Tuesday, December 31, 2013

We Wish You A Merry New Year!

Wow, what a year it has been!

Katya and I started the year off in Victoria, British Columbia and ended it in Guelph, Ontario. In that time we lived in Edmonton, Alberta for several months, drove 5,000 km across Canada, changed jobs, got thrown out on the street by a psychopath and started a new blog!

I always tie New Year's into Christmas in my mind, being part of the same season. However, the way the season is celebrated in Russia is much more logical despite being so much less traditional. In Russia in times past, the Bolsheviks deemed that Christmas was too steeped in religion to be celebrated by the masses. Because Lenin and his gang of Marxist thugs believed they knew what was best for everybody else, they banned Christmas.**

**Note: The Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar to mark the year, which is 15 days ahead of the Gregorian calendar used by everyone else. As such December 25 in the Julian calendar is January 7 in the the Gregorian. The Bolsheviks moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar at the same time they banned Christmas.

The toiling masses, however, still needed some sort of celebration and Lenin, Trotsky & Co. recognized this, so they fabricated a whole holiday celebration centered around the New Year. They exchanged "Christmas Trees" for "New Year's Trees" and "Christmas Carols" with "New Year's Songs". Dyet Moroz (Grandfather Frost), the Russian Santa Claus, now came to drop off gifts on New Year's Eve. Families were now to gather and eat a big supper and open gifts on New Year's Eve. Lenin's mistake, however, was that he didn't throw traditional New Year's celebrations out the window and as such heavy drinking and partying and making out and fireworks melded into the imported Christmas celebrations, making a Russian New Year's Eve the single greatest party anywhere in the world!

As I wrote in "Mission to Moscow", my first Russian New Year's was one of the best I've ever had. All in all I celebrated three New Year's in Russia. My second involved a four-day trip to ancient Suzdal to view the thousand-year-old monasteries, convents and quaint, colourful little snow-capped houses and spend some time in a true Russian winter wonderland. My third time I spent with Katya's mother and grandmother.

Christmas this year in Canada was wonderful; family and turkey and gifts and snow, but New Year's will be a low-key affair and not much different from any other night aside from a celebratory glass of something, a kiss at midnight and then probably sleep. If this were Russia, then tonight would be an all-out extravaganza, fusing that wonderful Christmas with family with an additional New Year's Eve blowout!

I can never forgive Lenin or Stalin or any of those murdering communists for the carnage they wrought on innocent people, but I can agree that from a celebratory point of view, merging Christmas with New Year's just makes sense!

With that said, С Новым годом! (Happy New Year!)

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Since I began living with Katya, I stopped buying into the whole "Ginger Rogers could do all the same moves that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels." Allow me to explain:

Katya is not the first woman I've lived with. I once lived with girl for nearly six years before that ended in flames, and I am experienced with the intricacies of cohabitation. Between breaking up with that girl and moving in with Katya I had the opportunity to live several wonderful years on my own. The habits I grew accustomed to in that time, and the fact that Katya is so much more domesticated and feminine then that North American girl I lived with before, has created a hitherto unexplored world of playing house. Because of this, I have made some remarkable discoveries.

For instance, I never knew that I needed a bedskirt. I'd heard of them, but always thought they were for real people with real homes. Apparently that's me, because now I'm the proud owner of not just one, but a couple of bedskirts!

Ironed clothes is another strange phenomena. I didn't realize that they were not only necessary, but also possible! I never really learned how to iron and became used to leaving my clothes out at night so the goblins could arrange them all nicely for me by morning. Well, no more goblins.

Another thing I learned was that women's high-heeled shoes are secret high-tech gadgets that transcend the known laws of physics.

I have always had my one pair of sneakers. Usually they were the only thing in my hallway closet (my jacket was usually draped over the back of the sofa). That's all that ever occupied any hall closet I owned while I lived alone. Well not since I began living with a Russian. 

Today my shoes are perched precariously atop a giant, multicolored mountain of shoes of all shapes and sizes and glitters. Katya has shoes falling out of the sky. Some of them I wouldn't even have considered shoes; heels so thin that there is no way they could support a grown human's weight. I'm often tempted to skewer cubes of meat on a pair of shoes and throw them over the barbecue! If I get popcorn stuck in my teeth while watching a movie, there's always a nice pair of stilettos within easy reach to pick the kernels out with.

Katya is obsessed with shoes. She can spot a pair of shoes that she covets from a mile away, like a shark smelling one particle of blood in a million particles of water. We'll be watching TV and a commercial for car insurance will come on. A professional woman in a business jacket and skirt will tell us why we should switch providers like she did. While I'll be mentally weighing a cost-benefit analysis of what they're offering and comparing to my current insurance provider, Katya will suddenly blurt out "Ooh, I like her shoes!" 

