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From Russia with love 

Well, the Ukraine girls really knock 'em out

Phil Lewis admits he was too young when he got married the first time, to his high-school sweetheart. He and his next wife had two sons and stayed together 10 years before she eventually left him for another man. Time went by and, one day, there he was: a twice-divorced, 39-year-old auto mechanic. Nothing special in the looks department. No fancy college degree. Living in rural south Georgia.

For a lonely man shuffling toward middle age but still holding out hope that he'd share the rest of his life with a soulmate, Lewis realized his was not an enviable position.

"I couldn't find what I'd call a decent woman, a family woman," he says in his smalltown drawl.

So he looked east. Way east.

For four years, Lewis had been ordering catalogs from European Connections, an Atlanta company that introduces American men to Russian women. He'd scan the dozens of smiling faces and read the descriptions: "Natalya, 28, aesthetician, fond of travel, seeks husband who is generous and has sense of humor. . ."

Lewis had written to several of the women he found in the catalog on an on-and-off basis. A correspondence might peter out, he'd get busy with work, maybe he'd go out on a date with a local woman, but he'd always return to the Slavic beauties in the pages of the catalog.

In 1999, after four years of daydreams and procrastination, he signed up for a "romance tour." Previous European Connections clients, whom he spent long hours calling for advice, told him that a country boy like himself should avoid the snobby big-city girls of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Instead, he should look for love in Ukraine, where things are less complicated and people are accustomed to a slower pace.

That fall, he and 50 other guys touched down in Kiev for 10 whirlwind days of speed-courting. The first three days would be spent attending "socials" in the ballroom of their four-star hotel, through which hundreds of splashily dressed Ukrainian women would be herded over the course of tightly organized meet-and-greets lasting up to five hours.

Each man was assigned his own interpreter and instructed to talk to as many women as possible, never lingering for more than 20 minutes on any one girl. Get a phone number if you like her, tell her you'll call her that evening to make a date, then move on to the next girl.

Take detailed notes, and shoot a Polaroid, Lewis was told, because once the adrenaline rush of the introductions is over, you'll never be able to remember who you've met.

Each girl wears a tag with a clearly printed number, which initially is more useful than her name. To add to the men's confusion, there seem to be only about three dozen names in common rotation among Russians; entire states could be populated exclusively by Svetlanas, Ludmilas and Tatyanas.

When Lewis, dressed in a coat and tie and accompanied by his interpreter, Julia, walked through the ballroom door, he was stunned by the wealth of feminine pulchritude on display within.

"It was everything I'd been told and more," he says.

It's fortunate there was such a large selection of women, because Lewis had some very exacting ideas about who he was looking for. Besides being pleasing to the eye, she should be a smalltown girl, somewhere between 28 and 32 years old. A teacher or engineer was preferred; Lewis' research had shown that those were low-paying professions that nonetheless demanded a strong education. A teacher, he reasoned, would be less likely to be a gold digger.

Finally, he was looking for a woman who had a child. He already had two sons and didn't want to father any more kids. His bride-to-be wouldn't feel she had missed out on motherhood, he figured, if she already had a child of her own. Ideally, that child would be a daughter.

The first afternoon, Lewis met dozens of women and ended the social with a handful of numbers, but without feeling as if he'd met the one person he'd come to Ukraine to find.

But he seemed to be in the minority. Many of his fellow travelers left the reception smitten with one or more of the Annas or Irinas they'd met. Others were clearly hung up on their interpreters.

The next day, as Lewis entered the reception hall, he decided to make a careful survey of the room before plunging into conversation. Between the groups of women clustered around the Americans, he spotted a pretty blonde sitting by herself near the wall; she looked shy, perhaps a little melancholy.

"How old do you suppose she is?" he asked Julia, who said she thought probably early 20s.

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