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My Big Fat American Summer
Greasy food. Seven-day workweeks. Bizarre boardwalk behavior. Will two young Bulgarian women survive a season in Ocean City?

By Tyler Currie
Sunday, September 4, 2005

Do you have a place to stay?" Nick Campagnoli asks. He looks at the four Bulgarian college students who've just dragged themselves and their luggage into his shop. He can put them up in a nearby hotel for $10 per person, and in Ocean City there's no better deal. Nadezhda "Nadia" Hristova, 21, whose first name means "hope," looks shellshocked. She's the best English speaker in the group, but the 27-hour trip from Bulgaria has left her hungry, unshowered and loath to be the spokeswoman. She turns to her three 20-year-old friends:

Radostina "Radi" Tsenova, Boyan "Bobby" Nedelchev and Krasi Rainovski. For a few moments no one says anything.

"Helloooo," Campagnoli says. "Do you have a place to stay?" He peers over his glasses and waves at the huddle of Bulgarians.

It is 1 a.m. on the Thursday before Memorial Day, and college students from all over Eastern Europe are pouring into Ocean City to spend the summer clearing tables, cleaning toilets and cutting grass. Campagnoli, co-owner of Ocean City International Student Services, is often the first person in town to greet these foreign workers. He gets paid about $100 per head to find students jobs. He also sells Internet access, calling cards and used bicycles. His small storefront near the city's southern tip is like a Warsaw Pact student union. Clocks on the wall show the time in distant capitals: Minsk, Moscow, Bratislava, Sofia and others.

Nadia finally speaks up. They have no place to stay, she tells Campagnoli. Not for tonight. Not for the next four months. "What are the possibilities of us finding a place to live?" she asks.

First things first, Campagnoli says. Tomorrow: house-hunting. Right now: folded bedsheets, blankets and pillows. He asks them for $15 each -- $10 for the hotel room plus a $5 deposit on the linens. Hall's Pioneer Hotel & Plaza, he says, is just around the corner. Campagnoli doesn't own the hotel, but, he says, he gets a 10 percent cut for steering in a stream of warm bodies. Loaded down, the Bulgarians head for the door. It's not the nicest of hotels, Campagnoli calls after them. He chuckles and says, "Hold your breath."

Out in the street, the Bulgarians slump toward the Pioneer, which sits above one of Ocean City's many T-shirt shops. ("Welcome to America," reads one shirt being hawked around town. "NOW SPEAK ENGLISH.") At first, they walk past the Pioneer. The only sign is a small wood carving that says "Family Hotel." It hangs above a glass door, murky with a film of grease and dust. The entrance is wedged open with a roll of garbage bags; evidently some guests are sneaking in without paying their 10 bucks. There is no concierge, no real lobby and almost no light -- just a dim corridor leading to flights of creaking stairs that soon bring the Bulgarians to a hallway bathed in a soft yellow glow and the wretched scent of decaying carpet. Two young Russian men sit by the window at one end of the hallway, smoking cigarettes and drinking Miller High Life. They speak in conspiratorial whispers and ignore the Bulgarians, who walk in the opposite direction, searching for their room. Bobby and Krasi enter first, followed by Radi and Nadia.

Three bunk beds, unfinished blocks of lumber nailed together, hold stained mattresses. Empty Pepsi bottles lie on the floor beside used plastic spoons. The men shrug and sling their bags to the floor, while Nadia and Radi set down their bags more tentatively. They are all exhausted, but no one utters a complaint -- at least not in English.

By 9 a.m., the Bulgarians are itching to house-hunt. They've each spent about $2,000 getting to Ocean City. Most of the money went toward travel expenses. But they also paid hundreds of dollars to agencies in Bulgaria and the United States that helped them secure four-month work visas from the State Department. All four took their final exams a week early so that they could be among the first foreign students to pick over Ocean City's low-rent housing. The competition is already arriving. A trickle of Russians walk from the Greyhound station toward Campagnoli's shop. He puts this year's crop of foreign workers at 2,500 to 3,000. Others say the number is closer to 10,000.

