all in my life in Moscow (all the good times have come to an end, and I feel that I have worn out my welcome in Russia), I think back to my life in South Korea, and beyond then to my life in Canada.

One incident in particular stands out as the best weekend I've ever spent.

A national public holiday in Canada is Queen Victoria Day. It is officially on May 24 every year but always falls on the weekend closest to the 24th. A case of beer, with 24 bottles, in Canada is called a two-four, and Victoria Day is likewise called May Two-Four. No coincidence there.

In 2001 I was living in the industrial factory city of Hamilton, Ontario where I was attending school. I lived off-campus in a bungalow with five other guys, but three of my friends practically lived there too. My oldest and best friend (until he married and disappeared a few years ago, and cut out all his friends from his life quoting that we weren't in his "circle of trust"), Doggawar, was attending film school in Toronto, about a one-hour drive from Hamilton. He spent nearly every weekend at my place.

Doggawar was always a real brat, with an incredibly quick sense of humour and a horseshoe shoved far up his ass to boot. He was a big guy with a big beard and leather jacket. As an example of his wit, one time we were cooking steaks on the barbecue and another friend of ours walked up to the grill, found the biggest, juiciest steak there was and spat on it. "That one's mine" he pronounced, to which Doggawar, without hesitating, also spat on it. "Have it." He replied.

Another friend, who I met in Hamilton, was Nailbomb (he liked the death-metal group of the same name). Nailbomb, with is his long black hair and thin, pointed face, was a punk/death metal/fuck-the-man kinda guy (and also the best driver I've ever met) who took great delight from mischief and building things. One time Nailbomb and I went to the woods around Hamilton and, using bungee cords from his Jeep Cherokee, built an actual working trebuchet and proceeded to hurl giant boulders down an escarpment. Good times.

Then there was the fourth member of our little group: Mojo. It is difficult to describe Mojo. To this day I haven't figured out if he was truly slightly retarded or if it was an all an act. Whichever it was, Mojo operated on the premise that the least amount of brain power necessary to get through life is the best amount of brain power to use. Unlike me, the slightly preppy, athletic guy, and Doggawar, the big beard and biker-style guy, and Nailbomb, the punk rocker bad-ass guy, there was Mojo, who wore incredibly big bell bottoms and trendy snowboarder sweaters and liked to ride BMX bikes. Mojo, with his shoulder-length curly hair, once made a pair of bell bottoms out of duct tape and then wore them to the club, where he was immediately harassed by a group of black guys. When he started to try and talk in Eubonics with them, it was all over.

The May Two-Four weekend of the year 2001 was to be a special long weekend. The four of us (originally three but we agreed to let Mojo come along provided he fetched us beer, cooked us food, etc...hence the name "Mojo") planned a trip to Owen Sound, on the stunningly beautiful Bruce Peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Owen Sound is mine and Doggawar's hometown, and in the summer offers beaches, girls, alcohol and sunshine. Unfortunately we were the wrong group of people to partake in such pleasures. It seems as if though every time the four of us, unlikely comrades all, got together the gods that be were incredibly annoyed.

Nailbomb, the superb driver that he was, drove us the 2 hours to Owen Sound. By "good driver" I don't mean he was a law-abiding driver. Rather, he would plug into his car and then proceed to act like a fighter pilot in a dogfight, swerving at high speeds between traffic, dodging every obstacle that got in his way (he once drove home from my house completely in reverse, using back was a 20 minute drive). I never once felt in danger with Nailbomb's driving, because he was always in complete control.

We were nearing Owen Sound, blazing along country roads ringed by quiet farms, blaring hard rock and smoking cigarettes and making fun of Mojo when all of a sudden a cop shot out of nowhere and, with lights blaring, pulled us over. 100 miles back Nailbomb had passed an elderly driver...on the gravel shoulder, and some other drivers had called the police. It took nearly an hour for the cop to catch up to us. Because the officer couldn't fine Nailbomb for an incident where he didn't actually witness it, but had pulled us over nevertheless, he had to find some other reason to issue a fine. After running Nailbomb's license through the computer in his car, the officer issued a different ticket. Nailbomb was driving without glasses, and the terms of his license said that he was supposed to be wearing glasses when behind the wheel.

Nailbomb's three comrades immediately broke into laughter. The famous, hard-edged, fuck-the-man punk-rocker Nailbomb had to wear glasses! The cop took his license and made Doggawar drive instead, and issued Nailbomb with a fine. We went on our way, and even Mojo joined in making fun of Nailbomb, who was visibly embarassed.

After another hour we finally arrived in Owen Sound and went to Doggawar's girlfriend's house (she left him soon after this weekend). Her parents had a huge, two storey home on 10 acres of forested land. The house was beautiful and the vast forest of maples and birch were in full bloom in the late May sun. While Doggawar went inside to greet his lady, Mojo, Nailbomb and I immediately popped the trunk of the car and cracked open the two-four of Molson Canadian we had brought from Hamilton. After our long drive we decided a nice beer was due us, then we would unpack our bags and settle in.

