Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dagger in the Heart of Heartbreak Hill?

By the time I got to the Citgo sign, my dreams of a PR at Boston were long gone. I had underhydrated on a cool day and severe cramping put an end to my time goals. By the 23rd mile I had recovered enough that I was trotting towards the finish line and relatively sure I’d make it to the end. A finish in my first Boston was nothing to be sneezed at, I consoled myself. I was aware enough of my surroundings to realize that as I ran the last mile of the Boston Marathon, I was within one mile my birthplace.

Even though I lived in Seattle when I ran Boston in ‘79, I had grown up in New England and knew the excitement a banner headline could create.

‘Japanese Runners Arrive,’ I recall the Boston Globe announcing one day in the mid -‘60s. What could be bigger news than that? I couldn’t wait for the race itself, even though I then lived five hours away in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

This was magic to a little kid, and I knew that someday I would run this race.
ABC in New Hampshire and CBS in Massachusetts were the single television stations we received. Decisions were easy: watch or not - there were no other choices.

It was the Hartford station, with its New York City orientation, that was beamed up into the hilltowns of Western Mass, and so it was that our sports references were the Giants and Yankees rather than the Patriots and Red Sox.

Or would have been, had it not been for an almost forgotten communications device: radio.

Radio reached into our homes with a power that is hard to imagine now. To this day when I think of the Beatles’ first wave, I picture Mt. Washington from my bedroom window and sense the Beatles reaching me with a voice and a message I thought only a twelve-year-old could understand. In Massachusetts, often I would fill the downstairs tub with cool water in the summertime and just sit there and listen for two hours while my beloved Red Sox lost again.
The Red Sox are New England’s team, and the Boston Marathon, New England’s race.

Even as a child, I always found something sacred about this race, something unscarred, something pure. Amateurs, and few of them, ran this race for the unfettered joy of it.
It was unimaginable that anyone would try to do this race harm.

I wonder now, what it would have been like sitting in that tub, listening to the runners finish, and hearing the bombs go off. What would I have made of this?
The first several times I saw video of the Boston bombings there was no sound, just video, so I did not understand the full import of what I was seeing. I knew something was wrong, but not how wrong.

When I heard the audio, I was stunned.
The question of the year became: what was your time at Boston?

A new colleague finished in just over three hours and emailed me back to say that by the time the bombs went off, he had retrieved his family from the finish area and they were safely away. I think that he, too, was unaware at first of the devastation wrought by these acts of cowards, though I know they weigh heavily on him still.
Aging is a process of loss as well as gain, and as I tend towards the optimistic, I try to keep my focus on gain in the face of sometimes compelling evidence to the contrary. Often, things that are near as well as dear suffer unavoidable collateral damage in spite of our best attempts to spare them. But it’s rare that someone decides - willfully and maliciously - to line up the very best in his sights and pull the trigger.

As a child of Boston who was shaped by small New England towns, I believe strongly in the power and the resilience of my fellow New Englanders. It is Boston - and the entire region - that has been and remains strong.
But on Monday, unavoidably, the international distance running community - and our entire nation - will hold its collective breath while the Boston Marathon is run. In spite of massive security efforts, we all will wonder if someone else will attempt the inconceivable.

Strong Bostonians and New Englanders have the answer: they show up. They accept fear as a new reality of this race, and cheer from Hopkinton to Boston anyway.
Strong qualifiers from around the nation accept fear as a new part of this race, and run anyway.

Strong champion runners from around the world accept fear as a new element of this race, and race anyway.
The rest of us hold our breath - and breathe anyway.

Dagger in the heart of Heartbreak Hill?
Clearly not a fatal one, not when incensed millions ask “how dare they?” and answer in defiant protest by lining the course for 26.2 miles.

These millions will by the spirit of their very presence answer the terrorists - resoundingly - the same way David Ortiz did in Fenway Park.








Friday, April 11, 2014

Condon Connection: Dining with J and A

I've been in Hood River, OR, this week, on spring break. I'm working on a piece I plan to post on Thursday, May 29. So far, it's 14 pages. I hope I haven't scared anyone off from reading a piece this long, but if you have the chance to read it at anytime, I would certainly be most grateful.

Here's my synopsis:

'A veteran track and field blogger, observer, and prognosticator looks for meaning in the most challenging year of his life and finds it in an unexpected meeting with an Olympic champion.'

Why May 29? The date is quite relevant to the ending of the story, and while I hope the piece will stand on its own no matter when it's read, there will be a timely twist for those reading it on the 29th.

