Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the great Ukrainian bride hunt part 9

By Kristoffer A. Garin

Even the most likable of them approached the idea of marriage as if through a time machine. One, for example, a sweet-tempered, chubby Canadian businessman, spoke with passion and conviction about the female orgasm, and openly about loneliness; at one point he leaned over to me and whispered, “We're all hurting in one way or another, that's why we're here. We're all trying to make our lives better, we're all looking for love.” He told me he wanted a genuine partner, but with the caveat that on the big issues—house buying, for example—he must be in charge, for the good of them both. “A ship cannot have two captains,” he insisted. When I suggested that he and his hypothetical spouse might eliminate the need for a “captain” by simply shopping for a house they both liked, he went silent for a moment before he managed both to concede my point and to reframe it entirely: “Actually, that's an important thing you just said, because for a woman, she would take a lot of pride in her house. The kitchen area, the living-room area, the entertainment area, she's got to be compatible with that. So that's something I would gladly defer to a woman on.”

Our last scheduled group event was a trip to Vinnitsa, roughly three hours from Kiev, for the tour's third and final social. The city's primary claim to fame was having been the site of an infamous Nazi construction project; thousands of prisoners were put to work building a vast underground command bunker and subsequently murdered in order to keep its plans secret. This was not among the things Dan the Man told us about Vinnitsa, which was touted in our trip materials as a “bonus city,” though it was acknowledged that the place “has had its ups and downs.” What we were told was that this little industrial backwater was home to “motivated women” and was a “gem” when it came to romance tours. “Vinnitsa has much to offer for its guests,” read the literature, “but nothing compares to the beauty of the women. Don't miss your chance to meet the girl of your dreams!” Around two thirds of the group had decided to make the trip; the rest stayed in Kiev for dates with women they had found in the binders or had met at the second social. Those on the bus traveled with high hopes. “I guarantee you that some of you guys will not be coming back tomorrow,” Dan the Man had promised.

On the road to Vinnitsa, we began to see roadside stands, one after another, selling straw brooms, kindling wood, or a few cans of food, the vendors huddled back from the road burning pitifully small fires to keep warm. With little cheer to be found in the bleak, unbroken landscape, Dan the Man walked up and down the aisle delivering his spiel. He joked that what we really needed were “extreme romance tours,” to places like Chechnya, Baghdad, Afghanistan. Of course, the joke had more than a grain of truth to it. We were visiting this place only because its population of 360,000 contained a critical mass of women desperate for new horizons. Indeed, the more miserable the place, the more capital a visiting man will have to leverage against his prospective wives; that was why we had left the United States for Kiev, and why we had left Kiev for Vinnitsa. One tour veteran had told me earlier that one of the best experiences of his life was being on the first Romance Tour into the Russian city of Novgorod, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. “We were thirteen guys,” he said, his voice tinged with awe. “And almost four hundred women showed up. You could barely make it through the room.”

The social that night was held at a place called Club Pharaoh, a hole-in-the-wall that was apparently the largest nightclub in town. The level of skill and enthusiasm shown on the dance floor was astonishing—kick steps, turns, hair flips, all executed in nosebleed heels while crushed elbow to elbow into the crowd. The handful of men who had been lured out onto the dance floor were far out of their league but happy, swaying arhythmically on rooted feet as their partners danced circles around them. Unlike in Kiev, there was a noticeable group of women over forty—some of the most beautiful women of the evening, actually, in fur and mascara that they wore with surprising elegance; real catches, some of them, and embodiments of what so many of the men had said they wanted during the sessions at the hotel bar. With few exceptions, though, the men ignored them as they cycled through tables full of girls twenty, thirty years younger than they.

At one point I found myself next to Dan the Man, and I asked him, finally, if he had thought about the dark side of his industry. Had he heard about the killings? The cases of abuse? With an agility that must have come from his radio years, he immediately replied: “There's no doubt about it, we have guys who come through here once in a while and leave a wake of women behind them, damaged, destroyed, used, and abused.” But then he added: “They talk about that in the media, of course—the women are being brought over from Ukraine and Russia, and they're being treated horribly. That may be true in some cases, but why don't you also do a story about the American men abusing the American women? It's just not sensational enough, because it's right there at home. So they make a big story out of this.”

Soon afterward I told him that I was going to make it an early night, that I wished him well. “I just hate to have a guy come all this way and not find what he's looking for,” he said, before turning away with a shrug.

For the ride back to Kiev the morning after the Vinnitsa social, the men boarded the bus in high spirits, slinging duffels into the cargo hold and trading good-humored, hungover banter like some minor-league ball club on a winning streak. Again they compared notes: about whom they had gone out with, how far into the wee hours they had stayed at the nightclub, how much vodka they had drunk while French-kissing a twenty-five-year-old named Olga.

One of the most successful of the group, an importer from the Great Lakes region, was flush with his conquests, and he talked a blue streak about the different women he had met and slept with throughout the trip. He switched between describing his “girlfriends” and talking about the years he spent trapped in a “passionless” marriage to a “soft American woman.” His golf cap was turned backward, and he wore a leather jacket. “I'm moving from quantity to quality,” he told me. “I'm changing my strategy. After the divorce, I just went wild; I guess I'd thought I would never find someone again. I think there's a good chance I'll marry one of the girls on this trip.”

A few of the men paired off in animated, earnest conversations about life, marriage, women. “I'm not going to spend every bit of my life in America,” one was saying. “Because I'm sick and tired of being blamed for everything—the white man, you're all responsible for everything. And American women are just rude, obnoxious. I won't marry another American woman. I won't do it. I'll stay single first.”

A few rows back, another showed around photos of his front-runner with a moony, rapturous smile on his face. “Look at those eyes,” he said again and again as he held out a computer printout of her profile, even as a quarter-inch-thick stack of competing profiles sat in his lap. “She just melts me.” Quite a few of the men would find what they were looking for: by the time I left the group at the end of the first week (the full tour left several days of supported dating after the end of the group events), our tally of engagements would reach three—or six, if one includes the man who was engaged to three different women.

But when the urologist from Minnesota pulled out his video camera and started walking up and down the aisle, asking the men for memories from the trip, the chattiness evaporated.

“I'm here to see the world,” one offered, stiffly.

“I'm just visiting beautiful Ukraine,” another muttered, and everyone around him chuckled softly at the crazy notion.