Wednesday, January 29, 2014


While Moscow shudders under ridiculous temperatures (expected to go to -30 this week) - now I know why Napoleon retreated - I'm hiding indoors as much as possible. When I'm not working, I'm catching up on my writing. The TV blog takes up a fair amount of time, and I'm polishing a few potential articles in the hopes of pitching them. We'll see how that works out.

However, dodgy writing careers aside, I've had an extremely productive week. I've always wanted to learn a whole bunch of languages, effortlessly communicating with all the peoples of the world. That dream has since come crashing down (I have a degree in Russian and struggle to buy groceries), but every once in a while I try to pick up a new language. Failed attempts include Swedish and Hebrew. This time, though, I think I've found a program that might stick - and it's a free smartphone app. Go figure.

The program's called DuoLingo, and no, they're not paying me. I have jumped into their programs with both feet. They don't have Russian yet, which is undeniably the most useful language to me right now. In fact, they don't have any non-Latin alphabet languages, though there are plans to add some later this year. (And if they ever offer Swedish, you know I'll be aaaaallll over that.) They do have French, which I sorely need to catch up on, and German, which I am really eager to learn. I also threw in Portuguese for the hell of it. Apparently, the app is supposed to take you to a B1 reading level, though I'm somewhat skeptical. It's a tad weak on vocabulary, and I have yet to see how it addresses some of the higher grammatical functions. There's also no measurement of speaking, though I assume there are plans for it down the line. So it definitely has its drawbacks, and shouldn't be used as your sole resource.

However, here's the best part - it's a lot of fun.  It challenges you, and configures its exercises in a way that really allows them to stick. They also have regular review exercises, plus supplementary material. I've already learned more German in the past few days than in any other my other half-assed attempts. Overall, it's an easy and interesting program that gives you a great framework to start from. I'm eager to see how it turns out as the lessons become more complex. Meanwhile, I have some learning to do. Die Frau isst einen Apfel!

Friday, January 17, 2014


It's finally begun to turn into a real Russian winter. While I returned from my Israel trip to find +5 and bare grass, we now have a real coat of snow and temperatures around -15. Thank goodness, I can finally brag to people about having survived winter in Moscow.

As well, the winter term has started, and my school is in full swing. We have some changes in staff and students, which is always difficult to manage, but fortunately the classes themselves are going quite smoothly. This week I passed the halfway mark of both the school year and my time in Moscow, if I leave at the end of the year. Everything's still very much up in the air about that. But hey, at least I've gotten through the long part - now it's just hunkering down and working through the next four and a half months. And my teaching is about a thousand percent better from the start of the school year, though there's a long way to go. Sigh.

Everyone's excited for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, though there are of course concerns over the many political issues. Moscow should be relatively safe, and it's very far from Sochi, so I'm not worried. It's going to be an interesting couple of weeks, however - and it's amazing how many Canadians seem to think I'm going to pop down there for the day. Um, it's over a thousand kilometres away and I do need to work for a living. You of all people should know about long distances.

Mostly, I keep sane by hanging out with a few friends, keeping obsessive track of the Oscars (aka Film Buff Christmas), and planning my next adventure. There's a tentative plan to go to Poland in early May for the holidays, but whether that happens or not, I am determined to take a trip around Europe next summer. I'm here already - why not explore the surrounding countries? So that is on the table and as soon as there are some concrete dates, I will make the arrangements.

This post is a bit rambling, but I'm trying to get one thing across: I'm doing okay. Things are busy and chaotic, and teaching is not the position to pick if you want to avoid stress. There is fun ahead, whether this weekend or in a few months, and I am figuring out what I want to do. Life is moving along - and going by more quickly all the time.

Monday, January 13, 2014


For my last day in Jerusalem, I booked a tour (again through the hostel) to the Dead Sea. It was exactly what I was looking for - not a narrated walk around old buildings, but a few hours just to relax and enjoy the sun. In fact, the tour was called "Dead Sea Chill Out". So on a sunny January morning, a whole bunch of us hopped into a bus and headed out of Jerusalem for some real holiday fun. 

Everyone on the bus was Finnish, except for a Brazilian woman and myself. This was a tad awkward since we had lost the junior world hockey championships to Finland the night before, but hey, we'll get them in Sochi. All jokes aside, they were incredibly nice and gave me lots of tips for my trip to the Nordic/Scandinavian countries in June. We went through the West Bank again, though a less restrictive part than the area holding Bethlehem, and drove in the Judean Desert past Jericho. On the way, we were greeted by sand dunes and Bedouin families. 

