Thursday, June 29, 2006

My Adidas

I arrived in Odessa this morning, after traveling through the night from western Ukraine in a train compartment that included one friend, one veteran of the Red Army, and one muscular young man in black Adidas sweat-pants, the last of which, I'm told, is the apparel of choice for Ukraine and Russia's young Mafioso set. (It is also pronounced Oddy-dos, the last like the computer language, which completely, you know, ruins the Run DMC song.)

Anyways, maybe an hour or two into our journey, after my friend had stepped out into the hall, the Army veteran tapped me on the shoe and asked if I could leave him and Mr. Adidas alone for five minutes. It took me a moment to process the words in Russian, but then I was nodding and slightly afraid, wondering what in the hell they'd be doing alone and how I might have insulted them earlier. There had been one inappropriate laugh, when I'd thought I'd heard Mr. Adidas tell a joke, only to have him turn a stern and stoney face in my direction to suggest otherwise. I got up and went into the corridor.

My friend was looking out a window, watching the green fields of western Ukraine blur by. I told him what had just transpired. We discussed our concerns and analyzed various scenarios. Were our bags in danger? I had some valuables, some cash, some electronics. What could they be doing? "My passport's in there," my friend said. "Did you see he's wearing Adidas?" I said. "What does that mean?" he said. I told him. "Is that right?" he said. I said it was.

The provodnitsa, whose job it is to take tickets and hand out linens and clean the wagon's toilet, came by and opened our compartment's door, looking to give someone their change for a cup of coffee or tea. Before realizing her mistake -- wrong compartment -- and closing the door, I saw the army veteran standing with his back to us, Mr. Adidas hidden behind his body. What were they doing? Going through my bags?

Maybe three minutes later, my friend said it was five minutes. I stepped toward the far window. "Open the door if you want," I told him, "but I'm not with you. You work alone."

He gave the door another look, then turned his face back to me. "Five minutes has got to be up, hasn't it?"

I shrugged. "What is time?" I said. "What are minutes?" I asked.

We waited. The fields blurred by, cows and peasants. The sun moved in a downward direction. Then the door opened and Mr. Adidas stepped out of the compartment and stuck his hand out the window, to the side of my friend. Whatever he'd been holding inside was soon scattering out over the green fields near the Moldovan border.

Minutes later, all four of us were again back in the compartment, with me and my friend sitting there silently like people who didn't quite get the joke. With no parting statement, Mr. Adidas got up and went with the Army Veteran to a compartment at the end of the wagon, to which the provodnitsa, a young woman in modest heels and a crisp blue cap tilted jauntily atop her head, soon followed with a plate of fried eggs and cut tomatoes.

Have you ever seen a catered meal on a Ukrainian train? My friend, after four years in the country, had not. After almost a year, neither had I. The same for the empty compartment at the end of the wagon being used as a private dining room. But then Mr. Adidas, who was journeying to Odessa, Ukraine's capital of Shady ... well, maybe he had some kind of relationship already built up. What's your name? he'd asked the provodnitsa when she'd come to take our tickets. "Lena," she'd said. "Pleased to meet you, Lena," he'd answered, and now she was giving him eggs?

Mr. Adidas was the last to make his bed that night. He kept going in and out of the hall. I slept with one eye open, waiting for him to jump up to his bunk. He didn't. He made his bed at last, but he then left ... and remained gone ... for a very long time. In fact, I never saw him asleep. And he was on his feet, first one up, when I awoke to the sound of his and the Army veteran's banter.

The provodnitsa, usually a solid middle-aged woman with all the charm of Brezhnev, had her own compartment at the end of the hall, the four beds made up with fancy sheets to give her and the train's other attendants a place to catch some sleep, if necessary. I have heard stories. Of provodnitsas who sell more than coffee or tea. "Coffee, tea or me?" the old saying goes.

In the morning, my friend asked for tea and coffee, the first for him, the latter for me. But after maybe twenty minutes, still nothing. I said enough's enough at that point, I can stand many things but not missing coffee, and left to see the provodnitsa, a rather touchy-feeling young woman come to think of it who'd reached for my hip-bone, and then another time my forearm, while sliding past me in the hall.

