Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

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Are you European?

Okay, the story about Latvia. On the second morning my wife was in town, I took her to the T-Mobile store to get a phone. I already had an account through T-Mobile, it only made sense we get rolled over into a family plan. But when we got to the store, my wife didn't like any of the phones. She looked all around, looking suspiciously at each model, finding one too clunky, the other without style, a third without the right features. "God," she said. "This is all they have? In Russia, we may not be rich, but at least we have lots more phones to choose from."

About this time, one of the two clerks who worked at the store had finished with a customer and come over to us. She sort of leaned forward, to see more than my wife's profile, to get a look at her face, and asked if we needed any help. My wife said no, briefly explained the situation, still looking at the phones. Then the clerk, an ice-blonde with a sharply drawn face, asked another question. "Are you from Europe?" I'd spotted her the moment we walked in. She's from Finland, I'd thought. Gotta be. That hair, the face. But after my wife smiled, said no, she was from Russia, the T-mobile clerk said hello in perfect Russian, "Zdrastvuy," and went on to conduct the rest of their dialogue in what she said was a shared native language. She was from Latvia, had come here a little over a year ago, and was in her mid-twenties, like my wife. They quickly fell into laughing and smiling, walking around the store together. Occasionally, they broke off from their Russian to include me in the conversation. The clerk did this at one point to say, "Since we are neighbors, I will give you a deal. You can take a phone for free, and that way you can have one until you find another, in Russia perhaps, where they care more for fashion and style."

I didn't argue. The phone they'd settled on was supposed to be free only with a two-year contract, and we were signing up for only one and supposed to pay more than $100. So: my wife and I followed the clerk over to the counter, where we called up my account and my wife began to supply the information needed to put her onto it. The clerk and my wife got to talking in Russian again. I sat there, just biding my time. Then I heard something. The clerk had said something, making a motion with one hand that seemed to suggest a bouncer looking at a fake ID, turning it this way and that to check the holographic seal. She walked away to retrieve a print-out of our contract, and as she did, I asked my wife, "Did she just ask if you married for love or the card?" My wife said something like, "Gosh, you're getting good," and thank god she didn't have a reason to worry about any further translations, because I'd heard her answer -- "po lubvi" -- and it was the right one.

As for the clerk, her motives seemed more dubious. She'd come here on a fiancee visa, a little over a year ago, but already she was in the process of getting a divorce. "Won't you have to leave?" my wife had asked. But this clerk seemed well-versed in the many nuances of immigration law. "No, there are ways," she said. "We'll have to get coffee, I'll tell you everything."

It was kind of funny. I'd once defended Latvia to my wife, who would, perhaps jokingly, suggest she didn't want to visit the Baltic states, like I, because "they hate us there, especially in Latvia," a country which is anything but an openly multi-cultural state, requiring ethnic Russians to speak Latvian just as Russians once insisted Latvians speak the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, Russian. And then what happens when we finally meet a Latvian together? She's everything I should fear, like the filing a false abuse claim, a new option for the desperate or impatient (and the truly abused) which eliminates the two-year waiting period for a Green Card, and a quick friend to my wife.

One thing's for certain. There are lots of Russian-speakers in Los Angeles. I see magazins everywhere, then shops selling books and videos and gifts too. I can move out in any direction of the compass and find kefir within a mile or two. For tvorog and canadckaya smetana, I needn't go such a great distance.

So it seems like there will be plenty of Russian-speakers for my wife to befriend. I can only hope that if one is a Latvian, she provides me with a case study and nothing more.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Rise of Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Turkmenistan's President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov is dead, leaving the repressive, energy-rich country in the hands of his deputy prime minister, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. See the NY Times for more. View the labels sidebar for more on Turkmenistan.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Home Delivery

In Malaysia at least, some men find the concept of looking for a "mail-order bride" too labor-intensive and time-consuming. As a result, the International Herald Tribune reports:


Women's rights activists voiced outrage Tuesday over claims that Vietnamese girls were brought to small towns in Malaysia to be paraded before prospective husbands.

The "bridal parades" were held in roadside restaurants for lonely men and divorcees who prefer to choose Vietnamese wives on the spot instead of resorting to mail-order brides, Michael Chong, head of the Malaysian Chinese Association's public complaints bureau, told The Star newspaper.

Each bride is sold for up to 30,000 ringgit (US$8,500; €6,500), Chong was quoted as saying.


Maria Chin Abdullah, head of the private Women's Development Collective, calls it akin to sexual slavery and wants it to stop. It's a pretty sad spectacle, that's for sure.

Reminds me of something I heard while interviewing a marriage agency owner in Eastern Ukraine. The guy spoke of visiting The Philippines, the main source country for "mail-order brides," even though there's a law against the business there. He said the women were so desperate to leave, to improve their lives, "it's like clubbing seals." He couldn't meet my eye when he said this. We were in a restaurant, and maybe only our shared background -- raised in northern California -- prompted the easy confession. Either way, with a sly smile, a glance down at the table-cloth, he said it. "Like clubbing seals."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Blue Cross of California

Doesn't suck.

Apparently.

On the advice of my insurance agent, my wife enrolled in a short-term insurance plan -- one with fewer benefits than any of the plans I would have liked -- in order to generate some "medical records," which she can then use, at the conclusion of her plan, to enroll in long-term, individual coverage.

We hope she'll have other coverage by that time, supplied by her employer. In fact, she goes on her first job interview of sorts tomorrow -- a meet and greet set up by my sister -- an event which was preceded by at least one unpleasant surprise: the United States government guarantees its citizens no paid vacation.

In France, you can expect no less than five weeks vacation a year. In Russia, my wife got four weeks off per year. "It's the law," she said. The same for every other worker, no matter the position. And when I told her there were no such laws here, that the U.S. was the only advanced country to offer no such assurances, that it was at the very bottom of the list, she said, "It's like slavery." To which I had to agree. With most U.S. companies, she'd have to work 15 or 20 years before she could enjoy four weeks of paid vacation each year.

Enough to make us both wish we'd kept at our French lessons, and think of other places: Montreal, the Swiss Alps, St. Petersburg, Belgorod.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Blue Shield of California


Sucks.

No better way to put that. Short. Succinct. True. Blue Shield of California sucks, as I'm sure every other American provider of medical insurance does.

The reason? Simple, really. I go to an online site that sells health insurance, describe to my wife how health care works in this country ("So only after you pay $2,000 do you start to get benefits?" "It's called a deductible." "And we pay $100 a month for that?" "It's really just hit-by-a-bus insurance, with ten dollar generic drugs." "I don't know.") and after selecting a plan, my wife fills in an extensive questionnaire, detailing her medical history, back to the first cough lozenge she swallowed at the age of three.

Then today we get this in the mail:


Unfortunately, we are unable to request medical information outside of the United States. As this information is necessary for our evaluation of your application, we must defer your request for coverage at this time.

If you can provide us with copies of your medical records, we will be pleased to re-evaluate your application.

-- Sincerely, Senior Underwriter


And what, Dear Sir, Mr. Senior Underwriter, constitutes medical records? Can't say, can I? Isn't defined. Would it be every form filled out by every doctor she's ever seen? Would you like that translated and in triplicate? Where would you like me to leave the file cabinet?

If there were an American gulag, would the insurers be the first ones on the trains? Or the politicians who allowed them to protect their bottom line rather than the bottoms of so many uninsured expendables?

It's a simple theory: You insure everyone, and spread the cost around. I know that may be too simple for Washington, but it's really all we should say on the subject. Insure everyone, spread the cost around. Because why, in the so-called greatest country in the world, must there remain large groups of people who do not qualify for insurance, who are left out of the safety net? We all end up paying anyway, either through higher insurance rates or costs absorbed by the state. Just insure anyone.

Till then, if anyone knows where to get insurance for someone new to the United States ... well, drop a comment here.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Buy This Region-Free DVD Player; It Works

I bought a bunch of DVDs in Ukraine, even got a couple in Russia, including one that had six movies on one disc, the best of which was Capote. While watching it, dubbed into Russia, I saw an intermittent caption appear on the screen -- For Your Consideration -- that proved it had originally been given to a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that decides the Oscars. Then it got pirated and sold for two or three dollars.

Anyways, I wanted to watch these movies here, because many of them are dubbed in Russian and include English subtitles -- a great learning tool. Only they're region 5 discs, not region 1. So, while globalization is a boon to the corporations that want to move DVD players across the world, leaping borders in a single bound, it's just another pain in the ass for the lowly consumer.

Until I went to Amazon and searched for a region-free DVD player, and found this:



I paid my money, $60 or so, including shipping, and received my brand new DVD player in a couple of days. Put in a Russian disc, didn't work. Tried another, started cursing now. Then, just when I was about to send an angry email to the company that sold me the DVD player -- the company that had advertised it as a region-free player -- I did a little search on the internet and came across this, the steps to make the player region-free:

How to convert your Philips DVP642 into a Region Free DVD Player

1. Power Up the unit with NO Disc in the tray.
2. Open the tray
3. Press the 7 button on your remote control
4. Press the 8 button on your remote control
5. Press the 9 button on your remote control
6. Press the OK button on your remote control
7. Press the 0 (zero) button on your remote control
8. The number 0 will appear on the lower left hand side of the screen. Your player is now Region Free.
9. Close the tray
10. NOTE - The 0 (zero) in the above sequence represents the Region Code 0 - Region Free. If you want to set to a specific region, just replace the 0 with the region number that you want.

