Ukraine International Airlines flight 819 from Vienna to Odessa, on this foggy Thursday morning in December, is less than half full. Of the few passengers on the plane, more than half are men. And of those men, at least half are from the United States. They are traveling to the Ukraine to look for a bride, officially at least, for there are probably men on board who are looking for something else. These men are part of a "romance tour" organized by an International Marriage Agency (IMA); an IMA by the name of A Foreign Affair, in this case, with offices in Phoenix, Arizona.
Not including airfare from the U.S. to Odessa, this ten-day trip costs the participants a little over three thousand dollars. For that price, the man in search of a bride receives lodging in three Ukrainian cities, bus transport airport to hotel and from city to city, a guided tour of Odessa and three "socials". A "social" is a gathering during which dozens of Ukrainian women meet up with around twenty American men. During these socials there will be interpreters present; many of the Ukrainian women in search of a foreign groom speak little or no English.
For men of greater substance who have no desire to see what the competition is up to at these socials, there is the "Men's Solo Introduction Tour". The solo tours cost around fifteen thousand dollars, and the women are brought to the men in what I imagine to be the seclusion of a hotel room.
In my group, only one man has signed up for the Men's Solo Introduction Tour. He is a car dealer from Chicago. Another participant says in a whisper that a car dealer doesn't have the kind of cash needed for a Men's Solo Introduction Tour, and that the person in question works for the Mafia and has received the solo tour as a present for services rendered.
A peculiar present.
Before leaving the United States, a man searching for a bride via A Foreign Affair can search the organization's website in order to view pictures of his potential bride and her profile. The photos of some of the potential brides would not look out of place on the site of an escort service, but there are also women who have dressed somewhat more conservatively. The average age of the potential Ukrainian bride on the site of A Foreign Affair is, I estimate, around twenty. Before starting on the "romance", those inclined to do so can enter into correspondence with women he believes may be able to steal his heart.
I am one of the some twenty American men flying this morning from Vienna to Odessa. I am a 37-year-old novelist, living in New York. Having failed to find a wife by more conventional means, I am now trying it this way. That is my story. In theory, that's true. Perhaps in actual practice as well.
The night before I left for Odessa, I took part in a literary evening in Munich with the German journalist Carolin Emcke. When I told her where I was going the next day, Emcke said: "You'll need a better story than that."
From that moment on, my story has been: "I'm a war correspondent; I write for European papers about Iraq and Afghanistan. During my last trip to Iraq, my girlfriend cheated on me. In the Ukraine I hope to regain my confidence in women and to do what my mother has been urging me to do for years: get married."
The participant in the romance tour is asked to go to A Foreign Affair's website and pick about twenty women in whom he is particularly interested. In making my selection, I asked for and received the assistance of several female friends. When it comes to matrimony, a man must not allow himself to be dictated to too much by his hormones.
An acquaintance of mine came up with the idea of having me look for a Jewish bride. If only to make my mother happy, just this once. Odessa was formerly a city with a large and lively Jewish community. These days, it appears, the Russian spoken in Odessa is still peppered with Yiddish words. But on the site of A Foreign Affair I see only three Jewish brides, none of whom live in Odessa.
Before leaving New York, at the recommendation of A Foreign Affair, I established phone contact with one of them: Elizabeth. Elizabeth lives in Zaparozhye, and our romance tour will be touching down only at the cities of Odessa, Nikolayev and Kherson. Perhaps I can travel to Zaparozhye on my own, or convince Elizabeth to come to Odessa? Of course I'll pay her travel expenses and lodgings. The sentence in her profile that particularly appeals to me is: "I have a curious mind, but unfortunately I'm terrible inattentive."
The telephone contact with my potential bride in the Ukraine is arranged by an interpreter from the Arizona offices. The client is of course charged a supplemental fee for this service. In this way, A Foreign Affair can monitor contact between the client and the foreign woman, and earn a little money in the process. The costs come to $5.99 a minute, with a minimum $50 account balance. My interpreter is Marianna, a friendly woman who speaks English with a charming Russian accent. Elizabeth, as it turns out, speaks English reasonably well herself, but Marianna jumps in whenever things get too complicated.
"I'd like to come and visit you while I'm in the Ukraine," I say. "When would that work out best for you?"
"I'm not sure yet," Elizabeth says. "Today is my birthday."
According to her profile on A Foreign Affair's site, Elizabeth was born on December 1, 1985. Careless of me not to have noticed. My first attempt at finding happiness in the arms of a Ukrainian lady is marred by oversights and negligence.
I wish Elizabeth a happy birthday and ask what she's going to do to celebrate. "I'm going out with my girlfriends," she says.
I repeat my offer to come and visit her in Zaparozhye. Even though that's almost ten hours by taxi from Odessa. But what's a ten-hour drive if it ends in marital bliss? "I'll see if it works out," she says. "Call me again next week."
That is the end of the conversation.
I get Marianna, the interpreter, back on the line. "That was it," she says. "Are there any other women you'd like to talk to?"
"No, not right now," I say.
Marianna seems very considerate. In fact, there's something to be said for having an interpreter like Marianna around at all times. Marriages don't break up because the partners fail to understand each other, but because they understand each other all too well. Having an interpreter like Marianna around the house might save many a marriage. Particularly if she went on strike at crucial moments.
