How I met my Ukrainian husband
(An excerpt from my memoir about meeting my husband Sergei in Ukraine in 1996.)
Moving to Ukraine
I was twenty years old when I moved to Ukraine. I was still considered a new Christian, which meant that I fervently believed what I believed before the mud of life started to creep up on my squeaky clean faith. I talked to God all the time, like he was all five people in a T-mobile family plan. I was positive he wanted me to be in Ukraine for a year, but I had no clue what I was doing as a missionary. I had never taught before. I still didn’t really know the Bible well.
I didn’t even know Ukraine existed before I was assigned to move there.
I thought it was part of Russia and the only things I knew about Russia was what I gleaned from Rocky IV, like, the women were extremely tall and beautiful, no one smiled, and it was always cold.
The day our plane landed in Kiev, I found my luggage and got through customs. Sergei claims he was one of the first people I met when I got off the plane.
“I was at the airport. I helped you with your bags.” Jet lagged and frightened, I had no idea whom I met that night. All I remember was a cold, dismal airport and men everywhere. Some dressed in dark, pressed airport uniforms, their grim stares swiping over our motley crew of Americans. And others, zipped up in thick, black leather coats and furry shopkas, winter hats made of animal fur, pulled down over their ears.
It was the first week in January, and it was -15 degrees below zero in Kiev.
My teammates and I filed out to an old bus without heat. My eyes burned in desperation for sleep as we drove through the city in the dark. I couldn’t see anything outside the foggy bus window.
The bus stopped. “Gillian, Andrea, this is you,” our team leader Jerry told us. My best friend Andrea from college and I were helped with our luggage and herded into a broken down, old apartment building. We squeezed into a small wobbly elevator that reeked of urine and watched our Ukrainian chaperon hit a floor number. We took the elevator all the way up to the ninth floor. I breathed quietly, willing the decrepit old elevator to make it. When the doors opened we were opposite a huge steel door. Our Ukrainian helper pulled out a set of keys, opened the steel trap door and went to work on the second one; with funky red quilted leather. The apartment door key was old fashioned, starting with an oval shape and ending with two huge notches at the end. It looked like a key that would have been used in the book, Series of Unfortunate Events.
It looked like a key God would use to open the book of life.
We were deposited into the foyer of our new apartment that night. “There’s bread and cheese and juice in the fridge. Stay here and wait for us to call you. We’ll tell you what to do next,” the Ukrainian helper said. The big quilted door closed us in. I heard the key rattle as the steel door snapped shut. I looked at my friend Andrea. She looked at me. We both burst into tears. What had we done? We clung to each other for a few moments in the cold, dark Ukrainian apartment. Instead of being exciting, it felt more like someone had kidnapped us and stuck us there for ransom. God, I did hear you correctly, right? What were you thinking bringing me here?
Moving my heart towards him
My first six months in Kiev, Sergei and I were merely acquaintances. Our team employed interpreters to help us buy food, sight-see, and pay bills and ours was the third group Sergei had worked with, but we worked in different schools.
In the summer the schools and universities were on vacation. Our major project that year was teaching a curriculum on morality and ethics based on the Bible to teachers. So we had to come up with other things to do with our time in June, July, and August. A few of us decided to invite college students to play volleyball on Saturdays at Hydro Park, the beach along the polluted Dnieper River that ran through the middle of Kiev, cutting the city into the left and right bank.
Each Saturday, halfway through our game, we’d take a break. Someone would read a Bible verse and talk about his or her relationship with God, and we’d all sit in the hot sand, sun burned and looking intentional, like we were on the beach that day for God, not a killer spike.
Sergei was the interpreter for our God talks at the beach.
He was very good at translating Russian to English and vice versa, but he was a horrible volleyball player, always claiming that the veter, the wind, caused the volleyball to bounce out of bounds when he hit it. He’d go for a swim in the river and I’d look away, embarrassed, when he’d take off his shirt and shorts. He was painfully skinny, a fact not helped by his choice of tiger print Speedos. Stringy, dirty blond hair hung to his shoulders. We Americans would sit on the beach, hot and sweaty, and watch our Ukrainian friends swim perfect back strokes in the yellow river.
After volleyball, Andrea and I would invite everyone back to my apartment. We’d bake cheesy bread in the oven and make popcorn, a novelty in Kiev at that time, something we had brought with us from the States. We’d eat and pray and talk about Jesus with Ukrainian twenty-somethings who grew up in an atheistic country.
I noticed Sergei a lot at the beach. He was serious and took pride in his country. “I never want to live in America. God has called me here to help my own neighborhood,” he would say confidently. This was amazing to us Americans because most of the people we met that year were enamored with the United States. Sergei wasn’t hanging out with Americans to attain the Utopian lifestyle seen on Dallas reruns dubbed in Russian on television. During meetings and in conversations and prayer, he always put our group’s focus back on what God was doing in Ukraine.
I found myself looking around for him at meetings. It shocked me to catch myself thinking that his focus and pride was sexy. Sexy really wasn’t a word a young missionary should have had in her head. I sat next to Sergei in prayer and batted my stubby eyelashes at him as he translated. He must have noticed my attention, because he started to show up at our apartment to walk me to team meetings.
My attraction to him was fully realized one Saturday morning while he interpreted a study on the New Testament book of John.
After every few sentences, my teammate Jim would stop talking and wait for Sergei to translate his words into Russian. Sergei spoke quickly, and with conviction. That day as he translated, I convinced myself that his clear blue eyes were focused on me.
And they were. I called my mom a few weeks after he and I admitted feelings for one another sitting on a bench outside my apartment building, and after we talked to our team leaders to see if it would be okay if we dated.
“Mom, I have something to tell you.”
“Well, whatever it is, don’t tell me you fell in love with someone named Sergei.”
“Funny you would say that. . .”
Sergei had nothing.
He was three years younger than me. He took showers once a week. His teeth were crooked. He had never owned a dresser for his clothes. I took him out to dinner one night and his hands shook as he ordered his meal because it was the first time he had ever eaten out in a restaurant.
I was raised going to restaurants at least once a week. My dad gave me twenty bucks to blow with my friends every weekend. I had a dresser and a closet full of clothes back home. My mom insisted I took a bath every day.
A few weeks before my year-long assignment was complete, I was sitting on a crowded bus in an aisle seat. Sergei stood next to me, his body shielding me from Ukrainian elbows and knees. His arms were pressed on the back of my seat and the back of the seat in front of me, creating a little dome of protection. By then we had been dating officially for almost four months. I looked up at him and he looked down at me. He smiled his crooked smile and I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. At that moment, I was certain again in my spirit, so strong that it almost was an audible voice, that someday I would be his wife.