Really? Her shoes? Of course I shouldn't be surprised. After a couple of years of living together I've learned that Katya likes nearly EVERYBODY's shoes. Any show, any advert, any woman walking down the street, any store window, even a CARTOON in the newspaper will elicit a sudden "Ooh, nice shoes".

Say, nice shoes!

Which brings me to my latest discovery that women's high heels are advanced pieces of engineering. Because there is no physical way that these heels could support a grown woman, there must be some sort of electro-magnetic or rocket propulsion device involved. I don't care how petite the lady is; an elongated pine needle ain't gonna take the weight! My suspicion is that the "heel" has some sort of air duct channeling system that operates not too differently from a jet engine, except without the ignition source (such as jet fuel, which is really just glorified kerosene). 

If my suspicions are correct, and I usually think they are, then this means that women around the world haven't been walking on high heels, no, they've been hovering on a soft jet of fresh spring air shot out of the heels of their secret ultra-modern shoes. Think of the hoverboard in Back To The Future II.

Which is why I don't buy that Ginger Rogers was more talented than Fred Astaire. Heck, give me a hoverboard and even I'll take the king of dance for a spin! 

You've fooled me up until now, ladies, but I'm on to you thanks to Katya's obsession with shoes. Well played, ladies. Well played.

Proof my theory may be true!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Let It Goddamn Snow

Winter is finally upon us here in southern Ontario, and it has come in angry. Near the end of November we got our first good dusting of snow and I proudly declared the "..beginning of winter!" but then temperatures rose and rains came and it all washed away.

Now, two weeks into December, the main show is on and it has been snowing and blowing non-stop for the past four days.

For Katya and I it is rather nice. We had no winter in Victoria. No snow, not temperatures below 10 degrees centigrade nor was there much of a Christmas feel to the place. A couple of houses made a weak show of putting up lights but otherwise everyday was just the same as the day before, which is pretty much how it goes in Victoria.

This shot of downtown Victoriawas taken a few days before Christmas, 2012

The only house on our street that put up lights. We lived in an apartment and even we had lights up!
Katya grew up in Moscow, famous for its war-winning winters, and I grew up in southern Ontario, land of hockey, snowmobiles and ice-fishing. We are both quite accustomed to heavy winters so found ourselves missing winter while in Victoria.

At the height of a brutal winter, usually by February when two months of winter has passed and there's still no end in sight, people tend to get angry and moan and groan about the "Goddamned snow!" Canadians, in particular, absolutely HATE winter (ironic, when you think about it). During the summer we do nothing but prepare our credit cards for the "Goddamned winter!" That includes not only Christmas but also goddamn winter tires, goddamn winter rust-proofing, goddamn winter clothing, goddamn winter roofing, etc etc. It's a draining experience and a long winter will wreak havoc on the goddamn infrastructure of a city, so that by the time spring pokes it's head out in late March or early April, construction crews get to work and city budgets balloon. In Canada, we have two seasons: winter and construction.

With all that in mind it may seem strange, even downright patronizing, to some that two people living it up in sunny Victoria would be reminiscing about the romantic qualities of snow, but we really were!

And now that we're in the beginning stages of what is looking like a goddamn long and hard winter, it's all rose petals and rainbows for us.

I'm thinking of a white Christmas finally (2009, 2010 and 2011 I was in Russia where they don't celebrate Christmas on Dec 25, and in 2012 I was in Victoria where it is barely celebrated as well). Already every house on my block, and every other block for that matter, is strung up with lights and decor. In Ontario, everybody is a Griswald!

I'm also romanticizing the unrealistic thoughts of what winter will be like in February, saying to myself "It's not so bad. With a positive attitude, anything is nice!" I'm picturing myself skating down the Rideau Canal in Ottawa (actually really fun) and taking Katya on a horse-drawn sleigh through a local forest (Jingle Bells!) and building snowmen and making snow angels (Ya, right).

What I'm not thinking about is the death-defying drive to work every day through several feet of hard blowing snow, or the tears and snot that freeze to your face after twenty seconds outdoors, or the constant, never-ending grind to shovel and sweep and salt and wipe the very ground I walk on just so I can get from my door to the car, which probably won't start and when it does will end up killing a sleeping cat that had burrowed into the engine somehow. That's even if I can get the goddamn car door open without lock de-icer.

What I'll probably end up doing this winter is sitting on the sofa every change I get, watching hockey and drinking alcohol and bitching about the goddamned snow. Then, when spring comes and birds and girls finally come out of hiding, I'll say "It was so nice to have a white Christmas this year.: ")

The fantasy
The goddamn reality

Monday, December 2, 2013

Katya Loves Walmart

Since arriving in North America, Katya has developed a love for, nay, an obsession with US super-chain Walmart. She will use any excuse to go in there and getting her back out in a timely fashion is damn-near impossible.

