Ruski Gorky Ski Jump Center

One morning during the last week of Olympic Games, I got up at 6:30am after the better part of 3 hours sleep to catch a ride back up the mountain to Ruski Gorki Ski Jump Center. I’d not yet had a chance to see an actual event at a venue other than my own, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Jumped. Hah.

Just before the competition began, I looked up to see Lucie, the flower ceremony coordinator for my venue walking my way. We both had to be back at the Iceberg Skating Palace for figure skating that evening, so we arranged to meet back up for the train ride down the mountain after lunch. A great surprise that meant I had a Russian translator if needed.

Did you watch any of the ski jumping? It’s insane. These people launch off a ramp at 100km/hr and fly through the air for what seems like forever before sticking a landing and catching a lift to the top of the mountain to do it all over again. I’m not sure if TV does it justice, but the height and steepness of the ramp is nuts. They are seriously flying.

Like seriously.

On the train back down to Olympic Park, Lucie asked me about several stereotypes. Like how all Americans can afford iPhones and can borrow money and don’t travel. That one seemed to pop up a lot; that Americans don’t travel. The implication being that Americans make enough money to travel as much as they want, but are so self absorbed that they don’t care enough about the rest of the world to do so.

Generalizations and stereotypes are full of exceptions and caveats, but there are certainly aspects that ring true. After trying to explain that there were plenty of poor Americans and America is a giant country to travel within itself, etc, I settled on this sad response:

A lot of Americans have different priorities. The ability to easily go into colossal amounts of debt has transformed us into a society that places more value on big houses and nice cars; a concept foreign to a people who have no access to the bank’s money.

Under the guise of ownership and security, we prioritize acquiring things over experiences.

Kid on TrainAt some point during this conversation, I noticed a young boy who had sat down across the aisle, eavesdropping on our conversation. When the train stopped, he stood up, faced me, and in slow, deliberate English said “Have…a…nice…day.”

He’d been sitting there for 15 minutes just to hear us speak English. He was extremely curious about America, so we talked for a bit & I asked him several questions. He shyly did his best to answer, with a little help from Lucie. He’d taken a train for 3 days from Siberia with his mom to see the Olympics and watched the same event we’d seen that morning.

Early in the trip I was struck by how serious everyone was. You’d walk by people all day with no hint of a nod or greeting. I’d even read stories (likely fake) about how the volunteers had to go in for “Smile Training” in preparation for the Games.

When I asked about this, I was told that if a Russian person smiles at you, they’re smiling because they mean it. Unlike Americans, they don’t feel the need to smile out of politeness.

I was also told of their perception that Americans smile so much to flaunt our good dentistry. Don’t worry, America, I flashed enough yellow smiles to debunk that myth.

By the end of my trip I understood what they were saying about smiling only when they mean it. In the past few weeks I’ve seen more genuine, whole face smiles than I’ve seen in a very long time.

One day I wandered around Olympic Park for a few hours with a Russian girl named Anna who had been born in New York and currently lives in London. Her Russian history knowledge comes mostly from her grandmother who views the Soviet/Communist times as the good old days.

She says that back then you always knew you’d be provided for. Now, not so much; many people live day to day.

Towards the end of the Games I started paying attention to the stories and attitudes of my American co-workers. I began to realize how lucky I’ve been to get to spend a fair amount of time in conversation with several different people from around Russia. Although light was shone upon my incredible naivety of world history and events, many people didn’t get that experience.

It’s sad to think that so many people spent a month in Russia traveling only from the hotel to the office every day and are going to base their Russian experience on the security guard who confiscated their granola bar or laundry that wasn’t dry.

I feel very fortunate that I got to spend time with several people who provided me with so much insight and perspective. Not everyone got that chance.

After 40 hours of travel, I made it back home yesterday just in time to spend a few hours sailing in the coldest weather I’ve seen in a month. I had an incredible time in Sochi and look forward to returning next week for the Paralympic Games. For now, however, it’s good to be home.

Bo is currently based in Orange Beach, Alabama working towards checking #31 off his bucket list. If you’d like to be a part of the adventure, consider sponsoring a mile. To get more info on the curriculum, sign up here.