Going Over There: How the East/West Divide is Negotiated in Beds and Minds


Olena and Elisabeth. An introductory note

My friend and I, being from the different sides of this obscure East/West (read Ukraine and Austria) divide, used to contemplate a lot over these life absurdities on the territory of Budapest, right between our two geographic heimat entities. Our wine meditations on the topic materialized then in this article where we sought to elaborate on sexuality and geography. The material for the following article is gathered entirely from our personal experience and that of our friends and acquaintances. Our conclusions thus are highly personal, possibly even biased, and should be read with all the necessary precautions that such an unscientific piece of writing warrants.

Elisabeth. Scene One: “Slovene boys and borders…”
 Location: Austria. At the very fringes of the West.

When I was 14, in high school, I had this big crush on a Slovene boy. A slender, beautiful creature, whom I thought to be the coolest person to walk this earth. And me being terribly timid and asocial at that time, I only realized after a few weeks of staring and obsessing that he was in fact from “over there”, from across the border, when I actually overheard him speak to someone in Slovene. Despite the fact that my school was located in Bad Radkersburg, a small town on the very fringes of Austria, and though I knew that there were a handful of students from nearby Gornja Radgona who would also attend the high school I was at, I was still shocked out of my mind by the revelation. As if I had just learned that this person was coming from Mars.

It was 1995, and the memory of Slovene houses burning across the river, which we had witnessed from the safest distance in 1991, was still on everybody’s mind. We didn’t learn any Slovene in school, although a teacher one day came into our classroom, announcing with a sour face that the ministry of education had made the decision that the school should from now on offer Slovene as an elective course, and if there were any volunteers for that, would we please raise our hands. No one did, and I wasn’t too surprised to later learn that the course had to be canceled due to a lack of interest. You could comfortably walk over to Slovenia within five minutes from where my school was at, but me and my friends simply never did. Instead we would hang out in the Austrian cafes and bars that this small town had to offer, bored to death. The Slovene kids, too, would stick to themselves, to their bars, their cafes on the other side, probably doing the same exact thing, but then, who knows, we never checked. Only on one occasion, I ran into the handsome Slovene boy at a concert. He had come with a few of his Slovene friends, greeted me with a smile. I stayed away, staring at him from a safe distance, once again too scared to just go over there.

Going over there…

Gazing and obsessing, thinking about how to negotiate both personal and national limits, however, is nowadays not only a private matter for me. As an anthropologist interested in the interconnections between nationalism and sex I  finished my M.A. in Ethnology in Austria (I wrote my thesis on the very border I grew up next to), and taking a 4-month detour through Vienna, I moved to Budapest in 2005 to study at the Central European University and very recently I made the move to Seoul, Korea.

In Budapest, I was one out of two Austrians at a university of 1,000 students, most of who are recruited from Central and Eastern Europe. During my first year at CEU, I would mostly hang out with some of those few Westerners that had somehow made it to Budapest, mainly due to the fact that my boyfriend back then was American, and I was sharing a flat with him and yet another U.S. citizen. Once the boyfriend went back to the States, and me having made the decision to stay in Budapest in order to continue my studies rather than joining him, things changed drastically. I started to venture into the dangerous and exciting terrain of trying to date Hungarian boys.

Olena. Scene One. “Admiration: They Will Always Have What You Won’t.”
Location: Ukraine. The post-Soviet Space.

Those who have even a little bit of familiarity with the Soviet underground rock scene will probably remember the groundbreaking song of the 1980s Взгляд с Екрана (A Gaze from the Screen) by Nautilus Pompilius. In this song Vjacheslav Butusov pictures a gloomy reality of the Soviet woman’s fate:

Первый опыт борьбы против потных рук приходит всегда слишком рано
Любовь это только лицо на стене, любовь это взгляд с экрана.
/The first experience of fighting sweaty hands always comes too early.
Love is nothing else but a face on the wall; love is just a gaze from the screen/ 
Ален Делон говорит по-французски
Ален Делон, Ален Делон не пьёт одикалон
Ален Делон, Ален Делон пьёт двойной бурбон
Ален Делон говорит по-французски

