Invitations from the past

Chicago in the winter -- from zachanderson.com

Chicago in the winter -- from zachanderson.com

It was lunchtime. I was browsing the Chicago Craigslist, drooling over the large beautiful apartments that could be had for much less than what the Ukrainian and I are paying for our 1 BR in San Franciso’s Noe Valley. The day before, I had calculated that Chicago has a 26% lower cost of living than the Bay Area, but only a 11% lower average salary rate. It is also significantly closer to my family in Iowa and only a 2 hour flight to friends in New York or family in Washington, D.C.

These are the thoughts that cross my mind when the Ukrainian and I talk about having a baby in such dismal economic times. A baby is something I really want, but I worry about how we will manage it all on our combined income — while not impoverished in the slightest, is very definitely middle class — when housing and childcare are both not only so expensive here, but also extremely difficult to find.

While browsing Craigslist, I was also listening to Alice 97.3 on ITunes Radio. The Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Tonight, Tonight” came on. I listened to the lyrics, waiting for the lines: and the embers never fade in your city by the lake the place where you were born. The city by the lake is Chicago. The place where I was born — well, really, it’s the suburbs of Chicago. But still…everytime I heard this song, it takes me back to the life I had before I first moved to California. Could it be a sign, I wondered, to hear this song while browsing the Chicago Craigslist? I dismissed the thought. Signs had not done much for me in the past.

I checked my email to get away from all thoughts of returning to the Windy City. I have a good job here and the Ukrainian is establishing his life here. It would be asinine to shake things up. And there, in my email, was a little mini-shake-up.

“We’ve received an invitation from E to his Halloween party on Saturday,” I IM the Ukrainian.

“Who’s E? Your ex-boyfriend?”

“Yeah…” E and I met in the midst of the breakup with the Bulgarian. We dated in the months I spent preparing to move to the Netherlands. We broke up while I was there. Got back together in a much more tentative way after I returned to San Francisco and then broke up once again in the spring of 2007. It was the demise — or rather never-success — of this relationship that made me post the ad on Craigslist to which the Ukrainian responded. While E and I never call each other up to say “How’re you doing?” we do end up on each other’s party invite list. I’m never sure why.

“So what do you think?” I asked the Ukrainian. I never mind a good house party (they’re much preferable to clubs these days, now that I’m in my 30s and married), but was there the need to keep putting my husband in the awkward spot of being paraded around in front of my exes? Besides, I have now learned from E’s last party — the first held since we were married — that the more interesting male guests no longer pay attention to me. It’s the ring on my 4th finger. It’s the husband whose eyes my eyes meet from across the room every 30 seconds or so. If the men are single, they have little to gain from much conversation with me. And if they’re not, it will only be moments before their significant other will find away to interrupt the conversation. It is moments like these I despise the more puritanical twists of American culture. Europe always seemed more relaxed. Indeed, at the dinner parties I attended there, significant others were always seated apart to shake things up a little. It was a chance to talk to someone besides the one person you talk to everyday.

I.E. in a bikini

I.E. in a bikini

“Well, I have to meet up with I.E. this weekend. She is in town for the weekend. But I have to be at a conference all day Saturday and I have a midterm due Tuesday.” Oh right. I.E. His childhood friend from his hometown in eastern Ukraine who now lives in Chicago. My inner puritan woke up started flashing:  red light! red light!! Where had I heard this story before? Oh right, the Bulgarian whose ex-girlfriend from Bulgaria so innocently reinserted herself into his life, apartment, and then bed. I needed more information about this I.E.

“Do you have a picture of her?” I IMed the Ukrainian.

“Check your email,” he responded after a moment’s pause.

And there it was. Right there in my email:  a picture of a beautiful, blond Russian woman in a bikini. She was the sort of Slavic beauty that so many American men fantasize about when they visit sites like russianwomen.com.

“Mr. Ukrainian, she’s hot!” I ferociously panicked-IM the Ukrainian. My mind raced back over the few slightly-heated discussions we’d had over the past few days about a few key issues regarding the future. Now was not the time for him to be finding solace in his childhood chum who happened to look like a swimsuit model. And who was she anyway to be sending my husband pictures of herself in a bikini?! Damn these East European women! They are so clever. These were not the sort of social skills we learned back in rural Iowa. My mind recalled the model-like build of the Bulgarian ex-girlfriend. Not again! I thought.

“Check your email again.” The Ukrainian wrote over IM.

I went back to my Google mail. And there is was. A snapshot of a nice-enough looking woman standing on a bridge in the night wearing a formal (bridesmaid?) gown. She was attractive enough, but so very much not the Ukrainian’s type. I relaxed with relief. And then I started laughing. My, did the Ukrainian know how to rile me up. He knew exactly what he was doing when he sent that swimsuit picture.

