Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What Napoleon and Hitler Couldn't Gain

Victory in Moscow. It was ours yesterday, when the US Embassy accepted the I-130 I submitted on behalf of my wife. It wasn't as hard as anticipated; in fact, I think the anticipation -- and the expectation of the worst -- is the hardest part. But for me, no, not too difficult. They required the I-130, which is a petition for permanent resident status and a Green Card, and a biographical form both the petitioner (me) and the beneficiary (her).

The hardest part might have been finding the place. I went to the American Citizens services door, expecting to be served at window 4 or 5, between 2 and 4 p.m., as indicated online. But when I got there, I found only four windows, the last one darkened and closed. The lady working #3 directed me to another entrance, but when I left the building and tried to gain access there, the guarding working the door told me it was an exit, not an entrance. Through a third door, and a second security check -- phones off, electronic equipment checked in -- My Wife and I moved through an empty maze of seats and waiting areas, passed through a room crawling with adopted babies -- "What's your child's name?" "Anton." "Anton! How cute!" -- and then finally arrived at DHS, where one lonely woman was pecking at a keyboard, just waiting for someone to serve. It ended up that person was me (and an Orthodox priest looking to emmigrate).

So yes, Hitler, Napoleon -- you wanted what I have, success. Now, just more waiting, and a second interview for my wife. Then ... what every couple has: the freedom to choose.

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Monday, July 24, 2006


After three days of eating, My Wife and I are on to Moscow for our second visit to the capital in a little over a month. We'll be going to the Department of Homeland Security Office located in the US Embassy, where we hope to file the paperwork that will culminate in My Wife's Green Card and my not writing a chapter about what's wrong with the immigration process.

Last time through Moscow, we went to the Russian Federation's Department of Foreign Affairs, the Stalin-era skyscraper pictured above, believing we had to get a form apostilled there, and even though we were sent down the street, I thought the photo well-suited to our ordeal: something rising up to block out the sun, a tower of paper-work and bureaucracy, apostilled this, notarized that.

Today, I filed form G-325A in quadriplicate, if that's a word; My Wife still has to do the same. Then I've got the I-134 to finish, which requires my collecting and photo-copying various tax and banking records (many of which are in America) and promising to financially support my wife in full for the next three years, if only so she won't become a public charge. "What's a public charge?" she asked. "What we're phasing out," I should've said. In addition to that, we've of course got the I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative -- "That's you, honey."

What else? Oh yes, we'll bring with us a stack of emails, printed out in bulk and going back over two years, to show our relationship is true and honest, not a marriage entered into only to get a Green Card. We'll support these print-outs with a stack of photos showing us in Moscow, Kiev, Volgograd, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Belgorod. The foolish part of me only wanted to bring one photo and risk everything on the smiles and expressions captured therein. "You tell me," I could've asked the guy interviewing us. "You think we're real?" The smarter side of me says this isn't the time for games. But still, it's feels a little Soviet, having to prove that our feelings for each other are genuine.

Hopefully, by Wednesday, when we should be honeymooning in St. Petersburg, this will be behind us, leaving only a single interview to come -- one that requires only my wife's attendance in Moscow and results in her getting her immigration visa.

Thanks for all your well wishes.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Palace of Weddings

In Russia, church weddings are still unofficial, done for ceremony more than anything else, so while they certainly are performed, it's usually on the Sunday after a Saturday marriage at the Palace of Marriages. More than research brought me there on Friday. I got married.

The picture here shows me and my bride after stepping into the hall where the ceremony is performed. The lady pictured at the desk (which my father thought stolen from the Star Trek set) asked almost immediately if we were entering our marriage freely. My Fiancee answered first by saying, "Da." I didn't exactly know the details of the question at this point, but fearing a stamped foot, I said "Da" after the same string of words were directed to me.

With this formality overcome, we went up to the desk, where I deposited our rings on a silver tray that had angel wings sprouting from it, and signed our names onto a form. We then returned front and center, followed over by the lady with the tray. My fiancee and I put on our rings, I lifted the veil, and we kissed -- still man and woman, now husband and wife.

What came next? A dance. Apparently, you have to dance in Russia's Palace of Weddings. I didn't know this. Hadn't been warned about anything, so I did something that was part Texas-two-step and part Vienna Waltz. My wife, somehow, followed along, and I love her all the more for it. A bow to the parents wrapped things up, and then, with the applause of those in attendance, we were walking out the door, soon to be replaced by another couple.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Locked Hearts in the Land of Plenty

There are men in Ukraine who can leave this country without getting married, proposing, or having so much fun they believed it impossible to do either of the previous two.

