Friday, December 30, 2005

On Holiday

Everybody I Love You will not be loving you for the next eight or nine days. Celebrating New Year's, Russian Christmas, and whatever else comes along. Gonna be here, there, and everywhere. Should re-emerge with some stories, or at least a few pictures, including one of a modern wonder of the world.

In the meantime, if you're interested in books, you might visit Read.

If you also like feral cats, try Assbackwords.

Otherwise, I'll leave you with Felix Dzherzhinsky, pictured above, the man who established the CHEKA, the forerunner of the KGB. His likeness is still on a prominent corner of the local Ministry of Internal Affairs building.

And oh yeah, when I get back -- someone better not have turned off the gas.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

No stress marriages

Six days ago, I was contacted by a man from America's east coast who'd stumbled upon my site at work. The story he shared with me challenged the most commonly held presumptions of an internet-brokered marriage, so, at the risk of putting forth something that sounds like it belongs in a brochure, I'll post it here. I hope he doesn't mind my posting this truncated version; I asked if I could, but five days have now passed without a response. Perhaps it's the season. Anyways, I see no reason not to, so ...

My New Year's resolution for 2003/4 was to have 5 major international vacations, with most of them being to countries where I haven't visited before. (At that time, I had been to roughly 50 countries in various capacities.) One area of the world that I hadn't been to that I really wanted to go was the FSU (Former Soviet Union). None of the friends that I travel with were interested in going to the FSU, and I speak no Russian. (Even today, I still can't roll my r's.) Since I didn't have any connections there, I thought that I would post an ad on Elena's Models. While I adhered to the standard ad, in a very early mailing, I would always mention that I was primarily interested in seeing and experiencing a new country. What did I look for in a travelling companion? Someone around 30, fluent in English, well-educated with a background or at least an interest in history, and enjoying travel.

Inna had joined Elena's Models at the urging of a friend. She felt it would be an excellent way to practice her English. If someone actually visited, she thought it would be fun to show the person her country. She was planning on becoming a professor of history/philosophy in Belarus upon completing her doctorate and really didn't have much intention of leaving.

So, I went to Belarus for a couple of weeks during the first half of 2004. I selected Inna/Belarus and not some other person in that she was the easiest and most fun to talk with, and I figured we could have an enjoyable time together. At the time of my visit, I was dating a couple of women in the US. Of course, neither one was yet serious, but when I got back from vacation, I would have to figure out which one I wanted to date seriously.

Bottom line, Inna and I had a wonderful time together, and I felt that I got to experience a little of what life under Communism must have been like. When I got back to the US, I decided who I really wanted to date. Much to my surprise, it was Inna. We had a wonderful time together about 5 weeks later in Moscow, then a month after that in Prague, then Warsaw, and finally Lithuania. We continue to have a good time in the US. Inna and I have been married for three months today.

I think the secret to my success is that I didn't go to the FSU to "meet a wife", I went to "meet a friend" and to have an enjoyable vacation. Many of the other successful couples that I've met have also met under lower stress circumstances.

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Winter Photos

Beautiful around here of late, though the sidewalks get more slippery by the day, with little patches of black ice building up here and there. The men pictured above got along just fine, slowly walking through the snow. I took their picture in the park nearest my apartment.

The second shot is a close-up of the statues in the background of the first photo. All of the busts, like this one, are Soviet-era, honoring heroes from the 1920s through the Great Patriotic War to near the end of the Krushchyov era. This guy, I thought, looked a bit like Reagan, at least his hair did.

The final shot, taken in October, shows the memorial mosaic in the far background of the first shot.

Click any of the photos to make them larger.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Cook's Corner: A discovery is made

I now know how Columbus must have felt when he first saw land on the western horizon, or what must have been going through Balboa's mind when he climbed the crest of a mountain and spotted the glimmering Pacific beneath his feet. I have joined the ranks of the world’s great explorers, because this evening I stopped dumbfounded in a Ukrainian super-market and raised to my eyes a jar of classic American peanut butter -- peanut butter, in the wilds of Eastern Europe!

I wasn’t prepared for this. Just last week, a public affairs officer with the State Department told me of a bazaar held each year at the US Embassy in Kyiv for the benefit of the ex-pat community. “Next year sell peanut butter” – this was what they'd heard again and again. “We can’t find peanut butter anywhere.”

Nor could I, though certainly I'd tried. This very same week, at a market just north of Kharkov National University, I’d thought I’d come across some. It was a small plastic tub, like the type you might see used to sell cottage cheese in the states. On the lid was a picture of a rabbit (related to Bugs Bunny from the looks of him) who was poking up out of a small circle (again, very reminiscent of the opening of any Looney Tunes cartoon -- you quickly get the idea that a copyright attorney would have a field day here). Beneath this (and a word I didn't understand) was a bold amber word, “Maca,” which I took to be the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian word for butter, “Maclo.” This by itself wasn’t exciting, but the cartoon peanuts that were scattered all around the lid were. I was the holder of a Master’s degree in English, after all -- a linguist you could say, capable of connecting meanings and tracing roots, and here was a word that meant butter and there were pictures that meant peanuts. Synthesize the two and you had peanut butter.

So yes, I put the tub in my basket and walked proudly to the front check-out. And of course it wasn’t the right thing. Opening the lid, I found something inside that was thick, spreadable and white -- certainly nothing resembling the peanut. And instead of nuts, the concoction was spotted by the stray yellow raisin. I tested it out on a corner of bread. It wasn’t bad, but it wouldn’t go with jelly. If anything, it belonged inside a bliny. I put it away, resenting once again, in this city that speaks only slightly more Ukrainian than Vietnamese, the lack of bi-lingual packaging. (And say what you will about Ukraine’s need to assert its independence and establish a national identity, but know too that it’s more than frustrating to leave the pharmacy, as I’ve done on more than one ocassion, with three or four things that include instructions only in a language that’s all but impossible to learn in the American university system. Maybe when Ukrainian politicians don’t need coaching on their country's official language, maybe then I’ll say Ukraine's ready to be mono-lingual. But until then, for the sake of my sanity and the simple health of any Russian-speaking tourist industry that might develop …)

Back to the peanut butter, though, and fast-forward to this evening. That’s when I entered the Target super-market just off the Marshal Zhukova Metro stop. I’d been here before, I’d seen the massive blue and yellow building taking up half a city block and heard it spoken of as the Ukrainian Wal-Mart. But I’d never seen peanut butter inside its concrete walls, and I no longer expected to. Like all dreamers, I’d learned the futility of unrealized potential. I was hoping to buy some eggs, some lavash, maybe a can of peas. I was happy to make-do. But then there it was, arranged neatly on a little island display away from the shelves. A flag planted, as if planted into the soil of a new world, rose from between the many plastic jars: Oreshka Peanut Butter, it read.

The contents of the jar were concealed by a plastic halter on which a striped and amber cat offered a wide grin, looking vaguely like a cousin of Tony the Tiger’s (though with a poofy white hat borrowed from Chef Boy Ardee). Running off to the sides of his cartoon face were pictures of peanuts.

I flipped it over to look through the clear plastic bottom: a thick brown paste. Like gold, Texas tea, most definitely peanut butter. I looked again at the label, which offered up a loving combination of Ukrainian and Russian, belying its origins in the eastern city of Lugansk. Oreshka, it read, classic peanut butter, No. 1 in Ukraine.

Here was the national dish of America, and even the marketing reminded me of home. It was awash in bullshit. Number one in Ukraine? Of course! Because there is no number two! Still, who cared?

I write to you three sandwiches later, content to my very core. This comes one day after cooking home-made, curry-flavored tofu burgers, the blocks of bean curd found at the sprawling Barabashova Market, hidden away from the outdoor vendors and located in the Asian market behind the handful of walk-up Vietnamese lunch counters.

If you’re looking for bok choy, I’ve got a guy who can score me some of that too. Anything else, let's talk.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Belarus to restrict marriage agencies

In Belarus, where the state controls 80 percent of all business and the country is led by "Europe's last dictator," a new law has been passed requiring models -- or clothing demonstrators, as they're known by their government labor records -- to be citizens of Belarus. If they're not, they can't appear on a billboard, tv commercial or in a newspaper or magazine ad inside the country.

The law requiring a model to prove her citizenship was passed in April, after President Aleksander Lukashenko fretted over the mushrooming presence of Cindy Crawfords and Kate Mosses last year.

I always imagined Belarus would be the next major source of internet-arranged marriages, if its borders ever became more open. But in the immediate future at least, it looks like less marriages will be brokered out of Ukraine's northern neighbor.

A new law passed by the lower house of Parliament last week, for example, would impose restrictions on Internet dating and marriage agencies, especially those catering to foreigners. It would also restrict college students from studying abroad without permission from the Education Ministry.

The rest of this article can be found in the New York Times.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

'Tis the Season

It's been a strange, enjoyable Christmas season so far. No jingles that stay in your head, no plastic Santas on every third lawn, no Christmas sales advertised on tv and radio and in my Sunday paper, no Christmas-themed television shows and segments on the evening news live from Wal-Mart to tell you what's this year's Cabbage Patch or Furbee or Burping Betty. No first day after Thanskgiving. No last day for guaranteed delivery by the 24th. No Kwanza, thank god there's none of that. This is a holiday so cynical and materialistic, people, it was created to coincide with the post-Christmas sales -- the seven day celebration of "African roots" starts December 26th, at a mall near you.

