Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Boring Little Blog With Great Pictures

    Hey, friends, fans, family, and lurkers. I haven’t been updating this blog as much as I should, and while not a great deal of exciting stuff has been happening, I will try to make the boring stuff as interesting as possible.

Still reading? Wow, you people are dedicated.

    I had to make another visa run to Georgia. I hope this is the last one! Not because I don’t like Georgia but doing the 3 x 3 bounce is so old. What is a three by three bounce? This is when I have to fly three hours in one direction to fly back, albeit at a slightly different angle, three hours to Tbilisi. In reality, it is two hours and twenty minutes in one direction and two hours and thirty in the other direction, but that sounds overtly precise and hence boring.

    Georgia was as welcoming as it always is for tourists. I think I am getting used to this sincere and generous welcome past the point of surprise. Not that I am taking it for granted. I would never do that but, I was less surprised when my friend/brother (from another Mother) picked me up at the airport and joined me for a great lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. We spent the afternoon catching up and enjoying each other's company as if it hadn’t been a week. It had been almost three months.
I returned to the Mais Guest House and settled in for the potential two or three-week process to begin on Monday. While I have found a professional person to do all the filing and paperwork it is always a gamble when it comes to time. I had the weekend to kick back and enjoy some cigars with friends at the Davidoff Cigar Lounge. It was a great reunion, and we all fell back into the comfortable routine cigar smokers have and understand. If you’re not a cigar smoker well, I can’t explain it. We all caught up on current events, and I spent lots of time and effort explaining exactly what is a Donald Trump and how this could have happened in the self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world. It was very much like watching your high school tough guy get his ass handed to him by a Catholic School Cheerleader Squad for the Georgians. They were kilometers past 'couldn’t believe it' status. I got the impression it shook their faith in the democratic process. To put this into perspective, you have to remember how hard and how many people sacrificed everything to achieve the government they now enjoy. We are not talking distance past events or obscure events referenced in speeches by people they don’t know. No, we are talking individuals who held the very hands of the dying. The ones who lived for months without power, water, and getting bread required a ticket and a trip across town. A city plunged into chaos and lawlessness while staring down the twin barrels of external influencing super powers.
I did as much as I could to explain the electoral college and how that system worked and how the courts would act as a buffer to the more crazy ideas that the Office of POTUS might try to run with. It didn’t go a very long way to reassure, but it did add up to some very good topics to discuss and so the room was lively with the discussion.

   I arrived Monday at the office of my professional paperwork person. I had brought a package of Russian special cigarettes to him as a gift. This is a good thing for foreigners to remember. The act of tipping in North America is standard. But this is not the case in other countries and if you just do the same thing you would do at home you reaffirm the RICH American/Canadian tourist idea. The act of bringing him something from Russia meant I thought of him before I left Russia and carried significantly more impact than just saying “keep the change.” This was my third time filling, or rather watching someone else, complete the paperwork.
    The Russian Consulate is in the Swiss Embassy compound and the line up to get in is a chaotic affair. Line and turns are never as simple as saying they are in London England. When I finally got to the window the lady behind the glass recognized me and smiled and seemed impressed that my Russian had improved as much as it has. She commented my accent is getting better. She then also handed back my paperwork and said I needed to complete it in Russian. I was surprised as the last time she wouldn’t take it completed in Russian.
I returned to my professional, and she was as surprised as I was. So surprised that she pulled out Google Translate to make sure what I was saying was what she understood I was saying. Translation complete we did the paperwork again in Russian and added a photocopy of my last visa to the one containing my identification page of my passport. A new addition to the requirement from last time.
I returned with two sets of applications, one in Russian and one in English. The Russian one was kept, and I was handed back the English one with a sticky note that I could pick up my visa on Friday after six in the evening. I walked out of the office surprised that my visa would be ready in only five days.

    The next week included numerous invitations for supper. Supper in Georgian means a feast. So for tourists, it is important you know that giving time between these invitations is wise. The liver will need at least forty-eight hours of healing. My liver is an Olympic superstar, so I did three of these in a row. Max made a great traditional dinner at his home and brought me home safe and sound. Nodar took me out to a great traditional restaurant and then escorted me back to Mais Guest house. Shalva, Bekka, David, and Zura organized a couple of dinner deliveries to the club, and thankfully the club is a close stumble home. Public Service Notice for Canadians. Georgians may think you can keep up with them when it comes to consumption of Wine and Brandy as a result of my poor judgments. To paraphrase Riddick; “Do not step up if you can’t keep up because you’ll just die.”

I went back to the Embassy on Friday only to find out it was closed.

    I picked up my visa on Monday and booked my return trip to Anapa Russia. Short notice bookings are never cheap, but I was glad I had not booked it ahead of time. The return trip saw Max and his Wife stepping up again and taking me to the airport at one in the morning. Flights from Tbilisi are less than great for connecting to anyplace other than Turkey. So Anapa saw me arrive with zero sleep in twenty-six hours. Home in my bed saw me doing a “just to be safe” two-week detox program. Not that I needed to, or have a problem, but kind of like doing your oil change early because you’ve been doing some hard driving.

    Ever notice how cats are usually sitting alone? They never look lonely. I have this local cat that recognizes me and yet never approaches. In fact, if I talk to him he gives me a look like I just disturbed him from solving Einstein’s issue of gravitational waves. Cats can be like that sometimes, but I do envy their ability just to sit and seemingly enjoy the moment. I love walking in Anapa and routinely walk several kilometers a day. If I try to sit and enjoy a view for longer than nine minutes, I get restless. I need something distracting, like cigar ash falling into my lap or a conversation. This conversation doesn’t have to include anyone else. I am a writer I can talk to myself; it’s on my Writers Guild card. These conversations usually focus on things I need to do, should do, and want to do but can’t. I hate the first and last ones the most. I need to write a blog! Well, we see how effective that one has been.


