It was a little bit past three in the morning in Ufa, Russia, and I was sitting on the bed of my dorm-style hotel room and telling a friend over Gchat how everything was. I had landed about an hour before and located my suitcase and cab driver without incident, an unexpected delight. The flights had gone fine. The Ukrainian one I took from Moscow to Ufa, taking off and landing in snowstorms that would have felled entire fleets at JFK, gave out really good dessert. I had watched nearly the entire first season of Downton Abbey on the plane. The bar at the Frankfurt airport sold the most incredible pretzels. In the cab to the hotel, a Russian remix of Ke$ha's "Die Young" was on the radio. The driver had greeted me at the airport bearing a hand-penciled sign that said KETY BEYKER, and he was definitely weirded out, though not at all mean about it, when I asked to have it. The problem was that the only way I could really do so was to point at it enthusiastically several times and then point at myself before finally just taking it right from his hand with a big smile and nod.
"I just opened my window because it's a thousand degrees in my hotel room," I told my friend, "and it smells like burning. I love Russia."
The view from my window was mostly of the backs of buildings and of those buildings' garages lying little-used under slabs of snow. Smoke rose from somewhere a few blocks away, a window or two was lit up, a streetlight hissed and flickered a greenish glow, but the sky's overall haze was orange. It was nice. It was cozier than I had expected. The burning smell lingered.
From beneath the bedside table, there was a pop. The voltage converter! Here I was, on my laptop, having a laugh about how gritty and authentic it was that some local must be torching garbage for warmth in an outside alley (presumably while doing the victory dance from Tetris, I guess?), when the only thing burning was the inner circuitry of my complicated (and, I would learn the next day from some amused and far better-traveled hockey writers, entirely incorrect) electrical setup. I thought I was all civilized, but the truth was that I was the rube.
I grabbed the device like a grenade — unplugged it, spiked it, and jumped back. Fretting about what it might do to the rough, dark-green carpet, I used a T-shirt for a mitt and laid the hot plastic next to the open window, where it smoldered on.
The Toronto Maple Leafs' Joffrey Lupul lasted nine games playing for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League this winter. After being with the team for about a month he returned to Toronto to idly skate and hope for a quick end to the NHL lockout. In a blog post for AskMen.com, he wrote that "the honeymoon phase ha[d] worn off" as the daily realities of living in a place where even the alphabet was different piled up. But where he could have been mocking, Lupul was reflective. He wrote about a memory from early in his career.
Quick story: My first NHL road trip included stops in Dallas, Nashville and another city (a six- or seven-day trip). I spent hours packing, not knowing exactly what I should bring. I was a nervous wreck. I showed up at the airport for the charter, and Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov (two rookie Russian first-round picks) were there with only a shaving kit. I would assume that they had no idea that the trip was six days and lacked the English and/or confidence to ask anyone. The general response from the guys on the team was "what a couple of f*cking idiots," and they were chirped pretty much the whole time to Dallas, whereupon arrival they had to go shopping and buy a week's worth of clothing.
Neither of these "can't miss" prospects are in the NHL anymore, and it's not because they couldn't play hockey. They were ultra-skilled. But they were labeled busts three years later. They just couldn't adapt to a different world at age 19.
I get why now.
We assume that foreign players who come to the United States must be shocked and awed by our resources, our big houses, our conspicuous consumption. But they're often just as bizarre, as fully foreign to them as their hometowns might immediately feel to us.
In his book Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL — The Untold Story of Hockey's Great Escapes, Tal Pinchevsky tells the often harrowing stories of players, from the Stastny brothers to Alexander Mogilny, who risked their livelihoods and lives to flee (often while pursued by KGB agents) at the height of the Cold War to North America and the NHL. One of them, Czechoslovakian David Volek, defected to the New York Islanders with his soon-to-be wife, Alice, but the pair had some adjustments to make. Pinchevsky writes that the first time Alice "walked into a grocery store, she saw the sprawling aisles of food and walked out, assuming she needed a government permit to shop there." One day, while she tried spending time alone in the big, empty home, "she accidentally set off the burglar alarm and was unable to communicate with the police who arrived shortly thereafter."
