Saturday, September 28, 2013

Take Me Home Country Roads

Katya and I are currently renting a room from friends, the Dutchies, in Kitchener. Katya works in Guelph  and she doesn't drive, so I take her in every morning and pick her up at 5 every evening.
Kitchener to Guelph is only 18 km but the mass of drivers on the little single lane highway makes the commute take up to 50 minutes at times! Add the big long-haul trucks and the inevitable 80 year old man or nervous middle aged woman in a mini-van, and you have the recipe for my road rage.
This traffic problem is constant,  any time of the day. Katya has looked for a car pool, figuring there's so many single-driver cars on the road at rush hour,  but not a single person is interested. There's a real nasty vein of pure selfishness running through the KW area that I see on the road, in the stores and in the parks.
Getting tired of "sharing" the road with idiots and assholes, I went looking for my own route. Parallel to highway 7, between the two cities, are a bunch of farms. Farms mean country roads. Country roads are usually set up in square grids and, even better, mean no congestion!
I turned off the main highway (after waiting 12 minutes to reach the intersection) onto a side road, which quickly became a dirt and gravel road, and blew past fields of corn and grazing cows. I followed a zig-zag route, left, right, left, right, and waved back to a farmer servicing his tractor's engine.
With a few more twists and turns, and not a single car in sight, I suddenly found myself on Guelph's Paisley Road! From there it was a quick two blocks to Katya's work!
I now only drive those carless country roads. It takes me 20 minutes, door-to-door, without seeing another car for most of it. I don't know why nobody else goes looking for other routes. Lemmings, maybe? Afraid of the unknown, even if the unknown is only a few miles of farms next door to your hometown? I think most people don't even process the fact that taking another route could even be a possibility. It's just too far outside of their precious little reality.
I'm not complaining, though. I ve never had a problem going off the beaten track (or main road) and I don't mind that I don't need to share with others. Until we relocate permanently to Guelph, you'll find me on those country roads!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Surprise! I'm Orthodox Now!

In January 2012 I was officially baptized into the Orthodox faith in an old church in central Moscow. The Russian priest who performed the rites was fluent in English. One of Katya's friends, a friendly young Russian man named Dima, was one of those monk-types who lived and breathed the Church. For almost an entire year before my baptism he had been teaching me the Orthodox faith, emailing me English literature on Orthodox canons and traditions, and sponsored me for baptism.

Every adult who is being baptized must be wearing a clean white gown. They must fast for 3 days before the baptism and they must understand what they are doing. Katya and her mother had made me a nice white baptismal gown for the big day, and for 72 hours I ate only a few pieces of bread and drank water, and only after sundown.

On the day of baptism, Katya, Dima and I travelled to downtown Moscow. After a 30-minute discussion with the priest in his office, in which cookies and tea were served (so long for the fast), in which he explained to me the central tenets of Orthodoxy and discussed some miracles he had personally seen at this particular church, we went out to one small wing that had been curtained off.

Russian Orthodox churches are organized, or rather intentionally unorganized, so that multiple things can be going on at once. In one section a priest might be leading a service, while in another a priest might be surrounded by people and discussing biblical things. Throughout the church are icons of the saints and candles and holy relics and so forth, and people are free to wander around and offer candles to whatever saints they wish, and make personal prayers alone. Unlike the monotonous, robotic droning of our western Catholic-based denominations, Orthodoxy is a very lively, independent and ultimately spiritual type of Christianity.

The priest performed the ceremony in both Russian and English (I only had to answer in English), made me spit a few times on the ground, Christmated my forehead, cheeks and side of my neck with holy oil, and then baptized me by dumping luke-warm holy water out of a pitcher over my head. The whole time he was holding a service book in one hand and chanting and praying, while some other-worldly choir of angelic female voices sang in answer to his prayers from beyond the curtains.

Then he did something very rare. He took me behind the holy wall to the area that is only accessible to the clergy. In Orthodox churches, there is a large wall heavily decorated at the front of the church. Three doors, two small ones on the side and a large one in the center, lead to a sanctuary that is considered a holy place, where the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven meet. A separate altar, along with the holy bread and holy wine for the Sacrament, are kept back there, as well as whatever holy relics the particular church might have.