Today I got to it. The need to do box is at this moment ticked with the proper Government issued pen. The want to do but can’t is still on hold. The center does, after all, hold what the rest can’t.

     I also managed to get my train ticket today to celebrate my Russian Mom’s Birthday. My Anapa friend Lasha was lots of help in this endeavor. If only to confirm it was done right. Luckily he was as the girl messed up my last name. In fairness it is hard. My last name in Russian is spelled KOBE, and so she had dropped the Y and added an E, COVEE. So if you remember your grammar lessons “Drop the Y and add a…” Hardly could blame the girl as in the head it does sound right. Probably would have worked but correctly is better. The trick now will be seeing if the conductor of the train will let me jump ship at the village before Beslan. It isn’t a proper stop, and the train only stops for five minutes for a “mechanical check.” Wish me luck and thanks for reading the boring and mundane.

You want excitement order or download my newest book  Redemption’s Bullet from Amazon!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Moscow Girls Make Me Scream and Shout. But Georgia's Always On My Mind.

   My visa ran out before my new invitation letter arrived. This statement will create stress for anyone that travels. Thankfully as a Canadian I don’t run into this situation too often. I can most certainly relate to friends from other countries when planning an overseas trip is an exercise in paperwork and bureaucracy. So I had to leave my beautiful Anapa and travel back to Georgia. Now I love Georgia too but at this time of year its cold. I had to fly through Moscow to connect through to Tbilisi, and so I got to feel real cold briefly as the minutes ticked away toward my expiring document. Sitting in the lounge, having gone through passport control, drinking a beer I became an illegal alien moments before my redeye flight to Tbilisi boarded.

Flights into Tbilisi are made less than convenient for large aircraft because the airport in Tbilisi is being renovated. I hope that this renovation is complete soon as it severely limits tourism to this wonderful city and country. It reminds me of when Vancouver was upgrading its airport. We saw Abbotsford and Bellingham's airports step in to take up the slack and the customer base. Many like myself discovered it was much easier and cheaper to fly to Vegas from Bellingham.

Because of this construction large aircraft land at night and passengers have to negotiate the taxi ranks at an hour usually spent sleeping. Taxis and airports are a small pool hunting grounds the world over and Tbilisi is no different. Many hotels have shuttles to bring you to your hotel and marked taxi’s gather to pick up passengers. Prices are very fluid and difficult to negotiate so I won’t give you a price other than to say it will be the most you spend on a taxi in the city. So simply pay the fee and know you will make up the difference on subsequent taxi costs during your vacation in Georgia. Ten Lari is usually sufficient for any trip in the city, corner to corner.

Returning to Tbilisi after living here for a year did feel like a form of a homecoming. Friends welcomed me in the traditional way, and so my first few days were filled with food and gatherings. They were interested in how my trip home to Anapa was and what I thought of current events shaping our shared world. Cha Cha and wine flowed along with stories about the previous three months apart. Culturally Georgians accept guests with grace and open arms. For me this felt like more of a family gathering, it was as if three months had never passed. We fell into our routines of speaking, translating, waiting for translations, like I had never left. My Russian has gotten better too, so this makes it a little easier.

If your a frequent reader of my blog you know I’ve lived here for a long period on and off. I know the city, the areas, and how to get a good deal or the best value for your money. Arriving late I stayed my first night at an inexpensive guest house near the old Dry Bridge market.  I was determined to check out a new place I had heard of. It was this “I know a guy connection” that allowed me to find a super place to stay.

The Mais Guest house is close to the University and was built by a couple of guys that know what foreigners expect from a good guest house. I know both of them spent time in America researching ideas and expectations. The guest house runs as an extension of the Mais Cafe and Resturant and the staff there has a good command of English and an even better command of Russian. A word for my North American travelers. Understand these hosts speak several languages and don’t get to practice English as much as they would like. North Americans usually speak one language, or perhaps two if you're lucky. Here two languages are the norm, and many speak four or five. So slow it down a bit and try to articulate the word clearly. The hosts will go out of their way to help you, it isn’t just a company idea, it is a traditional cultural expectation.

I arrived and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had room for me. It is the offseason, but its location near so many year round institutions makes it attractive. It is set back from one of Tbilisi’s busiest streets and is close to everything the city has to offer. For me, the main highlight was that it was very close to my favorite cigar bar. The staff showed me all three rooms, and I took the second largest room. It has a great balcony for sipping coffee and smoking something Cuban. The small room isn’t small by European standards, and I laughed when my host called it the small room. I recounted my London stay in a broom closet for two hundred Euros. By comparison, the largest suite is really big, and it has a balcony capable of hosting eight for dinner. The three private spacious bedrooms share a common reception and kitchen. Each bedroom has its large bathroom outfitted with five-star amenities. The beds are comfy, fine linens and special windows ensure guests sleep soundly. I was surprised to find English TV channels and having been struck down with the dreaded MANCOLD I curled up under the thick down comforter and pulled out my computer to write to you all.

So looking to the future I am certain my days here will be warm, and with the Mais Cafe just downstairs I won’t be going too far till this cold abates. They even let me use the backdoor to come and go, so I don’t have to go outside. Georgian Hospitality Once Again!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night!