The provodnitsa followed me back to the compartment a minute or two later to ask more specifics about my order -- one sugar or two? -- and then, with a look that lingered just a beat too long, she asked Mr. Adidas what he wanted.

"Tea, Lena," he said. "Thank you, Lena."

I had coffee.

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More on the squat

I just learned that the Kiev Train Station was recently built at a cost of billions, meaning some administrator saw it fit to make sure people would be squatting well into the future. Interesting. Because for billions and just a few dollars more, we could all be sitting. But enough on the squat. There are more important things in this world. How are you helping?

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Western Ukraine

I've been traveling enough of late to not only have seen The Worst Toilet in Ukraine (on the train to Kherson), but also its closest challenger. Today, I took a picture of the latter, a pit toilet out back of a bus station in the Carpathian town of Yaremche. Perhaps I'll post the photo later, with a disclaimer like those voiced before the more especially disturbing segments on the evening news: I must warn you, these images are graphic and may not be suitable for young children.

In other news, after almost a year of hesitation, I braved my first squatter last Friday after arriving to the Kyiv train station with what can only politely be described as some small degree of gastrointestinal urgency. Like most things long avoided, it wasn't as bad as I'd imagined. But I won't go into the details here. That sort of writing requires, and I believe I'm paraphrasing Wordsworth here, a period of quiet contemplation more appropriate to a book than a blog.

Tonight, I'm in very comfortable surroundings, at the On The Corner bed and breakfast in Kolomyia, a town nestled amidst the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. Why am I in western Ukraine? I'm not really sure. I haven't quite scared up a marriage agency connection yet, though I have found great accommodations – the best I've yet seen in Ukraine. After checking into On The Corner this afternoon, I was almost immediately served a home-style Ukrainian dinner. Last night, in Rakhiv, another Carpathian town, my host was no less accommodating, giving me the best room I've yet rented in Ukraine – and for a price of only $10. I should write more about these places later, when I have time and computer access (both have been scarce of late).

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Lines in Ukraine

At the start of the Second World War, the Germans rolled over the unprepared Red Army, largely because Stalin foolishly ignored news of a troop build-up on his border (and also killed so many of his generals during the Great Purge). Within weeks, Wehrmacht troops were in sight of Moscow, and Soviet officials were ordering whole factories dismantled and transported to the safety of the Urals.
Today, those early tactical mistakes made by the Red Army will not be repeated by any member of the general Ukrainian population, who apparently have learned from the mistakes of their forebears. In short, Ukrainians are not British when it comes to standing in line. Today, in Kherson, an example. I finally find an Internet connection in the state-run Ukretelecom office, near yet another Freedom Square (a popular name after the dissolution of the USSR, when so many cities and states went shopping for a new name after turning in their "Revolution's" and "Dzherzinsky's"). One person is in front of me, the clerk before that person is staring at a computer screen. Behind us, one free computer out of ten. A woman I had seen waiting on a sofa outside comes storming. She's all hips and heels and soon digging in her purse behind me. I fear a repeat of 1941. "Mozhno internet?" I said. I'd been waiting silently for maybe ten seconds, waiting to be acknowledged by the clerk, not necessarily with a smile, but at least a can-i-help-you frown. The girl behind me responds with a question when I show interest in the Internet, then says she too want the computer and extends the clerk her money. She's quicker on the draw than me. She gets the service, coming in to the desk not from the back of the line but the side. I'm not acknowledged before I leave in a huff. I'm only outflanked, outnumbered, and outsmarted.
More later.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006


If Americans love an underdog, as the popular saying goes, I wonder what they think of America. I mean, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we haven't exactly been an underdog. We've given the world our Big Macs and the shells of our uranium-enriched artillery fire. We've expanded our sphere of influence to include the Baltics and Central Asia, and warned Russia not to so much as recommend a course of action for any of its neighbors. We dope like the East Germans used to dope, be it in baseball or the Olympics, and we win gold and break records and then go on to smile in the Wheaties commercial. If you grew up in the fifties, you knew a different USA than the one I've known. And so it's kind of hard to get really passionate about any of this. Usually, polite disdain is my reaction.

