Friday, February 28, 2014

Russia Day 12: Moscow. Sakharov Centre and Vernisage Market

The internet at the hotel has been flaky for the past day or so, and it's been frustrating. I can access news sites (download stuff), but I can't access my email or Facebook or anything where info needs to be sent back upstream. They told me at the front desk that they're aware of the problem and it should get fixed today.

After breakfast I headed to the Sakharov Centre.

Fragment of the Berlin Wall, made into art

I got a private tour from a woman who spoke pretty good English, detailing the various phases of repression that took place under the Soviet system. I had known some of this, but the details of how many million people were basically enslaved in order to build the Soviet nation was shocking. The end of the tour focussed on Sakharov's life as a dissident.

I took the metro to my next destination (the Vernisage Market), and found a restaurant for lunch. Then walked to the market and browsed matryoshka (there were tons, including some novelty ones involving Russian and American leaders, Star Wars characters, hockey players and entertainment figures, in addition to the traditional kind), as well as hats, Soviet souvenirs (nothing really interesting) and painted lacquer boxes (pretty, but expensive, and I have no idea how to tell which are worth what). I bought some matryoshki, and had a good time negotiating prices with some of the vendors.

Back to my hotel for the usual afternoon/evening siesta (my feet are killing me!), and caught up on the blog for the past several days, with the return of my internet connection!

Next post:

Russia Day 11: Moscow. Matryoshka museum hunting, Bunker 42 and the Bolshoi Ballet.

Thursday morning I got help again at the front desk, booking a spot in the 2:30 tour in English at Bunker 42, a Cold War museum in an old Soviet air raid bunker 60m underground. My Russian is good enough for navigating and buying things in person, but speaking on the phone is much more difficult, and from what I'm seeing, it's difficult even for the desk staff with their native Russian!

With that arranged, and breakfast in me, I set off with a plan to visit the Matryoshka (Russian wooden nesting dolls) Museum and the Ice Carving Museum. I was very proud of myself for successfully navigating subway and side streets to the location where my Lonely Planet Moscow book said the Matryoshka Museum was. And indeed that is where it was, but a sign on the door told me it had moved, and gave the new address. And a short conversation with the security guard (every place here has at least one security guard!), plus a look at my map told me where to go to find the new location, one metro stop and some walking away. On the way there I figured out that the museum I was looking for must have been merged into the Moscow Museum of Folk Art. That seemed to make sense. I got to the new museum, and eventually found me way in. Navigating the metro and streets doesn't seem so difficult, but getting into a building once you have found it can be confusing, as there are rarely clear signs indicating where to go in, and entrances tend to be tucked away behind corners a lot.

I did not find much of interest at the Folk Art museum, perhaps in part because all the information there was in Russian only, and difficult to understand. I only spotted one set of Matryoshki.

I had spotted an Italian restaurant on my way to the museum, and stopped there for lunch, enjoying a pretty decent pizza.

After lunch I headed over to Bunker 42, which again was a little tricky to find. I had been told to be there at 2:20 for my 2:30 tour, and I was a few minutes later than that. I paid for my ticket, and was told to wait in the entrance foyer.

Entrance to Bunker 42 

After waiting about 15 minutes I went back in to ask when the tour would start, and the guy who told me he would be my guide said we were waiting for more people. A few minutes later a large crowd showed up, mostly consisting of noisy students. They were Russian students, but had booked the English tour, perhaps to practice their English. So we quickly went from having too few for a tour (only me) to having too many people, and they split the tour into two groups. It was pretty disorganized, and the guide's English was quite poor. He kept referring back to his notes to help him remember what to say in English, and the students were making fun of some of his mispronunciations.

We walked down 18 flights of stairs to the bunker. It was kind of interesting, but the tour was pretty lame, including a simulated air raid (lights off, siren blaring) and a simulated launching of nuclear weapons (two volunteers from the audience sitting at a desk, turning keys and pressing the red button). I think the best part was the film about the Cold War from the Russian perspective.

Inside "Boon-kair 42"

I returned to the hotel for a rest, then headed to the Bolshoi for the ballet. I had trouble again finding my way in, walking all the way around the theatre before figuring out that the "New Stage" of the Bolshoi Theatre (where tonight's performance was) is actually a different building, next door to the original Bolshoi Theatre.

The ballet was a one-act piece called Kvartira (The Apartment). It had no real story, but portrayed characters dancing around every-day objects like a bathtub, chair, stove and door. The dancing was sort of modern, very athletic, and entertaining. I felt very cultured.

Next post:

Russia Day 10: Moscow. Getting my Bearings, Cosmonaut Museum, Red Square

After breakfast, I spent some time sorting things out at the front desk. They acknowledged my reservation and advance payment, and switched me to the proper class of room (smaller, but still a very nice, comfy room). I didn't get any credit for the 2 nights I did not use, but last night's payment is being reversed (later confirmed, though the difference in exchange rates used for the purchase and the refund left me short about $40...). I guess I got a night in the nicer suite as the only perk making up for skipping two nights. Still well worth it to get to see the gold medal game!

