Sometimes, you can learn the truth about a place and its culture from the person closest to you — in this case, my producer.
Sergei Sotnikov, NPR's producer and translator in Russia, was with me on my first reporting trip since taking over as the network's Moscow correspondent last month.
We were in eastern Ukraine, in the industrial city of Donetsk. After a bumpy 12-hour train trip through the night, we were exhausted.
Fortunately, we didn't have to dive right into interviews. Sergei's dad happens to live in Donetsk — he's Russian but moved the family to Ukraine years ago. Sergei suggested we drop by for some tea.
Turned out, it wasn't just tea. It was also cognac. At 7 a.m.
Sergei's dad, Nikolai Sotnikov, served me as soon as I walked in his front door. And as I knew from reading about Russian families, if a shot of cognac or vodka is offered, saying no is not an option. It's a Russian's way of saying, "Welcome to my home."
Before I came to my assignment in the former Soviet Union, friends warned me that people can be a bit cold and distant — perhaps a legacy of Soviet times, when it paid to keep to yourself.
But as soon as you get to know people here, and especially when invited into their homes, you feel the warmth.
That brings me to Sergei's dad. The 75-year-old was a coal miner in Soviet days. He lost his wife, and he now lives with his friend Taya.
They're not well off by any means. But their hospitality was overwhelming.
Nikolai and Taya heat their home with coal that he gets for free as part of his pension. They cook on a metal slab that's heated by the coal.
"People are poor and hungry in this part of Ukraine," Nikolai Sotnikov explained to me.
He was eager for me to understand the area. I had my microphone and recorder with me, and Sergei's dad encouraged me to interview him, even though it was a social visit. He knew that I was a correspondent, and he didn't want me to be shy about doing my job.
I asked Sergei to translate for me and tell his father that I hadn't intended to interview him in his kitchen. I had just come to meet him. But I appreciated his wisdom and knowledge about this part of Ukraine.
Then, we all sat down and ate everything Taya had prepared on that little stove. Meat rolls, cabbage rolls and Russian dumplings known as pelmeni.
Before it was time to go, one more toast — more cognac. It was a traditional Russian send-off: Cheers to the guests, and safe travels as they set off on their way.
I told Sergei's father what an honor it was to meet him and Taya. He told me he looked forward to my return.
As Sergei and I made our way to town to get to work, I felt that I had gotten an important window into life here. In a part of the world that can seem cold and unwelcoming, there really is warmth beneath the surface.