The Olympic Games are something magical.
I have been living in Russia since October 2012 working with the Sochi 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Organizing Committee, though I have called Squamish and Whistler home since 2000.
This is my third Olympic Games (Vancouver, London, Sochi) and I can tell you the Games are something captivating — if you love sport as I do, you understand the magic sport has to unite the world.
Over the last few weeks the world has learned more about Sochi and Russia than it probably ever has — much of it negative in tone. But there is much about this region that is worth celebrating, things you come to know after living here for years, not months.
I first arrived in Moscow in October of 2012. I lived and worked in central Moscow, just a 30-minute walk to Red Square, for one year before relocating to Sochi in October of 2013. My family — wife Kirsten, daughters Hailey (7), Kaelah (4) and son Zachary (3) also joined me for a period of time in Moscow. Living as a family in central Moscow, reliant on public transportation took some time to adjust to. Moscow is one of the world's most-populated cities, which is certainly a big difference compared to Squamish.
Overall, the city is very congested with traffic, the air quality is not great, there is little to no English signage and customer service in English is, well, non-existent.
Grocery shopping for three kids with celiac disease — all food labels are in Russian — was a challenge, and going out to a "non-smoking" restaurant is quite different there. In Moscow it normally means there is a table, or two, in the corner that do not have ash trays, while all the other tables around you are smoking.
It's not Canada.
But we had so many amazing experiences as a family in Moscow.
The language, culture, museums, parks (we lived right next to Gorky Park, which was like a green oasis in the centre of a concrete jungle), activities for the kids and public transit (Metro) were all fantastic.
It was also amazing to see the city through the eyes of young children. On many occasions my kids would be out in the playground with others from Russia, Poland, and France — none of them speaking a common language — yet they could all communicate enough to share toys in the sand box, share a scooter or play a game of soccer.
Hailey, my oldest daughter, said to me one morning as I walked her to school during rush hour, "I know why they call it Russia here daddy... everyone is in a rush." Classic.
Life in Sochi was quite different as well. When we were living in Moscow and telling our local friends we were moving to Sochi, they all had the same reaction — they paused, smiled and said, "you will experience the real Russia. Moscow is not real Russia. Good luck."
After visiting Sochi a number of times on business trips from Moscow, in September of 2013, we made the difficult decision that the family would not relocate to Sochi with me as originally planned and would instead head back to Squamish.
The main reasons for this were a lack of reliable public transit, no English-speaking health care options and no English or French schooling options. In Moscow we were spoiled as the kids got to attend an International School at the French Embassy.
The decision was made prior to all the security issues since December 2013, but I can say as a husband, and a father, living here was the right decision. They are better off in Squamish for day-to-day life.
Life in Sochi has provided some challenges. Commuting to work, just a five-kilometre drive, can take 10 minutes or two hours — on average it's about 45 minutes. The grocery store selections are very inconsistent — broccoli and bananas one day, but not the next.
A challenge, yes. But all these stories, and I could tell so many more, have transformed me into a more flexible, patient and understanding person. Rather than getting frustrated, asking why it is this way here in comparison to Canada, now I just say, "oh well, that's how it is."
The Russians are amazing once you get to know them — they just need some time to warm up to you.
Have you ever seen a Russian birthday celebration? It is one of the most amazing things I have ever been part of, with gifts, speeches, flowers and food.
In the local market where I purchase groceries one night, the owners — a husband and wife along with their young daughter — and I were trying our best to communicate, as they wanted to ask me questions about Canada and the Olympics. Their little daughter translated, as her English was quite good. Then all of a sudden she ran into the back of the shop, came out with their laptop and invited me to come sit behind the counter for a while. We used Google translate to have a conversation for about half an hour. To say thank you to me, they offered me some free baked goods to take home. Amazing.
Russians are so proud and they want to put their best foot forward to show the world how they are changing and transforming. As we know, transformation and change takes time.
The challenge is they are still transitioning to a new way of living and doing business. Many of the great people I have met, and made friends with here, have travelled and know what the world is thinking of them. They want to do better, but are beat by a system that is still transitioning. They know they could do better, and they are saddened by all the negative media.
As you read and watch all the media hype, I encourage you to remember the nature of the Games and what they mean as a way to unite people with sport. It would be unfortunate to let the politics take away from the inspiration of the athletes and their accomplishments.
Unless you have lived here and understood what it is like to bring your values to another country — to be in shock, then slowly adjust to the realities — you cannot really judge. If you are into sports as I am, you will see that the Games are just the purest event for any athlete who wants to be the best at their sport.
My experience in Russia has been challenging, frustrating and amazing all at the same time. But trust me, the locals are proud and they want to put their best foot forward to the world. I have met some amazing people here and experienced some great times. It has been a journey we will never forget.
Derek Gagné is currently working in Sochi as a consultant to the Organizing Committee for the Sochi 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games as a senior project manager with the Event Services division. In past Games Gagné, has worked in senior workforce, human resource, and security positions for Vancouver 2010, London 2012 and the G8 G20 Summit in Toronto 2010. He is returning home to Squamish on March 29, 2014. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org