Hello 2009 — The Year of Change!

The Ukrainian has declared 2009, in the heart of the upcoming Obama inauguration to be The Year of Change.

By the time Spring rolls around, he will have been here 2 years and we will have been married 1 year. Soooo….he should be used to the USA and we should be used to being married. It will be time to do what we do well even better and improve upon the things that need to be improved upon.

When I lived in the Netherlands and had a committed Dutch partner, I was warned that the native partner would come to resent the foreigner’s dependency upon him. While the native might first feel like a hero to be needed so much, the dependence upon him eventually becomes a burden. Likewise, when I first moved to San Francisco, I relied heavily upon my Bulgarian boyfriend (who’d been living in SF for several years and knew the territory) for our social agenda and general knowledge of the City. I learned much from him. But also, as well, he began to resent the fact that so much of my life was lived through his.

Now, there has been some feeling on my part of resentment that maybe the Ukrainian relies upon me a bit too much. It’s difficult to say how much, to quantify these moments. And certainly, he functions quite well on his own. But the fact that I have this feeling at all has created some discord between us. Nothing frightful, but enough to alert us that the nature of our relationship needs to grow and expand a bit. And we are committed to growing and changing!! (God, that sounds so New Age and Californicated.)

So 2009 will be the year I back off a little and not try to control everything and the Ukrainian steps up a little and becomes more comfortable in his new life and takes more initiative. That is our married New Year’s Resolution.

For my personal New Year’s Resolution, I merely wish 2009 to be simple, happy and healthy. We had a very full 2008. A bit more relaxation in 2009 might be in order.

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.

Wedding Planning Part 2 — The perfect wedding location search causes anxiety

The tensions rose. Imperceptibly, at first. But time, as it always does, brought a new wave of “issues’. But there was no time for resolutions. Not with my traveling for a funeral. The Ukrainian’s working of two jobs. My search for a new job and the demands of my current one.  The wedding was less than 6 weeks away and I wondered how we could pull it off. Some problems seemed to have no answers, and no amount of time or lack thereof would fix them.

“Sylvia still has not issued our permit to get married in Alamo Square,” the Ukrainian writes over Google Instant Messenger aka GTalk. Sylvia is the women in charge of issuing group gathering permits for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Without her approval, we can’t conduct a wedding ceremony in any public city space in the City of San Francisco. Nevermind the fact, that technically and legally, we are already married — the very presence of a priestly-looking dude (whom we found on rentapriest.com, no kidding) is asking for a visit from the San Francisco Police Department to our wedding celebration just as the Ukirainian is about to pull me in the official kiss of the youmaykissthebridekss.

“Has she cashed the check yet?” I ask, trying to figure out the delay. Emails and phone calls are pouring…what time is the wedding?…where is it?…what time do we need to be there?…Our wedding is in 6 weeks and I have no answers. Only the priestwhoisnolongerapriestbutrentsouthisservices can commit to a wedding date that has no formal venue. I have a feeling he doesn’t declare his priestly pay for mock religious duties to the IRS, and as such, doesn’t really care much.

“No, she hasn’ cashed it.”

The days keep passing and still our wedding permit does not arrive. I become anxious, wanting to have the locale of our wedding finalized so I can continue on with the rest of the plans. But the anxiety also becomes worse, because with each day that passes, I increasingly realize I do not want to get married at Alamo Square.

“Baby, let’s get married somewhere else,” I tell the Ukrainian.

“Where?” he asks. He’s also anxious, but much of the anxiety stems from his desire to make and keep me happy.

“I don’t know, but not Alamo Square.”

“Why not? It’s a really nice park.”

“I know but I don’t want to get married there. I want to get married at Eagles Point at Lands End. Or somewhere else along the water.”

“We can’t baby. The federal government won’t let us.”

Stupid Department of Homeland Security, I curse. We had applied weeks ago for a permit to marry to marry at Eagle’s Point at Lands End but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security apparently felt our small wedding celebration was too risky of a threat to the National Security on the weekend after the 4th of July. Why? Well, because…Eagle’s Point looks over the Golden Gate Bridge – which is why we wanted to get married there in the first place.

