I like to travel.
And when I do, I seek the authentic – often to an absurd level.
When I toured Japan, I walked around one village in a white robe because to do otherwise would have been considered impolite. (It felt wonderful.)
When my girlfriend and I visited Italy, I demanded that we stop in Naples for the sole purpose of dining at the world’s oldest pizzeria. (It was delicious.)
And when I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru, I got so sick from food poisoning and altitude sickness that I had to spend two nights in a Peruvian hospital. (This one was not intentional.)
So naturally, when I got the call to go to Russia for the Olympics, I imagined numerous opportunities to scratch my authenticity itch.
After half a week, I’m still itching.
To be sure, the Olympic venues in Sochi are remarkable in many ways. The mountains are both imposing and impressive; the coastal cluster is full of fancy, brand-new arenas that look every bit as expensive as advertised.
But those sites seem more Olympian than Russian.
(I noted as much on the air Tuesday when teasing my story about the mountain cluster. “It doesn’t feel like Russia,” I said. “It feels like Utah!”)
Indeed, the beauty of the venues seem more like a catered Olympic affair than authentically Russian. The sites are stunning yet sterile, cleaned up and branded with the Sochi logo and five famous rings. And unlike the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the arenas stand so far removed from the city itself that one misses the energetic jolt of being in a dynamic downtown.
Beyond that, the lavishness represents a life that most Russian cities do not possess. Several Russian natives and volunteers told me the same thing: Sochi is intended to be an example of the “new Russia”, but most Russians don’t consider it the real Russia.
This means that finding a Russian slice of life is tougher than finding that Neapolitan slice of pizza.
But there have been glimmers. I have seemingly waged a million battles with the Russian alphabet. I flew Aeroflot Airlines to Sochi and received an all-fish in-flight meal. And my colleagues and I lunched at a Russian restaurant Tuesday, which allowed me a fresh sample of borscht.
I have three more weeks to seek out and soak in the culture. I doubt I will find, in the Olympic park, a large dose of authentic Russia.
But I might find a different brand of authenticity.
One of the unique gifts of the Olympics is how they bring together numerous cultures. During the Games in Vancouver, I encountered visitors and athletes from across the world; we shook hands, exchanged pins, and shared brief (and often language-challenged) conversations. Sometimes, if I spotted a group of people wearing jackets of other nations, I took a few seconds to study their mannerisms and watch their interactions.
The multiculturalism made those Olympics far more enriching. Think about it: how often do residents of dozens of nations get together for a communal celebration?
I am hopeful that the Sochi Games will be similar. The masses of fans have not yet arrived at the Olympic venues, but already I have made the acquaintance of several foreign reporters and volunteers. I exchanged pins with a volunteer from Iceland and an alpine skier from Ireland; in both cases, we chatted for a few minutes afterwards.
I imagine those experiences will continue as the Games go on.
But I hope those authentic Russian experiences will manage to pop up as well.
FOR MORE ON MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Checking out the coastal cluster
FOR MORE ON MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Arriving in Sochi, searching for sleep
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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.