Scrooge, you say? No. Just saying if we used to celebrate a religion, a system of beliefs, now, in the secular world, we celebrate a verb: to buy. The stuff with the family's good Christmas Day, but there's about 30 days of Christmas leading up to that which can induce a crazy kind of anxiousness and fear.

I found this enjoyable read on a friend's blog.

There is nothing in the Gospels about battling other parents for the last Xbox 360 or knocking down other shoppers to get to discounted personal computers. There are no Christmas sales in the New Testament, nor is there instruction on returning the items you didn't like. There are no guidelines on the dubious practice of "re-gifting." (If you look closely, however, you can probably find admonitions against cursing out the motorist who got to that one empty parking space before you.)

Here, a tree went up the other day in the public square. I saw one store that looked a little greener and redder than usual. Nothing on TV. But then they celebrate according to the Julian calendar, January 7, and I hear trees are decorated and gifts exchanged for New Year's as much as anything else. It's like there's a war somewhere, and all the usual color and noise has been rationed, enough left only for a central square and then another tree down at the train station. Oh, and snow. They had enough left over for that.

It's kind of nice.

Photo courtesy of Adbusters, the anti-consumerist group with branches in a handful of countries, including Norway.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

The Baltic States, an unlikely tour

I found myself needing this information today to acknowledge some research for a magazine bio, so I thought to post these links here. You may not be in the area to visit, but you can at least have a click and see. It's important that everyone does, I'd say. The lessons of history and all that, don't know them they repeat today; you know the routine. Anyways:

Two summers ago, I visited Moscow with my girlfriend, who was kind enough to take me, with my interest in the Cold War and 20th century history, to the Lubyanka Building, in the heart of the Russian capital. Here, in a beautiful yellow building, the KGB used to do not so beautiful things in the basement. Isaac Babel is believed to have been killed here, caught up in one of Stalin's purges. His last words: "Let me finish my work!"

From there, I left alone by train for a tour of the Baltic states, and a tour, I'm sure, few travel agents would book. The Museums were located in each of the capitals: Tallinn, Latvia, Vilnius. By the end, I thought to get a faux-rock concert shirt printed: Stephan Clark's Tour of Oppression and Repression, Summer 2004.

In Tallinn, I visited the Occupation Museum, which tells Estonia's history from 1940 until the end of Communist rule in 1991. Located in a modern building on the edge of the city's beautiful Old Town, you'll find lots of video here documenting the period, from the initial Nazi occupation to the take-over by the Red Army and the subsequent authority of the KGB. The website offers Russian, English and Estonian versions.

Riga also has an Occupation Museum, and it too is housed in a beautiful building in the Old Town. No video that I recall, but plenty of personal items are on display here, including many, like this facemask used to fight the cold, that detail the gulag system in ways that were invaluable to my research of "Kamkov the Astronomer," a short story forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review. This website, while beautifully designed and offering a great virtual tour, does not offer a Russian version, like the following website, something I find a little peculiar. The above image was borrowed from this site.

Finally, I visited The Genocide Victims' Museum in Vilnius, which is housed in the basement of the city's former KGB headquarters. You enter it as a prisoner would, moving from the registration desk to those more chilling rooms in back, such as the Room of Inquiry and the Room of Execution. All the while, if you listen to the voice of the poncey Brit on the supplied Walkman, you learn about the many horrors that took place here. It is chilling. An experience best taken alone, on a slow day, when, if you're lucky, you might not bump into anyone with a camera swinging from their neck.

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The White House Goes Red

Whenever one company takes over another, it absorbs those products or techniques that are profitable and discards those that are not. The United States, which governs more and more by the corporate model than the civic version, is no different. When it triumphed over Communism, it might as well have been a corporate takeover. Overnight, the world went from being dominated by two brands to one. Markets expanded for American and western companies. McDonald’s came to Moscow, German supermarkets opened in Kyiv. The politics in Washington, now unchallenged on the world stage, also began to change, pushing out to fill in its new, roomier boundaries. My short story "The Secret Meeting of the Secret Police," which came out in Night Train magazine a couple years ago, talked about where this might lead, saying how easy it'd be for the KGB -- or any other government agency -- to spy on you in the age of the Internet and the mobile phone. Now we have the payoff.

President Bush has authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without the oversight of even one of the Patriot’s Act hastily-assembled secret courts. I can only imagine what the talking heads are making of this on cable TV back in the states, but if it surprised anyone, I can’t see how it did. Anyone who bothered to read the Patriot Act, either before it was signed or in the months afterward, knew that such a thing was bound to happen. If you’re suspected of being a terrorist (and there’s no evidence needed to justify that suspicion, just the suspicion itself) the government can send the police or its own agents into your house or apartment to perform a “sneak-and-peek” inspection, all without your ever knowing it. This isn’t even limited to terrorism; the powers are granted for the investigation of any criminal offense. So while Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia insists that the US Constitution should be viewed as it was intended when it was written, I find it hard to believe that he and his fellow conservatives can support laws that pervert America's most sacred legal document. Notification is required in these "sneak-and-peek" intrusions, but it can be delayed indefinitely. That's like saying, "We believe in the Fourth Amendment, but only tomorrow, or next week, or better yet the day before you're dead."

When Ronald Reagan was first promoting his ideas for a laissez-faire Washington, he made a joke about the Democrats’ hands-on, overly-regulated form of governance. With that winning smile of his, he had people imagine the Democrats going door-to-door. “I’m from the Government,” he joked, “I’m here to help.” And yet now I’m sure the same people who laughed at this line continue to believe that the government only serves to protect you, that it should even be able to reach out beyond the borders of the Constitution because it’s just doing what’s good and right and proper.

That's what Condoleezza Rice believes. She defends the President’s right to act without any external oversight, because it's a different world and all. Faster and spookier, full of email and cell-phones and the devices of the Evil-Doer.

Just listen to her.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency must obtain search warrants from a special court before conducting electronic surveillance of people suspected to be terrorists or spies. Ms. Rice said the administration believed that it needed greater agility in investigating terrorism suspects than was possible through that process.

"These are stateless networks of people who communicate, and communicate in much more fluid ways," she said. But several national security law experts and civil liberties advocates note that government officials are able to get an emergency warrant from the secret court within hours, sometimes minutes, if they can show an imminent threat.

– From the New York Times.

Maybe there was more evidence that all of this was coming. In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed the ban that kept the FBI from spying on American organizations. It won’t be abused, he promised. But then J. Edgar Hoover promised the same thing when Martin Luther King and other civil rights workers were brought under small government’s version of Big Brother, COINTELPRO, a secret and blatantly illegal government organization that aimed to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize” groups and individuals the FBI found objectionable.

Which today would be just about anyone, what with your either being for or against the guy in the Oval Office.

But again, it's only natural that it's come to this. After acting unilaterally on the international front, by bypassing the United Nations in Iraq, the President is now acting unilaterally on the domestic front. “Unilateral” is a very clean word, isn’t it? If this unilateralism was happening inside the Soviet Union, or in present-day Belarus, we might be using a word more easily associated with one of those leaders who used to stand atop Lenin’s tomb, his breast heavy with medals and red stars. Dictator. That's the word we might inch toward. But if I suggested there were shades of that word moving into DC, it'd just be more evidence of the contemporary caterwauling that is politics.

At some point you have to turn your back on a President. If you don’t like the United Nations, that’s one thing. But Congress is a pretty sacred institution, cherished in my book, as it, along with an independent court, keeps us from the age of kings. If President Bush needs to act more quickly, he should talk to the country, he should talk to Congress -- hell, if he has to he should watch that Saturday morning cartoon about bills on Capitol Hill and do something about it. Because he's not God's Holy Warrior, sent here to protect us with his great wisdom and valor. He's just another guy in a cowboy hat who walks a little funny.

And remember, for every one crime that is reported, another nine go left unsaid. Do you know what's happening in Washington?

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Friday, December 16, 2005

I’m nobody’s vich

From my kitchen window I can see a school playground. Usually I pay the noise no mind; it’s just a murmur at a certain time of the day. But this afternoon I looked while waiting for my eggs to boil. There were maybe twenty children out on the blacktop, a little after twelve noon on a gray day. Recess, I thought. Lunch time. Then I noticed what seemed to be a beating-in-progress. Four boys were playing at this game, ten or twelve-year-olds all, and one of these had been assigned the role of victim. Poor chap, I thought. Getting a bit of a rough end of it. A fist or two here, another there, maybe a flying foot every now and then. Nothing too dreadful – these blows didn’t pack enough punch to send anyone down – but then I looked up from this group and saw another duo of boys at the far end of the playground, back behind the trees that’ve gone leafless with the winter. Here was another boy getting beat, mittens on a string flying up in the air with each punch. Two other children came in from the left side. I didn’t even have time to hope that they might be the peace-makers. One of the advancing boys got in on the fun, and then the two aggressors were lining up their victims against a wall, an ominous move that touches on the worst of history. I told myself to look away, I had to watch. Nothing too serious, I guess. Just Ukrainian boys having fun. The girls were mostly playing hop-scotch, some of the boys too, but otherwise there were no more options: no jungle gyms over beds of soft tanbark, no four square courts and bouncy red balls, no tetherball poles, no benches on which children were gathered around books of D&D. Just the most natural toys: the stick and the boot, the fist and the elbow, the concrete wall.