“Assehole!” I IMed back. He knew I was joking too.

Now that the threat was gone. I became more truly curious about this woman who came from where my husband comes from and now lives where I came from. Maybe, just maybe, I thought. She could be a key to get us back to where I though I might want to really be.

“So what does she do?” I asked.

“She’s a commercial financial analyst.”

My eyebrows raised. I didn’t need to write anything on the IM. The Ukrainian could hear my thoughts.

“Don’t worry,” he continued. “After I graduate and get more experience at my company, I will apply to hers too.”

Maybe there are signs. Maybe we will be in SF forever. Maybe a year from now, we will find ourselves in Chicago. Maybe life will take us yet elsewhere. But suddenly, all the crushing weight I was feeling about how to manage having a baby in SF lifted just a little. There just might be other options. The world and our future didn’t seem so locked in.

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Green Card Timeline

As I mentioned yesterday, the Ukrainian received his Green Card. Yay! It only took 5 months and 18 days from the submision of our application and the receipt the of the Green Card. Entire time line of the Ukrainian’s progress to becoming an American is below!

16-Apr-2007     The Ukrainian arrives in San Francisco from Kiev.

??-May-2007      The Ukrainian responds to my Craigslist W4M ad.

08-Jun-2007     The Ukrainian and I meet in person at Tlaloc in San Francisco’s Financial District.

01-Sep-2007    The Ukrainian moves into my apartment in San Francisco’s Noe Valley.

16-Feb-2008    The Ukrainian proposed to me on Pacific Beach in San Diego with a ring from Tiffany’s.

19-Mar-2008    The Ukrainian and I are married in San Francisco’s city hall with 4 friends as witnesses.

09-May-2008    The Ukrainian and I submit our application to the USCIS (INS) for his green card.

June-2008         USCIS tells us that it does not have a copy of the Ukrainian’s birth certificate. We resubmit.

28-Jul-2008      The Ukrainian’s travel parole and work authorization permit arrive in the mail.

Aug-2008          We receive our letter inviting us to our green card interview for 19-SEP-2008

Aug-2008          We receive a letter canceling our 19-SEP-2008 green card interview with no explanation.

Aug-2008.         The Ukrainian visits the USCIS. Discovers it has our address recorded as Brooklyn. Fixes it.

Sep-2008           We receive a new letter inviting us to a new green card interview for 16-OCT-2008.

16-Oct-2008     Green Card interview.

23-Oct-2008     Receive a “Welcome to the United States of America” letter from Dept. of Homeland Security.

27-Oct-2008     Receive the greencard. Yay! 🙂

Oct-2010           Must renew Green Card.

Oct-2011           The Ukrainian is eligible for U.S. Citizenship.

As you can see from the timeline above, it only took us 5 1/2 months from the submission of our application for the green card to actually receiving it. It was only 2 1/2 months from the submission of our application until the Ukrainian received his work permit and travel parole. This is much, much better than many other countries. I’ve had friends and relatives who’ve gone through the same process and had to wait 1 1/2 years to be able to work. And *then* they have to take an integration course for a year.

Uncle Sam is not so bad for most people.

I think it helped that the Ukrainian has a PhD from his home country and is pursuing an MBA. Plus, honestly, I think the U.S. would like to see Ukraine be more Western/European leaning rather than Russian-leaning. Anything to make the U.S. look better to Ukrainians has to be a factor in our quick success.

Once upon a time, I was a foreigner too

Not so very long ago — in the days before I met the Ukrainian — I spent almost a year living and working in the Netherlands. My arrival there seemed almost an act of God (though few of the Dutch I met believed in any deity). Like my meeting with the Ukrainian, I found the posting for the Dutch job on Craig’s List. As I already had plans to holiday in W. Europe to visit my cousin, I applied for the position almost as a lark. To my surpise and astonishment, I got the job and found myself moving to the Netherlands barely more than 3 months later.

I was optimistic about the move and the new position. I was excited about leaving urban and corporate America for the smaller Dutch cities. Having grown up in Iowa — but having left the state as a teenager — I found the tall, blonde Dutch people, the flat land, and the fields of cows and flowers to be comforting. I felt at home on my visit. Why should my move there be different?

What I was not prepared for was being incapable of performing some of the simplest daily tasks on my own. Everything from package delivery to garbage take-out was all done just a little bit differently and in a foreign language. My cousin tried to help a bit when I first arrived, but she had her own problems to deal with and could not be available for a needy foreign cousin. My employer was of some help with charting the course of getting my legal documents in order so that I could get paid and pay taxes. And I had one female colleague — one who had championed my cause to be hired by the company — who went above and beyond trying to help me adjust to life in a foreign country.