This evening I had dinner at Nora's Table in Hood River, an excellent restaurant if ever there was one. I was on my own when two women sat down next to me, J and A, from Condon, OR. "Condon, Condon, Condon," I kept saying to myself - why did this sound so familiar? Finally I asked, and they reminded me that that was where Nike sponsored a new track for the high school in exchange for the waffle iron on which Bill Bowerman created his legendary waffle-soled shoes.

This is of particular interest to me as I have a pair from the waffle iron - not to mention Waffle Trainer prototypes as well as six pair from Blue Ribbon Sports.

Here's a terrific article by Rachel Bachman of The Oregonian, about the recovery of the waffle iron and the building of the track:

I'm respecting the privacy of my dinner companions as we just met and I'm not sure they expected their names might be put on the net an hour later. I just want to say what it a pleasure it was meeting two such interesting and dynamic women, and I want to thank you, J and A, for sitting with me - you made my evening!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kara Goucher Signs with Oiselle

In a blockbuster announcement posted on the Oiselle website at 3:00pm Pacific time today, Oiselle CEO Sally Bergeson announced the signing of Kara Goucher:

Simultaneously, Goucher made the same announcement on her blog:

This marks the second time that Oiselle has signed a US Olympic or World Championship distance star formerly sponsored by Nike; Lauren Fleshman joined Oiselle in December 2012.

Mark Cullen

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Track and Field Brain Teaser

Update: no solutions yet! I'll post the answer to the riddle at the end of the month.
One of my great highlights of 2013 leads to this track and field brain teaser:

On the evening before the 2013 Pre Classic I gave Olympic discus champ Robert Harting a ride from the airport in Eugene to his hotel. This marks the 4th time in my life I've given a ride to a world class track and field athlete.

They are, in chronological sequence:

Steve Prefontaine
Rick Wohlhuter
Grete Waitz
Robert Harting.

What unites my four passengers?

I will confess that it wasn't until several months after meeting Harting that the question even occurred to me, much less the answer.

Have fun, everyone!

Mark Cullen
Seattle, WA
University of Oregon '75

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Teens for Teens - Weather Forecasts for Nike Cross Nationals

11:35am update - wind chill at start of boys race: 18F
27F plus 9 mph wind

10:05am update - wind chill at start of girls race: 11F
23F plus 14mph wind

2:30am (PST) update: the National Weather Service has cancelled its wind warning for this morning in Portland. However, wind chill remains a factor for this morning's Nike Cross Nationals with a likely wind chill effect in the mid-teens.

Check the "Feels Like" column on this page at

And here is the National Weather Service's pinpoint forecast for Delta Park; wind chill is posted in the center column:

For those of you fortunate enough to travel to the meet today, here are two road reports links:


I will update this site at 10:05am and 11:35am with race time wind chill reports for the girls and boys, respectively.

Original post from 12/5 at 5:58pm Pacific time:

Possibly extreme wind chill conditions face the best high school cross country runners in the nation at Saturday's Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon.  

Two respected weather websites put the likely wind chill at race time at 14-15 F, while the National Weather Service puts it as low as -2 F. (The Weather Channel) predicts 18 F as tonight's low with a high of 30 F on Saturday, with winds at 7 mph, and a wind advisory ending at 6:00am.

Weather Underground pegs Saturday's temperature at 23 F at 11:00am with 7mph winds, with the girls race scheduled to start at 10:05 and the boys at 11:35.

The National Weather Service predicts sunny but windy and cold conditions for Saturday's championship races. Tonight's overnight low is predicted to be 16 F while Saturday's high is predicted to be 25 F. Far worse, wind speed is predicted to be 17-22 mph at race time, with gusts to 37 mph. If these predictions are accurate, wind chill can be as low as -2 F at race time.

Even with the more moderate Weather Underground and Weather Channel predictions, online wind chill calculators suggest that 23 F combined with a 7mph wind results in a wind chill of 14-15 F.

Much will depend on wind speed; check the website to see if the wind advisory is lifted at 6:00am, as predicted.

Drivers - especially visitors unfamiliar with Portland - should exercise extreme caution in these unusually cold, icy, and slippery conditions. See the road report link below.

Links to the weather websites:

Road conditions:

 Credit to:
- weather websites as indicated above

Mark Cullen
Seattle, WA, US

Monday, October 21, 2013

Tribute to My Posse

It’s 8:10am in Moscow and they’re just out the door. It will be two years, maybe four, until I see them again.

