Fancy a ride on the love train? Here's a book for your trip! 'Loving an Alien' is a riveting collection of intimate interviews with brave women who crossed the cultural divide and loved to tell the tale. Vive la diversité!
If you're into global travel, romance, life lessons, the do's and don'ts of an intimate relationship, how to manage your in-laws, how to finesse your outlaws, how to raise rootless, bi-lingual, 'third culture' kids, then snuggle up with 'Loving an Alien'.
In a remarkably candid series of Q&A's with twenty-seven women of different nationalities, Angela reveals what makes a mixed marriage tick ... and how to keep the love clock running.
Excerpts from book:
Jennifer & Volodya
American + Russian
“Now I look at it as though I made four trips to Mars!”
Angela: You first met your future husband in Russia. How did that come about?
Jennifer: In 1984‑1985, I was a sophomore in college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and I started studying Russian. My college had a program where you could go to Moscow and study during the month of May – they called it a Maymester – and in that spring of ’85, Gorbachev came to power, everything was super exciting, and my Russian professors were very encouraging of all students to make the trip over. They told us, “It will help your Russian and you’ll make good contacts.” So, that spring, I went over there, purely to see the place, the first of four trips I made that way. It was a very different relationship back then between Russians and Americans. It was still the Cold War, sort of, and we were enemies, but they were fascinated by us because they did not have much information. G What were your first impressions of Moscow? Now I look at it as though I made four trips to Mars!
The Soviet Union was just a fascinating place. In the United States, we’d heard so much about it, mostly negative, our own form of propaganda.
For example, movies like Red Dawn had built up this whole aura of what the Soviet Union was like, how they were this mighty enemy and ready to bomb us with nuclear weapons at any time, right? But when I got over there and met Soviet citizens in their homes in Moscow – where so many Russians aspired to be – and I saw how they lived, it took me only one visit to realize that what we had been told and our perceptions of the USSR were very different from reality.
Angela: How was Russia different and what surprised you most?
The fact that so many Russians were interested to talk to me! Obviously, I was dressed very differently, I mean now you go to Russia and I’m one of the poorest‑dressed people, right? Because they have access to fashion and so on, it’s a very 18 American + Russian different kind of environment. But in the late ‘80s, I’d be on the metro, and people would go, “Oh, are you American?” I mean, it wasn’t like, “Are you from another country, which one?” It was immediate, they’d want to engage in conversation, and ask me, “Why do you want to bomb our children?” And I’d reply, “We don’t! Why do you want to bomb ours?” Then they’d say, “We don’t!” There were just so many commonalities.
It was an interesting and exciting place to visit. I was always and I remain surprised by the similarities between our two cultures. Sure, there are welcoming aspects to all national cultures, but Russian families really pride themselves on being hospitable and if they invite you to their homes, there’s a huge feast and a lot of vodka, it’s a very welcoming environment. I grew up in Texas and we consider ourselves to be very much like that too.
Angela: And somewhere in vast, fascinating Russia was your future husband, Volodya. How did you meet?
Jennifer: He was one of these bartushka or fartsovshiki – the trader guys who would buy our blue jeans and T‑shirts with slogans – American product placement and so on. We first met when I traded him some jeans for Soviet flags and all kinds of ridiculous stuff.
Angela: Did you have a boyfriend at the time?
Jennifer: Yes, I was dating one of the Vanderbilt students on my trip and Volodya showed us the sights – the three of us would go around Moscow together, we took riverboat rides and visited Gorky Park; Volodya showed us a lot.
At the time, I didn’t realize he was only sixteen. I thought he was just this helpful young man, whatever. So, that’s how we became friends and I returned to the US.
Angela: Did you stay in contact?
Jennifer: No, but a year later, in May 1986, I’d broken up with the boyfriend and went on the same trip again. My college didn’t give us academic credit for it so you could go as many times as you wanted.
Anyway, I get to Moscow and I’m thinking: Should I look up that kid from last year? Hmm, maybe not, he’ll ask why the boyfriend is no longer in the picture and it will get too personal. So, I decided not to contact Volodya. But guess what – we ran into each other in Red Square!