In other news, I realized yesterday that I’m nobody’s vich. You know, my neighbor is Yuri Grigorovich. Such-and-such at the university is So-and-So Nikolayovich. But me, I have no patronymic. I’m nobody’s vich.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Notes from Kyiv

Before giving my presentation on American fiction workshops Monday at Kyiv-Mohylo, my Fulbright coordinator said other deans had learned of my talk and asked if I might bring it to their university as well. Then she told me the names of the two cities where these universities were located, and Vinnytsya I knew, but the second gave me pause, because surely there wasn't an administration building so near a concrete sarcophagus and the memories of 1986.

“Where is that?” I asked.


And here I brought in a breath and nodded -- yes, Ternopil -- as she went on to describe its position on the map, a non-irradiated point far from the imagined Chernobyl.


My presentation ended up being half a discussion of fiction and half a talk about how to run a writing workshop. It was attended not by post-graduates, but mostly professors from Kyiv-Mohylo and other area colleges. Many of them taught literature, at least one was in the sciences, a few were just English speakers interested in discussing the stories (see post below) and hearing a native speaker. There were even two budding writers, each of whom proved themselves to be writers in different ways. The first had very strong opinions, the second, after slipping me a note saying she’d like me to read a story, got up and left halfway through my talk.


I thought I’d have several hours to kill after the discussion ended at 5:30 (my train left at half past ten), but I was taken out to dinner by a cultural affairs officer from the US Embassy and her assistant, a native Ukrainian. We dined at a posh sushi restaurant on Shevchenko Street, if only because I didn't relent -- sushi, I thought, it has been months since I've had sushi. The food was good, and let's hope here that it was a product of globalization, as the fish from the Dnepro are closer to Chornobyl, just a short boat ride upstream, than than are to Ternopil.

But the menu, that was a little confusing. It had pictures of the sushi and sashimi and shasliki, and then alongside this three names: the bottom one in English, the middle, in parentheses, in Russian, and the one above it in Ukrainian. I asked the only Ukrainian at the table. “This is Ukrainian, isn’t it?” For while I hadn’t found any of the tell-tale umlauted i’s that give the language away, I had found myself unable to understand any of the words. Like here was salmon, (лосось), and that word on top was just gibberish. But no, it wasn’t Ukrainian, however much Ukrainian is gibberish to me. It was Japanese, transliterated into Russian. Just more confusion in a city that blends Russian and Ukrainian like those in Calexico blend English and Spanish.


I found it interesting that the cultural affairs officer, who wore a furry shapka that for some reason brought to mind Dan Akroyd and Spies Like Us, was persuaded by the State Department (okay, told) to learn Ukrainian rather than Russian. Learning the language is like many noble gestures: wasted. The latest example of this was shown to me when she was assured by her assistant that the waitress at our restaurant would no doubt understand Ukrainian, though she might answer in Russian. This Russian, she went on to say, has incorporated so many English words in the last decade that she wonders how people her parents' or grandparents’ age can still understand thelanguage.

Sometimes I wonder if we'd all just be better off acting like the least sophisticated of tourists, grunting and pointing, ocassionally thrusting the point of one finger into the glass.


The television at the restaurant was tuned to Fashion TV, not a rarity in Ukraine. It is one of four channels with English programming delivered by my cable provider (and when I say English, perhaps I'm being too particular; if you take away the music played over the images of the models strutting down the catwalk, Fashion TV is for the most part mute). The other English-friendly channels are BBC World (which cedes half the day to the German-language Deutsche Welle), the Discovery/History channels (which are two channels, but together offer a few hours of English TV a day) and then Extreme Sports (which is all-English, all skate-rad, all day). More often than not, and more frequently each day, I opt for Fashion TV. Want to talk about Fashion Week Portugal?

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Not the Marrying Season

Tomorrow, I go to the English-Teaching Resource Center at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy to give a lecture on contemporary American short fiction and to speak about how to run a writing workshop. At first, I was asked to run an actual one-day writing workshop, but when I responded by saying, "To run a writing workshop, I'll need some participants to write a story beforehand," plans were downgraded. Now me and the post-graduates from the university (along with perhaps some professors and administrators) will discuss Nathan Englander's Gilgul of Park Avenue (one of the strongest stories in the very strong collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) and Adam Haslett's "Notes to My Biographer."

Later in the week, I hope to track down a translator who works with American men visiting the marriage agencies. He's promised me an interview, but has proven hard to pin down ever since. Anonymous? he said. Anonymous, I promised. So: Soon, I hope. Soon.

Beyond that, what else is there? I've set up several interviews for the spring, when the western men will return in force (Winter is not the marrying season, I've learned). Kharkov's Staprius Club should also be opening its door any day now, if it hasn't already, and so I'd like to document that. I was invited to the grand opening party two weekends ago, but then I never got the call to say if it was on Friday or Saturday -- I can only assume it got delayed, or that I'm an easily forgotten guest. I could also be tagging along on a marriage agency tour in Kyiv near the end of December, which should be fun because it's already got one other tag-along scheduled, a film crew taking footage for a reality show. I'd like to be the camera filming the camera. But on this and much else, we'll have to wait and see. It is the Planning Season more than the Marrying Season.

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Monday, December 05, 2005


I awoke on Saturday morning to snow. Pulled open the curtains and there it was, a thick layer of it on the roofs, the sidewalks, piled up on the balcony -- everywhere, even the branches outside my living room window. Was gone by the end of the day, but it's back again today, with some of the in-between stuff now gone to ice and sleet and slush. You'll walk down one street and be perfectly sure-footed, then turn up another and be slipping and sliding and suddenly feeling the muscles on the insides of your thighs. (I pause to address all those people who do not live in California. Some of us do not know what this stuff is that falls upon the ground and stays there, piling up like so much cotton. We gaze at the Heavens in wonder when simple rain falls, but this, this is truly amazing indeed.)

It struck me, while taking short steps across an especially slippery stretch, that this is the foundation of much of Russia's literature. Because how can you look up, how can you raise your chin with confidence and pride, inflate yourself, so to speak, like Gatsby or some frilled courtier in an Austen novel, if you might fall on your ass at the next corner. Keep your eyes to the ground. Walk slowly, with short, deliberate steps. Wear a face like the angry man, the bitter man that Doestoyevsky wrote about, thrust your hands into your black overcoat like Raskolnikov; this is snow, снег, and it will be here for months.

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The Soviet Union conjurs up many images in the western mind: the hammer and the sickle, the yellow star against a flag of red, the more-than-slightly androgynous member of the female shot-put team. But perhaps nothing remains more prominent to this day (when steroids are the American athlete's drug of choice) than the smokestack.

What exactly is a smokestack? Just a tall tower, spitting smoke? Does it serve a purpose, or is it in fact just a symbol of progress and productivity? Like, Look, there in the distance, a smokestack - we must be a prosperous people, we must be doing something. Or: The people are unhappy? Build another smokestack!

I took a picture of this set of smokestacks in Moscow, a week or so back, from the window of my hotel overlooking the Moscow River (Moscow on the Moscow, I suppose). It was a nice hotel complete with a VIP board in the front lobby. There were the Clintons, Al Gore, Putin's wife, a guy from Microsoft, and Some King or President of a large Muslim island nation whose name was Megawatti Something or Something Megawatti. Makes me wonder if he was named after the light-bulb, his father fascinated by this modern device, this light-giver -- and I name him Megawatti -- like a character in my terminally-forgotten novel is named Aspirina. There were also several rock bands noted on the board, all of whom were popular during the Soviet era: the Scorpions were there, as were Queen, or at least one member (Brian May). That's how it was listed on the board. Queen (Brian May). There's something sad in that. As if Brian May showed up all alone.

I'd like the VIP Suite please.

And who are you?

I'm Brian May.

No response.

I'm Queen (with Brian May).

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Monday, November 28, 2005

The Story of a Man from Idaho and a Woman from Kherson

ODESSA, UKRAINE -- Before Bill Fields returned to Odessa in November, his sister gave him three gifts. The first, a flat cap like the kind Ben Hogan used to wear while making the turn at Amen Corner, would help him blend in with the Ukrainian population, which he apparently hadn’t done in February, when a mugging in front of the Odessa Opera House had left him lying on the street with a broken femur. The second and third gifts were less ordinary, but then he’d only need them if the first didn’t work and he once again encountered a violent situation.

“One’s a light to blind people with,” he said, “and the other makes this screeching noise.”

When he told me this, with a little dance in his eyes and a lift to the corners of his mouth, he was standing in his rented Odesa flat, a recently refurbished apartment that had walls the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and baby blue. On the window-sill were two hats, one the flat-cap from his sister, the other a more traditional American baseball hat. World’s greatest hunter, it read. Then that last word was scratched out and replaced by another: Grandfather.

Bill Fields was fifty-five, twice married and twice divorced, a middle school teacher from rural Idaho. He had lived a boring life until February 2005, he'd be the first to admit, and I had traveled from Kharkov, fourteen hours by train, to ask him one question. “Why come back?”

He answered with a name: Oksana.

“I thought we were both planning our future life together,” he said.

But not long after his plane touched down at Borispol International, he learned the woman he longed for (imagine an aged Tawny Kitane, say twenty-five years after she writhed atop a car for Whitesnake) had disappeared, along with the future he'd imagined. It was all very confusing.