It all started a couple of weeks after Katya arrived in Victoria. It was winter and due to rough seas and deep federal cutbacks my job as a Fisheries Observer was non-existent. This meant I had to find savings from the budget and Walmart offers some of the best, particularly in their grocery department. I took Katya to the Victoria Walmart at the swanky "Uptown Centre" and I couldn't get her out again!

The Victoria Walmart
In Victoria the Walmart sprawls across two stories, with special escalators that grapple your shopping cart and bring it up to meet you on the second floor. Up there you can find the electronics, household, automotive, arts and crafts and furniture departments. Katya spent a good hour and half on the second floor before we even made it downstairs to the clothing and shoes and grocery departments!

The Victoria Walmart is spacious and modern and clean and well-planned and the discounts are good. When shopping at large department stores in Russia, such as "Ashan", survival is more important than discounts. People push and jostle and trample and run over with shopping carts. Russians can't seem to stand in a line, and instead shove and elbow each other out of the way to get to the deli counter or the cash register. In Victoria, Walmart was calm and orderly and peaceful, and it's no wonder why Katya fell in love with it.

I personally hate Walmart. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against big department stores. I'm not one of those eco-snobs who regurgitates the well-used anti-Walmart lines: "Well you know [insert annoying nasally voice here], Walmart drives out small businesses and enslaves entire towns into minimum wage jobs." "Well you know, everything Walmart sells is produced by child laborers in Indonesia." "Well you know, every time a new Walmart opens up, ten African children lose their mothers." etc etc.

I don't care about any of that stuff. Keep your moral outrage in your pants, as it were, because as a consumer I'm looking for the best deal I can get for my money and if some little fifty-year old shop downtown can't compete, that's not my problem. Maybe you should lower your prices or think of a new creative way to attract business. Change your business model which obviously hasn't evolved with the modern markets. That's how free markets work. Organic evolution dominated by a few super-giants that devour anything which can't evolve. So, evolve. Or die. Either way I'm going to try to save a buck.

No, I hate Walmart because I can't stand the regular overweight white trash welfare crowd who frequent the stores. I hate waiting in line at the cashier behind a five-hundred pound woman with ten undisciplined kids climbing over the shopping cart stuffed with Kraft Dinner and frozen chicken nuggets, asking passing males "Are you my daddy?" While Victoria's Walmart is a diamond in the rough when it comes to the regular clientele, I've been to other Walmarts and know what they are normally like.

When we went to Edmonton in the summer, I took Katya to the nearest Walmart. Voila! A real Walmart! Katya was disgusted! This Walmart was particularly nasty, with dirty floors and even some kind of browny-reddish goop dripping off the wall near the bread section. "Welcome to Walmart!" I said, laughing, but Katya didn't get the joke. A large family of veiled Somalian Muslim women and their children literally shoved us out of their way as they went for the milk which was on special. Katya had a look of uncomprehending horror on her face.

But she wasn't going to give in so easily. She's Russian, if there is one thing that Russians are known for, it is stubborn resistance. So with something approaching fatalism, Katya defiantly continued to give that Walmart her business. Often times I would just wait in the car in the parking lot, listening to music and playing with smartphone, while she went looking for whatever. At least half the time she came out empty-handed because the employees at this particular Walmart never had the shelves stocked.

Nevertheless, Katya never gave up trying. When we moved to Guelph, and drove past the big shiny new Walmart for the first time, Katya's first words were "Walmart! Let's go check it out!"

Guelph had resisted Walmart for more than a decade. Determined to protect its downtown core, Guelph City Council had continued to refuse an application from Walmart to open up shop in town. Debate raged in the editorials of the local paper, and year after year city councillors campaigned on an anti-Walmart bandwagon.

However, when Walmarts opened up in every surrounding town, such as Kitchener 18 km away, and consumers started flocking there (the same people who were vehemently anti-Walmart at election time), city council had no choice but to give in. Only a couple of years ago a giant Walmart opened on Woodlawn Road.

We went in and I have to say that it was more like the Victoria Walmart than the Edmonton or Kitchener ones. Clean and spacious and well-stocked, with a real mix of people shopping. There didn't seem to be enough cashiers because the lineups at the cash wound back through the women's clothing department. We had picked up some croissants but put them back due to the long lines.

That was a month ago, and Katya has been back there at least four times since then. Her faith in Walmart has been renewed, and every time we drive past it she always suddenly remembers something that she has to "quickly run in and get" ("Quickly"..ya, right).

Katya loves Walmart, and a Russian with an obsession is an unstoppable force. So, I guess we're a Walmart family now.

Guelph Walmart