Last week, I received a gift from the heavens: the local food and entertainment Web site for Novosibirsk posted an article reviewing a slew of new steak and burger restaurants. Though I am a bit skeptical about the widespread Russian practice of advertising meat via smiling cartoon characters depicting the animal one is about to consume, I’m a big fan of a good steak. And thanks to that article, I’ve eaten well this week.
But that wasn’t really the gift. My favorite moment of the week came inside one of those restaurants, but it had nothing to do with anything on my plate. In fact, I didn’t even have a plate when it happened. Moments after I walked into Meat Bar Beefy (one of the great restaurant names in recorded history, I must say), I was greeted by a smiling waitress who showed me to my seat. My Russian is good enough at this point that I can always get to a seat with no problem. Checking the menu takes a little bit of time, though, and that’s where I run up against a little bit of an issue: Russian servers tend to be really attentive. Like, really attentive. In fact, it’s not unusual for the server to hang around while you check the menu, just in case you have any questions. They also are really good at making suggestions. But my comprehension isn’t quite quick enough to thrive in these fast-turnover situations, and so I generally spend a good bit of time with my mouth hanging open, trying to sort out what to say or how to respond.
Often, when I ask for a few moments, the server will give me some space to wrestle with the menu on my own. But at this upstart restaurant—which had the ambition to set up shop right next door to one of its most established competitors—that space wasn’t about to happen.
On this particular day, the server noticed pretty quickly that not everything was clicking for me. When I asked her for a minute, she walked away, but it wasn’t to give me time. It was to find reinforcements.
First, she went to the grill, where everyone sort of looked up at me with curiosity and shrugs. Then she went to the guy tending the register, who seemed to be a manager. He jogged up to the table to help, and with a big smile he said, “English,” then held his index finger and thumb a thimble’s width apart to convey his small vocabulary. He started to point out menu highlights, but in the background a general call had gone through the restaurant for help: who can speak English?
Instantly, another smiling gentleman with a delightful Afro-Caribbean accent and a rich knowledge of English popped up from his family’s table and came to join the cavalry. At this point, there were five people forming a crescent around my menu and I.
“What would you like to eat?” the helpful customer asked.
“Steak, of course,” I said. Everybody understood that, because the Russian word for steak is steak. Everybody laughed, because of course that’s what I wanted in a meat bar called Beefy.
As you can imagine, I was absolutely overwhelmed at this point. By the time the second person joined in to help, could’ve easily had my order sorted out on my own: my tablet has a fantastic photo translation app that would’ve instantly rendered the entire menu into English. So for a moment, I was flustered and impatient. All these people around me, all this fuss, all the needless complexity of it, when the problem could have been solved by a tiny bit of time and technology. And yet: this was so much better! Friendly, caring people were surrounding me, trying to give me a good experience, bouncing language and ideas back and forth between each other until we came to a consensus on the perfect type of steak. The sheer cooperation and friendliness of it was astounding, and even though I’m not keen on people fussing over me in public, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the corps of people who surrounded me in kindness that afternoon.
I look at this instance as the polar opposite of my roughest day in Russia, a winter evening in an Irkutsk Mongolian restaurant when a drunken customer refused to sit in the room with a foreigner and made a huge, ugly scene, with an end result of the servers sneaking me into a back room while lots of folks stared and whispered. This time, though, the scene was created in mercy and helpfulness, warmth. The people of Novosibirsk have always trended toward friendliness in any situation, and this was just one more example of kindness gone wild.
When I read global news that shows politicians and half-informed mobs from America to Great Britain, Latin America, Denmark, and Japan railing about globalism and how it must be stopped, I can’t help but be sad, because these are the sorts of minutes that people are so actively fighting against: the pure, blunt goodness of kind and hopeful human interaction. But I value human experience over political rhetoric, and so I’m hopeful, too, because the sheer volume of kindness and love I’ve encountered in all my trips, from Cleveland to Chisinau and London to Lithuania is so much more powerful than all the political ignorance and backward grasping this world can muster. There’s a popular slogan back in the States that’s used for a fairly specific campaign and purpose, but I find that it has much broader, almost universal application: “Love Wins.” In between the rare moments of human grumpiness, I’ve see a lot of love winning this year.
Later in the week at a different restaurant, a different waiter spoke splendid English and instead of a wild scene, we had a nice, quiet conversation, first in his language and then shifting to mine. He told me how relieved he was when I ordered a steak cooked properly. Apparently, since news spread that America’s president likes his steaks well-done and with a thick coating of ketchup, that’s become a trendy order among Russian men wishing to add an air of power to their meals.
“I don’t admire any man enough to eat a badly cooked steak on his account,” I told him.
“That,” he said, “is wisdom.”
Later, the chef came out and shook my hand. “That’s the first one I’ve gotten to cook properly today,” he said through my server-turned-translator. “Did you like it?”
“It was a work of art,” I said.
And it was.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.