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Hospitality, Moscow-style

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I’ve had recurring dreams about showing my parents around Moscow. I would be taking them to major sights or exposing them via friends to that majorly psychotic brand of Slavic hospitality. But alas, such a trip never happened. (I did take them to former-Yugoslavia once. It was a mixed success. While my parents did get a taste of Slavic hospitality, they also flashed-back to their WWII childhoods – the taste of war was just still too fresh. But that’s another story.)

Last summer my Moscow dreams came partially true. My parents and I visited Moscow, Ontario, Canada (pop: 65). For a second as we drove across the town line, it even seemed like the real thing. Unfortunately, the rising spires of a Russian Orthodox church turned out to be a cluster of farm silos.

We stopped at the Variety Store and Gas Bar by the crossroads – aka ‘Downtown Moscow’. I hoped to buy local souvenirs to use as payback for hospitality the next time I was in Moscow proper. The proprietor Gord, a large older man who did not seem prone to movement, laughed when I asked if he sold Moscow-branded baseball caps or t-shirts. “I got chips and root beer. That’s pretty much it.” Gord laughed again when I asked if the town was originally founded by homesick Russians.

moscowontariocanadaApparently, Moscow was originally called Springfield until government agents dropped by in the late 19th century to tell the hamlet to change its name because there were already too many goddam Springfields. So in the name of not confusing the postal services any further, Springfield was renamed Moscow since it happened to be the anniversary of Napoleon’s wintery retreat from Moscow proper. “And hell, it gets cold here too!” Gord laughed.

We bought root beers as a small compensation for Gord’s story before making our own retreat. Just as we were about to pull out, Gord ran outside. Huffing, puffing and verging on a heart attack, he was holding a piece of paper. It was a photocopied certificate embossed with ‘Mos’ and a cartoon cow [pictured above]. He said he just found this last copy in his desk drawer and we could have it. Thanks Gord! Consider it laminated!

As we drove off we all agreed: Moscow is one hospitable town.
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Posted: October 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm.

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‘BLACK PETER’ MAY OR MAY NOT BE RACISM… BUT ST. NICK IS DEFINITELY SATAN

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[Spoiler alert: Not recommended reading for those who believe in Santa Claus.]

Each year in the Netherlands during the Christmas season, the tone around the debate on whether Zwarte Piet (‘Black Peter’) is a form of racism gets darker. This year, the discourse was further inflamed by the rather violent arrest of ten protesters with ‘Black Peter is Racism’ t-shirts and the news that the Dutch-Canadian community in Vancouver decided to no longer allow Black Peters in their annual Sinterklaas (St Nicolas) procession. Meanwhile many of the Dutch-Dutch just get increasingly defensive as they treat such talk as a threat against their culture.

For the outsider, it remains a curious tradition: countless Dutch adults putting on black face, smearing on red, red lipstick, popping on a wig of kinky hair and adorning their ears with large golden hoops – and doing all this without any sense of malice. Then they hit the streets like a pack of highly caffeinated Al Jolsons to help St. Nick distribute sweets to children.  Years ago, a visiting friend and I came across such a posse. I was long used to it, but my friend’s jaw hit the ground in disbelief – and this is a man who has witnessed much weirdness worldwide. ‘What is this minstrel madness?!?’ he asked flabbergasted. (Not long after while in Russia our roles were reversed in a strange and convoluted way when we were waiting at a backwoods train station and some skinheads came to confront my friend about the colour of his skin. He stayed cool and dealt with the situation. I just stood there. Totally flabbergasted.)

Local Dutch cultural history only goes so far in giving my friend a reasonable explanation behind the Black Peter tradition. Continue Reading…

Posted: December 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm.

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Confessions of a Canadian Liberator

trees-allaboutamsterdamToday is Liberation Day. And it was 65 years ago that Canada liberated the Netherlands from Nazi German occupation. Sure, it was more of an “Allied” operation and the Poles did their bit to help out, but Canadians soldiers truly left their mark as they lingered in Amsterdam for months after. They even had their own Amsterdam guide book (pictured left, see full scan here).

By early 1946, venereal disease was skyrocketing and over 7000 babies were born out of wedlock (which is coincidentally  around the  same number as those Canadians who had died). Even today, when Canadian soldiers return to take part in the Remembrance Day ceremonies they are greeted by aging women with signs asking ‘Are you my Daddy?’.

I was clued into the raw sex appeal Canadians enjoyed back then by a friend’s octogenarian grandmother. She had been there to welcome the Canadians when they came marching into town. She described how handsome and muscular they looked, especially when compared to the local lads who had just come out of the ‘Hunger Winter’. She also mentioned how great it was to get chocolate and fresh stockings. She really went on and on… Then I got a little creeped out when I realised she was actually reliving the raw lust she felt back then for these strapping Canadians. Talk about living memories!

