In Russia they drink vodka like milk. And we learned to adapt.
In Russia they drink vodka like milk. And we learned to adapt.
Andrei at work. A master-craftsman he was meticulous with every detail.
We arrived at Adler/Sochi airport in the Krasnodar District of Russia at one in the morning, tired, fractious and more than a little anxious. It had been a very, long day. A 28 hour day in fact, due to the crossing of several international date-lines. But Sergey was there to meet us, one very pertinent success following a long sequence of uncertainties.
When David and Stacey qualified for the Olympics back in September 2013 our first plan was to book our tickets and accommodation through CoSport, preferred partners of the British Olympic Association. Eager to get our places we logged onto their website to buy the ‘figure skating package’ only to find it was going to cost €22,000, each! After recovering from the shock we decided we’d have to cancel all hopes of attending the Sochi Olympics, but then we found an on-line advert for ‘those seeking alternative accommodation’ – and we immediately booked what was advertised as a room in a ‘warm wooden hut’ near Sochi.
Our family thought we were mad. Actually to be honest I think we thought we were mad, going to a country we didn’t know, whose language we couldn’t speak and staying with an anonymous stranger we’d found on the internet. But we absolutely wanted to go and this looked like the only way we could afford it.
During the weeks running up to our departure we had a series of calamities, none of which boded well for Sochi, to such extent I felt my nerves couldn’t cope with the pressure. I was convinced it was going to be a complete disaster. I have never packed my suitcase with so much care, because I was so worried about Russian immigration or that our bags would go missing never mind what we’d need when we got there.
But as soon as I saw Sergey, holding a banana in the air so we could identify him, I just knew everything was going to be all right. Sergey wasn’t just a figment of the internet, Sergey was a real man, and one who kept his promises.
When arriving at a strange place in the early hours you’d expect to be shown the necessary facilities and then abandoned, but this was not to be. Russian hospitality demands a convivial reception. So the first thing we saw when we opened the door was a table set with several bottles of vodka, five shot glasses and platters loaded with bite-sized snacks. And handing them around with a beaming smile was Andrei, our in-house-keeper. Because, as we soon discovered, we hadn’t booked a single room to share inside a ‘wooden hut’ but a whole house, a beautiful, chalet-style house with en-suite bedroom, kitchen, dining room and spacious lounge, all kept at a constant temperature of 28 degrees. Well the advert did promise ‘warm’.
So began the most astonishing ten days of my life. Having braced ourselves for the worst we’d landed on our feet, and had a good solid base for the helter-skelter that is the Winter Olympics. Andrei cared for us like a mother-hen, tracking down taxis, waiting-up to make supper (delicious Russian-style fried potatoes with eggs) before we fell into bed (usually later than 1am) and kept the fridge fully stocked with vodka. It emerged, as Anglo-Russian communications improved, that Andrei was engaged to build the ‘hut’ (it wasn’t quite finished on the outside) for Sergey’s son, Axiom, who lives in Moscow, just over a thousand miles north of Sochi. This didn’t deter Sergey from ringing him whenever he needed an interpreter, and even when half asleep Axiom could communicate in perfect English. It emerged several nights and many bottles later that Axiom works for a company which imports whiskey (Irish not Scots) and was formally based in London. But the point I’m making is that Sergey did his very best to make our stay memorable, even providing a Russian mobile phone so we could reach him quickly with any problems. And the fact we didn’t speak any Russian and he didn’t speak any English didn’t deter his enthusiasm we should carry it at all times. Not that we ever needed it, wherever we went, whatever we did, someone always came to our aid, whether we needed them or not. Russia was open to all nations, and their motto – ‘Hot, Cool, Yours’.
To be continued…..
‘I’ve been waiting ages for you to come back Gran’ Reuben said as he flew through the door. I wanted to tell you I saw David and Stacey on tele’. Reuben’s eyes were shining as he wriggled out of coat and cardigan and tossed them onto the floor. Oscar, responsible older (by 16 months) brother interrupted with – ‘they did their very best’. But Reuben wasn’t going to be deterred, he had seen Stacey fall badly and wanted to be sure she wasn’t hurt. And he had worried until I got home. In fact I’ve never seen him so worried.
Because we were in Sochi for the Winter Olympics our local press couldn’t get hold of us so they went to my daughter instead. Sam was working that day so they asked if they could sit with our grandchildren as they watched David and Stacey’s perform their short pairs programme at Sochi. Now although my grandchildren know what David and Stacey do they are hardly experts (age 5 and 3 and five months) but babysitting them was my son-in-law’s mother, a retired headmistress perfectly capable of controlling a reporter or two.