/Alain Delon speaks French. Alain Delon doesn’t drink Aude Collogne. Alain Delon speaks French and drinks double Bourbon. /

While the symbolism of the song might seem a bit unsophisticated for today’s audience, in those days it was probably the most precise and comprehensive formulation of the dilemma; in my post-Soviet teen-age years we all were in love with foreign actors and musicians who were either forbidden or highly condemned by Soviet moral standards. Even though one could argue that today’s Western European teen-agers fall for the same “forbidden fruit,” and are in love with American or British pop stars I would argue that our fascination was of a different quality. For my friends and myself, growing up in post-Soviet Ukraine of the 1990s, the popularized images of foreign stars were significant on several levels:

– Foreigners had jeans, clothes and consumer goods that were previously forbidden in the USSR and were almost impossible to get in post-Soviet Ukraine;
– Foreigners were the ones who travelled to and dwelled in all those New Yorks, Londons, Parises, Romes, Santa Barbaras ; all those cities about which we had learnt so much in the all encompassing Soviet educational system, but which were (why am I using past? – still mostly ARE!) as reachable for most Ukrainians as the mystical Avalon.
– Finally, foreigners such as the ones we saw on Beverly Hills 90210 were the ones who were openly dating and seeing each other in their parents’ homes, while for us, dating was considered amoral and sexual education was probably the only subject non-existent in the above mentioned, all encompassing, Soviet school curriculum. Hence, most of our first sexual experiences would come in the shape of ass groping in over-crowded public transportation or, as Butusov versed so well, were rather traumatic, concealed and shameful.

To simplify things just a bit, all these Western girls and boys, as was explained to us in the first videos and movies reaching us from the WEST, had all that leisure of consumption, freedom of travel and normality of romantic and sexual encounters that we could not possibly reach in any near future. As one can imagine, our post-Soviet boys, struggling with the same economic and existential crises could hardly compete with their jeans-wearing, world-trotting and sex-educated male counter-parts from the West that Ukrainian girls fantasized about. The dilemma became too obvious as the post-Soviet space exploded with mail-order-brides agencies and marriage tourism.

Elisabeth. Scene Two: From the Village all the Way to Vienna
Location: Budapest. Central Eastern Europe.

My first few footsteps in this direction seemed to be going well: Hungarian men seemed genuinely excited about my Austrian background at first – there was always some uncle or grandmother or what not who was actually living and working over there, which eased up the conversation. The fact that our countries shared Sissi and some other components of that glorious K and K past of ours was equally brought up again and again. “You look so Viennese”, I got to hear, or “Wow, that is such an Austrian thing to say.” I was flattered.

Whatever Hungarian boys thought a Viennese girl looked like – I was certainly never mistaken for one in Austria, as I was coming from this terribly rural village with only 600 people in it, and had, even worse, a terribly rural accent on top of it. But who could have told now that I was speaking in English… On one of those “You must be from Vienna” occasions, I ended up explaining to a Hungarian boy whom I had just gotten to know in a bar, “Well, no, I am not from Vienna. I’m from this tiny village by the Slovene border.” He looked at me with his big eyes and then said, “But it must be a rich village, right?” I struggled to suppress a laugh and the answer that had immediately popped up in my head: “Yes, the cows give golden milk in the village that I am from.”

Gypsy boys and Sunday clothes

I came to Budapest for the first time with my parents when I was just a little girl. I had been so scared of all the little gypsy boys that ran up to our car to clean the windscreens for a little bit of money every time we waited at a stop sign. And how I had been standing on Erzsebet hid, and how my mother had teased me that the bridge was in fact named after me, and me taking her comment at face value, believing for months to come that there is indeed a bridge in the heart of Budapest named after me.