But then there's the World Cup. And maybe this is why I like American soccer so much. They're expected to lose, but sometimes, like in 2002, they beat the World Cup favorites (Portugal) and other times, like last night, they draw a bunch of goons from Italy, leaving them with a chance to advance to the knock-out round.

Landon Donovan. Claudio Reyna. Kasey Keller. Demarcus Beasley and Brian McBride. These are guys worth knowing, international soccer a sport worth following. Now onto Thursday's match against Ghana, which I should take in from Kherson, before taking the overnight train to Kiev rather than Kharkov, because the Kharkov train leaves before the final whistle blows.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Week in Review

This not being able to access from home is difficult, especially with the World Cup now in full swing and keeping me tied to the television at 2, 7 and 10, if the quality of the match-up warrants it.

A lot has happened. Let's see.

I interviewed a Florida man who'd been to Russia and Ukraine a handful of times since arriving to this part of the world for the first time on a romance tour last fall. "I'm the mushina," he'd say, I'm the man, when describing how he'd act if the woman he was willing was too strong-headed, insisting they cross the street this way, for example, instead of that. "I'm the mushina." He had one very interesting story to tell, revealing the ways in which an agency might scam its customers, so I'll be sure to write more on that later. The agency he first used was Anastasia, which I continue to hear nothing good about whatsoever. He now visits the country solo, having made connections with various translators and drivers through his previous agency-facilitated visits. They introduce him to women, perhaps showing the businesses growing within and without of existing business, a matrushka doll of businesses.

I interviewed a Ukrainian-born man whose family runs a marriage agency in Kharkov. He's Jewish and spoke to me of his culture's tradition of arranged marriages, of which his agency is the latest development, he said.

I visited Belgorod and Moscow and, in the space of thirty-two hours, completed the first four of the five steps to a Russian marriage. The fifth step (getting married, the step that keeps on giving) will take thirty-two days (and god willing last much longer), as there is a cooling off period between marriage request and marriage ceremony. The various steps took me through various Russian and American bureaucracies, saw me get documents registered, notarized and apostilled. I also paid a bribe, there being no other way to apparently get done what I needed to get done. I shouldn't say bribe. Did I say bribe? Strike that. I paid an unofficial fee in order to better facilitate the speedy processing of my paper-work. I will say no more. Not until after the marriage certificate is in my hand. "Don't worry about it," I told My Fiancee. "I'm writing a book. It'll make for a better last chapter. And who knows, next year maybe I'll write it off on my taxes."

What else? I'll be going to visit the owner-operater of Kherson Girls on Tuesday, and may be on the road till Friday, though I'm not sure where I'll spend Thursday, if anywhere yet.

Oh yeah, the US got drubbed by the Czechs 3-0. But there is hope. I predicted a win over Italy (before seeing Italy play) late last year. Now the game is minutes away and I'm gone.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006


Mr. Pink would like Ukraine. You're not expected to tip. Some places have 10 percent built into the bill, but this is rare. And if you're at a place where the tip isn't included, you can sound extravagant to the other members of your dinner party if you suggest that you tip, say, 7.4 percent.

"I don't think the service was that good."

"Maybe five percent."

"It's these Americans. They get a little money and they want everyone to know."

"Seven-point-four percent!"

"Maybe I'd go four."

You'd think the service would be bad, but for most eating out is still an extravagance, so restaurants are far from full. Or there are many people in the restaurant, but you're the only one who didn't finish his food more than an hour ago. I can only presume this leaves the wait staff looking for something to do.

I find one element of the over-service a little disturbing. I can't keep a napkin. I take one out of the little dispenser on the table. I wipe my mouth. I crumble it up in my palm. I set it down. And then in swoops the waitress to take it away. I started to think it must be where I placed it on the table -- off in the middle, too far away from my plate. Perhaps there was a demilitarized zone, I told myself, into which Ukrainians set their refuse and empty coffee cups. But no, I moved it closer to my plate and still it disappeared.