I also got some help from the front desk in my efforts to buy a ticket to a KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) game while I'm here. I had tried doing so online with no success before coming here. I had the desk clerk try calling the various arenas hosting games this week  (there are 4 KHL teams playing out of Moscow arenas!), but she had no luck, and found some of the people she spoke to rather rude and uncooperative. I tried again online, with her help translating the KHL web site. It turned out I needed to first create an account, which I had not understood earlier. I was then able to buy a ticket for a game Sunday evening between CSKA Moscow (the former Moscow Red Army team, sitting in the middle of the standings at 30-21) and HC Donbass, sitting a few points ahead of them. So hopefully it will be a good game. The arena is near the other end of the same metro line my hotel is on.

I went out for a walk to get my bearings around the neighbourhood, and then went into a nearby Stolovar (cafeteria) for lunch.

After lunch I headed to the Cosmonaut museum. It was pretty cool, with a lot of mock-ups of  various spacecraft and related equipment, a huge tribute to Yuri Gagarin, and acknowledgement of the contributions to space explorations made by other countries, including the US and Canada.

Monuments outside the Cosmonaut Museum

Model of Sputnik satellite

Photo of Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, in the exhibit on female cosmonauts and astronauts.

I returned to my hotel for a rest, and then headed out to the Bolshoi Theatre to pick up my ticket for tomorrow night's performance. Theatre Square was beautiful at night.

The Bolshoi Theatre at night

 I got my ticket, then walked to Red Square, also gorgeous when lit up at night, although the skating rink they currently have set up there takes away from the majesty and blocks the view a fair bit.

Approaching Red Square

I had a fancy dinner of Beef Stroganoff at the Bosco Cafe on Red Square, walked around a bit more and then headed back to my hotel to crash, very tired as usual at the end of the day.

Next post:

Russia Days 8 & 9: Hanging around in Sochi, then Travel Day, Sochi -> Moscow (Planes, Trains, and Автозаводская*)

Monday was a relaxing day in Sochi (not really Sochi, but the neighbourhood around my hotel) after a week of excitement. I wandered around the neighbourhood with Jen and Heidi, stopping in at many shops to see what they were selling, and helping the women communicate with my fragmented Russian. I picked up a few souvenirs, and somewhere along the way found enough food to keep me going.

Now we're at Tuesday, February 25th, and it's time to leave Sochi. Spent the morning eating, packing up and relaxing, and checked out of the hotel. After lunch, Artur, the same guy who picked me up at the airport the night I arrived, too me back to the airport. After more than a week practising my Russian, we were able to have a bit more of a conversation this time.

I was glad that I got the airport early. There was a lineup to get in the main door, as there was a security check there, complete with Xray machine for the luggage. A group of Australians almost walked off with my large suitcase by mistake while I was reassembling my stuff! Then there was a very long line to check in for my flight and check my bag. I had some time to kill before my flight. Because I had bought this ticket on short notice on Saturday, I did not have a direct flight to Moscow, but had to change planes in St Petersburg. When we landed in St Petersburg we walked down the stairs from the plane to a bus that took us to the terminal building. I was not able to get a boarding pass for my connecting flight in Sochi, but when we got off the bus, just inside the terminal building was a desk where I showed my passport and got my boarding pass, as a huge throng crowded around. The wait in St Petersburg was about an hour and a half, and then we were on our way to Moscow Vnukovo airport. Moscow has three main passenger airports: Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo (where I had changed planes and cleared customs on my way to Sochi), and Vnukovo. We landed (to the usual applause, which I've heard occasionally in North America, but on each flight landing in Russia), I picked up my checked bag, and found my way to the AeroExpress train that would take me in to the city. It wasn't hard to figure out the machine that dispensed the ticket: 340 rubles (about $10) for the half-hour trip to the Kievskaya metro station. I met a Turish guy who was in Moscow on business (he works for Yandex, the Russian counterpart to Google, who had opened an office in Turkey). He didn't speak much Russian, but he was able to help me figure out how to buy a 5-trip ticket for the metro when we got there.

The train was almost empty, and was quite comfortable. Not much to see outside as we approached the city, so I entertained myself by trying to read the ads on the train. Ads are much easier than other printed materials, as they need to communicate their point very simply and concisely, and sometimes the pictures help!

We arrived at Kievskaya Vokzal (train station), and found our way to the Metro station adjacent to it. Got my 5-trip ticket and got on the ring line train. The Moscow Metro is huge, with about 170 stations on 11 lines. Ten of the lines criss-cross through the central area from one suburb to another in various directions, while the ring line runs in a circle around the downtown. That provides lots of places to change lines, so - like the New York Subway, there is often more than one way to get where you are going. There are good maps of the system on every train, and the name of the next station is called out each time (usually clearly audible, but not always). The maps on the trains include English transliteration of the station names, but the signs in the stations, indicating which stations are on the route of the train at each platform, and where to walk to switch to another line - are in Russian/Cyrillic only. So being able to read the Russian signs is a huge plus, and makes navigating the subway system pretty easy.