What bothers me, though, is whether I should have paid Elizabeth more compliments. But I'd figured that refraining from compliments at this point would only underscore my honorable intentions.
In the plane to Odessa I keep thinking about my call to Elizabeth. Finding a bride might sweeten the pot, but the goal of this journey is literature; love is a side issue.
My seat is in the row behind John Adams. Besides being our guide on this romance tour, he is one of the founders and co-owners of A Foreign Affair. Along with Ken Agee and Ron Redburn, he set up the agency in 1995. All three of them have found wives via their own company. In 1999, Time magazine wrote: "The combined ages of the three owners is 120, and of their lovely brides, 76."
John Adams had greeted my jovially by name as I boarded the Boeing 737 run by Ukrainian International Airlines. Everyone on this tour submitted a photo beforehand. I also had to sign a paper stating that I was single and had no criminal record.
A fellow who looks like he dyes his hair is talking to John Adams. From the sound of it, the conversation is about the failed marriage of the man with dyed hair. I look at the other men on the plane. Ten days from now, will some of them be engaged? Will I be engaged ten days from now?
Internationally speaking, the trade in human beings – which in fact largely comes down to the traffic in women - is the most lucrative of criminal activities after drugs and weapons. Official figures show that some 700,000 persons are sold as slaves each year. Unofficially, that could be as high as four million. The annual estimated turnover is between seven and twelve billion dollars.
Cyprus, Kosovo, Moldavia, Russia, the Ukraine, Turkey and Dubai are just a few of known centers for the traffic in humans. A city that appears in many stories about trafficking in women is Odessa.
What starts with the hope of a better life ends with being coerced into working in a brothel in Dubai, Tel Aviv, Stockholm or Istanbul. Rape and maltreatment are the rule, not the exception. In many of the countries where these women work as sex slaves the police are in cahoots with the Mafia, which holds the women prisoner. The chances of escape are slim indeed, often impossible.
In the spring of 2008 William Finnegan reported in the The New Yorker about the existence of what is called "happy trafficking". After a while, once she has repaid her "debts", a woman may be released on condition that she recruit a new victim in her home country. The ingenious thing about this method is that women who have themselves "worked" as sex slaves are better recruiters than the men.
Marriage itself may not amount to slave labor - although there are some who would claim differently - but it is perhaps only honest to admit that our conception of love does imply a certain ownership. The mere expression "you're mine" is a good reflection of that. The thing that makes adultery so shameful is that someone has appropriated something that is not his.
At first I had planned to write about sex trafficking in Moldavia, but going "embedded" with a white slave trader would be a very tall order, to say nothing of the moral complications involved in such an endeavor.
By way of sex trafficking, therefore, I arrived at the phenomenon of the "mail-order bride": women in countries like the Ukraine who offer themselves on the Internet (in the past, through magazines and catalogues) as potential spouses to men in America and Western Europe.
Every marriage, and almost all love, is, in the final account, a transaction. The fact that many people find it distasteful to think of love in terms of a transaction, and that they accuse those who do of cynicism, and often of cheap cynicism, is above all an indication that many people don't want to know what we talk about when we talk about love.
Wasn't it, a lady friend of mine asked me, a bit "unnatural" to go looking for a spouse on a tour like this? I replied by asking here to name a natural way to find a partner. In the supermarket? At the university? In a café?
Writing a novel, after all, is an unnatural activity as well. Perhaps then it is only logical that the novelist find his partner in an unnatural fashion. In Zaparozhye, for example.
The fact that a profit-making enterprise acts as middleman between the potential bride and groom is also less unusual than the rather exotic name A Foreign Affair might lead one to suppose. Marriage brokers have always been with us, and marriage brokers have to make a living as well.
The unique thing about this transaction in particular is that one of the partners has a passport and the means to travel, while the other has a passport with which she cannot travel and probably no means by which to do so either. That's why I'm going to Elizabeth; she cannot come to me.
What is it then that makes this transaction so different from that other transaction, the one we speak of as love? Where does the mail-order bride stop and trafficking in women begin? That was what I wanted to find out. Might my passport actually serve to perfect my appearance and my charm, perhaps even compensate for them?
The last time I had visited Odessa was in 2006, in connection with the writer Isaac Babel, who wrote about that city and lived there as well. During that visit I stayed in a four-star hotel. I registered as a single male, whereupon the female receptionist placed a photo album on the desk. If I was interested in getting married, she said, it might be a good idea to give it a look. In Odessa, marriage is a natural consequence of a brief stay in a four-star hotel. What objection could there be to that? To quote myself, if I may: "All that presents itself as love I embrace with open arms."
A Foreign Affair does object to the term "mail-order bride". It is for good reason that this trip is referred to as a "romance tour". The illusion of pure and selfless love is essential here as well.
All participants in the trip were sent a do-it-yourself "visa kit". That kit contains information about how one can apply for an (American) visa for one's fiancée, and a booklet by one of the company's former employees, Bud Patterson, entitled Foreign Bride 101.
Patterson rejects the claim that the women in Peru, Costa Rica, Russia, the Ukraine and the Philippines, all countries where A Foreign Affair operates, are only after an American passport. He considers himself an expert on the foreign bride and the search for her. He himself found marital bliss in Russia.
Upon arrival in Odessa, John Adams assumes the role of shepherd leading his flock.
