Sunday, May 25, 2014


Guelph is an inconspicuous little city of 120,000 just to the west of bustling Toronto. Boasting a large University and being a logistics hub for southern Ontario, it has attracted steady growth. Guelph is also my hometown, where I was born and grew up, and it is where Katya and I call home today.

I left Guelph more than 20 years ago when my family moved to even-sleepier Owen Sound. We then migrated east to Ottawa, and then I went to college in Hamilton, then moved to Alberta, then South Korea, then British Columbia, then Russia and back to British Columbia again. In all that time Guelph rarely registered on my radar, except to visit my grandfather and my uncle, aunt and cousin who all still reside there.
As fate would have it, I now live in Guelph. Katya landed a great job with Linamar Transportation, working in their logistics office in the city's west-end. She is making more money than she ever had in her life, with good benefits and at a company that treats her incredibly well. This career windfall for her has allowed me to start my own business, start writing professionally and to sell Ebooks. I'm making enough money through these ventures to pay my share of the bills, but I have nothing left over so I recently started delivering pizzas part time, a job I absolutely love (with tips I average about $18-$20 an hour). 

This delivery job has allowed me to explore Guelph even more, and I have to say that I absolutely love being back where it all started for me.

Guelph was founded in 1827 by a Scottish explorer, John Galt (who went around Ontario planting British flags) and is called the "Royal City". Anytime a member of the Royal Family visits Canada, they are obligated by tradition to stop in Guelph. My sister once drew royal blood when Princess Margaret visited Guelph and all the little girls lined up downtown in their best dresses and bows to hand the princess roses. Unfortunately, the rose my sister was clutching in her 4-year-old hands still had a thorn on it, and when then princess took it...ouch! Royal blood! It's a source of family pride.

Guelph gets made fun of by its bigger siblings, Kitchener-Waterloo to the west and the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) to the east. Guelph is a farming town, or at least was, but the ridiculous housing prices of Toronto and the crack-head infestation of Kitchener has brought commuters flocking to Guelph in search of safety and property. Guelph's south end has exploded into cookie-cutter subdivisions, complete with soulless box-store plazas, while the historic downtown core continues to suffer from a lack of business. 

The University of Guelph is one of the world's best agricultural and veterinary centers of study. The University is situated on a sprawling campus and is the city's largest employer. More than 15,000 students flock to the University every year to become arborists, veterinarians, agrichemists and whatever other life science you can think of. U of G gets a bad rap for a significant number of left-wing radical idiot students who shout and abuse any passerby who may look like they have a differing opinion (to zealots of any stripe, it is unfathomable that anyone can have a differing opinion, thus they consider opposition a crime rather than an opposing viewpoint).
The University of Guelph is a center of agricultural and veterinary sciences

In the 2013 CFL season, the Hamilton Tiger Cats used the U of G football stadium as their home, while theirs in Hamilton was being reconstructed. The TiCats went to the Grey Cup where they lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Left-wing liberalism is alive and well in Guelph, particularly downtown and around the University. American draft-dodgers settled in Guelph during the Vietnam era, and hippyism has stuck around ever since. Guelph is considered an artsy-fartsy mecca and a haven for lesbians looking to find their inner soul. The dozens of boutique cafes and bakeries found in 200-year old buildings is quaint, if a little pretentious, but the old businesses that have been around for a century or so add a touch of genuine heritage to this unique city. It's actually funny how left-wing lesbian-hippy liberals live alongside conservative-voting redneck farming folk in seeming harmony.

I love Guelph's old train station, built at the turn of the last century. 

To the north of Guelph is still rich farmland, and there is nothing but tiny farming towns between Guelph and Georgian Bay, 90-minutes away. Because of these farms, Guelph has a decent farmers market which is open year-round, and is surrounded by other towns with equally-interesting farmers markets and flea markets. Guelph proximity to farms means that Beamers share the road with Ford F-150s, and it is not uncommon for a farming tractor to tie up traffic on the highways leading out of the city.

To the south of Guelph is Highway 401 and the bustling corridor to Toronto, Niagara, Kitchener and Windsor/Detroit. 

Guelph suburbia, particularly in the south end
Katya loves Guelph because of its many gardens and parks. Two major rivers converge in Guelph, the Speed River and the Eramosa River, and these rivers attract water foul like Canadian Geese, ducks and loons. The city skyline in the summer is a canopy of green with a huge Catholic church rising above. The Church of Our Lady is the second largest church in Canada after some giant cathedral in Quebec. There is a strange bylaw in Guelph that no building can be constructed higher than the Church of Our Lady.

The Speed River runs through the center of Guelph, where it joins the Eramosa near the University.

These two rivers create a haven for migrating geese.

To the north of Guelph are rich farmlands for hundreds of miles.

This bridge over the Eramosa River was built in 1849!

Katya at the Guelph Arboretum. This is a huge tract of forest for research by the U of G, and is open to the public. They grow trees from all over the world here, and perform diabolical experiments on maples.

