Sunday, July 31, 2005

Dictator, I served with Joseph Stalin. I knew Joseph Stalin. Joseph Stalin was a friend of mine. Dictator, you're no Joseph Stalin.*

After reading about Stalin prohibiting marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners, I wondered if there were any countries with similar restrictions today. Enter Turkmenistan, an all but closed society that from 2001 until earlier this year levied a $50,000 marriage tax against foreigners marrying a Turkmen citizen.

The country borders a founding member of the Axis of Evil, and seems to be looking for more than a Contact High of Evil itself: it is the only former Soviet republic in which no form of political opposition, not even a sly shake of the head at the local coffee shop, is allowed. This has benefited one man since 1985, Saparmurat Niyazov, the former Communist Party Leader of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and until recently President for Life. (There will be elections in 2009, he has declared. As for the level of debate you can expect during the campaign, well, in a country that outlaws opposition, it's sure to be interesting:

Niyazov: I think my opponent should be tortured and then shot.

Opponent: I agree. But perhaps we differ in our approach. Let me explain.)

According to the United States Embassy in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan:

In the past some Americans have been told there is an oral decree of the Hakim (Mayor) of Ashgabat forbidding foreigners from marrying Turkmen citizens. Regardless of what you may be told, you can get married and you do not have to pay any "administrative fees" to do so. If you have any difficulties, please let us know.

Still, if you wish to marry a Turkmen woman, it will still cost you, if only in time. You must live in Turkmenistan for no less than one year before your marriage will be recognized by the Turkmen authorities.

*Title Disclaimer, through which the author explains that he isn't in fact on friendly terms with Joseph Stalin.

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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Another Kind of Marriage Agency: Part Two

Early in the winter of 2003, when Kevin McMahan was given the choice to spend two years in either Romania or Ukraine, the incoming Peace Corps Volunteer opted for the latter. The Beatles, he explains, sang about Ukrainian girls when they went back to the USSR, not Romanians.
Like several of his fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, Kevin also looked on the internet before he left the United States and found a sampling of web-sites advertising “mail-order brides” and introductions to beautiful women.
“We’re just interested,” he explained. “Everyone hears these stories.”
But despite such stories, those of young beauties willing to flee Ukraine with older less attractive men, Kevin never approached a marriage agency. Instead, on a camping trip sponsored by the youth center where he gave lectures on western ecological principles, he met Natalia Volodymyrivna Yurchenko.
Natasha, as the twenty-two year-old is known, is now married to Kevin, 26, and living in Davis, California. They appear the happy couple, no different than any two Americans you might find at the mall. She sits on his lap while inspecting a photo album; he tells her to tell this story or that, she gives him the occasional look that says more than any word.
But then there are moments during our two hour conversation when Natasha seems as removed from the United States as her Ukrainian accent. Her face tightens and her finger flies up before her, and she speaks in a vocal range Kevin's voice doesn’t possess.
“Even if you have job in my country, this job is so stupid,” she said. “You just work everyday, work a lot of hours, and receive zero,” she said. “Zero! My father, he worked one year in one job; they didn’t pay him – they didn’t pay him, one year he worked!”
Despite such conditions, Kevin was willing to stay in Ukraine if that meant pleasing his wife. “I’d be raising pigs or something,” he said, but he didn’t care.
In the end, the romantic gesture was filed away with the thoughts of a retirement still several decades away, because this was no longer the country Natasha had known as a child, when under Communism the streets were still clean, new buildings were going up, there was no homelessness, and prices were low and salaries, if not high, were at least higher.
“I was not going to stay in Ukraine, I was not going to stay,” she said. “I didn’t know what country I was to go, but I was going to go somewhere.”
Before meeting Kevin and leaving her hometown of Kaniv, Natasha applied for a job as a “stewardess” on AeroSvit, and earned a specialist’s degree in teaching at Pereyaslav-Chemelnytsky Pedagogical Institute, the same institute that matriculated the Brothers Klitschko. To get to her classes, she hitch-hiked once a week for two years, occasionally dealing with the unwanted advances of the motorists who ferried her.
“Our people, they can get used to any situation,” she said. “They are not afraid of anything.”
When not studying, Natasha spent forty hours per week at a nearby orphanage, where she gave English lessons to the children who’d been removed from an abusive home, seen their parents die at an early age, or been abandoned, often at birth and often due to a parent’s inability to afford the child’s most basic needs.
Natasha was paid $45 a month.
“It was difficult to leave Ukraine because there is my family,” she said, “there is all my relatives, all my friends. But I wanted to have new life, new opportunities for life, because in my country it’s hard to find a good job.”
Within a month of coming to America, Natasha was cleaning houses and then finding work as a clerk at a Rite Aid drug store. Kevin, a park ranger, said he came to view his relationship with her as an opportunity for him to share America’s wealth.
“I had this chance,” he said, “and it’s like a Golden Ticket almost. I was like, Why do I need to be selfish? I know how good America is, and we have so much in America, I want to bring Natasha to America.”
He also admits he always wanted to feel wanted and needed, a desire Natasha acknowledges she now helps him satisfy.
“I don’t know computer very good, I cannot drive, I don’t know language so perfect," she said. "But I’m still fine. I feel very good."