A male Hungarian friend of mine told me a border story that also involved parents in cars. My friend had the most vivid recollections of crossing the border between Hungary and Austria in the early 1990s, in the fanciest clothes that he owned at that time. His mother was so terribly ashamed of what were said to be the hordes and hordes of Hungarians that invaded the cheap shops of Austria without showing any manners or style. And so, as to not be taken for what he actually was, a Hungarian, my friend was to wear his best Sunday clothes, every time he crossed the border into Austria with his parents. “I can’t even tell you how much I dreaded these trips”, he added, and I thought that Sissi indeed looked like a rather weak link to build a relationship on, if one indeed has to struggle with border memories of this kind at the same time.

Olena. Scene Two: Mail Order Brides Catalogues or How You Learn What You are Really Worth. 
Location: Still Ukraine. Still Post-Soviet.

I remember when my friends and I were almost 20 and studied at various Universities for our MA degrees, one of our ways to entertain ourselves was to go to someone’s home and spend an evening reading through “Date A Foreigner” catalogues. I can’t remember now where we would get those catalogues from, but somehow they were such a common possession in the late 1990s that I don’t think I ever asked. The experience was both demythologizing and kind of funny. On the one hand we have learned once and for all that the overwhelming majority of “Western men” don’t look like Alain Delon. While such a conclusion would seem pretty obvious to me now, we were so much under the influence of the Iron Wall-generated fascination for the West back then, that it took us several catalogues to learn this very lesson. On the other hand, reading the adds from both “Western” men and “Eastern women” we were learning those classical rules of the game that later took me years to overcome.

In these catalogues women were publishing information about their age, height, eye colour and hair. They also advertised their education only as much as they stressed their fascination for cooking, childrearing, and their desire to dedicate themselves to creating a ‘real home.’ Logically, they were all looking for men who would be willing to give them a home and a family fire, which the women would then so willingly kindle. The men would always tell only a word about their age, skip the appearance part all together (indeed, the little pictures where quite telling) and plunge straight into a detailed enumeration of their possessions, houses, cars and yachts. They would tell a few things about their hobbies, but those would also reflect the social status of the candidate, e.g. “ I love to golf and sail around the globe.” Even the most seemingly liberal and kind-hearted men would look for a female significantly younger and more educated, who, however, would be happy to give up her career and dedicate herself whole-heartedly to family rearing. The men would always specify the desired height and weight, hair and eye color of the woman, which apparently, in their minds, was somehow linked to their future successes in family rearing.

Photo by Zoltan Kovacs

Though pretty soon my friends and I became very uninterested in these catalogues, I remember that my subsequent first interactions with foreigners were shaped in many ways by those standardized requirements. Thus, even after 15 years of having studied the English language in school and after getting a American Fulbright scholarship to write my MA thesis in the US, I would still be so intimidated to speak English in front of native speakers that I would blush and stammer. For quite a long while my interactions with foreign colleagues rotated mostly around stories about Ukraine. I could not break free from the need to tell people how the family is important to Ukrainians and how well Ukrainian women can cook. Though for no reason, I often felt like I could offer nothing more but this very image of home- and family-oriented Ukrainians.

But why go back in time to my studies in 2002-03? Today, in my hometown in Ukraine, my American Peace Corps volunteer friends complain that during English language classes they hold in various schools nine times out of ten male foreigners are asked three questions:
– Do you like the Ukrainian cuisine?
– Is it true that Ukrainian women are the most beautiful on earth?
– Would you like to get married in Ukraine?

Elisabeth. Scene 3. Language and Habitation Issues.
Location: Hungary, still. Central Eastern Europe, still.

When I did fall for one Hungarian boy, the real trouble got started. At first the fact that his grandmother was from Vienna had made us bond quickly enough – true, a little bit of alcohol also helped ease up the situation…– and after we had ended up at his place a couple of times, I thought things were actually going well. But then so many things slowly crept up on us, started to get in the way. All the complaints that he started to file: My apartment was too big, and his own salary too small in comparison to the stipend I got, my English was too good and his too bad, and me not having any intentions to start studying the Hungarian language anytime soon…  It suddenly made no more sense to him, the entire story between the two of us.