Pete and Tammy, Bruce and Grace, Kevin and Mary.

I’ve known Pete and Tammy, Bruce, and Kevin since the 1999 Sevilla World Championships when we met on the last evening. Kevin saw me walk by their restaurant and recognized me from the Track and Field News tour. His grace in taking a moment to come outside and invite me in altered my track and field life.

A few minutes later, World and Olympic javelin champ Trine Hattestad showed up and I thought to myself, “These guys are good.” Her pic with our posse - one Kevin sent me - still graces a bureau in my house.

The posse preceded me; they first met in Goteborg in’95 and have been gathering at these championships ever since.

This group is a slice of American life. Pete and Tammy are from Ohio; Pete inherited his family’s door company, and Tammy retired - but not for long - as a public schools facilities manager. Bruce hails from Michigan and runs the human resources department of a company of 2500 employees, and Grace is a retired nurse. Kevin is an orthopedic surgeon from upstate New York and Mary is a retired pediatrician. I am a teacher and coach from Seattle, and a former athletics director as well. We all work hard and love what we do.

I arrive in Moscow on Monday, delayed by my elderly father’s summer-long illness. As seems to happen every time, I run into one of the gang almost immediately. Bruce sees me in the lobby and greets me with his usual enthusiastic energy. In Edmonton in 2001, I drove all day and half the night and ran into the posse as they returned from a first-night reconnoitering expedition.

“How far did you drive?” they ask.

I have two answers.

For non-track and field fans: 800 miles.

“791.2 miles.”

They smile.

Bruce guides me to Luzhniki Stadium, and after the morning session we gather for lunch. Only an hour into it, Pete observes, “We’re talking about things we’ve never discussed before. Look at us! Retirement, benefits, Social Security…” This generates knowing laughs. I met them when I was 47 and now I’m 61.

On that first day, as we fall into seamless conversation, picking up right where we’d left off in Berlin in ‘09, I realize I’ve never once asked any one of the posse how old they are, and realize it doesn’t matter.

We share a history and a common language. On Friday morning, Russia’s women’s 4x400m relay splits 1:41.49 on their way to qualifying for the final and their golden destiny. I turn to Pete and say, “Rudisha ran faster by himself.” Pete nods.

No explanation needed.

When Amantle Montsho (Bot) eases up at the 400m finish line and loses by .004 to Christine Ohuruogu (GB), I say to Tammy at that evening’s gathering, “Merlene Ottey all over again.” She nods.

No explanation needed.

This restaurant/bar near the Luzhniki Stadium Metro stop becomes our adopted meeting place and hangout every evening after the meet. These places live with me - the engaging places that invite us to stay. In Berlin, the stadium exit area was surrounded by food and beverage stands, and numerous picnic tables invited us to gather. We accepted, almost every night. Here, the fan zone directly outside the stadium is modest in size and appeal, but this restaurant draws us back.

The owner comes to recognize us and every night he pulls out a bottle of sparkling water for me, insisting, “Water with gas from the Caucasus Mountains – this is the best!”

Regardless of label.

Bruce is my Metro coach and Tammy, who is one of the most steadfast and reliable people you’ll ever know, is rightly the head official. Bruce gets me to the stadium on Tuesday, and in future trips Tammy counts subway stops, “Four, then three,” to assure we’ll get back to our hotel without diverting to Siberia. I know I have the right transfer station when I see what I’ve nicknamed the “Tree of Life” sculpture, and it provides me with more occasions for relief than the sculptor might ever have imagined. The subway trips become another focal point for our gatherings, and our relief at finding our hotel every night is, at least initially, palpable.

On Friday we search for late-night dinner and plunge down the steep steps of an Irish restaurant near our hotel. I have gone far too long without food and am feeling the effects. A gracious man translates all of our orders for the server who does not speak English – and we do not speak Russian.

Little on the menu meshes with the way I eat, and I am self-conscious about specifying a healthy meal. The man was an effective translator, and a gleaming piece of salmon arrives surrounded by veggies – no cream, no butter. A Seattleite, I have one of my best salmon dinners in an Irish pub in Moscow.

I feel I should do something helpful in return. “Separate checks in a different language and alphabet would be madness,” I say, and the group jumps at my offer to pay upfront; the rest we work out among ourselves. It all happens very quickly, an indicator of the trust built up over the years.

