Girl looking through fence

Staying Straight in Ukraine

Published in "Points of Entry: Cross-Currents in Storytelling", Issue 3, 2005.
An annual anthology that focuses on narrative writing in journalism, it is supported by the department of English at Christopher Newport University
in Newport News, Virginia.

There are many things my American education didn’t teach me, but even more that it did. While a foreign language, geography and physics may have got left out, how to think backwards did not. In seventh grade a high school student with the Just Say No campaign taught me how to make crack in twelve easy steps.

Well, maybe it was five or fifteen but the point was you could make it with everyday ingredients. In high school sex education teachers taught me about safe sex by showing me how to put a condom on a banana.

I didn’t fully appreciate how lacking my extensive knowledge until I moved to Ukraine and was sent notification that I had a package from my mother. In order to pick it up I would need a letter from my mother saying the package was for me. It was quite considerate of Ukrainian authorities to allow my mother this chance to change her mind. But she had been certain when she addressed it to me that the package was for me. She wrote the letter anyway.

I took the letter, an office driver, and my friend Sveta with me to retrieve the package. Our first stop was a small “customs tower” that wasn’t a tower at all. After a short inspection my notification letter was stamped and we left.

“That’s it?” I said, surprised it had ended so quickly. “Now we get my package?”

“No,” Sveta said. “Now we go to customs.”

“I thought that’s what this was?”

“It was.”

“So where are we going now?”

“I already told you, to customs.”

Sometimes things got lost in translation.

It took twenty minutes to get to the second customs office despite short cuts that took us onto the sidewalk and over what should have been double yellow lines. The office was built in Soviet style: drab. We walked down the building’s dark hallways until we found a babushka moving a stick with a damp dirty rag over the floor. I had always thought the point of cleaning was to make things clean, but that just may be further evidence of my deficient education.

The babushka led us to a door outside of which a group of men and women were gathered. No one ever went into or out of the room behind the closed door. Finally I walked up, opened the door and went in. Sveta ran in after me. “Ezvenete,” she said trying to excuse my rudeness. The room was empty except for a small man sitting behind a big desk with four rotary phones. After looking over our papers he told us we needed another letter.

I was running out of pen pals.

“Can’t I have my package?” I asked in Russian.

“Neelzah,” the officer said.

My favorite Russian word. It meant I wasn’t getting my package.

I had my office fax us a letter and the officer issued us our stamp, but not my package, not my pahsilkoo.

“Pahsilkoo?” I asked.

He smiled and wrote down another address. We were getting warmer.

FedEx was in a small modern building. In the front room a dozen women were unpacking a box of champagne, sitting on their desks talking on the phone and making long toasts while chomping on chocolates.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Sveta took a quick look around; “New Year’s celebration.”

“But it’s mid-January. Even Orthodox New Year’s is over.”

Sveta shrugged her shoulders and cleared her throat. She was used to workers celebrating New Year’s until the next holiday came along. A hefty woman fixed us with a stare. Sveta handed her our papers. She looked them over and then said something that required a large amount of sighs.

“She says you have to have a prescription for this Ibuprofen,” Sveta explained. “You also need a note from your doctor saying why you need this medicine and an explanation of your medical history in Russian.”

“But it’s not a prescription drug,” I said.

Sveta ignored my protests. “Dr. Kriel would probably write it.”

“Okay forget it, I don’t need the Ibuprofen. I just want my orthodontic retainers.”

“I already told her that,” Sveta said. “She can’t separate the package.”

“But it’s my package and I’m telling her she can.”

“It would be easier to have Dr. Kriel write a prescription.”

One look at the FedEx woman with her hairy mole and spiky dyed red hair and I whipped out my cell phone. While we waited for the doctor to fax me a prescription for non-prescription drugs, the woman took us to another room. A boy whose pimples were just being replaced by peach fuzz sat at a desk twirling a pen. We gave him the papers and he produced my package. He pulled out a small pink plastic container and thrust it toward Sveta.

“Shto Ehtah?” he asked

“My retainers,” I said helpfully.