Yesterday, I sat in a four person booth, furthest to the wall. I placed the napkin on the far side of my plate. The waitress took it no more than five seconds after I set it down. She lunged across the table to reach for it. She took my dinner companion's plate, but that was just her cover, I'm sure of it. What she wanted was the napkin.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Hunt of Red October

Red October, who visited Ukraine last week to meet the one woman he'd contacted through a marriage agency, is not your typical American. In fact, after participating in a Duke University study on cultural identity, he's got the data to back it up. From Mongolia to Eastern Europe – this is where he's most likely to feel at home, he said. To reach this conclusion, researchers put him through a psychological exam, gave him a series of written tests, and even had him react to a fabricated language that was designed to reveal his most natural thought patterns and closest linguistic grouping.

From Mongolia to Eastern Europe. For a man of English, Dutch and Polish origins, this may seem an unlikely grouping. But then Red October, who served six years in the US Navy, including time on a nuclear submarine, had an unlikely childhood. The adopted son of a U.S. serviceman and his Korean wife, he was shuttled off to his Korean grandmother, with whom he lived until he was twelve, when he didn't prove the answer to his parents' martial woes. While other American boys and girls were developing their first crushes and maybe falling for the Girl Next Door, he was living in a mountainous village without a television or a phone.

In this village, when he was eight years of age, he first dreamt of a woman he'd see in his dreams throughout his life – a woman with dark hair and a voice just so. Nothing remarkable, but lasting and memorable all the same, as any recurring dream is bound to be.

When he met his first wife, Red October says he thought she bore a resemblance to this woman he'd see in his sleep. But the magic with her was quickly gone. They divorced after what he described as Jerry Springer-type behavior: excessive drinking, infidelity, selfishness.

"It turned out it obviously wasn't her," he said.

The Dream Girl only reappeared in his life when he visited the Anastasia website and found his current fiancée's profile. For Red October, there was no need to contact or search for anyone else. She was it.

"I didn't come here looking for a fantasy," he said. "I came here looking for the person I've been looking for since I was eight. I found the person I wanted, and that was it."

While he said he was certain from the start, his fiancée was not equally convinced. To introduce himself, Red October sent a seven page letter.

"I thought he was crazy," his fiancée said, "or very, very, very, very good."

When we met at Café Versay, across the street from the Kharkov Hotel, the couple had seen each other in person for less than a week after exchanging hundreds of text messages, emails and phone calls since August of the previous year. Already, they both seemed very comfortable with each other – touching, talking, sitting close. If she wasn't leaning into his ear to ask what I had just said (I spoke too fast, she said), he was leaning into to her to explain what he'd just told me.

Red October understands more Russian than he speaks (this after studying the language for a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where his teacher was a former plumber from Leningrad who'd secured his position twelve days after crossing the border to Finland and defecting at the US Embassy.) His fiancée knows less English. Both have a child from a previous relationship: Red October an 11 year-old son, his fiancée a 10-year-old daughter. At the luxury apartment they plan to share in Seattle, they will speak both languages.

"I thought speaking both languages would help both of them and both of us," he said.

An obvious lesson from his last marriage: to give as much as you want to take.

"I told my fiancée when you come to America, you're my equal," he said.

The sentiment sounded sincere, and it was certainly represented a big change from his military days, when the thirty-something, former Cold Warrior was one of five men responsible for a single nuclear warhead on their George Washington Carver class submarine. 

"I was the magic guy for that missile," he said. "I was the guy to look at the board and open the hatch."

They weren't supposed to know their target, but the coordinates never changed and it was easy enough to look it up on a map: Kharkov, Ukraine. The exact target, a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of town.

"I'd never seen it from ground level," he told me. "I'd only seen it from above."

I left Red October and his fiancee near where I'd found them: at the statue of Lenin on Svobody Square. They asked that I take a photo. It was for their file, I learned. Something needed to convince the US Embassy that their relationship was real and that they had indeed seen each other and that she was deserving of a visa.

I counted to three and took the photograph.   


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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Of proposals and paper-work

I hope to continue to file reports on my research into the various aspects of the mail-order bride industry, but in the coming weeks (and months, but hopefully not years) you should see some new content as well – in particular, posts touching on the immigration process to the United States of America.