And you know what? It worked. Now I can play Russian DVDs in America. Even those from Western Europe or China or South America or Africa, if I had any.

I thought it might be something a number of my readers would like as well, so there you have it, my Christmas recommendation for the foreign-DVD lover in your life.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Walk on the Wild Side


Two weeks in and already we've received her important cards (social security, green), found a place to buy gretchniya kasha, and gone to the beach. The essentials, you know. Have I forgotten anything? Yes, to write about it. And I wish I had, if not for the handful of people who might be interested in it out there, then for my own future writing. Seems so rich, this first two weeks. Three trips to Ikea, a car ride longer than any she'd ever been on in Russia, and an apartment so clean you'd think I was hoping to wake up tomorrow to collect a full refund on my apartment's deposit.

I should jot down at least one anecdote, one for now. Okay, so we went to LA's Russian neighborhood the other day, a three-block long stretch of magaziny near the area of Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. It's just east of West Hollywood, not far from where Hugh Grant picked up the prostitute Divine Brown. We parked, got out, walked the sidewalks. Then: "That was a man," my wife said, and yes, those were my thoughts too: the transvestite passed us on the sidewalk, dressed in low heels and a matching green mini-skirt. What else could it be? "Very possibly a drug addict as well," I said. "What's a drug addict?" "In this case, a man who wears a short skirt." "And what do you call them?" "The drug addicts?" "The men who wear women's clothing." "Transvestite," I said. We walked some. She repeated the word some. I nodded when she had it right. By that time, we were back in the car and leaving the neighborhood with our purchases, which included some Kharkivsky Tort, made by my very own beloved Kharkivsky Bisqvit, chocolate company of my dreams. As we drove off, my wife saw the transvestite once more. He/she stopped in front of one of the Russian stores--"Oh, don't stop there"--and stepped into the street, eyeing the approaching motorists. My wife craned her neck to get one final look before I turned us toward The Valley. "That was very exciting," she said. "It was?" "That was my first one," she said. And hey, who'm I to say what shouldn't excite a new arrival? If they're going to keep the Statue of Liberty closed due to a permanent and elevated terrorist threat, maybe we should be looking more closely at the little things like this.

Anyways. It's late, I haven't posted in ages, and I'm in the midst of writing a paper for a class in feminism and cultural studies centered around colonialism and The Male Gaze and a reading of the film Heading South, which I posted about once before, somewhere down there, and which is all about women going to Haiti to drum up a little sex tourism. But I thought I'd write a little here, because it's so much easier than writing a little there, and so now at least I can say I'll be back, soon, very likely, maybe in days, not more than a week, to give you the story about How You Can Tell Who's Russian at LAX, or go on about that damn Latvian Girl at the Atwater Village T-mobile store who thought I didn't understand a word of Russian when she started talking to my wife in their shared native tongue. Until then, just a periscope popping up above the water to signal hello to those kind readers who keep reading, and pose, perhaps, more metaphysical rejoinders, such as: "Where the hell am I?"

Something exciting to come, I think. More later.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Notary


Few people in Ukraine or Russia hold a position of greater authority than the notary. Even a mafia boss might not believe an underling has performed a hit if he doesn't report back with the proper documentation.

When I was living in Kharkov, a professor at the university where I taught was trying to start a marriage agency with a lawyer he knew. He approached me when he learned I was an American, and asked if I would write a letter on his behalf to the owner of an American-owned agency. He was seeking a business relationship, maybe a little advice, and so I dashed off a letter, thinking that would be the end of it. But my Russian-speaking Ukrainian friend received it, he said, "Should we get it notarized, do you think?" This was a man out of a Kafka novel. Slight and thin, mousey face, chain smoker, a nervous laugh and bureaucratic voice. "No," I told him, I didn't think we needed to get it notarized. But he was quietly persistent, sure it would probably be best if a notary was present to see me sign beneath my printed name. "The guy we're writing is from Houston," I tried. "He's not going to know the difference."

But it was a losing proposition. A few nights later, I met my friend on the corner of Pushkinskaya and Bazhanova, piled into a cab with him, and was driven deep into the night to a part of town I didn't yet know. When we arrived, we stood outside in the cold, waiting for his partner to arrive. My friend smoked cigarettes, apologizing for the delay. Then his future partner, the lawyer, was pulling up in a chauffered Lada, and the three of us were moving inside.

The notary was not yet available. Either she wasn't here or she was in a back room. A secretary showed us to a waiting area. Plush leather furniture. Magazines on a glass coffee table. Flowers everywhere. A TV going. We waited. My Ukrainian friend held the documents in a plastic folder: one copy in Russian, another in English. "We'll need them both notarized," he said.

Then the notary appeared, a regal woman in her fifties with chamber of commerce hair and flecks of gold on her neck, wrists and lobes. She looked at our paperwork. Spoke with the two people I'd come with, looked at me not once. No, no, no, she said. This was the jist of it. No, no, no -- she couldn't possibly notarize this, as it was a personal letter. My friends argued. They stated their case. This letter was supposed to initiate a business relationship. It was very much not personal business which was being conducted on this page. But no, I was an individual, not a business, she and they and even I could very clearly see that, and so she could not give us her stamp. "Tell her I'm a professional writer," I said, liking the sound of that. "Would that help? Say the letter is part of my work." But no, it didn't matter. The lady stood. The court was cleared. We had to go.

My Ukrainian friend and the lawyer were crushed. They took me apologizing back to the cab, and it was only a week or two later, at the lawyer's office, that we met with a second notary to try again. This time, tea was served all around, and the notary was offered chocolates. Everyone wore black leather but me. The notary looked at the documents. He had required that the letter be in Ukrainian, not my friend's native Russian. "This is an official document," he had explained over the phone. But now in the office he pointed out mistakes in my friend's use of the Ukrainian language. He could not stamp the letter until this was fixed, and this, and this here. My friend worked hurriedly on the computer, trying to rectify the mistakes. I sat with the pen, waiting to give my signature. More tea was served. The lawyer begged my patience. The notary said he would be back. I was given more chocolate. And then fifteen, thirty minutes later, the new sheet was printed out and the notary was back and I was moving my pen across the page. The notary observed it all, then moved his ledger book before my face. He pointed his finger here, then here; my signature followed.

~

I was reminded of this the other morning, when my wife asked if she should get a letter of recommendation notarized. I said her boss' signature would be enough, but after sending the SMS message I felt a shudder of anxiety -- my god, she's right, that needs to be notarized. Evidence I've lived in Ukraine.

Then this evening, while browsing the Russian Women Discussion message board, I came across this, a list of things a poor man must do in order to have his divorce certificate recognized by the Uzbek government:

1. Have a local notary public notarize the document (divorce certificate).

2. Have the county clerk certify the notary's authority.

3. Have the Secretary of State of the appropriate state certify the county's authority.

4. Have the State Department's Certification Division certify the State's authority.

5. Have the Uzbek Embassy or U.S. Embassy in Tashkent certify the State Department's authority.

As the man cannot legally marry in Uzbekistan until he proves that he is free and unencumbered by any previous marriage, number six in this list could very well read, "Marry a woman from Tennessee. It'd be easier."

And number seven? "Couldn't hurt if she's a notary."

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Political Coming Out of Sacramento's Slavic Community

Organizers of the annual Rainbow Festival were prepared for trouble.

The Q Crew, a local "queer/straight alliance," distributed cards telling people what to do if approached by hostile demonstrators. Sympathetic local church groups formed a protective buffer along the festival ground's cyclone fence. Mounted police were on patrol.

Jerry Sloan manned a table for Stand Up for Sacramento, a recently formed gay self-defense organization.

"So far, so good," he said. "No Russians."


Russians, as is so often the case in America, here means anyone from the Former Soviet Union, and in particular those Ukrainians in the Sacramento area who arrived ten or fifteen years ago but only recently have started to show an interest in local politics.

Numbering between 80,000 and 100,000, Sacramento's Slavic community isn't Jewish or Orthodox, but largely evangelical -- Baptist and Pentecostal. (The Pentecostal church was introduced into Ukraine in the 1920s by missionary and martyr Ivan Efimovich Vornaev.)

That the community chose to settle in Sacramento, making it the largest non-Jewish, non-Orthodox destination for Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, can be explained by the Cold War.

Before emigrating, many of the refugees learned about Sacramento from two sources: a short-wave fundamentalist religious radio program, "Word to Russia," that originated here, and a Russian-language newspaper, Our Days, that was printed in Sacramento and distributed to underground churches in the Soviet Union. A local Russian Baptist church persuaded several Sacramento evangelical churches to sponsor the refugees.

...

Michael Lokteff, 69, is a former high school teacher who was the voice of the "Word to Russia" broadcasts into the Soviet Union. A cheerful, white-haired lay Baptist who takes a glass of wine with his meals, Lokteff said that many of the immigrants were unprepared for culturally laissez-faire California.

In part, Lokteff blames his own broadcasts, which he said left the listeners with the impression that America, and particularly Sacramento, was a Christian bastion.

"They even thought my program was government-sponsored," Lokteff said. "They came here expecting a Christian commune, and all of a sudden the first thing they see is a gay parade."


An interesting article. Read it while you can.

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The Public Shaming of Harmon Lee

The longer I'm exposed to discussions of it, the more I see the subject handled by the media, the more I'm convinced "mail-order bride" is one of those phrases that instantly either sends a person into an ideological fit or reduces their intelligence by half.