This kind priest took me to this holy place and showed me the church's holy relic: a piece of garment that is supposedly from the robe Saint Mary (yes, the mother of God) wore. Apparently it had been brought to Constantinople by Catholic crusaders returning to Europe from the Holy Land. When the invading Muslim Turks sacked the city in 1204, many of the Orthodox churches sent their holy relics off to the Serbian, Ukrainian and Russian churches for safekeeping. This particular Moscow church, which was nearly 800 years old, still had their Holy Relic, and the priest was showing it to me with obvious pride. He then gave me an entire loaf of consecrated Holy Bread and showed me back out to the main part of the church.

Afterwards, our friend Ms Minnesota (whom I met in 2009 in Mytischi and was still living in Moscow in 2012) met up with us. Dima stayed behind in the church to...well, do whatever he does, while Katya, Ms Minnesota and I went off to find a restaurant and celebrate my baptism!

Katya and I flew to Canada a couple of weeks after that day. We found a Russian Orthodox church in Victoria but it was extremely small (in a rented house, actually) and lacked the spirituality and mystery of the churches in Russia. In southern Ontario there's a few Orthodox churches around, mostly Greek and Ukrainian. There's a big old Russian church in Toronto, supposedly the oldest Russian church in Canada, adorned with icons painted by Czar Nicholas II's sister herself (she escaped the Bolsheviks and fled to Canada, settling in Toronto). We're planning on checking it out whenever we get a chance.

I like the Orthodox faith. I find it much more spiritual than the western denominations, which are heavily legalistic and involved in every day politics (the Orthodox church closely follows Christ's command to "..give unto Ceasar those things that are Ceasar's, and give unto the Lord those things that are the Lord's." Thus it doesn't meddle in politics or think-tanks or so-called "family values" morality.)

Orthodox icons are amazing, if misunderstood. They represent the saints and the stories of the four Gospels, and their function is to act like greeters meeting people to the church. People don't worship the icons (that would be idolatry) but instead they pray to the icons to intercede with God on behalf of them. For instance, this past summer mine and Katya's beloved fuzzy cat, Milo, died for unknown reasons. He was only 6 and seemed healthy, until he grew sick. We rushed  him to the vet's, they fed an IV into him and put him in an oxygen tank. They did blood tests and x-rays and couldn't find the reason. He passed away after only a couple of days (and after bankrupting us). We went to church that weekend and I lit a candle for him and placed it in front of the icon of Mother Mary, who is the saint of innocent souls.

Despite my conversion to Orthodoxy, and my spiritual awakening (which had always been there but didn't find a home until I first entered a Russian Orthodox church), I'm still fairly normal. I'm no monk like Dima. I drink and curse and watch sports and violent movies. So despite this post about Christianity (a religion that is mocked and bashed in the west these days, although perfectly acceptable in Eastern Europe), I'm still normal.

Well, as normal as I can be, anyways.

The Orthodox Crucifix. The top bar is where the Romans carved "Jesus Christ, King of the Jews" and the bottom is where victims' feet were nailed.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ottawa V 2.0

A week after arriving in Ontario, we drove to Ottawa to visit my brother and sister. Ottawa is a 5-6 hour drive from Toronto. My family moved there from southern Ontario in the mid-90's, although I didn't join them for a couple of years, and then I only lived there for a year before returning to southern Ontario for post-secondary. Over the  years I have lived and/or visited Ottawa intermittently. The last time I lived in Ottawa was prior to teaching in Russia, which I recorded in Mission to Moscow here.

Admittedly, I hated Ottawa then. I left Port Hardy, BC in December 2008 after finding an ESL job in Russia. I went to Ottawa to spend Christmas with my family but then, suddenly, the world financial crisis hit and I no longer had an ESL job lined up. I was stuck in Ottawa with no job and no plan, so my view of the city was skewed.

However, I have lived in Ottawa for 4 accumulated years and I can say that Ottawa and I have a love-hate relationship. When I visit, I love the place. When I live there, I hate it. 

Ottawa was chosen as Canada's capital because it was hundreds of miles from the US border, situated in a deep wooded valley along a rapid-infested river with few access routes for a marching American army (in those days armies travelled on foot). America had tried to invade twice before in 100 years and so in the mid-19th Century defense from the southern bully was Canada's main pre-occupation. Today, of course, it would make more sense to have Canada's capital in the center of the country, like Winnipeg. Instead, we have a hot and humid capital hundreds of miles from nowhere that is completely out of touch with the rest of the country.