Angela: So destiny intervened?
Jennifer: It’s funny, because, you know, I had a whole new group of students on this tour and I was the only one who had been over to Russia before, so I was taking them around. I had on this pair of Saucony running shoes, and that brand was kind of new in the United States where running was big, and nobody in Moscow had seen these shoes before. So I had literally hundreds of bartushka or fartsovshiki – these trader guys – all asking if they could buy my shoes. So when I bump into the young trader from last time, he says, “Oh my gosh, so it’s you! You’re the one with the shoes, the one all my trader friends have been telling me about?”
So, it kind of became this ongoing joke, and Volodya was telling everyone, “Hey, I know her, back off! These are going to be my shoes, OK?” And we ended up spending a lot of time together because all his friends would be going with my friends to Russian restaurants and we got to speak a lot of Russian together. They’d recommend food, places to go, and Volodya and I started dating. It was really funny because I knew him already but those shoes brought us together.
Angela: That’s a great story. How did your long‑distance relationship go?
Jennifer: I went back to the US for my senior year, then returned to Russia a third time the following May. That fall, I went on an after‑program, because the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR) had just started doing semester‑long programs in Moscow.
So, within three years I traveled over there four times and after that last trip, we decided to get married.
Angela: Did Volodya propose?
Jennifer: Not really. The summer before my fall visit he said, “You know, we’ve been dating for a while, so I want to buy you a ring. I mean jewelry, not a ring.” And so, we go into a typical Soviet jewelry store, and I go over to the wedding band section and pick out a very modest wedding band – I still wear it – and I said, “I want this one.” And he said, “Hmm, I don’t know about that one.” And so we stood there for a few minutes, and he was like, “Alright, let’s get married.”
Angela: A nice surprise!
Jennifer:Hah, completely lacking in romance!
Angela: So, did you speak to him later about this? Had he intended to buy you a wedding ring, or just a brooch or a chain perhaps?
Jennifer: Oh yeah, he was thinking about something much less commitment‑related!
Angela: How old were you?
Jennifer: I was twenty‑two and he was nineteen.
Angela: Oh, so young!
Angela: Tell me about it!
Jennifer: My college friends thought I was really stupid, crazy, and throwing away a bright future. I mean, I did well in college, they knew I was going to a Master’s program, so it was like, you know, “What are you doing?”
Angela: How did your family react to the news?
Jennifer: My three younger brothers thought this was the coolest thing ever, but my parents were not particularly thrilled about the idea. In fact, I think they were heartbroken. But they were supportive and that fall, they agreed to visit me while I was studying in Russia. I’m the eldest of four siblings, I’ve always been really close to my parents and so they wanted to meet Volodya and his family, to see what this thing was all about.
Angela: Why were they ‘heartbroken’ that you’d met your future husband?
Jennifer: Well, you know, they were aware of this phenomenon, in the late ‘80s, of Russian men marrying American women. To the point where folks at the Embassy were just up to here with this kind of thing and, you know, to every American woman who came in saying, “Oh, I want to marry this Russian!” they’d go, “No, he’s just using you, he’ll ditch you, please stop, this is ridiculous!” So that was the context, plus, Volodya was only three years younger than I am, but when you’re a senior in college, and you’re twenty‑one, and you’re dating somebody who is eighteen, that’s a little odd, and my parents were probably thinking: What the hell is she doing – this kid has no education and doesn’t even speak English!
Angela: So how did their visit to Russia go?
Jennifer: My parents were not particularly impressed with the Soviet Union because they stayed in one of these hotels where, you know, they were out of most dishes in the restaurant; I mean my parents basically starved for ten days! However, whatever her faults and dislike for me, my mother‑in‑law cooked this huge dinner and really tried to pull out all the stops for my parents. So, I think they were saying to themselves, “Well, we don’t know this guy, but he seems to come from good people, his mom wants to make us feel welcome in her home, right?”
Angela: Right. But why did Volodya’s mother dislike you?