Harmon Lee, a reporter with the Sacramento News & Review, may arrive here some lonely night when he googles himself for company. If so, he will see that's he is a part of the latter group, or one can only hope -- because that would suggest growth, wouldn't it? The realization that he done did it wrong?

Mr. Lee wrote an article on the "mail-order bride" industry. His editor probably said, "Write an article about mail-order brides," and so Mr. Lee spent an hour or two online, kept the ball game on mute, and wrote this in between bites of cold pizza. It is immmersion journalism, I guess, the writer pretending to call up a marriage agency to see how easy it is to find a wife.

After several rings, a tired-sounding woman with a Russian accent answers.

“I’d like to wed a Russian bride now!” I yell into the phone. “Can I get one delivered next week?”

“Uh, it’s a matter of the agreement with your bride if she wants to come here and live in North America.”

“Can I get more than one?” I whine.

“Yes, you can get many. The more you get, the more you order addresses.”

“But do I have to choose only one bride?” I clarify. “Can I marry many Russian brides?”

“I do not think that is possible,” the woman states flatly, popping my bubble.

“Then choose a bride for me!” I demand. “Now! Choose one now!”

“I don’t know your taste.”

“Red hair!” I blurt.

“What?”

“Can you get me one with red hair? I WANT A BRIDE WITH RED HAIR!”

“Red hair? We have many girls--aaah, I think--with red hair.” She checks. “Not really red, but reddish.”

“Reddish hair ... OK, that works,” I whimper. “But if she doesn’t like me, do I get a refund? Or, if she doesn’t like doing housework, do I get my money back?”

“It’s a matter of the girl’s likes and dislikes.”

“But there’s no money back if she doesn’t like doing my housework?”

“No!”


If I were an editor, I would have kept the first line. The rest -- I would have sat Harmon down and said, "Harmon, sit down. We know you're ignorant, but must the article be? Let's get at this with an intellectual fortitude that is not quite presidential, but at least greater than a high schooler dissecting a really good fart joke. What do you say? Can we do that?"

If you want to read more, go here.

I promise a more engaging read in the coming days. A play has been written on the subject of mail order brides, and from the excerpts I've read online, I can only say I wish I was in New York City so I could see a performance.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mail Order Wife



I've seen a handful of movies dealing with the mail-order bride phenomenom, like Birthday Girl and Two Brothers and a Bride. But the best of the bunch is the one I saw today, Mail Order Wife.

The film starts off predictably enough, with a graceless sclub bringing over a mail-order bride from Burma. The guy's a doorman in New York, so the cost of this is beyond his means. Enter a documentary filmmaker eager to film the story of an average guy and his mail-order wife. Some money exchanges hands; the filmmaker gets his access.

When the bride arrives, there is a quick civil marriage, some scenes at home -- this is how you clean the toilet, this is how I'd like you to make chili -- and then a trip to the doctor's office, where the husband tries to get his wife to agree to having her tubes tied. Did I say the bride doesn't speak English? She doesn't, and she only learns her reason for being in the doctor's office when her interpreter explains the procedure.

By this point, we're about fifteen minutes into the mock-umentary, and you're thinking: Oh, god, this is creepy. And it's bad, because it's creepy in all the ways you expected it to be creepy. But when the mail-order bride runs away from her husband -- well, the film really takes off, and by the end no one's a victim and everyone's a loser. Or, as the LA Times put it in its review:


Mail Order Wife sends up everyone in its circuitous path — self-deluded lonely slobs, self-deluded documentary filmmakers ... gold-digging Geisha-girls and that specialized subset of muddle-headed manhood that confuses sexual exploitation with humanitarian concern.

...

If the nuggets of P.C. piety and social pretension skewered by "Mail Order Wife" were any meatier, the movie would be a shish kebab.


Get it. Just like any bad relationship, it's the type of thing that gains a whole new meaning when you watch it a second time around. And don't forget to sample the extra scenes available on the DVD. They're priceless. As is the surprise guest star, who was under house arrest when this film was shot and could only leave for the purposes of work.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been ...

The John Birch Society thinks President George W. Bush has gone too far. They're alarmed that he's accumulated too much power and betrayed the US Constitution.

Which means, what, that I'm a member of the John Birch Society?



But wait, not so fast. Because if you read this you'll see they think perestroika was just something Gorbachev dreamt up "to fool the West into accepting a merger with the Soviet system."

See, all those joint ventures between Russian and western companies are really just a Soviet-ploy to consolidate even greater global power. Don't believe me? Just listen to the Soviet-era defector who stayed off the ether long enough to pen such classics as "Red Cocaine" and "Again, May God Forgive Us."

If what this nut-job is to be believed, then "President Putin and the other former KGB commissars that are running 'post-Communist Russia' are likely rubbing their hands together in glee inside the Kremlin at the prospect of deeper Russian cooperation with NATO."

That's "post-Communist Russia," end-quote.

The picture of the John Birch membership card was found at this website. I'll take it down if asked. Of course, I'll consider it another lost freedom and another gained regulation. But if that's what the world Mr. Birch would have me live in ...

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Stop the Clock

Today at 5 p.m. Moscow Standard Time, my wife's immigration visa, expiring in April of 2007, arrived by DHL, just two days after her interview.

That's thirteen weeks and two days after we filed our paperwork to announce our marriage and request her visa. The Green Card, we've been told, should arrive no later than four months and be shipped here to the US. The stamp in her passport indicates her to be a permanent resident, so even without the Green Card she should have no problems getting a social security card and entering the workforce. I imagine, but can't say for sure, that she could even come and go as she pleased on that visa until its expiration. The Green Card certainly allows such freedom of travel.

The point being, I have some words of thanks to the Embassy staffers involved, who didn't add any undue burdens on either myself or my wife. I can't thank some staffers by name, because they are in the type of profession that likes to meet journalists in darkened parking garages and whisper, "Follow the money." But through both my Fulbright research and my personal experiences, I can say I've got no reason to do anything but praise the people with whom I've come in contact. Everyone I dealt with in Kiev and Moscow were very helpful, and my wife didn't have a single problem during any one of her trips. So: an 'A' for effort, an 'A' for performance. No horror stories here, just a note that the system works as well and as efficiently as it should. In other words, if you'll allow me a Charlie Brown moment, "Good job, US Foreign Service. Good job, US Citizen & Immigration Services. You have a happy customer."

For those keeping score at home, I didn't need to hire an immigration attorney. I simply downloaded all the forms from the internet and did what they said. It took some time, some effort, some concentration, but it wasn't any harder than the SAT or filing your taxes. Just don't go out and get drunk the night before. You should be fine.

As for the cost, let me give a final recap of that as well, if only so the information is known to those who want it. Since last writing about the foreigner tax, the following costs have been incurred: $380, for my wife's immigration visa, $40, for the shipment of the visa by DHL, and approximately $125 for two more trips to Moscow, one for her to receive medical clearance, the second for her visa interview. That brings the total cost of bureaucracy, between two governments, both Russian and American, to $1395. If you included lost days of work, as I imagine any good economist would do, that figure would very possibly double.

To be able to marry a foreigner and bring him or her into the country, you have to earn at least 125 percent of the povertly level, or $16,000 (more if your household size exceeds the two of you). That means someone might have to spend 10 percent of their annual income to bring their husband or wife into the US. I'd like this cost to be a little more democratic, i.e., anyone should be able to do it, but hey, there's a lot wrong in Washington, I think, and this isn't anywhere near the top of the list.

I guess US soldiers are the people with low salaries who are most commonly affected by these costs. So if you're out there reading this blog, buy two fewer beers tonight, and forget about getting that new Ipod. You need to save some of your money, Private.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Next, please!


I did imagine the worst case scenario. This is what neurotics do, writers as well. I pictured the immigration interview taking place in a back room, across a desk, with a wilting fern in one corner and maybe a framed picture of George W. on the wall. I made sure my wife understood me. "If they ask you for your political views, vis a vis the situation in Iraq, for instance, I want to know, because I've already got the letter to my Congressman started."

But the interview took place at a window, the same window where I dropped off my forms back in July, and after three minutes, it was raise your right hand and do you swear and affirm -- blah, blah, blah -- and you can expect your visa in a week or two.

In other words, she passed the terrorist test, and we scored well in anti-fraud, and somewhere near the four-month mark of our marriage, we should start living with each other under the same roof.

There were seven others with her at the embassy Tuesday morning, including three men, one of whom was trying to get to the US of A on a fiance visa. The two other men were married, as were the two other young women alongside my wife. That left two older women, one of whom was trying to get to the US on an immigrant's visa, because she'd been denied already for a tourist's visa and she'd like to see her son, a Russian living in the US for 20 years.

We may like to recite the words on the Statue of Liberty -- Bring us your tired, your poor -- but we sure as hell don't live by them, and haven't for god knows how many years. I hope you don't buy into the fantasy. It's just wrong-headed.

What'd they ask my wife? Just what The Ranger, in the comments of the post below, said they would. How'd you meet, when you'd get married, and do you have any pictures? My wife didn't even get to finish telling the lady the charming story of how we had a mutual friend in Davis, one who'd put my wife up while she was there on a business internship and invited me to dinner when I'd called to return a book. "She said, okay, that's enough," my wife told me, and the interview quickly moved on to the pictures. "I have more," my wife quickly put in. But apparently our New Year's trip to Kiev was enough, because then it was on toRaise your right hand and Do you swear and affirm that all the information included in these documents is true and correct ...