We continue our conversations: now, the hot dogs, which are only half-covered by the buns; now, the striking fitness of Muscovites and the paucity of paunches – no obesity epidemic here; now, the excessive security and the parlor game of trying to get a soldier to blink; now, the best names of the games - I nominate Trotski of Belarus in the 50k walk. And now, have you ever seen a country drink this much tomato juice?

By Saturday I’m feeling the pangs. At this time in 48 hours, I’ll be into a countdown that will last from 2-4 years, and I note the melancholy moments that indicate that separation is near. We’re not sure who can make it to Beijing in 2015, and upon my return home I learn that those championship dates have been picked for the first week of teaching.


OK, then: London – 2017.

Saturday evening’s post-meet gathering proves to be our last as a group… on Sunday I’m fortunate to have breakfast with Grace and to have the opportunity to sing the praises of the nurses who have helped our family so much the past year.

I’m dismayed to miss the group on Sunday evening - my section in the stadium was held for release far longer than theirs - but I know it’s the accumulation of our time together this week that counts, not one visit. I’ll see all but Kevin and Mary, who are at a different hotel, before they leave Monday morning.

I’ve been to the World Championships seven times now. Twice I’ve been very unsure of whether or not I’d come, once due to the funeral of an elderly family friend I’d known since 7th grade, and this time due to my father’s illness. Both times I’ve made it, even for part of it, as I can’t imagine a six or eight year gap. Not on the championships, mind you, but on seeing my friends.

In Paris ’03, when I was delayed due to the funeral, I got there on Thursday and knew my group had to be at one of the Track and Field News hotels, but did not initially know which one. When I finally located it in the early evening, I set out to find them and started walking down nearby streets and looking for them in restaurants. I came down one avenue to a triangular street corner that divided the main street in two. I hesitated, and something told me to take a closer look.

There they were, the whole damn posse.

That I got to sit next to Track and Field News co-founder Cordner Nelson for dinner that night didn’t hurt a bit. Kevin is the ringleader and seemingly knows everyone. I ask Nelson, who has attended every Olympics starting in 1936, what his single favorite moment is.

“Cathy Freeman.”

No explanation needed.

In Helsinki, the fan zone was extensive and there was always something new and interesting to do. The Finnish postal service staffed a booth in which you could have your photo taken and placed on a stamp, a technology that then was brand new.

They’re about to take my picture when I hold up a finger to indicate a pause. I’ve been too embarrassed to take my goofy blue and white Viking horns hat out of its sack, but I figure you only live once, and besides, how many people will ever see my picture on a stamp? When I take the hat out and put it on, the staff goes crazy.

I sign a release for placing my stamp in the Finnish national postal museum.

Cards arrive home with this stamp.

Explanation needed.

On the day of the men’s marathon the hotel elevator – famous for mystery stops - stops at the 6th floor and Pete and Tammy get on. Pete is wearing his Detroit Tigers insignia cap - a trademark for him – a treasured item. I had been on my way to watch the entire race on the course, but this decision is easy for me. We watch most of the marathon at the bar and leave in time to see the finish at the stadium.

On the subway Pete sees a young man wearing a CCCP shirt and non-verbal trade negotiations commence. First goes the hat – Pete, the hat! - and soon Pete’s t-shirt becomes part of the bargain as well. The deal is concluded with a t-shirt exchange outside the Metro stop, and Pete is going to be telling this story for many championships to come, pics and all, with editing interruptions from us.

I can’t wait.

*     *     *

Explanations of “no explanation needed.”

  1. David Rudisha’s 800m world record of 1:40.91 is faster than the combined efforts of the first two legs on Russia’s women’s 4x400m relay in Moscow.
  1. Merlene Ottey was known as the ‘bronze queen’ for the 13 times she won bronze medals in World and Olympic competitions – not to mention the seven silvers. When at last she appeared to have won gold in the 100m in Stuttgart in ’93, she looked to her right at the finish line – and was passed by Gail Devers, who won gold by 1/1000th of a second. Fortunately, Ottey came back to win gold in the 200m in the same championships.
  1. Cathy Freeman – Australia’s Freeman was the heavy favorite to win gold in the 400m at home in Sydney in the 2000 Olympics. Burdened by excessive expectations attached to the fact that she would be the first person of Aboriginal descent to win, Freeman stormed to victory in front of delirious fans. It is the single performance in my lifetime I most wish I had seen in person.
  1. The stamp with the goofy guy in the blue and white Viking hat – do I really need to explain this?! Just imagine receiving a post card from me with this stamp. Never were more double takes taken.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Finding Moscow Again

Sarah Godfroy motions with her hands: “Everyone gather ‘round. Everyone come closer. Sometimes people will join us who are not part of our group.”