One hour later Doggawar found us deep in the woods, throwing pinecones at each other's heads, surrounded by empty beer bottles and completely drunk. "What the hell?" He cried out in deep annoyance. "You drank ALL the beer?!!?" We looked around in shock. "Noooo!" we protested. "There's lots left! We couldn't have...." But of course, the three of us had drank an entire case of beer in an hour. Doggawar was pissed. "Damnit! Come on. We're going into town. You owe me a case of beer." He turned and stormed back to the house, and we stumbled after him.

As we stumbled and laughed behind our visibly angry friend, Nailbomb pulled out a mickey of Jagermeister. "One for the road!" He decreed, and we immediately began chugging back the sickly-sweet alcohol. In the few minutes it took us to reach the car, we had polished off the Jagermeister, as well.

We all jumbled into the car and with deep annoyance Doggawar screeched out of the driveway and we headed into town. At The Beer Store (one of my favourite Ontario retain chains) Nailbomb and I bought two more cases of beer, and Doggawar ran into his brother in the parking lot. They started talking and catching up so Nailbomb and I staggered over to the nearby river, where, without warning, I threw up. It was so sudden and so violent that my vomit projected over the river bank and into the water, followed by a sudden uproar of quacking and honking. A mallard duck, covered in vomit, flew angrily into the air. Quite a shot, if I do say so myself. Nailbomb was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

We rejoined Doggawar and Mojo at the car and as Doggawar chatted with his brother I sat cross-legged on the pavement, the world spinning around and my stomach feeling like heaving again. I began muttering incomprehensibly, trying to say that I needed to sober up but instead mumbling "I need conditioning. I need conditioning." (I barely remember any of this). Nailbomb, the helpful friend that he was, took his lit cigarette and extinguished it on my forehead. "Aaaah." I sighed with relief. "That's what I call conditioning!".

A few hours later we were back at Doggawar's girlfriend's house (along the way I instructed Doggawar "don't make any turns, don't stop, just drive straight"). As Mojo, Nailbomb and I were sobering up at this point, we cracked one of the new cases of beer and immediately resolved to get Doggawar drunk. Everytime Doggawar took a drink from his beer one of us would immediately give a new toast. "To the weekend!" "To us!" "To booze!" etc etc. After three beers in ten minutes Doggawar was crying out for mercy. "For god's sake!" Within half an hour he was as drunk as us and once again we were a team. This time, with a new great idea.

Grabbing shovels and pick-axes we made our way into the forest and proceeded to build a bunker. It took us two hours and another case of beer but finally we had something reminiscent of the Mannerheim Line protecting Doggawar's girlfriend from the invading Red Army. For the roof we employed her father's chainsaw and some trees. Needless to say that, upon seeing us emerge from the woods with shovels and chainsaws, drunk and covered in dirt, she was immediately suspicious. "What the hell were you guys doing?"
"Nothing. Building a bunker."

She immediately banned us from using any wood to make a fire, a rather weak attempt to control us, the uncontrollable. So we used her father's jerry can of gasoline instead. She banned us from using the chainsaw, so we grabbed her brother's pellet guns and starting shooting each other instead. With a gas fire blazing (and we cooked bacon wrapped around sticks in it...quite delicious, if I remember) and guns shooting and bottles being emptied quickly, she had had enough. "Get the hell off my property,!" she cried. What a downer.

We took a taxi to Doggawar's mother's house instead.

It was a good move, because after a day of recovery (and a lot of his father's pot, bless his soul), we set out into the woods around Doggawar's house with pellet guns and beer and whiskey, and proceeded to have a little, painful war. It was Nailbomb and I versus Doggawar and Mojo. We stalked each other through the woods for some time until we came across Doggawar laying in some bushes with his air rifle pointing down the path we were about to stumble across. Nailbomb and I sat down behind a small ridge and strategized. Because I had a quick-repeater Daisy bb gun, I would run out, blazing away and draw Doggawar's fire while Nailbomb, with his single-shot powerful crack-open gun, would draw a bead and shoot the foe.

I ran out, firing from the hip and dodging between trees. Doggawar opened up on me, splinters of tree bark blasting away around me from his barely-missed shots. Nailbomb, unseen, standing and taking careful aim with his rifle, let off a shot with a terrific CRACK and Doggawar screamed in pain. Nailbomb got him right in the ass. I dove down behind a log and lay there panting for breath for a few moments, before the three of us set out to hunt down Mojo.

We found him submerged in a crevace, only his head and rifle showing. He actually took us by surprise and laid down a barrage of bb fire that kept us pinned. Unfortunately he had nothing protecting his flank so I made my way around to his left. We had a rule "No shooting each other in the head" and Mojo thought he was being clever by only exposing his head. But all is fair in love and war right? Especially when you're drunk. I took aim and nailed him the skull, blasting his baseball cap completely off. Game over.

