Two days after Svetlana Vardugina landed in the United States from Volzhsky, Russia, on a three-month work and travel program in 2010, her Russian housemates, whom she found via the Internet, dropped her off on Main Street in Hartford to find a job.
"The first place I saw, Dunkin Donuts, I filled out an application," Svetlana says, but they weren't hiring. She walked on. "I found a convenience store. A Columbian man was the owner." He said Svetlana could work for two hours at lunch doing lottery and Western Union sales. "The next day I worked eight hours. We had so much fun."
But "it wasn't enough," she said, so she walked across the street from the house where she was living in Canton to the La Trattoria restaurant. Owner Mark Bettera told Svetlana to wait while he finished his breakfast. Another employee walked in, and Mark asked, "Should I hire her?"
"Hire her? You should date her!" the employee responded.
Mark hired Svetlana as a hostess.
"I was scared because he made me answer the phone. That was the most difficult thing to do," says Svetlana, who was struggling to understand fast-speaking Americans in July 2010.
"In my family, if you don't know how to do something, you just immerse yourself into it until you learn," Mark says.
Mark had been immersed at La Trattoria "since I was a real little kid." His grandfather started the business and his parents took it over and expanded it. When they retired seven years ago, Mark eagerly stepped up to run the 150-seat restaurant and two banquet rooms, while his older brothers moved to California.
"My parents always encouraged us to get out of the business, but I always enjoyed the excitement. … People are 80 percent of it for sure."
"I was scared of him because he was the boss," Svetlana says. "He never yells, but when he says something, it has to be done. … Every time he told me something, I said 'Yes,'" and then asked another employee to explain.
Svetlana was unsure of herself, but her new boss noticed that "she wasn't afraid to work. … She would pick things up so fast. Everybody loved working with her."
One day, when Svetlana was working at the convenience store in Hartford, Gus Johnson, a customer from La Trattoria, came in.
"What do you think about Mark?" Johnson asked Svetlana.
"Why do you ask?" she replied.
"Because I saw the way you look at him and the way he looks at you. … Why don't you ask him out?"
"I can't. He's my boss."
"So what? You're in America. People do that," Johnson said.
Svetlana's best friend at home told her to give Mark a thank-you card instead. With only a few weeks left before she had to return home to Russia, she handed him a card, unsigned.
"I liked her, but I wouldn't ask her out because it's not professional," Mark said.
One night, when she stayed late, Mark drove her home. She lamented that she had never been to the beach. Gus had also told Mark that Svetlana wanted to go sailing. Mark took Svetlana to his parent's house on the Connecticut shore for a weekend.