Reporter's Notebook: Sochi games show world how Russia has changed

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I am always a little nervous flying an airline I don't know, especially when there is a heightened terror alert, so I booked my Siberian Airlines flight to Sochi with a little trepidation.

But the flight landed without a hitch, and soon yet another concern proved unfounded when I was met by smiling, helpful young volunteers with impressive English skills. Having been a student in the Soviet Union for a semester, I still have memories of surly service.

"They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work," Russians would say back in those days, when the communist regime provided scant incentive to hustle.

But being volunteers, these airport greeters weren't paid. And they were hustling. I asked if a particular bus could go a little off-piste to show me something within the so-called "ring of steel" in the Olympic zone.

"Sure, why not?" the volunteer assigned to me said. He accompanied me out to the bus stop, where he conveyed my request to the driver.

Later, when I got off the bus at what I thought was my hotel within the secure zone, I found there are two hotels with the same name, owned by one company. One has four stars, the other three.  When I gave the woman at the front desk my name, she hemmed, hawed, and typed away, only to finally look up politely.

"Sorry, but you are in the 3-star," she said.

Apparently, that is how the two are differentiated by drivers and workers in Sochi - the 4-star and the 3-star. Not particularly egalitarian, but the new Russia loves stars - the more the merrier.

My room was in the 10th building of the 3-star, so it was quite a vast compound. I'd heard about various complaints from athletes and journalists about accommodations, but the water in my room ran clear. The lighting was dim, but that was quickly remedied by an electrician who came running over, and my room was fine for the duration of my stay.

It has been an Olympics of scandals, or rumors of scandals - the most expensive ever, lots of corruption in the handing out of contracts, and people displaced to make way for new construction. There was also the anti-gay legislation and the stories of stray dogs being culled. All against a background of terrorist threats from an Islamist insurgency.

But a lot of people in Sochi deserve credit for their good cheer in this exotic micro-climate where the balmy beaches and palm trees are separated by an hour's drive up to dramatic snow-capped mountains. The coastal Olympic cluster is actually in a city called Adler near Sochi. And the mountain cluster, where the cold-weather events are held, is up in Krasnaya Polyana. On a radio show this morning, commentators discussed the fact that the place hasn't decided whether or not it's a summer or winter resort, and it's not clear, they said, what of the new construction will be needed, loved or used in post-Olympic life.

At breakfast in my hotel one morning, I watched the chef bustling around, directing the replacement of the bacon trays, topping up the jugs of juices. I wondered if these guys had all been demoralized by the hype over poor conditions in the hotels. Being a sucker for a good Russian breakfast, I told the chef how much I had enjoyed his food. 

He asked me where I was from as he beamed under his towering white chef's hat.

"That means a lot, coming from someone who is from New York, but lives in London," he said. "You know, we are very proud of the fact that much of our food is produced locally, even privately. We have good produce. I even make my own wine, from our grapes. If you have time, I will invite you to my home to meet my family and try our wine."

For sure, the essence of Russian hospitality can easily get lost amidst all the other Sochi issues and headlines. One of the drivers I met was an aging taxi driver from Siberia who had jumped on the opportunity to spend a couple months working the Olympic routes. He was chipper, eager to meet and mix with the international crowds flocking to Sochi. The only problem was, he didn't speak English. He told me, in Russian, that he had long ago been tempted to learn English, but then figured he would never really need it.

"Language is the most powerful weapon in the war for peace," he said wistfully.

If that's true, hospitality like that being shown to international visitors to Sochi is a close second.