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.