The Christmas Hangover

Kung Pao Christmas

Kung Pao Christmas

This morning, I am awake feeling a bit raw and numb from the Ukrainian and mine’s inability to pull off a successful Christmas that was deliberately devoid of all traditions and expectations. For weeks, I had been confused as to why all the women on Facebook were fraughting over whether or not they would get “everything” done in time for Christmas. What is there to get done? I wondered. You buy a tree, string some lights, hang some ornaments. And then you go buy some presents (which can be conveniently done at midnight from Amazon. Free shipping!!). On Christmas Day, you open the presents and cook a big meal. Voila! Christmas in America.

(Sure, some people add more stress to the holiday. They take holiday photos of their pets children, upload them to a photo site, and then send out hundreds of Christmas cards. Others volunteer at retirement homes. While still others spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas baking endless batches of Christmas cookies and candy. But all this sounded like too much work to me. How can people enjoy their holiday, if they spend the months weeks prior working for it.)

But my ideal of throwing together a simple, no-fuss, yet super-yummy Christmas had a few flaws:

1) The Ukrainian would spend the 1st 1/2 of December preparing for his final exams while I would be studying new technology for my job. So no time prepare.

2) The Ukrainian and I would be on a mad tour of the East Coast  from the moment he finished his final exams until 1:30 a.m. December 23rd.

3) My thought that I wouldn’t have to work on December 24th and could thus recover from our E. Coast trip, go grocery shopping for our luscious Christmas dinner menu and a few last-minute gifts for the Ukrainian was thwarted by the fact that I learned on the 23rd that I *did* have to work on the 24th.  My opportunity to make it so much to a grocery store before its traditional early closing on Christmas Eve looked highly doubtful.

So on the eve of Christmas eve, I made an executive family decision. We would simply pretend we were Jewish. Or rather, we would take into account of the fact that 1/2 of our family is a Russian Orthodox Christian who doesn’t celebrate Christmas until January 7. Even then, a Russian Orthodox Christmas is merely a religious holiday and all gift-exchanges happen on New Year’s Day.

“Chinese food or Haute cuisuine Francaise?” I IMed the Ukrainian on Christmas Eve’s eve.

“Oh, Chinese for sure.” he replied.

Our fabulous Christmas dinner from 2007

Our fabulous Christmas dinner from 2007

“Are you sure you don’t mind we won’t have the Christmas salmon and all the other lush foods we were planning to have?” I felt the need in our young marriage to establish some sort of tradition. And last year, we cooked up a divine menu of Salmon-tarragon, risotto with caramelized leeks and sweet red bell peppers, a salad of mixed greens cranberries Maytag Blue cheese and caramelized walnuts and chocolate pecan bourbon pie. It was our best meal ever and I thought for sure the menu was destined to become the basis for all our future Christmas menus.

“Oh, I’m sure,” he said almost too eagerly. I could imagine him being so happy that there’d be no dishes to wash or kitchen to clean on the holiday. I, in the meantime, was sad that we wouldn’t be using my grandmother’s Bavarian china or the Tiffany’s silver that had been given to us on our wedding day. Remember, I thought. Remember the goal is a stress-free Christmas. For as much work as we’ve been doing, there’s been a lot of fun too. Who said we had to have instant traditions? We’d find our way…

Christmas Morning

The stockings hadn’t been hung and I awoke Christmas morning already feeling down. My late afternoon forays on Christmas Eve to find a few perfect trinkets to fill the Ukrainian’s stocking had been met with a bust. It never occurred to the Ukrainian either to hang and fill a stocking for me. I could forgive him as I couldn’t expect him to know all the English/American Christmas traditions in only his 2nd Christmas. But still…I had little in sense of anticipation.

And there was something else missing…there were no little ones rushing to our bed urging us to get up! get up! It’s Christmas!!! Let’s open presents!!! No, it was just the Ukrainian and I nestled snug under our down-filled duvet with our two lazy dogs asleep on the floor by the bed. The hours ticked by. 7 a.m. 8 a.m. 9 a.m. There was no hint of the Ukrainian awakening. No whinging from the dogs to be let out. 10 am. And still everyone was asleep. I was getting a headache from laying about so long doing nothing on a day that was supposed to be day greeted with excitement and anticipation and lots of eating and rushing about celebrating seemingly the pure joy of being alive and being surrounded by such great friends and family.