There are men -- and nineteen or twenty year-old men at that -- who did not busy themselves with the thought of Ukrainian blondinkas when they were flying into Borispol International.

There are men who believe marriage is essential, one of the main reasons for being on earth, but not the reason to be in Ukraine.

In Kharkov, there are maybe thirty of these men. Mormon Missionaries.

"The leaders of our church tell us to 'lock our hearts' while we're here," Elder Larson told me this evening, after I'd attended one of the seven weekly free English lessons offered to Kharkovidians at one of the church's many properties in the city.

Before locking their hearts for their two-year mission, the young men coming to Ukraine (Mormons can serve a mission between the ages of 19 and 26) attend an eleven week training session in Utah. For eight hours a day, they study the Russian language, but while their book instructs them a little bit on how to use a phone or catch a train, it primarily prepares them to preach the gospel.

"When I first came here," Elder Larson said, "I could go up to people and say, 'We're representatives of our church and I'd like to talk to you about the Book of Mormon,' but then they'd start talking and I wouldn't understand a thing."

Because most Missionaries can initially preach the gospel better than they can order a pizza, each new-comer is paired with a Missionary who has already been "in-country" for an extended period of time.

Together, they go out, door to door, all over town, their daily mission to speak to as many people as possible. But even if they are told not to date while on their Mission, that doesn't stop people from trying to penetrate their defenses.

"I've had babas (old women) say, 'I don't want to speak to you about your church, but here, meet my grandaughter.'"

Polite that these young men are, the young women are often invited to English lessons.

Today, at a Mormon Church on Chernyshevskovo Street, there were two English classes on offer, one for beginners, the other for those more advanced.

I approached one of the Elders in the classroom for advanced English speakers, saying I was looking for Elders Larson and Howard, whom I'd previously run into no less than seven times around town. I'd promised to help out one night after they'd let me jump ahead of them in line at the train station to catch the afternoon electrichyesky to Belgorod one afternoon.

"They should be back in thirty minutes," the young man said, "but why don't you stick around. This is the advanced class. It sounds like you belong here."

"I'd hope so," I said. "I'm American."

Twenty-eight people attended the hour-long session, most of them in their twenties or late teens. Two 19-year-old church elders ran the discussion group, splitting us up into groups of five or six and assigning each group a separate holiday. My group got the Fourth of July. We were asked to speak about it to the class as a whole after ten minutes of discussion.

"Excuse me very much," the man next to me said, leaning in with his cigarette breath, "but at Liberty Station, they are having fireworks?"

"The Statue of Liberty?"

"The Statue of Liberty," he said. "Yes."

I nodded. "Great displays of fireworks at the Statue of Liberty. Very impressive."

Of the four Ukrainians in my group, two knew women who'd married a foreigner. One woman knew an old college girlfriend who had been living in Manteca, California for five years now, where she had recently started working as a teacher.

"She's happily married?" I asked.

"Oh yes," she said. "She comes to Kharkov once a year, and this year, her husband also came." With a sly smile, she suggested there were some problems with this, as his last name was French. But we had reached a conversational impasse. Either she couldn't explain or I couldn't understand.

"LeConte?" I said.

She nodded. Again that sly smile.

"I see," I said.

Cigarette Breath leaned in once more, this time with a face I knew well. It was tensed up until the words came out. I know because I wear the same face everyday, before releasing the imperfect Russian words going through my head and hoping they gain a favorable response.

"I know five living in the United States," he said.

"These are women living in the states?"

This confused him. He gave me a blank stare. His teeth were uneven, the tops blackened and sharp.

I revert to yes-no questions at times like this. "Do you know women in the United States who have married an American man?"

"I have five brothers," he said. "Or no, cousins." I nodded, and we somehow got to talking about one of these brothers-cousins-women, who had married a Spaniard but then left him and taken up with a Swede, or no, married a Spaniard living in Sweden.

"They met on the newspapers," he said.

I should have understood but didn't. I repeated what he said.

"She reads his plea, and they write letters."

"On the newspapers!" I nodded. Of course. It had to be an old mail-order bride catalogue or something similar, something from the pre-internet age, because this brother-cousin-woman had married ten years ago, and was now already divorced and loving her new life Sweden.

"I do not want to go to America," Cigarette Breath said, with an apologetic bounce of his eyebrows. "I have an apartment. It is worth $100,000."

He smiled. I nodded and agreed this was a good thing. We talked some more about Independence Day. I mentioned convertibles on parade, beauty queens riding high on the back seat. "They wave like this," I said, doing my best Queen of England. "And then we have barbecues, of course. You know barbecues?"