Since meeting in February, when their affection for one another had been tempered by the dramatics of Bill's mugging and hospital stay, they had remained in contact, communicating at least three times a week, mostly by phone. They had cut down on email, Bill said, because Oksana, though verbally fluent, didn’t write English very well. (“She’s an E4,” he told me, when explaining the Dungeons & Dragons-like system used to rank a woman’s command of the English language. “An E1 means she doesn’t read or write any English whatsoever.”)

Also, her only free access to the internet was in the office of the marriage agency she’d signed up with -- one of the hundreds of affiliates of the Bangor, Maine-based Anastasia web that is located in the Former Soviet Union. And after meeting him, Oksana was trying to stay away from there as much as possible, Bill said.

“When she comes in,” he told me, “they make her answer all the letters from all the men (who’ve contacted her).”

This is one of the ways the agencies make their money. Men using Anastasia web must pay $15 for a woman's email address, then no less than $3.99 more for each message back and forth, more if a message requires translation. The company's partners get a percentage of this.

"She had to write back and say I'm not interested," Bill said. "She's polite, but it's very stressful for her. She'd rather stay away and not answer."

Other agencies are more resourceful. One former translator, also based in Odessa, spoke of women who entered into agreements with agency owners to get a certain amount of each fee her picture generated. Not all of these women were totally averse to meeting a foreign man and possibly getting married, but some were strictly business women -- women who had no interest in even writing their emails themselves. This they left for the agency's translators, with the understanding that, if a man booked a ticket and actually followed her fabricated sweet nothings to Ukraine, she would read all the past missives and be prepared, like an actress on opening night, to smile for the audience.

The translator I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous and would not identify her past employers, said she had worked for three agencies, all now defunct, and only for those interested in "making a girl's destiny." A fourth agency approached her, but she refused to enter services with it.

"'If you want to work with us,'" she said, when asked to explain what was expected of her at that agency, "'you'll get a lot of money but you'll have to lie and say not sincere things.'"

But Bill was convinced his Oksana wasn't behind such sentiments. Because while their emails had stopped, they had kept in touch by phone -- at least when the lines weren't down and his call, maybe because of the weather or poor maintenance, didn't get cut off halfway through.

All of which is to say, he didn’t think it necessary to receive a solid confirmation from Oksana before flying across the Atlantic. She’d told him, in a letter she signed with her “warmest hugs and a tender kiss,” that though her boss was in "a bad temper," she thought her vacation would be the first of November, and so he’d planned accordingly and written to say he hoped to see her here when he arrived, being sure to give the date and the time. Only in the final days before his departure, without any word from her since that letter on September 11, did he worry enough to call her agency.

“They said she came in in a hurry,” he said, “and had to go on an urgent business trip (to Kyiv).”

When they met, she had worked as a secretary to a dean of a nearby university. But since then, she had been let go – she hadn’t told him why, but he suspected it was her age and declining looks. Perhaps she had been replaced at the front desk by a younger woman with a firmer body. "That's how it still is over there," he said.

So now she was working as a seamstress, a seamstress who worked on wedding dresses of all things. “They make this part,” he explained, indicating the torso of an invisible dress, “and someone else makes this part,” he said, dropping his hands to the waist, “and I guess somebody else puts it all together.”

If anyone could put his mystery together (because what kind of seamstress goes on a business trip?) Bill thought it would be Oksana’s 22-year-old son, Alexei. But when he called him, Alexei’s broken English only offered Bill so much. “Mama’s not coming," he said. And when Bill called again – and he did, four or five times a day, “just in case" – he only learned she’d be back in December.

“She may have a low-end apartment without a phone,” he said.

That could be why he couldn’t reach her. Or maybe not. Maybe it was all a scam, nothing more than an equation involving his hope and her cunning, a certain percent of business and a certain percent of love.

When I interviewed Bill, he had only one day left in Odessa, and though he insisted he was a one-woman man, he didn’t plan to spend it alone. After arriving and finding Oksana gone, he’d picked up his rented cell phone and tried to call the agency that had rented it and the apartment to him. But after scrolling down through the names already programmed into the phone, he went one too far, getting not Odessa Flats but Olya. A young man answered. There was the expected confusion, a polite exchange of names, and then a dial-tone.

But Bill looked again at his phone, last used by another agency client, and thought something strange. He’d brought with him five email addresses, the information he’d need to contact five women in case Oksana didn’t show. One of them was an Olya.

So he called back, and again got the young man. “I says, ‘George, is your mother on the dating side?' He said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'Well what does she look like?'”

She was in her early forties, a few inches taller than five foot, not quite 130 pounds. It was all kind of familiar, he said, and so they arranged, George, and Olya and Bill, to meet at the Irish Pub in town.

“I didn’t have to go through the agency or anything,” Bill beamed, before acknowledging that introductions arranged through the agency-supplied email addresses cost $50 -- more, by $7 an hour, if you then wanted to leave the office with the woman and a translator.

As it turned out, Olya was indeed one of the five women Bill had intended to look up, so he ditched his plans to see the other four and spent his days with the one.

“She’s cooked me two meals,” he said, “two huge meals that I’ve been eating on since I’ve been here just about. She says I’m like a little boy, and that she’s got to take care of me.”

Now he doesn’t know quite what to do. He’s enjoyed his time with Olya, but she’s an E1, meaning their dates have been a troika, him and her and the son. When I left him, he said he was going to spend his last day in Odessa buying Olya a set of CDs to teach her English. But at the same, he was looking off to December and hoping to hear back from Oksana.

“I will come back to Ukraine,” he said, “and I will probably marry a Ukrainian woman. Whether I’ve found the right one or not yet, I don’t know.”

Before ending above, Bill's story started hereand continued there. All names in this series have been changed to respect the privacy of those involved.

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The Blood Road

When I was in Norway, I visited the Blood Road Museum (in German and English) in Rognan, the town where my mother was born and raised. The museum commemorates those many thousands of prisoners of war, mainly Red Army soldiers, who died working on the railroad Hitler hoped to build through northern Norway. The railroad never materialized (it fell just short of Rognan, well short of Kirkenes, the launching point into Murmansk) but the Germans kept their captives working even when they realized their initial plans, to complete the project in three years, were overly ambitious.

One of the worst camps in Norway was in Botn, a beautiful fjordal inlet just a couple miles from my mother's cabin. After the war, it was deemed to be an execution camp because so many prisoners there died, some from mass executions (this during the first year of operation, when the SS ran the camp) and then many later, when the Wehrmacht took over, from drinking water that was allowed to mix with raw sewage (this is what gave the camp its legal definition as an "execution camp," like Dachau or Auschwitz, because securing clean drinking water should not be a problem in Norway, where the streams run clean).

The picture above is of a headstone from a former Russian graveyard located at the edge of my mother's cabin's property line. The graveyard and camp were just up the road from her, though the former was moved, as were the graves of all but a few Red Army soldiers, when the Cold War came around (the graves were moved to a cold Norwegian island where Soviet visitors could be more easily contained and surveyed).

Anyways, all of this is a sort of quick look at the subject; I'm working on an essay that goes into it in greater depth. Because here's the thing, and I hope she doesn't mind my saying so (if so, I'll take this down): My girlfriend's great-great grandfather was in one of these camps, but we don't know which one. I probably want to find out more than her; if I don't know something, I want to know it. Call it a form of autism, or mental retardation, or just plain curiosity -- I don't know. Anyways, what I do know is this: that one-third of all Soviet soldiers were held in Saltdal, the county where my mother was born and raised; beyond that it's like grabbing at the fog. In the final days of the war, the Germans did a good job of destroying their scrupulously-kept records, while after the Cold War, Moscow was mum on who was where or when. So: I'd like to write about all this, and it seems logical that my search be part of the essay.

Anyone know how I can find more information? How I might match a name to a camp?

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

New Photos

I posted some new photos in the Flickr sidebar (after finally discovering a way to get them through my dial-up connection). The bottom three are a series of Lenins. You know me and my Lenins. Can't get enough. But these are more layered than the usual statuary shots, as they're set against a carnival that has been set up on Svobody Square for far longer than I care to remember -- it is Europe's biggest square, I'm now convinced, and I'd like to see the clean spatial scope of it, an unbroken horizon of bricks and agoraphobia, some damn pigeons scattering you know? But instead it's bumper cars and don't-puke-on-me rides. But apparently you shouldn't get me started.

The other shots are from Norway, where I recently went to see to a family affair. The second shot was taken from inside my mother's boathouse, just down from my mother's cabin; the next is one of several photos I'll be posting from my visit to the Blood Road Museum, which is located in Rognan, where my mother was born and raised. The museum is dedicated to the Russian prisoners who were used as slave laborers by the Nazis. In four years, Hitler wanted to construct a railroad through North Norway and on up to Kirkennes, so he might be better prepared to attack the Soviet Union from the North, near Murmansk. The railroad didn't materialize (it reached just shy of my mother's town, above the Arctic Circle) but thousands of prisoners still lost their lives to the effort.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Honest Woman, a Hospitalized Man: The Story of a Man from Idaho and a Woman from Kherson

Bill Fields’ second wife spent $30,000 on Beanie Babies. But it was what she bought for only a couple hundred dollars – a urinal – that all but ended their marriage. “She wanted me to hang it in the garage," he said, "so I didn’t track dirt into the house when I worked in the yard. I thought, 'Hey, I’m not a dog living here.'”

Not long after this, the lead-in to Bill's second divorce, one of the middle school teacher's friends, himself married to a Muscovite going on ten years, handed him a catalogue advertising "mail-order brides" from the Former Soviet Union. "I took it just kind of like a joke," Bill said. "But finally I decided to join."