It feels as if the foreign students are everywhere, especially along the boardwalk. Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias, who usually hires a few foreign students to work in his boardwalk T-shirt shop, calls them "critical to our economy and certainly to our hospitality industry."

But certain perils lurk for these workers. "Everybody is trying to figure out how to make money off of the students," complains Campagnoli, who distinguishes himself from Ocean City's "vultures." He is 63 and moved to the beach after retiring from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Five years ago, he and a business partner started Ocean City International Student Services, which has become an important resource for the city's young foreign workforce. "We put together a collection of services that students wanted and would pay for," he says. In addition to finding students jobs and housing, Campagnoli processes tax returns, cashes payroll checks and runs tours to Washington, Baltimore and Niagara Falls.

Now Campagnoli waits for the four Bulgarians to squeeze into the back seat of his car as he talks on the phone with a landlady who has a vacant apartment. He hangs up and warns his passengers that the apartment is probably a rat hole. A few minutes later, the Bulgarians unpack themselves from the sedan, stepping into an alley behind the landlady's house. A terrier mutt with one marble-white eye dashes toward them, yapping. Chasing the dog is a woman on crutches with frizzed brown hair and a neon orange sweat shirt. She is shouting, "Hi, kids."

That's the landlady and her dog, Campagnoli says. While the dog paws and sniffs at the Bulgarians, the landlady complains to Campagnoli that her Nepalese tenants get wasted and tear their apartment to pieces. She rants and hobbles at the same time, motioning the group toward a row of cottage-style apartments. The Bulgarian students step inside one of the dwellings. The air is dank and fetid, a mixture of mold and natural gas. The ceiling is low, and there's only one bedroom; the men and women would have to share a sleeping space. The landlady wants $59 per person per week.

"Any interest?" Campagnoli asks. The Bulgarians confer. The verdict is swift. "Actually, no," says Nadia.

The morning wears on, and the Bulgarian students reject several more apartments. One is bright and breezy with an ocean view, but it, too, has a single sleeping space. The women find another apartment acceptable, until the landlord, a barrel-chested Greek, explains that they will need to vacate the property for eight days in June, when graduating high school students descend on Ocean City for the annual debauchery called Senior Week. American kids, the Greek says, pay top dollar.

Campagnoli checks the time. He needs to get back to his shop -- more Russians are arriving by the hour. He suggests that the Bulgarians go check in with their employers. He found jobs for them before they left home, and all four have employment contracts. Bobby and Krasi, who speak almost no English, are going to work as landscapers for the city; Nadia has a position at the Stowaway Grand Hotel; and Radi is supposed to be a cashier at a 7-Eleven. Campagnoli tells the students to see him later that day. In the meantime, he'll try to dig up some more housing.

Afterward, Nadia and Radi walked a few blocks to 7-Eleven. Radi says she introduced herself to the woman behind the counter. I'm going to be working here, too, Radi announced. Perhaps she could speak with the manager to settle on a schedule.

Radi says the woman gave her a chilly response: The manager is not here. And all positions have been filled. Radi explained that she had an employment contract; in Bulgaria, she'd been told to expect to start working soon after arriving.

You can check back in two weeks, Radi remembers the 7-Eleven woman telling her. But Radi only had a few hundred dollars, and she still needed to put down cash for a security deposit. Plus weekly rent. Plus food. If she started work in two weeks, she'd get paid in three weeks, maybe four. She couldn't hold out that long. The woman behind the counter, Radi says, suggested that she start looking for another job. Radi stumbled out of the convenience store and muttered a word in Bulgarian that described how she was feeling. Otchaiana. The rough translation: despair.

Nadia would go to Ocean City only if Radi went, and Radi would go only if Nadia went. They are best friends and classmates at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, where they study industrial economics. Nadia is tall, urbane and smokes like a choo-choo train. Radi, who has eyes like green lanterns, is generally chipper and can't stand cigarettes.

"Wish me good wuck," Radi says not long after the 7-Eleven debacle.

