The Long Haul Flight
The plane taxies along the wet runway as the sunlight is breaking through the clouds and glistening on the puddles. I cannot see much out of my tiny window, but I know that Sheremetyevo is behind me and we are about to take off. On its ascent the plane pushes through clouds, and for a few seconds I have this strange and scary sensation of not being able to breathe and my chest being squeezed. Is it the air pressure? The aircon? Or is it the fear of the unknown?
Almost forty hours in the air – it is a lot of time to think. Now, twenty-five years later, I still remember the smell in that Tupolev, its uncomfortably cold aircon, the quieter but deeper engine noise than on my usual domestic flights and more, many more rows of seats. Only a handful of people know where I am going and why. Will they gossip? What will they think and say? I know that Maria understands and most single women of about thirty would too. We missed the boat. We are the “leftover girls”.
The pool of available men was drained by the USSR’s 10-year involvement in Afghanistan and by the devastating Chernobyl disaster of the mid-to-late 1980s, taking the bulk of our potential partners, so the ratio of men and women in my part of the world become, something like one man to three-four women. Compulsory military service does not help either: twenty-year-olds returning from the service are hungry: for good food, mom’s love, and sex of course – the perfect time to catch them is right when they are changing their army boots for more comfortable footwear.
But if you do not want to settle at twenty and have some career plans before having a family – then your chances are slim. Who is left? There are some men who, like some women of my age or over, “got married” to their career; there are those who changed their footwear too quickly, were too much in a rush to jump into a warm bed, to the altar and into fatherhood - some of them are now divorced and available. There are men whose only fault is their geography, and of course there are the alcoholics. I do not know if anyone else sees it the way I do. I notice the changing dynamics in our staffroom at the end of each summer holidays. Our bubbly easy-going twenty-something selves we are no more. Most of us have enough brains to see there is a problem. Parents, aunties and other well-wishers never miss a chance to remind us:
“You should really think about, you know… or have a child at least”
The elephant in the room grows into a mammoth and it becomes harder to avoid talking about.
I am on this plane as a mail-order bride. This is what they call women like me in the West.
I feel embarrassed, apprehensive about the questions and jokes I will have to endure from my fiancé-to-be and his family, but having a clear goal helps: I want to have a family with a man outside the four categories I described above, to do what I love for a living, to have children and to give them more opportunities than I had.
I do not notice the flight attendant bring my coffee - I am looking at the mountains below. Beautiful snow-capped peaks. My highs will be strikingly beautiful, I am sure, but how low will my lows be? I will be homesick at times, but that is to be expected and will pass. As I sip my coffee, I can't help but revisit my significant highs and lows so far: I am well educated and respected, have a very good job which I love and each graduation of my students fills my heart with warmth. My family, whilst supportive, nags me for being single “at this age” and my parents want grandchildren. There are things I strive for: I want to keep this source of warmth – from being appreciated for what I do, I want to have a family and I do want a place I can call a home with someone.
I ponder about this “someone”. Maybe I rushed myself into it? After about eight months of exchanging letters and phone calls you form a certain idea about a person you are talking with. When you read a letter – handwritten, not an email (we were not using internet or email in the early 1990s) - you let your imagination add layers to the picture: neat and curly running writing, how he writes about what he does, etc, etc. You are bound to form a certain image of the person. What happens when the impression of the man you have in your mind is different from the actual man you meet? We know it would be boring if everything in life always turned out as we had imagined, planned and expected. So, you are kind of looking forward to some surprises, hoping it is not a bad surprise…
Now, let me please take you back to about a year prior to this flight. I have a big decision to make. I have letters from four men with their brief intro. What’s in common? They are looking for an Eastern European woman to marry. I have no idea why (I was quite naïve in some matters then). I just accept the word of my friend in New Zealand: “It’s common, almost fashionable here”, she says.
I look at the photos. This one looks somewhat insecure or anxious. Blond curly hair, neat, school student-like haircut, I can tell that he is very tense: his shoulders are almost near his ears. Maybe he is just as uncomfortable as I am about this way of looking for a partner? The next photo is a stark contrast: a beautiful harbour, a boat… In front of it stands a relaxed, very confident - overconfident as I see it - large man with a towel over his shoulder and a glass of wine in his hand. The water is beautiful, but I prefer dry land… For some reason, I think that if that towel falls, he would expect ME to pick it up. Then I notice 3 cocktail glasses on that boat… No, thanks.