The trip he took to Ukraine in early 2005 won’t be found in any marriage agency’s promotional literature. That he felt a strong connection between him and Oksana, the first woman he dated, is front-page copy, but his mugging outside the Odessa Opera House, a grand baroque building designed by Viennese architects in the late 19th century, that's not something shadow-boxed beside a smiling wedding photo on a testimonials page.

But despite all the trouble he experienced, the bad didn't erase the good. When Bill found himself in bed with broken femur, looking at six weeks of hospitalization at $450 a day if his insurance didn't come through and get him out of there, he “found out what kind of woman" his new girlfriend was.

His second wife, he said, would’ve “come in and said, ‘You’re breathing, I’m going shopping.’” But Oksana stayed with him the whole time, bargaining with the hospital, raising her voice when needed, getting their prices down from outrageous to maybe just bad. He was already infatuated, now he was impressed.

“She’s not a drop-dead ‘ten,’” he said when first describing her, “but she’s pretty and she’s honest.”

That honesty was such that Bill trusted her with all the money he’d brought over, and the money his family wired from the United States to cover his initial hospital bills. In all, $3,500 passed through her hands before his insurers, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, agreed to send in a Lear Jet to transport Bill to their nearest participating hospital, in Wellington, England.

“It was one of the saddest moments in my life,” he said. “They wouldn’t let her (Oksana) ride in the ambulance with me to the plane. They physically had to pull her away, she was holding on so tight.”

It continued just like a familiar movie. As Bill was driven away from the last check-point, Oksana approached from behind, a fence swinging shut between her and the ambulance.

For Bill, who now has a plate in his right side that’s held in place by two pins and four screws, this was just more evidence that there was “none of this you-have-to-chase-them-down” with Ukrainian women. “She’s with me, and I’m with her,” he said.
It was better than what he remembered with his second wife, that’s for sure, who was a bit of a “women’s libber,” as naturally aggressive as Oksana was polite. “The part I couldn’t accept,” he said, “was her always saying I couldn’t do right.”

So yes, everything about Oksana was a wonder and a revelation – even how she’d traipse around his apartment in barely anything at all, not flaunting her body, he said, but not showing it any shame either.

While Bill recovered from his injuries near his family in rural North Carolina, the phone calls and emails continued to Ukraine, so much so that he even checked with the local community college to see if it might be able to arrange for Oksana’s 18-year-old son to come to the country on a student visa, if and when he and her mother got married.

As for why she didn’t meet him in Odessa when he came back for his second visit in November 2005, that he can’t explain. But that’s not to say he didn’t enjoy himself again, in however a round-a-bout way. He’d rented a cell-phone, after all, and in Ukraine, perhaps moreso than in any other country in the world, love or something like it can start with something as simple as a misdialed call.

Bill’s story continues here.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

News in Brief

I weighed myself in Norway. Have lost twelve pounds since leaving California ten weeks ago.

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Love and Surgery: The Story of a Man from Idaho and a Woman from Kherson

ODESSA, UKRAINE -- On his fourth day in Odessa, Bill Fields awoke thinking of romantic gestures. Oksana, the thick-lipped forty-two year-old he’d met through the Anastasia marriage agency, was sleeping beside him in bed. They’d been together ever since his arrival to Ukraine three days earlier, a trip for which he'd gotten his first passport, and Bill was getting serious. He hadn’t come here to sleep his way through a romance tour, one of the meet-and-greets common to the "mail-order bride" industry that often has the women outnumbering the men five- or even ten-to-one. Bill saw these socials as nothing more than meat markets, and so before leaving his home in rural Idaho, the fifty-five year-old had only contacted four or five women whose profiles had attracted him online. "It gets confusing if you write to too many," he said. Yes, he wanted the chance to be a one-woman man, and it didn't take long for him to find the opportunity. He and Oksana, a native of nearby Kherson, hit it off, and so while they toured this Black Sea city of one million, all the other women advertised through the Anastasia marriage agency -- more than 8,000 active profiles across the former Soviet Union -- were left online.

On that fourth day in town, Bill left his flat at a little after nine in the morning. He’d seen a shop just a block away, near the opera house, that sold ear-rings, and he thought he’d buy a pair and place them on the pillow. The perfect gesture, he thought. She'd wake up and he'd see it in her eyes. These were the thoughts he was having: to get married, to find the woman who'd share the rest of his life. He was was fifty-five, as sensible as the sun and the moon, and after two failed marriages in the United States this didn't seem so ridiculous -- in fact it only made sense that he try "a different ballgame." Sure, they'd only first exchanged hellos and how are you's two months earlier, but things had quickly progressed to love at twenty-two cents a minute and a $500 phone bill. He thought she might be the one.

As he passed the Opera House, in the heart of Odessa’s downtown, Bill heard a question -- a young man had approached saying something Bill couldn’t make out. Bill shrugged his shoulders and made a face to show he didn’t speak Russian, didn’t understand, which was the truth and nothing more, certainly not the gesture of a man too selfish with his time. So the twenty-something receded from view and Bill walked on thinking of earrings, just a half block away now. He wasn’t a biker. He wasn’t a brawler who’d spent his years in a bar; he was a middle-school teacher from rural Idaho, math and history, it was mid-morning in this city built for Catherine the Great, and there were people all around – he had no reason to keep his head on a swivel.

He didn't see the attack. Bill landed on his side, hearing a pop and feeling the pain shoot out from his hip. He’d been leg-whipped, that was the best he could figure it, the man had come up from behind and kicked his legs out from under him, and now the guy was crouching over him and patting Bill down, moving his hands across his chest and lingering at every pocket. But he was prepared for this; Oksana had warned him. She’d told him to keep most of his cash at home, to take only a thin wallet out onto the street and hide it on his person, and most of all, she'd said, do not go out alone. She’d made him promise her that. “Don’t go out alone.” But it was nine o'clock in the morning, and he wanted to make a romantic gesture.

Bill opened his mouth and said something, not a bark, more a confused wail, but then it didn’t matter – the guy couldn’t find anything, the attack would be for naught, and so he eased off and "just sort of mingled into the crowd," leaving Bill lying there unable to get up.

He looked around for help. There must have been ten people nearby, but no one drew near, and he wasn’t going to lie there forever, not in this street. So he pulled himself across the sidewalk and up the side of the nearest building.

“I probably looked like a drunk,” he said. “I hung on, I leaned myself against the wall dragging myself back to the flat and up three flights of stairs.”

So instead of a pair of earrings, instead of that look in her eyes and the conversation it might have led to, Bill returned to Oksana as a collapsed man on the hallway floor. She got him into bed and ran back and forth between him and the kitchen, feeding her boyfriend hot soup and tea. Bill checked to make sure his legs weren’t uneven, a sure sign of a dislocated hip -- he'd heard this on TV -- and then he told Oksana that if he got confused or short of breath it means shock and she'd better call his sister Susan in North Carolina.

For forty-five minutes, Bill thought the pain might be the result of a deep bruise, nothing more, that it might go away. But he was growing colder, shaking more, and so at last the call was made and a doctor came with the ambulance to ask if he could lift his leg. Bill couldn’t. Bill’d broken something, they'd need x-rays to be sure but he'd certainly broken something, and so off they went, doctor and all, everyone in the ambulance to the hospital – a cash hospital, he learned before the trip.

“Two-hundred and fifty-dollars didn’t even get me in,” he said when me met in Odessa in November, almost nine months after his first trip to Ukraine. “And of course the price went up four or five times because I was an American. I had to pay $100 to the doctor right there,” he said, “and then $900 for the ambulance and my first two days.”

But $900 wouldn’t cover it, not when he learned he’d broken his femur, right where the bone curves in toward the hip, and that he'd have to remain in bed for six weeks. So he paid what he needed to pay and they put him in a cast from the knee down -- not a mistake, though that's what he first thought; it was simply done this way so he couldn't lift his injured leg. "Their medicine's about fifty years behind ours," he said.

It was also about fifty years ahead of him, language-wise. On his second day in the hospital, fearing a needless surgery, Bill made every effort to throw himself out of bed when two doctors, finding him alone in his room, tried to wheel him away -- not to put him under the knife, he later discovered, only for another x-ray.

This accelerated their relationship like that. Bill relied on Oksana more than he'd relied on a woman before. She was his constant interpreter, worrying her English-Russian dictionary until its spine broke into three. She helped the nurses bathe him, she sat with him through the night, she left his side only to go back to the apartment and get the things he needed. This included money, some $3,500 in all, an amount large enough, he thought, to reveal her true intentions.

If he worried about whether or not she'd leave with his money, these fears were carried away with all his others, too many worries all at once, a foreign language and an unknown city, a broken bone and so much unexplained, the power of this after fifty-five years and two failed marriages.

Bill could only lie there and hope for the best.

Bill's story continues here.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ukraine is "more better"

When I was a teenager, my fantasies were largely unvaried. Some days I imagined the girls from the annual USC Cheerleaders calendar, others I called upon the image of an archetypal Swede -- a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty who was quick to lose her top and knew all the words to "Dancing Queen." I wasn't alone in this regard -- California and Sweden, it was the Mecca to which many men turned their lust. And why not? The Beach Boys sang about California Girls (before David Lee Roth did the same to greater visual effect), and innumerable Hollywood movies brought in a bouncy blonde with a sing-song accent whenever the plot grew too dull. There was nothing more coveted.