"Does everyone have their luggage?" he shouts at the baggage carousel.
We walk through customs.
On the other side of customs, we are welcomed by the local representatives of A Foreign Affair: Max and his mother.
But one of the men has been detained. It is Nick (I have changed some of the names here), a small man from New Jersey who I estimate to be in his early fifties.
In his suitcase he has a seven-piece set of jewelry for his fiancée.
"I think I was perfectly clear about this," John Adams calls out to us. "Don't bring jewels with you!"
Adams reminds me of Army Captain Byer, who led me and two other journalists around at Guántanamo Bay in 2007. The same combination of cheeriness, fatigue and apathy. Commitment in the line of duty.
It was Byers' job to show us the prisoners at Guántanamo Bay. It is up to John Adams to show us the brides of Odessa and its surroundings.
Nick paces nervously back and forth. He is wearing a jacket with a fur collar, his gray hair is combed back and he wears glasses. He has to pay the customs official, otherwise he won't get his jewels back. Meanwhile, I look around at the other men.
These are my rivals. They are looking for what I am looking for.
After Nick has paid the official and is able to tote his jewels into the Ukraine, he tells the other participants with a clear sense of self-irony: "So now I've done my part for the Ukrainian economy."
In the arrivals hall at Odessa airport, which doubles as the departure hall, we become better acquainted with Anna and Max.
No one is supposed to know that Max is Anna's son, but that quickly becomes an open secret within the group. Max studied history. He has short, dark-brown hair and friendly eyes. He speaks English well. His mother's English is questionable. She's an actress, she once played in a film version of Babel's famous stories about Odessa's Jewish mafia. These days, however, she helps American men find a wife. If not till death do them part, at least for the duration of this romance tour. She exudes the melancholy irony of a middle-aged woman who knows what men are looking for. Later, a few of the women in Odessa will tell me that, before the socials begin, Anna whispers to the girls: "Go on in! Put out that cigarette! Smile! Come on!"
As we wait for the bus, I enter into conversation with a man in a brightly colored jacket and a baseball cap. His name is Mike, he comes from Alabama, and he is a policeman. He looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has been in transit for almost twenty-four hours now.
"I could really use a shower," he says. "And a shave."
The bus is late. I look at the other men. One of them is wearing a cowboy hat, another has a reddish face. A particularly small man seems to be trying to hide behind a copy of the Financial Times.
"Why'd you come on this trip?" Mike asks.
"I got sort of fed up with dating in America," I reply. "What about you?"
"Same here," Mike says.
No more questions. We're not here for the other men, we're here for the women. Although I, of course, am here for the people.
Our destination is Hotel Odessa, down by the harbor. The dismalness of capitalist architecture is sometimes hard to distinguish from that of communist architecture.
Only one of Hotel Odessa's three elevators is working. A comic but polite struggles breaks out over the issue of who gets to take his luggage up first. Many of the men seem to think: hell, it's only an elevator, not a woman. But there some among us who seem to think that if they show any sign of weakness this early in the game, the others will sweep the floor with them later on.
I have a little less than two hours to get settled in. Our itinerary is merciless: "6 – 7.15 PM: Orientation and meeting with the Interpreters".
At six on the dot I arrive at one of Hotel Odessa's smaller meeting rooms on the fourth floor. I see a few men who were not on the plane from Vienna to Odessa; apparently they traveled here on their own.
Although it is definitely not my habit, I take a seat in the front row. Let me, if only this once, search for my bride with everything I have in me. Sitting beside me is Pete. A man with glasses, balding, somewhere around my age. He used to teach math at a high school, but he got retrained. Now he's a nursing assistant at a burns unit in North Carolina. His voice is quiet and earnest. The voice of someone who has seen a lot of burns. Like me, he carries a notebook.
Later, some of the girls will tell me that, during the first social in Odessa, Pete greeted every woman he met with the words: "Would you like to marry me?" The reverse is true as well. There are women at socials who start a conversation out of the blue with: "I love you" or "Can I touch your hair?"
There is no time to waste in the Ukraine. There is often no common language either.
In would be misleading, however, to say that the men participating in this tour are obvious losers. They are not as old or as ugly as I had expected. I estimate the average age of our group at just under fifty. Many of the men have children, and one or more marriage behind them. Judging from their clothes, their conversation and their professions, a large portion of these men are from the lower middle class. But a lack of education, money and status does not make someone a loser.
Later, a Ukrainian lady who has had some experience with these tours will tell me: "Of the some twenty-five men who take part in a 'romance tour', four or five are normal. The rest are a bit or completely bonkers."
A little after six, John Adams steps up to the mike.
Many of the women we are going to meet, he explains, speak little or no English. If we have a date, we can hire an interpreter for ten dollars an hour. "She doesn't have to order the entire menu," John says. "Buy the interpreter a salad. If you like the interpreter more than your date, and that happens sometimes, send your date home and go out with the interpreter."
Just like me, a number of the other men are taking careful notes.
"If the woman suggests during the very first date that you buy her a pair of boots," John says, "that could be a sign that something's wrong."
He pauses for a moment. "Then a word about sex," he says. "Guys, this is not a sex tour. You can go on a sex tour for less than this. But people who fall in love will, in the end, do what people in love do."