But I digress...

Katya and I drove to Ottawa and spent a week with my brother. He and his girlfriend had bought a house together 3 years ago in the Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven. It's a nice house, newly built, with central air and a big garage. Unfortunately, he and his girlfriend broke up a few months ago and are selling the home, so it was one last chance for us to stay there in their spare bedroom.

As I mentioned above, I don't like Ottawa too much, but for the past 18 months I've been seeing everything anew through Katya's eyes, and Katya loved that city! On the second day there I took her for a tour of downtown and Parliament Hill. She loved the old gothic architecture, the statues and monuments, Sparks Street pedestrian mall, the Prime-Minister's home at 24 Sussex Drive and the Governor-General's mansion at Rideau Hall. We even drove across the Ottawa River on one of the many bridges to Gatineau, Quebec, so that Katya could claim to have been in 6 of the 10 provinces! 

Katya poses on Parliament Hill, with Quebec across the river in the background.
Sparks Street, Canada's oldest pedestrian mall.

A few days later we did a tour of Hogs Back Falls and the Rideau Centre shopping mall. We wanted to hit up a museum or two but we were running out of money (story of our summer so far) and, unlike in Britain, Canada's museums cost money to enter.

Visiting family was great fun. My brother and I drank most of the week and played Axis & Allies. My sister taught us archery (which isn't actually that difficult once you get the hang of it) and we had a fun game of Earthdawn for old times' sake (when my sister and brother were kids I played Earthdawn with them every Friday night as entertainment). I also made my signature Meaty Zitti dish, which my family loves.* 

* When we were young I once had a great idea that for Christmas, nobody buy each other gifts but instead we all make each other gifts. Our family was poor so everybody, including my mother, liked the idea. Everyone spent a couple of months carefully crafting and assembling gifts. Except for me, because I had forgotten about it. So when Christmas Day rolled around, I suddenly panicked and scrambled to get a gift together. I made a Meaty Ziti, a signature dish I had learned when I cooked at an Italian restaurant. My family made fun of me but loved the dish ever since.

Hogs Back Falls, Ottawa, Ontario

Ottawa's Chinatown

Learning archery
In addition to all this stuff, I also revisited some of my old stomping grounds, including the neighborhood I lived in right before I went to Russia. There was the old Italian Catholic church with its annoying bells, and there was that sweltering apartment I rented. I also revisited my mother's old home (before she relocated to Halifax) where I spent my last few days before flying out to Moscow. 

After a week, Katya and I drove home. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Driving Across Canada

Canada is approximately 7255 km (or 4508 miles) from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. One long, and often-times, lonely, highway, the Trans-Canada, serves the main route of car travel. The Trans-Canada weaves through coastal lowlands, along rocky bluffs and sandy beaches, through rich farmlands and dark forests, between towering cliffs and across vast flat plains to awesome mountains and sub-tropical rainforests. Often there is no civilization for hundreds of miles, no cell receptiona and not even FM radio stations. I've driven it 3 times.

The last (and, God-willing, final) time was a month ago when Katya and I relocated from Alberta to Ontario. Believe it or not, but we were having a hell of a time finding jobs in Edmonton! It's a great place for a ticketed tradesperson such as a pipefitter or welder, but for white-collar folks like us, it sucked. Add the unaffordable housing prices, the expensive groceries and the terrible state of the infrastructure which the Alberta government neglects, and it was time for us to mosey on. 

We packed up our car and drove east. 

The first day we left at 7:30 am with Winnipeg, Manitoba as our destination. The 14-hour drive through the prairies was draining, to say the least. At first we were wowed with the weird beauty of fields of canola and wheat disappearing over the horizon, and the shadows of clouds moving over gently rolling grasslands, but after five or six hours we grew bored. Thankfully I had my ipod loaded up with music and stand-up comedy and we were able to pass the first day.

The boring nothingness of the Canadian prairies.

Somewhere in Saskatchewan...

We stopped in the middle of Saskatchewan for a rest and some lunch, at some little off-the-road field with an old wooden shack in it. It was tranquil with insects and birds flying around, the sound of the highway lost behind a treeline, and the prairie sun shining down on us. I grabbed a 20-minute catnap in the driver's seat, and woke up surprisingly refreshed and re-energized! 