Later I heard that a lot of those ‘Hunger Winter’ Dutch boys remembered something else: how when the Canadians rode through the cheering masses, the soldiers would lift up women onto their tanks and trucks by picking them up like a 10-pin bowling balls… (Which is kind of weird since one of the marks of Canadian identity is a preference for 5-pin bowling.)

trees_00011000734But anyway, I decided to just focus on the purely liberation part of the story. I started to bring my Canadian passport with me on Liberation Days in the hopes of scamming free beer for the sacrifices my country had made. Actually, I just tried it on a befriended bartender. And when he wasn’t immediately forthcoming with the free beer, I tried to suggest that he really owed me: after all, maybe I was his Daddy. After a brief lecture in mathematics he finally relented and gave me a beer. But his true gift came later. As I exited I shouted goodbye to him across the crowded bar. He returned with a: “Hey man, thanks for the liberation!” And just before the door swung shut behind me I had time to yell “Hey man, anytime!”.

It was the best bar exit scene ever. So of course I tried to relive this magic moment every year. Until a regular who had witnessed my ploys pointed out to me: ‘Yes, liberation is all fine and good, but occupation is not.’ I knew then that I had worn out my welcome as Canadian Beer Liberator.

But it still felt like destiny a couple of years ago when I was cast as a Canadian major liberating Holland in the film Snuf de Hond in Oorlogstijd [‘Snuf the Dog in Wartime’],  which was based on a children book series about a Lassie-like dog who became a hero of the Dutch Resistance. Basically I played a gullible Canadian peckerhead who falls for the stories of a traitor who is supposed to show  us the enemy German positions but is instead setting us up for a trap. Luckily, Snuf comes in just in time to save the day. You could say the Canadians came off quite badly in this movie. Or you could say I was being typecast as usual.

But my favourite story related to the Liberation by the Canadians  I heard  while taking a cab to Schiphol airport. The cabbie was an old Dutch guy and after I told him that I was heading back to Canada to visit my family he said: ‘I got a story you will just love.’

He told me how he was born a few years before WWII in the south of Holland and how during the war he acted as his blind grandfather’s seeing-eye dog. One night, his Opa and he were walking under the cover of darkness to a nearby village to trade food, milk, tulip bulbs, whatever. Suddenly his Opa heard some sort of heavy transport coming in their direction. Worried that it was the Germans, they hid behind a fence. But as it came closer, his Opa realised that the engines sounded different. So they came out of hiding and saw a whole procession of tanks and trucks. The leading tank stopped in front of them, the top popped up and a soldier appeared and asked in English: ‘Is this the way to Arnhem?’ Opa replied in the affirmative and then asked back in English: ‘Are you Americans?’

The soldier looked down at blind  Opa with disgust and answered “No way old man. We’re fucking Canadians!

trees-heeft-een-canadees--collectie-hugo-keesing-1994Now isn’t that a heart-warming tale? Isn’t it nice to know that such a well-developed sense of Canadian-ness already existed back in 1945? Isn’t it enough to make a Canadian nationalist out of you?

Of course, I became a fierce Canadian nationalist once I stopped living there 20 years ago. For a long time, I would always be ready to natter on about Canada’s natural beauty, expansive spaces, nice folks, un-American-ness, reasonable immigration policies, multiculturalism as a matter-of-fact and not a matter of endless circular discussions…

However my nationalism eventually got dimmed by a friend in Amsterdam who happened to have  an estranged Canadian lumberjack father. He once interrupted one of my pro-Canadian rants with: ‘You want to know what I think about when I think of Canada? I think of a drunk that used to beat me.’

Indeed. ‘Where’s my Daddy?

Posted: May 5, 2010 at 10:43 am.

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Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Believe the hype. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is indeed an amazing documentary — Spinal Tap come to life. Some of the lines are just so perfect, it’s hard to believe it’s not scripted. But once you meet these guys you know that it is not scripted just very very true. Actually this film would probably be too painful to watch if you don’t know that  this  documentary finally brought their career to life and they’re doing some major touring again. Oh Canada!   So just download it, rent it or go this week to the Melkweg Cinema  for the full volume impact.

Posted: February 6, 2010 at 10:19 am.

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Geoff Berner Interview (part 1?)

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This week my token whisky rabbi drinking buddy Geoff Berner is touring the Netherlands with his kickass klezmer trio. Don’t miss his show in Amsterdam on Tuesday  1 December  2009 at the Nieuwe Anita.

Ah yes, the lone troubadour… One human. One instrument. And a stack of tunes. Once they were a dying breed but now a renaissance seems to be in full effect where one inspired freak falls in love with a mutant instrument and proceeds to learn how to use it as both a lover and a weapon. Personality helps too — and singer/songwriter/accordion-player Geoff ‘The Whiskey Rabbi’ Berner has that in spades. Already a respected cult figure in Scandinavia (thanks in part to his colleagues Kaizers Orchestra) and his native Canada, his songs have been covered by everyone from ukulele legend Carmaig de Forest to Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Certainly he has the ability to transfix any crowd he’s confronted with since it turns out that everyone’s a sucker for klezmer-based tunes that drip with politics, sex and drink — no Jewish wedding to be found here, just one ‘Lucky Goddam Jew’ (as another song is called) who knows how to play and sing from his heart. Berner’s motivation is simple: ‘I want to drag klezmer music kicking and screaming back into the bars.’