     Anapa has me feeling like I am at home. Not only because Anapa is my new home away from Canada. It rained today, in a very non-typical way for this area of the Black Sea. For those readers in Vancouver, it rained as it does at home. In Anapa, the rainstorms are very tropical in nature or perhaps Russian in culture. I don’t write this meaning to be disrespectful. Russians work hard, play harder, and fight furiously. Just ask anyone that has met them in battle. When it rains here, it rains furiously. Inches, or centimeters, of water, fill the roads in minutes. The sky truly opens up and getting caught means getting soaked to your underwear. 

video
Today, however, it sprinkled politely, like a Canadian rain, all day. Quietly whispering to go home soon or you’ll get damp. Reminding you politely why they sell umbrellas, from vending machines at our international airport. Russian people have asked me if it is true that Vancouver has stores that sell pot, or marijuana, from vending-style machines. I answer truthfully that we do, and when I add the umbrella machines, they are even more amazed at our strange country. But, they add, strange in a good way. 


     I have mentioned it before that Canadians/Americans and some Europeans have a hard time understanding Russian culture and customs. I was just talking about this with my English speaking waitress. I said to her, and now to you, I believe this is because normally when someone has a drastically different culture, they look different. It is a duck with various markings. The WoodDuck knows the Pintail is a duck, and it knows it will prefer to eat in the middle of the lake instead of the reeds. We humans are the same we perceive visual cues that tell us the person is a different culture and might have different customs or behaviors. It prepares us for it. Russians look just like everybody else. Perhaps the women are a little more stunning, and the men a little larger but on the whole the same. I am trying to walk that very fine line between what is and what I perceive, or think. I don’t want to be called racist or anti-Canadian/American. I do want to accurately describe and paint for you a correct picture. Personally, I believe Russian women to be the most physically beautiful in the world. But that is a bias and an opinion. I am after all married to Russian woman. She will say she isn’t Russian as people from Russia tend to identify themselves by where they came from. So someone from Anapa would say they are Kavkaz and someone from Novosibirsk might say they are Siberian. In Canada we don’t share this regional identity in the same way unless one is from Quebec, or perhaps Surrey. 

The sky has opened up here, complete with thunder and lighting. I am writing this enjoying a coffee and incredible chicken wings at my new favorite bar/lounge. I tweeted about this place and posted on my Facebook page. It is called Timer_Lounge Bar. They may not have the beach view my last year's office had, but they have incredibly good food and a larger selection of drinks. If you’re an English-speaking tourist and looking for a bit of a break from the great traditional food Russia has to offer then look up Timer. They have a New York style of cooking, full of flair, elegance, and something hard to find in New York. Farm fresh, non-GMO ingredients sourced less than fifty kilometers away. If you’re one of my Russian readers, then give the place a try. It may be a little expensive, from a local perspective, but you can taste truly world class cooking and international food without flying anyplace. A New York steak without flying to New York. Just don’t cook the meat to well done, as is cultural here!! Try medium or medium rare… It’s safe. Trust me I am Canadian.

     I went to the Market today. In American and Canada, it would be called The Farmers Market. My sister Carol-Lyn loves these types of things and frequently goes in California. Here they are just a part of life. Not really a thing, like in LA, but a regular, historically normal part of Russian life. Everything is natural, fresh, and grown/raised/harvested locally. The people are proud of their products and if you don’t arrive early you won’t get any. A sell out is usually the norm. It is difficult for me as they don’t put the price of things on the product as the regular stores do. SO I had to revert to apologizing for not speaking the language and holding out a handful of coins and small bills. Letting them take what they needed. Did they know I was a foreigner? Most certainly. Did anyone take advantage, and take more than they should? No! How do I know you’re asking? I watch other peoples purchases and get a feel for how much it should be within a few Rubles and watch body language. It is cultural to be kind and honest with strangers in the Kavkaz region of Russia. Perhaps it is the same in other regions? I don’t know as I haven’t traveled there yet. When I do, I will let you know. 

    The rain is pouring now, lightning is flashing brilliantly overhead, and the thunder sounds like artillery. The deck has a few centimeters of water on it, and I am alone. The locals and staff thinking the Canadian is crazy sitting outside under the umbrellas made really for the sun. It isn’t at all cold, and I do love thunder storms. The great thing about being in Russia is I am free to sit outside if I want. No waitress or manager urging me inside, as it is safer. I could get electrocuted, but it is MY choice. No Nanny Nation state sponsored rules oppressing me. The local saying here is; “My Life My Rules” and it is something those that scream about freedom should take to heart. 

The world media was going on the other day about something President Obama said. He commented on something the Donald had said on Larry King about President Putin’s ratings. He compared President Putin’s popularity with Saddam Hussein, remarking that when you controlled the media, it was easy to have great approval ratings. To say I was confused by this statement would be putting it mildly. I have been here in Russia for over fifteen months in the past three years. I routinely watch Global TV Vancouver while I eat my breakfast and usually watch a little BBC at lunchtime. Something I couldn’t do when I was in Thailand. The difference? Media sources are censored in Thailand, currently under a Military Dictatorship, and are not in Russia. So I found it very odd that the sitting President Of The United States would make such a statement. Does he believe the citizens of the USA are stupid enough to believe that in 2016 Russian citizens can't watch, read, and listen to non-Russian bias reporting? All media is bias, Fox News more Republican-leaning and NBC perhaps less so. CBC more Liberal in Canada than Global News Network. But to suggest Russians are like the people of Iraq? It goes along way to confirm this Russianphobia that seems to be running rampant these days. 

