My favorite thing about growing up and living in Fort Worth is seeing smiling faces every day. We’re a friendly town. Travel + Leisure says we’re the seventh friendliest in the country. On the personal friendly scale, I tip decidedly toward the bubbly type. I talk to anybody and everybody. So my nerves flared after learning I would be visiting Travel + Leisure’s least friendly city in the world.
Along with several fellow Texas Wesleyan University classmates, I recently embarked on a 10-day study tour that included a long stay in Moscow, Russia. I didn’t know how well my usually charming spunk would play in the land of vodka and scowls. During the first few days, I noticed mostly stern and serious looks. I felt like I was playing poker every time I made eye contact with someone. The natives walked quickly on rainy sidewalks and into cold underground tunnels like robots, where they stood around staring at cell phones or at each other in near silence.
I glimpsed only a few seemingly happy Russians at first. One afternoon, I somehow managed to get an older lady to smile back at me as she passed by, but then she was gone. I soon learned that Russians are taught early in life to not randomly smile in public. It shows foolishness. Allegedly. I started questioning my own affinity for smiling. Maybe I’ve been looking like a clueless idiot all my life. But I returned to my normal buoyant self after running into a Russian man who pointed to the Texas pin attached to his shirt. In broken English but with a smile he said he wanted to visit Texas one day despite the extremely hot climate. As I grew more confident in speaking to people, I learned that most Russians equate Texas with heat. One girl asked why my skin was so white since Texans lived next door to Mexico.
Turns out, Russians are much happier than they look. They smile all the time, just on the inside. One day, in search of a nearby bike rental shop, a few of my classmates and I found ourselves lost, as usual, amid the zombies in their concrete jungle. We asked for directions from a sporty couple dressed in North Face attire, walking their bikes down the sidewalk. To my surprise, they whipped out their phones without hesitation to help us find a bike shop within a 20-minute walk. My group of “Yanks” had no clue how to get there, though –– the instructions were in Russian. Our bewildered faces prompted the couple to help us one more time. They escorted us to the rental shop, which was in the opposite direction they were heading. Then they haggled for us in Russian to get the best deal on one-day bike rentals.
And this wasn’t the only time Russians went out of their way to help me navigate their city. I appreciated them whether they were smiling or not. I later met a group of people my age (early 20s) celebrating a birthday at a local coffee shop. After a long night of sipping lattes, sharing stories and laughs, and eating delicious sweet treats, the young Russians invited me back to their apartment. I hesitated until Katya, one of my new Russian friends, reassured me.
“Brianna,” she said, “I will make sure you are safe. If at any moment you feel uncomfortable, I will call you a cab home. It will be fun, and I will be by your side the whole time.”
As we made our way to the apartment, Katya filled me in on the group’s latest gossip and the dynamic of their friendships. We talked as if we were longtime friends. Once inside, I was greeted by an overly happy older couple who roomed with them. The woman grabbed eggs from the fridge and started making breakfast even though it was 3 a.m. They informed her no one was hungry, but she insisted we eat. Katya pulled me aside and said, “It is Russian tradition to feed your guests. Even if you’re not hungry, just eat and say thank you.” I laughed and started eating the meaty omelet by myself. It was delicious, and I actually was hungry. Katya came up to me again and said, “My grandmother does this to me every time I come see her. It’s so annoying. Older Russians feel like they have to feed you when you come over.” I thought to myself how familiar this was. I felt right at home.
Something else was familiar. The music pouring into the kitchen while I was eating was The Beach Boys. The old couple smiled as they grabbed my hands and pulled me up to dance. I felt like I was in a movie. We danced together in a circle until Katya pulled me away to join the younger group in another room. She explained to me what was happening.
“They are so excited to meet you, Brianna,” she said. “They didn’t know what kind of music you liked. They wanted to play something you would like.”
It wasn’t long until the couple found another way to show their hospitality, bringing me a shot of vodka and a little sandwich. The shot was strong, and the sandwich tasted like bologna topped with a weird mustard sauce. The gifts kept coming. The woman dumped out a bag of strange assorted pins. Some pins had funky cartoon characters on them. Others represented Russian historical periods. The pins were from the woman’s cherished collection, according to Katya’s translation. “She has been collecting these since she was 8 years old, and she is now 52,” Katya said. “She wants you to pick out whichever ones you want.”
I picked out a few in fear of being rude and began giving my thanks. However, she was not satisfied and filled my hands full of these Russian novelties. The couple reminded me of my parents when my friends used to come over. I found the same hospitality dear to my Texas heart in Russia. Newsflash: The Travel + Leisure survey that ranked Moscow the rudest cities in the world is wrong.
Brianna Kessler has just graduated from Texas Wesleyan University.