But today at 12:35 p.m. local time I learned there had been a revolution and that men the globe over now followed a New World Order. I discovered this in Sundsvall, Sweden, a three-hour train ride up the coast from Stockholm, after being dropped here with a two-hour lay-over en route to my mother’s Norway. At the buffet restaurant inside the train station, opera music played from the speakers, and my fellow stranded passengers sat chattering in Swedish and Norwegian at their tables. The food in the metal tubs was decidedly Scandinavian: sliced roast beef, creamed salmon so soft it fell apart at the touch of your fork, and bite-sized boiled potatoes served whole and skinless. But the restaurant’s staff was not – Middle Eastern, I thought.

The guy who approached me from behind the register was in his late-twenties. He wore blue jeans and a tight black t-shirt that didn’t fully cover the tribal tattoos on both of his arms. His hair was short and black and showed signs of styling products and a good deal of personal care. He was quick with a smile, quick with a bounce of his chin. When he said something in Swedish, I asked in English for the buffet. He rang me up without hesitation, English coming freely and easily to him, and gave me the change from my hundred Kroner bill.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I told him, though underneath this I heard something else – an echo familiar to anyone who has lived in a country trying to learn its language: Ya iz Californiyi. “But these days I’m actually living in Ukraine,” I added.

His smile grew bigger here. He bounced his chin and lifted one hand, rubbing the fingers together as if demanding money or worrying over some prayer beads. “It’s more better,” he said. “The women.”

I nodded and grinned and said something in the affirmative – always the agreeable idiot – and then took my tray and went off for my food. But as I sat down to my meal, I couldn’t help but consider this more deeply. I was a Californian, he was living in Sweden, and Ukraine was “more better?”

When he came back out with a stack of porcelain plates for the buffet, I walked up and asked how he’d heard about Ukrainian women.

“My brother,” he said, “two, three times he's brought one over. Always he thinks he’ll marry,” he said, “but always he finds another one more beautiful than before.”

They stayed a few weeks and then were gone, their visas soon to be expired anyway, and then the brother went off again to the marriage agencies of Kiev. After a little more prodding, my new friend told me he’d done the same, though only once. He loved Ukraine.

“But Swedish women,” I told him. “Some men would say they’re the most beautiful in the world.”

His face took on a new look; he recoiled as if insulted. “Swedish women are hell,” he said, “like in Afghanistan. They have money”—he slapped his hand against a back pocket—“and so they’re all”—and now he lifted his nose to the wood beams criss-crossing the ceiling.

“Maybe on the weekends,” he said, “when they have some vodka, maybe then,” he said, but then he was shaking his head as if even this weren’t redemption enough. “Where are you in Ukraine?” he asked.

I told him and explained what little I knew of the city, saying it was very large, more than a million and a half people, and just as beautiful as Kiev -- in every respect -- though certainly poorer.

“So the girls are easier,” he said, again with that smile.

I shrugged a shoulder, dropped my head to one side. Deep Throat said, "Follow the money," but he could have just as easily said, "Follow the women?" So much was economics. This guy had taken his passport, which bore Holland’s name, to Sweden on a four-year work visa, and now he was only saving up his Kroner and planning his next geographical exchange. Who was safe from all of this? Perhaps only the Swedish woman and Californian man.

“And if I”—he pantomimed typing on a keyboard.

“Plenty of sites pop up,” I said.

He asked that I write it down – Kharkov – and so I did in both English and Russian, before at last giving him my card and telling him to call should he ever find himself in town.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pulp Fiction, Those Who Discuss Russian Women, Black Leather, and the Man Purse

* I hope to be traveling to Odessa this Sunday to speak with an American searching for a wife through the marriage agencies there. Look for his story next week. For now, a quick tease: opera house, broken hip, and she done disappeared.

* I had a lot of visitors yesterday, not a record, but still a lot, 50, and a good number of them came from the Russian Women Discussion site, where I posted an offer: talk to me when you're in Kharkov, I'll show you where to find a decent cup of coffee. So to those new arrivals, hello and welcome. Browse the archives (and from yesterday's 200 page views, I assume you already have), and if you'd like to see some pictures from the area visit the Flickr sidebar.

* A couple weeks ago I mentioned that a new marriage agency will soon be opening its doors in Kharkov. Staprius Club isn't quite online, but today I did tour the site of its future offices -- a brick building on Sumskaya Street that still had pencil marks in one door jam, monitoring the growth of Lilia and two other children. Earlier that afternoon, I had my signature notarized on a letter I wrote on behalf of the Club's two owner-operators, who are seeking an affiliation with American-owned companies. There were four people in the room, two at least half-clothed in black leather (a statistic I've been thinking of tracking more closely). We had tried to get this letter notarized about two weeks ago, but the notary we met refused to add her stamp to a "personal" letter. The notary today refused to notarize the letter unless it was also offered to him in Ukrainian. After he'd pointed out some mistakes, necessitating a quick flurry of rewrites by the native-Russian speakers starting the club, I asked Igor, "Did he enjoy pointing out these mistakes?" And with a short laugh, the answer came back yes. Expect a Staprius Club website very shortly. Some design problems caused a delay.

* Some good news on the personal front. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health today, so perhaps this odyssey of mine is over. It's a little easier to talk about in retrospect, and here soon I'll do so at length in an essay (that honors past promises of privacy); but for now maybe you can help me. What does a man buy another man in Ukraine if he wants to thank him? My doctor -- I'll actually miss seeing the guy, if not every weekday, like it was for a while, then here and there, just to make sure everything was okay. I got to get him something to show him my thanks. I left saying I'll always praise the Ukrainian doctors, but it doesn't seem enough. I paid him $200 and saw him probably 20 or 25 times over the last five or six weeks -- and that price included an initial drug regimen similar to (if more powerful than) one which cost me $125 in the United States. I don't mean to reduce this to dollars and cents, I'm just saying -- well, would it be innappropriate to buy the guy a nice man-purse? Am I secure enough in my sexuality to buy another man a man-purse? I'm sure men don't do that over here. My girlfriend already tells me I wear my scarf wrong, like some fancy man from Moscow or western Europe; last thing I need to do is buy a man-purse and give it to someone else. Stuff to ponder, this.

* I've all but given up on Bloglet. Don't know why it doesn't send out notifications when I post. The mystery deepens. No? Okay, I just don't know what to say. I update every day or three, and maybe twice on Tuesdays. Best method: look.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fulbrighter Burglarized in Kharkov

The only other Fulbrighter currently in Kharkov was burglarized last night. Happened in the middle of the day or early evening, if you'd believe it. The guy came home from dinner (with me -- at Adriano's, a restaurant I'd describe nicely if it didn't come up here) and then there it was: ransacked, everything dumped out, turned over, scattered across the floor, like these guys were following the script from some old episode of Starsky & Hutch. They even went through the garbage, though not, you bibliophiles should take delight in, all of the books. Some remained standing, as if these burglars dare not even touch a novel here, despite the possibility of a stashed away hundred dollar bill on page 234 (which is a fictional creation, it should be noted).

The Fulbrighter had nothing of value left after these guys moved through. Among the stolen items: a new IBM laptop, a Power Point projector, a running suit and shoes, and various other sundries and essentials. Total ding: more than $5,000. Very sad, though at least the police response was quite strong. Plain clothes detective, many members of the militsya, finger-print dust, and a landlord advising against this FBer bringing people back from the clubs and cafes, which he had never done, though the landlady seemed to believe this had to be the reason her place (but not her things) were taken, broken or just abused. The FBer seems to think the problem was his janky-assed Chinese lock. No steel-reinforced door here, just something that didn't quite impress me when I visited. Perhaps someone had had a key made when the lock was installed. But then why him, why now, why here? He lived on the seventh floor. If I was a burglar, I'd stop on four. I just wouldn't go any higher. So -- and I don't mean to sound like Columbo -- it has to be that he was an American, no? I mean, maybe someone sees him coming and going with this expensive equipment hanging from his shoulder, maybe someone sees him running through the city in bright clothing and expensive sneakers.

"I don't mean to make you paranoid," our State Department and Consular security advisors advised us during our DC and Kyiv orientations, "I just want you to raise your awareness level." I was so aware that night, after getting this FBer's call, that I slept with a hammer. No, not quite. But I did go to sleep aware and wake up aware and talk awareness most of the day.

If you are a Fulbrighter and reading this, maybe you'll want to email this message around. Don't think the office in Kyiv knows. Business trips and message machines, the stuff of modern life -- signs and signifiers might be delayed, I'm saying.

Why is my language so playful tonight? I didn't bring any Nabokov. I can't even correctly (if you're to listen to my students) pronounce his name. Yet apparently I've been contaminated.

As I told another FBer in an email last night (while trying to convince her to relocate to Kharkov of all things) I hadn't expected this, and not because we had been told during our Kyiv orientation (at least I think it was Kyiv; the second orientation was disorienting, rendering the first a blur and the second a mirror image) no one had even had a laptop computer stolen during the ten-plus years the Fulbright program has been active here. No, I was surprised because I hadn't seen a hint of crime in the city during my almost two months here, hadn't ever felt intimidated, hadn't ever looked up and thought, Oh, okay, wrong neighborhood, wrong block, wrong whatever. In fact, when I saw a cop twirling his metaphoric baton and waiting for the Metro late one evening, I thought, Poor guy, nothing to do. It's a golden era for the culture: not quite Communist, but not quite Capitalist. So while the crime exists, it's political and not of the street; the thugging and mugging and shaking down of people --that comes later, when the would-be criminals have learned and saturated the society, when yong ones are struggling to overcome the competition of old ones, when some are hanging on years after they should have left their incomes behind and retired. Now? Well, I still think Kharkov is a very safe city, but I also know it's no La La Land or Wonderland or Oz or even Mayberry. It's a city of 1.6 million, many of whom are poor.