Guelph's "Naked People" statue drew derision when it was first build downtown, but is now a source of boredom. Every fall University students add laundry soap to the fountain, creating a hilarious "Naked Bathing People" statue.

Old Guelph is filled with Victorian homes that fetch a million or more.

Downtown Guelph is filled with old buildings.

When I was a teenager they used to have spotlights shining on the church, and at night a group of us would climb the hill where the church sits, stare into the spotlights for a minute or so, and then look out over the city's downtown. After staring into the spotlights, every light in the city looked purple. We called it "Purple CIty". Someone caught on, or some kid did permanent eye damage, and they've since removed those spotlights.

The Church of Our Lady is Guelph's only landmark.

Guelph is a city of historic 19th-Century buildings surrounded by cloned anthill suburbia. Guelph is a weird mix of artsy liberal types and hard-working conservative farmers. Guelph has equal portions snotty cafe-galleries and crony-capitalist WalMart box stores. Guelph is surrounded by farmland and metropolises alike. A city with a split personality, tonnes of parks and flocks of geese, Katya and I love living in Guelph and have made it our permanent home in Canada!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Russian Pop

One of the most fun and hilarious aspects of living overseas is getting to know the local pop music scene. Korea was (and still is) filling the air waves across Asia with K-Pop, and I kept a few choice samples with me which I still have today. I love how K-pop throws random English words into songs, and doesn't always get them right. Things like "I love you on the bottom of my heart" cracks me up!

Russia also has a toxic pop scene, and although many say the quality isn't as good as Korea's, and it seems a lot more "wannabe" than America's, I find it interesting and, I admit, likeable. I enjoy quite a few Russian pop tunes, more than American trash or K-pop...stuff. One thing that can be said for Russian pop music is a lot of songs contain more traditional Russian tunes. It's not uncommon for an accordion to bust out in the background of a Brittany Spears knockoff, and those haunting minor-chord melodies that make traditional Russian music so unique can be found in many pop songs.

Enjoy some Russian pop!

Firs up is "Na Rayone", which, loosely translated, means "Our town", by Potap and Nastya Kamenski. It's making fun of the rough-and-tumble life in a typical Russian post-Soviet industrial hellhole. I like the part where they say their town smells like fish.

Next up is "Kruzhim" by Serega. I actually like the funky beat in this tune and find the music catchy. No idea what he's rapping about, though.

Here's a Russian pop song that could have come straight from Korea! It's called "Ah Ira", by Para Normalnih (Para-Normal).

I promised you pure pop crap, so here you go! This is "Nu I Pust" (Well and Let), by Infinity. Nice HD video of Moscow, though.

Here it is! The song you have always been waiting for but didn't know it! "Mama Luba" (Mother Love) by Serebro is a New Year's Eve dance party must in Russia! Not to mention how stunningly hot the girls in this video are...

Okay, so this one is freakin' hilarious. It's called "Bolshoi Schlem" or "Big Dick", by Mona Kalina. The words are in English so I don't need to translate anything. By the way, this is also one of my favourite Russian pop songs :) 

One of the best damn bands I've ever heard is Russian. Leningrad has merged pop with traditional Russian music and high-energy gypsy-punk. Either that or they're just really fun ska!

Here's a couple of Leningrad songs. The first is "Manager", one of their more poppy tunes. It's about how managers think they're so fucking cool, and don't you want to work like a slave every day of your life so you can be a cool manager, too?

This is one of my favourites and is the first Leningrad song I heard that got me hooked on the band right away. It's called "Nyet, Y Yeshyo Raz Nyet" (No, and No Again). It's basically ranting against the cops, Russian corruption and the shitty deal most Russians have.

This is "Schweine" (Swine) by Glukoza. I first heard it in Russia and swore that I had heard it before. Then, a few years later, I was playing GTA 4 with a buddy and there it was on the Vladivostok FM station!

To finish off today's list of Russian music, here's "Buila Nye Buila" (Was Not Was) by Django. This is probably the most Russian-sounding tune on this list, thick with accordions, upbeat Cossack-style rhythms and a stereotypical really-bad singer.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Pacific, Meet Katya

Victoria, British Columbia
Katya's first morning in Victoria consisted of Tim Horton's, lost bus tickets, and an impossibly huge wave that smacked her right on the backside, welcoming her to the west coast.

Following a shell-shocked and jet-lagged three days in southern Ontario, where dreary January skies, unfamiliar restaurant selections and mounted police were the main attractions, Katya and I made our way on a Greyhound bus to from Kitchener to Toronto, where a flight to Victoria, BC was booked.

I had made our travel plans very meticulously, and every bus, shuttle and airline ticket was paid for weeks in advance. The Greyhound pulled in to Toronto's main bus terminal and we just had to walk a block to wait for the airport shuttle. Katya remarked how dreary Toronto looked (to be fair, it was one of the rainiest Januarys on record in Ontario, and had barely any snowfall). The shuttle bus arrived and lo and behold, we had lost our tickets!

