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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