That last sentence was taken verbatim from Foreign Bride 101.
"If you want to take a guest to your room and she's going to spend the night, sign her in at the desk," John says. "That will cost you 20 dollars extra. But just remember one thing: you guys are not here to save anyone. You are here to find a wife. Be selfish. Any questions?"
A tall man raises his hand. He says that he's just come back from Iraq.
An Iraq veteran. I can't concentrate on his question. Later it turns out that we were in The Green Zone at the same time. He'd rather talk about women than about Iraq.
"Max," John says, "bring in the interpreters."
The interpreters, it turns out, are all female. There are a few older female interpreters among them, but the average age is around or just under twenty.
They line up in front of us. It looks like they've put on their best clothes for the occasion. They introduce themselves one by one. They all say more or less the same thing: "Hi, I'm Anya. I'm here to help you find happiness."
I'm reminded of an anecdote a friend, an Asia expert, once told me about a brothel somewhere in the Orient where a thick line had been drawn across the floor. On one side of the line were the women who provided only oral and vaginal gratification, on the other side were the women who took men to seventh heaven with their behinds as well.
These interpreters are not merely interpreters. They are "in the market". They too, perhaps without exception, can be found on the site of A Foreign Affair. They too are looking for a foreign husband. Something that had not completely registered with me at that point, but which later will become mercilessly clear.
John Adams claps his hands. "Come on, guys," he says. "Get acquainted with our interpreters."
I sense a peculiar urge to win, not from the women, but from the men. A curious form of aggression, which is actually nothing more than heightened concentration. A sort of tunnel vision.
I'm not sure I wanted to know this about myself, but now I do.
As one of the first I get up and walk over to an interpreter. "My name's Arnon," I say. "What was your name again?"
Just before I left for the Ukraine, a female acquaintance described her brother to me with the following words: "He's a mixture of incredible rudeness and self-pity."
I have been out on the town with my new comrades for only a few hours, but already that description seems to apply no longer to just one man, but to touch upon the very essence of masculinity. The self-pity is how one rationalizes the rudeness.
Almost without exception, we, the men, have pounced upon the interpreters like a pack of hungry wolves on a side of beef.
A few of the interpreters are from Moldavia, but most of them are from the Ukraine.
I've already spoken to most of the interpreters. Now I'm talking to Olga, a girl of nineteen. Her head reaches just a little higher than my chin, she wears her straight blonde hair in a bob. Like many of her colleagues, she has powdered her face professionally but copiously. The conversation turns to my origins. "I just love Jews," she says suddenly.
That's all the encouragement I need. "Could I invite you and your girlfriends to have dinner with me?"
I'd rather not go out to dinner with her alone. The ethical aspects of this undertaking remain tricky. It wouldn't be right to waste the girls' time. Getting married is not my priority on this trip.
On the other hand, I don't want to approach things like Kristoffer A. Garin, who went undercover on a similar trip in 2006 for Harper's Magazine; in a footnote, he stated that he had gotten married shortly before he left and was afraid that his newly won happiness was written all over him. He didn't go out with a single Ukrainian woman.
I am out for total immersion.
"Are you here to find a bride?" Olga asks.
"I'm here to find inspiration," I say. An honest reply, and hopefully one that doesn't give away too much.
Most of the other men are still talking to interpreters, but a few of them are standing listlessly by the window. The pale little man who had been hiding behind the Financial Times at the airport is staring dreamily into space. Another participant in the tour told me that the man had recently had a nose job, and that he regretted it now.
Along with Olga's girlfriends Helene and Ann, twenty and nineteen years of age, respectively, we head into downtown Odessa. We don't climb the famous stairs from Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, we go up in a funicular.
Along one of Odessa's main streets we run into two men from the group.
"We're looking for a restaurant," they say.
"Come along with us," I reply.
The girls show us the way to a typical Ukrainian restaurant. I order blinchiki, little crepes filled with caviar.
One of the men works for a power company in the state of Missouri, the other is a doctor from Virginia. They both look to be in their mid-forties. The doctor has snow-white hair and doesn't say a word. Later, one of the men in the group will say of the doctor: "What that man desperately needs is a blowjob."
At the end of the tour the doctor will tell us that he has been looking at women on the site of A Foreign Affair for the last five years, but that he kept postponing the trip because he'd just gone through a costly divorce.
As Bud Patterson says in his book: if you really want a wife, you can't remain a "keyboard Romeo". You have to get on that plane.
"Keyboard Romeo": what a lovely term. Being a Keyboard Romeo may be a calling for some men, the source of all their happiness.
The man from Missouri tells us he could have become a manager, but that he actually likes the job he has now a lot more. "I sit in the car a lot and read the newspaper," he says as he pores over the menu.
Olga starts talking about her past. She was engaged to a forty-six-year-old American. They went on vacation together to Europe – it's not easy for Ukrainian nationals to get a visa for the EU, let alone for the U.S. – and after the vacation was over they broke up.
"Why?" I ask. "Was it the age difference?"
At that moment the man from Missouri elbows me in the stomach.
"Come on," he says. "Stop giving her the third degree."
I decide to ignore him. I'm here to give people the third degree.
The food arrives. I start drinking pepper vodka. You're either in the Ukraine or you're not. At last the doctor opens his mouth. "Now I know why people here are so skinny," he says quietly. "Look at these portions."