To Victoria

All my careful planning and booking was turning out for naught. When we had arrived 3 days before our Aerosvit flight was 8 hours behind schedule and neither the airport shuttle nor Greyhound were working, so those tickets went to the trash (about $60 gone). Now we had misplaced these shuttle tickets, and I had to pay the driver another thirty bucks in cash. Katya, after so much stress and migration, lost it on me and we ended up in our first Canadian argument, which resulted in us giving each other the cold shoulder for the entire trip to the airport.

Once at the airport things smoothed out as we went about our casual business of a domestic flight. First through screening, then to the Tim Horton's in the departure lounge, where Katya brightened up with her first Tim Horton's black steeped tea and a honey crueler donut. Our Air Canada flight was comfortable and modern, with TV's in the back of every seat to watch and free beverages and sun chips. 

The five-hour flight to Vancouver was uneventful. I think we watched Shrek 3 and some movie about Little Red Riding Hood. 

In Vancouver we transferred onto a short little propeller-driven commuter flight, more akin to a flying bus, which Katya absolutely loved. The flight from Vancouver to Victoria is literally 14 minutes. As the plane leaves the end of the runway and gains altitude, you can see Vancouver Island and the outlaying towns of Victoria! It's a beautiful flight over little islands in the Juan De Fuca Straight, with the mountains of British Columbia and Washington State behind us and the hills of Vancouver Island and then the vast expanse of the Pacific in front. No wonder birds spend so much time up in the sky!

Flying over the Gulf Islands, from Vancouver to Victoria.

The Pacific Ocean

After we had landed, my friends Shanana and her ex picked us up in my Dodge Grand Caravan, and we went to their place where we would stay for two days until our apartment was ready (pre-paid and booked). Katya conked out again almost immediately, as the time zone had changed yet again! Her internal clock was almost ruined by this point.

The next morning Katya woke me up around 5 am. She was bored and had been awake for two hours. I was excited to finally show her around, so we hopped out of bed, got dressed and quietly snuck out. I got into my van and welcomed Katya to her first car (a shitty '98 Grand Caravan XL with AWD and no back seats..more of a utility van...which I had bought from some dude for $600). 

We made our way to Tim Horton's, a place Katya now knew and trusted, and got teas and bagels with herb & garlic cream cheese, which Katya also declared was delicious. Then I took her to Ogden Point to meet the ocean personally. And greet her it did.

We pulled up to a parking space as the early-morning sun beamed down. Although the weather in Victoria is mild (it was about +10 C that January morning), crazy winter storms far out at sea was churning the coastal waters into angry, dark waves which crashed ashore violently. The vibrations from the waves hitting the sea wall and cliffs could be felt in the car!

Katya was wowed by the spectacle.
"Oh my god!" She gushed "It's AMAZING!!" 
It was her first time seeing a real ocean, and the combination of the waves, the ocean, the sun and the distant snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains had its usual effect. 

She jumped out of the car and went to look over the railings.

Ogden Point breakwall
View from Ogden Point, with the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

That day in January, the sea was angry.
 "Take my picture!" She shouted, so I got out of the car and took her camera from her. She struck a pose right in front of the railings, with a beautiful view of the ocean, the breakwall and the mountains in the distance. It was to be a photo to send home, a stunning and almost unreal postcard that her mother could gush about.

Except, as my finger began to push the camera button, the back of my mind registered the ocean swelling up behind Katya. She stood there, facing me, with her back to the sea, grinning like an idiot and posing like a Russian woman, as the ocean gathered up strength to offer her a big, wet hug.


The wave crashed right over the sea wall and doused Katya with near-freezing salt water. Her smile turned into an open-mouthed expression of pure shock and surprise. She stood for a moment, her arms outstretched, with water dripping off her brow, frozen in shock. Then, as the sound of another swell roared up behind her, she suddenly darted behind the van. I joined her as this wave smashed into the sea wall and huge pillar of white water and flotsam crashed down over the van and soaked us both.

I grabbed her arm. "Into the van! Quick!" and shoved her towards her door in the brief gap between waves. I jumped into the driver's side and before her door was even closed I had the van in a full reverse. It was just in time, too, as another monster wave crashed into the sea wall.

The salt from the water turned into white powder on my windshield as it dried. The front was okay, as I had wipers, but the side windows were completely whited-out, so once we were a dozen feet or so from the sea wall, I stopped the car and got out to clean off the windows.

When I got back in, we both started laughing. "Welcome to Victoria!" I joked.
"The ocean tried to hug me!" Katya replied, laughing. We ate our Tim Horton's in the van, a safe distance from the waves that were still crashing over the sea wall and onto the road.

Lost & Found

Later that day, after we had returned to Shanana's house, Katya was rooting through her luggage for dry clothes when she came across two pieces of paper she had repacked back in Russia. She unfolded them, read them, and then turned to me.

"Sorry." She said.
"For what?" I replied, busy looking for dry clothes myself.
"I found them." Was her answer.
"What?" I asked, stopping to look at her.
"Those bus tickets." She said sheepishly. "I forgot I had packed them in my bags when I reorganized our Moscow."

Waves at Ogden Point