The Olympics in Sochi have me thinking about the two weeks I spent in a Russian insane asylum. Ok, that might not be totally accurate, but it isn’t completely off the mark either. Either way, it was a memorable trip.
My company sent a team of nine to its plant in Yefremov, 320 km south of Moscow. Our adventure started before we left. Our flight out was scheduled the first Saturday of spring break. The airport was packed with families eager to escape their fifth month of Minnesota winter, but winter wasn’t done yet. Bad weather on the East Coast cancelled most flights, including ours. We had a leisurely lunch at the airport before being sent home, far less traumatic for us than for the parents who had to tell their kids they wouldn’t see Mickey today after all. In spite of a series of airline errors that put us on three separate flights the next day to JFK, the upside to the one day delay was that we were all upgraded to first class from New York to Moscow…all of us, that is, except one. I felt sorry for my colleague, though not sorry enough to give him my seat. I’d always assumed international first class was the same as domestic–what an eye opener. It wasn’t just the leg room or the reclining bed or the slippers…it was the real food with real silverware that actually tasted like food. Wow. We arrived late but rested.
The customs area at Sheremetyevo Airport is bleak. Everyone who’s mad at Edward Snowden for his disclosure of top secret NSA documents can rest assured that his stint there last summer as a stateless refugee could not have been fun. Incredibly, and in spite of the errors and chaos at departure, every piece of our luggage was waiting for us when we arrived. It was a good thing, as there were no amenities to be had where we would spend the next two weeks. On the five hour drive to Yefremov, I was amazed at how much the Russian countryside reminded me of my native Kansas, more proof that we have more in common than not.
We arrived in the modest town of 40,000 to bitter cold and snow, no improvement from Minnesota. A poor farming community, Yefremov has no hotels or restaurants. Our plant was by far the largest employer in town and a major facility for our company. To serve its continuous stream of guests, the company owned four facilities for guest housing. One was a nice and fairly new log lodge…we were not that lucky. I’d long known that one of the facilities was previously the village insane asylum, which the company converted. I was never sure if that’s where we ended up, but since that would make the best story, I never really asked. Our guest house resembled a modest house, on a snowy, pot-holed street lined with other small houses. It wasn’t a normal house as it had no living room…only a small kitchen/dining room and eight tiny bedrooms, each with their own tiny bathroom, large enough only for a twin bed. No TV, spotty internet, and no gathering place except the dining room table. At night, there was little for us to do. We had no transportation (the company van took us to and from the plant), and there was no place to go anyway. After dinner, we’d talk a little and then go to our rooms; I went straight to bed every night in a vain attempt to get warm. The heater in my room was inadequate, made worse after I learned the first day that the electrical converter made my hair dryer glow an alarming shade of red. I went to bed with wet hair every night for the next two weeks, shivering under my one blanket. There was no front desk to call to request another.
A middle-aged woman came every morning and evening to cook our breakfast and dinner. She told us her name, but spoke no other English, or so she claimed: by the end of the two weeks, we came to believe she understood much more than she let on. Our meals there and at the plant cafeteria were simple but filling, generally consisting of meat (mostly pork, sometimes chicken) and either potatoes or rice. A fellow picky eater and I became each other’s “canary”, quickly learning that if one of us liked what was being served, the other would as well. I was able to eat most of the meals, feeling guilty when I didn’t, afraid of hurting our cook’s feelings. Our Egyptian colleague who can’t eat pork didn’t fare so well. Many of us had brought food from home–we gave him a lot of it, including a share of my 48 Pop Tarts. While the team made fun of me early in the trip for that statistic, I got my satisfaction by the end as they began sheepishly asking if I still had any. By the third day, I realized the Cokes in the plant cafeteria’s cooler weren’t being refilled regularly and had done the math–there weren’t enough even for me for the whole two weeks. I’m not proud of it, but I bought all of them and stashed them in my room. I told myself I was doing the team a favor–the team didn’t want to deal with a cranky, caffeine-free me for two weeks, and I don’t drink coffee like the others. They had to have known what I did, but no one said anything. (They did get refilled before we left, relieving my guilt).
We worked for two weeks in a conference room on the 6th floor…there is no ADA in Russia, and there were no elevators. Combined with our limited food, it was an effective weight loss program. The plant employees were friendly, even taking us to dinner one evening. With no restaurant, we went to the smoke-filled Russian disco, definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We chose to make the five hour drive back to Moscow for the weekend. What a joy to sleep in a real hotel and choose my food off of a menu for two days and nights. Red Square, the Kremlin, and especially the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral were worth the drive. Half a day was enough to see it all, especially in the cold, so we spent the rest of the day in a warm Irish pub. I ordered a hot chocolate which had nearly the consistency of pudding and which came with a separate mug of hot water. I knew I should mix the two somehow, but given both mugs were full, I simply ate the pudding. It was delicious. A highlight of my day was buying a small painting from a street artist. He made sure I knew his name and let me take a photo with him. He sure wanted me to buy a second painting. I now wish I had—not because I needed a second one, but because I think he needed the $20 far more than I did.
Challenge and difficulty on that trip made our group fast friends. I got memories of a lifetime. From everything I’ve seen and read, all of the lucky souls at Sochi will be able to say the same.
“You will not grasp her with your mind
Or cover with a common label,
For Russia is one of a kind–
Believe in her, if you are able…”
–Fyodor Tyutchev, Russian poet 1803-1873