Finally, at 1/2 past 10, the brown dog stared us straight in the face with her emphatic look that can only be translated as “Give me my breakfast NOW!” The Ukrainian and I quickly conversed over who exactly should be the one to do dog-duty on the holiday. He was too tired. I was too depressed. Finally, we agreed we would suffer through it together and then head over to our local Chinese restaurant, Wild Pepper, for our own Christmas breakfast brunch.

And it was then that we began the sort of marital argument that plagues all newly married couples:  the division of labor for household chores.

It all started innocently enough. I rationalized that since we were experiencing a rare San Francisco winter’s day without rain, we should take the dogs to the park. The dogs seemed to agree and took off racing down the street leading to Dolores Park. The Ukrainian, however, was not so enthused. “The park is muddy. They’ll get dirty.” He whinged. I didn’t care. And I didn’t care to put enough thought into my reply. “So wash them! They’re dogs. They get dirty!” In my mind, as long as the dogs didn’t smell of dead rat or the like, I didn’t care if they had a bit of mud on them. We have hardwood floors. They, too, wash. But in the Ukrainian’s mind, he already spent too much time — a total of 3 hours or so a week on housework/dogcare — that he had no desire to do anymore.  In my mind, 3 hours was nothing.

The argument was one where we both had perfectly legitimate views. The dogs *did* need exercise. The Ukrainian *was* the one who did wash them when they became too filthy to cohabitate with us and thus *should* have a say in their dirt-level. But the reality of the discussion was that we were both too tired from our Grand Year of Perpetual Life Changes to take on any more responsibilities and couldn’t even handle the basic task hanging and filling stockings for Christmas Day. What right did we have to want to add a child to the mix? If taking care of 2 dogs was a lot of work, what did we think taking care of a child would be?

And so, in that moment, all our hopes for a grand, tradition-free Christmas busted. One of us stormed off. Doors were slammed upon the return to the house. The idea for the MSG-ladened Chinese brunch became impossible. When time for lunch came, we each took out a selection from our respective supplies of frozen dinners and silently shared the microwave. Each attempt at conversation threatened to explode our relationship to the breaking point. And, so, silence seemed the only option. It was not a Christmas of Peace, but rather one of a renewed Cold War whose battle lines had been drawn across the middle of our kitchen table — the one that had been desperately needing an oil for the past 3 months. But neither of us had gotten around to doing it.

I took a nap in the living room. The Ukrainian claimed his space in the bedroom. From time-to-time, one would deliver a package to the other and then walk away while the recipient was left to ponder whether to open the gift or not. Suddenly, no present seemed like the right present. There was nothing that could be given that would bridge the gulf that had opened up on Christmas morning. The Gift of the Magi we certainly were not. Each gift from one to the other seemed to suggest a frantic Christmas Eve afternoon spent trying to find few trinkets that would please the other in the final few hours before the shops closed. Neither of us had spent much time to acquire anything the other truly wanted. No sacrifice had been made.

Blini mix

Blini mix

Darkness came. A public dinner was still out of the question. A trip downtown to the theatres seemed an even worse idea. We did nothing. There was no Christmas spirit. No bigger meaning to be learned. We started to be nice to each other simply because we needed each other. The Ukrainian needed help making his blinis on which he wanted to put the caviar I had thrust in his hands earlier in the day. I needed help with the food processor so I could make a traditional Christmas Cheese Ball in an attempt to salvage some bit of Midwestern American tradition of out of holiday.

And finally, 9:30 p.m. came and we did the only thing anyone could do when they’ve had a no good, very bad, terrible day: go to bed and hope for something better tomorrow.