The reason for my newfound interest is simple. First, if one in ten men coming to Ukraine ends up getting married, as I've been told, this is a process that should be of some interest to many of my readers. Consider the numbers:

Last year over 100,000 people were in the United States on a visa that had been granted to them as result of their marriage or engagement to a US citizen. 33,000 were there on K1 visas, which allow you to stay in America for up to 90 days, by which time, if you haven’t married, you must return to your home country. These are commonly called “fiancée visas.” The K3 and CR1 visas are given to spouses of American citizens and generally allow you to stay in the country for up to two years. By the expiration of that visa, you should have received the final adjustment of your immigration status, culminating in a Green Card, which awards its holder the freedom to travel (something that was not always granted to the citizens of the Soviet Union). 11,000 K3 visas were awarded during the 2005 calendar year, along with 65,000 CR1’s.

Secondly, and here is the textbook example of a journalist burying the lead, I’m getting married. To a Russian national. So writing about this may be my best way to both understand what I need to do and channel my frustrations. Do I already expect frustrations? Sure. I've been told that marrying a Russian in Russia and then getting her legally into America (rather than on a plane to Mexico City and then into a van that will take her around the wall currently being erected by the National Guard near Yuma, Arizona) can take up to a year, maybe even longer.

You have to understand. There are various government agencies to deal with, both foreign and domestic, things to sign, sometimes in triplicate, notaries to see, capitals to visit, friends to call on for advice, acquaintances to contact for help, and then, rising above it all like some grand traffic light, the Department of Homeland Security, with its many colored terrorism alert system flickering both day and night.

(Are we still color-coding terrorism, America? I've been gone so long I don't even know. What color is it today?)

But let me reel this back in.

While some people have been kind enough to congratulate me on my decision and allow me to enjoy the magic of the moment (the stuff afforded most people who drop to one knee and place the ring on the finger) others have been quick -- far too quick -- to say, "I know two people who tried this. The process was so long and arduous it contributed to their divorce. And oh by the way, Mazal Tov!"

So we're not even married and already people are imagining our divorce. But what do you do when you meet someone so kind, so beautiful, so sensible and strong you wonder if it's you that's changed or the woman you're with, because suddenly the world seems so consistently better? What do you do when you meet her more than two years ago in California, reunite in Moscow, and then have your third date in Ukraine?

I'm not a genius, but I think you go for it.

I started Monday, spending eight hours on the computer, visiting various websites and sending an untold number of emails, while My Fiancee went down to the Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya office(ZAGS) to see what was needed for us to get our marriage properly registered and performed in her hometown. The office was closed, so my internet searches zeroed in on the US Consulate in Vladivostok (I couldn't find information on the civil marriage process on the website for the US Embassy in Moscow).

The folks in Vladivostok said I should be prepared to present my birth certificate to the Russian officials, and as my father was traveling the next day to Norway, I told him to find it in the garage and DHL it to me in Ukraine -- a cost of $80.

The next morning I awoke to hear of My Fiancee's latest trip to ZAGS , at which she was met by a woman with wholly unremarkable intra-personal skills. This woman let it be known that all of the following would be expected:

* I would have to get my passport and visa photocopied and translated into Russian.

* Register my Russian visa in Belgorod, where the ceremony would be be performed.

*And get a marital status letter (something called a “statement of no impediment to marriage” elsewhere) which basically says I'm neither polygamous nor already more traditionally betrothed.

In her email, My Fiancee included a link to the US Embassy in Moscow. They had information on the civil marriage process after all. Five Steps to a Russian Marriage. Not six? Huh. No mention of the birth certificate. Oh well.

I focused on Step Three:

Authentication of the marriage letter is performed by the Department of Legalization of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The procedure costs around 100 rubles for a five-day return. Fees are paid at the Sberkassa located at Department of Legalization.

Department of Legalization, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1st Neopalimovskiy Pereulok, Dom 12a (near Smolenskaya Metro)
10:00am - 1:00pm; 3pm - 5pm (4:30pm on Fridays), 244-3797

Already things were complicated. If I left too soon, I'd miss the delivery of my birth certificate, a document I hadn't wanted to leave to the people at DHL in the first place, if only because the last time my father sent a package via that corporation, they had refused to deliver it, saying the packaged spices and whole bean coffee inside was illegal contraband. But then again, if I waited till next Tuesday (Monday is a holiday, Russian Independence Day) I feared I'd be giving up valuable time I couldn't afford to lose. After all, every ZAGS office in Russia requires a 32-day cooling-off period between registration and the Cyrillic equivalent of you can now kiss the bride. And a marital status letter is only valid for 90 days. And my Russian visa wasn't yet registered in Belgorod. And while that document didn't expire until the first week of September, my Ukrainian visa, given to me last year with one month already lapsed, expired the first week in August, when I was supposed to return to the United States to join a PhD program in Los Angeles. I had 61 days left. Perhaps no man since Hitler or Napoleon has given greater consideration to his entry into Moscow.

