Saturday, July 28, 2007

An All-American Summer, Through Young Visitors’ Eyes

By DAN BARRY
This Land
The New York Times
July 29, 2007

OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Me.

A place of cons and diversions called Palace Playland spills its garish lights nightly upon the staid summertime shores of southern Maine. And there, between the bathrooms and the bumper cars, a young Romanian woman sits encased in a ticket booth, taking in America.

The booth’s metal mouthpiece tends to mute her accented English, so her slender arms often gesture through the money slot while she explains how many tickets it takes to ride the Matterhorn, or why a youth with beard stubble is ineligible for a children’s pass. Her name is Elisabeth Tuzes, and she is one of many foreign students toiling in the riotous field of American amusement.

Volodymyr Nykyforets, from Ukraine, runs the balloon-dart game. Aika Nurkassinova, from Kazakhstan, supervises the Yo-Yo ride. And Gulin Kutlu, from Turkey, tends the Frog Bog, where customers use mallets to catapult rubber frogs toward rotating lily pads, again and again, as if spellbound.

Ms. Kutlu spends much of her time fishing errant frogs from the tepid pond, but every now and then one lands on a pad, allowing her to shout with joy, “We have a wee-nir!”

For years now, waves of foreign students have supplemented this country’s summer work force. They clean the rooms at Western resorts, process the fish at Alaskan canneries and, especially, manage the attractions at places like Palace Playland, where they are paid in part with a daily parade of that curious species, Homo Americanus.

Just as the park’s mascot, a happy-scary clown called Palace Pete, seems to be everywhere, watching us, so too are these students, with names like Olga and Ozge and Boris. They study us as we devour our fried dough, pop our balloons and waddle about in our vacation-time, wartime stupor.

“You have to say, ‘Hi, do you want to play?’ And if they say yes, I take the money,” explains Ms. Kutlu, 22, who studies English at Uludag University in Turkey when she is not tending to the bog. “I say: ‘This is what you’re playing for. Ready?’ They play, and I ask, ‘Do you want to play again?’ ”

Meanwhile, Ms. Tuzes, 22, a tourism and geography major, sees little more than the funhouse lights from her glass booth. “I’m always yelling at people, ‘It’s $2.20’ ” a ticket, she says. “Two-twenty. It’s the same routine every day.”

This summer, hundreds of foreign students populate and support Old Orchard Beach, cleaning rooms at the Kebek 3 Motel, parking cars at Jimmy’s Lunch, making the pizza at Little Caesars and keeping to themselves any negative feelings they might harbor about America. Without them, it seems, this resort town’s summer season would end on Memorial Day.

Many find their way here through the efforts of Ray Houde, or Mr. Ray, a retired schoolteacher who works for a nonprofit organization called the Council for Educational Travel, USA. On one 23-day trip last winter, he attended job fairs in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Turkey — all to sell the virtues of this gaudy speck of Maine.

Well more than 200 university students bought his Old Orchard Beach pitch, obtained the proper work and travel visas and adopted him as their surrogate father. He finds them jobs and housing, and nudges them to call or e-mail worried parents. Along the way he has learned not to order pepperoni on pizza for Muslims, not to mention “Borat” to those from Kazakhstan, and to be especially careful about housing arrangements because, he says, “Certain countries do not tolerate other countries.”

“The draw here is still, ‘We want to go to America,’ ” Mr. Houde says. “And there’s something about Nee-agara Falls. Those freaking falls have such an attraction to them.”

A measure of America’s attraction is found in the back office of Palace Playland, not far from Skee-Ball. Every summer, Michael Verrier, the park’s personnel director, asks the students he hires to pinpoint their homes on a world map that hangs in his office. Nearly 100 pins jut from that map this year, marking places with names like Almaty (Kazakhstan), Novosibirsk (Russia) and Antalya (Turkey).

One of those pins represents Ms. Tuzes, the woman in the ticket booth, who also works several mornings a week as a chambermaid. She cooks goulash at home instead of eating too much pizza, and cannot wait until she has said “two-twenty” for the last time, after which she will head off to see where else but Niagara Falls.

They also represent Olga Andrusiak, 19, and Mariia Melnychuk, 20, both from Ukraine, and their friend Irina Markasova, 19, from Russia. At first they greeted Maine with tears, but gradually they became acclimated to the flashing neon lights, the sugary peanut butter, the frenetic rhythms of a strange country attempting to relax.

They spend their nights making pizza at Little Caesars — “I make ‘Crazy Bread,’ ” Ms. Markasova says earnestly — and their days operating the Matterhorn and the Superstar. And when they get a break, they chat in Russian about the nice people they have met and the strange things they have seen, such as that woman who was wearing a hat that looked like a hamburger.

Soon these students will return to their homes, bursting with stories of wartime America as experienced through the kaleidoscopic prism of a New England amusement park. These Americans talk more about the Red Sox than about Iraq, the students might say. They eat a lot of fried dough. And, for some reason, they love to catapult rubber frogs.

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