I took the ring line to Paveletskaya, and switched there to the green line, going one stop to *Автозаводская = Avtozavodskaya, the name of the Moscow Metro station right at my hotel. The station name means "auto factory", as prosaic as many of the names on the Moscow Metro. I walked up the steps to exit the station, and my hotel was right there.

There was some confusion at the hotel when I checked in. Although I had notified them on Saturday of my change in plans, and heard back from them on Monday that they acknowledged the change, the women on duty late Tuesday night knew nothing of this, and told me my reservation had been cancelled when I did not show up as scheduled on Sunday. They had only one room left for the night, and it was much nicer than what I had booked. I took it, and paid 11,800 rubles (close to $400) on the near-promise that everything would be sorted out in the morning when their booking department opened.

So I wound up in a very nice suite for the night. The only problem was that it was about 35 degrees in it when I got there. I'm getting used to the Russians overheating cars and buses (and I thought they were used to cold weather...), but this was ridiculous. I tried fiddling with the thermostat with no success, and then called down to reception for help. A guy quickly arrived, told me the thermostat does not work, and adjusted the rads directly. Luckily the window opened, so that helped cool things down quickly.

I'm in Moscow!

Next post:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Russia Day 7: The Gold Medal Game and Closing Ceremonies

I had a relaxing morning, going back to sleep again after waking early, and got up for good just before noon. It was good to catch up on some sleep! The two Canadian women (mother and daughter) staying at my hotel had a line on 2 extra tickets for the gold medal game tonight, and there was a nice Swedish couple who wanted them. The daughter, Jen, was going out of her way to make the deal, and get the tickets to the Swedes.

I headed into the Olympic Park well before game time. It didn't seem like there was much ticket trading going on today, but even so, the gold medal game was not completely sold out. In Russia! I was astounded, especially considering that the Bolshoi Ice Dome only seats about 12,000 people.

I got to my seat, way up in the 400 level at the top of the arena. I was sitting just to the left of the CNC broadcast booth, and saw Ron McClean, Don Cherry and Kelly Hrudey. The Canadian Elvises were right near me as well: 4 guys dressed in white pant suits with "CANADA" down the leg, a large red maple leaf on the back, and elvis wigs and fake microphones. They had some cute dance moved prepared for whatever music the arena sound system was playing, and cheered things like "Price is Right!" after good saves by Cary Price. There were plenty of Canadian fans around me (far more than Swedish fans), and I was sharing some tape I brought to help others secure their Canadian flags. While doing this I noticed that Jen and her mother Heidi were in the next section. I've had a lot of "small world" experiences like that this week, bumping into the same people (mostly Canadians, but others too) time after time.

The game started off with Sweden holding the edge in play at first, but gradually the tide turned, and after Canada got their first goal in the first period, we started to dominate more and more. The second goal (on Sidney Crosby's breakaway) made us feel secure, and after the third goal it was all over. It was a great ending to the competition for Canada, and the medal ceremony (strangely missing the Finnish bronze medal winners) was sweet.

After the hockey game I headed to Fisht stadium, to see if there were any cheap tickets to the closing ceremonies to be had. Tickets for that were pretty pricey, but based on what I had seen all week, it seemed there was a small chance I might pick up something for $100. However, prices seemed to be close to face value, so I decided to head back to my hotel to watch the closing ceremonies on TV. But as I headed out, a couple of Canadian guys approached me and asked if I needed a ticket. They had found one on the ground. There didn't seem to be any way to turn it in or get it back to whoever lost it, so I took it (they were giving it away), and went into the stadium. That's not the end to this story though. After taking my seat I decided to grab a bite to eat, and on my return I found a backpack on the seat. The woman in the next seat said that they had lost their ticket and had it replaced. She called one of the volunteers over, who asked me where I got the ticket. I told her what happened, and she scolded me for buying a ticket from a non-official source. Apparently it was possible to cancel a ticket and get it replaced if lost, which surprised me. She told me my ticket was not valid, as it had been cancelled. I said it seemed pretty valid when the ticket scanning machine admitted me. In the end she found me another seat, in the front row of the same section. I felt badly for a while, wondering if I had done the wrong thing, but in the end the family that lost their ticket got it replaced, I didn't take anyone's seat from them, and there were empty seats in the stadium, so there was plenty of room to accommodate me. I enjoyed the closing ceremonies, but I think they are easier to take in on TV, as the huge majestic staging can be a little overwhelming and hard to absorb, especially if your viewing angle isn't just right for some of the effects. I watched much of it on the large screens in the stadium.

I left the park after the ceremonies, and back at the hotel met up with Heidi and Jen (who are from Brandon, Manitoba), for a few drinks at the bar, before getting to bed very late.

Next post:

Russia Day 6. Visiting Sochi! And the Bronze medal game.