Caviar for the blinis

Caviar for the blinis

And now, it’s tomorrow. We have no good lesson to be learned other than the fact  the Ukrainian are still getting to know each other. We are still trying to find our way in our nascent marriage. We can’t instantly create traditions. And our marriage is strong enough to surive all these trying-to-find-our-way bits.

And, oh yeah, we have a housekeeper coming tomorrow for a trial run. The best solution to a fight-over-work-that-never-ends? Outsource it. It’s much, much cheaper than a divorce. And much better than fighting.

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Green Card Arrived!!!

Last week, the Ukraian received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security stating “Welcome to the United States of America — your greencard will arrive shortly.”

Yesterday, the Greencard arrived! 🙂 Yay!

I kept thinking that once the card itself arrived, I would kick it into high gear and organize a big green card party complete with a DJ and everything green. But now we are almost to the U.S. holiday season. We have Halloween celebrations to attend this weekend. On the next weekend, Russian/German friends of ours are hosting a post-election party, and then we we are going to the Midwest to see my sister’s new baby and my brother’s family. And then it’s Thanksgiving and then can we really throw a green card party in the midst of the Christmas and Hannukah festivities?

And, also in December, the Ukrainian will graduate with his MBA in Finance. It will be another something wonderful to celebrate — perhaps making the green card celebration feel sooooo last month.

I know I promised some of you that I’d write up the greencard interview itself. I’m sorry I haven’t, although I’ve made a start. To be truthful, it was not the most pleasant experience and it really hurts my head to relive it.

But I will say this:  from our experience (and that of a few others we know) it seems that the U.S. Government is really tough when you are trying to gain entrance to the country, but once you’re in, the government is actually super nice — it’s been a much more positive experience for the Ukrainian than I had living in the Netherlands.

*Disclaimer. I know that the guantanamo and other situations do not reflect so well on the U.S. government. Hence the use of the words “in general”.

6 Month Wedding Anniversary

On March 19, 2008, the Ukrainian and I wed in San Francisco’s city hall. We only had 4 friends in attendance. After the ceremony ended, I was uncertain about whether or not we should tell anyone we were married. After all, we had a ceremony planned for July for our American friends and family and yet another one still planned for Kiev for our Russian Orthodox ceremony. San Francisco’s City Hall  ceremony was merely a kickstart — a means in which to get rolling on the process to convert my husband’s student visa to a greencard. The sooner he got his green card, I figured, the sooner he could get a high-paying job and the sooner we could try for a baby.

Many people do not consider our March 19 wedding a wedding. They tell others we were just married in July. This is true a bit. There is definitely something about standing up in front of your family and friends to declare your vows that makes you feel a bit more married than doing so in private. But on March 19 we were legally married. On the morning of March 19, my case of nerves and cold feet hit full-force as I wondered whether or not I actually could marry this man. There could be no such nerves in July as we were already married.

Exactly 6 months have passed since that March morning. We have done a lot since then. I will catalog them here:

* We made it to City Hall in time for the ceremony. I changed into my wedding dress in the parking lot. And we both said “Yes” and “I do” at the appropriate places.

* Over the next few days, I walked around a bit numb, shocked that my commitment-phobic self had gottent married. “Can you believe it?” I kept asking. “We’re married.” I kept repeating over and over. Suddenly, I realized, if something went wrong, we’d have to get an actual divorce. There’d be paperwork to filed. Lawyers to be hired. I couldn’t just throw him out over some little tiff.

* In April, my grandmother passed away. The ensuing family drama distracted me from any thoughts about the gravity of my marriage. Instead, I was glad to have the Ukrainian around as he didn’t judge my more dysfunctional branches to my family life.

* By May, I was feeling better. With some free time on my hands, I started this blog.

* We kicked the month off as a couple together by searching for a place to have our July public wedding ceremony. We failed.

* Also in May, was the Ukrainian’s 31st birthday. We celebrated by taking the dogs and ourselves on a daytrip to Tahoe. We ended up in Carson City, Nevada.

* The Ukrainian began his internship in May. As the position was unpaid, he kept his part-time job at the library in order to have some semblance of income.