"She means good luck," Nadia says with cool, dry authority. Her English is nearly perfect because she's studied the language since elementary school, though she credits her skill to the ubiquity of American pop culture.

Radi has studied mainly German and only recently started learning English. She still confuses "he" and "she," and danke accidentally slips out when she means "thank you." But Radi, too, is familiar with American culture. "We know about the American parties with the big beer thing in your mouth," says Radi, referring to a beer bong. Later she chants along with a Limp Bizkit song that's thumping from a shop on the boardwalk.

When Bulgaria sent a battalion of troops to Iraq as part of the "coalition of the willing," Nadia and Radi did not take to the streets to protest. They don't rail against George W. Bush, as many European students do. Their only critique of American power is recalling the inconvenience that a visit by Bill Clinton brought to Sofia in 1999 when the Secret Service closed off entire city blocks.

Neither woman had ever been to the United States; they'd been warned that the food was loaded with grease and could make them fat. "Can you buy fresh salad and fruit here?" Nadia asks. Still, the women heard rave reviews about working here for the summer. Two of their friends at school sold french fries on the Ocean City boardwalk last year. The hours were long and hard, the friends reported, but the money was good, and so were the parties.

Until recently, Nadia worked in a Sofia coffee shop, and Radi worked for an accountant. Nadia says the pay was underwhelming, about $200 a month. She would like to own a car, but affording one seems impossible. Her larger dream is to open a cosmetics boutique in Sofia, and she has been trying to save $3,000 for start-up capital. But saving that kind of money while working in Bulgaria, she says, would take years.

Nadia realized that even in America saving $3,000 would not be easy. Just getting to Ocean City would soak up a good part of her earnings. Her parents were able to lend Nadia $2,000 for travel and visa costs, though they don't have a lot of extra money. Her father was an officer in the Bulgarian military, and, after the Communists lost their grip on power in the early 1990s, he was forced to retire on a small pension that he supplements by working as a security guard. Nadia says that her mother wants to work but is unemployed, as are 12 percent of Bulgarians.

Radi, too, was enticed by the luminous green of American dollars. She planned to use her summer savings to send her mother to Paris for a vacation. Radi's father passed away when she was only a few years old, and her mother, a civil engineer, was left to raise Radi and her older brother. Radi tried to borrow the money she needed to come to Ocean City from a bank, but she says that no one would extend her credit. Her mom was not thrilled with the thought of her daughter being so far from home; Radi had never left the country and considered a six-hour bus ride from Sofia to the Black Sea a major journey. But Radi's mother reluctantly went to the bank and took out a $2,000 loan in her own name and handed the money to her daughter.

Anne Marie Conestabile answers her cell phone at the social hall of her church. "Wait. Who is this? . . . Hello, Robert from Poland . . . What are your needs? . . . Linens? I don't have any linens now, but I know people to call who have linens."

Conestabile, 55, has emerged as the patron saint of foreign students in Ocean City. A few years ago, as she was leaving Sunday Mass at Saint Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, she noticed a couple of despondent-looking young men.

"Hey, guys. Do you need some help?" she remembers asking them. In fact, they did. The men were students from Poland. They said that their job contracts had not been honored, and they had no money. Along with five similarly destitute friends, they'd been sleeping outside.

Conestabile, who emigrated from Italy when she was 13, sprang into action. She called a fellow parishioner, the owner of a hotel, who put up the seven Poles for free. Soon she chased down jobs for all of them. "It was an awakening," she says, to what was happening to foreign students in Ocean City.

Four years later, Conestabile has organized dozens of volunteers from five of Ocean City's churches. Throughout the summer they give away thousands of meals and bags of groceries at weekly gatherings for international students. "I feel it is our responsibility, as Americans and as Christian people, to show these students how we can be. I want them to go home and say, 'Not all people we met were nasty, were greedy.'"

She and others heap scorn on landlords who don't return security deposits, restaurateurs who withhold wages and employers who hedge their bets by extending more job offers to foreign students than they have positions.