Got up and started looking online again for gold medal tickets to assess the market. Now there is one (just one!) ticket in category D available at $750. I decide to take it. I still believe there's a very good chance I can find a better ticket at a lower price, but this price is acceptable (for a ticket way up high, but with a good view of the ice, and in this small arena it's not as far as it sounds). And buying now gives me peace of mind, and time to focus on booking a new flight (my original flight coincides with the gold medal game - how stupid is that?). An hour later I have a new flight to Moscow on Tuesday afternoon (another $300), and have told the hotel I'll need to stay an extra 2 nights, which is not a problem. The cheap flights to Moscow all stop somewhere, and I make sure mine doesn't stop over in Minsk or Kyiv, which might invalidate my 1-entry Russian visa, depending on how their in-transit system works). And I've emailed my hotel in Moscow to let them know I'm now arriving late Tuesday night.

After breakfast and getting my laundry handed in, I head in to Sochi for the first time, to pick up the ticket I ordered online. For some reason the ticket agency (CoSport) has their office in Sochi but not at the Olympic Park. I take a city bus in to downtown Sochi: 70 rubles (a little over $2) for a half-hour bus ride. From the bus station it's just a few blocks to the ticket office, and in a few minutes I'm holding my gold medal ticket!

I wandered around Sochi for a bit looking for a decent-looking restaurant, ready for my first good meal since I got here. Sochi itself is quite pretty, with palm trees, very lush, and is basically a lot hotels strung along the sea shore. I did notice some bunting hiding construction areas, and one building completely sheathed in a faux-building wrapper. And yes, there are a fair number of stray dogs wandering the streets here, so at least the authorities did not manage to kill them all.

I found a decent-looking restaurant and had a nice lunch. I wanted to take the train back, but when I got to the train station there were huge lines waiting to go through the security zone, so I walked back to the bus stop a couple blocks away and got on the bus instead.

I hung out at the hotel for a while (catching up on my blog posts again), before heading in to the park.
There seemed to be less ticket-trading action tonight than for previous games, but again tickets seemed to be trading below face value. It was a disappointing game, as the Finns (with Tuuka Rask back in net after missing their semi-final game due to illness) clobbered the US 5-0. I had felt a little sorry for the Americans after ripping their hearts out in the women's gold medal game, and edging them 1-0 in the men's semi-final, but it was a little embarrassing

After the game I headed back to canada Olympic House, and met up with Nathan Kutcher. Nathan is one of three Canadian ice climbers here to demonstrate ice climbing as a "cultural event". There's a 60' high artificial ice speed wall, as well as a mixed climbing area with steeper terrain and some neat hanging structures. True North Climbing helped each of the three Canadians with a little money to support their efforts, and Nate and I got together for a couple of beers. We went to the Swiss House, open to all, and I had a decent dinner while we drank and chatted with others there (largely Canadians).

I was back at my hotel earlier than usual: not long after midnight!

Next post:

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Russia Day Five. Two semi-finals!

Um, Friday, right?

I started the day armed only with a ticket to the first semi-final match: Sweden vs Finland. I made a sign with the 4 countries' flags, indicating in English, Russian and French that I wanted to trade my Sweden/Finland ticket for one to the Canada/US match tonight. When I got to the Olympic Park I wandered back and forth between Canada Olympic house (where I thought those trying to sell tickets to Canadians would come), the ticket sales booth (closed at that time), and the Bolshoi Ice Dome. I was trying to pull off the swap, but also assessing the prices in case I had to buy a ticket for tonight's game. People were generally asking for face value or a little less, on tickets that cost either 12,000 rubles (a little less than $400) or 19,000 rubles (about $600). Shortly before the Finland/Sweden game started I found an American woman with an extra 19,000 ruble ticket for the Canada/US game. I asked her what she wanted for it, and when she said 5,000 rubles I did the deal immediately. She said she wanted the ticket to go to someone who would appreciate the game, and I can promise her that I did!

There were no takers for my Sweden/Finland ticket, so I went in to watch the game. It was a decent game, but not quite thrilling, with Sweden edging Finland 2-1. Apparently Finland's hot goalie Tuuka Rask is ill, and that may have hurt their chances.

After the game I hung out a bit at Canada Olympic House (saw Hailey Wickenheiser), grabbed a quick dinner of not-too-bad sausages and beer, and chatted with Russians at my table. I feel my Russian is improving each day, and while I still get lost at times when conversations go too fast for me to follow, or use vocabulary I'm missing, I'm feeling more comfortable all the time, and I routinely order food, ask directions and make small talk in Russian. The people here are pleased and surprised when I do, and I think it opens the door to conversing more, even though many of them speak some English.

I had a good seat for the Canada/US men's semi-final, what would correspond to the top of the lower bowl in the corner at an NHL arena (the Bolshoi ice Dome, despite being the larger of the two hockey rinks here, seats only about 12,000 people). The crowd had a lot more Canadians than Americans, and the Russians were there to support us in force as well. I was blown away to see that many Russians came to the game with Canadian flags painted on their faces! Some had the Russian flag on one cheek, and ours on the other. Kids had a maple leaf on their foreheads. One guy had a huge maple leaf painted all over his face. It's one thing to cheer for us and want us to win, but to see so many of them paint their faces really moved me.

