Thursday, May 31, 2007


May 31st is the start of birthday mania in my family. When I was very young, I celebrated on the same day as my older brother and sister since our birthdays were all within one week. I can only remember thinking is was great to have all these people around. I didn't really care who they were, although I'm sure my old.. ahem... older siblings weren't as interested in sharing the limelight.

Mom made fabulous cakes. Mine were always chocolate, as per my request, and they were elaborately decorated in dolls or cartoon characters and even a hockey game. After I started school, I got to have my own parties with many, many classmates and cousins. How did you do it, Mom?

The glorious sunny days I'm seeing here now, along with sightings of familiar things such as sparrows, mallard ducks, and lilac trees remind me of those special May/June days. I even spotted a black lab like our beloved 'Charlie' the other day.

So Happy Birthday Mark and Chandra. I hope you are surrounded by wonderful friends and family and that someone bakes you a delicious cake... especially because you won't be getting a gift or even a phone call from me this year!
Love ya xo
Speaking of chocolate, Russian chocolate is incredible. Here's the face of one of the companies. I could actually smell chocolate floating down the Moscow River the other day.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Moscow River

It's still hot - mid 30's this week in Moscow. I hung around the Moscow River to keep myself cool. Here's a shot of the Kremlin.

We wanted to take a river boat ride on Friday but the boats were all reserved for the students finishing the school year. May 25th is annual date of finishing. All the students were partying on the boats and in the streets. They were easily identified by the red ribbons they adorned around their bodies. I like this tradition.
People just hanging out, eating ice cream near Red Square... it's the first time I've stepped barefoot on grass since I've been here.
The next day a bunch of us took the boat ride along the Moscow River, after waiting an hour and a half in a queue. It was worth it to feel the cool breeze and leisurely take in the sights. I can't believe how different the city seems after six months of navigating myself via the underground metro.
You can see an enormous Peter the Great statue behind the chocolate factory.

There are a few modern buildings popping up.

One of the Stalinist seven sisters, which are easily recognizable throughout the city. I think this one is just an apartment building but others contain more importance like Moscow State University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where Yeltsin's funeral was held, was commissioned by Tsar Alexander to commerate Russia's victory over Napolean in1812, but it took over 40 years to build and was only consecretated in 1860, the day Alexander III was crowned.
Stalin demolished it in 1933 but a new one was rebuilt in the 1990's. There appears to be some current refurbishing going on which hasn't allowed me the opportunity to peak in yet. Not surprisingly, it's the largest Eastern Orthadox church in the world.
This original Russian space shuttle is now a ride at Gorky Park.
Back to Vdnx Park, Lenin is taking second place to 'Shrek and Fiona'.
Look! The fountains are working.
I was anticipating a difficult weekend for me as my heart was home in Canada. Cousin Don got married and I knew that all my family was together again and having a great time without me. Luckily, I have met some wonderful people here, and the weather and activities keep me laughing.
So congrats Don & Tracy - may your life together be as sunny and fun-filled as my Moscow weekends in May.

Monday, May 21, 2007

It's Hot

I know that 31 degrees doesn't sound extreme, but for Moscow it's outrageously hot today... and humid. The past week it's seen the high 20's and I've been loving it, although at night it's too hot to sleep. It's also somewhat uncomfortable (and smelly) when an ice-cold shower is the only available means of cleansing... for me and the entire neighborhood.

On the first day of this heat wave, I found some free time before classes to take in a banya (Russian bathhouse). I couldn't wait to feel clean again. At first it was quite crowded and there were all these rules that my friend and I were apparently not adhering to. The other ladies were sure to let us know we must wear a hat or towel on our head, flip-flops, etc. before entering the sauna. I scoffed at the unsightly felt hat but once inside I could barely stand the heat. Thankfully I had rented a sheet. I also appreciated the 5-minute rule but could only take it for three on the first round.

It appeared to be all business for the Russian ladies... severe heat, dunk in ice-cold tub, exfoliate, rinse, mud pack, continuous scrubbing. Most interesting was the bunch of fresh birch twigs with leaves intact. They used these whisks to whip each other. Aaah the price of beauty. Once the crowd dissipated and I felt confident to carry on with the procedure, skipping the whisk bit, I quite enjoyed it. In fact, I'm going again on Friday. It seems to work for them - they're quite beautiful, with glowing skin.

With the warm weather last weekend, it was great spending time outside, sitting on patios or in parks and watching people just hanging out and enjoying the summer weather. This picture is Park Pobedy (Victory) in honour of WWII. It's the most modern-looking place I've seen in Moscow and the only decent park benches. May people were blading, skate boarding, or just walking along eating an ice cream cone.

Furs have been replaced with skimpy clothes and very high heels. You should have seen this girl trying to walk on this surface.

Strange to me is that no matter what the ladies are wearing, they always have on pantyhose.