This photo here has a beautiful background too, but it looks more positive to me: bright sunlight, the perfectly manicured lawn in front of a small building dwarfed by the vastness of an almost unnaturally green golf course. The man in the photo looks quite stylish: he is tall and fit and is holding his golf club casually, must have just finished the game or about to play. I am drawn to his blue eyes. If they are the windows into his soul - they seem inviting.
The last photo is a blank, like a photo for an ID. Looks straight into the camera, neat very short hair and a grey polo shirt. I just cannot see any information here. I imagine myself checking passports. Maybe this is why it is so hard to catch bad people? Or very good people just slip by unless someone with special insight catches their goodness? Either my maternal “safe space” instinct kicks in, or something else tells me to stop exhausting my brainpower over this photo, for now at least.
I read the blurbs. My “passport photo” man does not make it easy for me in the way of word count either: not much info other than that he lives in Auckland and owns a takeaway restaurant. The golf player answered almost all questions on the form. Education: Bachelor of Business and Diploma in Wool, occupation: wool buyer, City: Christchurch. The rest is OK too. The guy on the boat is self-employed – it can mean anything. He does not mention education and wants to travel, especially to Asia. I try to imagine myself with this man and I can’t. The insecure-looking man lives in Dunedin and is a Social Worker. He goes to evening college and plans to study Social Work at Otago University. I try to understand it. In the USSR you go to Uni at eighteen and you finish it at twenty-three. You can stay on and do research of course, but starting Uni after thirty-five? With my just-out-of-USSR brain and having never visited a “free” country before, I have very old-fashioned views. A man should graduate first, then get a stable job, and then marry.
Adventures are also pre-family, in my view. We owe the existence “The Body Shop” chain to Anita Roddick’s travels to Africa to some degree, but mainly to her adventure-seeking husband. Despite his young family’s need for support he decided to fulfil his lifelong ambition to ride a horse along the length of the Americas. In my view, however, leaving a woman with two small children to fend for themselves for a year - just so you can satisfy your urge for adventure - is far from cool…
My fellow passenger yawns loudly, I stretch my legs, look at the clouds outside and go over the options I had. No idea why. Even now, twenty-five years later, I sometimes wonder where I would be, had I written to the “passport”, the “boat” man or to the social worker. Do you ever wonder where your life would have taken you if you had gone to a different pub or night club, taken a different course at college or changed schools?
I am pretty happy with my window seat: I can enjoy a variety of landscapes under the flight path, think about the people who live in those cities and villages, imagine their families, their homes, food they eat and so forth. There are lots of farms.
I bring myself back to thinking about how long it took me to think, second-guess myself and then to pick up my pen and paper to write. I decide to write to the man who I see as my best match: the wool buyer from Christchurch. He has a degree and diploma, looks OK, made an effort to write more about himself than the three other men, and his photo is also quite informative, so he must be serious. But what does a wool buyer do? I have lots of wool clothes – you need them in our winter - and I know that it is a natural fabric like cotton, but I must admit I know very little about the details. Cotton is a plant or tree, and wool is goats’, sheep’s or rabbits’ hair. That’s what you need to make wool. Is it wool yarn or fabric that he buys? He must be buying wholesale and selling retail to shops or to clothing factories. My grandma taught me to knit when I was in primary school. I cannot say I enjoy it though. I wonder what NZ fashion is like. I write to him about myself, my city, my students, my family… I have to stop myself as I finish two pages: enough for the intro. I still remember the hesitation as I held the letter in my hand, half-way into the letterbox, before finally letting it go; and then the wait that seemed endless, while I tried to calculate the time of circumnavigation of letters, etc etc.
I developed a mental image of him with each letter I received: I imagined where he was writing, the surroundings, what he was wearing and thinking. Eventually we started “jumping the queue” and write before we receive a reply to the previous letter – it took 7-8 days for a letter to travel by air mail from Donetsk to Christchurch. I started receiving letters every 4-5 days and was only too happy to write often as well.