After dinner the power company employee and the doctor go back to the hotel. I go along with the girls to a restaurant which, they claim, serves the best tiramisu in town.
"Okay," I say. "We're alone now. So what really goes on around here?"
"You'll find out tomorrow," Olga says. "At the social. We don't translate everything, not by a long shot. Some of the women who come to the socials are prostitutes. They'll say things like: 'We won't go with you to America, but if you give us this or that, we'll go back to the hotel with you."
"You were engaged to a forty-six-year-old man who you met through A Foreign Affair. What do you think of these get-togethers?" I ask Olga.
I look at the girls, both of them are about the age of the youngest students I taught at the University of Leiden this fall, but Olga in particular looks older.
"It's a way to meet interesting people, like you," Ann answers. "The rest you'll see tomorrow. Keep your eyes open when they serve the sandwiches. First there's a platter full of sandwiches. Then the women come in and there are no sandwiches anymore."
It's clear to me now: the women are lured to these socials with sandwiches.
The next morning Max takes us on a guided tour of the city.
Meanwhile, a few other men have joined the group. One of them is Pedro, from Queens. Pedro tells us that his father was Italian, his mother half-Chinese, half-Indonesian. Pedro has a high voice and he giggles a lot, even when there's nothing to giggle about. His gestures are a little effeminate.
It seems he was once engaged to a lady from the Ukraine, but it didn't work out. When I ask him why, all he does is giggle. He is an accountant by profession.
"Did you see an ironing board anywhere in your hotel room?" he wants to know.
Within the group, rumor has it that that his mother made him go on this trip, and that he's not allowed to come home until he's found a woman. In the town of Kherson, Pedro will drop out of the tour. The rest of the group will travel back to Odessa, but Pedro won't be with us.
He shows up at the socials in a suit and tie. He wanders shyly from one table to the next.
Kherson is one of the most depressing cities I've ever seen. As though this were 1950 and Stalin were still alive. It's the perfect place to vanish: your organs will be sold to the highest bidder, stray dogs will find your remains.
Maybe Pedro actually found a girl in Kherson. For his sake, I hope so. The more impoverished and depressing the city, the more willing the girls. That is the law of love.
I listen to the friendly voice of Max, who is telling us about the best restaurants for dates, where we can buy clothes, where we can change money. But what he's saying barely sinks in. While I watch a man from our group blatantly take a picture of a pretty girl walking by, I reflect on violence.
What does violence do with you? The violence of others: your own violence, too. More than any visit to a combat zone, apparently, this romance tour makes that an acute question.
In Odessa the men are preparing for the first social. That's the way the program puts it: "6 – 10 PM Social: Odessa, Grand Europe Restaurant".
Before the first social starts, I go to a wine bar with Nick, an orthopedic surgeon from New Jersey, and Tom, a tennis instructor from Idaho. Nick is the one who took a seven-piece jewelry set with him to the Ukraine. There's no one else in the wine bar, and the girl who works there actually seems surprised to see someone come in. Could this be a money-laundering operation?
Both of the other men are around fifty. Tom has three children and a wife who made his life bitter. He's wearing a jogging suit. In Idaho he gives tennis lessons to ladies at an exclusive country club. But he's not allowed to go out with the women he teaches, otherwise he'll be fired on the spot. Nick has been married three times. A few of his wives, according to him, were borderline psycho cases.
Yesterday, while we were getting acquainted with the interpreters, Tom says he met up with the woman who looks like his high-school sweetheart. He's been writing to her for months. She's one of the interpreters, he didn't know that, but he recognized her right away.
The Ukrainian women I meet on this tour all refer to A Foreign Affair as "the agency".
Thanks to A Foreign Affair, thirty years after the fact you can run into a replica of your high-school sweetheart, as though time has stood still.
But by the end of the trip Tom will be just as unhappy as he was at the start. "She's already trying to keep tabs on me," he says.
The "Do-it-Yourself Fiancée Visa Kit" was written by a lawyer, Ms. Maria V. Jones. Here's how it works or, better yet, how it's supposed to work: sometime during the ten-day romance tour you meet the woman of your dreams and you get engaged. Back in the States you request for her a K-1 visa, the so-called "fiancée visa". In order to receive that she must undergo a number of tests, including a physical, and you must prove that the two of you have actually met and are marrying for reasons of love. If that all goes smoothly, your bride-to-be will receive a K-1 visa. That visa gives her the right to stay in the United States for ninety days. During those ninety days a marriage must take place. If there is no marriage, she must go home after ninety days. Ideal for men like me, who have a hard time making decisions.
Our tour guide, John Adams, married his Russian bride on day eighty-nine.
According to A Foreign Affair you have less of a chance of getting divorced, statistically speaking, when you marry a foreign bride. That is a recommendation.
In the Netherlands it's a lot harder to get your bride into the country. Getting married does not automatically give her the right to a residence permit. I know a man who fell in love with a Filipino woman; they married and had a child. But the man was not officially employed, he had his own company; therefore he could not prove that he was able to support his wife. She wasn't allowed into the country, even though she was the mother of his child.
These days he's a pig farmer in the Philippines.