Part One can be found here.

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Top 50 Russian Verbs

There are 555 fully conjugated verbs in my Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs, including enough variants of "to go" to keep Rain Man occupied for much of the next decade. But it's the Top 50 verbs that caught my interest today, particularly a run of these most popular verbs at the back of the book. In a row, I found убирать(to kill), ударять (to strike or hit), умирать (to die), and then, if you haven't gotten the job done yet, уничтожать (to destroy or annihilate). These are top 50 verbs, I'm told. Up there with "to read," "to buy" and "to work." Pretty amazing. I wonder if any other language on the planet can stand toe-to-toe, or toe-tag to toe-tag, with Russian, because that's quite a run, even without throwing in the next two: устраивать(ся) (to place -- as in to place in a coffin) and finally, уходить(to leave -- as in to walk away from said coffin after lowering it into the melted tundra).

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Fat Yuri and Yuri Gagarin

For much of the night, too much of the night, I've been reading the posts at Russian Women Discussion, a bulletin board for men interested in a MOB. As in, "Much of the newbies are stuck in a MOB fantasy," or: "Because of the MOB scene and the agencies it would seem on the surface that women are preparing to leave 'en masse' when actually it could be that it is all big business. If this is so then the money will keep pouring in and the women will be there whether they are real or Fat Yuri's."

MOB? MOB? Mothers Opposing Bush? Men On Benzedrine? Mail Order -- Mail Order Bride, yes. Took me forever too.

Anyways, you can find just about everything and everyone there: professors and laborers, the earnest, the desperate, the lonely, the lustful, the crazed, and even what seems to be the pure of heart. Take this one guy, Timmy K, a union carpenter who earns "$20 an hour with excellent bennies." He went to Kyiv in April when there was no work for him "back here in the middle of the USA," and on his first date arranged through a marriage agency he met Victoria, "a common worker like my self ... a survivor through tough times even by Ukraine standards. Is she interested in my wallet? Of course she is, she wants to see if I can support her and 1 or 2 future children. Did I write down my earnings and my monthly expenses and show her? Sure did and her mother and her step father and her brother and her cousin and some of their friends. Is she aware that in the winter months things can be a little tight for us guys in this business? She sure is, she has lived it herself and understands this perfectly well. Will I take care of her and buy her a car and help her improve her education and do I have a warm and cozy house for her? Yes I can and Yes I will."

Seven thousand dollars he's spent so far on travel expenses, marriage agency fees, translations services and lost work. Times have been tough too, he says, but through it all he's still sent Victoria "about $225 a month plus e- mail expenses and a very nice birthday present for her and a trip to the dentist for her and a electronic dictionary." They have plans to marry in September of October, and then finish the necessary paperwork that would allow her to enter the United States by the end of the year.

"The goal is for me to carry her through the front door of this house for Christmas. She also has 2 new female friends here who want to be friends for her ... Victoria is overwhelmed with this, she is so exited to know she has new friends here ... These two girls are also common workers here in America and this does not bother her, I even sent photos of these two girls on their own Harleys and Victoria is really excited about this. Yes these girls have their own Harley Davidson motorcycles. This is funny, when I was in Kiev, Victoria and I did a lot of walking around Idependence Square area, we would check out the little kiosk sales tents and stuff. We came across one that had Harley T shirts with the Harley logo written on the back in Ukraine and saying Kiev, Ukraine on them. A big hit here with my riding friends. Now she says Tim now I know why you got the t shirts for us. Well it looks like I'll have to sell my Triumph and get a Harley for us and now she wants her own too but that will be a year or so down the road."

But where is the struggle, you say? What good is a story without struggle?