It’s 1986, midnight in Moscow, and we have just arrived at Hotel Berlin. Twenty-three students, two teachers, and a handful of parents from Seattle.

It’s January, two days before the Challenger disaster.

The man who was trying to join our group shadowed us everywhere we went. Every tour, every restaurant, the overnight train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, the flight out, even, from St. Petersburg to Helsinki.
This was how the Soviet Union stayed at ‘full employment.’

Now every time I say to a Russian, “I was last here in ’86,” the door flies open to a discussion of before and after.

The first time, the Soviet effort to keep us separated from the people we were there to visit was undone by the explosion of the Challenger. Everywhere we went, people approached us on the street and offered genuine sympathy and concern and told us how sorry they were.

Now I am here for the World Track and Field Championships and am trying to find this new and different Moscow.

Still it's not easy, but you do get around and no one follows.

I undertake three epic walks.

The first is designed by Kirill, a smart and thoughtful front desk staffer at my hotel. With a degree in journalism, Kirill is working at the hotel to improve his already excellent English; he knows where he’s going.

I take the Metro to a stop short of Red Square and instead of turning left to the Kremlin, Kirill has me turn right towards a church. It’s getting late but it doesn’t matter.

The sun is setting, the domes are gold, and I have brought my camera.

I do a 6 kilometer ‘block’ which brings me around the Kremlin off the tourist path. In the distance I see the entrance Sarah brought us through on that frigid night twenty-seven years ago. We walked ten minutes from our hotel to Red Square and entered through an arch as the square burst before us.

As I approach the Kremlin this time, it’s not midnight but dusk on a warm evening that brings out walkers, picknickers, readers, and obsessive texters.

On the expansive lawn just ahead of me, a woman is giving her partner an energetic massage. How sweet, I think, how devoted of her to be so generous to him. The new Moscow, where public displays of affection - between straight people - are part and parcel of everyday life.

As the path brings me closer, I realize what’s taking place between them is a bit more than massage… who knew that on this day of only one final - the men’s 50k walk - there was so much action in the field events after all?

Not a chance of this happening in 1986, as this would earn you a one-way ticket into the Gulag.

Red Square is dominated by the Kremlin wall on one side and Gum’s Department store on the other. Then, there was great discomfort in having access to stores, food, and supplies everyday Russians could not get close to. Now, Gum’s is dominated by Western status symbol companies and still I wonder who has access.

A morning walk draws me to the cluster of new skyscrapers that now dominate Moscow’s skyline. A one-hour stroll becomes three and a half as I make numerous detours through neighborhoods on the way. 
I stop at a café whose décor is dominated by heavy red velvet drapes that provide the faux intimacy that attracts us back to our own places like this time and time again.

An enormous graveyard unsettles me. I have strong enough feelings about not wishing to take up any space when I’m gone; if everyone occupies as much space as each person here, what will be left for our descendants? Photos are engraved into headstones, and many have etched autographs of the dearly departed.

I ask Kirill about this place, thinking I’ve stumbled upon a landmark when in fact this graveyard is one of many. “Moscow has millions of people. Moscow has many dead people,” he deadpans with irrefutable logic.

I arrive at the foot of the skyscrapers, expecting a vibrant downtown. There is nothing there. No restaurants or stores, no activity, no interchange. Few people.

“That’s correct,” says Kirill. “It’s barren.”

I wonder what the future holds for these new global status symbols. Moscow will have to figure out what purpose they serve, after the fact of building them.

I stop at a man’s dried fruit and nut store, and here I find the greatest contrast between then and now. Edibles from around the world are available for a few rubles.

His small store is immaculate; this is his dream. I am always struck by the wistfulness I feel at knowing I’ve met someone only once and won’t see him again - knowing he’s left a lasting impression.

Missing in ’86 was any sense of entrepreneurialism or opportunity. With so much attention focused on Russia’s billionaires now, this man’s dream is refreshing to encounter – and to support.

Wish I’d spent a little more.

A healthy foods restaurant half a block from my hotel causes me to abandon quickly my vow to eat in a different restaurant every day. To say that this contrast with ’86 is stark is to put it mildly. Then, bowl after bowl after bowl of borscht caused me to tighten my belt.