I wrote about everyday things, what I observed and thought about it, asked him about his week, his family’s daily life, we would share our viewpoints and thoughts. I was starting to form certain expectations and asked him some questions which must have been quite annoying: “My cousin’s husband smokes in the lounge, with kids watching TV next to him. Do you smoke?” His patient reply was, “No, I don’t, never smoked in my life”. I asked about drinking. His reply - socially and a beer after work. Sounds Ok. Another nagging question that I had was about his relationships – at forty he is bound to have had at least one serious relationship, maybe he was even married. Maybe he even has children? I told him about my only relationship with my classmate who was killed in Afghanistan and I also told him that it took me a long time to recover. Then I got busy with study, then two jobs and hardly ever thought about getting into another relationship.
I started thinking about family and I observed families around me more often. I even started listening to the gossip in the staffroom – never before was I interested in my colleagues’ shopping, their kids’ school and sport performance, what they liked to do as a family, about their differences, problems and disagreements. I started thinking about the same. He lives in a house. I live in a unit. These days on my way to parents I look out the window rather than read a book: I try to imagine the families living in those houses: a big house, beautiful front garden with flowers – the family would be well-off. What are their evenings and weekends like? I would think about their children, extended family, their values, expectations, points of friction – there ought to be some. How do they manage disagreements? My family life was far from ideal, I left home quite early and you cannot really have a disagreement with yourself, so I have a lot to learn. I feel sad to see shabby houses with leaning unpainted for years fences, weeds in what was once a garden and wonder what might have happened there. Serious illness? Betrayal? Vodka? Something else?
The first person to notice a change in me was my friend Maria – she asked why I was sort of dreamy and smiled to myself sometimes. I think I need to tell her… not yet. With each letter I received my heart was filling with warmth. I was adding imagery to the photos I received, thought about what he was doing before and after he took that photo, thought about his wool factory and his family members: would they accept me?
I imagined our life together. I would work in Canterbury University or a school near home (I caught myself thinking “home” and smiled) after work we would have dinner quite early if possible, so we could do lots of things together. Almost every day, I would compare what I observed around me family-wise and what I imagined my family life would be in New Zealand.
I think I am ready to meet him.
I need to find out what I need to do to invite him here (formal invitation, visa application etc) and I have no doubt that he would want to come to Donetsk. When I write and invite him over to Ukraine, he does the opposite: I receive an invitation and lots of information about getting a visa to New Zealand. Should I go? What do I need to do? I still remember the hesitation and the time between receiving the invitation and this flight.
I consider him to be my soulmate, which is important for me if this is to develop into something more. I think I can imagine this ‘something more’ already, liking him a lot from what I know and imagine him to be so far. Not sure yet if I know him very well for a family “till death do us apart”, but this is why I am on this plane and what I will hope and will work for.
My fellow passenger gently taps me on the shoulder. Oh, my dinner is getting cold. While Thai Airways’ Boeing is a nice change from Aeroflot’s Tupolev I cannot say the same about the food. It’s overpowering. The trays are finally gone and I climb out to get some exercise. I walk along the aisles and my brain still races a hundred miles an hour. When do we land in Bangkok? Why such a long stopover? Anything to do there? I look at some fellow passengers. Are any of them on a life changing journey like mine?
As the real differences - with the plane and food – hit me, I try to “review”, what he wrote to me about his daily life details – wondering whether something I overlooked as insignificant details is more than meets the eye? I never thought food to be a problem till I ate my spicy dinner. I cannot handle spicy food at all. What if there are other things that seem to be “no big deal” now, but will become problematic when I am there? What if I cannot cope? I try to escape the smell of this food by sneaking into the business class section, just to breathe for a minute. The flight attendant is about to apprehend me, and I signal to her that I have no intention of causing trouble. A cold drink and aircon mitigate the damage and I climb back into my seat. What if…? What else…?
I am tired. The pillow is uncomfortable, but I quickly drift off to sleep. The smell of coffee wakes me up. It is early morning and the plane is approaching Christchurch. My heart and thoughts are racing. Will I recognise him? What is he thinking? Will I meet his expectations? How do we meet? Hug? Kiss on the cheek? Shake hands? I take my time exploring Duty Free shops and head to the exit when everyone is gone and it is all quiet. I can see him, and he looks just like in the photo.
Born and bred in the USSR, migrated to NZ in 1998, in Sydney since 2001 and I think I could tell a story or two about these quite different worlds. A former ESL teacher, a traveller and an aspiring writer.