"I am having some difficulty with the lady from the agency I used (to meet Victoria) ... I ... refused to meet about 10 women when I came to Kiev in April. I met Victoria first and we hit it off and that is that. We finally broke away from (the lady from the agency) about 15 days after I got back and started to use the services of another agency (for translation?) that my good friend from this forum referred me too, in her home town ... This guy is excellent and is helping Victoria and I with a lot of things like the passport thing, our wedding and apartments and even some work for Victoria and her mother and father if needed. Well this has made the lady in Kiev mad and also the fact that I refused to write a recommendation {testimonial] on behalf of her services which quite frankly if you ask me were very poor and like I said very questionable on a few occasions. Of course I am grateful to have met Victoria but she has been paid and Victoria and I are moving on with out her. We do not need some one in Kiev when Victoria is from Kharkov. Well this lady thinks I am mean and nasty and has tried to undermine Victoria and I when we were in Kiev, when we were in Kharkov and now after almost 2 months with out her she has suddenly appeared again raising havoc again. She called Victoria's mother and asked her mother to talk Victoria into breaking up with me, she wrote Victoria a letter saying she had work for Victoria in Kiev but she must do this for free because Victoria owed her for meeting me and then told Victoria to dump me because she could get a more hansome and wealthy man for her and that I was worthless and afew other things. Victoria wrote to me and told me this and Victoria told me not to reply and she loves me and wants this lady to leave us alone and that I am her future husband and no one else. All of this took place this last week. At the same time this lady wrote me a very nice letter saying how much she misses us and so on . I have not replied to this last incident to the lady in Kiev, I simply do not want to waste my time or energy on her any more. But I sure would like to write her a good letter telling her my views on this and it would not be nice."

But the man has faith, still our Ray Carver goes on.

I have a lady to think about now, the master bedroom is getting a face lift, some carpet is getting laid , a new floor for the kitchen and the rest of the kitchen cabinets and counter tops, a wall is comming down expanding the bath room,the garage I built is getting electricity for real instead of the dropcord I have leading out there for temporary lighting, my patio deck extension is going to be built a step down for a hot tub. I can get a free hot tub from my brother inlaw in Utah. It is used but we refinish it and put new pumps, a heater and plumbing in it. And a few more things. My home is an older one but very straight and study and it is very livable as it is and would probably be OK for Victoria. I am saving some things for her to make decisions on after all this will be her house and she wants to be part of some of the redecorating and such.

In another post, Timmy K explains how this search started:

It was about a year ago when I looked into this R/W (Russian Woman) thing. It was kind of by accident by telling you guys this you will know a little bit more about me but this is OK. I am an ex heavy drinker, 8 years no alcohol in September. So I socialize with other ex drinkers mostly. In this life style we develop very good friends real friends for life. So since I have a house I will rent a room or two to people who are trying to get their life back on track. Very cheap too. Any way there is this good female friend of mine {just a friend} who wanted to go back to school to get a degree to have a real carreer and make something good out of her life. She took on a full school schedule and more doing all of this on a fast track. She simply could not afford an apartment on the school grants and such. She is an ex paralegal and knows computers very well, I never knew how to even turn one on a year ago last March. So she taught me evry thing she knows, Well being single and not hitting the bar scene and clubs any more it was difficult to find a date let alone meet another female period. So I hit the personals and communicated with a few women all over the US and Canada. No real luck. Then one day this lady from Russia wrote to me from American Singles. WOW WHAT A KNOCK OUT SHE WAS. So needless to say I hit Russian Women on the search and was I amazed, look at all the good looking women looking for men in the west. It was elenasmodels and ofcourse she has a few thousand on her site. She also got about $700 out of me too. The persoonal listing, 100 e- mail addresses, the e- books and a few very expensive translations. I learned alot though, especially on the personal listing/ on line catalogue she has. I was on the internet and evry scammer in Russia knows this. But I was overwhelmed to say the least, every agency you could think of was sending me advertisements and hundreds of women were writing me. The first 2 weeks on the personal listing I got over 150 letters from women alone. Then I thought I found miss right actually 4 times I thought I found miss right but the last one was right before Christmas and I sent her $50 and then $100 for Christmas. Never heard from her again, bummer my heart was broke and my ego was punctured pretty good. So along come Bruno to my rescue ha ha ha and through him I met some more women through another site but as Bruno will tell you I am a liitle bit demanding on services and I made the lady mad at me on this site she said I was to hard to deal with. So along came this last agency where I met Victoria and the rest is history ... Will she stay with me? Big risk and I know it. But like I said a lot is in the heart and Victoria and I have a lot of heart for each other.

