Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fulbrighter Burglarized in Kharkov

The only other Fulbrighter currently in Kharkov was burglarized last night. Happened in the middle of the day or early evening, if you'd believe it. The guy came home from dinner (with me -- at Adriano's, a restaurant I'd describe nicely if it didn't come up here) and then there it was: ransacked, everything dumped out, turned over, scattered across the floor, like these guys were following the script from some old episode of Starsky & Hutch. They even went through the garbage, though not, you bibliophiles should take delight in, all of the books. Some remained standing, as if these burglars dare not even touch a novel here, despite the possibility of a stashed away hundred dollar bill on page 234 (which is a fictional creation, it should be noted).

The Fulbrighter had nothing of value left after these guys moved through. Among the stolen items: a new IBM laptop, a Power Point projector, a running suit and shoes, and various other sundries and essentials. Total ding: more than $5,000. Very sad, though at least the police response was quite strong. Plain clothes detective, many members of the militsya, finger-print dust, and a landlord advising against this FBer bringing people back from the clubs and cafes, which he had never done, though the landlady seemed to believe this had to be the reason her place (but not her things) were taken, broken or just abused. The FBer seems to think the problem was his janky-assed Chinese lock. No steel-reinforced door here, just something that didn't quite impress me when I visited. Perhaps someone had had a key made when the lock was installed. But then why him, why now, why here? He lived on the seventh floor. If I was a burglar, I'd stop on four. I just wouldn't go any higher. So -- and I don't mean to sound like Columbo -- it has to be that he was an American, no? I mean, maybe someone sees him coming and going with this expensive equipment hanging from his shoulder, maybe someone sees him running through the city in bright clothing and expensive sneakers.

"I don't mean to make you paranoid," our State Department and Consular security advisors advised us during our DC and Kyiv orientations, "I just want you to raise your awareness level." I was so aware that night, after getting this FBer's call, that I slept with a hammer. No, not quite. But I did go to sleep aware and wake up aware and talk awareness most of the day.

If you are a Fulbrighter and reading this, maybe you'll want to email this message around. Don't think the office in Kyiv knows. Business trips and message machines, the stuff of modern life -- signs and signifiers might be delayed, I'm saying.

Why is my language so playful tonight? I didn't bring any Nabokov. I can't even correctly (if you're to listen to my students) pronounce his name. Yet apparently I've been contaminated.

As I told another FBer in an email last night (while trying to convince her to relocate to Kharkov of all things) I hadn't expected this, and not because we had been told during our Kyiv orientation (at least I think it was Kyiv; the second orientation was disorienting, rendering the first a blur and the second a mirror image) no one had even had a laptop computer stolen during the ten-plus years the Fulbright program has been active here. No, I was surprised because I hadn't seen a hint of crime in the city during my almost two months here, hadn't ever felt intimidated, hadn't ever looked up and thought, Oh, okay, wrong neighborhood, wrong block, wrong whatever. In fact, when I saw a cop twirling his metaphoric baton and waiting for the Metro late one evening, I thought, Poor guy, nothing to do. It's a golden era for the culture: not quite Communist, but not quite Capitalist. So while the crime exists, it's political and not of the street; the thugging and mugging and shaking down of people --that comes later, when the would-be criminals have learned and saturated the society, when yong ones are struggling to overcome the competition of old ones, when some are hanging on years after they should have left their incomes behind and retired. Now? Well, I still think Kharkov is a very safe city, but I also know it's no La La Land or Wonderland or Oz or even Mayberry. It's a city of 1.6 million, many of whom are poor.

Unlike the Peace Corps Volunteer I had dinner with tonight, I try to blend in. I look bored on the Metro, slightly agitated on the street, and if someone stops me and asks for something -- directions, usually, or maybe it's a sales pitch -- I look up with the melted face of a Soviet bureaucrat and say, "Nye znayo," I don't know, the language of Brezhnev and the CCCP. As for the Peace Corps Volunteer, he can't help but not blend in. He's a Texan of (I believe) South Asian descent, and he said he's been stopped as many as four times in one day by the local militsya, who always want to see his papers. Me, not a once. Wood, knock. More often, I get people asking me things I can't even attempt to understand or answer. And so again: "Nye znayo."