A third walk has me on the tourist trail, and on my last full day I walk two kilometers into Gorky Park and back again along the Moskva River. While much is made of the transformation of Gorky Park from carnival camp to Moscow’s answer to Central Park, no one needs convince me. I could sit here and read forever. Except, perhaps, in winter.

I enter a WC and the opening of the door triggers a musical cavalcade - opera in the toilet.

I decide to cross the river. It’s a spectacular day and Moscow unfurls in front of me like the sails on the enormous statue of Peter the Great on a ship. I wave to Pete and find myself back at the cathedral I’d seen at dusk a few nights earlier. I try to enter and commit a cultural faux pas. “No shorts,” says the attendant.

This time I decide to come full circle and retrace our entry into Red Square; I enter through the same archway as at midnight long ago.

Today, the joke is on me as Red Square has been turned into two public areas: one for an equestrian competition, the other enormous temporary stands for a concert.

Who knew that one of the biggest changes would be that now you can obtain a user permit for Red Square?

The neighborhood around my hotel emerges slowly. I come to realize that my quest for finding neighborhoods where ‘the real’ Muscovites live and work was something I needn’t have tied so hard to find. I’ve been living in one all along.

On and near Novoslobodskaya Street - which I’ve nicknamed “Death Alley” due to the freeway-like speeds achieved by motorists on this neighborhood’s main drag - I count five cafes, seven restaurants, and numerous kiosks which seem to be like 7/11s, but in one-tenth the space. There are tech stores, a pharmacy, clothing stores and a Metro stop… everything you’d need to live quite successfully without an automobile.

What strikes me as I stay in the same neighborhood for nine days is that I start to recognize some of the people. Beyond the predictable places like the restaurants and cafes where I’ve liked to hang out, I realize that what appeared to be a fairly transient neighborhood is only busy instead.

Language is my filter, and it’s through Kirill at the hotel and Anja and Albert at the stadium that I get as close to Moscow as I do; it’s their English that makes it possible.

Anja graciously appoints herself my host. Her snacks become mine, and every time a US athlete wins a medal she turns and says, “Congratulations!” On Friday and Saturday, when Russia has colossal medal hauls, I miss some congratulations in return and am kicking myself still.

When it’s time for their two-year-old daughter to leave early one day, Albert takes her home, not Anja.

Things have changed, indeed.

Later that day, when overenthusiastic guards try to keep Anja from joining her daughter, the guards get an earful. Anja is the only one I see break through the barricade without first having thrown a punch.

Communication is more than language and I duck into a neighborhood barbershop and sit for my intercultural haircut – something I’ve done in several countries now. Ludmilla, the barber of Moscow, does not know a word of English and I know as many of Russian. With a few gestures and lots of trust, I yield to her gentle instructions, and find my hair washed before her expert snipping as well as after.

I see my dental hygienist the day after I return. “Where did you get that haircut, Mark? It suits you perfectly. It makes you look younger.” Perhaps we could have stopped after two observations?

I return to an Azerbaijani restaurant where the owner’s English is far better than his menu’s. I want to find out what, exactly, is meant by “moving with yoghurt” as a stand-alone menu item. 

Lamb proves to be the answer, though I note that the menu actually says “moving with a yoghurt,” and this leads to further contemplation of what, exactly, constitutes a single yoghurt – a whole new concept.

Vegetarian dolmas prove unusually chewy - a surprisingly musky taste for grains. I ask again.

Now I’ve had mutton.

So much for three years’ abstinence from red meat.

One evening on a subway platform a man recognizes my distress when I am hopelessly lost. He stops to get out his iPad and shows me my way to the stadium. Plans my route, actually, and does not let me go until he is sure I know the way. 

“Downstairs and left,” he repeats, “downstairs and left.”

On my first night in Moscow I take a cab to Luzhniki Stadium. Never am I touched more than when the driver I’ve communicated with through writing and gestures returns late at night to pick me up.

When I tip him, he wants to know why.

I spend nine days shedding a receding memory of what Russia was like under Communist rule. Many times I begin to think I'm back in the USSR, but I'm not. Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary in 1986 and Vladimir Putin leads now - proof that change is not always progress. 

Still, neither prevents me from finding Moscow; my comrades won't allow them to stand in our way.

*   *   *

On my last night, a man ahead of me on the Metro escalator is wearing
plaid shorts with argyle socks.

Guess I’m back in the USSR after all.