Now let's just hope Old Lady #1 gets to visit her son.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

And the answer is ...

My wife is on the train to Moscow, probably being awoken right about now by the provodnitsa's knock. The rush for the bathroom will follow, with everyone standing in the corridor with their little hand-towel and their toothbrush and toothpaste. The sun will come up, instant coffee will be served, and then the train will pull into the capital, and off my wife will go to the embassy for her interview.

"What did you buy your husband for his last birthday?"

"Where were you married?"

"What color were the walls?"

"Did you say you would sleep on the left side of the bed?"

"And you don't know his astrological sign?"

"How did you meet?"

"Did you send his mother a birthday card?"

How long will the questioning continue? I don't know. I suspect there will be another handful of women there, maybe eight or ten. One will go, then the other, and at some point it'll be my wife, with the purpose being to prove that our marriage is true, that we are two people in love, that she is deserving of her immigrant's visa and Green Card and I should not be investigated for fraud.

Two days ago, it was three months since we were married. Tomorrow, it'll be three months since we filed our paperwork and initiated the immigration process.

I will keep you posted.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reeducation Camps


Every good Cold War film or TV show had a scene set in a re-education camp. The one in Red Dawn was a drive-in movie theater, fenced in by barbed wire and with propaganda going non-stop on the big screen. Did the 1987 TV mini-series Amerika have one? I can't remember, but the thing was like 14 hours long, so I'll say it did and hope the percentages are right.

Why am I bringing this up today? Because Boy Scouts in the LA area can now get a merit badge if they study the evils of copyright piracy.

Officials with the local Boy Scouts and the Motion Picture Assn. of America on Friday unveiled the Respect Copyrights Activity Patch — emblazoned with a large circle "C" copyright sign along with a film reel and musical notes.

The 52,000 Scouts who are eligible may earn the patch by participating in a curriculum produced by the MPAA. To earn the badge, Scouts must participate in several activities including creating a video public-service announcement and visiting a video-sharing website to identify which materials are copyrighted. They may also watch a movie and discuss how people behind the scenes would be harmed if the film were pirated.


I'm all for badges for starting a fire with two sticks and skinning a rabbit and cooking its meat. These are the sorts of skills that allowed Patrick Swayze and a small group of high school football players to repel a well-equipped Cuban-Russian invasion force. "The invading armies planned for everything," the poster for Red Dan reads, "except for eight kids called 'The Wolverines.'" Yes.

But a badge honoring copyright protections? Why not just fly these kids to Iraq and have them surrender immediately to the Islamofascists?

"I think it's really good to get the message out that it's bad," said Redondo Beach Scout Rickie Farmbanger, 13. "You can see your friends doing it and tell them why it's bad. I think if you're a role model, you can stop people."

Rickie Farmbanger, I played with your name a little, but one truth remains: You are not going to have an easy time in high school. Why not take baby-steps. Go online and download Red Dawn.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Simple Way to Make the World a Better Place?




Give me a cup. A proper cup. That's all. When I order a cup of coffee, place it in a cup made out of porcelain, something sturdy and firm and with a little thing on the side, you know, to hold onto. Because in a world of paper cups, I do need something to hold onto.

"Is that for here or to go?"

"For here," I said.

And still, not three minutes later, after I'd taken my seat, what do I get? A paper-cup. The guy sets down a paper-cup in front of me, along with a plastic top, and a cardboard sleeve (complete with advertisement) to keep me from burning my hand. Why did I think it would've been different?

"Am I going somewhere? Would you like me to leave?"

I thought to look around for a sign, some modern equivalent of WHITES ONLY, but with me on the wrong side of the prejudicial divide.

"Because I did say 'for here,' didn't I?"

I had come to one of two independent coffee shops on my strech of Ventura Boulevard, which rougly runs from Tujunga Boulevard to maybe a half-mile past Coldwater Canyon. Between these two points there are three or four Starbucks, two or three Coffee Bean and Tealeafs, and one Peet's Coffee, all corporate chains that care greatly about maximizing earnings potential. But this was Lulu's Bee Hive. A one of a kind place where customers sit at kitchen tables that have four chairs. It's very communal and inviting. Can I sit here? Please, go ahead. You don't fall into your own seat and turn your back to someone else. It's nice. But still, these damn paper cups. Why, Lulu? Why you too?

I ordered an espresso and a fruit tart the other day at the Starbuck's at USC. The espresso was placed in a 8 or 10 ounce paper cup.



The fruit tart was served in a flip-top plastic container. My utensil? A plastic fork.

When the lady gave me all this, I wanted to say, "Have you heard the phrase 'environmental footprint'? Because all I wanted was a little coffee, maybe something sweet to keep my blood sugar up during class, but now you've got me thinking about how there are hammer-head sharks swimming off the coast of Cornwall and these massive chunks of ice floating toward Jupiter, Florida. All you wanted was a Pepsi? I wanted a cup, just a proper cup."

At least I'm not alone.

But is there any place where there are more than a few of us? The Paper Cup Syndrome is sweeping across Europe, because so much of Europe believes in so much of America, namely, the economy above all else. You're either with us or against us and goddammit don't forget your cup, because we're on the move here, going through the drive-through next, and honey, grab my cel-phone, one of us should call the kids, I think I left Little Jenny with the toaster and little Steve in the tub, and damn this coffee's hot! Someone shoulda put a warning on my cup.

But there are parts of Europe not yet in Europe, Europeans who don't even consider themselves European -- Ukrainians, say -- and they, they most definitely do not drink out of a paper cup, they still believe in the dessert cart -- okay, I'm making that part up -- but they do still believe in the cup, complete with saucer. The proper cup. I know. I used to drink out of one just like this.



Did America ever drink out of a proper cup? If so, it must've been so long ago I don't remember. And how do little girls even have a tea party these days? Do they set down a tiny little paper cup before their doll? What size? Venti? Grande? Is this really the world you want to leave your children? Or is it all just nonsense?

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NY Times writes about The Waiting

The Times posted a front-page article today about the waits men have to go through if they look online for a foreign bride.

The article is headlined Law on Overseas Brides is Keeping Couples Apart, and it details the added layers of bureaucracy that were created earlier this year when President Bush signed the International Marriage Broker Act of 2006. In short, the law states that men must provide information to marriage agencies about their criminal records, and women, when interviewed for their visa, must be asked if they met their fiance through a marriage broker, if only so they can be told that if they find themselves in an abusive relationship, they can seek permanent residency status without having to stay with their husband, who otherwise would have been their only connection to a life in this country. The law aims to protect women from an abusive relationship, in part because the marriage agencies advertise "traditional women," often describing them as submissive to a man's desires. The thinking goes, when he takes her home and finds out this isn't the case, he'll be more prone to strike out in anger.

This, to me, seems a leap in a logic, kind of along the lines of if-you-view-pornography-you-will-commit-an-act-of-violence-against-women. What causes violence against women? Unmet expectations? If so, every relationship would be abusive. The law really seems to be making an assumption: that the character of men seeking a foreign bride is questionable, and therefore added protections are needed.

Newspaper articles usually cites the murder of two women from the Former Soviet Union as evidence for the need for legislation. But it seems possible to me that two murders is well inside the statistical norm for society as a whole. Thirty-seven thousand women enter the country each year on a fiancee visa, up to half of them women who met their American partners through an online match-making service. These mail-order brides account for no less than ten percent of all immigration by marriage to the country each year, resulting in no less than 4,000 or 5,000 new immigrants each year. That's according to the results of a study conducted in 1996, before the current surge in internet match-making. Just since 1999, as the Times states, there's been a four-fold increase in the number of women entering the country on a fiancee visa.

One thing the article doesn't cover is the fears of the men in search of an internet bride. Several have suggested to me that they're now at risk to wrongful accusations of abuse, as a woman can more speedily receive her Green Card if she claims abuse and turns her back on her relationship.

Me, I'm not sure how the separate-but-equal thing works in Washington D.C. any more, but I can't understand how you can require a certain group of Americans to do one thing, but not the others. If RussianBrides.com-Jerry must present a criminal record before marriage, I don't see why YahooPersonals.com-Don mustn't -- if not all American men, and for that matter American women too.

It's very of this country, and I can already see how it'll look in fifty years. The marriage will start with a divorce ceremony, the two sides negotiating and switching papers, making offers and counter-offers, hiring detectives to test the validity of the other side's word. Then, once the lawyers have been paid, everyone will go off to the city office, say I do, and then go home loathing each other and secretly pining for a new start.

Two marriage agencies are challenging the law in court.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

European Numbers

Almost immediatley after returning from Ukraine, I began to see a new doctor, which in America means creating a new pile of paperwork -- forms, releases, notices indicating who to contact in case of emergency (i.e, death), the usual stuff of the medical-industrial complex.

I ran into trouble because I got to this paperwork too soon after living in Europe for a year, where, like the true Zelig that I am, I adopted the use of European numbers. I'd always had a tendency to slash my sevens mid-stem, but now I began to draw my 1 not like a straight up and down line, in the American style, but like a one with a bit of a hooked barb on top. Imagine an arrow with only half a tip. Or better yet, just look at the digit as it stands on the screen. Call it Euro-trash. Throw a beret on it if you must. But don't deny this: It is a Continental one, not an American.

The Europeans draw their ones like this because it comes natural, I suppose, but as the hooked tops sometimes float out to one side, thereby making a 1 appear to be a 7, they give their sevens a slash to avoid the confusion.