     Perhaps I am biased? This could be true. Many of you that read my blog only know me from my fiction writing, and follow along here to see when the next new book is being released. But, many here are friends and family. The other day I read a quote I liked. “The best part of me is I am who and what I am. It happens to also be the worst part of me”. I speak my mind, and when something is an opinion, I tend to say as much. I don’t whitewash the truth, and I don’t engage in propaganda. My political leanings are Socialist, as are many Canadians, and I tend to call bullshit when I don’t agree with something. I exercise my right to free speech. I even called my previous Prime Minister a bad word right here on this blog. So you can take it as a fact that President Putin’s popularity numbers are pretty damn accurate. Statistics being what they are not withstanding. Not everyone I’ve talked to agrees with everything he is doing or perhaps the way he is doing it but they all agree he knows best and here is the big part. They TRUST HIM. Even if they don’t understand the big picture or the endgame, they trust he has the best interests of the country in his heart. That is something for both Canada and America to pay attention to. America is entering an election with many people saying they have a choice between bad, and worse. Canada has five choices, I almost typed three, as two don’t count, and in the end, we vote out a party rather than voting IN the one we want. 

     I didn’t start off with a political agenda for this blog. It just went that way. I guess when you talk about the differences in people and cultures it is bound to happen. Russians ask what other cultures think about them. They are curious about the world outside of Russia, and they know and remember history. So it is natural for them to raise questions and question motives. For example, I recently got asked this question. 

        “When the USSR put nuclear missiles in Cuba it almost started World War Three. Now America is placing the same type of missiles in many countries surrounding Russia. When we did it, we were called aggressive and engaging in brink politics. Now we are being called aggressive again. It is not us placing weapons of mass destruction in other countries.” 

How would you answer that question? I couldn’t come up with anything on the spot and since the question was asked haven’t found a decent answer. Protecting sovereignty in small countries with a nuclear response is kind of like pissing on your Ice-cream cone, so your sister doesn’t eat it.  



Thursday, 25 August 2016

Back inside the comfort of the Russian Federation


So after spending a year in Georgia, Inga and I are back in our place in Anapa. The temptation when spending so much time abroad is to compare home with where you are. In this case, it is tempting to compare Georgia with Russia and Georgians with Russians. A little insider travel trip. No one likes when you do that. Where you were is where you were. Now you’re someplace else, and it is what it is. In your head, you are finding similarities or things you like or dislike about the change. It is human nature after all. But, leave those thoughts where they originate. In your head. 


We are once again doing the residency process. It makes it a great deal easier to travel and come and go as required. This was our third time going through the process, so we were well practiced and knew what to expect. All the necessary paperwork was submitted, and I was sent to a nearby city to have my medical exams performed. Six appointments in five different locations. My driver and facilitator spoke very little English but understood if he kept the Russian to a child level we could communicate. It was a great test of my newly acquired and petite practiced language skills. I think he enjoyed the experience as much as I did. He shuttled me around to different clinics in a very VIP manner, attempting to point out historical and interesting sites along the way.


The city is called; The City Of Heroes. I believe it was one of the Forbidden Cities at a time in recent Russian history. Forbidden in the sense that foreigners at one time needed special paperwork to visit. It was a lovely city with lots of public green spaces welcoming families and couples. Fancy and simple architecture mixed in new and old buildings alike. We moved through the city from one clinic to another, and my driver/guide stopped near the harbor for a coffee. Together we looked out over the parked warships, the sun was high overhead, and I could see my guide thinking. He took a sip of coffee and in a series of simple phrases communicated a question. It took eight sentences and a few clarifications by me for him to ask. “Crimea was Russian first. It became something else. Something else that many residents didn’t like. They had a revolution, like the Arab Spring revolution. No one asked who backed the Arab revolution. The people voted. They voted democratically to return to Mother Russia (Mother Russia is expressed in one word Rodina, but has several specific meanings). Why now are American warships in the Black Sea? Is democracy only democracy if America agrees? Why when Russia put nuclear missiles on its territory in Cuba we almost went to war? America now circles Russia with these same weapons, on US Military bases in other countries,  and says it has to as President Putin is aggressive? Aggressive because he backed a democratically elected government in a territory that is 75% Russian? Why do Americans hate us so much?”

This was not an easy series of questions to answer. The general issue being why does America hate Russia so much. The previous questions adding context and situational proof so one could not only answer “they don’t it is just political.” I find myself explaining American politics a great deal more than I like, or am qualified to do. I am not American, but being neighbors and perceived to be similar I get placed into this role. To be short Russians separate people from politics, something Americans don’t do, and Canadians do to a lesser degree than Russians. So when he said Americans, he means the country and governing government, not the people. It is an essential cultural understanding of language. 

I looked at the aging destroyer parked in the harbor, now a museum to The Great War as it is called here. How to answer the question, hampered by my child-like vocabulary? My guide’s expression was communicating he understood my difficulty and the position his question put me in. I pointed to the ship and asked when did The Great War begin? He answered. An answer shared by Canada, Russia, and England. I said; “not if you ask an American.” For America, it started in December. If you Google search in English, this is history. This is the reality. The reality is shaped by those that control and distribute information. Every person fears the unknown. Things that are different create stress. People don’t like stress. Things we don’t know are different and stressful. It is easier to stay inside a box we know than look outside the box into the unknown. I don’t know how to get all these medical tests done. That is stressful. I have to tell you I don’t know. I have to show weakness. I have to trust you to help me. America is the most powerful country in the world. They can’t show weakness and remain seen as such. This hampers their ability to trust. Americans don’t hate Russians, and America doesn’t understand Russia, so they can not trust. My guide shook his head, nodding his understanding of my answer and raised the last sip of his coffee to the hulking warship. “Mira, Di Bok.” I joined him repeating in English “For God; Peace.” 