The child officer, Sergei, pulled my retainers away and took my package back.

“What’s going on?” I asked Sveta.

“We need to get the Health Minister’s permission and his stamp of approval”

I laughed.

Sergei wasn’t smiling.

“You’re serious?” I said looking at Sveta.

“Yeah,” Sveta said. “He says the Health Minister has to approve your retainers before you can have them and wear them.”

It made perfect sense. Ukrainian children were dying of Chernobyl-related thyroid cancer. Tuberculosis and AIDs were spreading rapidly. Typhus still was a problem. And the Health Minister needed to decide whether it was okay for a foreigner to wear orthodontic retainers at night.

We drove across town, trudged up three flights of stairs and were told the Health Minister’s secretary was busy. We went in anyway. She had a champagne glass in one hand, a chocolate in the other. She and another woman in the office were celebrating. We were into 2007 by now, according to my counting. The Health Minister was on vacation.

“When can we come back?” I asked.

“Whenever you want,” was the reply.

“No, when can the Health Minister see us?”

“They don’t know when he’ll be back,” Sveta said. “They say we can call everyday and then when he is back we can fax our request. If he has time and wants he will contact us.”

We went back to FedEx and waited outside Sergei’s closed door.

“Maybe you should bribe him,” Sveta suggested.

“Think $20 would be enough?” I asked.

“I think so.”

We stood pondering the situation a few more minutes.

“I guess you better go Sveta,” I said.

Sveta nodded, squeezed my hand and left. I crumpled $20 in my hand and walked into the room. I spotted my package in the corner, grabbed it, put the $20 in its place and ran. The security guard caught me. Sergei came storming down the hall.

“Take your money,” Sergei spat in Russian, throwing the $20 bill at me. “Give back the package.”

Twenty dollars hadn’t been enough.

I handed the package over, but not before taking my retainer case out and slipping it in my pocket. It didn’t work. Sergei demanded the retainers. With my hand in my pocket I slid the retainers from the case, carefully closed the case again and handed it over. He was furious.

“Give back the contraband!” Sergei shouted in Russian.

Contraband, now that was something my retainers had never been called, disgusting, maybe, but contraband? Everyone in the office gathered round. Even the head of FedEx wanted my retainers. Forget Walnut Creek, my orthodontist could have done great business in Kyiv. Amidst the ruckus a slim young woman with long brown hair, leather pants and stiletto heels stepped forward.

“My name is Tanya. What is yours?”

“Katya.”

It seemed a strange time to be getting acquainted but I clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

“Katiusha, you know they are going to call the police,” Tanya said.

I nodded. They had been nice enough to repeat that five times.

“They are going now to call,” Tanya said pointing toward the head of FedEx, who was walking to the front office where the phones were. “You will have to stay overnight in the jail because it is late and your embassy cannot help you until tomorrow.”

She was right; no country could save you after five. It was six. Suddenly the security guard pushed me aside and two fully armed officers entered. They scanned the crowd looking for the culprit.

Sergei pointed at me. “She has contraband goods,” he said in Russian.

The police officers looked at me, a girl with a baby blue hat with a little tassel on the top and tears of frustration streaming down her face. They looked back at Sergei. I was starting to catch on that these people weren’t bluffing

“You must take her or make her give back the contraband,” Sergei said in Russian.

“Jail here is not so good,” Tanya said.

She was one for understatements. The police officers nodded as if they understood. Then they moved closer.

“Hand over the contraband,” the first cop said in Russian. The second fiddled with a pair of handcuffs.

Then I did what my American education had taught me all along: I started thinking backwards. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and held out the retainers. The police officer gingerly took the two little pink plastic pieces of contraband decorated with tiny hearts.

Tanya patted me on the shoulder. “If you want them, you refuse the package and it is sent back to your mother. Then she gets them to you in another way.”

I followed her advice. Another American smuggled my retainers in her suitcase a few months later. The Health Minister was none the wiser. My teeth remain straight, even if I have become a little more crooked.

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