Only in America, sevens are not slashed, and ones are straight lines, so when the doctor saw me, I must've come off as that classic male character, the one who refuses to seek medical attention until the pain is unbearable and it's all but too late.

"And you've been experiencing this pain for seven years?" he asked.

"No, no," I said. "Seven? God no. Just one."

He looked at the Patient History form I'd filled out. Made a face. "But it says here"--he shook his head, corrected it with a squiggle, moved on.

The receptionist was no different the next time I came in. While trying to arrange my next visit, she paused over her keyboard, unable to pull up my file. "What was the birthdate again?" I told her. Still nothing. "You're sure?"

"Fairly well, yes."

She rose, not quite convinced herself, and went to get the hard copy from the massive filing cabinet in back. She returned reading from it. "I have here that you were born in 1977."

"No, no," I said. "That's seventy-one." She sat down and laid the file out before her. I leaned in through the little window. "Don't you see the slash?"

"It looks like a seven."

"Well that one does because it is -- don't you see the slash? -- but the other is most clearly a one. If that weren't the case, I would've been born on the 77th day, not the eleventh, and that most certainly isn't the case now, is it?"

She hit a few keys on her keyboard. "So is October 23rd good?"

It sounded very good indeed. The twenty-third? No confusion at all. A two, a three -- the same no matter where you go.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Remodeling

Forgive the changes around here. My former template disappeared or something. Woke up one day and my site just didn't appear anymore. There's a technical explanation for it, but I can't say I understand, so I won't pass it on to you.

I'm considering a move to a different host, Moveable Type or what have you, but I don't quite understand how to design a page over there, and at least right now, I don't have the time to find out. That's why Snowy, a friend from Ukraine, is playing around with the designs available through the current host, Blogger.

I plan to keep some kind of web presence in the future, so stay tuned for an annoucement of some sort. But maybe this latest disruption goes to show that all things must pass, Everybody I Love You included.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Financial Support

Today I paid $100 for DHL to carry my signature to Russia, buried among a pile of documents provided for my I-186 form, an affidavit of financial support. Now all I can do is wait. The rest is up to my wife and the US Embassy in Moscow.

I'm back to hating this process. Knowing what to fill out, and how -- it can change as quickly as an internet search. And then when you fill out the DHL shipping form, you forget a single zero in the Russian postal code, forgetting it has six digits not five like in America, and so you have to scramble an hour later and see if they can somehow make up for the mistake.

I'm done. I'm feverish. I'm going to lie down. Wake me up when October ends.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

The Cost of the War in Afghanistan

For the Soviet Union, it was Exit, Stage Left.

For America, the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq) now costs $8 billion a month, including $70 billion in the newly approved $448 billion Pentagon budget.

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To omit or to include

A couple years ago, saying a history textbook should foster "a sense of pride in one's history and one's country," President Putin got interested in the textbooks being read by Russia's young students. Some had been discovered to include passages suggesting he was an emerging dictator; others seemed too heavy on all that gulag stuff and too light on the achievements of the Soviet past.


"Textbooks should provide historical facts, and they must cultivate a sense of pride among youth in their history and country,"
he said.

But opponents of the President, as well as the American press, were quick to remind the President of the dangers of such "censorship."

The Post began one article: "Rewriting history was an important part of the Bolshevik project to remake the world. Throughout the decades of Communist rule, the U.S.S.R. was a country with an unpredictable past: Russia's -- and in fact the world's -- history was continuously being reshaped by Communist ideologue."

The newest textbooks in Russia reduce the emphasis on Stalin's crimes and portray Putin in laudatory terms; Japan has recently performed a similar make-over on the history it teaches its young. Now, putting aside the obvious and uncontestable (no textbook could land in American public schools if Washington considered it "partisan," the way we neuter the truth in this country) let's move on to this, evidence of how a similar story is viewed in another light when it's set in America.

Earlier this year, there was little national press attention when California State Senator Sheila Kuhn authored a bill requiring California textbooks to "accurately portray in an age-appropriate manner the cultural, racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity of our society."

As noted in this Alternet report, when the state senate approved the bill 22-15 on May 11, "LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-, and transgender) activists celebrated because, in academia, what California does matters. Along with also-populous Florida and Texas, it's an "adoption state," which means that books selected by California's school boards are fast-tracked to being adopted nationwide. Kuehl was optimistic, telling ABC News that she envisioned future textbooks describing James Baldwin not merely as "an African American writer" but as "an African American gay writer." (Baldwin himself preferred being called simply "an American writer" to "a black writer.")"

Gov. Schwarzenneger vetoed the Kuehl bill when it reached his desk earlier this month.

"It comes down to the same old skirmish," the Alternet report states. "Should individuals get column inches because of what they did -- or because of who they are in terms of involuntary identity-definers such as gender and class? Who goes in? Who stays out? Says who? Not everyone can fit. The books are already overstuffed: Houghton Mifflin's 747-page A More Perfect Union, a typical middle-school social studies volume, weighs four pounds."

The article is too lengthy to continue to paste and cut here, but it's worth reading on for its passages on the encroachment of religion into American school systems, both Islamic "history" and Christian fundamentalist "creationism."

The problem I see with the Kuehl legislation is perhaps an overly academic one: the word "homosexual" has only existed since 1869, and most scholars support some version of Foucault's claim that there was no such thing as "homosexuality" before the term's invention. So to celebrate gay history, we'll have to out history: "Paul Revere -- gay man? Riding alone in the night? You decide, children. Why's he not home in bed with Mrs. Revere?"

Or: "Could we see something gay in the future president's chopping down the cherry tree? What's really at stake here? Remember the power of the sign and the signifier. A cherry tree, children. He's taken an axe to it, one of your Founding Fathers -- or Framers of the Constitution, I should say."

Inclusion isn't a new concern. Since 1976, California has asked that certain groups be portrayed in a postive, upbeat, inspirational manner, and American textbook publishers, operating in the system of supply and demand, have done what they can to please the market.

Again, from Alternet:

"In one of this country's most popular history textbooks, World Cultures: A Global Mosaic, Michelangelo ranks among the nine figures profiled as history's top "Builders and Shapers." The other eight? Zapotec Mexican president Benito Juárez; Canadian feminist Emily Murphy; 10th-century Baghdadi doctor Muhammad al-Razi; Filipino president Emilio Aguinaldo; Zulu king Shaka; 16th-century Mughal King Akbar the Great; 20th-century Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov; and 15th-century King Sejong, "Father of the Korean Alphabet." Not to totally dismiss discerning the difference between smallpox and measles, as al-Razi allegedly did, or winning women the right to sit on Canada's senate -- but we're talking the history of the whole world here."

Look forward, my Soviet people. What do you see?

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Give me the shot


My baby just got her rubella shot, another one of those things the guv'ment requires before letting her in the country. She's not spinning yet, but she was told to expect to feel dizzy all day.

It must be love. No one's gotten a rubella shot for me before.

What's next, Cupid? Polio? Rabies? Dip that arrow, sling that bow -- we'll take everything you've got and get up and ask for more.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I pledge allegiance (and 125 percent of the federal poverty line) ...

When you marry a foreigner and want to live with her in the United States, there are a lot of things required of you that are not required of American-on-American newlyweds. You have to prove your relationship's validity, for one, a process that I imagine entails correctly answering such age old questions as "Boxers or briefs?" and providing photographic evidence that shows beyond all doubt that you're in it for love, not a green card. "And here's one of my wife and I kissing, one of us on vacation, then kissing in front of a historical monument ..." My wife's interview is next month. The time is nigh.

The other big demand on you is a pledge of financial support. The guv'ment doesn't want any immigrants coming to the United States to enjoy the benefits of the modern welfare state, which so far as I can tell has been reduced to not having to feed the meter on Sundays. So yeah, you have to show that you are capable of providing for your loved one at 125 percent of the federal poverty level, even if your spouse, if simply given the opportunity to enter the free market, will no doubt out-earn your garden-variety writer of literary fiction in a matter of months.

The affidavit of support is eight pages long, and is enough to terrify someone not employed in investment banking. You're asked to provide three years of tax returns, evidence of any assets, stocks, bonds, savings certificates, old and new W2s, 1098-T's and 1099s, certified banking documents, notarized forms -- I've never bought a house, but I imagine it's a little something like this. And that one year when I took some time off to work on my novel? The one that's still not done? Oy vey, a writer considers a year productive if he produces a lot of words, not if he's able to visit Target and Wal-mart everyday.

Enough. The meter's ticking.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Labels

You may have noticed the labels now appearing beneath the posts. These allow me to group similar posts together under one banner. For example, profiles of many of them men I interviewed in Ukraine -- be they bride-hunters, marriage agency owners, Peace Corps Volunteers, or men with locked hearts (Mormons on a Mission) -- are now collected under the profiles label.

This post, meanwhile, is collected under the "Nothing of Lasting Importance" heading, because there's really no reason you should need to find it two weeks from now.

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The Bachelor Husband

I went out the other night, caring little for matters of grooming or personal hygiene. The event was a fiction reading at the Mountain bar in Chinatown. It was a student thing -- student organizers, student readers, students in the audience -- meant to showcase the talents of the writers in the creative writing program at USC.

I'd been working all that day, rewriting the opening of my book on Ukraine in preparation for sending it out to agents. I didn't really want to go -- thought I might still have a few productive hours left in the day -- but two of my classmates were reading, and I knew I might one day be the one on stage, so I went -- only right, I thought.