You all already know about the game: we controlled the play for the most part, played an incredibly disciplined and defensively responsible game, and shut down the US 1-0.

When I got back to my hotel I checked online for gold medal game tickets, and found there were some in the B category (second-most expensive), going for about $US950. At that point I was thinking there was a good chance of finding something cheaper by working the crowd tomorrow, so I held off.

Next post:

Russia Day 4. Women Win Gold!

Catching up again after another couple of very busy and exciting days. It's hard to keep track of what has happened since my last post!

OK, we're at Thursday now. I had a lazy morning, trying to relax and regain some strength after two long, tiring days. That included writing the previous 2 blog posts, and watching a little of the action from the Mountain Cluster on tv in the hotel cafeteria. The games are split into two very separate areas: all the snow events are up in the mountains where it's actually cold, and all the ice events are in the Coastal Cluster in Adler (none of this is actually in Sochi; it's kind of like how the "Toronto Bouldering World Cup" is actually being held in Hamilton).

Anyway, at some point I headed back to the Olympic Park for the women's gold medal game. When I got there I noticed something very striking. On previous days, just about all the Russians at the park were fully decked out in Russian uniforms (often including track pants), with flags and painted faces. Today, after yesterday's loss to Finland, only a small minority of them were dressed up. The rest were in mourning. They were dignified and classy about it, but they were sad and heartbroken. And many of them wished me good luck (I still had my Team Canada jersey and cap on, of course!). It was clear that they were looking to Canada to pick up the torch and take the gold medal, in both men's and women's hockey.

My brother Peter, who works as a sports reporter at 680News, had asked me to send him some audio clips with my impressions about the games. He had sent me a list of questions, mainly focusing on interesting and different things I am seeing here. It made me realize that, while there are definitely some differences here, the artificial nature of the Olympic Park makes it feel like I could be anywhere. The more I thought about what was strange and exotic around here, the more I realized that it's me! I'm constantly being stopped to take photos with Russians, and being approached for conversations, often about Canada going on to the gold medal game, and sometimes asking me what I think about Russia/Sochi/the games.

I got to the Bolshoi Ice Dome well before game time, and sat in a section down low in the corner to the right of the net that Canada would defend in the 1st and 3rd periods. I was surrounded by an equal mix of Russians, Canadians and Americans, including a Canadian woman I had sat next to at the short-track event the other day. I keep seeing the same people over and over here.

The game started off close and tight, and without the usual intensity of a Canada/US match. The Americans scored first, and after they did I said to the woman next to me that it reminded me of a script I've seen before, where the US goes up 2-0 before Canada storms back to tie it and then win in overtime. You probably know by now that that's exactly what happened. The crowd came to life after Canada's first goal, with a little over 3 minutes left in the third period, gasped when the US hit the post of our empty net, and then went wild when we tied it in the final minute.

And when Marie-Phillipe Poulin put the winner in during overtime (we had a great view of that), it was bedlam. The Americans around us were very good sports and congratulated us. As they prepared for the medal ceremony we saw the Swiss team line up in the walkway adjacent to our seats. I called out "Felecitations" to them (because I don't know how to congratulate someone in German or Italian and assumed they would speak French), and they smiled at us and then posed for photos for us.

It was very sad to see the American women accept their silver medals so soon after having their hearts ripped out of their chests. They are a great team, and deserve to win as much as we do, but time after time Canada finds a way to beat them.

One thing I've been struck by here is how much Russians like to give gifts. On the plane from Moscow I was given a decorative mug from the woman from the Baikal region. After the women's gold medal game, a man gave me his Russia cap. It's embarrassing to get a gift when you're not expecting one, and especially when you're not prepared to reciprocate. Luckily I remembered I had a pair of Canada gloves in my backpack, and I gave him those.

I've been hounded all week by people who want to trade for my Team Canada hat, a classy black one with red trim and the old Hockey Canada logo on the front. Of course I can't give it up, at least not while my team still has games to play. After the women's game a kid approached me, wanting to trade his cap (from the KHL Traktor team) for mine.  I said no, and I think I broke his heart.

I recorded a few interviews at the game with surrounding fans, and then back at Canada Olympic House connected to their free wifi and recorded some more and sent it off to 680News. They used some of it in reports on Wednesday and Thursday, which is kind of fun. If only that got me press accreditation! Unfortunately that has to be arranged months in advance.

Next post:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Russia Day Three. Quarter-finals

Wednesday was exhausting. I got up at 9:30, after a good sleep of six hours (not quite enough), feeling very tired and with sore feet and legs after a lot of walking. I've got a couple small blisters on my left heel, and put some moleskin on to protect them, as well as thin liner socks, which seemed to help. My first event was at noon, so I really only had time for breakfast and a shower before heading to the bus stop again.