After a quick stop at sea level, we reached the water itself, which is the lowest spot on land (500 meters below sea level, give or take) and within sight of Jordan. What they say about salt and floating - it's all true. Don't go into the water with an open cut. If you have one, you'll find out quickly. The Brazilian woman had a new tattoo, and despite covering it with plastic, it was still a painful experience. In the water, you are so buoyant that you can hardly reach down to grab mud. But oh, it was glorious. 

First of all, it's a place where you are actually encouraged to play in the mud, so there's that. Second, the temperature is excellent in winter - I hear it's unbearable a few months later, but due to its lack of elevation, it sort of holds a pocket of heat. The water is excellent. It was an incredibly relaxing time, and all we did was hang out and chat and get some more of that glorious mud. Looking at Jordan across the water, feeling the sun on my face, it seemed like a totally serene place (though of course like everything in Israel, it really isn't). At the end, our guide brought us tea and dates and we all sat down for a fun chat. A perfect afternoon and a highlight of my trip. 

The next morning, I was up bright and early and hopped a bus to Tel Aviv. It's a short, pleasant journey of about an hour and a half , and an excellent opportunity to people-watch, since all the locals use this route. I chatted with a soldier and some Orthodox schoolgirls and had a grand old time. 

Now, for a unique holiday, Jerusalem is your best bet - but if I were going to live in Israel, I'd pick Tel Aviv in a heartbeat. It's a beach city, with excellent weather and plenty of things to do, and much more relaxed than Jerusalem. Even the traditionally religious people I met seemed more casual. It's a place of business and of high living, a world city like many others, though it has its unique flavor. I'm glad I spent the bulk of the trip in Jerusalem, but this was a nice and relaxing comedown. Sun and shawarma and time to be me. 

I took it easy the next day, heading on a short walking tour of Tel Aviv and Jaffa (offered by the same company that took me to the Old City in Jerusalem - they offer free tours in about a dozen world cities). We spent a happy morning wandering through the buildings, dodging busloads of kids on the Birthright trip. There were some fun things, including the house of Simon the Tanner and an interesting tribute to Napoleon, but mostly it was nice to see the city in motion. It's an easygoing kind of place, even with all the usual complications coming from a life in Israel. 

After the tour, I took a long, slow walk back to my hostel with gelato in hand and my jacket off, soaking up the rays. The weather (as you can see) was fabulous and it was fairly quiet, being a weekday morning. For over an hour I sat on the rocks pictured below and dreamed. 

After that, I wandered through all the hipster areas, looking in on the Israeli equivalent of Whole Foods and stopping for coffee and a pretzel. Then it was back to the beach until sunset (it is really not a good idea to be there alone at night). It was full of the usual crowds, locals and tourists wading into the surf and running across the sand. Despite the people there, the beach held a kind of peace for me. It was a great end to the last day. 

Of course, I said nothing about the last night, which is not tranquil in the slightest. I met up with an American guy and a Dutch woman, and we hit the famous Tel Aviv night life. I by no means went crazy, but we had some fun, finding a cool place with a balcony looking out on the famous Allenby Street. My new buddies were full of interesting tales and were eager to hear what Russia was like. It's not exactly a prime tourist destination for most, especially since it's so difficult to get in - very few of the people I met had actually been there. The evening was short due to everyone having early plans, but it was a lot of fun, and I'm glad to have gone out on the town - you can't visit Tel Aviv without at least trying it. 

I took the bus from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport and immediately got sucked in to their labyrinthine security system. It's good to be safe, but takes quite a long time - for me, roughly an hour and forty-five minutes from the bus stop to the gate, and I only had a minor round of questioning. When they say get there three hours before your flight, they really mean that. It's quite hilarious to watch an entire terminal develop the pissed-off face, but desperately try to hide it so they won't look suspicious. But soon enough I was on my flight, watching Blue Jasmine and marveling at the greatness that is Cate B., and got back to Moscow without a hitch. Thank you, glorious airport train.

This week has been one of post-vacation letdown, but I've been settling back in at work and daydreaming about a kibbutz for the summer. (Remember, Rachael, living somewhere is not like a holiday. Living somewhere is not like a holiday.) It was an extraordinary journey, to a country with a rich history stretching back thousands of years, and ever complicated to this day. Why is it that I'm drawn to the complex places Traveling alone, too, was an opportunity to grow, and I learned a lot about myself and the world around me in those eight days. I took a chance, and it resulted in a trip I will never forget. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Okay, first things first - I have to include this because it's too awesome to leave out. Gaze upon it in all its glory. 

So, the thing about Jerusalem on Shabbat is that there's not much to do, especially if you're not religious and have no ties in the city. I woke up with a vague interest in wandering Mount Zion with maybe a look at Schindler's grave. Instead, I had an adventure. 