That night Doggawar's neighbour, a girl a few years younger than us, had a party. There were a hundred people there, listening to pop music and drinking Mike's Hard Lemonade, laughing and dancing and being, well, normal. Nailbomb pulled his car into Doggawar's backyard and started blaring Sepultura. We built a fire out of wooden skids soaked in gasoline. The four of us began hooting and hollering in drunken extacy. Soon, some of the people from the other party started drifting across the lawn to our inferno. They were eating grilled vegetables, so we offered charred meat on a stick. They were drinking vodka coolers, so broke out rounds of tequila from the bottle. They were playing cards, so we offered them pellet guns. Needless to say that soon her ENTIRE PARTY had relocated to Doggawar's yard. There were nearly a hundred people running around the fire, shooting guns, eating meat, yelling and acting like barbarians. Doggawar's neighbour, poor girl, sat in her yard with one or two friends and stared in anger at our Roman conflagration.

The firing from the pellet guns became so intense over the course of the night that as people crossed the yards (No Man's Land, they soon called it), they would yell "Don't shoot! It's me, Dave...we met ten minutes ago. Remember? Hey! Wait! Ow!" Of course, Dave would then take his turn shooting other silhouettes in the firelight as they ran the gauntlet. At one point a little brunette girl with a tight shirt (I remember that much) started up a chainsaw and cut some wood for the fire, before another girl shot her in the ass. I myself was hit at least twenty times. Nobody was safe from the flying barrage of pellets and bbs, whether running for their lives across the yard or sitting around the fire roasting bacon on a stick.

The next morning I woke up under Doggawar's back patio with a brown-haird girl draped over me. I had no idea where I was for a few minutes, but twenty or thirty painful welts all over my body (including one pellet imbedded in my back that had to be dug out by tweezers) quickly reminded me. I had no idea who the girl was but one of her hands was down my pants on my backside. I pushed her off me and she groaned in her sleep and curled up in a ball on the mud, and I scrambled out from under the patio. The yard looked like the battlefield of Gettysburg.

People lay in all manner of positions, while a cloud of white smoke hissed into the sky from the firepit. Rifles and shoes and bottles littered the grass all the way into the tree line that surrounded the yard. A few brave souls stumbled about in hung-over pain, looking for personal effects. I couldn't see Doggawar or Nailbomb, but I found Mojo draped over the side of the roof of Doggawar's bungalow. "Hey!" I shouted. "Wake up, Mojo!" He raised his head in pain. "Huh?"
"Go find the others." I ordered. He scrambled down, monkey-like, from the roof and began poking bodies with his toes. I was determined to get out of there. The long weekend was coming to a close and Doggawar's parents were due back any moment that day.

After a few hours of clearing up (actually, Mojo did almost all the cleaning while the three of us sat in the kitchen and nursed our hangovers and dug pellets out of each other's skin) we packed up the car and headed, much more slowly and listening, I believe, to Rod Steward on low volume, to Hamilton and back to regular college life.

No Time For Fun

Life in Moscow these past 4 months has been incredibly boring. My time-consuming, energy-draining schedule persists. Wake up early in the morning, get on the bus to Moscow (1 hour), take the metro (30 minutes), walk to my first class (30 minutes), after that walk back to the metro (30 minutes), take the metro to my next class (30 minutes), get on a marshroutka bus (20 minutes), after that class get back on the bus and back on the metro, walk again (20 minutes), and after that take the metro to the train station and take a train home (1 hour), then another marshroutka (30 minutes).

By the time I walk in the door it's around 11:30 at night. My wife, who has to wake up around 6 am to get to her job in Moscow, is usually asleep by the time I get home. I have just enough time to slam back a cup of tea and then crawl into bed to do the same thing the next day. Day after day after day. The worst part is that I'm making as much as I made with Language Link last year, but working 40 hours per week and travelling almost as much, instead of the 28 hours I worked before. Add to that the fact that Language Link provided an apartment, and all my classes were in one central location, and I'm actually getting burned with my current schedule.

Because of this schedule, I have not had time to meet up with any friends or make any new ones, or visit any museums or interesting places, or party, or go clubbing, or anything like that. So I have no new stories about life in Moscow to share.

A year ago I was in love with Russia and with Moscow. I was captivated by the overall sexiness of this great country, and the deep and rich history and the incredibly funny people and the laissez-faire attitude of living here. Now I've turned completely against Moscow and Russia. As Katya told me: "Now you see what life is REALLY like here." I miss the rose glasses I was wearing a year ago.

So with no time to enjoy myself, and no interesting stories to write about, and a growing annoyance for everything Russian, I will be heading back to my home soon. It's too bad, because it used to be so great here. Oh Russia 2009/2010, I miss you!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stupid People

Please excuse the red and yellow fonts in this text. Blogspot is being stupid and won't let me change them, no matter how many times I attempt to edit this post.