We retreated to the air-conditioned Audi and headed back up the hill to the next appointment. The next clinic took a blood sample, and I was handed a cup. The nurse pointed to a door when she gave me plastic drinking cup. I went to the door and opened it. It was a toilet. I was unclear of what she wanted and turned to look back at her. She gestured, in a very manly way, what I was supposed to do and said; “50 degrees.” I understood she wanted a urine sample and that I should fill the cup halfway. The door outside found my guide waiting for me. He pointed to an office across the hall and was smiling. I gave him a questioning look, and his smile broadened. “Trust me Canada it is all good. Go there. Do that what doctor say.”  I walked into the room, and an older man was talking with an even older nurse. He smiled and said hello and gestured for me to drop my trousers. The nurse discretely turned and looked out the window. I dropped my pants and regained his gaze. He nodded and gestured for me to continue. I pulled down my underwear dreading what was coming next. The doctor just looked and nodded and motioned for me to get dressed. I pulled up my cloths, wondering what that test was for. My answer came when I rejoined my guide. He was still smiling and with two thumbs up he said “You officially a boy.” 

My tests all came back good. I don’t have Aids, Hep, or any other social diseases. My blood tests didn’t have traces of drugs. I don’t have TB, and my blood pressure was within the ok margin. Oh!, and I am officially a man with proper man junk. So the dossier complete I read and signed all the forms and sent the pile of to Moscow. I will probably have to leave Russia two more times. A quick hop to Georgia at the end of October to get another three-month visa, and then again before my RVP (as it is called here) is decided on. If the decision is positive then I will be free to come and go to Russia for three years, so long as I am not out of the country for longer than 180 days. 


Perhaps it is the overly polite Canadian culture, but I can honestly say everyone I have had the pleasure of meeting in Russia has gone out of their way and comfort zone to make me feel welcome. Even when I was new and made social mistakes, cultural oops’s, these have been ignored. I would like to believe the same would be true if my Russian or Georgian friends tried to immigrate to Canada. But, I have too many immigrant friends that have told me differently. Perhaps infrequent immigration means Russians still have patience left for foreigners and Canadians don’t? I don’t know the answer. But I do know the feeling. So when you hear or see someone new struggling to order a coffee at Starbucks, or get directions for God’s sake help them if you can. The person is stressed, and feels like he or she is standing there with their junk hanging out! 

Back inside the comfort of the Russian Federation


So after spending a year in Georgia, Inga and I are back in our place in Anapa. The temptation when spending so much time abroad is to compare home with where you are. In this case, it is tempting to compare Georgia with Russia and Georgians with Russians. A little insider travel trip. No one likes when you do that. Where you were is where you were. Now you’re someplace else, and it is what it is. In your head, you are finding similarities or things you like or dislike about the change. It is human nature after all. But, leave those thoughts where they originate. In your head. 


We are once again doing the residency process. It makes it a great deal easier to travel and come and go as required. This was our third time going through the process, so we were well practiced and knew what to expect. All the necessary paperwork was submitted, and I was sent to a nearby city to have my medical exams performed. Six appointments in five different locations. My driver and facilitator spoke very little English but understood if he kept the Russian to a child level we could communicate. It was a great test of my newly acquired and petite practiced language skills. I think he enjoyed the experience as much as I did. He shuttled me around to different clinics in a very VIP manner, attempting to point out historical and interesting sites along the way.


The city is called; The City Of Heroes. I believe it was one of the Forbidden Cities at a time in recent Russian history. Forbidden in the sense that foreigners at one time needed special paperwork to visit. It was a lovely city with lots of public green spaces welcoming families and couples. Fancy and simple architecture mixed in new and old buildings alike. We moved through the city from one clinic to another, and my driver/guide stopped near the harbor for a coffee. Together we looked out over the parked warships, the sun was high overhead, and I could see my guide thinking. He took a sip of coffee and in a series of simple phrases communicated a question. It took eight sentences and a few clarifications by me for him to ask. “Crimea was Russian first. It became something else. Something else that many residents didn’t like. They had a revolution, like the Arab Spring revolution. No one asked who backed the Arab revolution. The people voted. They voted democratically to return to Mother Russia (Mother Russia is expressed in one word Rodina, but has several specific meanings). Why now are American warships in the Black Sea? Is democracy only democracy if America agrees? Why when Russia put nuclear missiles on its territory in Cuba we almost went to war? America now circles Russia with these same weapons, on US Military bases in other countries,  and says it has to as President Putin is aggressive? Aggressive because he backed a democratically elected government in a territory that is 75% Russian? Why do Americans hate us so much?”

This was not an easy series of questions to answer. The general issue being why does America hate Russia so much. The previous questions adding context and situational proof so one could not only answer “they don’t it is just political.” I find myself explaining American politics a great deal more than I like, or am qualified to do. I am not American, but being neighbors and perceived to be similar I get placed into this role. To be short Russians separate people from politics, something Americans don’t do, and Canadians do to a lesser degree than Russians. So when he said Americans, he means the country and governing government, not the people. It is an essential cultural understanding of language. 

