Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sochi 2014 Olympic games

We made it! 
It has been now 3,5 years since I first moved to Moscow and at the time the Winter Olympics in Sochi seemed really far away.  In fact I never thought I would stay in Moscow that long, and I turned out to be correct.
But we made it! 3,5 years of Moscow-Cyprus ups and downs which finally led to this merry event which was a practical but also mental goal for my husband and I.
This last weekend, co-exsiting not entirely unintentionally with V-day, hubs and I landed in Sochi in the midst of the Olympic events ready to witness Russian Olympic joy and sorrows firsthand.
Hot Water sign in the hotel bathroom. Gotta love the irony
Tons of criticism leaked from the International press about the unfinished Olympic venues, hotels and the lack of basic facilities. I honestly think people don't travel enough. If the did, they will know that in big part of the world disorganization, corruption and lack of "basics" such as potable tab water are part of everyday life.  In my view in Sochi things were actually pretty good. To everyone that asked me, there was hot water and plenty of it. Also a very good breakfast in our soviet style hotel in downtown Sochi. The fact that it was sunny and 17 C spring like weather certainly contributed to the olympic mood.
view from the room at Marins Park Hotel Sochi
But since this is Russia and things in Russia are either really really good or really really bad, there were moments of frustration. Let me get to that later.
One of the definite positives about the overall organization of the Games was the transportation. The Russians know their trains as much as they know their subway which in Moscow transports nearly 10M commuters a day!
Free of charge brand new trains were running every 10 minutes between Sochi, Adler and the rest of the villages around. In peak hours it was a bit crowded, but also great opportunity to strike a conversation with fellow spectators and feel the atmosphere.
And what an atmosphere that was. Seeing the Olympic fire for the first time made my my heart skip a beat. Huge beautiful futuristic buildings around, palm tree sand snowy mountains, and the mighty sun. It looked like a scene from Elysium.

Since we had limited amount of time, our choice of events was very much focused on skating where the Dutch had the most chances to win medals. The first competition we saw was 1500 m Men's speed skating.
Speed-skating is a very strategic sport and has a lot to do with psychology which is one of the reasons I like it. It's in a way sort of running on ice and since I am big on running, one more reason to enjoy watching it so much. It was a rather dramatic event for the Netherlands.
Each country is allowed to have no more than 4 skaters and of course the Dutch had 4. The first 3 guys started earlier on and did very well, but towards the end there outperformed. The forth Dutch skater, Koen Verweij was the last chance for a medal for the Dutch team. And man, did he give Everything in that race! He was focused, fast, determined and just set straight for the gold. The final result was at the screen and yes, he was first. And then.... the disappointment came. With 0,0003 of a second he was apparently slower that then Brodka, the Polish skater. I felt very sad for Verweij. As a sportsman he must have trained his entire life for this event and knowing you have missed by this incredibly small difference. Sometimes I feel that technology progress such as producing a device that can determine speed in such a precision doesn't actually do us any good when we can't act from a purely human perspective and just admit that the Pole and the Dutch both deserved that medal just as much.

Understandably Verweij was really upset when the announcement was made. For a while he sat alone on the side of the ice ring until he got a warm hug from another Orange-clad member of the team. He was soon surrounded. I can imagine that everyone shared the same sentiment. 1/3000 of a bloody second!!! Anyway, Koen manned up and showed his brave face at the flower ceremony that followed immediately after the race. I didn't see him next day at the Women's 1500 m despite that most of the others skaters was there to support the ladies. We are all human after all.

After the race we met an old friend of mine, American lady living in Moscow who volunteered at the Games. It was great to see an insider's view and hear some great stories. Also to remember the our marathon on ice we ran together in Siberia on the Baikal lake of which I mentioned before. We learned that that same morning she interviewed for the Today show, link  here. We also met the coach of the American Women Hokey team, who turned out to be a lovely company and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in a quirky Russian restaurant among athletes from just about everywhere in the world and their families.
The next day we managed to watch part of the Russia vs Slovakia Hokey Game in our Russian Hokey jerseys (picture above) and then quickly changed in orange for the finals of Women 1500 m speed skating. You gotta be fast at the Olympics ;)
The event was packed and atmosphere fantastic. The Russian spectators were rather loud but not overwhelmingly and the other well presented nations were of course the Dutch but also the Americans and the Canadians.
The event went like this: Ter Morse raced, 4 second faster than anyone, left no room for assipration for the gold medal. Then the other 3 Dutch ladies lined up at number 2,3 and 4. The rest of the world followed. Made me so very proud.
Also I partially lost my voice to cheer for Ireen, Marrit and Lotte.
Jorien Ter Morse, the number 1, was too fast, I did not have time to cheer for her...