But I was either the distracted writer, or the bachelor husband. Maybe both. I've been the one before, but only since leaving Russia -- and, more importantly, my wife -- have I become the other, and maybe the combination is extreme.

I was running late, so whereas before I might have spent my final few minutes changing clothes, shaving, running some water through my hair, I instead opted to eat. Had apparently forgotten to do that much of the day, and it felt like I was carrying an anvil around inside my belly, the nagging weight of hunger. So I ate: beef chorizo and eggs, some bread, then a quick look around (nowhere) for an Altoid.

When I got to the bar, there were already maybe twenty-five or thirty people there, so many of them hip and clean, their eyes roving, turning, locking, the language of being single and heat-seeking missiles. I approached the bartender, conscious of my appearance. Jeans and a linen shirt, the latter pulled out of the former and wrinkled by use, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, the buttons not high against my throat. A two-day beard: that stage of facial hair which is not yet full of purpose, not yet soap-opera sexy. Then of course the lack of a shower and the searching self-examination, How about yesterday?

But as I sipped on a Pellegrino and looked around at all the others, I wondered what I was supposed to do? A single man dresses up and goes out. A married man is no slob. He at least throws himself together and joins his wife for a night on the town. But a married man, whose wife is seven thousand miles away due to the vagaries of the immigration system (the one thing not made more efficient in the age of computers and the global economy) this man is neither here nor there, a bachelor husband who doesn't feel at home out on the town or at home in the bedroom.

So if you bump into me, on the Metro, say -- yes, I'll be the other rider that day -- you might want to keep your distance, just in case it's one of those days when I'm proving my love without a razor and reminding myself I really should buy a bar of Irish Springs, because taking a shower with liquid soap only takes you so far.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

2 Brothers and a Bride


I finally saw 2 Brothers and a Bride, originally called A Foreign Affair. The film is about the mail-order bride industry and stars David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson. In it, Arquette and Nelson play two overalls-wearing rubes, farmers by profession, who go looking for a bride in Russia (on a romance tour provided by the company A Foreign Affair) when their mother doesn't wake up one morning to fix them French toast. Mom's death leaves the men at a complete loss. Dirty clothes pile up, dishes too, and food can only be found if it's scaped out of the bottom of a jar.

The first plot point comes when Nelson, who played a great slack-jawed dope in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, sees a newspaper advertisement for A Foreign Affair, and then goes to the library to ask the librarian (the secretary from the 80s TV show Moonlighting) how to use the internet. When the librarian learns what website he wants to visit -- loveme.com -- she warns him, "I'll be watching you."

From there, the brothers go to St. Petersburg, where Nelson is all business on their two-week romance tour, calling the women by their number and interviewing them to see who fits his order: homebody willing to cook and clean for two years in exchange for a green card. Arquette, the shier, more sensitive younger brother, has more of a Russian vacation, moving from the polar opposite of where he began . "What if she wants to kiss or something," he asked, when his brother first suggested they spend $7,000 on the romance tour. "Don't worry," Nelson answers. "I'll be right there with you. We'll tell her that's not what we want."

I certainly never came across a guy like this, who went to Ukraine looking only for domestic help. Though I was told about one man who married a woman and then reduced her to that. He was impotent, from what I gathered, and wanted someone to look after him. The woman had left Ukraine looking for a better life, and so she might give a better one to her son with her absence. He was then ready to marry, and the mother left her apartment for him. I should dig up my notes and give a little more information on that.

Anyways, I was glad to see the movie, if only because I got to hear the approach of a Russian metro again, see some great, beautiful footage of St. Petersburg in the winter (the movie was shot on location) and even hear "Gorka! Gorka!" -- the command for the bride and groom to kiss at a Russian wedding.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

If the Swedes ruled the world ...


I forget the title, and I'll probably mess up the plot, but there is a movie in Russia, a very famous movie I was told about more than once, that tells the story of a man who gets so drunk the night before his wedding that he winds up in another city without even realizing it. Did his friends put him on a plane? I can't remember. But he has a key to his apartment, and when he sees his complex -- for they all looked the same in the Soviet Union, the same set of plans used between Vladivostok and Minsk -- he enters and goes up to his door on the whatever floor it is. Then he puts the key in, and lo and behold, it works, and inside -- no difference too, the furniture and the layout is all the same.

I was reminded of this when I walked into IKEA's Burbank store yesterday, just a few miles from my apartment in North Hollywood. I saw people of every color browsing the display rooms, heard a handful of languages and even the accented English of young men from France and Italy. Everyone imagined their future with the same Mikael table and the same Stefan chairs, the same Aspelund bed frame and the same designer lamps.

There were cars wrapped around the street out front, the cars inching forward to move into parking-lot where they could pick up their boxed furniture and hurry home to an evening with an L-wrench.

Usually, I see American culture as the homogenizing force in the world, or enter certain parts of Los Angeles and I feel as I have entered a different country, one of the future, where Spanish is the lingua franca and tortillas are sold in bulk. But going to IKEA, I get to imagine how the world might look if the people of Scandinavia, my spiritual ancestors, ruled the world.

Would it be so bad? Sweden and Norway give you maternity leave, and the trains are clean and quick. The air smells good, the grass is greener than any greeen you've seen. Are there Norwegian football hooligans? Have the Swedes invaded another country in the last two- or three-hundred years? No, this would be a good world, with plenty of naked wood. Yes, IKEA's furniture is now so widespread, you can walk into another person's home and feel you've mistakenly entered your own. But this isn't so bad; it just makes me wonder how Communism in Russia might have fared if it had been led not by V.I. Lenin but by V.I. Leninsen. A Commissar of Design? Yes, that's what we would have had, and isn't that why the Berlin Wall fell? People wanted color, they wanted smooth lines, they said enough with these circles, give me square plates. And they didn't care if the expensive was cheap and not built to last. Just give us the impression of comfort and wealth; this is all we want. Revolution in a pedestrain shopping-and-dining setting.

sketch lifted from this website, where other humorous Ikea-themed drawings can be found

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Drunken Boat Launches

A very brief story of mine, set during the Soviet purges of the 1930s, can be found online at Drunken Boat. The piece is entitled "Yagoda's Bullets" and was originally intended to serve as the preface to Kamkov the Astronomer, which can be found in the current issue of The Cincinnati Review. But Kamkov already had a preface, so instead of having a preface to a preface, something even Don DeLillo might have difficulty pulling off, I hacked it away and gave it a life of its own.

"Yagoda's Bullets" was one of two pieces given special mentioned in the inaugural Pan-Literary Awards, judged by Sabina Murray.

In other news, my neighbors -- or a large group of people congregating in some neighbor's apartment -- are clapping and chanting in unison, singing in a way, the words not English but not discernable as any other language, maybe just nonsense syllables all members of a cult are forced to know. I will report back here, with pictures, if virgins are sacrificed or Kool Aid served.

I did say I'm living in Los Angeles, didn't I?

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Countdown

We have a date. In October. For the interview at the embassy.

Everything seems much better now.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Customer Service

In the days leading up to filing our I-130 in Moscow, I feared we were filling in some blanks wrong, maybe using a maiden name when we should be using a new name, and vice-versa. So, to make sure my wife's Green Card didn't get lost in the shuffle, I called the telephone number I'd found on the web, expecting a little customer service. Instead, I got a machine, voice mail, and was asked to punch in the code of the party I wanted. I did. The machine said this party does not subscribe to this service, goodbye, and promptly hung up.

It's now been almost six weeks since we dropped off that I-130, and we're still waiting for a call-back that says your paperwork has been approved by the Department of Homeland Security, we'd like you, the alien relative, to come into the Moscow Embassy for a final interview. I'm getting anxious, I'm saying, so I called a 1-888 number given to us in Moscow, from the woman at window #4. I thought I'd ask, "Hey, any chance you know what's going on? When we'll be seen? If this type of delay is normal? Because when do you start to suspect something's wrong? If you hear only silence, do you keep your head, knowing your government -- I'm from the government, I'm here to help! -- always has your best in mind? Or do you call?"

I called the 1-888 number, and what did the machine say?

This number is no longer in service.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Politically Incorrect Flash Cards



Today's blog post is brought to you by the letter L. For further adventures in literacy -- and perhaps something else -- go here.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Cost of Marriage (or, The Foreigner Tax)

Most young couples need every dollar they can scrape together. Car, home, new furnishings, maybe air fare to see the folks -- it all adds up. But for an American citizen marrying a non-American citizen, it all adds up a lot more quickly. Call it the Foreigner Tax.

Consider the costs of marrying in Russia and then filing all the necessary paper-work with the US and Russian governments. For us, that meant travelling twice between Belgorod and Moscow, in a four person-sleeper compartment. Cost: Approximately $280.

Once in Moscow, we had to get a marriage letter notarized by the US Embassy stating that I was unencumbered and free to marry. After paying my $30 at the cashier's window, I raised my right hand before a Foreign Service Officer, swore and affirmed that the information in the marriage letter was truthful and accurate -- at least according to the best available intelligence at the time -- and then received a raised stamp on the bottom of the page.

The next step was to get this sucker translated, along with my passport. That took another $40.

Finally we had to take the document to the Russian Federation's Department of Legalization, where it costs $30 to have the piece of paper embellished with a messy signature and a shiny sticker like those you see on a credit card. Our fee was bumped up to $130 -- call it a $100 bribe to receive same-day service -- and then we were out the door, done for the day.