I looked at the aging destroyer parked in the harbor, now a museum to The Great War as it is called here. How to answer the question, hampered by my child-like vocabulary? My guide’s expression was communicating he understood my difficulty and the position his question put me in. I pointed to the ship and asked when did The Great War begin? He answered. An answer shared by Canada, Russia, and England. I said; “not if you ask an American.” For America, it started in December. If you Google search in English, this is history. This is the reality. The reality is shaped by those that control and distribute information. Every person fears the unknown. Things that are different create stress. People don’t like stress. Things we don’t know are different and stressful. It is easier to stay inside a box we know than look outside the box into the unknown. I don’t know how to get all these medical tests done. That is stressful. I have to tell you I don’t know. I have to show weakness. I have to trust you to help me. America is the most powerful country in the world. They can’t show weakness and remain seen as such. This hampers their ability to trust. Americans don’t hate Russians, and America doesn’t understand Russia, so they can not trust. My guide shook his head, nodding his understanding of my answer and raised the last sip of his coffee to the hulking warship. “Mira, Di Bok.” I joined him repeating in English “For God; Peace.” 

We retreated to the air-conditioned Audi and headed back up the hill to the next appointment. The next clinic took a blood sample, and I was handed a cup. The nurse pointed to a door when she gave me plastic drinking cup. I went to the door and opened it. It was a toilet. I was unclear of what she wanted and turned to look back at her. She gestured, in a very manly way, what I was supposed to do and said; “50 degrees.” I understood she wanted a urine sample and that I should fill the cup halfway. The door outside found my guide waiting for me. He pointed to an office across the hall and was smiling. I gave him a questioning look, and his smile broadened. “Trust me Canada it is all good. Go there. Do that what doctor say.”  I walked into the room, and an older man was talking with an even older nurse. He smiled and said hello and gestured for me to drop my trousers. The nurse discretely turned and looked out the window. I dropped my pants and regained his gaze. He nodded and gestured for me to continue. I pulled down my underwear dreading what was coming next. The doctor just looked and nodded and motioned for me to get dressed. I pulled up my cloths, wondering what that test was for. My answer came when I rejoined my guide. He was still smiling and with two thumbs up he said “You officially a boy.” 

My tests all came back good. I don’t have Aids, Hep, or any other social diseases. My blood tests didn’t have traces of drugs. I don’t have TB, and my blood pressure was within the ok margin. Oh!, and I am officially a man with proper man junk. So the dossier complete I read and signed all the forms and sent the pile of to Moscow. I will probably have to leave Russia two more times. A quick hop to Georgia at the end of October to get another three-month visa, and then again before my RVP (as it is called here) is decided on. If the decision is positive then I will be free to come and go to Russia for three years, so long as I am not out of the country for longer than 180 days. 


Perhaps it is the overly polite Canadian culture, but I can honestly say everyone I have had the pleasure of meeting in Russia has gone out of their way and comfort zone to make me feel welcome. Even when I was new and made social mistakes, cultural oops’s, these have been ignored. I would like to believe the same would be true if my Russian or Georgian friends tried to immigrate to Canada. But, I have too many immigrant friends that have told me differently. Perhaps infrequent immigration means Russians still have patience left for foreigners and Canadians don’t? I don’t know the answer. But I do know the feeling. So when you hear or see someone new struggling to order a coffee at Starbucks, or get directions for God’s sake help them if you can. The person is stressed, and feels like he or she is standing there with their junk hanging out! 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Georgian Boys Road Trip

   
My time in the Republic of Georgia is quickly coming to an end. I had only seen a small part of this beautiful country and my wife Inga was stuck in Russia. My friend Mamuchar (or Max as he lets me call him) suggested a trip. “A road-trip,”  I replied.

        “Well we could fly, But it would be expensive.”

I explained what a “Road-trip” was, and he liked the idea. Sometimes it is the little literal things in English, which non-native English speakers find confusing. English is such an imprecise language and so culturally connected.

        “Where we go?” Max asked.


        “How the hell should I know this is your country. Let's rent a nice 4x4 and just set off like the Blues Brothers.”

        “Who is Blues Brothers?”

        “I’ll tell you during the trip” Thinking to myself “Man am I stupid or what?”

    Renting a vehicle in Georgia is significantly more straightforward than in the west. Pick the car and skip the big insurance upsell. No deposit required. Don’t worry about the scratches and dents as they won’t be worrying about them when you get back. Agree on the days you need and sign the forms when they drop off the vehicle. In this particular case, it was a big V8 Toyota Sequoia. It was silver, had working air conditioning, and comfy leather seats. It was also dead empty. We took it to the gas station and filled it up with 87 liters of fuel. In Georgia, they call it Benzene to differentiate from Gas. Gas is auto propane or natural gas. It has been a year, and I still haven’t figured out if “Gas”  is LP or CNG as they tend to use the two as the same just one is compressed more. Not really accurate but it may be like asking “what color are your Bunny Rabbits if you don’t have Bunnies. A common issue when trying to determine translation, and what you mean.

    Max dropped me off at my apartment admonishing me to be ready at 0600 military time. The translation being 0600 as zero six hundred is military time. The meaning being I’ll be here at six sharp, be ready to go.

At six Max turned the corner to my apartment, and I could see he was happy to see me standing waiting for him. “Yes, my friend I had understood what you meant.” This day was going to be a long one as we were driving all the way north to Svaneti.

Svaneti is comprised of an upper and lower region. We were headed to the upper region and the town of Mestia, the highest inhabited area of the incredible Caucasus Mountain Range. Four of the ten highest peaks are located in this area. Mount Shkhara at 5201 meters or 17,059 feet, is found in this province. A local villager, herding cows, kindly pointed out Mount Ushba to us as it towered in the distance proudly perched at 4710m or 15453ft.