Deep in the human brain four stages of our evolution can be identified, like the rings on a tree. Near the brain stem, making up a lump of brain mass, is the somatic brain, which is the oldest and most primal of our 4 brains and offers stunning testimony to the behaviours of some of the simpler creatures on our planet. This brain does nothing but control the ability to eat, breathe, reproduce, etc.

Around the somatic brain a different brain grew, over the course of millions of years! This is the reptilian brain and is almost identical to the brain the dinosaurs had, evidence of which can be found in modern day crocodiles and other left-overs of earth's distant past. This brain is responsible for territoriality, aggression, visual response and other more primal behaviours.

At some point between the last days of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, the limbic brain evolved, which we humans share with all the other mammals on the planet (it should be noted that all the other mammals also have the before-mentioned two brains), and is what gives us emotions, particularly towards the creation and care of young. The limbic brain is so well-fused with the reptilian brain that researchers aren't sure if the two are indeed separate brains, although modern-day reptiles and birds have only the smaller brain.

Finally, separating us from all other species on the planet (whales and dolphins aside, which have an extra brain on top of the four humans have), is the neocortex. This brain is responsible for all the remarkable achievements humans have performed over the past 8,000 years. The neocortex gives us speech, logic, art, intelligence and the ability to deal in abstractions. The neocortex is truly an awe-inspiring brain.

Unfortunately for we humans, the other three brains, particularly the reptilian brain, continues to hold much sway over the way we think and behave. The feeling of revenge for a slight or a threat is a great example of the power the reptilian brain holds over our neocortex, which should, if given full control of our heads, come up with a much better response then "I'm gonna kill you, muthaf**ker!"

Scientists and psychologists, who have been studying the brain and its workings for a long time (Egyptian and Greek doctors in antiquity had detailed descriptions of the human brain, unfortunately, many of those documents were lost when the Great Library of Alexandria, the storehouse of classical knowledge, was destroyed by religious zealots), have been keen to keep an emotional distance from their studies, which is a good thing when conducting any scientific expirement. Unfortunately they have left certain theories up to philosophers. Today, some of those theories are considered politically incorrect although there is a great deal of evidence to support them. Nobody wants to offend the (so-called) sensibilities of those who might fall into a certain categorization. Nobody wants to be called "stupid".

Thank goodness for the internet, however, because now I can present to you my own theory on stupidity, although unfortunately it won't stand the test of intense peer review. I am well-aware of the scientific method; the development of a hypotheses, the application of expirement to see if the facts fit the hypotheses, the anylisation of the results, and the disciplined need to shelve any theories where the observed evidence doesn't support the hypotheses. Science is not the exclusive realm of a few elite, but the natural inquisitiveness of all humans to understand the world, and the cosmos, around them. When a baby first learns that gravity can make her fall down, and she begins questioning how, she is conducting science. When a happy couple stare at the stars in a telescope together, romantic indeed, they are in fact observing the nature of the universe and are conducting science. And when I'm on the Moscow metro and observing the people pushing and jostling and falling down, and developing a hypotheses as to the workings of stupidity, I am conducting science.

The Hypotheses

Originally I wanted to show that there are people who are innately stupid, and then there are every one else. First I had to come up with a working definition of "stupid", which, for the purposes of this expirement, means "slow to understand, lacking intelligence, permanently confused and prone to repeatedly making incorrect decisions".

My test was to see if people were indeed organically, biologically stupid, and for this I needed a control group of those I considered intelligent. I would then apply the same observations of my control group to the rest of the people I was observing (neither the control group nor the test subjects were aware that they were under observation). For my control group I chose a mix of people from different cultural backgrounds; one American male, one British female, one Korean male, two Russian males and two Russian females (as the test subjects would be Russians in Moscow, it was important to gather lots of information about Russians from my control group).

After two months of study of the control group*, I found that they all had the ability to think clearly even under different stresses, and when alcohol was added to the equation the level of clear, intelligent thinking diminished at different rates for different individuals (but that, of course, is a different study that is well documented). The American male was, for example, able to keep a clear head when using Moscow's notoriously over-crowded public transit system, and thought ahead of seating arrangements and other details. The Brit was able to maintain a calm and clear and objective demeanour even when imbued with alcohol. The Russian control subjects showed themselves to be no different in behaviour than Americans or Brits, either when sober or when alcohol was introduced.

*Of course, I didn't know I was actually performing a control expirement on my friends until AFTER I decided to test a hypotheses about the infinitely stupid.

After looking at the information I had about my control group and then applying their behaviours to those of the general public in Moscow, I quickly found that my original hypotheses, that there are the naturally stupid and then normal, thinking people, was grossly simplistic. I had to shelve the theory and develop a new one. Basically, I believed there were varying levels of stupidity that could be categorized, but I wasn't sure what they were. After nearly a year of studying both intelligent people and idiots, in Moscow, London and Ottawa, I have come up with a theory to categorize stupid people.