"Let's shoot for Tuesday," I said. And hope it doesn't snow.

What else can you do? Apply for the less arduous K1 visa? Perhaps. But then you can’t get married in Russia, in front of the bride's family, and I just couldn't stomach that route because I feared we'd have an experience like the one recently reported by Paul Keegan in the Moscow Times.

Keegan, a freelance writer, met his fiancée, Tatyana, through a friend last year in New York. Tatyana, an accomplished ball-room dancer, already had a green card. The couple agreed to marry on Christmas Day (December 25th) and then tried to get a tourist visa for Tatyana’s parents so they could attend the mid-June ceremony in the states. The outcome of this effort is both disturbing and, sadly, expected:

Tatyana's parents, Viktor and Lyudmila Rybushkin, traveled 19 hours on a train from their home in Volgograd to Moscow for a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy. It lasted five minutes. The man behind the glass at Window 12 asked a few questions, glanced at our wedding invitation and handed them a form-letter refusal.

During their 15-hour bus ride home, Lyudmila wept while Viktor, 59, which is the average life expectancy for Russian men, took extra doses of the pills for his high blood pressure. For days, Tatyana was in shock, unable to cry.

The visa application fees alone cost nearly a month's salary at Viktor's factory job, at which he earns 7,600 rubles ($248) per month. Train and bus fares for the four-day, 2,200-kilometer round trip set them back another 3,000 rubles. The U.S. government requires personal interviews for all visa applicants but has only four consulates in Russia, a country that spans eleven time zones.

Why did they get turned down? The United States government assumes every person will over-stay their tourist visa, remain in the Land of the Underdog illegally, and siphon off valuable public services or otherwise be a drain on the economy. (So much for the Horatio Alger myth.) To get a tourist visa, you must have strong family and business ties tying you to your homeland, and even then you might have difficulties getting your application approved.

If you asked Paul Keegan, he'd probably say we should just be done with it and send the French their statue back. I'd like to believe the above incident was an anomaly, something that shouldn't have happened but somehow did, and that there are many more happy stories than sad ones delivered through the US Embassy in Moscow.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. I have to remind myself I'm only at the start.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

The Saddest Search-Term Arrival Yet ...

"I should have said I love you."

What happened, Northern Mariana Islands? What happened?

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Carolyn Drake

This wonderful photo was taken by Carolyn Drake, the photographer I had hoped to work with here. She's based in Lviv, a good day's journey's away from me in Kharkov. But perhaps one day she'll cover with her photos what I cover with my words. Lord knows we've tried. Last fall, we sent off our application for the Taylor-Lange Award, given annually by the Center for Documentary Studies "to encourage collaboration between documentary writers and photographers in the tradition of the acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange and writer and social scientist Paul Taylor."

Carolyn and I had hoped to document the men and women who meet in Ukraine through the marriage agencies. Last week, we learned we were among the finalists for this year's award. The winner was actually another team focusing (Larry Frolick and Donald Weber) focusing on Ukraine.

Quoting from their proposal: "As our work in Kiev, Chernobyl, and the industrial city of Dnepro-Dzerxhinsk shows, we've found a European people desperate to survie, isolated at the margilns of the West's consumer-driven economy... With its 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine threw out the old Russian-backed political regime and elected a democratic leadership, its first since 1918. Hopes for this new regilme were high bur foundered as the Revolution failed to meet the needs of a civic society. Prostitution, drug use, and street gangs, exploded under these ressures... What comes next? This is the question we intend to discover in our work."

