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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