* And finally, in May, we had our engagement party as well as my bachelorette party and bridal shower. A very good college friend of mine from NYC flew out as did my preggers sister. Among some of the presents we received, a friend of the Ukrainian’s gave us a blender. You can’t really be married without a blender.

* We began wedding planning in earnest. Or rather we tried to plan our wedding for July. But none of the pieces fit together and we weren’t successful at getting our permits, finding the priest, etc. Tensions between us started to mount. By this time, the free time I had at work was coming to an end, and I had to work evenings and weekends, further adding to the stress of planning the wedding.

* In early June, I went back East for my grandmother’s memorial service and then headed up to NYC to work from the NY office. One of my bosses was not keen about this trip further adding to our stress. I started to look for a new job while in NYC (but for positions back on the West coast). And I stopped in Chicago on the way back to San Francisco’s to attend my 10 year college reunion.

* When I returned to San Francisco, we again tried to get the arrangements for the wedding in order. We hired a priest. A bagpiper. A drummer. I found a dress (with only 3 weeks to spare until the wedding). The chapel. Slowly, the pieces were coming together, but the expenses were mounting. The stress between us rose all the more.

* I continued my job interviewing and received a fabulous offer that I accepted. But even with this offer in hand, I didn’t have it in me to say the word “no” and mean it to my current employer when asked to work on the weekend. I wondered how on earth the wedding was going to get pulled off. While we had the big pieces in place, we had to pick out the flowers, the cake, schedule the trolley, and 1 million other little details that seem incomprehensible even now — a mere 2 1/2 months after the wedding.

* I quit my job.

* The Ukrainian and I saw little of each other. He was (and still is) working 2 jobs.

* I found a dress. A $1200 Max Azria beauty that fit perfectly right off the rack.

* I shopped for jewelry and a veil and became an instant expert at all-things wedding in San Francisco.

* In a pure stroke of Yelp serendipity, I found a chapel for us to marry in. The Ukrainian checked it out and approved.

* I spent something like 15 hours picking out our flowers. The florist was Ukrainian too.

* I spent almost 5 hours at the bakery designing the cake.

* I spent untolds amount of time and money on the hair, the make-up and so on and so forth.

* The Ukrainian and I took dance lessons.

* My family arrived. We dined at the Beach Chalet.

* The Ukrainian borrowed an IPod and planned our wedding soundtrack.

* The wedding happened. Everything went off without a hitch — sort of. I was too tired to have a clue as to what was going on. But it was beautiful — according the pictures.

* I slept for almost a week after the wedding.

* I started a new job.

* The Ukrainian’s work authorization and travel parole arrived.

* The Ukrainian’s employer started paying him a small bit.

* A rather unfortunate colossal perfect storm left our bank accounts empty just as rent was due. We found the money without borrowing any and made the rent, but then went on the extreme austerity plan.

* We hiked Mt. Tam.

* I ate and ate while stressing about the new job. All the while the Ukrainian continued to work his 2 jobs and begin revising his resume for a better one.

* We received our letter from the INS (USCIS) inviting us in for our green card interview. Yay!

* 2 days later we received a letter from the INS canceling our green card interview. Utter despair.

* We find out the INS thinks we have moved to Brooklyn. We haven’t and try to make the correction.

* We took a mini-honeymoon to Seattle. September arrived.

* I left for the East Coast (again!) for over a week. I missed the Ukrainian and San Francisco terrible.

* The Ukrainian got a raise!

And then, yesterday, our 6 month anniversary. We exchanged no proper presents. We had no cake nor champagne. But the Ukrainian did give me a card all wrapped up in a pretty gift bag with a pretty bow. And, afterwards, we went for a walk with the doggies to Dolores Park. We discussed the Ukrainian’s raise. When would it be enough to support a baby, we wondered. Do we really want one? How much do we want to risk as I push closer and closer to the big 35.

And then the Ukrainian said, “I think we should start trying now. Not in 6 months. But now.”

We will make the money work out.

Hopefully, the green card will too.