I can sympathize. The corollary to the piece of life wisdom that everyone should have to work at a restaurant at some point is that everyone should also know firsthand the indignity of receiving pitying looks while trying to get a meal at McDonald's. You wait in the not-quite-a-line, and when it's your turn you ask, "English?" and a few sets of eyes settle sideways on you. You're given a giant laminated picture-rich menu that looks like it was developed for cognitive studies on children or dolphins. You look back up to order just as a lovely woman in a stunning fur swing coat slips in front of you at the counter. You're probably about the same age, but she looks at you with gentle condescension, as if you're a 6-year-old rubbing your eyes while protesting that you don't need a nap.
You can't be pointing to a picture menu like an illiterate savage in front of this woman! You can't. You retreat to a table. It's your second day here, and you've got three more days after that, and you know you shouldn't be in Mickey D's to begin with — you should have gone to that café inside that yurt that you patronized yesterday — so you need to at least be a good citizen of the world and push yourself to order in Russian. You locate the sandwich you want on your My First Menu and tap the letters into the app you downloaded that pronounces words for you in a speed you control. It's not called "Overenunciating Middle School Language Teacher," but it should be. A country song twangs from the ceiling, in English. Moms come bustling in from the cold with their children, who are all roly-poly in fur hoods and snowsuits. You put on your headphones. The geographically neutral woman's voice sounds out the unknown Cyrillic letters.
In the time between my takeoff from Ufa and arrival back home, the happy news about the return of the NHL season began to be met with some less-than-celebratory reactions out of Eastern Europe. First the New York Islanders' Lubomir Visnovsky released a thanks-but-no-thanks statement explaining that he would be remaining with his KHL team, Slovan Bratislava, in his native Slovakia. "I am thankful for the Isles for being so good to me," he wrote. "My decision not to play in the NHL is due to family and personal reasons."
This came as a surprise to the league, which has a formal if uneasy agreement with the KHL to mutually honor contracts. The Russian league had agreed that upon the NHL lockout's end, all active NHL players would return to North America, but was now looking for technicalities.
Of course, Visnovsky has a proud history of trying to evade capture on Long Island. But then there's the New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, a bona fide NHL star fresh off an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals and two years into a 15-year, $100 million contract that cost the Devils even more than that. On Tuesday, it began to emerge that Kovalchuk, one of the Devils' alternate captains last season, was playing what sounded like a "just five more minutes" card. "Not in a hurry to get to America," he told the Russian press, as reported by Sport-Express correspondent Slava Malamud. "Time will tell. Nothing is out of the question."
By Wednesday morning, the rosters on the KHL's website for this weekend's All-Star Game had been amended to reflect the fact that most of the NHL players selected for the game — a group that included Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Zdeno Chara — had already begun to make their way west. But Kovalchuk remained on the list. "We are disappointed that all the other NHL stars were quick to go to North America," Vladimir Shalaev added. (As it became apparent the new CBA wouldn't be ratified by players until this weekend, Pavel Datsyuk opted to stay in Russia as well.) But his comments were downright benign compared with those of KHL president Alexander Medvedev, a top executive at the Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom. He defended Kovalchuk's right to remain in Russia, and his distaste for the NHL dripped.
"NHL's opinion of itself is so high," he said. "OK, let them get drunk on their greatness. We'll see how many Euros look our way."
The one thing in Russia that consistently felt more or less like home was the hockey. I was there for the World Junior Hockey Championship, an international showcase for the world's top players under 20, and with the exception of the meat pies being sold at the arena's concession stands and the particularly large pom-poms used by the cheerleaders dancing to Ra Ra Rasputin and the crisp fur hats perched upon all the police officers' heads, it was no different from what I was used to. There were grandfathers with their grandsons, and puck bunnies, and overserved bros face-planted on the floor of the lobby.
The on-ice product was superb, the elimination-round games either bringing out teams' inner champions (the United States) or their inner chaos (Russia, for the most part). In the bronze-medal contest between Russia and Canada, two teams that had been expected to perhaps battle for gold, the crowd treated the game as if it had the same stakes. When Nail Yakupov scored, his low-producing tournament seemed forgiven, and the PA guy had no problem pronouncing his name. It's supposed to be closer to Na-EEL Ya-KUP-ov than the North Americanized Nail-as-in-hammer YAK-upov, but he has already preemptively implored people like me to not even try. Anyway, everyone seemed pretty psyched to be knocking out Canada.