Unlike the Peace Corps Volunteer I had dinner with tonight, I try to blend in. I look bored on the Metro, slightly agitated on the street, and if someone stops me and asks for something -- directions, usually, or maybe it's a sales pitch -- I look up with the melted face of a Soviet bureaucrat and say, "Nye znayo," I don't know, the language of Brezhnev and the CCCP. As for the Peace Corps Volunteer, he can't help but not blend in. He's a Texan of (I believe) South Asian descent, and he said he's been stopped as many as four times in one day by the local militsya, who always want to see his papers. Me, not a once. Wood, knock. More often, I get people asking me things I can't even attempt to understand or answer. And so again: "Nye znayo."

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Monday, November 07, 2005

"Love, Love Me Do" and "Lenin, Kharkov, Da-Da-Da!"

Today, oddly enough, is the anniversary of the Great October Revolution (thanks to a switch to the Gregorian calendar). But you’ll see no great displays of red in the streets of Kharkov; that came last week (and the displays were neither great nor public) when, while walking over to Sumskaya Street, I saw a line of young people, the oldest maybe eighteen, carrying red flags and banners and chanting, “Lenin! Kharkov! Da-da-da!” The da-da-da might not have been a yes-yes-yes! I seem to recall hearing what sounded like a string of verbs or nouns or maybe even a Capitalized Essence or two. But my understanding of Russian is limited, and so I can only translate it like the tag-line to a Beatles ditty. Anyways, it’s a suitable approximation, I think. They were pumping their flags and raising their voices and police officers were at the front and the rear, looking as bored as cops do when they’re told to do something “just in case things get out of hand.” The kids stopped in the middle of a park where brides and grooms like to get their picture taken, and there they gathered in a circle, the shape favored by the alcoholic, environmentalist and slam-dancer, and chanted some more; only now they were louder and more passionate. I thought to walk nearer, but again, my Russian is still at the elementary stage. So I didn’t want to sidle up alongside them, whisper into someone’s ear (“What’re the saying?”) and then learn it was something about driving the foreigners out of town. So I went for a cup of coffee instead.

In neighboring Russia, today is no longer a day off from work. A holiday honoring the Communist coup was replaced this year by one honoring November 4th as National Unity Day. Something about heroic actions taken in the year 1612. I don’t know. But then neither do many Russians.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Cincinnati Review

Some very well-received news came the other day: The Cincinnati Review will be publishing "Kamkov the Astronomer," which I've always seen as the title story in my current collection of short fiction. The piece may be of interest to some readers here: it tells the story of the purge of Leningrad's Pulkovo Observatory during the madness that preceded The Great Patriotic War. I'll be sure to post another link when the magazine is released (in the spring, I suspect) but you may want to look into it now: a good friend, Ronald F. Currie Jr., is in the just-released fall issue, which also includes fiction by Antonya Nelson.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005


This post at a friend's blog reminded me that I've been meaning to say Kharkov has enough stray dogs for a Disney movie and a straight-to-video sequel. When preparing for the Fulbright, I was told to get all my various shots and cures. Hep-A and B, a tetanus booster, polio and yellow fever and malaria -- guard against everything, I was told, even rabies. But I thought, Rabies? What am I, visiting marriage agencies or working on a farm? I told the nurse at UC Davis' Cowell Health Center that I wouldn't be in the country. "No need," I said.

Now I know better.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Wood Floors, A Walk-In Closet, High Ceilings ...

... maybe I'm not in Ukraine anymore, for like G. said when he asked to step inside, "I'd like to see how the New Russians live." Anyways, I promised some pictures of my flat, and though the excitement of the place has begun to wear off (the towel-warmer doesn't work, and the washing machine, like an epileptic during a fit, needs to be held in place during the spin cycle) I'll provide this glimpse nonetheless, with two photos here and another few in the Flickr sidebar.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Today was a normal day in Ukraine

My doctor prescribed rigorous and regular sexual activity, I bought bed linens by the kilogram, and was shown where I'd been living since my arrival, at least according to my papers, in case the police ever ask. "And if they do come," G. said, "the rector"--I forget the word he used--"she will show them to a room and say you live there but are not home right now.'" Oh yeah, one more thing: one of my colleagues at the university pursed his lips and nodded his head real slow, as he does when considering cultural differences, after I told him that in the University of California system, you're actually asked to never speak to a student with your office door closed, not to make sure you don't develop intellectual intimacy or say anything you wouldn't want every strange passerby to know, but to stave off a possible sexual harrasment lawsuit.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

The Return of the Return of Turkmenbashi

I first saw the link to this this several days ago over at Leopolis, but only now got around to reading it. Seems Turkmenbashi, my favorite authoritarian ruler, has banned recorded music at all public events, on TV and at weddings. He's already banned opera and ballet as "unnecessary," surely earning the respect and admiration of Miller High Life drinkers everywhere.

But listen, does anyone out there have a Turkmenistan connection? A Fulbrighter and I are considering a trip sometime in the New Year, as we're both fascinated by the world he's created and I would like to interview one of the women there who's trying to leave the country through an online marriage agency. But here's the thing: you need to be invited by someone to get a visa. Perhaps it's just a matter of "buying" an invitation, like you do in Russia. I still haven't sorted it all out for sure, but if there's someone out there who'd like a visitor, or knows someone who knows someone who does -- you get the idea -- drop me a line.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

New digs

So I moved into a new apartment Sunday night, mere minutes after returning from Belgorod. G. helped me, a man who has already helped me a number of times in a number of ways before. This time, he ferried my boxes and bags between his car and my new apartment building's entryway, while I took them the rest of the way to my flat on the fourth floor. When the last batch of things was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairwell, he grabbed a few things and I grabbed a few things and we went up together. He set my things down at my door, and then poked his head inside, looking to me for my consent. "May I? I'd like to see how the New Russians live."
Of course I showed him in and around, and come Sunday night or Monday I'll show you as well, by posting some new photos to Flickr. For now, here's a photo that offers a view from the bedroom balcony.

An anecdote: When we were driving away from old place, located in a section of town called Cold Mountain, G. asked what street I'd be living on, and I said, like a lost little boy, "Uh, I don't know." Then I reached for something, saying, "But I think it's named after a famous female Russian poet." He pursed his lips, perhaps going through an index of a mental map he kept inside his head. But after I named some nearby landmarks, G. said, "Ah! But no, I think it's a military general, not a famous female poet." So there it is: Marshal Bazhanova Street, just a stone's throw from Pushinskaya and another stone's throw from Sumskaya, the main commercial corridor in town. Good coffee at the end of the street, a restaurant facing my French door, a French bakery just down the way, and lots of students and pedestrians and guys selling cards that program minutes into your mobile phone. A great place.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Eating Good

I understand that some of you have expressed a concern for how I'm eating, and so I'm glad to tell you it's getting better. I still eat my fair share of pirozhki and sloiky, but I've now mastered the art of buying a cooked chicken (and can even order one by the half, palavina). What's more, while in Belgorod this last weekend I ate better than I have in months thanks to my girlfriend's mother. From beginning to end it was homemade: Pirozhki filled with apple jam (yablochnoye varenye), cabbage pizza (something you'd only see in Russia), plov, a central Asian dish consisting of plump wild rice and sliced carrots and beef (lamb is more traditional), borsch and soup (there is a difference, I learned), and finally bliny, my absolute favorite, pancakes so thin and buttery I'd gladly eat them every day. Anastasia's mother piled them high on a plate, and then we all sat around them at the kitchen table, with first Anastasia's father reaching for one, and then her brother, and then me, and then my girlfriend and the cook. I'm used to eating them rolled up like a rug and filled with berries, but the method here was to fold the blin in half on the serving plate, then into a quarter, and then into an eighth, until at last you're left with only a small triangular wedge. This you'd lift and dip it into one of the bowls on the table: one with sugar-sweetened sour cream, another with honey and melted butter, a third with sour cream and gooseberries. I didn't think I'd like the sour cream servings (the color reminds me of mayonnaise, a condiment much-abused over here) but I found myself going back to that bowl again and again. At the end of my feasting, I wanted to express my thanks properly - and in Russian. I wanted to tell Anastasia's mother that my mother would thank her for how well I'd been fed. But the sentence was complicated. Part of it was in the past, another in the subjunctive, and then there were thanks going toward Anastasia's mother (dative case, right?) and her feeding me, which had to mean genitive, to say nothing of a direct object - wasn't a direct object in there somewhere? My tongue grew thick in my mouth, and after getting about halfway through it all I looked down as if to see my toes creeping out over the edge of a gangplank. At last, my perevodchika broke in. "Just say spasiba bol'shoy." It didn't quite reflect the depth of my gratitude, but after a quick laugh that's just what I did. "Spasiba bol'shoy." Thank you very much.

