Town & Country


My Russian has never been particularly scholarly or grammatical, but with a Slavic shrug here, a sibilant grunt there and a well-chosen bitten-off expletive tossed into the mix I have usually managed to get by in the former Soviet Union.

Once during my incarnation as an itinerant journalist I shaved my locks down to nol pyaty, the standard coiffeur for a Russian conscript, and, dressed in a Red Army uniform, impersonated my way onto a military helicopter and into the then war-torn republic of Chechnya.

This last week, however, the scope of my knowledge of the language of the proletariat was tested to its limits and found wanting as Kristin’s Dad, Tiit, made his first visit to the ranch since we moved out here more than three years ago.

A man of action with little time for the finer things in life, he had barely rubbed the jetlag from his eyes when he dived into an elephantine task that I have been putting off for some time: insulating the crawl space that separates the floor of our house from the ground.

The previous owners of the ranch had never bothered much with such niceties such as insulation and during the long cold winter evenings our feet lose all feeling and turn blue after prolonged contact with the kitchen floor.

Furthermore – eco-friendly citizens that we claim to be – there really is no excuse for pouring away thousands of log-hours every winter just to warm the gravelly and indifferent British Columbian sod.

By any measure the task at hand was a nasty and as Tiit disappeared muttering under the house I donned headlamp, kneepads, overalls and a clutch of tools and followed him into the bowels of the building.

As each of us lay on our backs in the wet dirt, surrounded by the putrefying remains of long-dead mice and other small vertebrates, we contemplated the job ahead: stapling 1,200 square feet of reflective film to the underside of the wooden beams.

The surface area was huge, the gap between the earth and the floor little more than two feet, and the work fiddly, claustrophobic, tiring and bitingly painful for the stomach muscles.

As soon as we were in position, Tiit, a man who runs his own large engineering company in his native Estonia and is used to being obeyed, began to shout out long and complex orders in high-speed Russian.

His vocabulary was heavily industrial, included a tumble of Estonian and Finnish words and was delivered with an execrable Nordic accent that left me almost no chance at comprehension.

As I lay in the dirt, nose crammed against a dank water pipe, rock chewing at my back, I tried to pick out the words. Molotok was one I recognized but couldn’t remember what it meant. Pyla another.

Then, just as I struggled to make some sense of the latest delivery he would pump out a fresh interrogative. “Is your copper gas pipe 5mm or 6mm inside diameter?”

These would throw me completely. First of all I would have to convert millimeters to inches, then translate the whole lot into English, work out the answer and put it back into Russian.

By then his train of thought had moved on and he would have launched into a fresh Slavo-Finno-Ugric verbal contortion, part philosophy, part order, part soliloquy.

I felt like I was being subjected to a linguistic version of water-boarding. My brain told me that the ordeal was survivable – that one day I would see the sun again and breathe fresh air – but my mind had difficulty accepting that premise.

Finally, in a fit of pique, I threw down my tools and headed for the escape hatch and the outside world.

Ten minutes later Tiit put a staple through a main power cable.

Even under pedestrian circumstances connecting with 120 volts is, literally, shocking, but Tiit has the added excitement of being surrounded by half an acre of aluminium foil. It lit up like a Christmas Tree.

He came out of the exit hole like a ground squirrel with a weasel on its tail, hair on end, white-faced and giggly with shock. I admit to feeling a little pleased and hoped that we might now abandon the whole sorry venture. But half an hour later we were back down the hole again.

By the time we finally took off our overalls four days later we had fixed a whole list of infrastructural imperfections.

Collectively the tally of mended, improved and installed items included two wood-burning stoves, a wonky door, a new dishwasher, two chimneys, a toilet, a kitchen tap and two new layers of loft insulation.

By the time we headed back for Calgary airport at the end of the week, I felt like the walking dead and even Tiit, giperactivni that he is, was finally beginning to wilt.

The adventure, however, was not quite over. Just a few miles from the airport and check-in the large purple Land Cruiser, our automotive pride and joy and conqueror of the mountain trails, threw a mechanical fit.

First the automatic gearbox stalled. Then it began to shudder and kangaroo hop at low speeds. The only remedy was not to slow down and with every mile that became more and more treacherous.

When we finally reached airport parking – and without the option of slowing down, stopping or reversing – we came screeching into the lot, cannoning over the pedestrian islands like drunken hillbillies.

Once stopped, the car was clearly going nowhere. So Kristin and I decided to make the best out of a bad situation and checked in to a luxurious little B&B we know near the centre of town. (It’s called River Wynde and we highly recommend it for any of our guests heading through Calgary this year.)

There was, of course, more consolation to come. We spent the next two days eating Vietnamese, Indian and sushi and drinking fine coffee and draft beer.

As for our poor abandoned Land Cruiser it seems the transmission is broken. We’re looking at several thousand dollars to mend it – not a welcome outgoing at a time when the global financial mess is finally hitting the British Columbia tourism market.

So the car has stayed at the mechanic’s and is booked in for a long remedial holiday while the specialists put together a diagnosis and order the necessary parts from the US.

Kristin and I, meanwhile, had one grand stroke of luck – Peggy, a friend, gave us a lift all the way from Calgary to our own muddy front door yesterday.

Not a moment too soon. Anticipating a quick turn-around, neither of us had brought more with us on the trip than a change of underwear and a toothbrush.

Kristin, of course, looked immaculate as ever but I was beginning to appear a little ragged around the edges and had noticed the occasional disparaging glance from the slick townies.

Definitely time to head back to the wilderness where folk don’t turn their noses up at an unwashed lumberjack shirt and a pair of dirty working trousers.