As for Carolyn's beautiful photo, it captures the back-stage point of view of a beauty stage at a western Ukrainian university. Many Ukrainian universities host such paegants. I know someone affiliated with an Odessa university who told me of a foreigner coming in to teach a course. The dean of the university showed him the beauty shots of all the university's many beautiful students, being sure to point out which ones would be available -- or perhaps I should say enrolled -- in his class.

Photograph copyright Carolyn Drake. Used with permission.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Norwegians Are Coming! The Norwegians Are Coming!

When you come to Ukraine, you visit another country and another time. Inside the bus that regularly travels between Belgorod and Kharkov, you’ll find a map of Hamelin-Pyrmont, a burg in the German state of Saxony, and all the usual warnings and instructions plastered about in the language of the country Russia defeated on the battlefield sixty-one years ago. When I left Lugansk Tuesday I found a more familiar tongue staring back at me from the front of the bus: Utgang bak. My mother’s Norwegian.

It was fitting that this long yellow “regionbuss” came from Norway, because a great number of Norwegians are coming to Eastern Ukraine -- and in particular Lugansk, an industrial city hundreds of kilometers from anything a tour book might rightly call a “sight.”

“This is the new frontier for Norway,” said the owner of a Lugansk introduction agency that I interviewed last week. “Most of our clients are from Norway.”

I was surprised to hear that for three years this American expatriate had seen such a steady stream of business coming from one slender country in Northern Europe. I asked him if he knew Norway’s population. He didn’t. I told him the number: about four million. He laughed and said, “Then one-third of’em know about us.”

"Hundreds come," he said. "Hundreds."

And like his other clients, the Norwegians aren’t here for the city of Lugansk or any of the locomotives, steel pipes, chemicals and mining equipment that it produces. As President Clinton might have put it, “It’s the girls, stupid.”

Some of the Norwegians come on holiday, this American said, and find a wife through his agency (he spoke to me of a marriage that was less than a month old); others keep a girlfriend here, he said -- and perhaps a wife at home.

Money was of course the reason behind it all. Norway’s capital is perhaps the most expensive city in Europe, with goods and services generally costing twice what they might run in the United Kingdom. But if in Norway a .4l bottle of local beer will cost you $10, in Ukraine it'll run about 50 cents.

Prices are so good for a non-Ukrainian, this agency owner said, that he believes foreigners will soon begin to buy property in the country – something he’s already done, buying two unfinished homes in the newly privatized town of Vidne. Here, in the nineties, houses often got abandoned before completion because the economy turned or people, so long accustomed to living in a cramped apartment supplied by the state, built according to their dreams and not the realities of a utility bill that would sky-rocket in the post-Soviet period.

Looking out his kitchen window in Vidne, this American can see several such buildings -- some mere foundations, others homes that were left all but complete, the plastic covering the windows now broken and blowing in across an unfinished interior. Ocassionally, he said, these houses shrink. They return toward the earth after men come in the night to chip away at what's been built and try to salvage a few good bricks.

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Friday, June 02, 2006


People sell things on the Metro. I recognize the faces of some of the vendors. It must be a full-time gig. One guy came in one day with a glass cutter and some glass. He held up the knife, spoke loudly, then proceeded to cut strips of glass off one by one, lifting each up to show the precision of his cut. A man with either little awareness of, or little need for, that phrase, "The world changed on 9/11."

Today, while taking the Metro to my tutor's apartment, a guy came in and pulled a handful of Band-Aids out of his duffel bag. They come in finger-long cardboard boxes, not very thick, maybe a few Band-Aids to the box. I've been seeing these things sold for a couple weeks now. Maybe a crate fell off a truck somewhere. The first time I saw them, I thought they were syringes. The box looks about that size. But then I saw they were Band-Aids, twenty-some cents a box. I thought, Who wants to buy a Band-Aid in a Metro? Maps of the city, yes. Phone books. Directories of restaurants and theaters. A World Cup 2006 poster to hang on your wall, complete with places to fill in the winner of each match -- I almost bought that. But Band-Aids? Apparently, they must be pretty good. Today after giving his sales pitch, five people around me dug into their pockets and coughed up a Griven bill. Two people on each side of me and one staring me in the eye. I thought, You're all some clumsy Ukrainians. I think I'll just let you go first, maybe ride through to the next stop, make sure you don't trip me up on your way down.

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