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Monday, October 17, 2005


I spent the weekend in Belgorod (after having trouble getting out of and back into Ukraine, while at the same time all but being offered a cup of tea and a plate of bliny from the kind and friendly Russian passport agents, two women I hope to see again and again).

I don't know what I expected of Belgorod, but I didn't get whatever it was. For a city that's maybe a thousand years old, and still emerging from a planned economy, as they say, Belgorod looks very modern. World War Two played a part in that. "Our city was bombed all to hell too, then," my girlfriend said, after hearing me use these words to summarize Kharkov's experience during the war. So yes, the Germans played a part in Belgorod's city planning (the German-launched Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, happened not far from here; Belgorod was one of the first two cities freed during the Soviet counter-offensive). And then in the last couple of years, a great number of new buildings have gone up too, while many of the older ones have gotten a face lift, including the Belgorod Department Store, a store that hasn't needed to change its communist-era name because it doesn't have a second department store with which it must compete (and with which it might be confused).

Then there are the stones that line the sidewalks and pave several of Belgorod's streets. Beautiful stones and colored bricks -- and they're everywhere, from one end of the city to the other. So is Belgorod a city dedicated to its beautification? Perhaps. But it's also one with a mayor who owns the brickworks factory. "At least it benefits the people," my tour guide said, and yes, she's right about that. In fact, the government in Belgorod Oblast seems to have its mind in the right place. The state university, a beautiful building I would've photographed if my mind hadn't been elsewhere, went up in a building abandoned mid-construction during the perestroika era, and it only got finished after the governor convinced all the area businesses to contribute to its completion. Not exactly a tax, I was told, but more of a civic duty. Political semantics, you could say, or as my dad might offer: it's just the cost of doing business.

Anyways, to see some pictures of Belgorod, visit the Flickr sidebar (because loading them here is too time-consuming and costly). There's more about the city's history, a picture of its now famous sidewalks, and a shot of one of the city's two Lenin statues (both seem wooden and flat-footed. Sorry, Belgorod. But I'll taking the Lenin who's striding out over Kharkov's Independence Square.)

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Staprius Club

Tonight I spoke with two people who may become central figures in my book: the owner-operators of a new marriage agency in Kharkov, Staprius Club. ("Staprius" doesn't translate well, though its meaning can be approximated with the phrase "stability, profit and success.") The Club got its business license on the thirteenth, if only because this is the owner's lucky number (and mine, since my first acceptance letter, for a piece of poetry if you'd believe it, came from Thirteen Magazine, which no, you haven't ever heard of. It's so unknown, it might actually be a cover through which the works of international espionage are passed). In a couple of days, I should be able to post the link to Staprius Club's website, and by the end of the month I expect to be writing about the first customers through the doors.

It looks like I'll have the coveted All Access Pass: steady interviews with the owners (one of whom is a lawyer), the men and the women, and even the staff psychologist they'll have to help Ukrainians and Americans work their way through any naturally arising cultural conflicts or confusion.

How'd I fluke into this, you say? Like a big dumb idiot. Just showed up. My first week here, while I was still gimping around town with my Mystery Illness, now on the mend, I believe, an employee from the university approached me in the hall looking like he'd just emerged from Gogol's overcoat. I heard you are American, he said, and I would like to ask if you would perhaps be of help. There is a lady in town who is starting a marriage agency, a lawyer, he said, and she would like some help with her website, and perhaps a letter seeking the advice of American-owned agencies? Would you be willing to speak to her?

Uh, I said. Do you know why I'm here?

No. I do not.

So I told him, and now we're wishing each other success, and I've perhaps got what a literary agent I contacted said was missing from my book proposal: a thrilling story at the center of it all. I don't know how thrilling a marriage agency's first year will be, but it certainly offers more glue to This Thing than a series of semi-related profiles. So -- something to look for.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Technical Difficulties (including Iraq)

It seems I bungled the Bloglet subscription service, but it should be working now. I'd forgotten to supply my website ID, apparently, and I gave the wrong user name. Something. Anyways, thanks to Ron for getting me to check into this, and if you subscribed ages ago and are only now seeing anything arrive in your mail box, this is why.

Spoke with a Ukrainian today, a man I've come to know pretty well in my short time here. Some days he's talkative, some days he's not. Today, he couldn't stop. But then our conversation turned to the war in Iraq, as it has once before, and so he went on and on about how Americans have no soul (a word that made my tutor smirk when I used it this summer -- dusha -- as if I'd never have a need for it) because their tanks blow up museums, they steal bread from the hands of children, and on and on, with a George Bush impersonation (slighty simian) thrown in to good effect. This conversation at home is one thing, but when you can only struggle to understand it's an entirely different thing. Needless to say, the passion is still there, but then again so is the war.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Four Men Carrying a Refrigerator

So I've added a photo feature to the sidebar (Flickr, for those familiar with it) and I've posted some pictures of Kharkov to start it off. Didn't get around to including the photo I've posted here, which my girlfriend says the locals call, in the great Socialist Realist tradition, "Four Men Carrying a Refrigerator."

The only other news for now is that I recently had a story accepted at The Portland Review, with that issue expected to be released in December. Strange but true, and I hope she won't mind my saying this, but the editor moved my story from the big slush pile to the little slush pile after seeing I'd mentioned Kharkiv in my cover letter. She then took the story with her to Kharkiv, that's right, to Kharkiv, where she went to visit relatives in September. If another literary magazine in America can produce an editor and writer who have visited Kharkiv in the same month, I challenge you to find it.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

Ignorance, a celebration

So I've been in town for more than three weeks now, and I feel like a snowflake caught in the wind, or a little boy so wide-eyed he doesn't even mind that he's lost in the woods. I have literally no idea what is going on. And I mean everywhere. This morning, I awoke to my usual cup of instant coffee (after almost a month, I can only be bothered with my French Press and coffee grinder on special ocassions, like a political coup) and while watching TV I saw that there was a vaccine developed, for cancer, but only 90 to 95 percent -- what? It's only that effective, or doesn't work on all of the cancers? And what's this, more than ten terrorists in New York's subway? On the loose? What's the mayor saying? Some silly Russian is talking over him, or is that Ukrainian? I couldn't figure it out. Only two or three of my channels speak Russian (the others are Ukrainian), and even if I'm watching one of them I understand just enough to know the Kharkiv football team lost again, or if I should fear for my life -- like, if the newscaster gets up halfway through her sentence and sprints off-screen, I get a little suspicious. Then I'll mosey out into the stairwell, coffee still in hand, and look around to the three doors circling away from my own. Anything wrong? An asteroid maybe? Is The Plague back? It's like I have undergone a lobotomy. In the states I was a political junkie, watching Chris Matthews enough to call him a friend; I had an opinion on everything. But here I know nothing -- about the United States, about Ukraine, about Russia and Europe (some kind of mix-up in Germany apparently? Haven't the foggiest). It is of course quite comforting, and refreshing, but then I visit the other blogs that focus on Ukraine and they're all a-buzz with word of the Post-Timoshenko Shake-Up, and I turn away from it all feeling like I should be fitted for a conical hat and shown to the nearest dark corner. Now sit there till you wise up. Thing is, this is probably how millions of Mexican-Americans live everyday in California, completely detached from the surrounding American culture -- perhaps even the four or five guys (their numbers changed, their faces too) who lived in the apartment next to mine in Davis. We spoke only once, when a Russian train ticket I'd ordered was mistakenly delivered to their door instead of my own. The guy I spoke with knew no English. His face was wild with fear. He wanted only for this transaction to be over with, to close the door and return to his comprehensible life. What's the Spanish word for train? I had forgotten -- I knew the Russian word, that's what I'd been studying, but now I couldn't recall the Spanish. There, I said. It's right behind you. Yes, the DHL package, that's it.

Anyways, you may have noticed I've said little to nothing about the mail-order bride scene here in Kharkiv. That's because I haven't even been bothering myself with it, what with my settling in and various physical set-backs, which seem to be on the mend. The internet cafe from which I now type (a place that always has on one of its computer's drop-down menus) attracts a number of tourists and foreigners, and I know I've seen a westerner or two in here looking through the mail-order bride sites. (I also felt dirty, as if I were touching myself in public, when I needed to research the history of Cherry Blossoms, the first really successful "mail-order bride agency." I felt like all the people around me were thinking: Another American, here for the women.) Anyways, I haven't approached any of these men at the internet cafe, but I plan to in the future. And I haven't heard any exchanges between them either, like another American in town has. His first day here, he heard two Americans swapping stories: this agency's good, that one's bad, have you communicated with this woman? One of these guys was in a wheelchair, and he was still in town, still slugging away at his computer, some 10 days later.

So, I promise more on all that later; for the time being, I'm just settling in. It's only this week that I've been walking around the city in any rambling sort of way, taking in the neighborhoods like you need to do. So, in many respects, it's like I've just left my apartment (the stairwell to which is pictured above).

Now I'm off to class, the end of my second week teaching. Everything's going great on that front. A wonderful group of students from A to Z. They're reading the materials, and talking in class, and for the most part showing up, and I've even found a couple of writers, young women who I think are really excited to be learning about the craft of fiction writing, something that otherwise might be unavailable to them. They're the ones who make teaching so worthwhile. And I think they'll produce some really interesting stories -- distinctly Russian stories too (I asked one class what they consider themselves, Russian or Ukrainian, and not a one said Ukrainian). Maybe I'll be able to post some of this writing here. I'm already excited about one of the stories, a first paragraph to which I've read. So -- more later.

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