Jennifer: Well, one of the main cultural differences I found is the relationship between mother‑in‑law and daughter‑in‑law. It has a very different dynamic to the one in my own culture. I had a very close relationship with my mother, and my mother had a fairly close relationship with her mother‑in‑law, and so I grew up in an environment where, yes, we’d have disagreements and tension but it was generally very friendly and supportive. Whereas my rapport with my mother‑in‑law was not like that and it made the whole family environment a very different experience for me, certainly different to what I would have liked, frankly.
Angela: Can you share an example?
Jennifer: My mother‑in‑law was a very critical person and would be so direct about everything she didn’t like, and she really didn’t like anything!
Angela: Was that to do with her personality or with Russian culture?
Jennifer: My relationship with her had a lot to do with her personality but I think she took it to the extreme. For example, she was always very direct about the fact that Volodya was the smart one in their family and she had high hopes for him. She was a kindergarten teacher, a good Soviet citizen who really believed in the whole Soviet system. She very much wanted and expected her sons to grow up in the USSR and to be productive Soviet citizens.
So, initially, she was unhappy with this idea of her eldest, smartest son – the one she thought had the greatest potential – moving to the United States. She was afraid that the family would end up being far away. She was very direct about that, about what she expected from Volodya and about what she wanted.
Angela: Had you seen this in other Russian families?
Jennifer: Well, the rest of Volodya’s relations can be direct too. If there’s a problem, they’ll identify it. If they disagree with my parenting approach, they’ll tell me immediately. But, you know, Russians tend to be very direct by nature, right?
Here’s the best example I share with friends who have not studied Russian or been to the country. Oftentimes, when I’d arrive from the States, the first thing people would say was, “You’re fat!” And, well, OK, I’m kind of a chubby person, so I’m constantly thinking about my weight and dieting. But they would mean it as a compliment because if you’re fat you’re happy, you’re wealthy, and things are going well, yes?
However, in the United States, you’d never greet someone you haven’t seen in a year by telling them they’re fat! I’m not trying to tarnish all of Russian culture but that’s one of the differences.
Angela: It sounds like a misunderstanding of their intentions, but from what you said earlier, your mother‑in‑law’s intentions were crystal clear: she did not want Volodya leaving with you. How difficult or easy was that to resolve?
Jennifer: Good question. Volodya and I married a year later and I was already in graduate school, so he came here to Washington DC. But it didn’t take my mother‑in‑law long to decide that she and the younger brother would also come over here, so they ended up moving to New York!
Angela: Wow, I was thinking: You were lucky she lived in Moscow. What changed? Why did she emigrate – that’s quite a turnaround for a loyal Soviet citizen?
Jennifer: When Volodya really did leave Russia – I don’t know if his mom understood this was actually going to happen – but when he did leave, she decided that moving to the US would be the best way for her to preserve the family unit. She eventually invited her two sisters and they brought over their children, so she ended up with a community of around twenty‑five family members, up in Brooklyn.
Angela: She was closer to you than before, but still a fair distance from DC?
Jennifer: Exactly, and it turned out to be far enough! Volodya younger brother and extended family live in the Boston area. My mother‑in‑law passed away last summer.
Angela: You’ve not mentioned your father‑in‑law – any particular reason?
Jennifer: Volodya’s father was a violently abusive alcoholic, kind of a stereotypical thing. Volodya’s mother had been divorced for a while. She and her two sons had lived together for a long time and were pretty close‑knit when I first turned up.
To be continued…
More on this chapter right here next week!
About the Book:
‘Loving an Alien’ is a collection of 27 intimate interviews with women of different nationalities, who all married foreigners. I ask them about their love for, and life with, an ‘alien’ man. All of their stories are inspiring, some are very funny, some are heartbreaking. These are brave women who crossed the cultural divide, despite the odds.
About the Author
Angela Nicoara grew up in communist Romania and has lived and worked in twenty countries around the world. She is based in the mountains of Transylvania with her favorite alien, five cats, two dogs, and the occasional bear.
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