On Sunday I revisited the Vdnkh exhibition park, which is near one of my schools. Grandiose pavilions representing each republic, used to showcase their products and technologies but now there are only shops (with as many imported toasters as you've ever seen in one place). Sadly, these massive buildings are very run-down and there appears to be a lot of wasted space in this 600 acre park.

I have yet to see the fountains working but I've been told by reliable sources that they're usually quite spectacular. This 'fountain of friendship' shows 16 maidens in the native dress of their soviet republic.

A couple of my students brought me back to VDNX Sunday night for some shashlik and beer.
We took in some rides at the amusement park and had the official Russian drink. Nope, not vodka. Kvass, believe it or not, which tastes like yeast, has so little alcohol that children drink it, too.

I bruised up my knee on the bumper cars. Even on rides, Russians are crazy drivers.

Parks and banyas on hot days... Ilsa recommends.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Moscow Flat

I prepared Mexican food for my party last weekend. Normally I like hosting but I'm not fond of this kitchen. It looks better than it is... and is better than it was before I got here, but it seriously stinks.
Luckily, one of the other teachers helped me out. She was leaving and wanted to get rid of all her food. Plus, she's from Texas so she knows what it means to cook 'Mexican'.

There were about 20 of us in my room, which doubles as the living room. I actually don't mind this room so much. Authentic Soviet style and it usually doesn't smell bad.

I was quite happy that Ilya brought his guitar, although not everyone appreciates acoustic sing-alongs like I do. But who cares, it was my party. He's sitting on my bed.

Some people just never know when to leave....

Actually it's quite common for us to 'crash' since some of live quite far from each other. The metro closes at 1:30 and it's possible to get stranded if we have to change trains. I only had three overnight guests that night, but last time there were six. My sofa can lay flat and there's an extra cot.
Anyone want to come for a visit?

This is my old room. The bed was too short for me so I'm quite happy to have moved to a bigger single bed in the bigger room/living room.

I'm also lucky that I don't have bed bugs. California Mike had to get a new bed and he's hoping they're gone for good... along with his rash.

It's not so bad, apart from the little elevator I sometimes share with guys smoking and dogs peeing. I cover my face and plug my nose on it every day.
Moscow shuts the hot water off each area for two or three weeks every year - different areas have different summer months. The students don't seem to mind because they plan their holidays around it and go to their dacha (country house) for the duration. My time happens to be right now and after 5 days I was feeling pretty sick of cold showers and boiling water on the stove. I'm in a hurry to get to work so I'll post tomorrow about what I did about it. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Lot's of love & prayers, Mom

This week a package arrived for me containing Oh Canada magazines and Coffee Crisp chocolate bars. I have a crazy work schedule which doesn't allow for much free time so one might think the effort of a 3-hour commute for this little parcel wouldn't be worth exuding all this energy (I actually had to do it twice because the post office decided to close an hour early the first day... for no reason whatsoever). I guess I might have felt that way if it hadn't contained a casual note providing me with an update of an old-family-friend's health, information on what Dad's doing at the moment, and a Lethbridge weather report.

The truth is, I've been receiving these random packages with notes for almost 20 years now. The Christmas ones are especially good because they contain fudge, but these unexpected ones... they're just the best. Yes, these simple notes take me right back home and remind me of how precious every day is and how much this one very special lady is thinking of me.

Mom always finishes her notes with words of praise or encouragement and signs it 'Lot's of love & prayers, Mom' and I know she means it.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I hope the seeding is going well and that you're spending it with at least one of my fabulous family members.

PS Wasn't it exciting to see Canada win the WHC? I watched it in an ex-pat bar. I was the only Canadian but some Russians were also cheering us on. Love ya!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Victory Day

You gotta love May if you live in Russia. May 9th is another public holiday where Eastern Bloc countries celebrate their victory over the Germans in the great patriotic war. My 10-12 year-old students weren't aware that there were other countries involved in WWII; however, they knew all the dates and many other details and were excited to share them with me.

I was really looking forward to a mid-week day of rest; however, some of my over-enthusiastic friends persuaded me to meet them for the parade at 7:30 AM. Since I haven't enjoyed many mornings outside lately due to my late working hours, I decided to go for a good walk in the centre to meet up with them... one that doesn't entail racing through crowded metro stations. I was also a little intrigued about seeing the war vehicles.

It was an overcast morning but it was really neat to walk on the streets where there was no traffic since it was blocked off for the parade. I loved the silence and the big buildings appeared to be more architectually interesting without the chaos of open shops. There were loads of decorations on the streets and in the squares. The government gave out orange and brown striped ribbons - people wore them or put them on their car antennas. Last week I had seen them and expected 'Victory Day' to be much like our Remberance Day, except with ribbons instead of poppies.

There weren't a lot of people on the streets - my students had told me that they stay home and watch the parade on television because only VIP's are allowed in Red Square

I met up with my friends at a popular coffee shop. Coffee House is the 'Starbucks' of Moscow. They're everywhere here. Although not even close to Starbucks quality. It's just as expensive though.