Updated August 4, 2005: After communicating with Timmy K through email, I can expect to see him in Kharkiv, where he plans to marry this October.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Who are the Communists again?

Before reading the following excerpt from Wedded Strangers, I'd thought marriages between Soviet and American citizens unlikely, but I hadn't realized that Joseph Stalin had prohibited them altogether.

In February 1947 an edict of the Supreme Soviet forbade marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners. Though in general the ban was strictly enforced, a few marriages were permitted ... primarily between American men and Russian women, since relatively few American women were then working or living in Russia. By making the law retroactive, the Soviet government exerted pressure both on planned future marriages and on Russians already married to Americans, urging them to divorce their spouses and threatening sanctions if they did not. Measures aimed at preventing and breaking up these marriages included bugging telephones, tailing individuals on the street, threats of job loss and arrest and jail sentences on trumped-up charges. A Russian wife could be forced to write a letter to Pravda repudiating her husband, denouncing the U.S., and stating her wish to remain in the motherland. Some women who refused to sign statements renouncing their husbands were sent to labor camps. The wife of an American Foreign Service officer who had been forced to leave when his term was up went out for a walk one day, and was never heard from again" (12-13).

The law was rescinded following Uncle Joe's death in 1953.

As for the US, we've prohibited mixed-marriages, and we continue to outlaw same-sex marriages. But could we ever keep liberal from marrying conservative? Considering Senator Rick Santorum 's views on personal privacy, and his recent comments about liberalism leading to the sex scandal in the Catholic Church, I wouldn't rule anything out, even the absurd. Consider what the senator recently told the Associated Press:

SANTORUM: I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who's homosexual. If that's their orientation, then I accept that. And I have no problem with someone who has other orientations. The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it's not the person, it's the person's actions. And you have to separate the person from their actions.

ASSOCIATED PRESS: OK, without being too gory or graphic, so if somebody is homosexual, you would argue that they should not have sex?

SANTORUM: ... If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold — Griswold was the contraceptive case — and abortion. And now we're just extending it out. And the further you extend it out, the more you — this freedom actually intervenes and affects the family. You say, well, it's my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, whether it's sodomy, all of those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.

Now consider this excerpt from editor Adele Marie Baker's Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex and Society Since Gorbachev:

From the time Lenin declared the private life dead shortly after the revolution, people's attempts to garner some sort of personal privacy have been fraught with emotional ambiguity and even political risk ... Further, the party under Stalin exerted every effort to make the public and the private virtually indistinguishable. Under Stalin, for example, motherhood became a public act, and countless faces of mother-heroines beamed out from the cover of magazines such as Ogonek, Krest'ianka, and Sovetskaia zhenshchina, exhorting Soviet women to produce more Soviet citizens (read 'sons') for the motherland (33).

Okay, so who are the Communists again? I keep forgetting. Because if you listen to Santorum (who goes on to talk about man-on-dog sex in his AP interview) and his fellow Lapel Flags (as di rigeur as yesterday's arm band), it's okay to demonize Lenin and the Reds one minute -- to say they took away all the freedoms we hold so dear -- and then turn around the next and do the same thing, merge the public with the private, so long as you do it under the banner of Family Values and not while hoisting the red flag of the hammer and sickle.

It's just one more example of how the neoconservatives have borrowed from the Bolsheviks and hijacked the Republican Party. Let corporate consolidation continue unchecked, and you'll have the sort of central planning and media control the Politburo once achieved. Wal-mart, which grows by the day and already accounts for more than 2.5 percent of the Gross National Product, will produce our Mao Jacket, while the last two mega-media companies left standing at the end of the ongoing merger frenzy will give us plenty of choice at the record store and multi-plex (Britney or Cristina? Bewitched or The Dukes of Hazzard?) while publishing the city's one remaining newspaper to feed stories to a TV station in the same town, thereby ensuring that the truth goes reported, and then reported again, until it can only be true because I read it here and saw it there and heard it just now on the radio. Because yes, there will be radio, hundreds of stations, thousands in fact, a multitude of choice, a dialful of freedom, though sadly all this will be programmed about a thousand miles away from those pesky little disasters local listeners need to hear about. To top it all off, these stations will express their free speech over our public airwaves by blacklisting artists that speak out against the President, while promoting war over peace.

What do you say they call them? The Red States? Well, of course. Why would would Clear Channel and the RNC fly a flag of any other color?

