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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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Heading South (and west)

While watching BBC World a few weeks back, I caught an interview with Charlotte Rampling that touched on the dynamics of the "mail-order bride" industry, however obliquely. Rampling stars in the French movie Vers la Sud (Heading South), which tells the story of three women who visit Haiti and use their first-world money to acquire third-world dates. In other words, they're sex tourists. The women wouldn't explicitly pay for sex, but they'd go to bars and pay for their dates' drinks and dinners, they'd buy gifts, and they'd maybe leave some money hanging around on the counter. When asked about this, Rampling called this relationship "a coming together of needs ... quite pleasant for both (parties) often." Tom Brook, her balding and almost eagerly British interviewer, just nodded along when he heard this, not challenging it with a word. But while I listened, I thought, "My god, a man couldn't dare say such a thing about going to Ukraine." Maybe it's because Rampling has such a lovely English accent and everything from her sounds so dignified. Be a dear, would you, and find me a hooker for the evening. That's a good man, James.
Anyways, I found my notes for the above while packing up my suitcase and getting ready to leave for Kharkov -- and then Kiev -- and then Munich -- and then Washington D.C. -- and then San Francisco. The first leg of my journey, a two-hour ride from Belgorod, begins in the morning. Then I spend the day in Kharkov (long enough to get all the pictures I forgot to take) and continue down to Kiev on the express train the following morning. My journey home, by air, begins the next day. So, come Monday, I'll be experiencing the culture shock of my return to the United States. Look for a few reports on it here, along with some more posts commenting on the last of my research -- there's still much I have to say (I've had so little computer time). 

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