Friday, February 7, 2014


Even Nick, who is on neither Facebook nor Twitter, has heard about #SochiProblems. Unlike Justin Bieber's ill-advised use of eggs, I think journalists' living conditions in the Black Sea resort town for the next 17 days has evolved from humor to real news (or at least a good post-Superbowl topic for ESPN Radio). Nick's appalled. The ESPN commentators are appalled. Stephen Colbert is appalled.

Пансионат Солнечный (from
I'm pretty sure this was my exact room,
minus the TV, rug, and throw pillows.
But here's the thing, folks. All this shock and awe inspired by your temporary Russian living conditions could have been avoided if you had just called me before your trip. I would have prepped you, or at least helped you reset your expectations.  Admittedly, it has been almost two decades since I lived in the "Sunny Holiday Hotel" in Zvenigorod and commuted into Moscow to do thesis research, but I'm sure some of the lessons still apply.

Rule #1: Stop being disappointed when things don't work. Instead, learn to be happy when things do.

Bathrooms -- Yes, the side-by-side toilet pics are hilarious, especially when the athletes bring their skis into the loo with them, but is that really such a big deal? There used to be a Pizza Hut in Charlotte, North Carolina, that had the same setup.  (It's now a sushi restaurant that I just cannot bring myself to try, but I digress.) Rule #2: Before going to Russia, rid your mind of any Platonic Ideal of a bathroom. The airplane lavatory on your flight over should help.

In our Sunny Holiday Hotel bathroom, there was no need for superfluous curtains or doors since the sink and shower both ran from the same water source. You toggled the flow to one or the other. Even better, the toilet had a lid, convenient if you wanted sit on it while under the shower, which rained down right over the potty and drained into a hole in the floor. Upon arrival, my roommate and I were a bit surprised by this arrangement, but before the end of our stay we declared the accommodations luxurious. The hotel was, after all, built by the communist party as a place to send their best workers on pre-appointed vacations.

Российская государственная библиотека
Other, grander places had different standards, of course. I spent many a day in the Russian State Library (formerly the V.I. Lenin Library), which houses one of the most dignified card catalogs in which I have ever had the pleasure of losing myself.  But a young woman can only spend so many hours in a reading room before she has to avail herself of the facilities. That same young woman should not be surprised when she opens the stall door (a stall door!) to find a simple hole in the floor, perhaps flanked by footpads.

Looking back, I can pinpoint the day my attitude about Russian bathrooms changed. My journal entry for that day reads, "It was a great day! There was toilet paper in the library WC!"

Oh, and one final word about the john. I'm sure you've seen the poster of disallowed toilet activities that has been making its way around cyberspace. While most people have commented on the "No Fishing" icon, it was the puking prohibition that caught my eye. If you feel nauseated, find another place to toss your cookies. My roommate chose the middle of Red Square. (Sorry, Nadya Blondinka. I couldn't resist.)

Water -- OK, so no one wants to see yellow (or any color for that matter) liquid flowing from the tap, but the warning not to drink Russian water existed long before Sochi got the Olympic bid. Here in the States we spend almost $12 billion dollars on bottled water annually.  I live at the foot of the  Rockies (which, according to Coors ads, means my water should be mountain-spring fresh) and still have two Brita pitchers in my fridge.  But suddenly you arrive in Sochi and are bummed you can drink from the faucet? Some of the pipes in St. Petersburg are actually as old as the city itself. Even in Zvenigorod, nestled in the countryside along the idyllic banks of the Moscow River, you follow Rule #3: Brush your teeth with bottled water and, if you run out, always boil or use water purifying tablets… or both. Or skip a brushing. My guess is that all five dentists would be OK with that.

Lack of curtain rods -- It's winter in Russia. Rule #4: Be thankful for all the Vitamin D you can get. Besides, it's not as if you were expecting blackout curtains, were you? See the picture of the room in Solnechny, above? In June, the light coming in through the window was just like that at both 5am and 10pm.  If you ever travel to Sochi in the summer, just be thankful it is almost 1,000 miles south of Moscow.

On a related note, for insomniacs, I highly recommend White Nights festival in St. Petersburg.

Project management -- "But NC," you may be thinking, "these people spent $51 billion and had seven years to get these hotels ready for us!" True, but remember Rule #5: Time flows at a different rate in Russia. Early one morning, in the Russian State Library, I took a stack of books to the copy desk and filled out a form to get duplicates made of chapters I would need once returning to the U.S. The young man behind the desk looked over my forms, held up one finger, and told me "час" (one hour). That seemed very reasonable, so I went back to my desk and read for a little while. When I again stepped up to the copy desk, the same librarian looked rather confused at my return. "час?" I asked him. "час," he corrected me. Ah yes, I reminded myself, час also means one o'clock. Which gave me plenty of time to take a deep breath, gather my belongings, and head over to The Shamrock Pub to watch a soccer match with some expat friends. I know you're there on assignment, but try to leave the maintenance problems behind and go enjoy some sports.

Empty Coca-Cola vending machines -- I'm pretty sure this just means Atlanta is no longer hosting the Olympics.

Mistranslated menus -- Yes, the dessert item "Cakes in ass." would be upsetting if you were hoping for "Assorted pastries."  Just as I'm sure you can understand my distress when I assumed that "Chocolate butter" was a mistranslation of "Fudge," purchased a sizable chunk, and took a large bite right out of the bag... only to find that it was indeed chocolate butter.

Rule #6: Don't eat large bites of plain chocolate butter.

Unpaved sidewalks / Open manholes -- Repeat after me: os-to-RO-zhno. Once again. Now shout it urgently: OSTOROZHNO! Rule #7: Learn this word. A "watch out" warning not only helps if someone is in danger of getting mauled by a bear, but it also comes in very handy if your fellow journo is about to step into the abyss because of walking while tweeting about #SochiProblems.