Six months ago Oleg Kalyan put his life savings of $330 in his pocket and boarded a plane at Moscow's Sheremetyevo II Airport in pursuit of a lifelong dream: to pump iron at Venice Beach.
Kalyan, 30, was Mr. Moscow in 1985, bodybuilding champion of the Russian capital. For years he had read about Venice in muscle magazines.
After serving as a translator for several American businessmen and journalists, Kalyan decided he was ready.
Today, Kalyan lives in a hotel on Venice Beach, works out at Gold's Gym and is trying to find an employer who will sponsor him to receive working papers and eventually become an American citizen.
Mr. Moscow has fallen in love with Los Angeles.
"L.A. is the capital of bodybuilding," said Kalyan. "It's good here. There are lots of girls in bikinis skating, lots of bicycle people."
But now that he lives here, Kalyan spends little time lifting weights at Muscle Beach.
"It's not good for serious workout. It's good for fun. Good for the weekend."
Kalyan pumps up five days a week at Gold's, which gave him a free six-month membership. He is impressed with the equipment, the famous bodybuilders there, but most of all with America's weight-room democracy.
"In Soviet Union, professionals train separately from everyone else. Here, big people like Arnold Schwarzenegger train at the same gym, at the same time as everyone."
At the gym, Kalyan is friendly with a group of weightlifters who have a rock band he is hoping to join (he plays electric guitar.) The group's name: Solid State.
It's not just the weight scene here that impresses Kalyan. Most of all he loves the sunny weather and the food, especially since he is a vegetarian. In Moscow, fruits and vegetables are often in short supply.
His biggest surprise: Stereotypes to the contrary, Californians are not laid-back.
"This is illusion about California, no way," said Kalyan.
Californians, he says, "don't have enough time to relax. . . . They're all involved in business, moneymaking all the time.
"People are very occupied with their profession, their future. There are some people, like bums, they're relaxed. And maybe some of the people playing guitar in Venice.
"In Moscow it's not like this. In Russia, people don't think of future. Maybe this is why we have economic problems."
All the same, Kalyan has found people here very helpful.
"American people very kind, very friendly, and very helpful. Though they're oriented in business they still have time to help people and be interested in them."
"It's easier to survive here than in Moscow. When I told my friends in Moscow I found a job for four hours a day, they were surprised. It's not so easy to find such a job in Moscow."