A foreign man, usually though not always over 60 and American, sits with a Ukrainian girl, probably in her twenties and strikingly attractive. Habitually, they are ed by another young woman, the translator, who facilitates the dialogue. Hundreds of dating agencies operate in Odessa, luring the foreign dollar into the laidback Black Sea port city with a suggestion of the nubile young model living a life so impoverished that she will be ready to fly away with the first slack-skinned foreign pensioner who offers her a way out.
Other cities in Ukraine, and other countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, also have well-developed bride industries, but Odessa is a global hub for men looking for love. Curious to find out if the "mail-order bride" is alive and well in the 21st century, I ed a day "romance tour" organised by Anastasia Date, one of the world's biggest "international dating" agencies.
As a by-product, the company runs tours to locations as diverse as Colombia, the Philippines, and Ukraine, to meet the women they have met online.
They then have a week to go on dates with the women they encounter at the socials, meet up with those they have met online ly, and perhaps end their tour with a proposal. With their clipboards and information packs, the men listen attentively to the induction speech in our hotel's conference room, given by tour leader John Carlton, who speaks in a Tennessee drawl.
Most of the "ladies" do not speak English, and thus the men will require the services of the red-shirted translators who will also be present at the social, he tells us. Some of the Americans wear sharp suits and talk loudly about their property empires; others are from small towns in the Midwest and have acquired passports specially to make the trip.
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Most of the men are divorced and in their fifties or sixties. The oldest is year-old Giuseppe, an Italian plastic surgeon, while the youngest is year-old Chris, a stand-up comic from New York. With an outgoing personality and a full set of teeth, I wondered what he was doing on the tour. There is a lot of selfishness in American women. They have no values. We arrive at the nightclub Odessa leave the warm spring sunshine for its dingy interior. Chris wears a tuxedo and top hat; others wear stiff suits and ties; Darren, from a small town in Black Dakota, wears a shellsuit.
Inside, dozens of women await, enjoying a free glass of champagne and branded with white stickers bearing their "ID ". The men take in a panoramic vista of leopard print, stilettos and carefully plumped cleavage. Some of them immediately begin their chat-up routines; others look nervous. For one of them, I find out later, it is not only his first trip outside the US, but also the first time he has ever been to a nightclub.
Affable but shy, Joe has trouble meeting women at home, and has had little contact with women since his wife died of cancer five years dating. I am not used to being outgoing, or talking to ladies, so I didn't know what to do. The socials spawn dozens of dates for the coming week, but there is a recurring complaint among the men. But when they arrived in Odessa, in the women majority of cases, the women were nowhere to be seen.
Some of them turned off their phones, others arranged dates but did not arrive. Many had been called away at the last minute to tend to an ailing relative. The men were distraught. Darren from North Dakota had 10 women lined up that men had been chatting with; he met just a couple of them in person. It was a similar story with many of the others. There was much consternation about the flakiness of Ukrainian women.
The men who go to ukraine looking for a wife then fly home alone and broke
When the dates did show up, many of the men were reporting extraordinarily expensive evenings. Chris has been taken for an overpriced meal and thinks he saw the waiter give his date a kickback after he had paid the bill. He is beginning to wonder whether Ukrainian women might be just as bad as their American counterparts. It becomes clear that the dating scene in Odessa is not all it seems. Locals laugh when I ask them about the strange no-shows, and tell me that in all probability, the women that these men thought they were falling in love with do not even exist.
Everyone I speak to seems to have a sister or a friend who is involved in writing fake letters and engaging in online chats with foreigners. People are reluctant to go into details, but finally I find Alina, who agrees to show me how it works. I despise it, it makes me feel sick, but I have no other source of income," she says.
Showing me how the scam works seems to be her way of assuaging her conscience.
Alina is a slight year-old brunette, but on the dating site she chats as Inessa — a leggy, busty, year-old blonde. Inessa really exists — it required her passport for her to register on the website. But she has a boyfriend and wants nothing to do with it, she simply got a free professional photoshoot for ing up; the pictures are now being used to lure Western men on to the website. Alina spends hours every week online, pretending to be Black. She shows me an inbox full of love letters to Inessa from Americans, Australians, Brits. Alina says many of her friends also have fake s on the site.
Alina's sister has her real photos on her profile, but is not interested in meeting a foreign man; she has a serious boyfriend. Instead, the chats are her main source of income. If the men ever actually show up in Odessa, Alina's sister takes them women on a series of overpriced non-sexual "dates", receiving kickbacks in each venue, and her husband acts as their "taxi driver", taking an enormous fare from the man at the end of each day.
I ask a representative of Anastasia, which owns the biggest chat website and is running my tour, about the fake s, and Odessa insisted that the company has a "zero tolerance men towards fake s and engages in regular checks.
The company also points to a litany of success stories of Western-Ukrainian partnerships that have ended in marital bliss. It is clear that men do occasionally find Ukrainian wives, but hardly anyone on my tour appears to have found love. The days of lonely Texans flying into Odessa, picking up dating bride, and flying out with her are long gone, it seems. But there are very few of them in Odessa, these days.
A fake wedding, and a $, scam
Especially those who would be willing to marry a man in his sixties or seventies. They love Odessa, and they can make good money scamming these idiots. Why would they actually go through with it and move to some boring place in rural America?
Armed with what I have found out, I view the men's stories each evening over beers at the hotel in a different light. I am particularly worried about Stephen, a year-old Texan oil worker who has bought a ring and plans to propose to his year-old pianist "girlfriend", who bears a passing resemblance to Cameron Diaz. He made his decision after one date, when he took her bowling and she told him via the translator that she thought she could be his "soulmate".
Stephen's world view and gender values are alien to me, and he occasionally says shocking things. When he complains to me of the vast sums he is forking out every day for the translator fees, taxi rides, and gifts of Swarovski jewellery, I make gentle suggestions that perhaps all is not what it seems. I smile weakly when he talks of plans to redecorate his house ahead of the arrival of his new wife, and I wonder if I should sit him down and set him to rights.
But he is old enough to work things out for himself. I leave him the day before his departure on the way to a karaoke bar, where he plans to propose. On the penultimate night of the tour, a group of the men without pressing dates goes to Palladium, one of Odessa's top nightclubs. Go-go dancers with their backs to the dancefloor make thrusting movements with rock-hard, oiled buttocks, as the men look on with a mixture of awe and confusion. He plans to return in a fortnight, and might propose to his new "girlfriend", a year old blonde model. I don't know. But I'll be a few hundred quid down if it is.
And maybe I'll come back with a beautiful young wife.
Marriage, ukrainian-style: hopeful bachelors from all over the world head to odessa in search of a wife
It's a gamble worth taking. Indeed, as the tour winds down, even those men who were sent to the depths of despair by dates who did not show up, fleeced them, or led them on, are planning return trips to Ukraine. Some have already been more than once; one of them is on his 14th tour. For some of them, merely the fleeting hope of happiness seems to be enough, while others hold on to a conviction that next time it might just be different. It strikes me that the men have the logic of compulsive gamblers after an unsuccessful trip to a casino. They have played, they have lost, and they know that the chances of success are minimal, but they continue throwing money at it in the vague hope that maybe they will be the one for whom the right cards come up.
The day after the tour ends, I receive an from Chris. On the final night he decided to go on a date with one of the women from the socials. As she spoke no English, the usual translator, with the standard hourly rate, also came along. He was determined to get her and her translator drunk, and find out the truth about dating in Odessa. She told him that the men are effectively paying to sit at a restaurant with a beautiful woman.
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