Saturday, 21 June 2014

Nothing is Easy and it is All Permitted

Nothing is easy and it is all permitted. I guess for me that sums up the overall travel and freedoms question. This is not to say anything negative, actually quite the contrary. Russians take their collective freedom very seriously and never for granted. The expectation is we will get to where we are going and that there will be challenges that make us appreciate it.

So started the adventure to North Ossetia. North and South Ossetia used to be just different districts within the Russian Federation until around 1998. Georgia decided to break away from the Federation and, backed by other countries, ended up tearing up the once peaceful countryside. Families and friendships that existed in peace for decades ceased under the promise of democracy and prosperity for all. This blog is not really the place to debate global politics or even seek to accurately describe the subtle nuances of why this was caused. There is a ton of data on the web that does this far better than I ever could. I encourage you to look it up if you're interested as it is pretty topical considering what is going on in the Ukraine. For my purpose, I just want to paint a picture of an area that spoke three entirely different languages and two dialects. A culture of respect with a rich history of traditions, which despite cultural differences added a vibrant exotic colour to the community. Once exploited these differences added an all too familiar colour to the soil. I remember asking once why the earth in Africa was so red. I didn't get the geological iron rich answer I was expecting. I got a sardonic smirk and one word, "Progress."

 When your country officially warns against travel to a particular area in the world you really should pay attention. I paid it attention and then decided after being locked up for the past 25 years with some of Canada's worst criminals how much risk was I actually taking. My wife's parents have a house there. Her brother moved back from Canada in order to live there and take care of our parents and he and his wife had just had a new baby. A visit was required both out of respect and cultural expectations. So thanks Department of Foreign Affairs but with train tickets in hand I decided to check it out for myself.

 We made the Anapa train station with an hour to spare, luggage and papers in hand. I didn't have to wait long to see the cultural subtitles in action. Two passengers were speaking Georgian to a woman in uniform that was checking their documents. Inga recognized a dialect difference that let her know the attendant was Ossetian. We handed her our documents, I had put my ticket on the same page as my visa as the Russian spelling for my name is quite different, ever the helpful Canadian.

This act caused a bit of confusion as the attendant was looking for my passport number on the identity page. Inga naturally switched to the Ossetian language to explain the issue and to my surprise the attendant apologized for not figuring it out herself. The attendant's demeanor changed and she was much more pleasant. Other people standing close that already checked in as well heard the exchange and in this public place this spontaneous group shared their experiences about the wars that ruined their countries.

It was all done in a matter of fact way Russians engage in discussions about politics. The conversations were fast and structured, as if all agreed on the polite debating style. No one tried to grandstand or make a point past his or her own experience and thoughts on the overall outcome. To a person, each agreed that the outcome was horrible and fault seemed to be a far secondary concern. I struggled as a Westerner to put this into perspective. Imagine, as I did, four individuals from the civil war discussing the outcome. How would this exchange of ideas, position, and result ever come across in a polite manner? In this culture where little disagreements sound very harsh I was openly stunned at this. Everyone finished then as a group they took a moment to reflect and then as a group turned and boarded the train. When we went to walk on the attendant offered us what we in the west would call a gate upgrade. We took it and were very glad we did.

 Russian trains move a lot of people around a huge country. They aren't as punctual as the German trains and they aren't as new as Canadian. But they are incredibly inexpensive to use. A sleeping berth, with fresh linen, was fifty Canadian dollars. This same distance on a Canadian train would have been closer to a thousand. Our train was clean, everything worked, and the people were friendly. It had a very large bathroom with a flushing toilet and running water. The trains themselves are electric and very smooth, although the cabin control panel looked like something out of the Soviet era. When I pointed this out to Inga, our attendant and new friend heard me and I guess understanding my gesture and "Soviet" laughed and said "no older."

The overnight trip was far more comfortable in our private cabin and while it wasn't big it was enough. We made food and drank vodka and watched as a countryside reminiscent of British Columbia's interior flashed by the window. The train didn't have air-conditioning, but we did have a window that opened so it was a bearable sleep. A sleep disturbed only by other passing trains, speeding past our window at 70 kilometers per hour and less than a meter away. The cabin would light up like paparazzi's cameras capturing the latest socialite gaff. My startled face reflected in my own window, a distorted nightmarish hug sending me back to sleep wondering how often these things crashed.

 We arrived in the city of Vladikavkaz in the late morning. The city is similar in its Russian block apartments and snarled traffic. We met our ride and enjoyed a short drive to the highway passing streets crowded with impeccably well-dressed men and women walking beside very old buildings. On the way to Elxotovo and Inga's parents house we passed a famous site. The site is a spiritual tribute to Saint George. It has a large statue of the saint and some chairs. We stopped and had a brief look and paid our respects. What I found most odd as I scanned the road for possible threats my Government had gone on about were the drivers. Each driver looked like they were "adjusting" themselves as they passed. Well, I thought this when I first saw it. When we left Inga's brother, Jim did the same thing and explained it was like standing up to pay respect.

 In keeping with culture and tradition, a feast was held at the home for me and the new baby. Family and friends from the neighborhood started arriving around four and the women all went to work preparing food and drink. When the table was ready, each person took a seat in keeping with tradition. One of the local friends was identified as the master of toasts and he sat at the head of the table and each of the men according to an order I didn't understand sat on either side of the long table with the women at the far end. Now I get this sounds a little sexist but it is practical. The ladies want to talk about different things than the men and being close to one another can do this without much effort or disruption to the nights events.

The night starts off with a toast to God. Each and every toaster must finish their glass so the glasses are quite small, or at least should be if you want to have a functioning liver in the morning. The Master of Toasts follows a very strict list of toasts that must be done first. He stands and makes his toast, each person clinks glasses and then he alone drinks and then the next person adds to the toast, but must follow the theme presented by the Master. When he is finished he again clinks glasses with those close by drinks and this is continued to the end of the table each person adding to the toast. In-between toasts food is consumed and general conversation flows with the master of toasts setting the pace and the next respected man, pouring drinks for those gathered. It is expected that you keep your head, follow the tradition and enjoy yourself. Transgressions in procedure are gently corrected once, possibly twice if it's late in the evening and you're new to the scene. To that end I was chastised, politely and with humor, about holding my glass in my left hand and for not standing up when I should or standing up when I shouldn't. But, on the whole I managed to make it through the night and my glass was always filled to the top. A sign that the man in charge of pouring thinks you are handling yourself and alcohol appropriately.

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