I saw 3 of the 4 men's quarter-final hockey games on Wednesday. The first was Sweden vs Slovenia, starting at noon at the Bolshoi Ice Dome. This was the biggest mismatch of the day, and the Swedes didn't have much trouble putting Slovenia away 5-0. Some say Sweden is the favourite in this tournament. They looked good, but did not scare me as a potential gold-medal opponent.

Game 2 was Russia va Finland at 4:30pm. Russian fans were coming to Canada Olymnpic House trying to trade tickets for the Canada/Latvia game Wednesday night for a ticket to this game. Unfortunately for them, all the Canadians seemed to already have that ticket. The crowd was again loud and excited, and started off very happy as Russia scored the first goal. It was downhill from there, however, as Finland soon tied it up, then went ahead, and the Russians were unable to dominate. One Russia said to me today, "Russia has the best players, but not the best team". There certainly was a lot of great talent on the ice for the Russians (occasionally with Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Malkin and Ovechkin all on the ice at once), but in the end it did not come together, and Tuuka Rask was again very good in net. Finland won 3-1, and the Russians were heartbroken.

Game 3 at 9pm was Canada vs Latvia. We expected an easy game, but we didn't get one, as the young Latvian goalie stood on his head, keeping the game tied at 1-1 until well into the third period. The Russian crowd was solidly behind the Latvian underdogs. I felt that the Canadians played an excellent game, despite having so much trouble getting the puck past the Latvian goalie. They controleld the play almost the entire game, moved the puck well, and did not get frustrated or take stupid penalties, even after the ref disallowed what seemed like a clear goal (and after two video reviews!).

Another long walk to the bus stop, and back to my hotel before 1am, getting to sleep only around 3am after reading for a while to unwind.

Next post:

Russia Day 2. Short track and Qualification round games

I'm catching up after a couple of busy and exhausting days, and I'm so tired it's kind of all a blur.

OK, back to Tuesday; what did I do? Oh yeah, I got up and had breakfast and walked to the bus stop a few blocks away to catch the bus in to the Olympic Park. The bus ride takes about 20 minutes, with only a few stops, and then it's about a 30-40 minute walk through the park from the bus stop, depending which venue you're headed to. It could be a bit quicker, but I'm a naturally slow walker, and I'm further slowed down by very sore feet from so much walking, as well as all the Russians who want to get a photo with me! At first I thought it was just the Canadians they wanted photos with, but it turns out they want a photo with everyone.

My first event was short-track speed skating, where I saw the women's 1000m heats, the men's 500m heats, and the women's 3,000m relay events. I was sitting in the upper part of the arena, but in the first row of the section, so I had a good view from above. There were a few Americans and Canadians scattered among the Russians in the crowd. The Canadians generally did well in the heats, with most of them advancing. The notable exception was Charles Hamelin, who was well out in front of the other skaters when he lost an edge on a corner and crashed out. It wasn't the only crash of course, and the Canadians benefited in the relay. The Italians crashed out, Canada finished the race third, but then the Koreans were disqualified, bumping Canada to a silver medal, and giving the Italians bronze. Short-track is crazy and unpredictable, and it's pretty common for a good team to get knocked out.

While waiting for the first of two Qualification round hockey games I hung out at Canada Olympic House. Well, just outside it, as only those with Athlete or Friends and Family accreditation can get in (no beer fridge for me, alas). There is free wifi there - the only place in the park I can connect, always Canadians hanging out, and it has become a great place to trade or buy tickets. There are tickets available for almost everything, as some people wound up with the wrong game given the team they support, and others have tickets they want to sell. I met a Russian named Ivan there, a driver for the anti-doping commission. He had a ticket for Canada's Quarter-final match Wednesday night, and I wanted one. He offered to give it to me as a gift, which I thought was incredibly generous until he added "and you will give me a gift of 9,000 rubles!". Apparently he was not supposed to sell his tickets, so it had to be a gift exchange! I went to the ATM (twice, as there is a limit of 7,000 rubles per transaction), and we made the swap. He wasn't able to sell the other ticket he had (by the time of that game, there was a glut of tickets available, and prices had dropped), and wound up sitting next to me for it.

My first hockey game Tuesday was the Russia/Norway Qualification match. The crowd was very loud, all dressed in  Russian team apparel, many in team track pants as well as sweatshirts or jackets. Many had Russian flags painted on their faces (they have face paint in sticks with the 3 colours, to make that easy!), and there were a vast number of Russian flags, many with the name of people's home towns printed on them. I've never seen such an enthusiastic, patriotic crowd, and they were having a blast, roaring after each Russian goal, chanting Rus-see-ya and Shaybu (literally meaning "the puck", but it's an abbreviated form of the phrase meaning "score!"). The Russians didn't really play very well, but it was enough to get by Norway 4-0 (two of those goals coming very late in the game, one in an empty net) and into the Quarter-finals.