Holland has more immigrants than emigrants, and has had its fill of family reunions. Being in the Ukraine gave me the same sensation as being in Kosovo, the feeling of finding yourself in a huge open-air prison. Telling is the fact that the few countries for which Ukrainians need no visa include Thailand and the Dominican Republic. What these countries have in common, besides their pleasant climates, is sex tourism.
The free market is not as free as some would claim. You have first, second and third-class citizens. The success of sex trafficking is due in part to attempts to seal off certain countries, like the Ukraine.
In 2006, President Bush signed the "International Marriage Broker Regulation Act" in the hope of doing something about the traffic in women and the abuse of mail-order brides. Under that act, American men can apply for no more than two fiancée visas in the course of a lifetime. By going to court, one could become eligible for a waiver. Marriage brokerages, like A Foreign Affair, are now also required to determine whether their potential grooms have a criminal record. I declared that I was not a criminal, but my impression is that all attempts at a "background check" stopped right there.
Before the social begins, interviews are held with "new clients". New clients are women who are looking for a husband in America or some other foreign country but who are not yet registered with "the agency". A Foreign Affair focuses on American men, but there are other agencies more attuned to Europeans.
When I arrive at the Grand Europe Restaurant, the lights are still out. The dining room isn't open yet, but in the vestibule there are women sitting at tables, filling out forms. Among them are Ukrainian women wearing what I take to be the traditional clothing here: boots and the kinds of skirts and dresses that Westerners often find vulgar, but to which I have few objections.
"Are the lights out in order to set the mood?" I ask.
Max explains that it's because of a power failure.
A lot of the other men are wearing suits for the occasion. But Bill, a barkeeper from California with a wild hair-do, has stuck with his Hawaiian shirt.
I stop to talk to the interpreters I went out with last night, and at the same time try to keep an eye on what's happening around me. Some of the men have already started conversations with the ladies. Other have lined up like racehorses ready to fly out of the gate. John Adams, also in a suit and tie, calls out: "Are you guys ready?"
As though we were a basketball team out to smash the competition.
"Don't forget," John adds, "don't stay too long with any one women. Meet as many as you can. Otherwise you'll never find the right one."
I see a woman in a blue dress come into the room. She has pretty eyes. Our gazes meet. I'm going to be the first one to go over to her, I decide.
"Don't be shy," John Adams shouts then. "They don't bite."
The atmosphere in the room reminds me of a rather dismal wedding reception.
The women are sitting at different tables, all of them numbered. There is Russian champagne on the table. The champagne is warm. And there is a platter of canapés. The canapés look unappealing.
The men walk around like children in a toy store. But these toys talk back, they're warm and they breathe.
I walk past the tables, looking interested, I glance at a few of the women, some of them glance back. I've already seen where the girl in the blue dress is sitting.
All the impartiality of the undercover journalist has fallen from me. I am one of the men. There is nothing more between me and them.
Unappealing as the canapés may be, they're finished in no time. The girls are hungry.
"Although the sex organ is undeniably the center of our being, it is not where we live," writes Elfriede Jelinek in her novel Lust.
Here it Odessa it seems as though the sex organ is not only our undeniable center, but also the place we live.
In the book Foreign Bride 101, which also happens to include ready-to-go monologues for the less inventive suitor, I came across the following lines: "When the time comes, be sure to take your vitamins. Foreign women, I'm sure you've noticed, are in GREAT shape."
By vitamins the author probably means Viagra. Unfortunately, I haven't asked any of the male participants whether they use Viagra. Sam, who was born in India but lives in Florida, where he works for a pharmaceuticals company, is fifty-one; in his correspondence with the Ukrainian ladies, however, he has often claimed to be thirty-one. Because, as I heard him whisper to our tour guide, he feels thirty-one. That is the mental variation on Viagra.
Joe, the Iraq veteran, has been bragging in the bus about having used up all the condoms in his hotel mini-bar. He took two girls back to his room. He said he draped a towel around his waist and served them beer. He gave them a bath, and then he took turns back and forth, which is how he used up all the condoms. Joe added proudly: "The girls said 'Oh Joe, you're Superman!'" That, too, is a variation on Viagra.
Joe isn't embarrassed by it, he tells the story at the top of his lungs. And he adds: "On this tour, we're all rock stars."
David, a retired man from Chicago, says later that Joe paid for those girls. But around here it is hard to say where prostitutions begins and where it ends. David went out with a woman who has a young son. On their second date she told him that her son needs new tennis shoes. David calls that prostitution. You could also call it something else, those new tennis shoes. Charity, generosity, love, compassion, tenderness, or simply: new tennis shoes.
The man as would-be rock star, that's the image with which this romance tour leaves me, and I wonder whether it will ever go away. Sooner or later the would-be rock star appears from inside the man. The caged beast set free, if only for a little while.
I leave the social with Julia and Olga. Julia is the woman who caught my eye when she came in. Here, I too am a would-be rock star.
"Let's go out to dinner," I said to them. "Let's not stick around here any longer."
Olga is twenty-two, a divorcee. Julia is twenty-three. She speaks admiringly of Putin and worries about Russian culture, which seems to be disappearing from the Ukraine.
Olga and Julia take me to the Pretoria nightclub, but we can't get a table. We go to another nightclub. You can eat in nightclubs as well, here in Odessa.
The steak is nothing to write home about, but the vodka is excellent. Olga and Julia don't order shots of vodka, they order a bottle.