But Conestabile says that most Ocean City employers play fairly, and many donate groceries and supplies to her to give to international students. When she finishes talking to Robert from Poland, she turns to three Russians standing in the church social hall: Katja Lopatina, 20, Sasha Pitchenko, 19, and Ksusha Afonia, 19. Conestabile hands them bags of groceries and explains some of the finer points of life in this beach town.

"Girls, there is an absolute law in Ocean City," she says. "You have to wear a top at the beach. If you don't you will be arrested." (She's right, kind of. Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino says topless bathing is definitely illegal, but she doesn't think anyone's ever actually been cuffed for it.)

The Russians listen as Sasha peers into her bag of groceries, which includes a box of 12 glazed doughnuts. "I think we will be fat," she says.

Tomorrow Katja starts work at a shopping mall hot dog stand, earning $8 an hour. Sasha, who will earn $6.50 an hour as a hotel maid, says she's envious of her friend's higher pay. But Ksusha is the worst off, with no job at all. Conestabile says that she knows the owner of a fine restaurant in Ocean City, Ristorante Antipasti. She says that she can get Katja and Sasha, with their near perfect English, jobs as waitresses, earning $400 to $500 a night. Their eyes pop out. Back in Russia, elementary school teachers -- which they're studying to become -- earn about $100 a month. Conestabile tells Ksusha, whose English isn't as good, that she can probably get a job in the kitchen. She drives them to Ristorante Antipasti, where an outdoor sign reads, "Voted one of the top 5 restaurants in America."

Fausto DiCarlo, the owner, greets Conestabile with an embrace. He says that, unfortunately, he doesn't need any waitresses. But he offers a salad-making job to Ksusha, the minimal English speaker. "You're gonna work three days," he says: Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. If Ksusha proves to be a good worker, DiCarlo says, then he'll hire her for $8 an hour, plus tips from the waitstaff.

Conestabile is confident that she's leaving Ksusha in good hands, and DiCarlo leads her back to the kitchen, where she'll start learning salads. Conestabile drives Katja and Sasha back to a four-bedroom apartment they share with 12 other Russian students. She tells them not to worry; they'll easily find well-paying waitress jobs. But if they don't, she says, "give me a call."

The Bulgarian women return to Campagnoli's bustling student center. Radi tells him about the 7-Eleven meltdown. He doesn't seem too worried. Foreign workers like her are in great demand in Ocean City.

The phenomenon dates to the early 1980s, when restaurants and boardwalk businesses first started having trouble attracting enough student labor, Campagnoli says. American college students were becoming more interested in internships and résumé-buffing than burger-flipping. A new source of cheap labor was needed. Ireland came to the rescue.

About 25 years ago, amusement park owner Granville Trimper became the first Ocean City employer to import student workers from Ireland. Campagnoli says that as the presence of Irish workers spread, so did the notion among Ocean City merchants that foreign kids were preferable to Americans. "They didn't have radios. They didn't have cars. They weren't as fussy as the Americans," he explains. But, as the Irish economy started booming in the mid-1990s, Irish students increasingly stayed home. Again, Ocean City needed a new source of cheap labor.

Good thing we won the Cold War. Eastern Europeans in recent years have dominated the State Department's Summer Work/Travel Program, which is intended "to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world."

The State Department hasn't yet counted how many foreign students have come this summer, but last year, U.S. embassies handed out temporary J-1 visas to more than 88,500 students, including 22,500 Poles, 9,300 Russians and 3,000 Romanians. The U.S. Embassy in Estonia has what it calls Super Tuesdays, devoted exclusively to processing student work visas.

If 7-Eleven doesn't want Radi, some other employer will. Campagnoli digs through a mound of papers and grabs the phone. When he finishes talking, he turns to Radi. How about being a pool girl? She doesn't understand, and Campagnoli mimics a swimmer. He tells her that she'd monitor the chlorine, check guests' ID cards and get a tan.

Radi can't fully articulate her joy. "I like to swim," she says. She pumps her fist, and her pale face glows pinkish. Nadia is feeling good, too. She has stopped by the Stowaway Grand Hotel, and it looks like her job contract will be honored. She isn't sure, though, whether she's going to work as a receptionist or as a toilet scrubber. She'd greatly prefer the former.

