Sunday, 18 December 2016

Russian Bathhouse

One of the final events I attended in my Canadian National Teams Goalkeeper Coach was the 2006 FIFA U20 World Youth Championships held in Russia. I had already experienced the 2000 U19 World Youth Championships in Canada and the 2004 World Youth Championships in Thailand. Our team had finished second at the tournament in Canada. We were knocked out in the quarter-final in Thailand and we did not advance from the round-robin in Russia.

There was a steady decline in funding, which made it difficult to remain competitive with the other countries who were investing in the game. China. Germany. USA. Japan. The sad reality of International Competition is that athletes, teams and coaches require both training and competition, all of which comes at a cost. If I am not mistaken, when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics I am fairly certain that our country won the most medals they have ever achieved at the same time the host country (Canada) had created a program called "Own the Podium" which provided the financial resources and opportunities for coach, athlete and teams to prepare in an equitable fashion to others.

Our team had the priviledge of visiting both St. Petersburg and Moscow on this trip, and to this day I feel very lucky to have been able to see this part of the world.

St Petersburg was fantastic. I remember the Czars Castles which lined the causeway across the street from our hotel, built on the backs of communism that featured massive walls with historic structures inside, a divide between rich and poor was clearly visible. The city was filled with these monuments scattered along the causeway which outlined a water canal. Moscow was even more daunting. I remember walking down the most dramatic combination of stairs and escalators to reach the subway, which, when hundreds of feet beneath the ground there were these marble statues built to recognize important moments in time for the Russian culture. These will remain some of the steepest stairs/escalators I have ever been on. Then there were the "Seven Sisters," which is a series of building (all matching) built all around the city, which were visible at all times from all angles as you traveled throughout the capital. These building were massive, they appeared to reach into the sky and all I could think about was how did they build these at a time when modern technology did not exist? The feeling of walking into and around "Red Square" was simply amazing! You could feel the bloodshed and historical battles in the air as you walked through and around this historical monument. There was no simply way to describe the "spooky" feeling I had being there- so much of this culture had been defined by conflict.

Conversely, when we participated in the 2004 World Youth Championships in Thailand it was the exact opposite. I have come to love and respect Thai culture for many reasons. The people. The food. The glorious combination of nature and Buddhism.

Our team initially spent time in Phuket prior to the start of the tournament. We stayed in a beautiful hotel on the beach and enjoyed each and every minute of our stay. I can assure you this was not the norm traveling with the Canadian National Team Program. There have been some beauties along the way- staying in the University of Prince Edward Island one summer in rooms without air conditioning and then there were the dorms we stayed in when we participated in the Pan-Am Games in Santo Domingo in the Domenican Republic-both of these were the exact opposite of the luxury we were able to experience in Phuket. The team played our last exhibition game here in a stadium which was directly across from the beach. I remember when the game was over the first thing the girls asked was "if they could go swimming in the ocean!" It was brilliant to see them crossing the road in their sweat soaked uniforms heading for a cool down on a glorious Thai beach.

It was also in Phuket that the staff enjoyed their first experience with a Thai Tailor. To this day, I still cannot fit into the set of Canadian Natioanal Team Suits we had made, however, I am pretty sure that Ian Bridge still has his collection of silk shirts. We all took turns having clothes made, which involved choosing a fabric, selecting a style, being sized and returning several days later to be fitted.

I still recall to this very day the feeling of putting on my first custom made silk dress shirt- WOW!

Ian was so excited he walked back to the turn-style with the variety of colors in the silk fabric and said "I will take one of those, one of those, one of those and one of those!"

It was priceless.

The team was fairly competitive in the tournament for which we were then based out of Bangkok. However, we were knocked out in the 1/4 final in a loss to China which I will never forget. From the opening kick-off we played the ball wide and forward only to somehow see the opponent quickly counter and find the Chinese striker moving toward our goal one on one with goalkeeper Stacey VanBoxmeeer. Stacey closed down the player in exceptional fashion only to see the player dive and tumble over the top of her while making the breakaway save followed by the whistle, red card and ensuing penalty shot given by the official.

Just like that we were down to 10-players as the back-up goalie (Steph Labbe) was sent in to try and save the penalty-shot.

We lost 1-0 (scored on the pk) and were eliminated from the tournament. It was traumatic siting in the hotel lobby the day after the game thinking about all the hard work and effort that had gone into the event only to see it so quickly disappear. Mind you, there were some funny moments along the way. Each evening at the end of the day the staff would meet to discuss the days events and plan the ensuing day or days. It was a common ocurance to walk into Bridgie's room and find him wearing a different colored tailored silk shirt with his black adidas polyester track pants! In fact, one evening the staff stepped out to see a movie, which is really cool in Thailand.