All in all, amazing experience to watch all the  going to the Dutch skaters. Here is a selfie of our happy orange cheering duo.

And now let me mention a few points of frustration. 
First of all the security solutions. Only in Russia you will be presented with only one point of entrance in the Olympic Park albeit a pretty big one. Imagine, a huge area of probably about 10 sq. km with only one entry point for spectators. Right next to the Skating venue was an exit which we badly needed to use to catch the plane to Moscow but they won't let us because it was staff only. 
But this is an Exit people! And exit means that one already had passed security and has been in the venues so if a terrorist would mean to do any harm they would have long done it! So we had to sprint with our travel bags 3,5 km to the exit to catch a taxi, arriving at the airport soaked in sweat and still pounding. Fact is in Russia the comfort of the individual is easily dismissed as unnecessary and a nice-to-have rather than a must and examples of that are plentiful as I already mentioned

Then there was the queue for  the visitors pass which took 1,5 hour of valuable time in the best case scenario. You know that you will have a huge event and people need to register (btw, is this really necessary when one fills out all info already when buying tickets). But say you do need a visitors pass. Why not organize it so that there is no waiting.
Let me try to explain. Because the Russians are the most stoic people I have ever seen. They will patiently wait in any queue, or in their cars in a huge traffic jam when Putin needs to go to the airport, or for food or a drink on a Saturday afternoon in the park, or at Ikea, or for parking, basically for anything. It probably has something to do with the training they got during the Iron curtain when people had to queue for groceries all the time due to the food shortages.
And so they are used to and they are patiently waiting where my used-to-better self is trebling on the inefficiency and lack of pro-activeness of who-ever-was-responsible for that mess.

I am only going to mention one more thing with regards to critisism. Catering, namely places to eat or have a drink. In Russia is really tricky with alcohol, but at a major even like that not to have a proper Beer Hall is like going to a movie and not having any popcorn for sale. Come on! There are other ways to prevent people of getting trashed drunk.
Food wise, in short was expensive and shit. On the left is a picture of the only good thing I ate in 3 days, namely spinach-mushroom salad. All the rest was not worth mentioning. Food in Russia is generally not that great, but given the fact that Sochi is at the Caucasus, you would expect some local food which generally speaking pretty amazing. 
All in all great experience Amazing Good Bye Russia party for my husband and I. 
Let's finish with a joke. Below is the sign in the hotel bathroom. As you can see in English it just says "towel". The Russian version means something like "A towel for your beautifully scented body". The Russian clearly think the English speakers can't quite grasp it ;) 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The expat roller coaster

I haven't written anything in a while because in the last few months the family embarqued on a trip to the expat amusement park, only without the amusement part.
I often think I have a good life. My family is healthy, the kids are happy, we leave in a nice sunny place Cyprus, we are not struggling financially.
Larnaca, Cyprus

BUT when you look closely into the facts, things are not quite as good as they seem:

Separation. For various reasons described here 1,2 years ago I left Russia but my husband still works and lives in Moscow. On a good week, he spends about 36 hours with us. On a bad week, he isn't here at all. Last month due to visa complications we didn't see him for over 20 days. And then when he finally made it, it felt kind of strange to have him in the house. It wasn't his fault, he is a perfect husband and father. It's just I am used to being alone, having my own rules and routines and  here it is another person appears, with his own ideas about how things should be and start changing my rhythm.

Uncertainty about the future is probably the biggest struggle I experienced lately. When you are an expat like my husband, you usually have a contract for 2 to 5 years to work in a remote location (Russia)and after that the company is supposed to find you something else. Couple of months ago a headhunter approached my husband for a job in a new company. He wasn't looking for anything but the job seemed really good and his current company uncertain about  his future. He applied, interviewed and got an offer. He informed his bosses that he is leaving and suddenly everyone thought "wait the minute, we don't want him to leave". They offered him the option to stay and apply for a job he really wanted to have. He then dropped the external offer and decided to stay at his current company.