"We have them now," one man said. "In our stores. They are round."

I agreed they were, and spoke of the many types of meats we cooked. The man familiar with the American barbecue translated the words into Russian so the others could follow along.

"Big poultry?" Cigarette Breath said. "You cook this?"

I looked at him.

He said, "Your nation's bird."

I shook my head. He regrouped.

"You will go into the forest for Independence Day?" he asked.

"No. Not so much," I said. "More a park. We're not a forest-going people like you are. Do you know what a gazebo is?"

After our session, I found Elders Larson and Howard --or Staryeishiny Larson and Howard, as they're known in Russian -- and spoke with them in the hallway near the beginner's classroom. While we spoke, one of the elders asked a passing Ukrainian man of about twenty if he knew anyone who'd married an American -- three girls, he said, before breaking off into a discussion with the two young women facing him, one of whom, before leaving with him out the front door, said she wanted to marry an American too.

But not the Mormons. In addition to the front door introductions of babushkas, they must face down those offered to them by the members of the church in Ukraine, who often want the Missionaries to marry a daughter or grand-daughter and take them home at the end of their two-year stay.

"We don't want to do that," Elder Larson said, "because then we'll be taking away the future of Ukraine -- the growth of the church here. We want to build up the church in Ukraine, and to do that there's got to be a strong youth movement."

Not everyone can do that, though. We are all of us sinners, The Good Book says, and some Missionaries unlock their hearts before getting that exit stamp at Borispol. Sometimes, a missionary is transferred to another city in order to refocus his attention. Once in thirteen years, a young man was sent home for not living up to the church's moral standards.

Then there are those who have come back, including one missionary whose two-year term concluded just four months ago. Within a month, he was on a flight back -- for a young woman. His fellows missionaries gave him a little ribbing for this, Elder Larson said.

"We say, 'If you have time for a girl, you probably weren't preaching the gospel as much as you should have been.'"
Like me, Elder Larson had seen a lot of American men in Ukraine, meeting almost all of them in the internet cafe.

"A lot of them don't come here for marriage," he said. "They come here for the girls -- lots of girls."

At the beginning of our conversation, Elder Howard was arguing the finer points of scripture with a Ukrainian who had an almost lawyerly command of English. Now he joined our talk, the three of us left alone in the hall, and the near grin he had on his face, the unblinking attention he gave me, it all suggested he either had me figured out -- a funny boy journalist here to ridicule them -- or else was half-embarrassed to say what he believed. Already he'd told me that they believed their church had prophets, and that when they sent in their request for a mission, it was these men who divined where the Lord wanted them to be. I think I'd passed a test when I'd gotten through that without a smirk. Now, as I asked him what his church would tell some of these men coming here, he gave that look again and tested me with this:

"We believe the sex act is a sacred gift that should only be shared within the bonds of marriage. It's not a toy. It's a sacred gift that God's entrusted with us -- the god-like gift of creation."

After nine months here, the Mormons were like a dish of peach sherbert between courses of a rich meal. A nice way to cleanse the palette.

I left them in the hall, thanking them for the interview, our goodbyes a little awkward, as they shared a look between them as I started away. Should we? They didn't. I walked home without even the offer of a book.

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Monday, July 10, 2006


I am a short-timer in Kharkov, leaving for Belgorod on Friday. I may not return to Ukraine again until I leave on August Sixth -- at least, I'll do that if I am able to file some immigration paperwork in Moscow. The papers deal with my fiancee getting her green card and following me over to the states, and though you're allowed to file this paperwork with a US Embassy if you live abroad, I'm in a bit of a catch-22 situation. I have been living in Ukraine, so I thought to file in Kiev. But my Fiancee lives in Russia, so the people in Kiev, after accepting my appointment request on one day, said on a second day that I really should go to Moscow, because that's where the final interview, involving only my wife, will take place. "She's a Russian," they said. "We can only process Ukrainians." The problem is, Moscow only accepts paperwork from Americans living in Russia, and I ... well, no one is set-up to take us, a bi-national, living-overseas, border-town relationship kind of couple. As a result, I'll go to Moscow after my marriage, on the 21st of July, and see if the Moscow Department of Homeland Security will take me -- I will be a resident of Russia at that point, and certainly not of the US, having not set foot in the states in a year. But if they refuse me, it's back to Kiev on the first of August. A quick interview is conducted when I present my paper-work and I'm given an opportunity to authenticate my relationship with my wife. Maybe three or five out of every ten marriages between a US national and a foreigner are cases of immigration fraud, I'm told, so if on first glance your relationship is viewed as legitimate, you want the person receiving your paperwork to be around to conduct the second interview with your wife. If I drop my paperwork at Kiev, the second interview will be in Moscow -- with a person who hasn't seen my wife at the first interview. Confused yet? And there may be paper-work delays routing everything from one place to the other. But it will be a lot better than doing all this in the states, as then you just throw your paperwork into the slush pile, located for Californians in Laguan Niguel, and hope for the better, everything sight unseen. If you do it that way, it can take up to a year or a year and a half for your wife to follow you over to the states -- so long as you cross all t's correctly and dot the necessary number of i's. If you do it at an embassy, the process might only take three months. If you do it at two embassies ... I don't know. More to come on this.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Mr. Florida

