There are two kinds of people in this world—those who appreciate unconventional toilet experiences and those who don’t. On their first day in Sochi, field correspondents incessantly thumbed out image-accompanied wisecracks of their initial impressions. I can’t blame them. By all accounts, Sochi seems to have made an awful first one. However, I’m sure there is more to the city than suspect plumbing, slip-shod construction, and a blatant disregard for organization. As the days go by and their Sochi experience deepens—as those journalists get their hands dirty messing around in the real plumbing of the city, and we receive more detailed accounts of what it’s like—I believe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, they’re stuck there, and travel is what you make of it …
For example, this fall two friends and I took a trip to Cleveland for the Lions vs. Browns game. We felt safe leaving the hotel arrangements to Dino, who works in the hospitality industry. He booked us into a hotel in west Cleveland called the University Suites. He figured he’d done the appropriate amount of research, and that this was the spot for us. Upon arrival, we weren’t so sure.
The neighborhood in which the hotel is situated is a site to behold. It’s a depressing mix of warehouses, storage lots, and union halls. We arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon, and the streets were barren. To boot, it appeared to be the kind of place where bullet-proof glass is more than just a precaution.
We pulled into the hotel parking lot, which could easily be mistaken for an automobile graveyard. The hotel itself is a drab, grey and white, 10-storey box of stone and glass. Our proverbial bed made, we cracked a few jokes and got on with it.
While Dino checked us in, James and I ventured into the hotel bar. Perfect: It had a roadhouse atmosphere, plenty of patrons, and a line of TVs with sports on every one of them. I asked for a large Miller High Life, and the bartender replied with, “We’re selling cans for two dollars each.” After I modified my request, James ordered a round for the entire bar. That’s the effect “We’re selling cans for two dollars each.” can have on a Canadian boy. With that, the locals warmed to us quickly.
The fellow sitting to our left, who in every way resembled Wooderson from the film Dazed and Confused, and who had been fishing for Lake Erie perch all day, started to explain to us a few of the reasons he’d been staying at the University Suites on his trips to Cleveland. “My first night here, I’d been out late drinking and I returned to the hotel at around 3 am.” he said. “As I crossed the lobby, heading for the elevator, I noticed a huge white garbage bag full of raw meat. Blood seeped out of its corners. I looked around for anyone who wasn’t a prostitute or drug dealer to report it to, but had no luck.” He was from Macon, Ohio, this fella. He told us that he planned to scale the perch he’d caught that day in the bathtub in his room and then fry them up at the Browns tailgate party the next morning.
We had a glorious time in Cleveland that weekend, and we managed to enjoy our stay at the University Suites. The hotel bar served some of the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, and the kitchen stayed open past two—which jives quite well with my lifestyle. We met great people in that bar both days, before and after our forays into the city core.
Toward the end of our weekend, after we’d left the room and were walking down the hall to the elevator, I noticed a pair of jeans discarded in the hall garbage can. I recommend the University Suites to everyone, but it’s certainly not for everyone.
Now not too far from Sochi, in the grand geograhical scheme of things, there’s another hotel—Hotel Gerlach (pronounced Gurlock). This one is at the foot of Mount Gerlach, in the Carpathians of Slovakia. The accommodations at the hotel are Spartan, to say the least. To give you an idea, shower curtains there are BYO. On the bright side, if you’re so inclined, they do ply the sex trade with impressive vigour.
I arrived there at night, in an ominous thunderstorm, and with the mountain backdrop and the hotel’s “Cold War” architecture, the scene made me feel like Jonathan Harker arriving at Dracula’s castle. (Castle Gurlock?)
Harker is the perfect example for what I mean when I say travel is what you make of it. When he turned up at Dracula’s pad, his fate seemed doomed, but he didn’t let that ruin his new gig abroad. He made the most of it. He eventually came to terms with the fact that his host, and new boss, was an evil, old, blood fiend who swings both ways when he’s jonesin’ for a fix, and got down to business. You either let that ruin your trip—riding the fear and loathing out to meet your catastrophic end—or you make it work for you. You find your rhythm and turn romance hero—navigating labrynths, battling demons, and spitefully enjoying the voyage.
I’m envious of the journalists in Sochi, and not just because they’re witnessing the 22nd Winter Olympiad and history in the making, but for the the cultural experience. Awkward and uncomfortable experiences with queerly built bathroom facilities aside, this is a great opportunity to enjoy the local history and culture of the region.
I envision myself in a makeshift press bar in Olympic village, typing away on my laptop while sipping full-bodied vodka or chacha moonshine (a pomace brandy from nearby Georgia), taking a break now and then to interview hopeful athletes and real live Cossacks—who, like me, are there to grab the reigns of this international, five-ring circus and ride it for all its worth.
And after each rough day of observing, cheering, engaging, writing, embibing, I’d wash it all down with a bowl of Armenian clay-pot stew and wood-fired Lavash bread. Then, when it’s all over, I’d spend an extra day or two nearby, contemplating and writing by the sea, and enjoying that peaceful mountain air. This has long been a resort for the Russian rich-and-famous (*cough* politicians) after all.
I have very high hopes for Sochi, and we’ve got just two weeks to really get to know her.
“Hot. Cool. Yours.”
(photos credited to Business Insider and the Associated Press, www.bnp.org.uk, and abstract.desktopnexus.com)