A former employee of Campagnoli's stops by and learns that the Bulgarians are still looking for a place to live. He says he knows of a house in West Ocean City that's for rent. It's kind of far. They would have to take the bus to work or get bicycles. Still, they want to see it.

Soon they're touring a small, two-story house where contractors are installing new carpet. There's a deck with a view of Sinepuxent Bay, an enclosed porch, a back yard, laundry machines, a full kitchen, decent furniture and, best of all, separate sleeping quarters for the men and women. Four Russian women have already rented the top floor. The landlord wants to cram seven people downstairs. Nadia and Radi know of three more Bulgarians who will arrive next week. It'll be tight for sure, but at $71.50 per person per week, they haven't seen anything better.

Nadia asks, When can we move in?

"I have paycheck, and I want to get the money," Radi says to the bank teller. The sugar-voiced woman flips over Radi's check and slides it back across the counter. "Honey, you have to sign the back." Radi does and walks out with $549 in cash. It's the third week of June, and she's been paid for the first time.

"Now I'm rich," she says. She only had $50 left and had to borrow last week's rent from one of her roommates. She says she's going to open a bank account, but for now she's keeping her cash -- every cent to her name -- in a pouch in her backpack.

Nadia is waiting in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette. She looks miffed for a couple of reasons. One: Radi, who gets paid to chill by the pool, has turned the color of a McDonald's hash brown, while Nadia, who cleans toilets all day, still has her creamy Euro-pallor. Two: Radi makes $8 per hour, and Nadia makes $7. But today is Nadia's once-per-week day off, and she's looking forward to basking with Radi by the pool for a few hours.

Radi unlocks the gate, unfurls the flags -- those of the United States, Maryland and Ocean City, in that order -- and posts them around the pool. She doesn't mind working seven days a week. Her biggest on-the-job challenge is getting the little American kids to understand her. "Wah-wuk," she says, and they keep running. "Everybody says that my job is easy," says Radi, who sometimes reads a paperback copy of Bridget Jones's Diary in Bulgarian when there's no one swimming. "But it's so hot out."

"Come to my job, and we'll talk," says Nadia. "I spend eight hours on my feet." Even if she can't sit by a pool all day, she still wishes that she were a hotel receptionist, not a maid.

Jerry Morris, Radi's boss, comes out to say hello. In part, he's responsible for Radi's impression that Americans are generous people. A retired businessman from Annapolis, he manages and lives in this condominium complex, lavishing Radi with drinks, snacks and Internet access. He takes pictures of her in her bikini and suggests that she e-mail copies to her family. Radi says, "He is a great man."

Radi has made lots of American friends while sitting by the pool. Many of them bring her drinks and offer her sandwiches for lunch. Morris announces that he's going to pay for Radi's daily bus fare, which is $2. "You're here to save money, and we're trying to help," he says.

"Oh, no, you can't do that," Radi blushes.

"You have no choice," Morris says. He's hired young Americans in the past to work at the pool, but he says that foreigners like Radi, who always shows up on time, seem to have a better work ethic. He doesn't want to lose Radi to another employer.

Morris starts talking about his cocker spaniel puppy, Cody. Nadia's eyes instantly brighten. At home she has a 10-year-old cocker spaniel named Sara, whom she misses as much as her boyfriend and Bulgarian cooking. In other words, terribly. Can she please meet Cody? Morris goes and gets the dog. Nadia crouches beside the dog and gets washed with puppy slobber. She giggles and scratches Cody behind the ears, not noticing the squirts of pee landing on her toes and running onto the pool terrace.

"Whoops," says Morris. "Cocker spaniels tend to do that." Radi runs off to fetch a watering can. It's her job to keep the pool area clean. She douses the piddle puddles. Another squirt from Cody hits Nadia before she realizes what's going on. "He pissed on me," she shrieks. "Oh, no -- now I'm his."