    Before we arrived in the city, we had a lot of kilometers to drive. Max’s wife Magdelinia had discovered an old Russian sanatorium in Saveneti and suggested we visit. I should point out for Western Readers that when you see sanatorium, and it is connected to Russian the meaning is SPA. Yes, I understand sanatorium is usually translated as Nut House or a place for the mentally ill in polite speak. In the East, it is a Spa. This sanatorium was forty kilometers down a atrocious, 4x4 only road. While not the Rubicon Trail, it’s listed as a road, after all, it took some superior four wheel driving to negotiate this goat track. Max was up to the task and even got my joke when the road finally tamed. I told him. “We need to go back you missed one pothole.”

Laughing, with a comfort only usually found amongst friends of similar cultures, we got out of the truck for lunch. Earlier research had shown a retreat guest house and restaurant near the old sanatorium. It was closed and abandoned. Max talked with the residents of the two houses showing any signs of recent habitation while I walked around the old grounds.

The old Soviet architecture is apparent in two ways. The design is recognizable right away. Massive columns hold sweeping arches with bold right angle blocks. The other is was it was still standing despite being built many years ago and uninhabited for thirty plus years. The ground was soft under the huge trees, and the vegetation had advanced on the building. It reminded me of the old growth forests of home, and I was glad when Max rejoined me. He filled in as many details as he could about the history of the place. It had been a rather famous old spa for the Russian elite. Tennis courts, complete with lights were still standing empty waiting to be played on. Residents could take a horseback ride to an alpine mountain lake reputed to have curative powers. The trip took four days. A local had offered to provide horses if we wanted to make the journey. Max had politely declined, and I was glad as after four days on horse back I would need to find the spring of eternal youth to sooth the aches of that journey.

 
We backtracked to an old suspension bridge we had driven by and stopped to enjoy lunch. Max had stopped earlier and secured fresh Georgian bread and cheese to go with the sausage and packaged cheese I had brought. Before lunch, we took a quick dip in the mountain stream to cool off. The water was fresh and as cold as ice.

    Refreshed and fed we resumed our trip. One of the main things tourists need to know when getting off the main highways in Georgia is that risk is part of the journey. Aggressive driving is the norm and when you mix old CCCP trucks and older cars with modern cars of vastly different horsepower rating chaos is bound to happen. Mix in winding narrow mountain roads, various forms of farm animals grazing where ever they like and crashes are unavoidable. We were lucky enough to avoid a couple of close calls on this trip, and we drove by two ruined vehicles that were not so lucky.

   
After twelve hours on the road, we arrived in the village of Mestia. Max checked with three hotels before getting directions to a guest house that “probably” had rooms available. The road up to the guest house was incredibly steep and narrow, and both of us were wondering if we would be able to turn “the tank” (our vehicle had been so named at some earlier point) around. We arrived at a beautiful house built into and around the areas famous Svanetian towers. We were shown to a room with two beds and a huge deck perfect for cigars. The price was right, and more importantly, it was available, so we took it.

Guest houses consist of a common room or rooms and usually a separate shower room and toilet, with a locking bedroom. The bedroom is yours for the night, and the other room or rooms are shared. We were lucky in that we had no other guests joining us that night, so it was like having a 2000 SQ foot house as your suite.
The guest house had another huge deck off the kitchen and restaurant. Starving Max and I found seats and ordered calf and pork barbecue, fries,  and vodka. Max also ordered Kubdari. Max told me Kubdari is the Svans national, ethnic dish. When it arrived, I said I had tried this. My Russian mother in law made this for me every time I arrived at her home. I had just though it was Ossetian Khachapuri. Khachapuri is a baked bread product that varies by region. Georgian has at least nine different types of Khachapuri, but some arguments occur when coming to any agreement on this. But when your talking about food that has been popular since 500AD, and perhaps before, these things happen. Basically, Khachapuri has to contain bread and cheese in the ingredients to be Khachapuri.


    The sunrise the next day was breathtaking. The trees were hanging onto to clouds refusing to let them go like a jealous lover. The warmth of the sun chasing the chill from the air and turning the clouds to memories. The colors vibrant, unreal, and shifting as the sun slowly chased its arch. Coffee was hot and too large for my friend Max. Georgians are not used to 20 ounces of coffee in the morning. I can't survive without it!

    We left early for Max’s sister's house and another feast that would include Mingrelian Cha Cha. Like the previous discussion about cheese bread each region has their version of this Georgian treat. Be careful as 40 percent is for teenagers. Keeping with traditional expectations I had three and the road was as smooth as silk for the rest of the day. Significantly less scary as well.

    That night found us at Max’s father in laws house and another feast. Georgians see guests as gifts from God and treat them as such. Hospitality doesn’t go far enough to explain how you will be treated in a Georgian's home. A huge table was set, and we ate and drank more Mingrelian delights. I went to bed earlier than Max and his brother in law, but then I am not Georgian, so this is acceptable.

    The next morning was not kind. Max brought me coffee, Canadian size, and said “fucking Mingrelian Cha Cha.”  I nodded and got my feet on the floor. We left early as Max knew a place with a cure-all for a Mingrelian hang over. We arrived at a roadside pullout and walked over to an older looking place with two older women sitting on the front deck. Max ordered a spicy meat stew with bread and some Borjomi mineral water. We ate without appetite, and without many words. Wounded soldiers from the night before.

    The return road trip is almost always lackluster. But, not in this case. Inga had managed to get a ride back to Tbilisi after being stuck in Enhotva for almost three weeks. The main road through the Kazbegi mountain range had been wiped out by a landslide. But she was home, and we were going to pick her, and Max’s wife up and go to Signagi.