But I do question the integrity. My grandsons were quoted in the newspaper word for word, words they repeated as soon as they saw me because they were upset. I am angry because the reporter made them feel David and Stacey did something wrong. While anyone unfamiliar with the skating world might consider they failed because they didn’t win a medal we always knew there was never any chance of that, not because David and Stacey haven’t worked their socks off, not because they haven’t got amazing skills, but because they have done it on a shoestring, taking one lesson a day instead of five, using a choreographer once a month (if they are lucky) when the top teams have the use of several choreographers every single day they train. And it all adds up. The top Russian pair (who won Gold) receive £30,000 per month to cover their costs! We manage to scrape by, just, on £200 per week. It’s a fact that David and Stacey are the only pairs team competing at International level not fully funded by their country. So how on earth are they expected to win?
I am so pleased that at long last the British press are beginning to direct their attention to the lack of funding rather than the lack of medal success. http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/feb/11/winter-olympics-david-king-stacey-kemp
But ultimately it isn’t just the money directed towards training. The ISU is largely funded by television rights, therefore the countries where skating is popular inject the most capital. I don’t think it is any coincidence that British free skaters weren’t offered any Grand Prix competitions in the season running up to the Olympics. Taking part in a Grand Prix builds up points towards international standings. If you don’t do them you lack enough points to be at the top and worse, Grand Prix competitions make sure you are seen by the right judges? And if you haven’t been seen competing you can’t possibly score enough points no matter how well you skate, the more you are seen the better you are marked when half the marks are basically subjective!
If you are interested in the debate about judging read this article from the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/06/sports/olympics/despite-revamped-system-for-judging-figure-skating-gets-mixed-marks.html?smid=fb-share
Of course I am proud of my son and his partner, they’ve fought hard every step of the way despite overwhelming odds. And just at this moment I’d like to shoot the reporter who introduced the idea to my grandchildren that their achievement is anything less than remarkable.
And I’m not the only person to think so, http://www.buzzfeed.com/hillaryreinsberg/olympics-photos-that-will-destroy-your-faith-in-gravity?sub=2996282_2429250
January is over and done. As a month it’s one I would prefer to skip, yet it holds happy memories of past winter’s fun skiing and sledging on the Caldbeck fells. Except this year there hasn’t been much snow, nor barely any ice to speak of. Neither has it rained much more than usual – in fact the garden thinks its spring and primary shades of primulas are brightening up the borders and snowdrops dip their heads on the lawn. What I need is sunshine and with the days getting gradually longer hope hangs in the air. And that’s what January sums up for me, hope. Winter is passing, nights are getting shorter and all around me nature is sloughing off the old and being gradually re-born.
I think it’s in my genes, embedded by past generations; a hunter-gatherer instinct which long ago lost purpose yet survives in essence. Living without electricity and all the mod cons it empowers winter must have been a rum time for the ancestors. Yet archaeologists seem to be finding more and more evidence that the passing of the winter solstice was not merely crucial to Neolithic people but more widely celebrated than mid-summer. Knowing when the old year is ended and a new one about to begin must have been fundamental to surviving. Families (perhaps whole tribes) gathered near important sites like Stonehenge, some travelling hundreds of miles, to join in the annual feast. Imagine coming into the bustle and smells, feeling the heat from fires burning high into the night, the air alive with smoke and cinders, children’s voices strung with excitement, dignitaries parading their rank and authority, priests or shaman (we’ll never know which) preaching power and magic….and there must have been music and singing and the telling of tales.
Recent digs at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge have yielded up striking evidence of this ancient festival in the form of thousands of pig bones. The animals were all less than a year old when killed, and (more potently) scientific examination shows they’d been purposely fattened in the months before being slaughtered. They’ve also found pottery remains at the site from as far away as Orkney and Ireland. One archaeologist suggests that over hundreds of years the feast celebrating the winter solstice became a kind of ‘national’ symposium, a coming together of people from all over the British Isles, and even beyond.
The writer Alistair Moffat refers to our ancestors as Sea Peoples and I like to think that sums up my identity, someone who loves to wander but who also loves the sanctity of home. Next week I’m beginning a new adventure as I travel to Sochi in Russia. In a way it’s a sort of pilgrimage because I’m going for a purpose but the gathering of people from all over the world is what I believe makes the Winter Olympics extraordinarily special.
And there will be feasting and music and a telling of tales.