We were able to pay for luxury recliners in the back of the movie theater and stretch out completely in the most comfortable seats I have ever enjoyed watching a movie. Importantly, as we left the hotel to walk down the busy corridor or street we had become familiar with this very evening, we noticed Ian was walking ahead of us neatly dressed in a lime green silk shirt and a pair of kakky pants. From across the street we could hear someone calling "Handsome Man!" It was intended for Ian and it came from one of the Lady-Boys who hung out in front of a local bar dancing beside the street morning, day and night.

It was hilarious!

We used to take our team bus each and everyday down this very road from the hotel to the main highway en route for training. On this one particular day the bus we were provided with had an upstairs and downstairs seating arrangement. The upstairs would be the more traditional seating we are familiar with on a bus where the team sat. The downstairs might have been where the luggage was traditionally placed, however, in its place was a huge table and bench which outlined its circumference that the staff sat down at. While stopped at the stop sign waiting for the traffic flow to ease, we peared out the window only to see the same Lady-Boy, now mid-day dancing in the very spot we had seen them the night before. Of course, we were all waving and laughing, but the look on her face when she recognized the "Handsome Man" was remarkable!

A short 50 meter stroll from the hotel lobby I came across "Mr Tippy" who to this day remains my one and only Thai Tailor. We all had more clothes made, this time fitting much better than the first attempt in Phuket. Mr Tippy made a suit for me that would travel all over the world for years, never wrinkle and receive all kinds of positive comments when I wore it. I would revisit Mr Tippy several years later when Paola and I returned to Bangkok on  a holiday and have clothes made for the two of us. I will look forward to the next time we meet and hopefully have something made for Isabella.

There was always time for fun,  the team ventured out to a local bowling alley for a fun-filled evening, many in costume to see which randomly selected pair from the players and staff would become the prize winning team! I do not remember if we won or lost, however, I do remember how much fun it was shopping for costumes for my partner Veronique Miranda and myself in Bangkok!

So many great memories!

I did in fact stay behind when the team returned to Canada for an extended holiday, which in fact took me back to Phuket. It was lovely. I rented a moped, cruised around and found some lovely spots.

I had befriended the local hotel manager from when our team stayed together and was advised to visit Ko Rang. I toured on my moped 30 minutes from Phuket with my travel pack and ventured to the boat dock. When I figured out the situation, I bought my ticket, parked the moped and had time for lunch seated on a bamboo deck overlooking the beautiful bay we were located in. The lunch was spectacular, as were all Thai meals. I recall watching monkeys climb through the trees on shore while I waited for the boat to come in. To my surprise when it was time to leave I noticed my moped being loaded onto a different boat that the one I was seated on!

As we pulled away from the dock I remember trying to communicate with one of the locals that my moped was "over there!" They said it was ok, that the boat would be right behind us. Well, after several moments the boats started to travel in seperate directions- I was certain that would be the last time I would see my rented moped. When we managed to cross the bay and arrive at Ko Rang I walked off the foot passenger ferry service (aka decommissioned Thai wood fishing vessel) and jumped on the back of a "moped-taxi" asking to be taken the the other side of the island where I was informed my moped would be waiting.

Thankfully it was! I spent days, felt like weeks, wish it was months whipping around the island, exploring, savoring the sights, sounds, scenery and people. It was an absolutely fantastic experience! I watched the final with a family I had been staying with inside a thatched roof Thai Hut and could not believe that the referee who had officiated our game was also in charge of the final! Such is life!

Interestingly, upon my return to Canada I made my way to Denman Island, as it was the holiday season. I left Thailand for Canada on December 20, 2004 and remember listening to the radio at the red cabin the day after Christmas to hear about the devastation from the Tsunami which hit the area I had been visiting! It was mind-numbing on a personal note to imagine that I had walked on those very beaches, even worse to learn over time the devastation and toll on human existence this natural disaster would cause.

So, about the Russian Bathhouse. Once we were eliminated from the tournament all be it so early, we had a day or two to pass before returning the Canada. I had noticed an advert for an old fashioned Russian Bathhouse. I canvassed the staff to see if anyone would care to join me, but there were no takers. I sequestered a taxi from our hotel and was dropped off at the front door. I walked up the stairs and around a corner to these beautiful glass doors and entered. It was an old boys club from the early 1900's. There were chubby old Russian men scattered across the lounge sitting with white towels wrapped around their wastes, some smoking, others talking and others relaxing.

Once inside I figured out how to pay and was shown to a locker. I took off my clothes and wrapped myself in the traditional white towel and made my way to the shower stall, water room or massive area that you entered before entertaining the sauna. There were so many varities of showers, soaker tubs and massage tables in this area that was meant for you to cleanse between visits to the sauna. The sauna was massive, two stories. In here men sat with these silly little hats that folded down to cover the top of your ears and whipped one another with water soaked eucalyptus branches. It was a brilliant afternoon spent relaxing, observing and unwinding. To this very day, I severely regret not going to a Japanese Bathhouse when visiting Tokyo.

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