Kovacevic: Sochi raises bar for Pittsburgh cool
SOCHI, Russia — A bright white sign, propped up by equally effervescent bookend towers and capped by a grand arch, pierced the night sky of Vorovskovo Street in this quaint, quiet Black Sea resort town that's about to host the Winter Olympics.
And it did so with one unmistakable message for all passers-by, global visitors and permanent population alike:
No, really. It ended with the ‘H' and everything.
Elegant replicas of our Highmark and PPG skyscrapers.
West End Bridge, of course.
And inside what turned out to be a seriously swanky underground bar/café/bistro with deep-seated couches and mellow candles lining the old brick facades?
Why, it was a wall-sized, lit-up rendition of The Point.
So, um ...
“Why Pittsburgh bar here?” the hardy young barkeep Aleksandar Pavlovic sharply replied to my combination of confused expression and a Pittsburgh credential around my neck. “I don't know. Is Russia, you know. Crazy.”
Those who know Russians can appreciate that on its face. Yet I pushed Aleksandar — his English was about as good as my Russian — and found that the bar's owner, Sergei Ashotovich, once visited Pittsburgh.
As a tourist.
“He like it,” Pavlovic said of his boss, who hasn't been around all week. “That's story. He like it.”
I love this. I mean, I'm a sap for pretty much any somebody-loves-us tale as it relates to Pittsburgh, but show me a guy who gets one glance, returns to the other hemisphere and paints us as his embodiment of cool in a way that's so much cooler than any people who have ever worn school buses on their heads can claim to be and ... yeah, that can launch into hyperdrive anyone's inner Rick Sebak.
You know, the same inner Sebak that allows you to walk over to the three Russian men Pavlovic was serving at the bar and beam, “I'm from Pittsburgh!” as if that were somehow indispensible information in their lives, only to turtle back to your table after seeing they didn't understand a syllable of it, anyway.
Whatever. It's to be forgiven.
I'd just completed the three-leg, 19 1⁄2-hour, too-much-of-that-on-Aeroflot trek Wednesday to cover the Games and, candidly, the last thing I wanted was something even lousier upon landing. So, the choice was clear: Become another chapter in the mounting horror stories of the media hotels — black-market light bulbs, missing shower curtains, two toilets to a stall, you've heard 'em all — or follow in the footsteps of Jared Wickerham. He's the Pittsburgh-based Getty Images photographer who fired up the local Instagram scene this week by stumbling upon this little oasis, and he generously tweeted me the coordinates to see for myself.
I'm delighted he did, for more reasons than one.
The Pittsburgh bar sits at street level of an apartment building in the smallish downtown of the real Sochi, the one you probably won't see much on NBC. The real Sochi is a 45-minute drive north along the coastline, nowhere near Vladimir Putin's $51 billion seed-and-water creations in the previously barren region that most locals call Adler. If you missed a couple of Olympic-ringed gardens and a video board in the town circle, you'd be hard-pressed to tell if the real Sochi was an Olympic city or just Scranton in the Cyrillic.
I got to check out some of the violent topography that's going to make for some breathtaking imagery all month, with beaches met by hills and hills met by mammoth peaks reaching into the clouds. Houses on stilts on those hillsides, especially in the less populated terrain between Sochi and Adler, had a Pittsburgh feel, too, or San Francisco.
I took a spin on some of Putin's multibillion-dollar infrastructure, as my cabbie navigated highways, tunnels and bridges so state-of-the-art and pristine it felt morally bankrupt to put tire tracks on them. Which might explain why anything vaguely resembling blight was walled off from sight. Wouldn't want anyone to see wreckage while cruising the Autobahn.
After a second serving of warm Coke at the Pittsburgh bar that failed to nullify a 25th consecutive hour without sleep, I finally relented, hoisted the bag and hailed a taxi to head back to Adler and stop putting off checking into the hotel. Even that turned out fine: The room had lights, warmth, hot water, potable water, clean sheets, no live chickens clucking around.
It went so well that the man who escorted me to the room apologized profusely that he'd been wrong about the Internet working.
It isn't quite like home, but it'll do.