Into the Deep End of the Pool

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Andrian Gherbovet, a 20-year-old native of the Republic of Moldova, has found many things difficult since he arrived in May to spend the summer as a lifeguard at an Alexandria condominium complex. Getting a ticket to the consumer economy wasn't one of them.

"I was surprised to get credit card so quickly," said Gherbovet, who received a ready-to-swipe Visa less than a month after arriving on his first visit to the United States, before he'd even mastered the local bus routes. Gherbovet, the son of a taxi driver, had never seen a charge card before. "I don't know anyone in Moldova who has one."

Welcome to America. Will that be debit or credit?

While the seasonal influx of international lifeguards from Ireland, Poland and the Czech Republic is familiar to anyone who swims in an apartment pool in the Washington region, this year's crop includes students from even more distant European reaches. The fall of the dollar against the euro has pushed pool management companies to recruit ever eastward, including in such non-E.U. countries as Russia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan.

And for the students who sign up, a summer in the American suburbs is a season of surprises.

"The further we go from the West, the more these students are just wide-eyed when they get here," said Steve Lavery, head of High Sierra Pools, which has contracts to staff lifeguards at more than 350 pools in the area. In addition to about 500 U.S. lifeguards, his company brought in 500 foreign workers this year, housing them in 100 apartments around the region, providing them with 90 rental cars and more than 1,000 mountain bikes.

Recently, Lavery said one of his Ukrainian lifeguards took a short cut to work by way of riding his bicycle along a stretch of the Capital Beltway. Two others were so tormented over their Euro-skimpy bathing suits by teenagers at a Mount Vernon pool that the company rushed over some emergency relief trunks. He's had lost lifeguards, homesick lifeguards and lifeguards baffled by the language of their new profession. (How do you translate "No noodles in the pool" from the Serbian?)

"They think they know it from the movies, but actually being here is like walking on the moon," Lavery said.

For Gherbovet, who has cropped black hair and a Tom Cruise squint, the biggest challenge -- once he finally found a 7-Eleven that sells phone cards good for Moldova -- has been eating. Since arriving at Dulles International Airport in late May, Gherbovet has had little but McDonald's and other fast food, those being the most recognizable options.

"I start to feel a little sick," said Gherbovet at his poolside station at Porto Vecchio Condominiums in Alexandria. "I tried your Chinese food, but this too is very heavy."

Tursunbek Japarov, a 20-year-old economics student from the Central Asia country of Kyrgyzstan, has also struggled with American cuisine. Japarov and the four Eastern European lifeguards he lives with in a two-bedroom Bethesda apartment no longer cook communal meals. ("The Ukrainian guys eat too much," he said.) So now Japarov's typical dinner is a plain chicken drumstick cooked in the microwave.

"Four minutes and it is done," he said. "But every night before falling asleep I think about my mom's borscht and plov."

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