Over breakfast, I met a nice French woman who had recently made aliyah. She lived in a religious neighborhood, but was not keen on the whole shutting-down-on-Shabbat thing, so on the weekends she would regularly hightail it to the city proper for a chance at fun. This weekend, she was at my hostel. We got along okay, and I asked her if she wanted to come with me. (I kind of didn't want to face it alone - see: my rant on all the dishonest people trying to wreck things in the Old City.) She agreed, and we headed off. Now, because it was Shabbat, many places limited photography, but I did get a few pictures in approved sites. 

First, we headed to Mount Zion. We saw King David's Tomb and the Hall of the Last Supper, but I couldn't find the Protestant Cemetery where Schindler is buried, which was disappointing. Instead, we wandered through the Old City to the Muslim Quarter, ending up at Damascus Gate, which leads to the Arab neighborhoods where nobody cares about Shabbat. 

After a brief consultation, we headed to the bus station, since this part of Jerusalem still has working transit on Saturdays. We were planning on going to Ramallah in the West Bank, but my new French friend was concerned about trouble with her new Israeli citizenship. See, Israelis aren't technically supposed to be in certain parts of the West Bank except in limited circumstances. Some people risk it anyway, but could get in a whole lot of trouble if caught. Instead, we went up to the Mount of Olives. 

This place is significant in many ways, once again for all three Abrahamic faiths. Many Jewish people request to be buried there,as it is believed the Messiah will arrive on the mountain and bring about the end of days. Some of the graves date back to the time of the First Temple. Prophets and modern notables alike rest on its slopes. 

For Christians, it is believed to be related to the last days of Jesus, as the garden of Gethsemane is there, along with the Church of the Ascension - the spot where Christ ascended to heaven (and also left his last footprint). Like other Christian sites, this place is pilgrim city. 

Islam also believes that the final judgment will occur on this mountain, and since Jesus is also considered a prophet in the faith (though unrelated to their version of the End of Days), there's a fair amount of overlap with the Christian sites. EDIT: Apparently Jesus (Isa) is involved with the Muslim version of the end of days. The more you know. 

Put it all together and you've got the same territorial issues that affect the rest of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular. This results in a lot of awful stuff, like assaults on graves and mourners. I don't understand any of it, and don't think anyone really does, no matter how much they claim to. 

From a completely secular perspective, it offers an incredible view of the holy city. That much, I think, can be agreed on.

אֹרַח חַיִם

The day after the Old City, January 2nd, I hopped on the tram to Mt Herzl, site of many Israeli touchstones, but perhaps most famous for its chronicle of events thousands of miles away - Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust. It was a searing experience, and for me, the most profound part of the trip. Through video testimony, artifacts and innovative displays, they recount this terrible part of history in a matter-of-fact yet highly personal manner. An exhibit that will always stay with me is a hand-drawn Monopoly board from a Polish ghetto. A father drew it for his children to pass the time, recreating it perfectly from the original, but changing the street names to ghetto locations. His simple, accurate work - a real undertaking under the best of circumstances - was an effort to make his family's lives a little better in horrendous circumstances. I don't think any of them survived.

The restored bunks and boxcars from the camps were even more difficult to see. It's one thing to read about it, or to look at pictures, but to see the places where innocent people suffered and died leaves you reeling. In May, I'm planning a trip to Poland, and will certainly see Auschwitz. This museum is perhaps a small hint of what to expect. At the end, they have a Hall of Remembrance and a Children's Memorial which are both heartbreaking, to the point where I would caution especially sensitive people about visiting it. I confess I have a hard time understanding the lives of 4000-year-old prophets. But seeing the picture of a three-year-old girl from Ukraine who should be the same age as my dad now? That is gut-wrenching. In many parts, they just have history speak for itself. And the simple facts can be almost too much to bear.  

However, the moment that will stay with me had nothing to do with the museum exhibits. I was looking at a display about the Danish Resistance. Long story short: pretty much the entire country came together in one night to smuggle their Jewish residents to neutral Sweden, the most successful rescue effort by any nation in Europe. The museum had a picture of four men on a Swedish beach, newly rescued happy to be alive. A woman came up and stood next to me, then pointed and said "That's my dad, and those are my uncles."

She went on to tell me of their rescue, and of one uncle's death removing the last of the Nazis from Denmark in 1945. At first she seemed kind of shy, approaching a total stranger with her family history, but then admitted she was glad to share it with someone - even a random person in a museum. It just goes to show that history is much, much closer to us than we think. It can't be kept in a museum.