So we chose Alamo Square. Everybody knows Alamo Square. It is the park that is in the opening credits of “Full House”. It has the Painted Ladies Victorian houses and the San Francisco skyline in the backdrop. It’s the sort of wedding venue your mother would love. It is “So San Francisco.”

But I didn’t want to marry in Alamo Square. I imagined the fog and the cold. I imagined freezing in my wedding dress. I imagined miserable wedding guests. I imagined the water that couldn’t be seen from there. And I imagined the first time I went to Alamo Square so many years ago. It was with the Bulgarian and my two dogs. And I didn’t want to get married anyplace that reminded me of anyone but my husband whom I love so much.

And so the tensions rose as I couldn’t plan the wedding I dreaded so much to have. But there were no solutions. We checked the churches. They all required membership, large fees, and 6 months of premarital counseling. We checked the hotel ballrooms but they were too plain and typical. Where, oh where we wondered, could we marry that would be scenic and fabulous and ours and wouldn’t drive us to bankruptcy?

On our first anniversary, I finally learn to trust my husband

Sunday was the 1 year anniversary of the Ukrainian and I meeting. I spent the day stranded at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago due to tornadoes and other extreme Midwestern weather. The Ukrainian spent the day working on his financial internship in San Francisco. We were 2300 miles apart with no idea of what time we would see each other again. I was exhausted from a multi-city tour of the East Coast and Midwest that originated due to the need to attend a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery the previous Monday and to be in Chicago for my 10 year class reunion at the University of Chicago by Friday. In the middle of my travels, I spent 3 days in NYC working. I was stranded and exhausted. The Ukrainian was over-worked and far away.

You wouldn’t think such a set-up would lend itself to romance…but au contraire…as anyone who has ever seen Love Actually knows, airports are the place-to-be for romance at its finest with all its good-byes and hellos, reunions, last-moment-forevers, and those who meet their lovers while being stranded themselves.

I had a friend in New York whose then-boyfriend now-husband used to take a taxi to meet her at La Guardia whenever her flight arrived or departed — no matter how early or late. Another friend would take the bus up to Harlem and then over to La Guardia to meet her fiance so that he wouldn’t have to travel into the city alone. Me? I just gave all my visitors my address and expected them to hail a cab themselves just as I hailed one myself whenever I was off to or coming from someplace. I was never in love enough or had anyone who loved me enough to pay the cabfare and take the time to meet me at the airport.

Then I moved to San Francisco in the spring of 2004. Within months, I met and fell in love with a Bulgarian (not to be confused with the Ukrainian) who drove a silver G4 Golf and made it his duty to see that I was always picked up from San Francisco International airport. During the 6 or 7 months we were together, I traveled often. To Des Moines. Austin. Dallas. NYC. Miami. Dallas again and again for work. Each time, the Bulgarian was there to pick me up right outside United’s baggage claim in Terminal 2. I took his dedication to airport-pickup duties as a true sign of his love and devotion to me. The drive from the airport to the city of San Francisco was filled with my chattering about all I saw and did on my trip. At my house, he would carry in my luggage, we would have a little romance usually followed by a nice dinner out on Valencia St. “Being picked up at the airport”. Could there be a more romantic date than that?

But the relationship didn’t last. All the while the Bulgarian was picking me up at the airport and following up with superbly romantic dates, he had scheduled his ex-girlfriend back in Sofia, Bulgaria to move in with him into his 1-room San Francisco studio apartment come winter.

After her arrival and our breaking, there was no longer anyone to meet me at the airport. Gone was the anticipation I felt when I deboarded the plane and made my way down to United’s baggage claim. Now, it was almost the same mess of a life I led in NYC. After getting the bag, I would have to spend a not-so-small fortune on a taxi, or wait forever for the train back to San Francisco. While in New York, I had felt young and independent and quite worldly making my way to and from NY’s airports, in San Francisco I felt merely old and rejected. Sad that not only did I have to travel myself, I had no one to come home to.

