SOCHI, Russia -- Olga Demchenko was chattering with a companion, barely paying attention to her surroundings, when she suddenly stopped. The Sochi native retraced her steps to an empty lot beside the security service headquarters and exclaimed, "There was a building here! Where did it go?"
Wild guess: The Olympics took it away.
The Russian host city of the 2014 Winter Games, which kicks off Feb. 7, hasn't undergone a simple face-lift; it has built an entirely new self, from head to toe to soul.
Some destinations fit the Platonic ideal of the Winter Olympics. Innsbruck and Calgary, for instance, seemingly teethed on the competition's five rings. Salt Lake City, Chamonix and Lake Placid all engage in the sporting life even when the world's cameras aren't watching.
Sochi, however, fogs the goggles. Rub them clean and you'll see palms and tropical fruit trees, tea plantations and a seaside promenade still lively in the off-season. Downtown, locals in light jackets relax at outdoor cafes on a mild November day, a social scene that's more South of France than southwest of Siberia.
Once, the subtropical vacation spot was an insider's destination, the so-called Summer Capital of Russia, drawing health-seekers and mineral-water-soakers. Now, with just a couple of weeks before the Opening Ceremony, Sochi finds itself on a pedestal, spinning in public view, fully exposed to inquisitive international eyes.
To know Sochi is to understand its backstory, a compelling tale that bears the hallmarks of a Bob Costas narrative. There's heartbreak and uplift, a comeback and a reinvention, and endless possibilities that could endure long after the flame goes dark.
Was, is, will be. That was my mission: to examine Sochi in three tenses.
I started, of course, in the "is," a moment in mid-November that was as wispy and fleeting as the clouds scooting over the Black Sea. One day a building's there, the next it's gone. A street is ripped up, a hole is filled, a city changes shape before your eyes.
"Everything is new. The pavement is new, the bus stop is new, the road is new," said Andrei Ponomarenko, my interpreter. "The whole city has been reconstructed."
Sochi is undergoing a building boom that has grown louder as the Games draw near. But even the largest earthmover can't alter the natural features that squeeze the city like a girdle.
Tale of two venues
The Greater Sochi area edges up against 90 miles of Black Sea coastline, with the white-crowned peaks of the Caucasus Mountains crouching on the sidelines. The city, considered to be the longest in Europe, is divided into four districts that tumble into one another. I checked off three in one cab ride: Adler (the airport), Central Sochi (my hotel, the Zhemchuzhina Hotel Complex) and Khosta (the connecting tissue). For a fourfecta, I visited the Dagomys tea plantation in Lazarevsky, in the north. Without traffic, the all-district drive takes about two hours, but if you think that you won't hit a snag, then you probably flew in on a unicorn.
"I am proud that we have the Olympics," said Ms. Demchenko, an English language teacher, "but we have a lot of difficulties. Our roads are good, but our traffic jams are bad."
During the Games, athletes and spectators will congregate in Adler's Coastal Cluster, site of the skating, hockey and curling contests, plus the Olympic Village and Stadium. For competitions involving skis, sleds and boards, the crowds will head to Krasnaya Polyana, the ski resort area about 40 miles east of the city center.
The Olympics are just one plot point in President Vladimir Putin's ambitious script. President Barack Obama has health care; Mr. Putin has the third coming of Sochi.
"The third phase is now the legend of Putin turning Sochi into an all-year resort," Mr. Ponomarenko told me during our city tour. "The Olympics facilitated this idea."
He explained Mr. Putin's vision while we were idling in Phase 1, the Stalin Years, which preceded Khrushchev's plan to improve living conditions by erecting five-story concrete residences. (To experience Phase 2, stroll the banks of the Sochi River.)
"This is the Sochi of 60 years ago," he said, as we stood outside the Ordzhonikidze Sanatorium, gazing at a statue of a male with an Adonis body.
In the 1930s and '40s, Stalin ordered the construction of about 20 sanatoriums in Sochi, creating a salubrious resort town dedicated to the health and wellness of the Soviet Union's worker bees. The government ministries subsidized a month of R&R -- work hard 11 months of the year and receive a complimentary stay at a Communist-style Canyon Ranch.
"Stalin wanted to show the capitalists that they really took great care of their people and could provide them with resting opportunities," Mr. Ponomarenko said. "They created palaces of health and palaces of culture."
No surprise, the grand neoclassical complex is closed for renovations. It's slated to reopen in 2017 as a high-end hotel.
What's that I hear? The sea breeze rustling the palm fronds or the sound of capitalists chuckling?
Of all the luck, I arrived on City Day, which celebrates Sochi's founding with music, dancing and food; and anti-terrorism week, which is anti-fun.