After leaving the pool, Nadia heads to Wal-Mart. The other Bulgarians have given her a shopping list, wanting everything from stereo speakers to hand cream.

Nadia strolls through the wide aisles, drops merchandise into her cart, deflects a come-on from a blue-vested associate and stalls with both indecision and amazement before an entire row devoted to lotions: "Oh, it's so confusing in here." After checking out, she halts her cart at the automatic doors that are sliding open and shut for the relentless tide of shoppers. She hears the beckoning call of America's biggest private employer and heads to the hiring center in the back of the store.

Since arriving in Ocean City, both Nadia and Radi, like many foreign students here, have been looking for second jobs. They had a disastrous tryout at a pizza parlor in a strip mall. The restaurant was busy when they arrived, Nadia recalls. She says that no one gave them instructions -- at least not slowly and clearly. Nadia suggested to the manager that she and Radi come back another time to learn what to do. "If you can't handle it now," Nadia remembers being told, "then you can't handle it ever." The Bulgarian women walked out in disgust.

A few days ago, they finally found second jobs at Dumser's Dairyland outside of town. The boss offered just four night shifts per week, which Nadia and Radi could split. Nadia's already worked one shift. She liked it, except for the no-smoking rule. And the employee benefit -- one dish of ice cream -- strikes her as stingy, given the many gallons that she saw tossed into the trash at the end of the night. Radi seemed less thrilled: "There are so many kinds of ice cream," she complains.

Now Nadia stares at the computerized application machine at Wal-Mart. She spends 20 minutes entering data: address, date of birth, references and her Social Security number, which she finally got this morning. She comes to a series of statements that she must rate on a continuum, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. "A good employee always supports the organization when an outsider criticizes it." Slightly agree, Nadia enters. "A majority of individuals succeed in business merely because of chance." Slightly agree, Nadia enters. She keeps entering "slightly agree," at first because she doesn't really understand some of the statements and later because she doesn't bother to read them. She looks at the top of the screen, where it says that there are dozens of statements left. She's growing impatient. This is ridiculous, she says. She hits the quit button and walks out of Wal-Mart.

The next morning, Nadia is sipping coffee and folding rags. The windowless room in the Stowaway Grand Hotel is filled with female maids, young and old. On Nadia's left sit a pair of Mexicans, also folding rags. One of the women leans over and whispers in Spanish, Are you coming to the party tonight? Of course, Nadia responds in Spanish, a language she honed during a summer in Spain. Nadia is surprised that her Spanish is getting more use than her English. The larger culture that swirls around her still feels alien.

One afternoon on the boardwalk a woman approached her with a pamphlet and told her, she recalls, to "trust in God. He will listen to you." Nadia is, at least nominally, a member of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which doesn't engage in this sort of open-air proselytizing. "I'm scared of those kind of people," Nadia says. "They do this and that and will go kill themselves in the name of the Lord."

Another day she sits on the boardwalk, people-watching. A vacationing couple walk past, pushing a 3- or 4-year-old child in a stroller. Is it normal, Nadia asks, for American parents to push children who are clearly old enough to walk? She says that, in Bulgaria, as soon as a kid can walk, the stroller goes. This child, she predicts, will grow up to be lazy. And maybe fat, too.

Nadia really doesn't know what to make of American women. One day she sees a frumpy woman driving through Ocean City in a fancy BMW. The sight puzzles her. In Bulgaria, she says, only a beautiful woman with a rich boyfriend could drive such a car. Nadia is also mystified by the people whose toilets she scrubs. She has the impression that the typical American leads a carefree existence.

"They drive their cars to work, they rest. I don't think they think about things so much." And Nadia feels invisible to them. "I'm sure no one here asks himself: 'Who are these girls? How do they live?'"

Tap. Tap. Tap. "Housekeeping," Nadia speaks into a closed door. When there's no answer, she unlocks it and steps inside. The room is strewn with the signs of teenage American girls: shorts with print on the rear end, flip-flops, empty beer cans. It's Senior Week in Ocean City, and for the maids at the Stowaway Grand the carnival is, mercifully, almost over.

