SOCHI, Russia -- Normally when I leave home to cover the Olympics, friends tell me they are jealous and ask whether they may come along as my assistant. This year, they instead told me they would be praying for me. One good friend brought over an emergency pack that included a blanket, body warmers and a respirator dust mask, then apologized for forgetting to include rosary beads.
No one volunteered to carry my bags.
Security concerns may be elevated for the 2014 Sochi Games but they are really as much of an Olympic routine as bribery, corruption and cost overruns. For the 2004 Games in Athens, our crew was required to attend an all-day security briefing and first aid course in which we were instructed to always carry a "grab bag'' with a respirator, flashlight, passport and enough money to buy a plane ticket home.
This time, we were given phone apps that will allow our security firm to track our location, warned about our emails being read and our tech devices hacked, and instructed to wipe our computers for malware upon our return home.
In other words, these Olympics are a little like going to Target during the Christmas shopping season or logging into your Google account. The difference here is that instead of typing "spring training'' into a search engine and quickly receiving an ad for a hotel package in St. Petersburg, Fla., I will receive an ad for a hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Speaking of hotels, there are multitudes of stories about the housing situation here, most very funny, some genuinely disturbing and others that are just plain petty. My room is actually one of the better ones I've had at an Olympics, plus our complex has a couple bars and quaint market stalls selling Russian arts, crafts and souvenirs. Still, it's not comforting to learn a friend came home to an unlocked, open door or to hear that Big Brother might really have a video camera mounted in your bathroom.
But hey, the wine in the bar is only 30 rubles, or just 85 cents a glass. Seriously, 85 cents! And it's not bad wine.
I wonder how much of the fears and complaints stem from preconceived notions of Russia that date back to Soviet times and the Cold War. Russia and our relationship with the country -- including mutual Olympic boycotts -- certainly add a rich layer of intrigue to these Games, though that's probably truer for aging writers than the athletes.
After all, there are very few Olympians old enough to recall when the former Soviet Union existed. Heck, when it comes to Evil Empires, some Olympians are too young to remember when the Yankees were winning World Series after World Series instead of the Red Sox.
As you might have heard, there is a new world order.
U.S. pairs skater Simon Shnapir was born in Russia and moved to the U.S. as an infant. American figure skater Polina Edmunds' mother is from Russia, where she met Edmunds' father when he was a tourist teaching English in Moscow. "I don't speak Russian too well but I can speak OK. And I fully understand it,'' Edmunds said. "My mom and my grandmother will talk to me in Russian and I respond in English.''