"Only alcoholics drink alone," Julia says.
Each time one of us takes a drink, the others have to drink as well and propose a toast. This is how Olga and Julia drink: a glass of vodka in one hand, a glass of Sprite or orange juice in the other. First a shot of vodka, then a shot of Sprite or orange juice. Julia in particular grimaces at the taste of the vodka, but drinks steadily nonetheless. We drink to happiness, to love, to Odessa, to Putin, to Russian culture and to Gogol.
I mustn't shirk my journalistic duties, either.
"What did the two of you think of the social?" I ask. "In principle, I mean."
"We were there to talk to each other," Olga says. "And we met you: that's nice, isn't it?"
Before I can pose my next question and jot down their answers in my notebook, Olga hisses: "Never let anyone drink alone."
The red-blooded undercover journalist doesn't have a chance around here. I've never drunk this much vodka, not since the days when I was working on my first novel, Blue Mondays.
Then Julia says: "The most important thing that can take place between a man and a woman is sex."
I don't know what to say to that. It's not something I've heard very often. A woman once said to me: "What are you waiting for?" But that was after we had gone out to dinner at least five times and written a hundred emails.
Olga rolls up her blouse a bit to reveal her navel. She steps out onto the dance floor. Julia says: "I'm not wearing the right kind of dress for dancing."
I can't dance at all, but when the three of you have just polished off a bottle of vodka in ninety minutes that's not the kind of thing you worry about anymore.
The three of us dance hand-in-hand at a nightclub in Odessa, the name of which I no longer remember. I perform my journalistic duties.
The next day, after I email a description of the evening to a close girlfriend in New York, I receive a text message back saying: "No really, I love to hear you are planning threesomes with teenagers."
The would-be rock star has, it seems, taken possession of me.
Our next destination is Nikolayev. The birthplace of Leon Trotsky, the man who raised the Red Army.
The social here takes place on a Sunday afternoon in the Delirium nightclub. The name says a lot, if not everything. This town is just a little further off the beaten track. I see nineteen-year-old girls on the dance floor using their whole body to flirt with elderly men from California. Women introduce themselves with the words: "I love you."
Here one finds desperation and money and love and sex, to say nothing of sushi. Sushi seems to be the Ukrainian symbol of luxury. I have never eaten this much sushi before. The evening ends with a triple date: David with Natalia, Joe with Tatiana, whom they call Tanushka, and I with Natalie, who calls herself Natalushka. Tanushka is an accountant, Natalushka is a lawyer. They are twenty-six and twenty-five, respectively.
There we sit, in a sushi bar in Nikolayev.
Joe is good at imitating people: Al Pacino, Bill Clinton, the Godfather. He says: "In the army, they used to call me 'the impersonator'".
Then Joe says to Tanushka: "You have the prettiest eyes I've ever seen. And you are so hot, so incredibly hot. And you have the prettiest hair in the whole, wide world."
While the "California rolls" are being served, Joe pulls a brush out of his coat pocket and begins brushing Tanushka's hair. She laughs.
I'm amazed at first, but the amazement slowly wears off.
And I sense - no, it's more than sensing, it's knowing - that whatever popular and less popular culture tries to tell us, this blushing face is the true face of love.
In the lobby of the Ingul Hotel in Nikolayev, I wait for Tanushka and Natalushka. We've decided to go bowling.
On tours like this one inevitably runs into men who ask you: "How's it going?" By which they mean: "Any luck finding a bride?"
Joe comes tripping noisily down the stairs.
Joe's first marriage lasted a couple of weeks. He doesn't see me, or pretends not to see me.
Only when Natalushka walks into the lobby does he say to me: "Oh, there you are." The plan was for the four of us to go bowling.
During the first few frames, I'm suddenly overpowered by an unfamiliar rage. I have to beat the Iraq veteran. As if that is what it was all about.
I win, but the Iraq veteran admittedly had other priorities. Hugging Tanushka, for example.
After we're done bowling, Joe quietly tells me: "I've got a problem. The girls want to go out to dinner, but I've got another date. With an eighteen-year-old who says on the site that she's interested in men up to and including sixty-five. I can't let that one go. You understand, right?"
Yes, I understand.
Only Tanushka doesn't understand. Outside at the taxi stand they make a scene that ends with Tanushka's words: "I don't want anything at all." Joe leaves, on his way to his eighteen-year-old. And I'm stuck with Tanushka and Natalushka, who I try to console as well as I can.
They take me to an Arab restaurant, where Tanushka tells me she was once engaged to a German in his late forties. He lived close to Munich, and he did something with computers. In Venice he asked her to marry him, but the ring hadn't arrived yet. He had ordered it on the Internet and it was still being shipped. He'd already had a fiancée from Thailand and one from some other Asian country, now he was nibbling at the Ukraine.
A few weeks after proposing in Venice, he called off the engagement. He didn't trust Tanushka, he was too jealous.
"It's not really romantic to buy a ring on the Internet," Tanushka says.
"No, it's not," I say.
Long after returning from the Ukraine I will continue to exchange emails with Tanushka. Her English is unintentionally poetic. Unintentional poetry is poetry as well.
The caravan pulls up stakes and moves on to Kherson. A few of the men stay behind in Nikolayev. They've found the kind of thing they were looking for. John Adams is not happy about that. His philosophy, and that of his company, is: meet as many women as possible, and then choose.
