Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the great Ukrainian bride hunt part1

By Kristoffer A. Garin

It was three weeks before Christmas, and I was sitting in a Ukrainian business hotel with perhaps thirty men, mostly American and mostly on the later side of middle age, listening as a muscular, impossibly loud ex-radio D.J. who answers to “Dan the Man” promised that our lives were about to change forever. We were all strangers, but I knew at least one thing about these men: each was there because he was frustrated, angry, and tired of being alone. Each had decided that his best chance at happiness was to pay nearly $4,000 to a company called A Foreign Affair, which would ferry him through Ukraine on a two-week bride hunt, “like an alpha-male wolf,” as one testimonial for the tour giddily assured us, “having the sheep brought in.”

We were to be provided with cleanish hotels, temperature-controlled buses, a platoon of young female translators (most in miniskirts, each available for hire as a “full-time gal Friday” to manage our presumably busy dating schedules; Dan the Man warned that under no circumstances should we employ a translator whom we'd become attracted to, as she might want us for herself and sabotage our dates), and access to a “hospitality suite” within the hotel where we would find stacks of color-coded binders containing profiles of thousands of women in and around Kiev, each of whom had specifically expressed a desire to meet American men. In the coming days we would attend a series of social events engineered to bring our little group into contact with more than 500 of these Ukrainian Ladies—women, according to the tour agency's literature, “prepared to leave the only life they have ever known.” This, then, was globalization's answer to the mail-order brides of the Old West.

When the group had set out from JFK Airport the day before, it had not seemed like an especially friendly bunch. The first member I met, when I said it was nice to meet him, had shot me a challenging look and countered, “How do you know? I could be an axe murderer.” Fat-faced and bearded, he turned out to be a plaintiff's lawyer with a fondness for describing his clients' injuries in graphic, breathy detail (e.g., “The cops tasered a kid till they burnt the hair off his face”). Other attempts at small talk likewise fell flat until, finally, a few of the tour veterans—or “repeat offenders,” as one jokingly called himself—began to dispense advice. Some had been on as many as five of these trips before; at least two had brought home fiancĂ©es in the past, though they hadn't actually married. They promised that we, too, would surely become repeat offenders once we saw what was in store. “Remember,” said one silver-haired gent in a well-cut suit and polo shirt, “they've only been liberated for ten years. They're going through a social and sexual revolution like we went through in the 1970s.”