Guest Column:

A squatter's dreams squashed in Russia


This month marks my four-year anniversary. Gifts of sanity are greatly appreciated.

In January 2014, I was as ready, both mentally and physically. Well, mostly mentally, as fatigue was starting to set in from Russia’s plus-nine-hour time difference, compared to Eastern Standard Time. But there was no way a little lethargy was going to stop me from performing 30 body-weight squats, and, in turn, save me 40 Russian Rubles (approximately $1.20 USD at that time) for a free subway ride. I’m not cheap, just frugal.

Moscow’s Metro subway system installed a specialized camera-controlled ticket machine at its Vystavochnaya station, allowing riders to perform 30 squats, earning them a free ride upon completion. This promotion was done in an effort to promote public health, in conjunction with the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. I clearly remember thinking how cool it would be to give my squatting technique — and endurance — a whirl.

I just happened to be vacationing in Moscow and had an extreme-to-the-max urge to find this machine. In fact, I was stoked. No, I didn’t come to Moscow just to perform 30 squats and save myself less than two dollars. It was the only reason I came to Moscow. Kidding.

But Moscow has a very complex — phenomenally structured — subway system, the squat machine was located at only one station and I didn’t speak, read or comprehend Russian. At all. With the exception of the translators at the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel, who held my English-speaking hand most of the time, I was on my own outside the confines of the hotel. I found that simply pointing to items when I wanted something generally worked well, and as for converting money, well, that’s what my iPhone apps were for.

For the most part, I didn’t understand the majority of the locals and that same majority didn’t understand me. But it made things interesting and adventurous. Note to all westerners: It’s always best to refer to Moscow’s underground railway system as Metro, rather than subway, or else you may find yourself directed toward the fast food joint. Trust me, I know: subway equals SUBWAY — but I was just trying to find my way.

During my last day in Moscow, I was determined to find the squatting machine that grabbed national attention just a couple short months prior. I met with the concierge service at the Marriott and they explained that I would have to take three trains — two transfers — in order to arrive at Vystavochnaya station. That was fine with me. Even though the Russian translation of words is generally completely different from the English version, all subways in the Moscow system have numbers and colors. So, I reverted to my childhood roots — counting the number of predetermined stops I had to make on each subway line and following colors at each station. Not too shabby for a non-math genius and a quasi-colorblind guy. But I had a map too, ah hah! Well, that was until it mysteriously fell out of my pocket during one of the transfers. Damn it.

I arrived at Vystavochnaya station without incident, with the exception of numerous stares I received along the way, probably due to the ridiculous-looking fake fur winter hat I was wearing. But I didn’t care a bit — I was proud, psyched and ecstatic. I was a big boy and did it all on my own. Well, mostly. I was officially on a quest to find “the machine.” I needed to feel complete. I needed my squatting fix.

I searched up, down, left, right and every entrance and exit at Vystavochnaya station. “I must be blind,” I thought. I was tired and on the verge of delusion but this was the right station, it had to be. My eyes, fortunately, translated the subway colors correctly and my fingers rarely fail me at counting numbers. But where was the famous squatting machine?

My pride finally got the best of me — I had to ask for help. My pointing technique hadn’t abandoned me yet, so I decided to give it another try. “Oh no, here we go again,” I was saying to myself. “Another group of Russians who are going to think I’m a crazed weirdo.”

I took out my phone and brought up a picture of the gem I was looking for. The moment I showed it to a station security guard — and pointed to the picture — he began to say, “NO, NO,” and motioned his arms as if I was safe after sliding into home plate.

Oh, no. I quickly grabbed the gist of what he was trying to explain. I was devastated. Heartbroken. Crushed. Lost for words. The little kid in me who’d made it all that way by using his childhood skills just got the candy robbed right from his hands. The machine was gone.

My squatting dream was over. Done. There was nothing left to do except quietly go to a ticket machine, suck up my pride, insert 40 Russian Rubles and pay for the subway — Metro — home. But now do my trip all in reverse — reverse translation of a language I couldn’t translate.

I wished I never lost that map.

Brian T. Dessart, a former Herald sports preview editor and director of marketing, now writes for Sports Illustrated, covering performance, fitness and action sports. He also hosts weekly video segments for SI’s NHL division, titled the #NHLNugget.