The media scene after the games was pretty familiar as well; it turns out milling around for awhile, then lunging at the nearest sweaty and smelly 18-year-old boy who emerges into the media zone, is just as awkward in any language. The only difference was that the dominant media groups — the ones whose camera cords were always underfoot and whose reporters knew just how pushy to be to wind up at the front of the pack asking the first three questions — were all Russians. The Canadian press hung back, comparatively defanged.
After the game, Yakupov had touchingly draped himself in a Yaroslavl Lokomotiv flag to honor the victims of last year's fatal crash of the KHL team's charter flight, something he has done before. After the game, he spoke mostly in Russian, answering a few questions in English until someone said "Nail, how sweet is it that this bronze medal win comes over Canada?" Whether he didn't want to chance what "how sweet is it" meant or he heard the dreaded C-word — in his young experience, those questions always mean trouble — he immediately switched to speaking in Russian through his interpreter, and didn't go back to English for as long as I remained there.
Medvedev's taunt about the NHL, and Yakupov's choice to stick mostly with his native tongue throughout the course of the WJC, reminded me of a detail from Elif Batuman's funny essay collection The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, in which she quotes a letter Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote after settling in Florence, Italy, one summer.
"In my opinion," wrote Dostoevsky in a letter to his niece, "it is worse than deportation to Siberia. I'm speaking seriously and without exaggeration If here in Florence one finds such a sun and sky, and if there are marvels of art, quite literally unheard-of and indescribable, nonetheless in Siberia, when I left the penal colony, there were other advantages, which here are lacking." Having to write "without continuous and firsthand Russian impressions" was a particular torment for Dostoevsky, who spent long hours in the Gabinetto Scientifico Letterario G. P. Vieusseux, poring over the Russian periodicals to which he was addicted.
While he was growing up, Kovalchuk's Moscow-area hockey team came to tournaments in places like Minnesota. But he wasn't as taken by America's charms as locals assumed a child growing up in the last days of the Soviet Union would be. Asked if he had wanted to move to the U.S. back then, he told Inside Hockey, "No. I never. It's the best league here. I respect everything here, but my home is in Russia."
After years of playing in the NHL, little has changed. There's a story that before Kovalchuk was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers, GM Don Waddell waited until his interpreter went to the bathroom and then whisked the young player to a dinner with Thrashers coaches and without his linguistic assistant. (Honestly, that sounds kind of cruel.) Over the years, he's grown more gregarious in English; during last year's playoffs he was a reliable and often very funny quote. Kovalchuk was praised last year for, basically, having assimilated: He was finally building a home in New Jersey and moving his family there. Before that, he said, "We couldn't find a place. We tried to buy something but nothing interested us. I ended up in a hotel by myself."
Travel guru Rick Steves has written that "everybody should travel before they vote"; I wonder now if everyone should also have to do so before being a fan. How else to avoid the easy temptation to lambaste foreign players for being uncommunicative, or bewildered, or defiant, or odd, unless you've found yourself in a situation in which the locals probably perceive you as acting all of the above? With the next Winter Olympics set to be held in Sochi, Russia, a lot of North American athletes and media will know what this is like soon enough. We blast Alex Ovechkin for sitting out of last year's NHL All-Star Game, despite the fact that he was, at that point, suspended by the league. And we're narcissistic enough not to understand why maybe Ilya Kovalchuk might want to stick around an extra day or two to play in the All-Star Game for fans who have been going gaga over him in Russia for these past few months. Here's a hint: The KHL isn't what's causing that smell. It's the NHL that's been burning all this time.
I loved Russia so much more than I imagined I would; every day was immensely humbling and lonesome and lively. It was like going into a beautiful bookstore and having to choose just one thing — that same volume of unabsorbed information, that same aspirational hopelessness. There's a description in Batuman's book of the janitor at the Uzbek university where she studied trying to have a man-to-man chat with her boyfriend about the birds and the bees.
"But he won't understand you," I told Habib. "He doesn't speak Uzbek."
"He'll understand enough." Habib pulled Eric aside and started explaining something to him, gesticulating earnestly. Eric put his right hand over his heart and looked very polite. After a few minutes of conversation, Habib clapped Eric on the shoulder and they walked back to me. "He understood, right?" Habib said, shaking Eric's shoulder. Eric nodded. (He hadn't understood anything.)
That posture: That was me, for the better part of a week. But it's fitting, somehow, that the gesture that signifies patriotic commitment as, say, one watches one's national flag being raised — that hand over the heart — is the very same one you use when you haven't the slightest clue what anyone's saying.