When we came back, after our marriage in Belgorod, we had to feed another bureaucracy, not Russia's this time but America's. That meant a handful of documents, but primarily the I-130, a petition for Alien Relative, or -- the way you can bring your wife to America and get her a Green Card before coming. Cost of filing this document: $190. Do I swear and affirm? You bet your ass.

Add in $10 to get around on the Metro both days, $150 for miscellaneous taxi fees and a single round-trip train ticket back and forth between Kiev and Belgorod (so my wife could see me off, when ideally we both would have been leaving together) and the grand total so far is roughly $820, not including time lost on the job (wasn't I writing a novel?) so you can figure out all the forms you need and just how in the hell you fill them out. (For this, many people pay thousands of dollars to an immigration lawyer.)

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Monday, August 21, 2006

The Passport Anniversary

If one year is the paper anniversary, one month, at least for me, is the passport anniversary. How did I spend the day? Looking for apartments and telling landlords I'd like a six-month lease, because until the Department of Homeland Security clears my wife for entry, she'll remain out of the country, a suspected terrorist or welfare charge, a beautiful, lovely woman some seven thousand miles away from me. "She really should be involved in the decision," I say, to another person who agrees this is so, before telling me they really can't clean an apartment and paint the walls every six months. "We really can't do anything less than a year," they say, and so I look again.

It's strange: you get married, go on a honeymoon, and then say goodbye to the person you love, the woman you've chosen to join your life to. Married people don't usually do this, leave and not know when they'll next see each other. They can always say, "See you in two weeks," "See you in August," or "I'll be counting the days till Thanksgiving." But for us, who knows? After submitting our paperwork in Moscow, to a woman whose name I didn't get -- stupid stupid stupid -- we were essentially told, "Don't call us, we'll call you." So after almost four weeks, did they lose our paperwork? Did they find an error and place it at the bottom of the pile? Or did the man processing our case get transferred to Turkmenistan? Maybe they'll call or email next week, or in two months. Who can say?

Until then, I have to put my life on hold in a manner that's just very strange. I live the life of a bachelor, eating and rising when I like, but I wear a wedding band on my left hand and have pictures of a beautiful bride on my computer. It's almost like I've dreamt up a really good fiction, one so real I can see it and hear it and believe it -- but one that is all too elusive, there and then gone, disappearing around the corner right when I think I've caught up to it.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

We the People

We are a nation of individuals, a country that will forever excel at innovation and be the first to give you Silicon Valley and bunker-busting nuclear bombs and those little calculators that are powered by nothing more than the rays of the sun. But while all this is well and good, we will also never fail to fall down during a three-legged race -- you know the type I speak of, where two people have their inside legs tied together and then run as fast as they can. If that event were taken from childrens' birthday and given to the Olympic Games, America would never even come home with the bronze. We'd be passed by the likes of Mozambique and Vietnam and the mighty Latvians. We just don't have three-leggedness in us.

Some examples:

When I was in Ukraine, I saw a doctor. He gave me some medicine. Okay, suppositories, which he called candles. I stopped taking them. Didn't seem to be helping, so I stopped. When I told him this, he gave me what I came to call his KGB look. "Why do you make decisions for yourself?" he said. "You have to stop thinking for yourself," he said. "Take the candles. All of them."

Another time, I refused a professor's help when I was ill with the flu. (God, I'm sounding sickly). But yes, refused it. She wanted to send over two 19-year-old girls -- nineteen-year-old girls, I tell you -- to cook for me and nurse me, and I gallantly said it wasn't necessary, I think the fever's broken and I'm just fine. "Stop being so American," she said. "You have to let people help you."

But we are a nation of self-helpers, a nation that will listen to mother, then turn around and do the exact thing she warned against.

These days, I'm fixated on clothes, the differences in style between here and there. There, I found a very homogenized style. Men: tight jeans, pointed shoes, football jerseys and racing jackets, and flattened, haven't-showered-in-three-days hair. The women -- "very femme," as a girl I know in Berkeley said, before recalling an American friend's time in Moscow, when, despite being very feminine herself, at least by American standards, she reported feeling "very Butch."

In America, of course, there is no such unity (except when it comes to our disunity: you're either for or against the guy who says you're either for or against us). This is wonderful for developing character, of course. If you want to tattoo yourself, pierce yourself, not be restrained by a tie, break out of the Suburban mall-wear you were raised in -- yes, America wil provide you with a huge wardrobe from which to choose. Pick anything! Try it on! Discover who you are!

But it also means that we are a nation of slobs, because at any one time there will be someone wearing pajamas to the store and a baseball cap to the best restaurant in town. In Russia, I'd actually dressed up to go on a three-hour drive to the train station (there was no local connection in Belgorod, so we had to go to Voronezh). Still, even though I'd put on a nice collared shirt and a sleeveless vest, my wife's mother saw that my shirt was untucked and poking out the bottom of the vest. This was my style -- sort of, rumpled school-boy. But it was also a style not seen in my area of Russia/Ukraine, for every time I went out on Sumskaya or Pushkinskaya looking like that, I'd get stares and turned heads. That day we went to the train station, I tucked the shirt in before we got out of the apartment building's elevator, making me presentable for the trip. My mother-in-law had expressed concern. I opted to blend in.

A friend and I got to talking about all this the other night in Berkeley. She'd recently come back from almost a year in Italy, and she was so glad to be back in the take-it-as-it-comes United States. Relaxed. Comfortable. Accomodating. This is how she described my homeland. She would've seen my willingness to conform above as a subtle expression of a system that stymies personal awareness and expression. In other countries, she said, fathers tell Son #1 to be a doctor, Son #2 to be a lawyer, and Son #3 to join the church. It was all tied up together, she seemed to be saying.

And maybe so. But I still hate going out to the store and seeing someone wearing unlaced high-tops and baggy shorts, pajamas and house shoes, or just any old dirty rag.

A few months back, the New York Times's food blogger Frank Bruni addressed the demise of the "jacket required" policy in American restaurants, and in the comments section his readers squared off to defend and attack this paradigm shift.

One reader complained that she and her date had complied with the policy, only to learn that the restaurant would cave if someone else refused to dress up.

One of my most mortifying New York experiences was being sent to Shun Lee Palace on the advice of a classmate for my first business school formal. My fiance (in a tux) and myself (in a floor-length black cocktail dress) had to wait in the lobby with dozens of other guests in jeans, Juicy Couture sweats, etc., and then, 20 minutes after our reservation time, seated in the front room next to a family with two squirming kids in jeans and baseball caps. We maintained our dignity enough to request being reseated, this time in the very back of the restaurant next to a couple with a man in a jacket (but not a tie), which was an improvement, but still humiliating. After that experience, I gave up - no more attempts at dining out on formal night.

I commend those restaurants that are brave enough to stick to a strict jacket policy - it means a lot to the people who DO respect both the rules and the occasions of their fellow diners.


This lady led the opposition:

I’m seven months pregnant and went to a nice restaurant a month ago wearing a fleece sweater and jeans. I just felt too tired to dress up. I was perfectly willing to eat at the bar but the hostess seated us in the main dining room. Maybe it’s like that with those other diners who are dressed inappropriately. They might have cancer or they’re feeling depressed about a death or major life setback and want at least a nice dinner as a pick me up. Stop judging others, one day you’ll be in their shoes (or flip flops) and wish you hadn’t been so harsh.

In other words, Back off, America. Somewhere, at this very moment, someone's dying of cancer, so there are no rules. We must accomodate for the lowest common denominator, we must live, all of us as a culture, as if we are struggling with a life-threatening disease.

What happened to the America that had my barber grandfather walking the streets looking so smart in a pair of slacks and an ironed shirt and a fedora hat? Did dressing up make him feel any better? Or should we all just get comfortable?

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Friday, August 18, 2006

The Height of Fashion in America

I've said it before, but I find myself needing to say it again: I never realized the power of the high heel until I went to Ukraine because I so rarely saw a high heel on the foot of an American woman. In America, even Los Angeles, home of The Beautiful People, the height of fashion is approximately one-quarter of an inch and as soft as a firm sponge. I speak of the thong, of course. Or to avoid confusion, the flip-flop.



I was reminded of this on Wednesday, when I ran some errands on the USC campus. It was move-in day for all the incoming students, so there were thousands of young boys and girls running around, either slouching back and forth between their dorm room and daddy's SUV or dashing off to buy a cell-phone or a half-cafe latte. Early in the afternoon, I came upon a column of young women maybe thirty souls long, and that’s when it hit me full-force: this is a nation of flip-floppers. Be you Republican or Democrat, registered voter or non, this is a nation that dons the thong.

They passed before me like an army going off to war, the sound of their march punctuated by the slapping of their footwear. It might as well have been the final stamp on my passport, for as I continued toward the far end of the street, walking perpendicular to the column of young girls, I remembered the sounds of another country. There was the busy clatter of women walking all around in heels, the quick hurried clicking of a Ukrainian woman dashing across the street, and then the haunted sound of a single woman walking behind you in the dark. Click, click. Click, click.

Freud understood the power of the high-heel. He believed the foot to be a phallus and the shoe the representation of the female sex organ. By placing your foot in a high heel, you were completing a sexual act. Freud, of course, is largely ignored today, his theories discredited. But I’d still like to know what he’d make of the flip-flop. And even if he were on all that cocaine, I don’t think it’d turn him on.

