While Americans back home celebrated the Fourth of July in the typical way – fireworks, barbecues, pool parties – I celebrated at a Ukrainian restaurant in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
I’d been invited by an older American acquaintance – let’s call him John – and now presently find myself seated at an outdoor table with him and the city’s other American expats.
As a group of Ukrainian babushkas shake tambourines and play accordions in the yard in front of us, I notice a common trend at our table. Next to each American man is a Ukrainian woman about half his age. That is to say, next to each American man except for one – John. Back at his flat, I discover why.
“Natasha and I broke up,” he groans, exhaling the smoke from his cigarette as we stand together on his patio. “I’m tired of getting my heart broken. I just don’t get these women, what do they want?”
It hadn’t been the first time I’d heard about a “Natasha” who had broken his heart. He often took me aside to tell this story, a story he has in common with many of the other Western men I’ve spoken with here. The only things that ever change are the names – sometimes not even those.
Back at the restaurant, Herb, a leather jacket clad biker in his fifties, introduces me to his 27-year old girlfriend, Olga. Like the majority of other Ukrainian women present, she doesn’t speak any English, or at least, that’s the excuse Herb gives for her silence. What’s odd about that is that not a single expat at the table speaks Russian or Ukrainian. Between bites of pork shashlik, Herb tells his story.
“I married a Ukrainian, Olga Vedernikova. Took her back to Missouri with me. We’re divorced now. She lives in my house in St. Louis. Gave her the car too. But we’re still friends.”
He arrived back in January and since then has dated three other women whose first and last names he also drops like he’s in the middle of rehearsing something by Pushkin. He grins as he recounts his exploits with Ukrainian women, revealing a couple of missing front teeth. I nod in acknowledgement of his believed powers of seduction, if only because the truth would require a verbal response.
“Still,” he tells me, “I’m looking for something serious.”
I’m not sure if I’ve been dropped in the middle of a male centered, Ukrainian-set version of ‘Sex and the City’ or just the worst ad for a dating website ever.
Later, at John’s flat, I meet the one Ukrainian couple there, a bearded fellow and another Natasha. He likes ‘that’s what she said’ jokes and uses expressions he’s probably picked up from watching decade old American television. Once he steps away, she perks up and starts asking questions about America.
“It’s my dream to go there!” She says, adding that her boyfriend doesn’t want to leave Kharkiv. “But I want to live in America!”
The party seems to have moved now into the living room, which is so sparsely furnished and arranged as to resemble a Soviet-style dance floor. There’s even a disco ball. American hymns play from an unseen stereo and the television shows images of shelled out neighborhoods in the rebel held Ukrainian city of Luhansk. Through it all, conversation persists.
It’s an odd reality that whenever two or more Americans are together in Ukraine, the conversation seems to come back to one of two things:
1. Difficulties with Ukrainian women
2. How Obama, socialism, and feminism have destroyed America and its values
There’s more to be said about the apparent link between conservatism and a Ukrainian entry stamp in an American man’s passport, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Standing in the kitchen sipping a cider, I find myself arguing the origins of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution with an Englishman who’s somehow found his way into the Independence Day party. He presses his fist into the air as he discusses the need for the West to arm Ukrainian troops. With his other hand he keeps Natalie, a rambunctious two-year-old, from trying to climb up a barstool. Her mother finally intervenes and takes the child into the other room.
“So why are you in Ukraine? A relationship?” I ask, nodding towards the room mother and daughter have disappeared into. “Well yes, partly,” he replies. “We’ve only been together for a year but I came when everything here started happening. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”
We spar a bit more and then he retreats, under the guise of having to prepare for an early lesson the following morning.
Heading for the door as well, I find myself asking the inevitable question: are there any single Western men in Ukraine? Unless they’ve only just stepped off the plane, the answer appears to be a resounding “No”.
My girlfriend and I bid farewell and walk out into the night. Yes, I too have a Ukrainian girlfriend. While I hadn’t ever given her nationality much thought, I can’t help but do so now. Am I no different from those other Western men? Am I in Ukraine simply because I, also, had found someone? Or had she found me?
I can’t help but remember John’s question from earlier, his desperation at wondering what Ukrainian women truly wanted. The answer to that question is the same as that of the broader question – what does any woman want? The desire for security in an increasingly insecure place just drives Ukrainian women – and Ukrainian men, to be fair – to take more drastic measures than they otherwise would.
Men who travel expecting to be with foreign women half their age are clearly fooling themselves if they don’t know what they’re in for, but what about those of us who don’t look for a love connection on a dating or marriage website or, even, at all? Are we all unwitting players in the same game?
Is love outside your own culture possible, or will such love always be suspect? Is the desire to escape a crumbling situation such that your drive to leave causes you to lead someone to believe – or, at best, to convince yourself to believe – that love exists? Is love between East and West possible only because the other carries a different color passport?
Whispered “I love you’s”, holding hands, do you really know when you know? Or are passports, like the knightly deeds of old, the key to winning over foreign hearts?
Of course I know love when I see it, and you’re probably certain you know too. But perhaps in the end, only the immigration officer truly knows.