Signagi is also called the city of love and is located in the Kakheti region of Georgia. Narrow cobblestone streets contained within the old ramparts of the 18th-century fortress. It was a wonderful reunion and a fitting place to visit with the Love of My Life.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Spending Time with PTSD

     Time. We all think we have enough time to do all the things we need to do and most of the things we want to do. But do we? I have been busy posting and keeping up with the general buzz Redemption’s Bullet is making. But the recent death of a brother in arms had my mind drifting and looking back in time. To a time, I knew he was happy, and at the top of his game. So what happened? Time is what happened. 
I was doing some other family stuff in the city of Gori. I was in the back seat of the Mercedes and looking at the Beautiful Georgian countryside smear by, in that way vision gets affected by thought. Ray G. was a strong person. An Indo-Canadian man of strength and character made better by his culture and having to fit into our Correctional culture. It wasn’t an easy fit. I was there so save the peaches and ice-cream politically correct rear-view perspective. It is the pap the CSC brass serve the press. We broke everybody's balls equally so it can’t be called racist. But, we as a group forged each other harder. Pete’s big nose, Ray’s brown skin, my questionable friendship with senior managers, nothing was off limits. We used words to desensitize each other so nothing a convict might say could ever reach us. Or so we believed! This Mountain had broke. The image was almost as difficult to accept as my PTSD was. The evidence of broken mountains was just outside my window. Right in front of my face and I was missing it. The flow of water rending the mountains passing my perspective. Time and the substance of tears, destroying mighty mountains. 
Ray is not the first man left behind. I can think of ten more without really trying. Eleven people that could have been saved. Bernie, King, and others that I will not name. PTSD is a time amplifier for the suffering. It is having a greater impact on first responders now than in the past fifty years. I don’t believe this to be because we aren’t as hard as our ancestors. This theory is brokered around in HQ’s across all branches. My old man was a hard man. A loving father to be sure. But he was still as hard as the hammer that drove the nail. I watched him slice off three toes mowing the lawn. He stopped the mower. Picked up his severed digits. Pulling the mower, he returned to the house and called Mom and told her to get him a white towel. Mom asked why he needed a white towel for yard work? It was then I heard the stress of the event enter my father's voice. He just replied. “Edith, get me a goddam white towel!” Then he drove himself to the hospital. A twenty-five-minute trip. I offered to get a friend that could drive. He dismissed my offer saying the car is an automatic. 
Years later this hard man was driven to tears in my home theater. I had designed a great sound system and wanted to show it to Dad. Saving Private Ryan had just been released on video and in 5.1 THX. I put it in and as the opening scene played I saw this hard man disintegrate. Fifty years of time had passed since the D-Day landing. But for my Dad this movie and the realistic sound was too much. My father wasn’t on the beach in Normandy that day. But his comrades were. 
This was around the time I got involved in CISM at work. I was selected as I was the VP of the Union and on the ERT. The idea was driven by a Manager I didn’t get along with, but Nancy W. was the driving force behind the start of the project. I found out later it made her a bit of a pariah with other managers more concerned with budgets and not Hug sessions, as they perceived CISM to be. It wasn’t just managers that marginalized the program. Even Team Leaders held the program in contempt. I perhaps failed at this point and share the responsibility for the program not being adopted as completely as it is now. I failed to clearly show the benefit of the program. I didn’t want to be the nail the stuck out. It took me a few years to be that nail. So to the brothers, I could have helped, had I had the parts to stand up earlier I am truly sorry.
The program as it is now is good. It isn’t perfect as no system so large can be perfect. But it is not the answer. It is a coping device made to save lives and allow people to get help. The problem is the next step. I will use my case as an example. 
Our work is stressful, incredibly at times. But for me, it wasn’t a work incident that set the match. Don’t misunderstand me the PTSD was there from work. But it was a family tragedy in pairs that pushed me into the dark. I lied to myself and said I could handle it. I was my father son. I lived that lie for several months, getting worse. I had the training, skills, and knew the warning signs and yet I tried to swim out of the current myself. Time. Then a fellow CISM person asked me how I was doing. B was a little too perceptive, and sensitive for her own good. But for me it was the question I didn’t want to answer but, needed someone to ask. So after that “Walk and Talk” I decided to reach out. I called the mental health professional recommended. I was told it would be six to eight weeks to get an appointment. When I told them, I had unsupervised access to twenty machine guns, as many handguns, and 243 thousand rounds, a long pause followed. I got my appointment. It was in six days. 
I got the help I needed and got out of that downward spiral. It was my first, but it wouldn’t be my last. I wasn’t able to take sick days and as it wasn’t a condition recognized by WCB I had to work while working through it. But I got there. 
The Federal Government needs to get behind this program in a serious and measurable way. Across all departments and branches. But when a hero like Lt. Gen. Romeo D’Allaire can’t get any traction how can I. Well, I have more Twitter followers so perhaps with this new social media conscious Trudeau we have a chance. I didn’t standup years ago while inside the system. But I learned from that mistake and am standing up now. I am a hard man, and I will use anything in my power to add voice to this invisible killer that is taking our brave men. Prime Minister Trudeau, when I joined the Canadian Armed Forces a timeworn Regimental Sargent Major told the group of recruits that we were writing a blank check to the country of Canada. The amount might be everything, including our lives. When I continued my service with the Government, I didn’t put a hold on that check. Sir, respectfully I get you inherited this problem, but you stood for office. You were elected. Those, like me, that stood on guard for the Canadians that elected you need a blank check in return. 
My newest NonFiction is, in a roundabout way, about PTSD and one person's journey. How it gets written will depend on the progress the Canadian Government makes on this National Issue. Not just at the Federal Level, but the Provincial as well. This was made even more relevant last week. You see Sir, While we were burying our Brother Ray, a BC Ambulance member ended their life as well. Lost heroes, lost in time spent with PTSD.