 

GBthumg_2So once a guy has a taste for it where can he find some more whisky rabbi drinking buddy types? In Odessa a hundred years ago perhaps?

Geoff: Well, contrary to some beliefs, Jews are actually a pretty hard-drinking racial group. Many of My People can give the Irish a run for their money. There are a large number of traditional drinking songs, including ‘Di Mashke’ (‘the whisky’). Most of them put forward the idea that drinking hard liquor is a privilege of adulthood and we should thank G-d for it, and a man who doesn’t drink is basically good for nothing.

My song ‘King of the Gangsters’ is about Benya Krik, a character in a series of short stories by Isaac Babel, set in the Odessa underworld in the teens. Babel makes Odessa sound like a wild and fascinating place. I think that his stories make the point that when a people is oppressed and denied power in society, its men and women of great talent often emerge from the criminal element, for better or worse.

 

But time travel is a bit tricky (and I can imagine green zero emissions time travel to be REAL REAL tricky). So what would be a more realistic option?

Geoff: I recommend hanging out with Bob Cohen, leader of my favourite klezmer band, Di Naye Kapelye. He lives in Budapest, speaks Yiddish, Hungarian, Romanian, three dialects of Roma, Zulu, and Brooklynese. He can tell dirty jokes in all these languages. He can tell you where the best food is in places that you’ve never heard of. He was once a Rastafarian for 10 years, and was the first American tourist in Grenada after the invasion.

You should read his crazy blog here.

 

GB_GML765003939_largeSo I’ve basically lived outside Canada for almost 20 years. But I spent a lot of that time writing about the world from the perspective of a Canadian peckerhead. Now I am planning to return to Canada for a longer stretch to write about Canada from the perspective of eurotrash. That’s my plan… And my question is: what went down in Canada in the last 20 years that may have passed me by that I should really know about if I want to write about the state of Canada…   socially, culturally, politically… new flavours of beer… that sort of thing…

Geoff: Canada. What the fuck is it? What’s changed in 20 years?

Well…

The gap between rich and poor has widened. So your middleclass friends whose careers are progressing will have more STUFF than you ever thought possible. And also they will be stepping around a lot more homeless people on the streets of the cities.

There are far fewer CanCon Rock heroes for the young. The internet has cancelled out the effect of the CanCon radio regulations. The Tragically Hip are still going strong, but they don’t fill arenas, and there’s no one who’s come up to take their place. Sure, the Arcade Fire are huge, but most Canadian teenagers don’t know they’re from Canada, and don’t care anyway.

People work harder than they did 20 years ago. That is, they work ALL THE TIME, constantly using their iphone/blackberry to check on what’s happening with work. At the bar.   In the car. At the kid’s soccer practice.

It’s fucking WARMER here, man. You’ll notice it. Even in Ottawa. The river freezes later, and thaws way earlier. In BC, we’re used to seeing crocus flowers shoot up in January now.

We’re at war. When I was growing up, everything was about how Canada hadn’t fired a shot in anger since Korea.   How Lester B. Pearson invented peace-keeping and that’s what our army was all about. Now, we get an average of one body bag a week, like clockwork. And have done for several years now. It’s a slow drip, drip, drip in the national consciousness that’s slowly changing our national character, making us more militaristic as a country.

Beer: People with university degrees now exclusively drink decent tasting beer from the micro-breweries. Some of the small Canadian beers are better than even some English ales. Working class people still drink Canadian and Blue. And they think people who drink ‘that fancy shit’ are faggots who think they’re better than everybody else.

Wine: People drink a helluvalot more wine than they used to here. Lots of Australian wine.

Drinking and driving is still practiced far and wide in Canada, to an astonishing degree compared with Europe.

People aren’t living in Canada. They don’t know where they’re living. They’re living on Facebook.

All of Canada is noticeably less white than it was 20 years ago. Canada has done the best job of integrating minorities of any country I’ve ever been to. Sikhs, Chinese, Muslims, Jews, can all wear whatever the hell they like to school, work, whatever, and nobody says boo. We know from experience that in a generation they’ll all be wearing blue jeans, if they’re not already.   Even working class people eat sushi, curry, Ethiopian food, whatever. That didn’t happen in the 80s.

Even the conservative party isn’t immigrant-baiting anymore. They’ve figured out that there’s a huge electoral gold mine in the immigrant community, and that, wonder of wonders, most immigrants believe in traditional families, hard work, low taxes, and long jail sentences for criminals–just like the Tories! That’s why the Tories will win the next election.

Anything I’ve left out?   Oh yeah: Curling is making a comeback.

Posted: November 25, 2009 at 4:14 pm.

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