'What can you do? It's Russia'

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SOCHI, Russia -- When I arrived in Sochi from halfway around the world, my room wasn't ready. They were housing us in an isolated compound of dormitories. The reception room spilled over with reporters from every corner of the known sport-o-sphere. They were waiting for rooms. Their laptops were cracked open, and they were typing up their personal agonies. Things looked bleak.

I joined the line to check in. "See that guy over there?" The man ahead of me was pointing to someone teetering on the arm of a sofa, trying to stay awake. "It's been three hours, and he's still waiting for a room key." The man identified himself as a reporter with the Arizona Republic, and said he had just flown in from Phoenix. "You gotta be Zen about all this," he cautioned. Although I knew Phoenix to be subtropical, just like this Winter Olympics city, five years in Russia had convinced me that a calm Arizona attitude had no application in Eastern Europe.

I barged to the front of the line, where a woman named Katya leaned in closely. She said, "We can't give you your room because the builders haven't finished that building yet." Adventure is possible only in uncertainty, and this makes Russia a place of great exploit and escapade. I looked around the reception area at all those sportswriters in their Zen and their suffering. They didn't know how good they had it.

I headed to Arkady's place. He and I were friends from Moscow, where I used to live and work. Arkady wasn't the only one who had migrated to Sochi for the Olympics, here to make quick business. His business was solving problems for people, though his own affairs could have used some looking after. In the morning, after the screams had woken me up, a sewage pipe burst in Arkady's kitchen.

Arkady meandered downstairs, which now smelled less like a rose than it could have. I read aloud, scanning reports from my colleagues, who were deep into their initial Sochi adventures. Someone had nearly fallen through an uncovered manhole. Two TV repair guys walked in on a woman as she was exiting a hotel-room shower. One dorm had been evacuated at dawn for no communicated reason. Arkady frowned. "Come on," he said. "Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Nobody's perfect. This kind of stuff happens everywhere."

I countered: "You would expect the Olympics to be a step above, wouldn't you? Russia wants to change international perception -- not reinforce it."

We got into Arkady's S Class and he fired up the engine. "Uh, have you ever been to Detroit?" he asked. We cruised out of his garage, past a few stray dogs that were nibbling bugs from one another's fur. We made the highway. Cops were standing on the side of the road, stationed every 50 yards. I guess they were on the lookout for terrorists. Ours was the only car on the road. It felt as though all traffic had been cleared for us, as if we were jogging with the Olympic flame. The Games were about to start. I watched as Olympic Stadium and the main Olympic hockey venue rose in the near distance, moons on the horizon. "Yeah, I've been to Detroit," I said to Arkady. "But they're not hosting the Olympics."

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