Savoring a slice of life from Sochi

In less than a week, the world will turn its eyes toward Sochi, Russia to watch and cheer on the best athletes in the 22nd Winter Olympic Games.

With peculiar food, unique cultural traditions and different attitudes, everyone, Olympics fans or not, now have the opportunity to get a more inside look at the other side of the world. Here’s a taste of the resort city on the Black Sea coast.

The Food

Russian cuisine is not exactly an everyday find at local restaurants or in people’s kitchens. While many in the Mid-Ohio Valley scarf down homemade Italian pastas and crave spicy Mexican food, Russian meal staples like borscht and pirozhki, a potato-stuffed pastry, are unknown.

Borscht, a thick soup made primarily of beets with dill, potatoes, beef broth, carrots and cabbage, is one of the most commonly-known Russian foods to Americans.

Crystal Miller, a Marietta resident, turned up her nose at the thought of a soup made from beets, and said the sound of borscht just did not sound appetizing.

“I don’t do a lot of cooking, either,” she said.

The Sochi Winter Olympic Games organizing committee predict that about 70,000 gallons of the thick soup will be served during the games to volunteers, crowds and athletes to honor Russian culture.

“I have never had it, but I would certainly not be afraid to try it,” said John O’Bryant, of Marietta. “I do all the cooking, and I try all kinds of things.”

Brett Potash, also a Marietta native, lived in Bulgaria with his wife, Betsy, for two years, teaching at an American school. During that time Potash and his wife traveled all over Europe, gleaning insight into the eastern European food and culture that was entirely new to both of them.

Potash said in his time in eastern Europe, he did try borscht, which is popular in Russia and the Ukraine as well.

“It’s actually really good, and it’s a bit sweet, something I don’t think people think of for soup,” he said.

All of the traditional ingredients can be found in just about any grocery store. Many recipes also call for beef or pork shank, but it can also be made without.

Boris Vilenchuk, owner of Romashka International Deli as well as the manager of the Russian Club in Columbus, has dedicated a lot of time trying to keep Russian culture alive in the United States. His deli stocks Russian food as well as items from other Slavic nations, with anything from dumplings to caviar.

“We sell quite a bit of Russian salamis and bolognas, as well as homemade Russian bread that is both made here as well as imported from Russia and the Ukraine,” Vilenchuk said. “And yes, we sell borscht too.”

Anyone interested in Russian beverages to celebrate the Olympics other than vodka can try Kvass, a traditional non-alcoholic Russian beverage made from fermented rye bread that the Romashka Deli sells by the bottle. Despite how it may sound, Vilenchuk said it’s quite refreshing.

“It will taste a lot like root beer to many people,” he said.

The deli also sells the ingredients so that people can try to make it at home.

“The diet is a lot of meat. There are several cheeses native to the country that you find a lot,” Potash said. “It’s buttery greasy and not the healthiest food in the world, but it’s filling and hearty.”

The Arts

Vilenchuk’s Russian Club offers a wide array of classes for children and adults in art, music, dance and theater, including kalinka, a traditional Russian folk song that dates back to the 1800s, known for its speedy, upbeat tempo.

“I could guess that with all the things they have in the opening ceremonies at Olympics, they will probably include that song somewhere in the performance,” Vilenchuk said.

The seventh year of the Sochi Winter International Arts Festival also coincides with the Olympic games in February.

Directed by Yuri Bashmet, a contemporary musician, a world-renowned violist and conductor, the festival has grown from fairly small to a big mark on European arts calendars at the beginning of the new year.

Running from Feb. 6 until Feb. 20, the festival will feature internationally-known musicians and symphonies playing native music and opera pieces.

A Resort Town

The Sochi Project, a seven years in-the-making research project by filmmakers Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, details the face of Sochi and the realty that the little “resort town” where former dictator Josef Stalin used to vacation, is not the snowy Russia that we think of in popular culture.

Tourists from all parts of the world enjoy Sochi for its beaches, mineral springs and climate, but the destination is most popular for Russian natives.

Described as the “Florida of Russia,” van Bruggen reports that Olympics fans should not expect the winter wonderland that usually comes with the backdrop of the Winter Games. The ability to use Sochi for the skiing, snowboarding and luging comes from the dramatic changes in climate from sea level to mountains.

“On the seashore you can enjoy a fine spring day, but up in the mountains it’s winter,” van Bruggen says. “Here, in this small piece of subtropical Russia where no snow falls in the winter, the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held.”

The report details Sochi during the Cold War, where citizens would often escape to seek relaxation on Sochi’s beaches and in spas and luxury hotels.

Culture Shock

A few decades past the Cold War, Russia still exhibits a lot of aspects that keep with its practical, rigid style.

Judy Baker, of Marietta, is Potash’s mother. In 2010 she went to visit her son and daughter-in-law, and said the experience was eye-opening.

“The one thing we noticed right away, was that people never make eye contact with you,” she said. “I’m not sure why, but it seems that they live much more privately than we do.”

Potash said greetings often varied based on where you were.

“Once you’re in the countryside, there’s a big difference in the people’s moods. People seem to be happier, the air is cleaner, and it’s a completely different mood,” he said. “Because people don’t make a lot of eye contact or smile a lot, that was hard for us. It’s hard to live like that for an extended period.”

Despite some beautiful popular landmarks in Russia like the Kremlin, a 12th-century walled fortress in Moscow inspired by religious influence, the post-Stalin era left behind cities and architecture that are built rigidly and uniformly.

“The big, concrete, block buildings are that style of ‘all function, no form,’ which is pretty much the status quo for architecture,” Potash said.

Xiaotian Li, the Diversity and Inclusion coordinator at Marietta College, said learning about places and people you are not familiar with is of real importance.

“As globalization has become a reality that impacts our everyday lives, it is very important for people to keep an open mind, suspend judgment, and think from other’s perspective,” Li said. “Having the knowledge and experience from other cultures and being able to communicate across cultures has became a critical skill to have in today’s interconnected world.”