With eight hours to kill on layover in Frankfurt, I sat down before sunrise with an overpriced McDonalds coffee, and pulled out my Russian primer to study a bit. I’d read for maybe twenty minutes, glancing over and smiling at people around me a couple of times, when a girl came over and sat at the table next to me.
She then stood up and plopped down some fairly cheap American candy on the table in front of me. And retreated to her table and waited to see the result.
“Oh, were you just in America?” I ask. She nods, inviting me to sit down at her table and speak in Russian. Olena introduces herself as being from the Ukraine, then grabs the book to help me out with Russian. Rapidly reading about the poet Pushkin, she asks if I understand… and then hands back the book and commands me to read a series of silly sentences designed to teach superlatives: “The Nile is the Biggest River. Russia is the Best Country. Bill Gates in the Richest Man. For Now.” Something like that.
What about your language?
“What about your language?” I say to distract her. “What’s Ukrainian like?” Olena is excited by this, and tells me that Ukrainian is both completely different from Russian and somewhat mutually intelligible. She’s passionate about preserving the language, which she believes is dying out, so she won’t speak Russian with anyone who knows Ukrainian.
For me, luckily, Olena speaks English. And she speaks it nonstop, trying not to fall asleep from jet-lag. She’s nineteen, short and curvy with a pretty round face and rather charmingly disjointed teeth. As she talks, she leans over and her little red and gold cross swings between her breasts. I’d be distracted by this, but she’s glittering all over, from the round golden disco balls hanging from her ears to the hot pink polyethylene snap-watch on her wrist. “It’s easy to clean chocolate ice cream off from,” she says, demonstrating how the watch band curls and flattens, and how the metal watch itself pops out of the pink encasing substance.
All the Way from Ocean City, Maryland!
Olena tells me she spent the summer working in a froyo shop during the tourist season in Ocean City, Maryland. She lived with three girls and four guys from her home country in a two bedroom apartment near the beach. The boys were just too much, she says. When Olena walked in the first day, the kitchen fan was turned on low with boys’ socks and underwear on it, drying in a circle, slowly spinning. She crosses her arms in imitation: “This is not okay!” she told them. “What if I am making soup or casserole and they fall in?”
“But they’re clean!” the guys shuffled around in protest, “We washed them.”
“But they’re used!” Olena retorted. She got them to move the clothes to the fan the boys’ room, but it still cycled slowly the whole summer. And now and again a guy would hit the switch wrong, and the fan would speed up. Socks and underwear would go flying, flung to the walls and falling to the floor.
“They also don’t do dishes,” she told me, so she’d set their dishes aside while she cooked after a long day on the beach. She snuck five kilos of sallow [lard] into the US for cooking, but she’d heard that the dogs can smell lard at the airports. “I was afraid,” she says, “so I wrapped it in the three bags, and I doused it in perfume, each layer.” But it was a success — her suitcase smelled really fruity, and the dogs didn’t find it!
Olena tells me that she had to have sallow, as a proper Ukrainian. When early Ukrainians would travel from Kiev to the Black sea, she said, food would spoil. So they’d pack bags full of sallow coated in salt, and together with bread and onions, it would last for the full three month’s travel. So that’s what they ate — a pioneer story.
Olena’s hurrying back to the Ukraine now before her classes start. She’s in two colleges, one on scholarship from the government, where she studies Terpetin.
“What?” I ask. “Terpetin,” she says again. I don’t understand, but I nod and smile. Olena tells me that classes aren’t like in the US — instead every student studies from 8am-3pm daily, with no choice in courses. But she believes this is better: “we learn more, our background is stronger.” And she’s taking some law courses on the side, which will help with Terpetin.
“What is Terpetin?” I finally ask.
She look at me in surprise. “You know, English, French. Interpreting.”
Good luck with that! I’m thinking. But really, she seems charming and earnest and will probably do fine. Olena knows it’s hard to find jobs even with a degree, so she hopes that being a legal interpreter will be enough of a specialty to find work.
Just before her flight leaves, we browse the duty-free shops together as she buys four bottle of alcohol as gifts – wine, cognac, cognac, vodka. Olena shows me her Ukrainian money, hrvnya, which exchanges at six or seven to the dollar. She says 2000h/month is a liveable wages where she lives, but she makes 700h a month as a student on stipend for studying well. That’s about 80$ a month, and she admits that she paid 40$ for candy in the U.S. before she left. “That’s half my salary, 350 hrvnya,” she giggles as she gets in line to board, “I can’t tell my mother!”