The road to nowhere

I left rural Iowa at 18 — never intending to go back. For the most part I haven’t. Even at my worst, down, out, unemployed broke self, I used Iowa only as a staging ground. A place to store my bags while I booked tickets to either coast, looking for that place where I could most be myself. While the leaving was easy, the staying away has been hard. I miss my family. I miss reliable people. I fear waking one day and realizing that my parents are gone and I missed out on so many years of having them in my life.

And sometimes…I simply miss me. I miss the genuine midwestern friendliness I had. The curiosity. The excitement at being in a new place — even if that place was hell. I miss trusting other people — but I have since learned that you can only trust others if you trust yourself. I admire the people I know who have left similar spots and have held onto that integral core of goodness. For I have not.

These thoughts are not from nowhere. On May 10th, in celebration of the Ukrainian’s birthday, we rented a car, loaded it up with the dogs, and headed for a daytrip to Lake Tahoe. For the most part, the day was full of great fun and I will post the pics in a future post. But towards the end of the day, as we were trying to complete our sunset drive around the entirety of Lake Tahoe, we took a wrong turn and eventually found ourselves in Carson City — the state capital of Nevada.

I have driven across the U.S. a couple of times now. I’ve visited Latin America, Asia and have lived in Europe and other parts of the States. And while there are certainly worse places to live (a garbage dump in S. America comes to mind), I’ve yet to encounter a place more wretched than Nevada (and here, by writing this, I realize I will never, ever be able to run for politics. I’m ok with that). Once you get away from the casinos and shopping malls of Reno and Las Vegas, there is very little left in Nevada other than some federal prisons and a few nuclear test sites.

“I can’t wait to tell my mother we’ve been to Nevada,” exclaimed the Ukrainian jumping up and down in his seat as we drove.

“I don’t really think that Nevada is the most exciting place to write home about,” replied my jaded, bored no-longer-from-the-midwest self. Where is my sunset over Lake Tahoe, I wondered.

“Oh, but it is. It’s the site of the U.S. nuclear experiments during the Cold War. I grew up hearing about this place.”

And there you have it folks, the matter of perspective that makes cross-cultural marriages so refreshing (if challenging at times). What was a minor mention in some history class of mine at some point in my education — “Yeah, the U.S. performed nuclear tests somewhere. Nevada. And some atoll in the S. Pacific” — was the stuff of legend in my Ukrainian’s Soviet education. I’m sure my Ukrainian and his Soviet classmates got a map with the exact location of each test performed while midwestern schoolchildren got “Nevada. It’s out west. Nobody lives there — well, except some Elvis impersonators who will marry those rich, immoral, and impatient enough to forgo God, a blood test, and a 3 day waiting period”.

But outside of Las Vegas (and possibly Reno) there aren’t any Elvis impersonators. There isn’t really much of anybody really — as my history class proclaimed. And for the people who are there — how and why did they end up there? You can’t really set up a farm in Nevada. I suppose the Federal penitentiaries provide some employment, but who says “Hey Ma! Let’s pack up the family and move to Nevada. I am going to work security detail at a a federal prison!” (Hmmm…maybe they do actually).

Regardless, the people I have encountered in rural Nevada bear the face and carriage of ones who struggle to eke out a basic living. Their faces seem prematurely old — their skin tough as are their souls. The toughness frightens me. And each time I’ve pulled over at a gas station in Nevada, it has always been with the attitude of get in, fill up, and get out. Most of the people are probably quite nice, but they are much tougher than me. And I don’t want trouble.

But not my Ukrainian. He is so kind-hearted, so un-jaded, that he doesn’t see or chooses to ignore what I view to be the imminent dangers in the world. As we head out of the northern outskirts of Carson City, we realize that we may have missed the road back to California. Not one to be afraid of asking for directions, the Ukrainian does a u-turn and pulls over at a 7-11.

Great! I think. We’ll get pointed back to Interstate 80 and soon be on our way to San Francisco.

Great! the Ukrainian thinks. I’ll get some directions…some food…some Red Bull…stretch my legs…use the toilet…relax a bit. And then we’ll go back home.

