Saturday, August 9, 2014
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An odyssey, from Philadelphia to Sochi

A woman and two children hold a Russian flag while posing for a photograph in front of the Olympic cauldron during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Julio Cortez/AP)
A woman and two children hold a Russian flag while posing for a photograph in front of the Olympic cauldron during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Julio Cortez/AP)

SOCHI - That's the last time I let Phileas Fogg make my travel plans.

I know what you're thinking: "Uh-oh, here comes another Ugly-American-Sportswriter-Can't-Find-a-Starbucks-Overseas diatribe."

You're not entirely wrong to assume that. We sportswriters, after all, do love to complain.

Press-box food. Delayed flights. Grumpy interviewees. Griping about it helps fill all the voids - those inevitable waits for games to start and showers to end, for phone calls to be returned and airport security lines to move.

More coverage
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  • Ours is a kvetch-as-kvetch-can world.

    Typically, we confine those complaints to each other or perhaps our spouses. Occasionally, though, journalism demands that the wider world know.

    Which brings us to my journey to Sochi, on which I encountered more rings of hell than Dante.

    On Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. I walked out of my front door in Malvern. At 5 a.m. Friday, Sochi time, I tripped through the doorway of my Russian apartment.

    Tuesday's departure was a last-minute thing. I was originally scheduled to leave Wednesday, but the forecast of a winter storm that day led me to switch the Leg 1 flight to Toronto.

    Arriving in Toronto at noon, I discovered that the snowstorm scheduled there on Wednesday would be more significant than the one I'd fled in Philly.

    Thankfully, such winter conditions are of little concern to Canadian airports. Few flights were delayed, even fewer canceled.

    I reached the Austrian Airlines ticketing desk at noon, just a tad early, it turned out, for a 6 p.m. fight to Vienna. So I schlepped my two suitcases and a leaden carry-on bag to a terminal restaurant, where an overpriced Wolfgang Puck salad tasted much like the famed chef's last name.

    Returning to the counter at 2, I paid a $100 extra-bag fee, passed through a lengthy security line, and began four hours of wandering aimlessly through corridors and duty-free shops.

    I boarded my flight for Vienna, Austria, on time, but deicing delayed takeoff by an hour. This was troubling. An hour was exactly how long my ill-conceived itinerary had left me between arrival time and a flight to Kiev, Ukraine, I couldn't miss.

    The eight-hour trans-Atlantic flight passed easily, which is more than I can say for the in-flight meal.

    Reaching Vienna, I raced through the terminal, rapidly negotiating another security checkpoint and barely making my flight to Kiev. After a 101/2-hour layover , a bus pulled up to the gate and, in the company of what seemed to be the entire Ukranian wrestling federation, I boarded the plane for Sochi. It was 11 p.m.

    A few hours later, from the lofty perspective of a 737, Sochi appeared, a twinkling flame on the edge of vast darkness. In the still waters of the bordering Black Sea, the resort's coastal lights shimmered fetchingly to a weary traveler.

    Inside the airport, even at 3:30 a.m., there were plenty of Olympic volunteers to help.

    Much to my relief, my two bags appeared relatively early on the carousel. I made it through customs with nary a question from the Russian bureaucrat who otherwise thoroughly scrutinized my passport and Olympic credential.

    Loading everything onto a luggage cart, I was about to get my official Olympic accreditation when a security guard in military uniform pulled me aside. He had seen something suspicious on the X-ray image of my baggage.

    Yes, I was packing a large tube of toothpaste, technically a travel violation. But if that's what precipitated this 4 a.m. crisis, it was going to be a long three weeks.

    Turns out it wasn't my Colgate that concerned him. It was my Flomax.

    Though legally prescribed and in its original pharmacy-issued container, there was something about my prostate medication he didn't like. Philosophically, of course, I shared his distaste.

    Though he spoke no English, he removed the bottle and appeared to be reading the prescription details. Unsatisfied still, he lifted it up to the light as if he were studying an Ebola-virus slide.

    All the while, in a language he couldn't understand, I was trying to explain to him that while relief from an enlarged prostrate was wonderful, nobody was getting high on the stuff.

    Eventually, a colleague of the guard's arrived. He too examined the bottle closely before whispering something in Russian. At that point, the first guard quickly handed it back to me with a look of disgust.

    I can only imagine what had been said.

    That unpleasantness completed, a new credential around my neck, and a bus schedule in my mouth - my hands were tied up with the two suitcases, the leaden carry-on, and the Flomax bottle - I found a Russian transportation desk, where I was told that if I missed the soon-to-depart 4 a.m. bus, I'd have to wait another hour.

    Spotting a distant lot crowded with buses, I ran there as quickly as I was able, given my encumbrances. There I encountered a driver and a shabby companion whom I assumed was an Olympic volunteer having a bad hair day.

    Neither man spoke English, but because my residence had been circled on the schedule's map, the volunteer understood where I wanted to go. He communicated the destination to the driver and signaled for me to get on board the otherwise-empty vehicle. Breathless but thankful, I complied.

    It wasn't long until we reached the media-residence complex, a cluster of large apartment houses framed by the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.

    I was supposed to be in Building 18, a fact that soon became troubling when the map at the complex's entrance showed only 14 buildings, numbered 1 through 14.

    I tried to explain my problem to the guard there, but he too spoke no English. With great difficulty and mounting frustration, he directed me to a reception area in Building 3. Inside, I approached the front desk, where the man tending it looked at me as if I had two heads.

    "Checking in," I said, my pleading tone perhaps one that only a man who hadn't slept in 40 hours could muster. "Checking in."

    After minutes of gazing at me quizzically, he replied.

    "Bar," he said, pointing to several shelves of vodka and cheap whiskey behind him. "Bar."

    The actual reception desk was around the corner. There, a nice female clerk explained to me, with a logic left over from the Soviet era, that Building 18 actually was Building 9. If only my stay in Kiev could have been halved so easily.

    After a few minutes and a few forms, I had my key and a bellboy/bus driver to escort me to Building 9.

    Having heard and read all the horror stories about unfinished buildings with nonfunctioning elevators and rooms that lacked clean, hot - and sometimes even running - water, I was relatively pleased with the room I fell into.

    As I discovered, much to the bellboy's delight, it apparently is a well-accepted tenet of Russian construction to extend the doorjamb across the entranceway floor, leaving an inch-high hurdle that, at 5 a.m., Edwin Moses would have had difficulty clearing.

    The room looked as if it might have been burgled recently - the drapes and furniture in the sparsely decorated room were askew - but it was clean, contained a nice bed, and had both a functioning toilet and hot water, though a sign advised not to drink the latter.

    And so, my three-day, four-nation odyssey came to an end. I phoned my wife, unpacked, and collapsed into bed.

    Let the Games begin.


    ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

    @philafitz

    Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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