I've read that the magic words to women seeking an American husband are, "I own my own business." But many of the men I've met are already retired. One guy, now an agency owner in Kherson, was a "dot-com guy" who took the cash buy-out weeks before the stock-option guys woke up broke; another, the one I'll profile here, was in real estate -- a guy who sold everything at the age of forty and then settled into the types of jobs, private investigator for a law office, Coast Guard, fitness trainer, that keep one occupied more than well-paid.

He was just shy of 50 when we met, a muscle-bound man who lived in a community in the South of Florida overburdened with golf courses and gates.

He came to the Former Soviet Union less than a year ago, but had already been back three times. To start, he arrived for the romance tours, but seeing them for what they are -- meat-markets that produce very few marriages -- he left them behind and went for a more personalized approach. After his dealings with numerous dating agencies between Ukraine and Russia, he'd compiled a list of interpreters and drivers, people who often knew girls interested in dating foreigners, even if they weren't signed up with an online "marriage agency."

One interpreter was so well-stocked with introductions, you have to imagine she was poaching girls from the agency that originally employed her.

"I came to town," he said, "and met her in a cafe, and she had dates for me from eleven a.m. until nine that night. One girl an hour," he said, smiling at the absurd indulgence of it all.

But Mr. Florida wasn't the type of man who could only find a woman if someone sat her down in front of him. He didn't smoke or drink ("I have no idea what a beer tastes like," he said), he was religious about working out, and he had a body that was twenty-years younger than the age on his driver's license. So when he met a couple women in the Moscow subway, it was more than just the map in his hand and the confused look on his face that drew them toward him.

One of the women he met this way was actually looking for a foreign husband, having signed up with an agency that was affiliated with the massive Anastasia Web. They went out twice, when they first met and a couple months later, when Mr. Florida returned and took her to St. Petersburg. But it was only after he came back to Florida that he got his first email from her.

"It was from her marriage agency," he said. "It said, 'I just read your profile and you look like a very nice man. I would like to learn more about you.'"

He was confused at first, and called to ask why she'd written him. But she said she'd written no such letter, leaving him to understand what many men are slow to realize -- that these marriage agencies make money on the letters they send and receive. Each missive coming in and out generates a fee, and a translating cost, and so many of these companies are nothing more than "letter writers," companies that hope to keep you sending copy when you see the picture of the beautiful woman who has just "contacted" you with her dreams of love and relocation.

Despite his attraction to the young woman in Moscow, Mr. Florida soon moved on. Like many beautiful women in Moscow, he said, the one he left behind was used to having things her way.

"We'd be walking down the street," he said, "and she'd tell me not to go in a certain direction." He smiled at the memory of her mistake and patted his chest. "I said, 'I'm the mushina'"--I'm the man--"'I'm the mushina.'"

Mr. Florida was dead-set on leaving his trip with a wife. He had his list of candidates -- three women in their twenties whom he'd already met -- and he planned to give them each a couple days to help him make his decision. Which isn't to say he didn't have time for the unexpected. When he was in Kiev, he'd met a young woman on the street -- stopped her with a quick word and then taken her out to dinner. He offered up his digital camera as proof and showed me a photo, on the LCD display, of an attractive young blonde. Later in the conversation, I absent-mindedly clicked through to another photo -- of the blonde in the bathub, covering her breasts with one arm and her face with the other.

"Oh, you got to that one," he laughed, judging from the look on my face. "Yeah, she was a good girl, but it just wasn't there."

He's still looking.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on Ukraine Bride

So yeah, the American Business Center in Odessa charged me four dollars for ten minutes of internet time. I'm gonna have to get some mileage out of this story. Let me see, here's what I found on the Russian Women Discussion bulletin board about Ukraine Bride, the "marriage agency" run out of the ABC:

When I was in Odessa in June 04 2004 I met Frank (the owner {of Ukraine Bride}) and he reminded me of a used car salesman. He pushes the american angle and wants the guys to date as many women as possible (if I remember correctly the meeting was $65.00 a pop).