After grabbing a quick and mediocre bite to eat (the food in the park is quite unimpressive), I went to another Qualifying round matchup: Switzerland vs Latvia. The Swiss had won a close round-robin game between the two, and we Canadians were a little leery of the Swiss because they have given us some trouble in the past. It was a good close game but Latvia won 3-1, earning a game against Canada on Wednesday.

Long walk back to the bus, and back to my hotel around 1am, exhausted, but still too wired up to sleep. I caught up on email and recorded a few more bits for my brother Peter to use in his radio reports. He wound up using 4 of them over Monday and Tuesday, and said he got a good response to them. He sent me the audio files, and I don't think I have a future in radio; I hate the way my voice sounds. But it was fun to do the spots. If only that got me media accreditation...

General impressions so far:

  • The Olympic park is huge and feels somewhat empty much of the time, except at night after the games and medal ceremonies.
  • There is a vast army of volunteers, most of whom seem to have no job other than to stand there, look friendly, and I guess answer questions. Some sit in lifeguard chairs with megaphones talking to the crowd.
  • The security is pervasic but mostly unobtrusive, and all the security people are friendly. I feel completely safe here, whether in the park or wandering around the town.
  • I still have no impressions of Sochi, because I have not been there yet! I'm staying in a neighbourhood north of Adler, south of Sochi proper. I'll try to get there on the weekend when I have more time.
  • There are a lot of Canadians here, and a smattering of other foreigners, but mostly this is Russia's party for Russians, and they are having a blast.
  • Canada Olympic House: I have no access, but there is free wifi, and lots of ticket trading going on there.
  • Overall the similarities I see overwhelm the differences. Russians are friendly, they love their children, their country and especially their hockey, and they like to make silly poses for photographs, including the cliche holding the olympic flame in your hand shot.
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Monday, February 17, 2014

Russia: Day One

Though I arrived in Sochi Sunday evening, all I did was get to my hotel, unpack, grab a beer and crash, so I'm calling today Day One.

First, my Russian is holding up pretty well so far. While I've been studying Russian for a little over two years, mostly two 1 1/2 hour lessons a week, and that sounds like a lot, I am far from fluent. Russian is really really hard! Since I got here I've been trying to use Russian as much as possible, only asking people if they speak English as a last resort when communication fails (which happens). Outside of the Olympic areas, not many people seem to speak much English here. My Russian is good enough to make my needs known and conduct basic business, and to have shallow, halting conversations. I'm pretty happy with that.

This morning I had breakfast in the hotel cafeteria. My hotel is in Kudepstva, a neighbourhood between the city of Sochi and the suburb of Adler where the games are actually taking place. I'm 2 blocks from the Black Sea, and two blocks from the bus stop where I catch the bus to the Olympic park, about a 15-20 minute ride away. Anyway - breakfast: I grab my tray and start looking at the choices of food. Most of it doesn't look much like breakfast to me: huge hunks of fish (I'll try that one morning, but I was too jet lagged to want that much this morning), fried eggs atop mysterious hunks of meat, potatoes, vegetables, ... I pointed at one thing that looked like it might have something inside of it and asked what it was (in Russian). The woman behind the counter told me what it was called, which didn't mean anything to me. So I asked her, in Russian, what was inside. She started to laugh, and just said it was delicious, without explaining further. So I tried it, and it turned out to be some sort of fried doughnut, with just dough inside. It was pretty good.

First visit to the grocery store

I picked up a few groceries at the grocery store next door: drinks and snacks and a box of cereal for breakfasts. Then I got directions from my friend the bartender, on how to get to downtown Adler, to the Registration office where I could get my spectator pass registered. In order to enter the Olympic Park you need both a ticket to an event that day, and a big laminated spectator pass that identifies you. When entering each arena you scan both your spectator pass and your ticket, so that Vladimir Putin knows where each of us is sitting, in case he's following my blog and wants to find me to say Hi.

I took a local city bus (bus fare: 17 rubles, or about 50 cents) downtown and then walked up to the Information booth to get directions to the registration office. Two of the volunteers offered to walk me there, which gave them a chance to practice their English on me. I felt good because they had been studying English for 11 years, and their English wasn't 5.5 times as good as my Russian!

After getting my spectator pass activated (which took about a minute), I found my way back to a bus stop, and got on an Olympic bus (free fare for those with a ticket to an event that day, but no one was checking, so anyone could ride for free). The bus dropped me off in a big parking lot, and it took me a while to figure out where the park entrance was from there; it was not very clearly marked.

It was a LONG walk from the bus to the park entrance (where I went through the equivalent of an airport security check) to the arenas within the park. The park itself is a vast sea of asphalt, and seemed kind of empty. The arenas are beautiful (especially when lit up at night with animated lights dancing across them), the Olympic flame is impressive, and noisy, but the whole thing feels like it was dropped in too big an expanse of pavement.

I had only one event ticket for today: the women's hockey semi-final between the US and Sweden. When I bought my tickets months ago there was no way to know which teams would be playing in which games. But it turned out that the second semi-final game, featuring Canada vs Switzerland, was not sold out. A half-hour in line and 4,000 rubles (about $125) solved that problem, and I had a ticket for the second game.