2 months went by without any news. 2 days ago he got informed that they found a cheaper external candidate for the role and they will hire that person. Mind you, my husband dropped a great external offer&salary increase, and they did not even interview him. Just like that, they hired someone else. There are no other ways to describe this but being majorly screwed over. Why did they stop him of accepting the external offer on a first place? He is already in a hardship location, Russia for nearly 3,5 years and we as a family apart for over a year. He has done everything he can for his company, even found and trained his successor. Why not just let him go??

What is next?
We are now back to square one. We don't know where in the world we are going to live 3 months from now. I don't know where my children are going to have their first school year. I don't know when I am going to live together with my husband again.

Of course there will be jobs he can get in his company, but after waiting so long and going into so much hardship he shall not settle for just about any job. After all we both invested in his career so much, including sacrificed mine. And then..
Being an expat one you often think about one day going back "home"? But...
Where is home?
Home is not Moscow where we lived for 2 years but it never really felt like home, yet all our things are still in Moscow. 
Not Holland where I haven't lived in 6,5 years, yet our house is still there. 
Not Bulgaria, because I haven't lived there for 12 years, but that's where I come from. 
It's not Portland, Oregon where we lived for 3 years, but that's where most our friends are. 
and it's not Cyprus where I live now, although this place does feel like home. 

I have no regrets of the choices we made. But life hasn't been easy, it isn't now and I don't think it will ever be. Greatest thing is we enjoy change and are not afraid of moving around. One day I hope we get to live in Asia. But anywhere works really.

One thing is for sure, my husband missed the Christmas concert of our children second year on the row. I certainly hope it's not going to be a third one.
I was there, with 39 C fever. You know, life... :) You just put on your brave face and move on.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Eastern Anatolia

Of all places, I am currently in Dogubeyazit, East Anatolia about 50 km from the Iranian border and just as far away from Armenia. It's another world.
The city is famous for two things, starting point for climbing mythical mount Ararat (slightly tougher than Kilimanjaro, and a bit easier that Elbrus) and Ishak Pasha Palace. 
Initially I thought to climb the summit or at least give it a good go up to base camp. I mean after Elbrus I am not in a rush. I did not realize that since the mountain is a military zone, all trekking is under strict regulations, requires permit arranged far in advance, joining a group, and most of all time I did not have.

So it was time to settle for the cultural trip.

I didn't finish this post so I didn't post it at the time. Now at home in Cyprus I finally have some time to reflect on Eastern Anatolia.
I have been to many places around the world, but I never felt so far away.

It's a totally different world, where men and women have totally different roles than what I am used to. It's peaceful and safe environment as long as you follow the society rules. I am not sure what happens if you don't and I don't really want to find out.
Few examples: it took me a while to realize that there is a reason why I am the only woman having dinner in a restaurant among several dozen local men. It's not because women don't eat out. But they do so at the dedicated for them places. Each restaurant has a second floor where women go to eat together with their chaperon, either a male family member or an elderly female relative.

Streets of Van, Turkey

streets of Van, Turkey

More: It was 40° but the local ladies are wearing closed shoes, long skirts, long buttoned up trench coat and a headscarf. And strangely enough they don't seem to suffer much. Either they are used to, or in typical female fashion, they know how to look pretty and pretend it doesn't hurt, similar to walking in stilettos. Or probably a bit of both. 

On the last day, after a few days in Dogubeyazit which is Very conservative, back in the main town Van, I thought I put some what "liberal dress" which showed my legs from under my knees. Faux Pas at its best. You just don't do that over there. No one acted disrespectful, only group of passing women will bypass me and look back in a mix of pity and confusion: "Poor foreigner, she forgot to put trousers under that shirt, they don't teach them well in the West, ay-ay-ay." Or : "Look daughter, if you don't 
behave you might turn into a silly woman like that, showing her ankles in public like it's MTV or so".

Society in Eastern Anatolia is on the conservative side. Light miles away from the latest Miley Cyrus scandal, or anything remotely ostentascious. The region is very poor, but people a very hospitable and not in the commercial way you see in Istanbul or along the coast. As a woman I did not feel anyone looking at me in lustily or making strange remarks, there is a lot of respect in society for the individual.  As a tourist, you are treated as a rare but dear bird. Favorite pass time of the locals seems drinking strong ultra sweetened black tea and take their time. There is nothing to hurry about, time has stopped 


On the other hand there is feeling of mutual misunderstanding lingering at all times. You just know if things go wrong for some reason, things will go very very wrong. That feeling slightly increased while realizing on the way between two cities how heavily militarized the whole region is.


