Russia as we know it

19 Feb
Gorki village side street on one of several 50-degree days during the 2014 Winter Olympics

Gorki village side street on one of several 50-degree days during the 2014 Winter Olympics

You’re probably dying to know what Russia’s really like — I mean, it’s a big reason why I wanted to come here in the first place.

But to be honest, two weeks into my Olympic journey, I can really only tell you about the Olympics, specifically the mountain cluster, and really, the nordic events — if you want insider details.

The region of Krasnaya Polyana, and its villages of Gorki and Rosa Khutor, where I’ve been spending the last 13 days aren’t your salt-of-the-earth, local-yokel joints. Part of the reason is because they’re brand-new towns created for the Olympics.

One of the first days I was here, I went for a spring-like stroll down one of the main pedestrian side streets in Gorki. I heard an American say it reminded him of Disney World — and to a point, I agreed. The buildings are bold and impressive, and opening each day to reveal new hotels, businesses, and shopping malls.

You feel safe on these streets, with plenty of tourists and journalists buzzing around by day and bright lights and purple-coated security guards at every corner by night. I was most nervous about an inflated-chicken mascot, who playfully pecked at unsuspecting people passing by.

My biggest fear so far: the Gorki Square chicken

My biggest fear so far: the Gorki Square chicken

Most mornings, when the sun’s out, there’s a dance party in Gorki Square. Hello Kitty dances with Spiderman, the chicken bobbles around, and all the costumed characters toss a beach ball to one another while standing in a circle — and anyone else can join in. What a way to start your day.

I have to applaud Russia in so many respects. The Olympic organizing committee’s volunteers are friendly and generally speak good English, their security guards are often jovial, and even the police officers in those ushanka trapper hats (yep, they wear them even when it’s 60 degrees out) occasionally smile.

But my sense is this isn’t real Russia. This isn’t reality no matter what country you’re in. I’m living in an Olympic wonderland and sometimes I wonder if I’m falling into a false sense of security, or if I’m letting my guard down. As was swimming in my hotel’s five-day old lap pool this morning, I smelled something. Something like gas or diesel. I just kept swimming, swimming, until finally it got a little hard to bear.

You’re being over-sensitive, I thought. I finished my swim and still smelled it. The windows were open, and I think it was simply some kind of inversion, where the fumes from the highway down below wafted up to our mountain hotel. But I really don’t know.

Last night while I was in a deep sleep, Nat and Chelsea heard explosions around midnight. I’m assuming it was avalanche blasts from the several inches of snow we received yesterday. But who knows?

Regardless, I didn’t find out until the next morning, and it hasn’t affected anything as far as I can tell. Our all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast was still out with even more options to chose from, and for the second day in a row, there was a bonus food-and-drink spread in the lobby. If nothing else, this country knows how to feed us in the a.m.

As I sit in the hotel lobby in a swanky chair sipping my second cup of coffee, along with a free seltzer water, I’ve got to tell you, I can’t complain. Tomorrow, we’re planning to head down to Adler, the coastal town near Sochi. Maybe after that, I can tell you more about Russia. But somehow, I don’t think I’m going to get the full effect.


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