Category 1: The Involuntarily Stupid

These people make up a large mass of the human population, and usually come from countries where access to education and/or intelligent upbringing is denied them. They are not biologically stupid, as if given the opportunity to shine C1 (Category 1) stupid people would be quite succesful. Instead, culture, institutions and official carelessness has forced these people into a certain level of stupidity, and many have no idea that it is so.

Example behaviours of C1 stupid people include extended use of the reptilian brain (perhaps because the neocortex was not stimulated properly during development), resulting in aggressive behaviour. The intimidating and uncouth behaviour of many central-asian immigrants to Moscow and the many young Russian males in the city can be attributed to C1 stupidity. With different options in their lives, these people could be quite different. Thus, C1 stupidity is created by society, and is not a natural stupidity.

Category 2 Stupidity: The Voluntarily Stupid

At first I didn't even consider that people could choose to be stupid, but the evidence was overwhelming and I had to include C2 stupidity in this theory. Voluntary stupidity applies to those people who, for some reason or another, choose stupid behaviours even when all the tools to overcome stupidity are available to them. C2 stupid people are overwhelmingly found in advanced democratic states such as England, America, Canada, Western Europe and Australia. They can also be found in advanced cities like Moscow. Where educational programming, prestigious institutions, public internet access and a culture that emphasises knowledge is readily and easily available, some people just choose to be morons.

An example of C2 stupidity from my observations can be found with people who have no mathematical ability, or knowledge of history or geography, and usually claim "I'm good at the arts but not at math". Math, like all knowledge, is not a natural ability but is learned. If someone is good at one thing they can be equally as good at another with discipline and effort. A more extreme example of C2 stupidity is when people readily believe, without questioning the evidence or using their natural logical capabilities, the tall claims of politicians (such as when the Bush administration duped half the American public into the WMD threat posed by Iraq). These people refused to even question the claims themselves, and eagerly chose to be stupid.

Category 3 Stupidity: The Inately Stupid (or Biological Stupidity)

Not everyone, I observed, is forced by society or willingly chooses to be stupid. Many people are just biologically incapable of intelligent thought and behaviour. In large urban centres all over the world the phenomenon of C3 Stupidity is easily observed. For my own observations I was in Moscow, and was able to study C3 Stupid People up close and personal on the public transport system.

C3 behaviour includes walking into another person, or scrambling like a frightened animal to get a seat without regard to personal dignity or the others around (usually with wide eyes and flailing limbs). The best example of Biological Stupidity can be found in any person who is hit by a train. For an intelligent person, it would take a supreme effort to be hit and killed by an extremely powerful and heavy machine that rides on tracks which covers only three feet of space, and makes a lot of noise and light hundreds of yards before reaching the victim. For someone who is naturally an idiot, it tends to be rather easy. Simply review the Darwin Awards for other examples of C3 stupidity.

It is apparent in C3 stupid people that most of the brain functions are not working (evidenced by the way mammals stay out of the path of oncoming trains, although birds and insects are regularly killed by large vehicles). With effort, sometimes supreme, a C3 stupid person can fire a few neurons in the limbic or neocortex brains, but for most of their day they walk through life in a sort of unthinking daze, reacting (sometimes) to the various stresses and stimuli they are subjected to. It would be interesting to study if C3 stupidity is biologically passed on.

C4 Stupidity: The Divinely Stupid

Unlike the C2 stupid who choose to follow the authority of their leaders, C4 stupid people have no choice. For some reason, these people are biologically unable to question appeals from so-called "higher" authorities. There is a great mass of humanity that are divinely stupid, and although they show intelligent functions in other areas of their lives (thus not relegating them to C3 stupidity), the appeal of authority immediately cows them.

Examples of divinely stupid people include religious fanatics who come from intelligent, logical societies or upbringings (such as many of the evangelical Christians in America). Many Catholics, particularly in latin-European countries such as Italy, France and Spain, are C4 stupid. This level of biological stupidity doesn't only apply to religon, however. People who follow politicians blindly (without making the conscious effort to do so), are C4 stupid. The key here is that a C4 stupid person will always, for all their lives, maintain this behaviour yet show intelligence in other aspects of their lives.

Divine stupidity is also common among the followers of New Age religions, conspiracy theories, UFO-oligists, people who recycle old ghost stories and Loch Ness sightings (purported as "evidence"...many C4 idiots like to mask their biological stupidity with appeals to science) and, in extreme cases, cult followers (Jonestown may have been a mass removal of C3 and C4 morons from the gene pool).


There are some special cases that display traits of 2 or more of the categories of stupidity. A person who is both forced by society to be stupid, but when put in an environment where opportunities are easy to come by for improvement, finds they are unable to learn (or chooses), is poli-stupid.