The roads in Alberta and Saskatchewan just outright suck (Alberta in particular). We cut through Saskatoon and beelined for the Manitoba border. Manitoba's roads are well-maintained and quite nice to drive on; however, gas stations are few and far between in the eastern-most prairie province and we drove a long while with the gas light on before finding somewhere to fill up in some small Manitoba farming town. 

Then a 4-mile long train blocked us at a rail crossing for nearly 45 minutes. We stopped for supper at a Wendy's somewhere and made it our hotel in Winnipeg around midnight. Day 1 finished! 

Somewhere in Saskatchewan...

Welcome to Manitoba!

The geography in Manitoba starts to become more hilly and wooded.

End of Day 1
The next day we popped over to the nearby Tim Horton's for breakfast and then got on to the ring road that circles Winnipeg. We got back on to the Trans-Canada just east of the city and we were off to Ontario, only a couple of hours away. The sun was shining and the music was nice and we were in good spirits.

The last we saw of Manitoba

Because it was high tourist season, we had a hard time finding a room in northern Ontario in advance. Thunder Bay was just a bit too close to Manitoba (although in hindsight we should have booked a room there). The last time I drove across the country, on my way from Toronto to Victoria, my ex and I found that Wawa was the perfect stopping point. However, everything in Wawa was fully booked. Knowing it would be difficult, but not realizing how difficult, we booked a room in Sault Ste-Marie for the second night. Winnipeg to Sault Ste-Marie. That's 1,360 km in one go!

We didn't realize what was in store for us when we crossed into Ontario. We were excited at stopped to take pictures of the big "Welcome to Ontario" sign. The highway immediately became perfectly groomed and the scenery changed suddenly from broken prairies to lush green forests and brilliant blue lakes. 

We stopped for lunch in beautiful Kenora, Ontario and then drove out towards Thunder Bay. The drive was so much nicer than the day before, on a twisting road through the northern Ontario forests and the Canadian Shield. Finally, at sundown, we reached Thunder Bay and the stunning, breathtaking shores of Lake Superior. 

The official Manitoba-Ontario border

The Ontario Visitors Center right across the border

The beauty of Northern Ontario

Sunset over Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, Ontario

While we were amazed at how beautiful Lake Superior is, I was starting to get a little stressed about the fact that it was sunset and the sign in Thunder Bay said "Sault Ste-Marie  706 km" The very next sign read "Night Danger: Moose on the road. Next 700 km" 

For those who don't know, a train was once derailed in northern Ontario after hitting a moose, and the 2-ton animals are the second leading cause of traffic fatalities in northern Ontario (the first being alcohol). 

On top of the threat of moose, darkness and 8 hours of tired driving, it began to rain and a heavy fog bank rolled in from the Great Lake. I spent our second night leaning over the steering wheel (just to stay awake), peering into foggy darkness while Katya kept hollering out "I saw eyes at the side of the road! There!" every few seconds. Around 3 am we crawled into Wawa and filled up the car with gas and my veins with caffeine at the 24-hour Tim Horton's. Then we got back on the road and pulled in to Sault Ste-Marie at 5 am, as the sun was rising. 

I don't have any photos of that night drive (for obvious reasons) but I can tell you that it sucked a lot!!!

The next day's drive was relatively easy. Sault Ste-Marie is only a 7 or 8 hour drive from Toronto, so we checked out of our room by 11 (with only 5 hours of sleep), hit a McDonald's for breakfast and were on the road again, this time not as enthusiastically as the past two mornings. 

By mid-afternoon we were in dirty Sudbury for a fill-up, and then we had supper at a Wendy's in Barrie, Ontario, just an hour north of Toronto. 

As we entered the GTA (Greater Toronto Area; population 5.5 million) a massive fully-arched rainbow greeted us. Katya was ecstatic and took at least a hundred photos and some video. It was a good omen and a nice welcome home for me. I grew up in the GTA..sort of...and to see this rainbow arched over the suburbs of Vaughan and Etobicoke, and my favourite playground Canada's Wonderland, filled me with a hope I haven't felt in years.

Sudbury, Ontario

The Canadian Shield

Welcome to southern Ontario!

We pulled in to Kitchener, Ontario just after the sun had set, our incredible 3 1/2 day journey at an end. After the hellish drive the night before, I fell asleep an hour after arriving, not even finishing an entire bottle beer...