When I started college way back in 2000, one of the first friends I made was a grill cook. An middle-aged African-American man working in the dining hall at a predominantly white engineering school in Alabama, it took just a couple days for me to notice that in a life full of face-to-face interaction, terse was generally about the best he got from his customers. I won’t use his name here—or other names throughout this week’s blog—because I try to avoid writing about identifiable people without their permission, but that gentleman responded to a lot of indifference and coldness from students with a bright smile, the sort that just makes you want to be good to others, to work hard—to be a good person. I hope you’ve seen a smile like that before: there are few things in this life so powerful. So I introduced myself. He introduced himself, and every day as I worked through my freshman meal plan, we talked. We talked about family. We talked—gingerly—about looking and sounding unlike the people around us. We talked about sports, music, the weather, plans. I was going to be a writer. He was going to open a restaurant. Simple things, mostly, and very little of earth shattering consequence, but we talked, and we got to know each other.

Now, my favorite item to order was a Philly cheesesteak, but that was the most expensive thing on the grill menu. Halfway through the semester, I noted the need to start conserving the cash a little bit.

This story about food eventually connects to Novosibirsk. In the meantime, enjoy a view of the municipal skating rink, and its ever-vigilant penguin guard.

This story about food eventually connects to Novosibirsk. In the meantime, enjoy a view of the municipal skating rink, and its ever-vigilant penguin guard.

“Cheesesteak?” he asked when I walked in one afternoon.

“I’m thinking maybe turkey today,” I said. A turkey sandwich was two bucks, to the cheesesteak’s six.

“Turkey cheesesteak?”

That sounded like a good idea, but I was reluctant.

“Does a turkey cheesesteak cost like a turkey sandwich, or a cheesesteak?”

He smiled, the way I described before. “I suppose if some turkey and cheese fell on the grill for a minute, it’d still be a turkey sandwich.”

“Sold,” I told him.

He made the sandwich, and we talked. As he was about to finish, a guy walked up, someone I knew from class. One of the entitled scowlers the grill cook still managed to smile at every day.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Cheesesteak,” the cook said.

A little kindness, I learned, goes a long way, especially concerning the people who serve others all day. Throughout all my travels and my moves, some of the most wonderful people I’ve met have been in the service industry. Hostel managers and clerks from my travels around Europe. A Starbucks barista who became a friend, a band mate and will be a groomsman for me in a few months. The cleaning guys at the newspaper office. These are the people I’ve connected with most and learned the most from over the years, and the same holds true in Novosibirsk.

It took four months, but I've finally spotted a bear in Russia.

It took four months, but I've finally spotted a bear in Russia.

I’ve seen some of my favorite people this week, and they’re not who you might expect. Yes, I’ve got great admiration for my university colleagues and students, the official folks with whom I engage all the time. But the most interesting acquaintances I’ve developed in Siberia are with the people who do the quiet things to make life easier for each other, the people who serve each other. The guy who cuts my hair, for example. We battle language a little bit every time I come to the shop, but we wade through it with a sense of humor. He does good work, but lots of people can cut hair. Someone who is personable and respectful, kind and polite? That’s more important.

Then, there’s my pizza dealer, a term that’s completely unofficial and made-up, but that’s what I call the guy who always mans the counter at the pizzeria a few blocks from my flat. Every week or so, I go in

He knew, at least at the beginning of my time in Novosibirsk, that language restricted my order to the handful of items I understood, and so he took the time, even when the line was long

And of course, the first group of folks—aside from people with official duties along those lines—who went out of their way to make me feel comfortable in Novosibirsk: the staff at Akademie Coffee. Little by little, each week we learn to communicate better, to dig beyond simple orders of food and drink and to get to know each other a little bit better. I’m looking forward to what the new year and the next few months have in store.

That's a New Year's Tree--not a Christmas Tree. I'll explain next week...

That's a New Year's Tree--not a Christmas Tree. I'll explain next week...

Speaking of the new year: Christmas hasn’t happened yet in Russia, since the Orthodox Church continues to use the Gregorian calendar, and so tomorrow (New Year’s Eve) marks the beginning of the holiday season here. I wish everyone a wonderful start to the New Year, and I look forward to exploring the festivities here. Have a safe and wonderful beginning to 2017, wherever on this fascinating planet you may be.

Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.