An fantastic example of poli-stupidity can be found in Republic Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s, who displayed traits from all four categories of stupidity. The jury is still out on George W. Bush, as only history will decide if he was actually intelligent and conducting a policy of extreme stupidity for personal gain (which would make him quite smart), or if he was truly stupid. Chances are he knew what he was doing, and was exploiting the varying levels of stupidity in the electorate to pursue personal goals. He wouldn't be the first leader to exploit human stupidity.

There it is, my theory of stupidity. Naturally it may be completely wrong, but I do have lots of observed evidence to support it. More than likely some categories will need altering, and others added, but I'll leave that in the hands of science.

Error Bar: +/- 1.5

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Halifax or Victoria?

Victoria, British Columbia or Halifax, Nova Scotia; that is the question. As Katya and I prepare to file her permanent resident visa application to Canada, one question plagues me: where will we live?

The choice of location is only one small box on the visa application, but it is a very important box. As the sponsor, I must show that I can support my wife for three years, which means that I must show I have a job and a place to live. If we write "Halifax" on the application, and I then change locations to Victoria before the application has been completed, we must start the whole process anew.

The decision is entirely up to me, as Katya reminds me every time I think aloud about it. "I don't know these cities, you do." she says. There's a great deal of responsibility on my shoulders in this matter, as I am determined to find one permanent place where we can settle down and never move from again. I am tired of travel and I have been living out of a suitcase for over two years now. I miss having a place that is mine, things that are mine, a stable and steady income and my own car.

The choice of city must meet several criteria that I have thought long and hard about. These are as follows:

1) Job market must be healthy enough to provide meaningful work.
2) Housing prices must be in line with salaries.
3) The city must be comfortable, clean and aesthetically pleasing.
4) The city must have the necessary culture and energy to allow both of us to be happy.
5) Facilities, infrastructure, commerce, government, services and safety must be high (although that will be easy to find in any city in Canada when compared to Russia).
6) The city must be near the ocean and have pleasant scenic views.

Basically, where can Katya, a new immigrant to Canada, and myself live a happy and comfortable life? I was originally thinking of Guelph, Ontario (my original hometown) but have since dropped that from the list of contenders, and it is now down to either Victoria or Halifax. I keep Katya's perceptions in mind as much as I can when making this decision, as I know what it is like to live in a foreign land and I want her to be as happy and comfortable as possible. So here is my comparison of Victoria and Halifax.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax is a beautiful and historic city. As one of the older cities in North America, it boasts a rich historical tradition that is on display everywhere. It served as the main British naval port in North America during the American Revolution, and its massive fortress, The Citadel, dominates every point of the city.

As one of North America's biggest natural deep-water ports, Halifax sees a lot of international shipping and trade every year and the provincial government has been wise over the past decade and has attracted a booming IT and communications sector to the city and thus, the job market is very healthy. A search for "jobs Halifax" brings up page after page of help wanted advertisements, satisfying my first criteria for a city. Score one for Halifax.

Another point in favour of moving to Halifax are the incredibly affordable housing prices. 2-bedroom apartments rent for around $750 a month, and a small starter home in one of the sattelite suburbs can be bought for under $100,000. "Mini-homes" in Nova Scotia, homes that are not trailers but not full-sized houses (2 or 3 bedrooms, kitchen, living room, patio on the side...actually they can be quite nice), can be purchased for under $50,000, including a small plot of land! Halifax scores big on the housing front.

When it comes to my third criterion, the comfort, cleanliness and aesthetics of a city, Halifax doesn't hold up as well. There are beautiful parts of the city, particular near the touristy harbourfront and along the roads that lead to Citadel Hill, but other parts of the city can be downright trashy (especially near the shipping docks and the large naval base). The winters in Halifax are famous for dumping six feet of snow in one night, and during the late summer the hurricanes that batter Florida and the Caribean every year smash into Halifax and die out over Nova Scotia. All told I think Halifax doesn't get a point in this department.

Halifax does have culture and energy in abundance, however. A strong Celtic tradition that has been succesfully promoted by the descendants of the first Scottish settlers is every where. During the touristy summer season, fiddles and bagpipes create a cacaphony of noise throughout the city, and then there is the immensely popular annual Halifax International Tattoo..a big military drum and pipe festival that showcases marching bands from around the world. I'm not so sure how Katya will take the constant sound of bagpipes. Being from Russia, she has never heard one before in her life, let alone 100 blaring in unison. Nevertheless, Halifax meets the criteria in this department.

Halifax is a fairly safe city, depending on where you go. Like all cities there is a fair amount of crime and some parts of the city are best avoided all together. Traffic can get bad in Halifax, especially over the two bridges that span the inner harbour during rush hour. Nova Scotians are, by and large, the friendliest and wittiest people in Canada but in their governance of Halifax's infrastructure it sometimes seems they can't get their act together (it might help Katya feel more at home). Halifax meets some of this criteria but not all.

Finally, my mother lives in Halifax and would be able to help out with our initial relocation, but this is a double-edged sword as anyone who knows my mother can attest to.