Russia, as you know, is not the most popular kid in the former bloc. On the public bus, a passenger window displayed a wanted poster for two alleged terrorists. Military vessels patrol the waters of the Black Sea. Lower down the anger scale are budget hawks and struggling citizens who decry the escalating costs of the Olympics, which are expected to exceed $50 billion ($38 billion over budget). And this summer, Mr. Putin agitated gay rights activists by pushing through a law that bans the distribution of gay-friendly materials to minors.
"We're not used to a man kissing another man," said Mr. Ponomarenko. "Sooner or later, we'll all follow your footsteps, but it's not going to be this year or next."
Sochi is home to two gay clubs, including the Lighthouse, which holds nightly drag shows. "We are more tolerant than people in other cities," said Lighthouse owner Andrei Tanichev from the comfort of a dimly lit booth at his club. "After some time, Russian people will be more tolerant."
The Greater Caucasus Mountains formed 25 million years ago, and yet Sochi is only now getting around to building a substantial ski resort destination. Not to nag, but it had millennia to work on this project.
To make up for lost time, construction crews have been cranking out massive chain hotels and Alpine-inspired chalets, erecting ski facilities and shaping ski runs over the past five years. The mountain bases are loud, messy and muddy, with burly men and jaunty stray dogs roaming the grounds in species-specific packs.
On the two-lane road to Krasnaya Polyana, Mikhail Mordasov, a Sochi-based photographer, was behind the wheel of his car, stuck in fitful traffic. We were listening to Culture Club and the Steve Miller Band on a new (of course) English-language radio station. Mr. Mordasov warned me that English conversation and driving don't go together, but singing quietly to oneself was acceptable.
Early in the drive, we passed the new Adler train station, a greenish glass structure shaped like a dropped Q-Tip. The airport followed on this informal tour of Sochi's transportation facilities. It opened in 1950 with one terminal; No. 2 joined the party only in 2010.
Eventually, nature entered the picture. The Mzymta River flowed to my right, the white water catching on shallow rocks. Nearby, farmed trout swam laps in tidy rows of pools. Persimmon trees added flashes of red to the dusty-brown palette.
The scene was timeless until Mr. Mordasov broke his vow not to speak English with some development updates. "The tunnel is new," he noted as we drove through the belly of a mountain. He wasn't finished. On this short stretch, he added a sail-shape bridge for cars, a secondary road and the tracks that connect Adler to Krasnaya Polyana. On a ledge, a billboard featuring a cartoon snow leopard, one of the Olympic mascots, reminded us why Sochi has so many new toys.
At Gornaya Karusel ski resort, the hammering noise fell silent once we entered the tram. As we ascended, the mountains took their rightful place in the landscape, gobbling up the man-made structures below. We hopped out at one landing and then another until we reached the 7,283-foot peak. I stepped onto a thin rug of snow.
For the final climb, I scaled the steps of a restaurant porch, reaching the highest elevation possible while wearing the wrong season of footwear. In the far corner, I looked down to see Monopoly-small buildings squatting on a plateau and the hamster run of a bobsled track. The Caucasus rose from all sides, a granite embrace that will never let go.
Interesting fact that Mr. Costas might overlook in his coverage: Sochi wins the bid for having the northernmost tea plantation in the world.
The region can pull this off because of its warm and humid climate, consistent sunshine, sufficient rain and absence of industrial pollution.
Vodka may grab all the punch lines, but tea is the straight man at the table. It earns one's respect as the country's No. 1 beverage.
To witness the entire tea-producing process -- from leaf-picking to boxing to teahouse tasting -- I ventured into the Dagomys region, north of Central Sochi. In the late 19th century, an entrepreneur named Judas Koshman planted the first tea bush here. But his success was shortlived, a victim of mercurial politics and tastes.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Russians lost interest in tea production. In the 1930s, Stalin established collective farms, but during World War II, tea-making stopped. The first state-owned plantation appeared in 1947. Nearly half a century later, the difficulties associated with perestroika begat innovations.
"There was no money to buy pesticides," said Moroz Vyacheslav, general manager of the Dagomystea brand. "It's organic because of the hardships of the 1990s."
Tea now has the full backing of the people and the president, who has instructed his entire cabinet to drink the hot beverage.
Heading back on the train to Adler, I was finally alone with Sochi. No more tour guides, interpreters or 15-minute friends; no more construction workers or jackhammers.
I relished the train's cleanliness and quiet. As we started to move, a prerecorded English voice explained the procedures (no smoking) and the route (from Central Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana). It started its discourse with a charming, "Dear Passengers."
I was riding a new train to a new stop in a city obsessed with keeping itself shiny and sparkly. But out the window, I focused on the one element that Sochi can't modernize: the Black Sea, which has soothed Russians' souls during good periods and bad, from time immemorial.