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Another Kind of Marriage Agency

Kevin McMahan didn’t meet his wife Natasha through a marriage agency. Or if he did, it was through one established by President John F. Kennedy.
The Peace Corps is kind of known as a marriage agency,” McMahan said. “There were like seventy people in my group (who went to Ukraine), including about twenty-five single guys, and there were at least four of us who got married and maybe three of us who got engaged.”
After spending his first three months in Ukraine studying the language with his fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, Kevin was sent alone to Kaniv, a small village about 100 miles south of Kyiv, where he was asked to do one thing: talk garbage. Or more specifically, western ecological principles.
It was the summer of 2003, and as a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati with a degree in environmental science, McMahan was certainly qualified to handle the subject. But the 24-year-old's lectures were not only voluntary, they were offered at the equivalent of a YMCA, where he had to compete with someone offering guitar lessons.
Guitar beats garbage every time. And so shortly into his two-year stay in Kaniv, he joined a group of townspeople on a ten-day excursion to the Black Sea.
He spotted Natalia Volodymyrivna Yurchenko before even boarding the bus. But Natasha, as she’s known, was just one of the many beautiful girls milling about that morning – and only further evidence to Kevin that eighty-percent of Ukrainian women could parlay their looks into a modeling contract.
Natasha was equally aware of Kevin, if somewhat less impressed.
“When I first met Kevin it was horrible,” she said. “His hair was not beautiful. He had this goatee, which in my country was not normal. And clothes? Wow, I was in shock really.”
But despite his baggy shorts and wild hair, Natasha, then a student in English at Pereyaslav-Chemelnytsky Pedagogical Institute, knew he presented her with an opportunity she otherwise could not find.
“I proposed Kevin: I know that you are American, Would you like to sit with me? I need to practice my English,” she said.
Natasha had fought with her boyfriend of two years the night before and left town only on the advice of her mother. When she returned from camping with Kevin, she had with her something she says she’d never imagined – an American boyfriend.
As for the Peace Corps, they had a volunteer who could no longer be discouraged by the lack of people coming to hear him talk.
“The Peace Corps, they’re afraid, Are you lonely? Are you becoming suicidal? Are you in depression?” said McMahan. “They don’t want any of that. And they actually give you condoms. They would give us like a box of condoms every month or every two weeks, because they’re like, 'Good, you’re having sex, that means you have low stress.'”
Natasha, now living with her husband in the United States, laughed nervously when she recalled the scene they’d left three months earlier.
“I can tell you the secret,” she said. “Almost all Peace Corps guys were happy, almost all Peace Corps women were unhappy.”

Part two is here.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Wedded Strangers

Though "Everybody I Love You" will focus on Ukrainians and Americans who use the services of an online marriage broker, the book will spill over into the other republics of the Former Soviet Union and touch on such related subjects as bi-cultural marriages.

Wedded Strangers: The Challenges of Russian-American Marriages, by Lynn Visson, is one title on my current reading list. First published in 1998, the book reappeared as an expanded edition in 2000 so the author could more fully address the issue of online marriage brokers. That may have resulted in the twenty-page chapter "Love and Marriage Dot-Com," but within another year the book was sadly dated once again:

The American spouses had trouble with the way their Russian mates were 'assured of certain certainties.' Marxist ideology and historical materialism were so deeply etched into the minds of the population that even the most virulently anti-communist Russians were affected by the Soviet mindset. Aside from religious fundamentalists or mad scientists, Americans tend to reject the notion that philosophical systems can explain everything, and that there is always a 'right' or a 'wrong' answer; several options should be explored and the best choice made (197).

I guess you're either with the author or against her on that one.

Visson goes on to write:

"For Soviet believers, there was only one answer. They were right and everyone else was wrong ... One foreigner described this mentality as that of people who had 'the unstoppable, unsteerable certainty of a child's noisy windup toy'" (197-198).

Such thinking -- how America was becoming the thing it once professed to hate, a Sovietized state -- led me to write this during the lead-up to the current Iraq War.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Everybody I Love You: An Introduction

Everybody, Ukraine. Ukraine, Everybody.

Not a perfect match, you say? Well, if 40 percent of the women born in the 70s will divorce, who is a perfect match anymore? So no, the purpose of this blog is not to ridicule or condemn those people who seek out the services of an online marriage agency. It is to push past the pictures and get into the stories -- the stories of the women who post their bios, the men who travel thousands of miles to see them, the business people (legal and otherwise) pulling the strings, and the families and cultures left behind.