But it was not enough. There were too many calls to be made in Dutch, letters to be translated, grocery store aisles to be deciphered…and on and on…that I did not even know how to begin to set up my life for something so basic as a phone line or cellphone. So, for much of the first 2 months of my presence in the Netherlands, I lived without cable, tv, phone, or internet. The nights were extremely lonely. I would take the train back from Rotterdam (where I worked) to Haarlem (where I first lived) — an hour and a half journey door-to-door, come home, walk my dogs, and then just sit there on my sofa staring at the ceiling. I wondered, what had I gotten myself into? I had no communications with *anyone* outside of my office (or the emails I would furtively try to catch up on at work).

And then came my hero du jour. A male colleague at my office took notice of my plight and made it his mission to save me. At first, I just thought he was a really nice guy. Who on earth would go so far out of his way to help somebody? He arranged phone, internet, and mobile service for me. Later, he found a house closer to the office so that I would not have such a long commute. He introduced me to his friends so that I would not be lonely. At first, I did not think of any ulterior motive in his actions — after all, I had left someone back in the States who had bought a plane ticket to come visit me.

But soon, my gratitude for all his help turned into a crush. The Dutch male colleague looked like a classic Iowa farmboy:  tall, blonde and brawny (Iowa was mostly settled by Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians, so it shouldn’t have been that surprising). If I squinted a little, he almost looked like my dad. As my crush grew, I began to suspect that the feelings were returned. I called things off with the man back in San Francisco and soon got together with the Dutchman.

At first, we seemed in love. But it was an unbalanced love confused with need. He was my hero and I could not function without him. If the heater was broken, I would have to stay home from work and have the repairman use my cellphone to call the Dutchman at work to translate everything being said in my house. If I was sick, the Dutchman had to call the doctor. If I had questions about my energy bill, the Dutchman would have to call the energy company. The dependency was frustrating because it seriously tipped the balance of power in the relationship. I often felt like a small child with no control over my life.

Clearly, the relationship with the Dutchman in the Netherlands did not last as I am married now to a Ukrainian in San Francisco. But I am grateful for the experience. There is a risk that the same disbalance of power could happen in our relationship. There are so many things I know about how to be a good American that have nothing to do with citizenship or patriotism but more with how to reroute a UPS package, rent a car, find a dog-sitter on Craigslist, or the etiquette involved in paying a restaurant bill. It’s a challenging balance to find. At one level, you want to help. On another, you want the person to be independent and figure it out themselves, but magically getting it right on the first try. Sometimes, the easiest way, is to let someone else explain.

We have a good balance. The Ukrainian has adapted to American culture far faster and better than I ever did to the Dutch way of life. There are still occasional moments, when I am surprised by something he doesn’t know. But there are becoming some moment when he seems to know “the system” better than I.

One day, maybe, he will know it all better than I do. Either way, we will be in Kiev at some point and I will become lost once again.

Lesson One: Me, Rosetta Stone, and My Ukrainian Husband

In May 2007, I placed an ad in the W4M section of San Francisco’s CraigsList looking for the usual suspect: a  smart, attractive, fincially secure man who loved dogs. My ad was much more cleverly worded than that, but in essence, it was all I wanted. I wasn’t sure that I was looking for serious relationship  per se — I had had enough of those in recent years — but I knew I was looking for someone on whom I could count and also would let me hold my own. I received a decent number of replies and started dating a successful executive at a major biotech firm. While nothing was ‘wrong’ with how things were going with the exec, it didn’t feel ‘right’ either.

So in early June, while the exec and I were still dating, I went back to my CraigsList replies and my eyes settled on the photo of a tall, blond Ukrainian business student. “He’s cute,” I thought. “Almost too cute. But I will give it a shot.” On June 8, 2007 — the same day I was scheduled to go rockclimbing with the biotech exec — the Ukrainian and I had our first date. We met for lunch. Lunch turned into a movie. After the movie, there was dinner. And dinner was followed by a drink at a bar which wasn’t far from some dance clubs…so we went clubbing. Barely more than 9 months later, we were married in San Francisco’s city hall.

So far, it has felt as if our first date has never ended.

Tonight, I’ve begun my lessons in learning Russian. Since we don’t expect to travel to the FSU until sometime in 2009, I have the leisure of learning at my own pace. I don’t yet need to know how to say, “How do I get to the Metro?” As such, I am opting for the Rosetta Stone method. I completed section A of Lesson 1 tonight. I can say dog, cat, woman, girl etc. We’ll see how it goes.