Naturally, I hit the sites in Van and in the Van salt lake : 
Akdamar island, lake Van

Armenian Church at Akdamar Island, lake Van

ferry to Akdamar island

Armenian church, Akdamar Island

Armenian Church, Akdamar Island
fortress Van, Turkey


Van Fortress

And even more in Dogubeyazit:

Ishak Pasha palace

All in all, very refreshing trip in a very different
travel destination. Only this last view was worth the whole trip:
Ishak Pasha Palace

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


 Dear Mountain,
I want to offer my deepest gratitude for allowing me to crawl on your magnificence.
Yours truly,
Humble humanoid ant

When I was first writing my Bucket list back in 2011 I thought I add climbing a mountain or two because it seemed fun.  I have no previous mountain climbing experience and my trekking expeditions are in numbers less then the fingers of one hand.
Now that I think about it, I remember them vividly. One, when oblivious to my aversion to physical exercise self at the time age 18, a boyfriend-wanna-be took me to a day long hike in the Balkans. Wrong shoes, wrong expectations and awful big amount of mosquitos prevented me to take full enjoyment in that adventure. Second one, age 24, South of France, with bf at the time, flat terrain, 6 hours total but at 40 C and we started at 11 am! Arguments ensued. And my shoes were wrong again. Third, age 34, Norway, running shoes, 2 hours up and down to the Pulpit Rock, I practically ran the whole thing, great experience.
So, modest experience, pretty much close to none.

And we are talking the Seven Summits here.
But I signed up for Elbrus, so I had to do it.
Much to my joy and even relief, hubs decided to tag along.
June 22, 2013, we arrive at Mineralnye Vody tiny airport, greeted by our Russian mountain guide, age 22, 48 kg girl. I was more expecting a 50-60 y old, big Mountain Bear instead, but Dasha proved to be solid. 2 more guys in the group, both with lots of experience. Here again as in most sports I am picking up lately, ladies are far less in numbers than guys. In our tour, 2 groups, 9 people total I was the only female.
Day one, we arrive in Cheget village in The Caucasus and check in a hotel where we would be staying for 3 nights. Decent enough, hot water in abundance, great local food, pleasant staff, no wifi but 2 min away wifi possible in any of the restaurants on the square. Amazing views.
view from the hotel on arrival

Cheget village

Day 2, early rise, first acclimatization hike to Cheget itself. Fairly easy yet my shoes were not completely broken in hence the blisters. Besides I had too many cloths, lesson learned.
Day 3, Treskol, a bit higher and a bit longer. Beautiful view of Elbus from there. So far so good, the 4-5 hour sessions seemed to be going all right. All 4 in our group seemed to be in pretty much the same decent shape. We briefly met the other group, 5 Brazilian water Polo guys age range from 19 to 50 y old, seemed ok.
Day 4, off to the Barrels. Last lift didn't work so we were packed in a pre-historical car which I thought would never make it all the way up. It turned out it didn't so we carried all our gear and food for 3 days up. Another acclimatization hike to 4200 m. You could feel it was different by the fact that it's much more difficult to breath than down in the valley. Besides the snow makes every movement much slower and harder. It was windy and cold and one could only see Elbrus for a second or two before another cloud came. I started to feel slightly nervous about the whole thing.
The barrels

The accommodation in the Barrels was ok. I don't understand why people complain, you are up in the mountain, what do you expect. At least you don't have to put up a tent. Someone said they saw a mouse, I didn't see any.
Toilette was shit. Apparently voted the world nastiest outhouse by some American magazine. Not going to the describe it, it's just shit, especially if you have to go during the night as I do and it's -20 C. We had food cooked for us, really good. We got a bit too many soups for everyone's likeing, but then again, that's probably the best thing you can eat up there. I did not feel too hungry for some reason. I think I slimed down a size over the whole trip.
Day 5, Serious business. Pastukhov Rocks acclimatization climb. More like acclimatization crawl for my part. The altitude really took it's tall towards the end. I felt like a heavy smoker climbing Burj Khalifa with a 20 kg weights in each ankle. It felt so great to seat down at the top and enjoy this view:
View from Pastukhov Rocks, Elbrus
I am not sure where exactly, but during that climb the entire group burned terribly and my case was the worse.