While the Ukrainian is enjoying our time in Carson City, Nevada and I’m sitting inside the car with the doors locked fearing for my life and virtue, one of the tough local Nevadans approaches my Ukrainian.

“Are you the one who scratched my car?” the local asks. He is young man in his early 20s, looking like someone who is used to looking for trouble. He is accompanied by 2 young women, and driving a silver sports car with doors that open up rather than out. It’s not a Lamborghini.

My Ukrainian smiles. “No man. We are just sitting here having a rest and some dinner.”

The man and my Ukrainian exchange some more words. The man is trying to raise a ruckus. He wants to blame someone, anyone, for the scratch on his car. But my Ukrainian is oblivious. He keeps talking, smiling, laughing in the most kind-hearted, genteel away. As much as the Nevadan tries to find fault with my Ukrainian, he can’t. My Ukrainian has simply put him too much at ease. They exchange a few friendly last words, shake hands, and the Nevadan departs.

I am relieved, of course. My fear of finding trouble in Nevada has been ameliorated — for now. But more than that, I am jealous. I long for that innocent, good-heartedness that most people find hard to resist. I once had it — back when I was fresh from Iowa and not yet jaded with the world.

I do know that we look for in our lovers what we are missing in ourselves. And I’m glad that my Ukrainian possesses the good that I miss from what used to be me.

Victory Day

On Thursday, May 8th (our 11 month anniversary of meeting), the Ukrainian and I submitted our documents to the INS (now the USCIS) in an effort to convert the Ukrainian’s student visa to a green card based on his marriage to me. On Friday, May 9th aka Victory Day in the Eastern Bloc, the USPS verified that the documents did indeed arrive at the INS offices in Chicago. Now we wait.

My Ukrainian teased me all day because it was my idea to get married right away so we could submit our application right away–yet it took us almost 2 months to get together all the supporting documentation for the application. It was his idea to propose in February, but he was thinking a long engagement. We would get married in the Spring or Summer of 2009 — or so he thought.

I agreed for about 2 minutes and then the engineer in me kicked in. His visa would expire in 2009. While he hoped for an H-1B, there was no guarantee. The economy is tanking. And then, there is this little thing I (and every working woman, it seems) wished I could ignore called a biological clock that’s been setting off alarm bells everywhere that made me call him up one day in early March and say, “Baby, we need to get married right now.”

A cautious victory

The biggest challenges in our relationship revolve around the Ukrainian’s effort to integrate into the American workforce. We had one minor victory when he was hired to be a part-time student assistant at his university’s libary this past winter. But the work is menial and the wages are minimal. Back in Kiev, he had a great job as a General Manager at a software company. He also posesses an advanced degree in Economics. While I make a decent salary and he has savings to subisidize his schooling, there is a life (and family) we want that can only be had if he finds gainful employment in the States. We are hoping, now that we have submitted the paperwork to the INS, he will receive his work permit in a few months. In the meantime, we celebrate another potential victory in our efforts:  An internship at a small investment/mergers and acquisitions firm here in San Francisco. The position is unpaid, but — if the internship goes well — he will learn enough to springboard into paid work in finance in the future. However, we are slightly nervous that his English skills will be up to snuff enough to maintain the position. His first day on the job was Friday — Victory Day — we will see how it goes in the coming week(s).

(This photo is my Ukrainian on his first day of reporting into the office of his internship.)

The FSU’s celebration of Victory Day

On May 9, 1945, the Former Soviet Union formally declared victory over the Nazis. To celebrate this 63rd anniversary, Russian leaders paraded its weaponry around the Red Square for the first time since 1990. (You didn’t doubt that Russia is poising itself to become a mighty military once more, did you?)

Politics and show aside, my Ukrainian informs me that all Ukrainians must listen to the song below every May 9th in honor Victory Day.

Before I knew what Victory Day was all about, I was going to remark that the song sounds like something Andrew Lloyd Webber would compose if he were to write a musical about the (temporary) rise and triumph of Nazism. Apparently, mid-20th Century Fascist military music all sounds about the same.