I grabbed some food before the first game and again in between games. The food is nothing special, though somewhat interesting: a mix of traditional North American bad arena food (hot dogs, pizza) and more traditional Russian fare: blini, shashlik (shish kebab) and other things. It wasn't terrible and wasn't great, and was a little expensive but not outrageously so. The beer is decent and a little cheaper than at home: 150 rubles (less than $5) for a can of Baltika.

I've been bumping into other Canadians everywhere; I've heard that there are more Canadians here than any other country other than Russia. And the Russians seem to think we're cool.

While I'm here I'm sending some audio reports to my brother Peter who works at 680 News. He's editing them together into reports, and a couple aired on Monday. I've sent him some more, so you may be able to hear me on 680News sometime on Tuesday if they like what I sent! Now to see if I can get media accreditation, which could open some more doors around here...

Probably the main thing that strikes me about this place is that it does not feel as exotic as I expected, probably because I'm spending so much of my time within the artificial Olympic space. Sure,
everything is is Russian, but that doesn't seem quite so foreign any more after two years of Russian lessons!

(I'm working on including photos I've taken in this post, but right now getting the photos from my iPhone to my iPad and into this post is harder than expected, and it's really time I went to bed!)

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Я еду в Россию скоро! I'm going to Russia soon!

I haven't been blogging much the past few years (since I started my business, really), apart from a cluster of posts during TIFF last year. But I'm headed to Russia in ten days, and that seems like a good reason to get blogging again. I plan to post updates from my trip, some in Russian (copying/pasting into this configuration of Google Translate should help when reading those parts).

I have been asked if I'm concerned about the security situation in Russia, given the recent bombing in Volgograd and the threats made against the Olympics by the Dagestan rebel leader. I'm not ignoring what's going on, but at this point I'm still planning to go. Bad things happen all over the world, and I have not called off trips to New York because of terrorism there, or trips anywhere in the US, where shootings are almost a daily occurrence. I guess I'm trusting that the unprecedented security precautions taken by the Russian authorities will be effective. And I am aware that I will be under surveillance - physical and electronic - much of the time I am there

I'll be in Sochi (в Сочи) for the second week of the Olympics, attending 10 events: men's & women's hockey games as well as a couple bouts of short-track speed skating. Then I'll head to Moscow (в Москву) for 10 days, followed by a week in St Petersburg (в Петербурге).

I've been studying Russian for the past two years. That sounds like a long enough time that I ought to be pretty fluent by now, but Russian is so hard that I'm not quite there. I have a pretty good grasp of the fantastically complex grammar, and can read and write somewhat decently. I'm sure I'll be able to find my way around and make my needs known. Listening to native Russian speakers at full speed is the hardest part. Hopefully that will improve quickly when I'm there, but right now I still get deer-caught-in-the-headlights-face at times when my Russian instructor rambles on, or uses a word or two I have to stop and think about, only to realize that another sentence went by while I was thinking!

Thank you to Anya and Irina, the two instructors who have gotten me to where I am now.
Спасибо Аня и Ирина, двух преподавателей, которые помогли мне узнать много уже.

I spent some time pondering which of my too-many gadgets to take along on this trip. The nominees were:
  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Kindle
  • laptop 
  • digital camera
In the end I managed to winnow this down to 3 of the devices above, plus a new one! 

One friend suggested I leave the Kindle at home, and make do with reading books on the iPhone or iPad. He thought that would work well enough if I only expected to read a couple books on my trip. I told him I expect to read a couple books on the plane. The Kindle was the easiest decision, as I read a lot, and don't want to lug a lot of books around with me.
I've decided my iPhone is a better camera than my current digital, and it's not worth upgrading to a better one. I expect there to be some free wifi in Sochi and the other cities, so I may be able to connect and keep up with email on the go with the iPhone as well (but roaming will be OFF!).

I'm leaving the laptop at home, and will manage with my iPad for videos on the plane, web surfing and other communication. I'm trusting my staff at work to take care of everything while I'm gone, so the few things I can only do on my laptop shouldn't be an issue. 

The one thing making me hesitate about that laptop was the issue of offloading digital photos from the iPhone. With a laptop I would just plug in the iPhone and transfer them all over. Without the laptop I can rely on iCloud to back up my photos, but that makes me a bit nervous. So instead I picked up another small device. It's basically a device that sets up a local wifi network that my iPhone can talk to, and allows me to plug in SD cards or USB memory keys. That lets me transfer photos off my iPhone to the memory keys, and also lets me store TV shows and movies on memory keys and then watch them on my iPad, giving me more entertainment than will fit on my iPad. Oh, and the device is also a backup battery to recharge devices that run low. Pretty cool, not too expensive, and nice and small/light.

My posts from Russia should start around February 16th, when I arrive in Sochi, or soon after, when I have regained my senses after jet lag. In the meantime I am continuing to gather all the little things I'll need for my trip, and so far have resisted the urge to pack everything right now.

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