Day 6 After a night in the barrel with Slovak roommates who set off at 2 am to summit, I woke up only to discover my face swollen in almost allergic reaction to the sun-burnt. I was literarly scared when I saw myself in the mirror. But my lips... that was the real shocker. They were pretty much double the size  and ready to burst in sores. The doc in the camp said I had a second degree lip-burn, only thing to do is moisturize and let it heal with no sun exposure. Which meant to wear a face mask pretty much all the time. That will not be funny as it seemed that we will have a very sunny weather on ascend day. It crossed my mind to go down and give up... But I didn't.
Hubs had continuous headache, shortness of breath and overall weakness already since arrival in the Barrels although he made it in flying colors to the Pastukhov Rocks. But he decided to go down. So I was on my own with the guys and Dasha. It did cross my mind again to give up and join him. But I didn't. We had a relaxed rest day. Did some yoga with our Brazilian friends, chatted a bit, early dinner and I was asleep at 9.30 pm since wake up time was set at 2 am.
Day 7. Ascend day.
Actually more like Ascend Night. The big Party.
My gear was ready the night before, neatly set on one of the empty beds. I had the whole barrel for myself, real luxury ;) Btw, luxury and the Barrels can't really coexist in the same sentence but who goes to climb mountains to look for luxury.
I slept at least 4 solid hours so I felt pretty good. Headed on to breakfast, all happy with my eggs. I was ready to go. Of course I was scared. Pitch dark outside and really cold, everyone using their headlamps to tie up crampons strap ice axes and poles.
Our group shrank even more. The British guy gave up with some altitude and alaregy problems and so the final count consisted it the German guy, and Dasha and I plus all the Brazilians and their two guides.
We all crammed up in the snow cad and set off for the Rocks. 30 min later out in the cold, I shivering-ly was collecting my gear. It was dark, extremely cold and the path look horribly steep. Especially for my grossly uncomfortable rented plastic boots which were at least 2 kg each. The snow was absolutely frozen. There was only one positive side, since it was dark you could not see crevasses.
Is this is actually positive? ;)
We started slowly with Dasha and I and the German ahead of the other group. We were overall faster for some reason, so the distance between us slowly increased. The route goes on the side of the west peak which, after the initial steep incline, is relatively flat traverse. We walked without talking or breaking for about 2 hours. I was thinking about summer in cyprus to try distance myself mentaly from the fact that my right arm started loosing sensitivity from the cold. Eventually the sun appeared, most startling sunrise I have ever seen.
Sunrise view from the saddle, on the way to Elbrus West Peak

We reached the saddle and stopped for a break. I swallowed an energy gel with some hot water. My nutrition for teh whole ascend and descend included half small a chocolate bar, two energy gels, 500 ml of tea and handfull of M&Ms. Felt just right, not too much not too little.
In front of us there was only one more group, so we hurried up for the final, a real steep ice axe friendly part. It was probably 70 degrees and you could now see that if you start rolling down it will take a while more someone to find you, or what's left of you anyway. I just didn't look down much. You just follow the path I guessed. It took us a good hour and a bit to climb, but we were ahead of the other groups and finally saw the summit. A beautiful sunny clear day
Above the clouds and it all looked magnificent.
It took a while for me to realize I have done it.
I climbed the highest point in Europe.
It was a calm peaceful feeling, a silent victory.
Mt Elbrus Peak 5642 m

View from the top

Then it was time to get back. From my little experience so far, that is the hardest part. You use your adrenalin and motivation for the ascend but that runs out after you reach your goal. After that it's all discipline and optimizing whatever energy is left. Going down can be extremely painful on the knees, calves, ankles. And in my case I was pretty much walking with torture devises of a boots.
It took me a total 3,5 hours to get down. The German guy hurried up and was back in less than 3 hours I believe. Overall we summited and came back in 7,5 hours, which was by far the fastest of our guide's 20 summits to date. I was very proud, especially since it was my first time. I think what helped us a lot was the perfect weather conditions, fact that we were in a good shape and we did not take long breaks.
We came back early enough so we decided to go down to the hotel instead of spending one more night in the Barrels. Reunited with hubby it was time to enjoy a nice glass of red, or two and eat a lot of food.  A lot of food. A lot.. :) Fun night.
Day 7, we went for another 4 hour post-summit trek.
And that was it, back to Mineralyie Vody and Back to Moscow, to civilzation... Actually I am entirely sure about the later. I felt that the mountain life was somewhat better than what we know, more real, grand, honest.
Up on teh mountain I though I would never climb again. When were down first thing I googled was Damavand climb, and Kili and I don't know what. I am already thinking about next climb

happy, terribly sun-burned