I go to one between classes every Tuesday and Thursday while I'm waiting for my second school to open. Further away from the centre, English speakers are more of a novelty so they know me. I get an English menu and extra coupons... I suspect because I'm a big tipper. Most of the staff aren't very friendly, but one girl likes to practice her 'English' with me.

At 9:00 AM the streets were still relativey empty, aside from policemen and a few stray dogs. We hung out there and eventually started seeing people walking toward Red Square. We finally gave up at 11:30. By this time, Coffee House was quite busy. Emma, who speaks Russian, got into a row with the server over our shot (bill). We usually know to just accept the terrible customer service, but she seemed to be in the need of making a point. By the time she was through with the manager, it was adjusted accordingly. She was still fuming when we took this photo.

When we got outside at noon, we could finally see the parade, which was supposed to start at 9:00 am, coming down the hill and people were waiting patiently to cheer the veterans on.

This was the last photo I took before my camera battery died. There weren't any floats or armoured vehicles. There were mainly old vets with medals weighing them down carrying flags and their children and grandchildren walking with them. There was one marching band and an old truck with a guy in the back shouting over the loud speakers about 'winning' and 'working hard'. A few old people had photos of Stalin on their flags. A variety of military uniforms and flags, including Palestinian flags, completed the parade.
I suspect that Putin's ceremony in Red Square was much more elaborate but I liked that this was realistic - no Mickey Mouse floats, etc.
After enjoying a few more hours of walking around the deserted streets in search of an open museum, I went home to shower and change for dinner and the ballet. It had warmed up in the afternoon and we sat outside on a nice patio. It was such a treat spending so much time outside even if the food sucked.
A student had given me a ticket for the ballet and I met her there. The music and dancers were even better than I had expected. I actually felt 'moved by it La Sylphide. Fabulous!
The Russians have a great appreciation for the arts but not many locals can afford tickets. Most in attendance were foreigners... Brits, Americans, Dutch, etc.
Another unexpected surprise was seeing the crowds on the streets when we came out of the theatre. Thousands of people passed through security to walk on the main roads. Every square had a live concert and enormous monitors showing war footage.
We walked until the fireworks were completed at midnight. She wanted to go for drinks but I begged off as I had lessons the following morning.
The Russians certainly know how to celebrate and it's great that they take the opportunity to remember. Sadly, these veterens have very small pensions and many can't afford basic necessities such as heating.
Lest we forget!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Canada 4, Czech Republic 3

I don't have much time to write... busy day ahead and a very long day yesterday.
Suffice to say - Canada narrowly beat the Czechs 4-3 last night 23 seconds into overtime at the World Hockey Championship game near Moscow.
The game was nerve-racking, especially because we were sitting behind our goalie for two of the periods. Roloson did an amazing job... my British friend who was with me asked 'why are they attacking him?'

The Czech fans out-cheered us, too. Look at this section - they were on noisy and standing up, etc. throughout while our team colours barely moved. Must be tired from being in Moscow... or maybe it's because we can't drink in the stands.

I proudly sang our national anthem (alone) while they were raising the flag.

A few of our fans knew how to do it, though. These guys were chanting 'Da Da Canada' and some Russians were chanting along with them.

The game was a struggle and our players looked weary coming off the ice. But, it was a win and I'm proud of Doan and his team-mates.
Unfortunately I'll be working tonight as they take on the US. But I'll be thinking to myself 'Da Da Canada'.

Friday, May 04, 2007

May Day

May 1st in Russia is 'Labour Day'... or 'Day of Hard-Working People' as it was translated to me by my students.

Because it fell on a Tuesday, we had to work Saturday to make up for the lost week days. We also had Monday off because it falls between Sunday and Tuesday. Makes perfect sense... to some. Since I'm not from here, I found it unusual and complicated, especially since we had tickets for the conservatory Saturday evening (I work evenings). I'll post more about that later.
It was nice that the Russians had a long weekend, though. Most of my students said they 'slept' to recover from their continuous hard work.

I'm not sure what Karl Marx would have thought of this holiday. Apparently there's also a statue somewhere of a women with a mop... an unnamed labourer.

In the meantime, on the Monday prior to Labour Day, I walked with my student from her flat, about an hour-long trek. I was nursing an impromptu hangover and we had just finished a private early-morning lesson. She lives in an expensive area and pointed out the designer shops, shown in this photo, and a Ferrari dealership which she looovves.

Red Square was especially bustling. The only other time I had seen it busier was at Christmas. My student was surprised as well so I took a shot of it as we were walking past. I only noticed the Team Canada jerseys after I uploaded the photos later. I decided that it was a sign I must go to a game, along with the harassment I am receiving from my family.

So, if and when Canada wins tonight, while I'm working, they'll play again on Sunday night, when I'm not working. Look for me in the crowd. I'll be the one cheering for Canada.