The teenagers have been slobs, Nadia says, but she's been most irked by the lack of tips. "They can afford $150-a-night room, but they don't leave a tip?" she says.

All the windows look out onto the beach. I want to be out there, she points at the sunbathers, surfers and kite fliers. Instead, Nadia toils. She finds a sock on one bed and dramatically lifts it with a finger, holding her nose with the opposite hand, dropping the garment beside its twin in the corner. She and her partner, a fellow Bulgarian named Martine, take turns cleaning toilets, their least favorite job. Nadia teases a fellow maid from Mexico who shrugs her shoulders when one guest asks for directions: "Soreee, no eeenglish." Another Mexican maid tracks down Nadia and reminds her about tonight's party.

By the end of the day, having cleaned 25 rooms, Nadia pockets $5 in tips and heads out to wait for Radi. They've got a ride to the party, which is at a house in the Eastern Shore town of Delmar, about 45 minutes away. The occupants of the house are Mexican construction and hotel workers. With more people than bedrooms, there are mattresses on the dining room floor.

Pounds of sirloin are being marinated in a concoction of beer, lime juice and chopped garlic. Music blares from a small stereo, and the Mexican hosts -- Nadia's fellow housekeepers and their friends -- pass drinks to the two Europeans, whom they call las bulgaras. Radi knows hardly a lick of Spanish but jokes with a short Honduran man who tries to correctly pronounce her last name, Tsenova. Nearby a woman from Santa Cruz, Mexico, tells how she almost died of thirst three years ago while illegally crossing the Arizona desert en route to Ocean City. She says that she desperately wants to go home, but her 14-year-old daughter depends on the money she sends back to Mexico.

The green salsa, made of avocados and chilies, is lava in Radi's mouth. Nadia shies away from the salsa, too, but they devour the tangy grilled beef, wrapped in warm corn tortillas. After dinner the party reconvenes in a local barroom filled with Latin music and dancing couples. Las bulgaras take off their shoes and dance with the assorted men who invite them onto the parquet floor; afterward, laughing and punch drunk, they compare the soles of their feet, which are caked with dirt.

They sleep in the Mexicans' house and the next morning get a lift back to Ocean City. Nadia gets dropped off at the Stowaway Grand, and Radi has time to go home and take a shower. Just as she's about to leave for the pool, a look of horror crosses her face. She's riffling through her backpack. The pouch with more than $550 is gone.

Radi unlocks the pool gate at 10 a.m., right on time. But she doesn't hang the flags. She keeps looking through her backpack, a vain hope. Jerry Morris, her boss, strolls by, and she tells him about the missing money. "Ouch," he says, pursing his lips grimly.

Soon a call is made to the Mexicans' house, and the host listens, through a translator, to Radi's description of the small pouch of money. She had it with her when she went dancing. Maybe it fell out of her bag when she was getting ready for bed. She doesn't say it, but maybe the pouch was stolen. The Mexican host calls back and says that he searched the house but didn't find anything.

It is a terrible day at the pool, Radi later says. The sky is overcast, and almost no one shows up to swim. Radi is left alone to stew in her own otchaiana. She has to work at the ice cream stand tonight and won't have time to look around her house for the pouch. So Morris decides to send her home early.

When Radi walks through the door, she finds one of her roommates there. He starts looking around his bed -- aka the living room couch -- and there, among the rumpled sheets, is Radi's brown pouch. It must have fallen out when she flung down her bag, heading for the shower. Later she describes the relief she felt. "It was like a stone fell from my heart."

There is a lull between salad orders, and Ksusha Afonia stands in the kitchen over a tray of steaming silverware. The young Russian woman grins broadly when asked about her job at Ristorante Antipasti. "I like it very much. I like the staff." She also likes the pay, though she's making $3 an hour plus tips instead of the $8 an hour the owner first promised. Ksusha, though, is hardly complaining. With tips from the waiters, she says, she earns $60 to $70 a night. "It's very good for me."