Afterward, I wandered the grounds. The site is home to many gardens and paths, a perfect place for quiet reflection. Among these is the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, a tribute to the non-Jews who rescued their friends and neighbours at great personal risk. There are literally hundreds of plaques among this path, giving a moment of hope after so much sadness. Even when the world came crashing down, some people did what was right. Heroes, all of them.

That evening, it was good to see Jerusalem in full bloom, with people getting ready for Shabbat the next day. Thanks to Abraham Tours, I was taken (along with a bunch of other weirdos) on a walk through the religious Orthodox neighborhoods, where tradition is not only important, but thriving. My guide was a local housewife who seemed to have a great time leading us around. The group saw a yeshiva, a rabbinical court, a women's learning centre, a Judaica store, and a couple of synagogues. Best of all was a small bakery with tons of fresh Challah and pastries for Shabbat. I filled up a whole bag with various treats. We even had a glimpse of a religious home, as the host invited us back for tea. She was very thorough in explaining how traditional Orthodox life works, and very gracious when we inevitably made stupid mistakes. We were cautioned against taking pictures, but here's a playground on the outskirts of Meah Shearim (the most famous religious neighbourhood). It's a very different world - but one that appears very fulfilling. 

The next day, I switched back to the Christian stuff and headed for Bethlehem, via Abraham Tours once again. What many people don't realize is that Bethlehem is firmly in the West Bank, to the point where the Israeli driver couldn't go with us. It's yet another of the region's many sides, people marked by huge differences but drawn to the same place. We were told to bring our passports, and got a good look at this thing:

What disappointed me most about Bethlehem was its huge commercialization. Believe me, when someone's Saviour gets born in a certain place, the results are going to be lucrative. Don't believe me? Feast your eyes on this:

Yeah, that's a KFC. In a region struggling in every way possible. Just meters away from the birthplace of Christ himself. I mean, Palestinians must go for delicious chicken too, but you couldn't have moved it down the hill a little?

(That's another thing. Bethlehem is one giant hill. That poor donkey.)

We were taken first to Shepherds in the Fields, which is...the place where the shepherds stood in the fields, until an angel came along with some news. The church has been restored thanks to generous donors, but I must say, the musty grottos underneath the updated sites are really amazing. 

Well, maybe not stuff like this (seriously, tinsel?):

We continued on to the Church of the Nativity, enjoying a wonderful view of the West Bank along the way:

And then we ran into this stuff again. See, I like pretty Christmas trees, but there is a time and place for pretty Christmas trees. Stop trying to angle this to tourists - I guarantee you'll still get them. 

So, we went off to the Church of the Nativity (packed, long lines, noisy, pilgrims kissing everything). It was a stunningly beautiful building, carefully separated into Orthodox and Catholic sections, yet administered quite cooperatively. There were dozens of impromptu church services all over the place, which I found really intriguing. An international Catholic group in one corner. Ethiopian Orthodox around the bend. Russian Orthodox in an anteroom. Since it's a - well, happier place than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I think larger, more casual gatherings are more accepted than the solemn prayers that marked the former. 

After this, our guide took us to an olive wood shop, where the objects are produced onsite. Over tea with mint, we chatted with some local guys hanging out in front. I got a cross for my parents, because I'm pretty sure that if I didn't bring my archbishop dad something from Bethlehem I'd probably go to Super-Hell. 

After this came the Church of the Milk Grotto, which is a holy spot for followers of Mary. It's supposedly white because of her magic breastmilk, hence the name. However it came about, it's pretty. 

A quick trip through the Israeli security checkpoint and we were back in Jerusalem. While I was busy at Baby Jesus's old hangouts, the city was getting ready for Shabbat. Most stores and businesses close or have limited hours, while public transit is shut down entirely. Near four o'clock in the afternoon, a giant siren sounds to mark the start of the day (luckily we were warned about this, otherwise all the tourists would have thought WWIII was starting). My hostel held a Shabbat dinner for all us unwashed youths. It was a celebration and a ceremony. Jewish or not, the hostel residents became part of a community, even if only for an hour or so. 

Like I mentioned before, my hostel has a little bar set up in the common room. It's nothing spectacular, but has some selection and serves as a meeting place of sorts. Since Jerusalem doesn't have a great nightlife (that would be Tel Aviv you're thinking of), I mostly spent my evenings there, chatting with people from around the world. I'm not much of a partier. Pub crawls lasting until daybreak are just not my thing. A quiet little spot full of stories to tell was just perfect. 


"Do you know where we are?" the woman asked her toddler as we pulled away from the airport.

He looked up and said "Shalom?"

She broke out in a grin. "That's right, shalom!"

