Leading up to the Sochi Olympics, we were most curious about what we were going to be eating and drinking in Russia. This kept our minds off the media hype.
Russians love to drink and eat. And we loved eating and drinking in Russia, too. Sharing a glass or a meal is the best way we know of getting acquainted with people. We felt so fortunate to become acquainted with Russians of every age, and from a variety of regions during the Olympic Games.
Fed on an information diet which consisted primarily of disparaging media reports on all things pertaining to Sochi, we were somewhat apprehensive. Wondering what we were going to be eating and drinking in Russia and with whom had kept our minds off much of the hype leading up to the Sochi Olympics. How did this dismal picture of conditions in Russia jibe with our romantic notions of Bacchanalian feasting from classical literature and other sources?
With which kind of Russians were we going to be eating and drinking in Russia? The exuberant flamboyant kind from which our favorite legends had sprung, or the morose, downtrodden leftovers/brash nouveau riche mafiosos the news outlets were fond of portraying? There was nothing to do but find out.
When we selected our hotel in Sochi, it was partly because we were priced out of the Olympic Village options. The entire process of finding accommodations had been scary. Nothing was available, and people were freaking out. For a time we were were considering an option to stay on one of the cruise ships the government was bringing in to deal with the huge numbers of people who were without rooms.
Fortunately, the process with the cruise ship stalled sufficiently for me to spot a listing on Booking.com. Guesthouse Deja Vu is located in a seaside neighborhood north of the Olympic Coastal Cluster in Adler. We pounced, happy to note the hotel had a restaurant attached.
Once we arrived at Deja Vu (great name, yes?) we wasted no time – we were famished and thirsty. As we took our seats in the restaurant the Opening Ceremonies were beginning on the big flat screen TV. We didn’t feel too conspicuous as the only English-speakers in the room, but it was clear we were objects of interest. The guys at the next table, in particular, watched us and we watched them, too.
Pretty soon, they slid over. The next hour or so was hilarious. We communicated with hand gestures and iTranslate. A fifth of vodka appeared with four glasses.
Rule number one when drinking vodka out in Russia: you buy it by the bottle, not the glass. And then you drink it until it’s gone, after which time you consider purchasing another. Sometimes there will be a side carton of juice-like drink. Rarely is there ice, unless you ask.
I successfully dodged this bullet by pleading I was a female lightweight. Pete went all in and paid for it the next day. In the meantime, we’d received an invitation from one of our new friends to be a guest at his home in Volgograd, which he assured us was a short drive of less than 500 miles away! We came to understand that these sorts of invitations are routinely extended when eating and drinking in Russia with new acquaintances.
The buffet style process in Deja Vu’s restaurant was typical for many of the restaurants in our Adler neighborhood. You grab a tray and point. For a non-Russian speaker, eating and drinking in Russia couldn’t be easier. The food is displayed under glass, ostensibly in warming trays. Everything we ordered was plated by the staff and then microwaved until it was piping hot. This practice was a little disconcerting. We went with the flow as we prefer hot food.
Alas, other idiosyncrasies can trip you up. The most prevalent is the lack of difference in breakfast foods. There were blintzes with sour cream and suspiciously vivid fruit toppings available from vacuum sealed cartons, but we soon tired of them. Russians routinely eat hot soups, hefty meat dishes (chicken, lamb, beef) ladled over noodles or rice, and pasta dishes like lasagna and sphagetti for breakfast. Pete learned after several days that flashing a photo of fried eggs from his iPhone got him what he wanted with a hearty “Da!” in response.
The food itself is prepared either in the kitchen in back, or by the hotel’s patriarch on an outdoor grill. Cooking and serving begins early. We’d see the same employees at work from the early morning hours until well after dinner. They all seemed to enjoy working at Deja Vu and there was an easy camaraderie among them.