Katja Lopatina, meanwhile, is sprawled out on her front porch, a few blocks from the ocean. After two months on the Ocean City employment circuit, she's less chipper than her friend the salad girl. Katja got laid off from the hot dog stand after a few days, she says. The boss gave her $100 along with her walking papers. "That was very generous," she says. From there, jobs became revolving doors. She stormed out of her job at a Chinese restaurant after the owner yelled at her. She was a hostess at a restaurant, but that was too boring, she says, and she quit. She worked as a prep cook in another restaurant, but no one in the kitchen spoke English, which she wanted to practice speaking, so she quit there, too. At last, she says, she's found the perfect job, waiting tables at a Phillips seafood restaurant.

"I consider it to be quite an achievement," she says. "Phillips is one of the best places a girl can work in this town . . . Not only am I the first Russian, I am the first foreigner [to work there]. I broke the Iron Curtain."

Nadia's elbow started hurting one day at work in early July. It was nothing, she thought, and kept vacuuming. But soon her whole arm went numb, and she started crying. "I'm not going to be able to work," she remembers thinking.

Her supervisor immediately sent her to a doctor, who diagnosed tennis elbow. The hotel, which paid for the doctor's visit, put her on two weeks of light duty so she could rest her arm. This meant that she wasn't vacuuming or scrubbing toilets, just changing bedsheets and dusting. But it also meant that she had to quit the job at Dumser's Dairyland -- scooping ice cream, she figured, was not a wise idea. And, with no second job, Nadia knew that her goal of saving $3,000 for her cosmetics boutique was shot.

"I won't get that," she says. "I'll just have the money to give back to my parents and to buy some stuff." She's thinking about buying a digital camera and taking a trip to New York with Radi before heading home in early October. People keep telling her that the rest of America is a lot different from Ocean City.

Nadia was recently asked to work as a hotel receptionist, the job she'd once hoped for. There wouldn't be tips, but the hourly rate would be 50 cents higher. She would also get to practice her English more. But something had changed. Nadia no longer minded being a maid. She loved her co-workers, didn't like the thought of dealing with irate hotel guests and decided to remain in housekeeping.

She doesn't regret her summer here. She says that it has made her more resilient and self-reliant. And she acknowledges she's been having fun. She shows pictures from another party with the Mexicans, where she's dancing with a man almost half her height.

She and Radi have made friends with a few American men who live nearby. Mostly they party together. It's nothing more, says Nadia, who's committed to her boyfriend. But she says that one of her Bulgarian roommates, a 21-year-old woman, has been dating a 35-year-old American man who talks to her about getting married.

"That's not for me," Nadia says. "I don't want to live here."

Like Nadia, Radi no longer expects to leave Ocean City with a pile of cash. She also quit her job at the ice cream shop, which she simply didn't care for. She wouldn't mind picking up a new second job, but she's not too worried about it. She and a friend have been trying to earn cash by washing boats at a nearby marina. Radi has become buddies with more people at the pool, and her friends are planning to throw her a party before she leaves.

Radi and Nadia inhale the aroma of sizzling pork strips, prepared Bulgarian style: salt and lots of black pepper. One of their roommates mans the grill. He sips from a can of Milwaukee's Best, clicks his tongs and flips over the meat. He's a prep cook at an Ocean City bar and can't get over how bad American food is. Nadia and Radi, who are sitting on the patio of their house in West Ocean City, launch into their own denunciations of American cuisine. After two months in Ocean City, they want nothing more than a hunk of Bulgarian cheese.

The grill master soon sets down before the women a small plate of seasoned pork, which is tender, juicy and quickly devoured. Nadia is still hungry. She reaches for a loaf of Wonder Bread, a jar of mayonnaise and an open tin of Spam that was purchased by one of her roommates. In Bulgaria, people don't eat ham from a can, but Nadia is hardly repulsed. She digs her knife into the Spam, slathers the bread with mayo and sinks her teeth into the sandwich. It is, perhaps, the worst food America has to offer -- and Nadia says it's not that bad.

Tyler Currie is a Magazine contributing writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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