Of the six criteria I applied, Halifax meets 3.5 of them. It would be a nice and comfortable place to transition to life in Canada, but not necessarily the place to live, raise a family, retire, and die.

Victoria, British Columbia

Nestled in on the extreme south end of Vancouver Island, Victoria is a young, vibrant and modern city. Stunning panorama views of both the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean create a dreamy quality to this deceptively peaceful city. Victoria is actually a bustling hub of traffic, commerce, construction and yuppy do-gooders.

The job market in Victoria is not as good as Halifax. A search for "jobs Victoria" brings up lots of openings in part-time service roles (waiters, hotel staff, etc) but not many jobs in anything meaningful or well-paying. The company I worked for in Victoria before I came to Russia has been advertising as they prepare for the new fishing season, so there is a chance that I could find well-paying work there. Barring that, a lack of a Masters degree in Marine Biology or Public Policy Planning pretty much relegates the average joe like myself to waiting tables in Victoria, which scores negatively in my search for the perfect city to live.

Also scoring against Victoria are the incredibly insane housing prices. A small 1-bedroom apartment in Victoria rents for around $900 a month! Of course, outside of the city, in communities such as Sooke and Duncan, prices are more reasonable but I must always think of Katya, who will be unable to get around easily while I am at work. Therefore public transportation is a key and neither Sooke nor Duncan offer easy transport to Victoria. Forget buying a house in Victoria, the average price of a starter home is near the half-million-dollar mark! Victoria fails miserably in my second criterion for a good city to live.

When it comes to comfort, cleanliness and aesthetics, however, there is nowhere better on this planet than Victoria. This city is a beautiful testament to man's ability to blend modern life with nature. Although the city is young, modern buildings are designed with an eye to classical Victorian beauty, and the streets are well-planned. The inner-harbour is a peaceful and relaxing place to watch the sunset over the mountains and into the Pacific. Pods of orca whales glide around off the beaches, seals and otters playfully splash water at passerby's on the docks and eagles glide overhead. Because Victoria is situated in a sub-tropical environment, palm trees and tropical flowers bloom all year round (average winter temperature in Victoria: +8)...yes, Canada does indeed have palm trees!

Talking about weather, Victoria can sometimes seem a paradise for someone like me (who abhors both heat and cold...I'm a room-temperature kind of guy). Temperatures in the summer rarely peak +28 and never drop below zero in the winter, and most of the rain skips past Victoria to fall on her unfortunate and much larger cousin, Vancouver. When it comes to the third and fourth criteria, Victoria scores incredibly high.

The culture in Victoria is not nearly as loud (and some would say irritating) as Halifax, but there is a vibrant energy that is easy to feel the moment you enter it. Incomes are higher in Victoria, and a large population of well-to-do yuppies inhabit the scenic outskirts. Retirees are also found in abundance, as old farts flock from Canada's much colder eastern climates for the warm shores of the west coast. Unfortunately, this has also brought in waves of drug-addicts and homeless vagabonds, who find it easier to survive February in Victoria than in freezing Toronto. Crime in the downtown core and in areas such as Esquimault (another naval base) can be high, particular with smash-and-grabs and the occasional mugging at night, although Victoria has so far been spared the rash of gang-related shootings that has plagued Vancouver. Nevertheless, there is a warm, comfortable and cozy culture in Victoria and thus it scores high.

In total, Victoria meets 4 of my 6 criteria, just barely outperforming Halifax. Of course, in the end this means nothing if I can't find a job and a place to live. The choices seem very unfair: be homeless in a paradise city or have a good job in a more trashy city.

As I countdown to my return to Canada (which is soon, so we can get the visa process moving I've pretty much worn out my welcome in Russia), the decision of where to live looms larger and larger in my thoughts. Some nights it's all I can think about. Ultimately I know Victoria would be perfect, but I want security, a good salary and good housing, too, things that Victoria doesn't offer in abundance. I hope Katya hasn't placed her trust in a fool...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Plug In, Fill Up, Turn Off

Although Christmas was kind of crappy this year (actually non-existent), and New Year was just another day with the added exception that I was sick with a head cold, I immensely enjoyed the 10 days off, doing nothing. Katya and I watched a lot of Amazing Race and Hell's Kitchen (I have turned her into a reality-TV junky. Best of all, she watches them in English). I visited a Russian banya for the first time, and resolved to never do that again.

Going back to work in Monday was exceptionally painful, and it immediately put me into a foul mood. As I resumed my normal schedule, I thought about the end of the day and the 2 hours of travel just to get home. It is a routine I call "Plug in, fill up, switch off". Basically it involves finding a seat and plugging in to my ipod, then, once that is accomplished, filling my stomach with a schwarma or whatever food I found, and when I have completed that task I go to sleep until I reach my stop.