He had dated another foreigner before me, but her Hungarian was flawless, she had been entirely different, as she was ready to settle down in Budapest, but a restless spirit like me, an Austrian, a Westerner – I would just move on to Korea without giving it a second thought and leave him behind, so why not call it quits now? “This is how you are”, he yelled at me, “you are like a child. You see something, and you go ahead and get it, without asking for it first.” There was no more room for arguing. He had set his mind on ending things, and so we did, with quite a bit of anger and condescension on both sides. Last time I saw this person was the night before I headed out for Seoul, we were very drunk, and when I talked to him at the bar and told him that I would leave the next day, he said to me: “So, you gonna make as much of an effort to learn Korean as you have made to with Hungarian?”

Olena. Scene Three: “You’ve Got Such A Cute Accent!”
Location: Kansas, USA. The Very West of The West.

Even after my initial cultural and linguistic insecurities were swept away by the US Degree Program workload, open support of many of my American professors and the sincerity of many of my international friends I still had my own intimidations in front of ‘Westerners.’ In fact, instead of disappearing, those insecurities seemed simply to go undercover. Unlike me, my Western friends did not seem to suffer from severe pangs of insecurity and fears to fail caused by a single bad grade. They always seemed to have had that unreachable lightness in the way they chose their life styles, the time to finish their degrees and do crazy detours in their professional carriers, like, say, a year working as a fire-fighter in the Yellowstone park. Unlike me who after getting a scholarship knew I simply had to make it, or otherwise, I had no right to stay in that Land of the Brave.

My “Westerner” friends seemed to have the luxury of making mistakes and always, a security of their European and American citizenships. Finally, they always were so much more light-hearted and skilled in their casual communication, knew local and underground bands, independent filmmakers and DJs’ names. What they knew from seeing and hearing, I always had to learn by reading about it and trying to memorize it. When we talked, I would mostly listen, unless the conversation would flow in the direction of Ukraine or East-European regions. Even now, after having lived abroad for seven years, I am still used to people asking me questions about Ukraine, and not about the EU or the USA… as if, really, I cannot for the life of me have an opinion on anything but Ukraine!

Needless to say that in order to break the icy grip of intimidation I plunged into dating foreigners. In fact, it helped me a lot to find emotional balance. However, even now when I communicate with an English native speaker I think about my grammar. Well, I have my reasons: every dating experience with an American (and here I have to make an ethnicity disclaimer: everyone except for my Native American boyfriend) would start with a sincere confession: “Oh, you’ve got such a cute accent!” However, a few months into our communication we would ALWAYS arrive at a point which (phrased one way or another) can be essentialized as “God! You can’t even express yourself properly!” It never mattered that I had one university degree more than most of them, that I had travelled half across the world and that they had barely left their respective states; I was always backward, because I mixed up my definite and indefinite articles.

Elisabeth. Scene 4.  “You wanna be an anthropologist?”
Location: Budapest.

The next Hungarian boy I ran into didn’t have so much of a problem with the fact that I was not bound to stay – possibly because he was already heavily involved with someone else. But language yet again was an issue, whenever we met. Half of the time he was apologizing for what he thought was bad English, the other half he scolded me for the fact that I was speaking English too fast, and that I had not made more of an effort with Hungarian. “You wanna be an anthropologist?” he said. “Why don’t you start learning the language of the place that you actually live in?” – “You are right,” I replied, “I should have.

I really should have. But circumstances were not right. The first year, I was way too busy with my studies to even think of learning a language on the side, and the second year I already had to study Korean intensively.” Lack of time had been an issue, of course. But wasn’t there something else, something that ran deeper? Didn’t it somehow have to do with the fact that during those 18 years that I had been living in sight of Slovenia, I also had not bothered to learn Slovene – a language far easier to learn than Hungarian, let alone Korean? Was that kind of oblivion coupled with arrogance indeed what “you are sooo Austrian” actually came down to?

Olena. Scene Four. “You Can Stay In My Country” Vs. Olena, the International Threat.
Location: Kansas, still. The West of the West, still.

Despite all of this, I liked it in America a lot; after all, there they were, those jeans-wearing boys and girls from my childhood fantasies who were now all around me. Moreover, most of the American and Western European men had an amazing gender awareness that I was not used to given my Ukrainian upbringing.

