Sochi, Russia — The first thing that strikes you when stepping out in Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is how much it doesn't feel like winter. It was sunny and a comfortable 52 degrees here at 1 p.m., quite a change from the 17-degree, snowbound Washington, D.C., I left behind Wednesday night.
Also striking is how much work still has to be done here before the world officially descends upon this Black Seas historically summer resort area for the Feb. 7-23 winter games. The hammering sounds of construction resonated through the morning air Saturday in the accommodations compound where journalists, event volunteers, and other workers will call home during the games.
Mattresses and basic furniture lined the halls of some buildings, waiting for rooms to be completed. The buildings themselves resemble college dormitories, unremarkable in architecture but functional in their simplicity.
The digs are spartan but comfortable: twin beds joined together to make a full/queen size sleeping surface, a headboard with sufficient electrical outlets, a laptop computer screen-sized flat screen television, a small desk, mini-fridge, a closet-cubby setup for clothes and a bathroom with a hand-held shower-tub combo. Think two-star hotel.
The rooms offer a view that symbolizes the odd duality of these Winter Olympics. Look one way and see the Black Sea with the sun glistening off it, look in the other direction and see snow-capped mountains with the wind sweeping snow dust into the air.
With fears of terrorism hounding the games even before they start, one would expect to a see a Sochi under severe lockdown. That didn't appear to be the case upon arriving Saturday morning.
The police and military presence at the airport was noticeable but didn't seem overly large. But security is tight nonetheless. Russian customs workers were very methodical in checking passports and visas. The level of security will likely become even tighter as the opening of the games nears.
Outside the airport terminal, gray-jacketed Cossacks were walking the beat. Outside the customs area, Olympics volunteers, clad in multi-colored jogging suits, were all smiles as they greeted travelers and guided them to buses they needed to get on to go to wherever they needed to go.
The volunteers speak English effectively, but several still felt compelled to apologize for what they consider their shortcomings with the language.
The volunteers and other Russians working the games are curious. Appearing genuinely surprised to see an African-American, a few Russian entertainers hastily exited the bus that was taking them to their housing, ran across the street, peppered me with questions and gave me a series of high-fives.
They wanted to know where I was from, did I like Russia, and what's New York really like? At the media center, a Russian sports writer fetched a volunteer to serve as interpreter and interviewed me about the medal prospects for the U.S. and Russian ice hockey teams.
I told him both teams are formidable but that Russia may have an advantage because the United States - and Canada - haven't performed well in Olympics conducted outside of North America. Hockey is played on a larger ice surface in Russia, Europe, and other parts of the world.
Both the U.S. and Canada have stacked their teams with National Hockey League players that USA Hockey and Hockey Canada feel have the skills best-suited for the international style of hockey, but that may not be enough in a short tournament, I added.
The reporter looked at me and said in broken English 'You know hockey.'
'Da,' I responded.