Anyone who has seen Kherson in winter knows that alcoholism can seem like a good idea.
We are going to meet the ladies of Kherson in the breakfast room of Hotel Frigate.
The toilets in the rooms at Hotel Frigate don't work. It's so cold in the breakfast room of Hotel Frigate that the only rational solution is to drink vodka.
A policeman with a moustache, who I've seen coming out of his hotel room with a different woman in every city we've visited, tells someone else: "The wages of sin is freedom."
Within an hour after the social starts, I see girls who are already so drunk that all they do is mumble: "Love you, love you."
Older women come to the social as well, but the competition is killing. The number of young women in the crowd does not work to their advantage.
That evening I go out with two nineteen-year-old coeds from the agricultural university of Kherson, Nastya and Masha, and their interpreter, Larisa. The further one gets off the beaten track, the less English the ladies speak.
We go to one of the best restaurants in town, Nostalgy, where's it's empty and dark.
Thanks to the interpreter, conversation runs smoothly. Love conquers all, the girls say.
I make another attempt at journalism and ask what they think about an organization like A Foreign Affair. "It's a way to get to know foreigners," Nastya and Masha say. "After all, not that many foreigners come to Kherson."
There is little I can say to that.
I order another vodka.
"You drink like a Russian," Masha says.
That is the greatest compliment I've received during this trip. Let them write that on my headstone: "He drank like a Russian. He fucked like a Negro. He wrote like a Jew. He was as punctual as a German."
We order a second round of dessert. "After all, not that many foreigners come to Kherson," I say. The women laugh at that.
In fact, the interpreter should stick around until you finally go to bed together. It is the translation that heals all wounds.
In the bus on the way back to Odessa, Joe says: "If I were a politician, my party platform would be real simple: big tits for all women. And I bet I'd get elected too."
The group has thinned out. In various towns along the way various men have stayed behind with various women.
David, the retiree from Chicago, say to me in a stage whisper: "You know what I think? I think this organization is run by the Mafia. And what about you? Be honest. Do you work for the Mossad?"
One of the men in our group has become engaged, the policeman with the moustache. He doesn't look unhappy, and he tells anyone who will listen that Obama is a terrorist. He tells the Ukrainian women that too, although they clearly have other things to worry about.
But the translation does wonders.
I've never gotten around to visiting my potential Jewish fiancée, Elizabeth from Zaparozhye. There's been too much going on. My mother will forgive me.
On our last day in Odessa I drink coffee at one of the city's more chic cafés. I'm waiting for a girl who'll be accompanying me to the theater that evening. A man from our group is sitting at one of the other tables. I've never spoken to him yet.
His name is Lee, he's from Arizona. He runs a company that advises non-profit organization about where to find money.
"How's it going?" I ask.
"Not too well," he says. "When I retire I'm going to sail around the world in my own boat. A ten-year voyage. And I'm looking for a woman who will sail with me. But that means we can't have children. A child on a little sailboat like that, that wouldn't work."
"No," I say, "that wouldn't work."
He plans to set sail in 2012.
"And most of the women here," Lee says, "don't want a sailboat, they want a child."
He sighs, and I sigh with him.
Then the girl walks in, the one I'm going to the theater with. She's barely seated when Lee says to her, in slow and emphatic English: "You have beautiful eyes. Do you know anyone who wants to sail around the world with me? Ten years in a sailboat. I can show you pictures."
The girl looks at me in amazement, but this has become completely normal to me. Full steam ahead. Don't waste time, especially not on formalities.
"I'm not sure," she says. "I hardly know you."
At the airport in Odessa, Sam, the Florida Indian, joins up with us again. The man who's actually fifty-one but sometimes feels like thirty-one and so states that as his age, because why pretend to be older than you really are? He was planning to go with A Foreign Affair to Costa Rica for their romance tour around Christmastime, but he's cancelled the trip. He found someone in Nikolayev. Too bad for the ladies of Costa Rica.
"The interpreter did a great job," he says.
"How old is the woman you found?" I ask.
"Around thirty," he says.
But I can tell from the way he says it that she's bound to be closer to twenty.
He pulls out his cell phone and calls her.
"Wait a minute," he says once he gets her on the line. He rummages around in his bag, find a notepad and reads a few sentences out loud, in Russian.
What is he saying? "I love you"? Or: "You are the loveliest of all lovely women"? Or: "Your eyes make me happy"? Or is it: "I never want to wake up without you again"?
It doesn't matter. In the end the interpreters will make something nice out of it.
Then Sam continues in English: "That song we heard yesterday," he says, "'Imagine Me and You'. I can't get it out of my head."
He hangs up.
"I'm coming back at Christmas," he says.
"Are you going to apply for a visa for her to come to America? Are you going to get married?"
He grins widely.
"You don't want to go rushing into things," he says. "All in good time."
On December 31st, John Adams sent all the participants an email in which he said: "You all treated the women and each other with respect and had a lot of fun during the process. We had quite a few engagements and many others who met women they are very interested in so all in all I would say it was a very successful tour."
But the sentence that struck me most was this: "Again, I really want to thank all of you for giving A Foreign Affair, and me personally, the opportunity to assist you in what I think is the most important search you will ever conduct in your lifetime."