Laura A. Ryniak returned from a semester in the Soviet Union wearinga wedding band.
The Finksburg resident told her parents, Frank J.and Sharon Ryniak, not to worry when they met her at Kennedy International Airport in New York. They were not about to meet a Soviet son-in-law.
"It was just a marriage of convenience," she quipped. "It's all over now."
In the rural villages of Central Asia, near where Laura lived for four months, men still barter for brides. Even in the 1990s, young women occasionally are kidnapped and sold to a potential husband.
Ryniak, 19, whose long blond hair immediately labeled her a "foreigner", said any unattached female might fall victim to this custom. Officials at the Pedagogical Institute in Volgograd, where she studied, said "marriage" was the safest way to avoid that fate.
"A blond American girl would be fair game and would probably bring a goodprice," she said. "There is no respect for women's rights in CentralAsia."
So, she and Karl Schatz, 21, another U.S. student, bought copper wedding bands and spread a rumor they were married. They livedin separate dorms, but the ruse worked most of the time.
One man offered Schatz three prostitutes in exchange for Ryniak and was surprised at the young man's refusal. Ryniak escaped from a man who tried to push her into his car by punching him "squarely in the face." After that, she rarely left the campus alone.
A student at Marlboro College in Brattleboro, Vt., Ryniak participated in a World Studies Program through the School for International Training, also in Brattleboro. In the Soviet Union, she earned 18 credits toward a degree in international studies.
She chose the more rural Volgograd, a city with a population of about 1 million, instead of Moscow because she wanted to immerse herself in the language.
"The American students whostudy in Moscow stay together, speaking English," she said. "They probably will only use Russian in the classrooms. I wanted to be more involved in Soviet society."
The students and staff at the institute did everything to make their international students, the first group to study there from the United States, feel at home, Ryniak said.
Even with all that hospitality, Ryniak experienced "culture shock."
"Most conveniences we take for granted are still non-existent in rural Russia," she said.
For example, only a fortunate few Sovietsin Central Asia own a car, she said. Car thefts are frequent and auto insurance is unavailable. Owners often remove the starters from their vehicles to prevent thefts.
Everyone else relies on an overcrowded and inadequate public transportation system, she said.
"Peopleare jammed onto buses," Ryniak said. "If you aren't near an exit when the driver calls your stop, you won't be able to get off."
Ryniak also spent three weeks living with a local family and said she had difficulty adjusting to the local cuisine. Meals are practically devoid of fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
"The diet consists ofmeat, potatoes, tons of bread and lots of tea," she said. "Children drink a 'juice,' which is actually a weak wine."
In addition to her own studies at the Pedagogical Institute, Ryniak also taught English at the Specialized English High School, using some materials from her Advanced Grammar and Composition class at Westminster High School.
"The Soviet students take English as early as fourth grade," shesaid. "I worked basically on grammar and intonation with the high school kids. They were eager to learn our figures of speech."
Laura was impressed with how well the students behaved. They don't have much choice -- the slightest infraction could result in a permanent expulsion, she said.
Soviet students don't have to undergo the "pre-college angst" of their American counterparts, she said.
"Anyone whopasses an entrance exam can go to college," she said. "Although, in an effort to bring production up, educated workers are paid less thanfactory workers. Teachers are paid about 230 rubles or $170 dollars a month."
SIT students also are required to set up an internship and secure employment in their host country. Ryniak will return to theSoviet Union, probably this summer, and teach high school English.
After a visit with her family, she's back at Marlboro preparing forthat internship.
"We have to get a detailed outline together and our advisers must approve it," she said.
She probably will live with the same family in Volgograd again.
And she plans to take her copper wedding band.