WASHINGTON, February 6, 2014 – The world press has descended on Sochi, and the first dispatches are grim. Forget human rights and the environment; the hotel tap water is either missing or undrinkable. Doorknobs come off in your hand. Some hotels don’t have lobbies or floors, there’s no internet service, and you aren’t supposed to flush your used toilet paper down the toilet; you throw it in a bucket by the toilet.
There will be more surprises for Olympic visitors. Here are some things they might expect; your correspondent has encountered them all.
We hope that this list will help reduce visitors’ stress.
The broken lift: First, not every lift that doesn’t work is broken. Russian elevators are idiosyncratic beasts. Some won’t work unless you press the “close” button after pushing the number for your floor. Some require that you press the “close” button at the same time you press the number for your floor. Some stay put unless you hold your floor button until the doors close.
Some won’t move until you step in and out and jump up and down a few times.
Weird, nonstandard lifts will be a problem in older hotels. It’s more likely that in the sparkling new hotels in Sochi, there will be sleek, modern lifts that don’t work at all.
If your lift stops between floors, don’t worry. It will start up again in a few minutes – an hour, tops. Pressing the emergency button is an exercise in futility. It probably doesn’t work, and if it does, the hotel staff is trained to ignore it.
If you happen to be trapped in the lift with a Russian Mafioso (look at his knuckles; if they’re dyed green, it’s from a local antiseptic used after fighting; now surreptitiously look for an odd bulge under his coat), strike up a conversation. You may find him much more useful than the local authorities at getting you access to anyone or anything you need.
If he offers to be your “roof,” accept. You can tell your kids that you had your very own enforcer, even if you never actually use him.
The midnight phone call: “Excuse me, sir,” says a solicitous, delightfully accented voice. “Would you care for a woman tonight?” The groggy but shocked hotel guest may wonder whether to report this to the manager. He already knows.
If you wish to be left alone, simply decline, firmly and politely.
Your phone may ring again a few minutes later. “Would you prefer a man?” Commerce is commerce, even in Putin’s Russia. A firm “no thank you” should put an end to the calls.
Don’t be rude; they know where you’re staying, and they know the concierge.
If you answer “yes” to either call, you’re on your own. Make sure you set a price first, and make sure that your insurance is up to date. Don’t be overly fond of your personal possessions.
Breakfast: The better hotels serve a European-style continental breakfast. There may be a buffet. If your hotel is more Russian, there will be a buffet, but it won’t remind you of any breakfast buffet you’ve ever eaten.
There will be pickles and cold cuts. Fatty cold cuts. There will be sliced cheese. The slices will look a little shriveled around the edges, and they will come with thin slices of dark bread. The overall effect is unappetizing, but it’s cold and you need your fat and your protein, so eat it.
The Russians have a saying, “щи да каша – пища наша” – “cabbage soup and kasha are our food.” You’ve got to admire the fortitude of people who can live on cabbage soup and kasha. Avoid the kasha – a sort of grain porridge – unless you believe that breakfast food should taste like boiled grain and coagulate in your gut like a tumor.
If it gets cold, you’ll have to cut it with your knife.
Go for the yoghurt. Russian yoghurt is good, especially with a little honey on it. There will be “kompote” to drink – a fruit beverage with all the solids settled to the bottom of the glass and turning brown. That’s just a little oxidation; it won’t hurt you. Stir it up and the kompote is often pretty good.
If you want a hot beverage, go with tea; Russian coffee is iffy.
Public toilets: Don’t. Just don’t.
Shopping: Russians aren’t Americans; they don’t walk around with silly grins plastered on their faces, and you shouldn’t expect a sales clerk to treat you like an old friend. She may look at you as if she’s bored, she may look at you with active disgust.
Just don’t expect her to smile.
Just because she works in a store doesn’t mean the clerk wants to sell you anything. She’ll only do that if she has nothing better to do. You might ask for some body powder, and she’ll refuse. “No, no, I can pay,” you’ll protest, pulling out your credit card. She’ll look at you with disdain. What her criteria are for rejecting you, no one knows. Find a Russian speaker to intercede on your behalf. Otherwise, call your roof.
If she does take your money, she’ll accept most major credit cards or crisp, new hundred-dollar or hundred-euro bills. Offer her an old or worn-out bill and she’ll treat you like the vermin you are.
Drinking: If you’re invited to a party or social gathering, there will be vodka. And there will be toasts. A lot of them. If you drink, eat something between shots. There’s a reason they serve those fatty cold cuts at breakfast; they’re left over from drinking, and they’re ideal for slowing the movement of alcohol from your gut to your bloodstream.
If you don’t drink, expect some social pressure. I was accused of being a spy when I didn’t drink at a government banquet. Before the evening was over, the head of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), the head of USAID, and a deputy to the U.S. ambassador had all been pulled into a quick meeting in the middle of the banquet hall.
The meeting included much gesticulating and pointing in my direction, and occasionally everyone turned to glare at me.
If you don’t drink and don’t want everyone turning to glare at you, avoid parties.
Meet the Russians: Russians can seem like a cold, unfriendly people. They walk the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg looking miserable and dour, especially the older generations. Appearances are deceiving.
If they invite you into their homes, Russians are warm and generous hosts, and wonderful conversationalists. When it comes to food, they’re generous almost to the point of abuse. You might be served a first course of borscht (beet soup) with pampushki (a sort of roll), and every time you eat your pampushki, more will appear on your plate. There will be a salad, perhaps molded with diced vegetables and mayonnaise, pelmeni (dumplings) with “smetana” (sour cream), then chicken or fish, maybe some plov, maybe shashlik.
You eat too much, thinking that this must be the last course, and then comes another, and the hostess insists that you take seconds, then thirds. You begin to sweat with pain, and the food keeps coming. The vodka, cognac and Georgian wine flow (if you don’t drink, there will be Coke), and the food is wonderful, and you think you’re going to die.
Then it’s time for ice cream, then chocolates.
If you’re looking wobbly, your host may walk you home. You might insist you can make it on your own, but he won’t hear of it. He’ll put his arm in yours, steer you from his apartment to your hotel, and not let go of you for an instant. It will be a memorable night.
Sochi is shaping up to be a disaster of epic proportions, but Russians shine in disaster. You probably won’t die trapped on an elevator or poisoned by bad water, and if you can keep your sense of humor about the bathrooms and your unfinished hotel and the ecological disaster and corruption, you’ll have a grand time.