In September, I begin a ten-month Fulbright Fellowship in Ukraine, where I will be based in Kharkiv and working on a book about the world of online marriage agencies. This will take me all across the country, from Odesa on the Black Sea, to Donets'k in the east and L'viv in the west, to Kherson on the Dnipro River and then back again to the capital of Kyiv.

If I have a personal connection to this subject, it is this: back during the run-up to Y2K, when I lived a stone's throw from Lake Mendocino, my landlord married a Ukrainian woman. I learned about it the day I went to drop off my lease, when I met Denny's daughter-in-law and had my first question answered with "he's in Ukraine getting himself a wife."

My landlord was a real throwback, a man who'd built his own home and one next to it for his son, a cowboy of sorts who had only two fingers and a thumb on one hand and not because he'd been born that way. I'd liked him right off. He worked hard and looked after his own, could live off the land, and yes, he'd agreed to rent to me on the strength of a handshake, not a credit check. At the time, that meant a lot. And so when his daughter-in-law told me what she did, I knew Denny hadn't met his new bride at a contra dance at the Grange Hall. This was the turn of the 20th century not the 19th. You didn't serenade your sweetheart with fiddle music anymore; love was now accompanied by the sound of a dial-up connection.

I lived on Denny's property, in what realtors would call a cottage and my mother would call a shack. This was, suitably enough, on the banks of the Russian River, right where it meets the mouth of Cold Creek. Denny's house was on the other side of the creek from me, and so when he returned I saw that his new wife was also entering into her second marriage, as she had brought with her two children of her own: one a boy of eleven or twelve, the other a girl about a year or three older. Yulia, as I'll call the girl, actually only looked that young -- she was in fact old enough to join the graduating class at Ukiah High, where she soon had a boyfriend and dreams of moving to New York City.

Yulia didn't gain much weight during the year that I knew her (this is what had made her look so young, a diet that was more Ukraine post-Communism than America at the drive-through) but we did become friends, going out for the occasional cup of coffee or short day-hike. And so that's how I learned that she was too old to be considered a dependent of her mother (unlike her younger brother), and that the only way she could stay after the expiration of her visa was if she got married.

Her boyfriend from the high school wouldn't commit; maybe he thought himself too young or maybe he wasn't in love. So Yulia fell in with a young man at a local bakery, the same bakery where my then-girlfriend worked. This guy knew Yulia didn't love him, but he was in his mid-twenties and already a little soft in the middle, to say nothing of single, and Yulia was beautiful, wasn't she? So couldn't he dream? Couldn't he imagine that she'd learn to love him and that it'd all work out? He could and he did, but then he caught Yulia sneaking away to see her ex and so he called the whole thing off and Yulia told me about it on a walk through the woods.

"Now," she said, "I have to find another husband," she said. "That," she said, "or go."

As she spoke, I followed her along a narrow path of hardened dirt that was shaded by the trees we were pushing through. I kept one hand up to keep the branches from snapping back into my face. "That or go," she'd said. So was this a vague appeal for help, a marriage proposal of sorts? I could change her life, I knew, and why not? I was twenty-eight and never married, my last relationship thrown onto the trash heap like all the rest, with the ending, as usual, being announced through that most standard of American romantic expressions, The Exchange of Stuff. I was tired of it. And I could keep her from having to go back to Ukraine, a country that at the time only brought to mind chaos and poverty, Chernobyl and the collapse of the USSR.

But then this was marriage, and I didn't know if it'd be for the better or the worse. Yulia was beautiful, and nice, and she spoke the lingua franca of my dreams, an English that halted and hiccupped and broke so good. But you couldn't build a marriage on that, could you? So no, I didn't answer her. I only nodded as I followed her through the woods. I only did that and shielded my eyes from the branches she pushed back in my face.

If I saw her after that, I don't remember. She's now living in Kyiv. I haven't spoken to her since she left.

And so what became of her? How is she doing? Yulia's is just one story I want to tell during the length of my fellowship, when I plan to write a book-length piece of creative non-fiction (and, I'm sure, a little fiction too). Part expose, part travelogue, part memoir -- my book will be many things, all of which you'll be able to follow here. But for now, let me leave you with this, a working title: Everybody I Love You: Dispatches from Ukraine's Internet Marriage Agencies.

A more detailed, three-page book proposal is available upon request. It includes a chapter-by-chapter break-down of my proposed research.

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