Thus, they believed that e.g.:
– A woman is not asking to be raped just by wearing a short skirt (still pretty popular belief in Ukraine of the early 2000s),
– A man cannot just grope anything a woman has,
– Or (the ultimate peak of my cultural shock!) a man should not pester a woman the whole evening long demanding to get her phone number. Instead he just gives her his number, saying that he would be pleased if she calls back.

In fact, I enjoyed these men flirting with and courting me as if I was their jeans-wearing, globe-trotting, sex-educated equal. And so I was by that point, but of course only to a certain degree. Because to a certain degree, none of them had ever forgotten that I was an “Eastern European” woman. And for better or worse, they all knew too well what “Eastern European” women were up to. In the best-case scenario it revealed itself in their sincere attempts to convince me to stay in the US, because “I am sure there has to be a legal loop hole so that you don’t have to go back!” One thing they never questioned during their sincere attempts to help was my willingness to stay in the U.S. They never could imagine that I in fact DID want to go home, and that there was nothing America could offer me after the two years to lure me into staying there.

Some of my friends offered me the one solution they knew would work – to marry them. And it was not their fault that this solution just fed too well into a stereotype of an East-European female ‘better-passport-hunter’. Such friendly offers were not really offensive…what was offensive to me is that my actual dates at one point or another would always have this fear in their eyes and make sure to explain to me that they do not plan to marry me. Thus, one of them, lying in bed with me, told me a story of a poor German guy tricked into marriage by a heartless Russian woman. Not like I would immediately make the connection between myself and a Russian woman marrying a German dude… Somehow, though, I felt he was generalizing this story a bit too much. At that time I didn’t ask him for more details, just left him next week, to prove him he should not be so blindly convinced of the attraction that his precious passport had on me.

Elisabeth. International Language of Love in Budapest.

The last Hungarian boy I would meet only a few weeks before I left Hungary. Again, we had a few communication issues, but then we decided to simply put that aside and curled up in bed instead. He had worked in Austria several winters in a row, had slept with tons of Austrian girls while he was at it, and had indeed not bothered to learn German during all that time. We didn’t speak too much while we were together, otherwise things were simply perfect.

No talk of Sissi either, and the first time we met he didn’t even bother to inquire whether I was from Vienna or not, as he was way too focused on giving me a hundred reasons on why I was meant to go to bed with him that night. I guess that’s the beauty of it after all: Nowhere are racial, ethnic and national distinctions to be felt as dramatically as they are in bed, a professor of mine once said to me who has been working on the issue of prostitution for over a decade now. She was right, of course, but then, it is only half of the story. Nowhere but in bed there is the chance to melt all of those differences away in a split second, with one single gesture, one kiss, one movement, if we only try hard enough, to go over there, to invade territory that has somehow previously been demarcated as off-limits.

Olena. International Language of International Love, in Transnational Space.

Seven years down the road, still living abroad and in order to obtain yet another American university degree I am just about to leave for my anthropological field research on Ukrainian female labour migrants in Italy. Needless to say, many Italian men seem to fantasize of Ukrainians maids searching for a “real Italian man.” Even more Italian women dread these “slutty” Ukrainian maids lurking behind every corner nowadays, trying to snatch poor Italian men away from their families. And no one can count all the Ukrainian men drinking themselves into oblivion while imagining their wives and girlfriends carelessly jumping into bed with those “lusty” Italians. In fact, it is a big drama that goes on across borders in the heads of thousands of people involved.

But if I had one piece of advice to give to all of them it would be to remember that we are all simply human beings and the need for SINCERE love and affection is common to all of us. Thus, Western men should fantasize a little less, as Ukrainian women, even though still being advertised as docile, at least have the agency to spit into the freshly cooked soup. And I would like to assure the Eastern women that it is alright to simply look for some fun, as it is not a treason to the nation to look for support and affection while away from Ukraine. As for Ukrainian men, I would ask them to stop drinking and feeling sorry for themselves, but instead try to provide that fun company, that support and that affection that women seek, if they of course care to stay with their women. In short we all can teach and learn from each other a thing or two, if only we care to learn.

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