We came to know Tanya, the hotel’s owner, and her family quite well. They were very interested (as many Russians were) in learning about Hawaii. It was fun to share photos of Kaua’i from my phone and see the amazed responses. Again, they had very little English, and we virtually no Russian. It didn’t seem to matter. With the assistance of iTranslate, I explained the essence of aloha. We were asked to share their afternoon tea frequently. Their little Pomeranian, Leo, was a real personality.
Children and adults alike drink hot tea, which is brewed with fanciful floral components in glass pots. To get a coffee, you needed to order it at the bar separately. Without specifying “American,” you’d get an espresso cup filled with rich, black (and for me, very acidic) brew. “American” coffee is the same, just diluted with an equal amount of boiling water. I happily had several cups for breakfast, which caused the bartender great amusement.
On weekend nights, our Adler neighborhood came alive with food stalls. Each house or establishment featured a different specialty. This type of eating and drinking in Russia is pretty typical. Meat and vegetables are prepared kebab-style, cooked on swords over hot coals. You pay by weight. Wandering down our street we browsed to our hearts’ content. It seemed as though everything was available – even homemade blackberry wine which we were invited to taste. We bought.
The dessert lady came to know Pete by his sweet tooth. Her cart was amazing. She told us she began baking in the wee hours to be ready for evening sales. Each serving was less than $1USD. We never expected that eating and drinking in Russia would be as inexpensive as these street food options were.
There was a nicer restaurant in the neighborhood where we ordered pizza. We were happy to learn there was an English language menu available. Cyrillic words are not my strong suit.
Another day turned out pretty gloomy weather-wise, so we decided to get on a bus and just ride to the end of the route and back. We wound up in the main Adler shopping district, rather deserted in this off season. Wandering into one of the only restaurants that was open, we ordered an ice cream dish. This time I remembered to order “American” coffee.
The colorful fresh fruits and vegetables on display at the little market in this neighborhood were a pleasant surprise. Not only did they seem affordably priced, but the variety available was impressive.
People asked us whether it was true Russians drink and get drunk throughout the day. We encountered one gentleman from Moscow who was pretty lit up at breakfast one morning. He was particularly sorrowful that the orange juice drink wasn’t freshly squeezed on our behalf. Over and over again in broken English he sloppily apologized, stuck in an endless mental loop. It wasn’t pretty.
Another time, I glanced out an upstairs window to see a gentleman being escorted down the street by his group of friends. This was in the mid-afternoon. It was clear that he wasn’t going anywhere under his own power.
People’s attitudes were pretty neutral about these two. I’ve seen more trashed tourists within 20 minutes in Vegas than I saw in all of our ten days in Russia. For the most part people were thrilled their town was hosting the Olympics and they’d come to cheer for Russian athletes. Eating and drinking in Russia is normally a group affair; the Olympics elevated this to a national celebration.
The Adler neighborhood we stayed in impressed us as somewhere a middle class Russian family might spend their summer Black Sea holiday. It certainly wasn’t fancy. This impression bore out. We’d had a friendly encounter with a Muscovite named Ludmila and her grandson, Daniel, who gallantly had given me his seat on the bus on the way to the Coastal Cluster. A couple days later, they walked into the restaurant! Ludmila and I had a nice little reunion while Daniel ate a hearty breakfast: a huge bowl of chicken soup.. They were staying down the street in a smaller guest house and confirmed that the Deja Vu restaurant was the best value in the neighborhood.
By the time our ten days in Russia came to an end, we were craving Western food. At our layover in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, we headed into the TGI Friday’s and had a nice approximation of an American burger with fries.
We knew eating and drinking in Russia was going to be only part of the overall adventure of attending the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. As it turned out, we valued these day-to-day encounters with average Russians more highly than we did the sporting events themselves. People had told us that going to the Olympics was all about the vibe among spectators, and the people of the country hosting the Games. We’re glad we didn’t let all the negativity in the media scare us away from what turned out to be a most wonderful and memorable experience.