2 years after breaking up with the Bulgarian in 2005 and less than a week after meeting the Ukrainian in 2007, I was departing for another trip. This time I was flying to Las Vegas to join 24 strangers on a wild and crazy road trip through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. We would be visiting the Grand Canyon, hiking in the desert outside of Page, Arizona, and embarking on a perilous hike to Angel’s Landing in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The trip was part of a conscious effort to revive the independent spirit that I had lost when I broke up with the Bulgarian and, subsequently a year later, the Dutchman.

The Ukrainian seemed sad that I was leaving only a few days after our meeting.

“I’ll be back,” I told him.

“I’ll pick you up at the airport,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really.”

But the Ukrainian wasn’t waiting for me outside the United baggage claim at terminal 2. I stood at the baggage claim, exhausted and dehydrated from my desert hiking trip, waiting for my desert hiking gear to appear on the conveyor belt when suddenly 2 arms grabbed me from behind, a face nestled itself into my neck, and flowers were thrust into my hands.

It was the Ukrainian!!!

Driving around San Francisco International airport waiting for me to appear, as the Bulgarian had done, was not good enough for the Ukrainian. He bought the flowers. He parked the car. He greeted me in a most romantic, if a bit surprising gesture.

My fellow hikers stared. The women flashed green with a bit of envy. Here was one of their fellow hikers getting the scene-from-a-movie airport greeting. Immediately, I knew I had made the right choice. Of all the men I could’ve been dating at that time, I wanted him: the Ukrainian.

There have been more trips since that first one, of course: Iowa, New York, and Asia. And each time the Ukrainian has made it his mission to meet me right at the baggage claim. Even after his car finally died a brutal death, the Ukrainian would take the train down to the airport to be there for my arrival.

But despite my love for the Ukrainian, and his great romancing talents, I kept finding myself lacking the anticipation of having someone waiting for me at the airport. I was always happy to see him and happy to be home. But I held back from the “OhMyGodI’veBeenWaitingForeverToSeeYouAndIAmSoHappyYou’reHere” onslaught of emotion that would’ve made me grab him wildly and kiss him with all the full force and equality of my love for him.

I held back because I didn’t trust the situation. I didn’t trust that the day might come when the Ukrainian would not be there to meet me at the airport with flowers and a hug and a kiss and a smile. I didn’t want to transform myself back into the rejected woman I had been only a year prior.

But this trip back East on the anniversary of our meeting and almost the same anniversary to the day of our first pick-up at the airport was the first time I had traveled since we’d been married. And something was different. Something had happened in the past 2 1/2 months since we had said “I do” in the same spot that Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio had said “I do” some 40+ years ago in San Francisco’s city hall. I had begun to relax. I had begun to trust my husband. That no matter what divorce and marriage statistics might say, my husband would always be there to meet me at the airport and also be there for anything else I needed in the coming years and decades. There would be no ex-girlfriends secretly inserting themselves into his life and no sudden spurt of Anti-Americanism (as had been partially the case with the Dutchman) causing him to get cold feet. We were already married. We had made a commitment to each other to stick it through thick and thin.

And while sitting there in O’Hare airport on our 1-year anniversary of our meeting, waiting for the weather to calm down, I wanted to be with my husband. I imagined him coming up to me from behind with flowers in his hand just as he did that first week after our meeting. I imagined the romance that was sure to follow once we got home. And I imagined us lounging on the sofa afterwards, eating our anniversary cake and discussing all the details of our week apart and our year together.

I texted him every update to the flight delays and weather pattern. I texted him when I got on the plane, when we ready to take off, when we landed, when I was inside the gate, in the bathroom, and on my way. As I headed down the stairs toward United’s baggage claim, my eyes scanned the waiting people looking for his blonde hair and his tall, lean physique. At first I didn’t see him. I was disappointed, of course. But knew he would be there, somewhere. And then, just as I head over to the claim for United Flight 149 from ORD to SFO, I saw him. And he saw me. And I ran. I ran to him. I jumped on him like a monkey. And I kissed him for the entire past year of loving him. And I kissed him for not having kissed him enough all those times he had met me before.

At last, I had found my someone to always meet me at the airport. And OhMyGodIHadBeenWaitingForeverAndCouldn’tWaitToSeeHim.

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.