I confess I actually went out with two ladies and during my conversation I found out that they had no intention of leaving the Ukraine. Both of them told me that Frank recruited them off the street by taking their photos and making a promise to them. Neither one would say what was promised, but I would say they were given a percentage of the dating fee.

I spent $130.00 on those 2 "dates" and don't have any regrets since I went to Odessa to celebrate my 35th birthday and to have a good time-of which both were accomplished with great success (There's still 12 hours of my 35th birthday I still have no recollection of).

Odessa is unlike any other place I have visited and there were a number of surreal moments there and there's a line from a Greatful Dead song that seemed perfect for that trip "One a long strange trip it's been".

Bottom line is I couldn't recommend Ukrainebrides if you were seriously looking for a soulmate.

Just another free opinion of a federal civil servant that is residing in the great state of Texas.

Another person writes:

I would advise you to stay away from this person and his agency. I did purchase contacts from a Mr. Frank [personal data deleted by Admin], and after several attempts to confirm that the girls information was correct, (it was not), he only sent me back one of the contact costs - this may seem small, but he charges for a translation fee (I don't have a problem w/that), but he even refused to refund the translation fees I had purchased (about $90). And he also is "brokering" or "representing" property for sale in Odessa - hhmmmm . . . carrying business practices like that over to real estate in EE usually ends with a dirt nap.

And one more, a little bit more philosophical:

I tried this agency 2 yrs ago when i was new to the whole thing, and yes there full of *snip*, $60 per meeting with girls who will date Quasimodo, for the comission they get from the agency for turning up. I would say if your on a stag weekend, and by the way thats all i see Odessa fit for these days, then yes take your mates down there and date a model, it will make a good screen saver for your pc.
If your looking for a wife then forget them.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Nomination for worst Marriage Agency in Ukraine: Ukraine Bride

I'm preparing to make a post listing some of the people who have been especially forthcoming with me, while also mentioning those agencies that have refused to meet me. But because I didn't want this to get lost in all of that, I'm going to post this simple statement today:

Dear Lord, don't use the services of Ukraine Bride, based on the main drag in Odessa. I followed the billboards to their office, expecting to find a nice place to use the internet -- American Business Center! the sign said. A home away from home! But instead, I found myself in an office without any American nationals, and after I sat down to use the internet -- not thinking to ask the price -- I got up to learn it cost 20 Griven for the first fifteen minutes. I'd only used it for ten minutes. They rounded up to fifteen. 20 Griven, the young lady said. $4. For not even fifteen minutes.

Have I investigated this agency? No. Do I suspect it to be an agency that scams its customers? It certainly does take its customers for a ride on the internet. Up the street, just one block, you'll find another internet cafe. Six griven per hour.

Ukraine Bride, welcome to the internet.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

West Ukraine

I knew going into my travels last week that there is less marriage agency activity in western Ukraine, but I'm still not exactly sure why. One entrepreneur I met in Kolomiya said it's because the women are more religious, and I certainly did pick up on the fact that religion plays a much more visible part in the lives of western Ukrainians. Each farm I passed had its own little cross surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, a Jesus on the cross, a statue of Mary, or an enclosed altar in which a candle could be lit. Many of the enclosures that I saw included a date over their door, invariably from the early 90s, when the Soviet Union ceased to be an atheist state. The Kolomiya entrepreneur I met crossed himself each time he passed the enclosed altar near his bed and breakfast, which is well worth recommending. This young man said both religions in western Ukraine, both the Uniate and the Orthodox, are now competing to build bigger, bolder churches, almost absurdly trying to one-up one another. I certainly saw the proof of this. Every town seemed to have a church going up or recently finished or refurbished. The one pictured is from Rakhiv, in the Carpathian Mountains region, only a few kilometers from the Romanian border. It was built in 1991.

Another person I know echoed something this man said as well -- that western Ukrainians are more likely to leave the country for work, often illegal, in "Europe," a destination that starts somewhere near Germany and continues on until you reach Ireland. ("We may be in Europe geographically," a waitress recently told me, "but not in our minds.") Anyways, these western Ukrainians send the money back to their families from their jobs in construction or the service industry, and with these funds large houses are going up in the villages. Ukraine is a country just waiting to be a conspicuous consumer, like every other country in the west. The only reason they're called villages in this country, rather than suburbs, is because there's not a Blockbuster video on the corner and the roads into the next big city aren't flat and straight and true.

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