I once heard a non-Freudian say that the shoes are constructed in such a way to hold the woman's feet in the position reached at climax. And the flip-flop?

Why is that every chick-lit book has a high heel on the cover, when its reader is, eight or nine times out of ten, flat-footed?

I remember seeing flip-flops only once in Ukraine, when I passed a store window on Sumskaya Street. They were lined up, maybe four or five of them, designer flip-flops with an advertised price that was half a pensioner’s monthly take – about $40. No one was buying.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Los Angeles


Yesterday, my first in the southland, was one of those Los Angeles days that made even a northern Californian forget he'd fallen below Monterey. The skies were clear and the weather was set to perfect and breezy and only the price of gas made me stop from thinking I might be one freeway interchange away from Heaven.

The last time I lived here was in 1994, the Year of OJ. The first year I lived here, 1992, there were the Rodney King Riots. In between, Northridge shook. So if a building wasn't smoldering or crumpled (to say nothing of the city's peace of mind) you got the idea it would be soon. Now though, my god, it's like the city went out and bought paint in bulk at Costco or some place. Every building is so shiny and bright, there are so many new stores and painted walkways, and Hollywood, dear Lord, with the El Capitan all done up and blinking and the Kodak Theater down the road -- last time I saw you, you were bending over to pick up a nickel, Hollywood, and now you're entertaining guests from the Mid-west, saying ignore the Adult novelty store down the road. How times have changed.

My biggest adjustment came at Whole Foods Market. I walked in and started grinning. I couldn't help it. So many melons! It was almost obscene, this naked display of flesh raised up from the earth and now displayed without even the decency of a curtain or warning sign. I wanted to find the manager and say, "Why all the melons? A mix-up? Because surely some country in Europe -- or Canada, our friends to the north -- is going without because of this. Here we have big ones and small ones, smooth ones and rough, water- and honeydew and sweet delicious and canatloupe. There must be 200 square feet of melons." And then it was the meat counter: Muscovy Duck next to ground turkey (white and dark meat), organic chicken (was it really $26 a bird?) and then sausage of every stripe and casing. Such abundance, and the people walking around in flip-flops and army fatigue shorts, in $40 undershirts that were under no piece of outwear, and designer glasses that probably held clear, non-prescription lenses -- all these people thinking nothing of it, just reaching for this artisan cheese and then that small batch pasta sauce, considering one microbrew and then another, before at last getting it all and saying charge it at the counter. One country loses its bread lines and still you find a way to develop the terrain called envy.

"Thank you, have a nice day." Smile smile, went the bagger, and then the presentation of my goods, all packed so neatly on my behalf, not a task left to me with a toss of the plastic bag. "Oh, you dropped something, sir!" I'm still not quite accustomed to such cheeriness. A lady stopped me on the street of Napa the other day to say the ice-cream in my hand had looked so good she'd had to go and get one herself. I looked at her as if she were a member of the militsia who'd stopped me to see my papers. A nervous laugh: that's the one thing that's in good order. Everything else will have to wait.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Back in the USA

If my feelings of paranoia were a stock, it'd be up 137 percent since my return to the United States. All these television commercials for narcotic-free sleeping aids and monthly osteoporosis treatments and ED and high blood pressure, and all their warnings to contact your doctor if you experience chills or blurred vision or have a four-hour erection, and all this talk about not using this medication if you have kidney trouble or drink more than two alcoholic beverages everyday -- it's scared the life out of me.

Yes, not speaking fluently in Russian held me back in Ukraine. It limited the amount of research I could do and made me look to fellow English-speakers for friends. But it was a blessing come commercial time. I was like a little boy raised by wolves, left to mature in the jungle, so carefree and clear-headed. What's that they're saying? I don't know. They're not speaking in wolf and that's all I understand.

But now this, the celebrity endorsers and the commercials on the channel you click to in order to avoid the commercial you clicked from -- it's both a reason to read more and explanation enough for those wondering why more people don't read. They're too frightened. They've got all these fears. They can't get through more than a sentence or two without putting the book down and going, "Oh my god, is that my kidney that's acting up?"

And then they watch the news -- Attack on America, Another 9/11 -- and hear how your next flight might be blown up in mid-air by three men and a pregnant woman who shopped at Duty Free and have an over-stuffed ditty bag.

To say nothing about the tasteless bread for $3.50.

It's enough for a man to wish he were back in the USSR.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Harping on Harper's

Before I left for Ukraine last fall, I sent a query letter to Harper's magazine, describing the research trip I was embarking upon and asking if they would be interested in reading something based on my findings. I thought they'd at least respond to me, if not because of the credentials of my Fulbright, then because, as I noted in my letter, their fiction editor had recently praised my work. Still, I never did get an answer to my query. Which isn't to say that the editors weren't interested. A feature on "The Great Ukrainian Bride Hunt," by Kristoffer A. Garin, ran in the June issue.

Not surprisingly, the feature focuses on a romance tour, which introduces a large number of Ukrainian women to a small group of western men at socials in one, two or a handful of cities. Some Americans I met in Ukraine said they'd never been on one (or only one) because they'd learned it was closer to sex tourism than anything that might help them find a wife. (One American said this while also singing the praises of that one tour.) In short, the great majority of people who go on these tours, at least these days, after the publication of many salacious articles, know what they're signing up for, and it doesn't even lead to a paper anniversary.

Still, rather than looking at something more mainstream and representative -- the men who drop into Ukraine or Russia by themselves -- the romance tour does have its obvious editorial advantages: it brings the greatest hue of yellow to the page, and it is also very convenient, in that it allows a journalist to parachute into the country, bounce between two or three cities, and then leave with the ability to say he is an authority on his subject.

I'm not going to get into a drip-by-drip analysis of Mr. Garin's article. He's written a book about the evils of the cruise industry, which means we think alike in some ways. But his Ukraine piece is predictably condescending to the men who look to the internet to find a wife, if only because he starts it by saying it's surprising that this is not a "fringe" movement. I'm not alone in finding something wrong with his tone:

"He writes nasty and surreptitious notes about folks who are involved in that most difficult of endeavours: looking for love. He holds out their weaknesses and says, Look, aren't we lucky we're not them?"


Beyond that, Garin's insights seemed to go no deeper than the index cards he no doubt prepared before his trip ("This, then, was globalization’s answer to the mail-order brides of the Old West") while his comments on Ukrainian women ("I had the distinct impression that many were wearing their one nice outfit for the occasion") can only be read as being as informative as his stay in the country was long (two weeks).

But then again, I am the guy who wrote the query to Harper's, not the article, so I'm obviously biased.

As for the agency profiled in the article, A Foreign Affair, I think it operates like all the other big agencies, Anastasia Web, for instance, in that it makes its money by selling high-priced tours to men who know little about Ukraine (or are repeat-customers uninterested in marriage, only the possibility of a sex spree). Those interested in actually meeting a woman and pursuing a marriage would be better suited finding a small, privately-owned company which has an American owner-operator living in Ukraine. I won't go so far as to recommend any agencies (several readers have written to me asking for just that, but I don't think it's my place), though I will say that I met two people who impressed me with their honesty and friendliness.

The first is Allen at Beauty Abroad, in Lugansk. The first thing that impressed me about his agency were the photos. You see women, young and old, captured in normal, everyday-life. Take a look at this one. Just a girl, off the street, interested in trying something new. You only have to look to A Foreign Affair to see the difference. Look at this girl and her Leave it to Beaver-era pornography poses. Say Cheese? No, the guy behind the camera said, "Now stick out your butt a little more and arch the small of your back -- that's it."

While in Odessa, I actually met a man who dated the girl in the photo above -- and right off, this man said, he could tell she was only interested in being a professional dater, getting the dinners and nights out, the presents, but not the wedding ring at the end of it all. Not surprisingly, this young beauty, a true fisher of men, appears on the front page of the Foreign Affair website, just like another Odessa-based stunner that the man I met dated while on his first visit to Ukraine.

If this man had gone to Lugansk, I'm sure Allen and his staffers would have helped him find someone more suitable, as they know all the women who use their agency's services (they're local to Lugansk) and seem genuinely intersted in making good matches, rather than just throwing people together.

Kevin at Kherson Girls was equally friendly and open, and his work with the homeless and impoverished children in Kherson (he budgets $10 a day to feed those who come to his office, and works closely with an area orphanage) was something only the cynical could find fault in.



I mean to write more about Kevin and my visit to his part-time home of Kherson in the coming weeks, though his mother-in-law and wife, both from the city and active in the day-to-day operations of the agency, will probably hope I can't read whatever notes I made while addressing their treatment of me. Both were cynical about my visit, perhaps because Kherson Girls has hosted several other "journalists" in the last three or four years, all of whom have promised -- and failed -- to produce word one about Kherson Girls. Repeatedly, the mother-in-law wanted to know what I really wanted -- dates with their girls? Even after I assured her I was engaged to be married, she still seemed unwilling to accept the fact that I was simply interested in stories, in learning about Kherson and Kevin. So yes, if this is a recommendation -- or Word One, if you will -- it is one that says Kevin was a good guy, one who does his best to eliminate the scammers from his agency, while also mentioning that the leaders of his support staff left a lot be desired. I'm sure not all of his customers get treated like journalists approaching the Politburo for an on-the-record interview about the horrors of the 20th century, but if one or two don't get banged up along the way, I'd truly be surprised.

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