We were in a sherut (shared taxi) from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem, the most convenient way to get to the city. I had just arrived from Moscow on a noon flight which somehow necessitated getting up at four o'clock in the morning. They were an Orthodox family from the US, who I think were making aliyah (moving to Israel for good). Whether for a visit or for something more permanent, their excitement was palpable, and I found it quite contagious.

All the way there, crossing over Ukraine and Turkey and the Mediterranean, I had wondered what this strange new country would be like. It was my first solo trip, my first time in the Middle East, and the vacation I had been longing for since mid-September. I had put much of the past month into planning it. As we wound around the hills of Jerusalem and into the city, through Meah Shearim and down to Jaffa Street, I wondered how on Earth I could possibly find my way in such a bustling place.

It was a fantastic trip.

First of all - if you are staying in Jerusalem and looking for lodgings, stay at Abraham Hostel. And no, they're not paying me to say that. Fair price, an excellent continental breakfast, a common room to die for with a cozy little bar. The dorms are pretty decent and quite secure (huge lockers). It's located steps from the tram line on Jaffa Street and twenty minutes' walk from the Old City. Best of all, though, are the tours. Like many hostels, Abraham links up to tour companies in the region, but it also runs its own company, Abraham Tours. You can take short trips all over Israel, Egypt and Jordan. I did three from their company, plus a guided walk around the Old City recommended by the front desk (and used the same group again in Tel Aviv). The hostel provided an excellent base in the city, and its tours provided a great introduction to Israel. I only wish I could have stuck around to do more.

New Year's Eve was nothing to write home about - it generally isn't in Israel, where the true New Year is considered to be Rosh Hashanah - but the hostel held a party and I gladly socialized with a pack of drunken tourists. Not only did they come from over the world, but - this is strange - almost everyone I met lived in a different country from where they were born. Obviously travel has become much easier and more popular with each generation, but actually living abroad has become almost de rigeur in a Millennial's life. Almost all of my friends have done it at least once. "I'm from Japan but I've lived in Germany for the past year." "I'm Serbian but just got transferred to an office in Jordan." My Canada-to-Russia story was far from unique. So the clock struck midnight and all us aimless youths had a grand old time.

Compared to Moscow and even Toronto, Jerusalem is a fairly small city, walkable around most of the famous sites. Trams and buses are well able to fill in the rest (except on Shabbat!). The taxis, however, are horrendously expensive. Coming from Canada, though, I'm amazed at how compact Jerusalem (and the rest of the country) can be. On the first day of the year, I took advantage of the free walking tour offered by my hostel. Twenty minutes to the Old City, two hours of walking and I had myself a handy introduction to the holiest spots in Jerusalem. We weren't allowed into Temple Mount due to severely restricted hours, but I did get a good guide to the four quarters and a spectacular view from a rooftop observation point. After the tour, I wandered around the area until early evening, checking out the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Wall is an extraordinary place, full of people from all over the world who had brought their hopes and prayers - along with people  who clearly make it part of their everyday ritual. To see such significance in people's lives is bound to affect you, regardless of your religious background. I touched the wall and left a prayer, too. There's been some controversy over the continued male/female divide, especially recently, but to be honest, when you're there it doesn't seem like a big deal. The women's side feels like a community in its own right. It's not my holy site, and I respect those who want to keep it sacred. I do admire the Women of the Wall for trying to make it even - especially since the men have a much bigger section to themselves - but in the end, it's their issue to sort out, and the answer is complicated far beyond our understanding. I still found it to be a holy and serene place.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, by contrast, is a lot noisier and busier, probably because there are more Christian tourists funneled in from all over the world who absolutely have to see it in their short visit. The line was so long that despite arriving almost two hours before closing, I still didn't get into the sepulchre. As well, the visitors tended to be...well, rather loud. I understand the need to pray in such a sacred place, and to kiss a holy spot - but it did take away from the peace one hopes to find in a church. I know there's no real way to keep things quiet with millions of people visiting, but it still felt sad to be part of a giant faceless line.

I have to say that, despite its holiness, the only time I felt unsafe in Israel was at the Old City. Tourists attract people looking to make a buck, and unfortunately the area is filled with con men and cheats. There's a police presence, but you still have to watch your back. If you're a woman travelling alone, that goes double. Despite all the wonderful sights, I was never able to get rid of that feeling, and that seems very sad. I just hope that the other tourists there knew to be careful, too. The Old City is the spot to see when you're in Jerusalem, serving as the cornerstone to so many people of faith. Besides the actual sites, just seeing the variety of people flooding through is an experience in itself. It's both a clash of cultures and a meeting. I'm glad I went - but it was far from the end of my trip. The best is yet to come.