The problem with finding food to eat is that there is so much crap in Moscow and, even worse, shitty customer service. I can even put up with bad food if the service was exceptionally good, but I can't tolerate bad food AND bad service. It seems to me that Russians just don't understand how a free market works. I do, and I continue to crusade against bad businesses by not giving them a kopeck of my money, and by remaining a loyal, paying customer to those businesses who make the grade.

To keep organized, I've compiled a little list of businesses that pass or fail. This is by no means comprehensive (duh).

Burger King: FAIL

I have only visited the Burger King location at Metropolis shopping center at Voykovskaya, and on both occasions I went there I left not only disappointed but filled with anger (a the wrong emotion to instill in one's customers). The people at the serving counter were so completely rude, even demanding exact change like some babushka at a produkty. I watched as the staff clawed over each other to be the first to grab fries or burgers that had come up as if they were on the metro at rush hour, instead of working together as a team. My fries were soggy and my whopper had been sitting under a heat lamp for hours, and both times I went the cashiers treated me with such contempt that I resolved to never eat at any Burger King in the world again.

Every Produkty in the Moscow Oblast: FAIL

These stores make absolutely no sense to me. Go to one counter for your bread, pay. Go to the counter next to that for your milk and cheese. pay. Go the counter across from that one for your meat and pay. Go to another counter for a beer and pay. Why? Why not one counter?!? This isn't rocket science!!!

It has been explained to me that this is because several owners operate the different counters, and being Russian they don't trust each other with division of the profits if there was only one cash. As a consumer that isn't my problem. It's theirs. Adding to the difficulty in picking up a few items for the house is the incredibly bitchy and rude customer service that is encountered at every produkty in this country. Exact change is always demanded, and I've even been refused service for not having 20 kopecks. I resolved to never spend a rouble at any produkty again.

Hesburger: PASS

This fast-food burger chain from Finland has become my favourite fast-food joint in Moscow. They are dotted all over the city but I find the quality and service is fairly consistent. The customer service is outstanding, especially for Moscow, showing that Hesburger is committed to training their managers and supervisors correctly (unlike Burger King). The food is also fantastic, and I love their menu. The Mega Burger and the Hess Burger are two of the best fast-food burgers I've ever tried. The restaurants are kept in good, clean order and, best of all, the prices are cheap and fantastic! I continue to be a loyal Hesburger customer!

Moscow Oblast DPS (Traffic Police): PASS

Despite rampant corruption, racism, incompetence and thuggery, the DPS earns a pass mark from me for several reasons. First, they have been cracking down on unlicensed drivers throughout the oblast over the past month, resulting in nearly 6,000 arrests and 12,000 fines and making Moscow drivers a little bit more afraid of the law (which is a good thing in this lawless land). The DPS has always fought very hard against drinking and driving, and most drivers in the region don't dare get wasted first and then go cruising around Moscow. Finally, and I saw this one with my own eyes, two little girls wearing backpacks and obviously coming home from school exited a bus and tried to cross the street at a crosswalk, where who I assumed was their mother was waiting. Traffic, however, wouldn't allow either the girls or the mother to cross, as the drivers were ignoring the lights and simply driving through (including my bus driver).

One of the girls was crying, but just then a DPS car turned on his lights and pulled up to the two girls. One cop got out of his car and walked into the middle of traffic and brought everything to a halt, while the other cop took the girls by their hands and calmly walked them across to their mother. Then both cops got back into their car and drove off into the sunset, a display of humanity and generosity I have never seen in a police force, not even in Canada. Kudos to the DPS (for now).

That's my list of compliments and complaints for today. I'm sure I'll think of more on the elektrishka tonight when I plug in, fill up and turn off.

Best of 2010

Here is my annual list of the things that will remind me of 2010, if any body cares.

Movie: Cool Runnings

I spent a large part of January and February watching this film with my classes, fitting in nicely with my Vancouver Olympics-themed lessons (which were happening at the time).

TV Show: Peep Show

This hilarious British show was introduced to me by Quagmire and Ms. Australia, and I brought it back to Canada in September where it was an instant hit with those I showed it to. My favourite episode remains the one where he eats the dog...

Musical Artist: Sloan

Riding on the marshroutka nearly every day in 2010, and for some strange reason the same song by Sloan would be shuffled into play on my ipod. Now, every time I hear any song by Sloan, I'm reminded of a Russian marshroutka.

Book: The Master & Margarita (by M. Bulgakov)

Definitely hands-down the best book I read in 2010. I gobbled it up while I was deathly ill in July and loved not only the satire and the bashing of the communist elite in Russia, but also the way the author switches back and forth from Pontas Pilot's dealings with Christ before the cruxifiction to the comedic devil and his trio running amuck in Moscow.

Song: Say Hello (by Deep Dish)

This song will always remind of me three things: Moscow nightclubs, Moscow girls and the Moscow Metro, and I don't know why, but as I listened to each song I had nominated to represent the song of 2010 for me, this song stood out above all the others of conjuring up the most memories and images of that year.