JACKSON - Yelena Isayeva was busy talking about her small Russian grocery store's growing business when three Moldovan young men rushed up to the window and asked for brynza cheese to use in a recipe for Ukrainian dumplings.
"Brynza, we need brynza for this," one of them said, referring to a traditional Romanian cheese made from sheep's milk. "And smetana. Do you have any smetana? Where can we buy that?"
Russian Traditions, the little kiosk shop Isayeva's mother-in-law, Natasha, opened earlier this summer, stocks many things reminiscent of the homeland. From imported dried fish snacks to Russian mayonnaise and bottled Georgian mineral water, Isayeva's family store caters to Jackson's growing community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. What doesn't exist on the shelves comes in the form of a common language and culture for Jackson's Russian-speaking homesick.
But smetana, a thicker version of sour cream often used in Eastern European cuisine, well, that would be hard to find, Isayeva, 24, said.
"You won't find smetana in America," Isayeva said. American sour cream just doesn't compare, she said.
Disappointed but not deterred from having a Moldavian-style meal that day, the men settled on a Russian kolbasa, or sausage, for $2.50 and moved on.
Ten years ago, Mexicans were the most visible immigrant community in Teton County. But standing outside Russian Traditions- corner store, new arrivals from Russian-speaking countries show a growing, new voice in the Tetons.
Some have come for love, found on the Internet with lovelorn American men. Others, such as Isayeva, followed in the footsteps of Russian friends who immigrated here several years ago. A large majority of them - as many as 400 by some estimates - arrive on student work visas to help fill Jackson's seasonal workforce needs as grocery baggers, retail customer service and hotel bellhops. Many of them stay and become what locals here often refer to as Jackson's "Eastern Invasion."
In Jackson's three largest food stores, it's not uncommon to see the shelves being stacked by a Latvian student, a Ukrainian behind the register and a Moldavian bagging the groceries.
Olga Needham, who for all intents and purposes, is considered the matriarch of the Russian community here, said the population of full-time, Russian-speaking Jackson residents has grown to as many as 50, though Isayeva puts that number closer to 30.
And while those numbers may not seem large, in a small, isolated mountain town such as Jackson, population 19,880, the community has become large enough to support a Russian Club and the business of Isayeva's Russian grocery kiosk.
"We didn't start this for only the Russians; it's for people here who are interested in Russian culture and language and for those who feel themselves Russian," Isayeva said.
Ten years ago, local businesses relied on American college students to fill labor needs in the service and tourist industries. But as Teton County and the tourism industry grew, local businesses struggled to fill positions.
"There's just not enough people in the valley to fill all the service industry's needs in the summer," said Scot Evans, the store director at Albertsons. Evans declined to specify how many student workers he hires each year, but as one of the valley's top 10 employers, he said Albertsons is one of the biggest benefactors of the foreign-student workforce.
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"I'm studying tourism management, and Jackson is a tourism place, so it's a good experience for me," said Agamamet Tachsaparov, 22, from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Tachsaparov works during the day as a housekeeper at the Snow King Resort and evening shifts at McDonald's. His colleagues and friends include waitresses from Ukraine, Moldovan bellhops and Russian housekeepers.
For Needham, who runs Olga's Day Spa in Jackson, the Russian-speaking community is big enough to provide support to new arrivals, a resource she did not have when she moved here in 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. She came to be with a new, American husband, whom she had met while she was on tour as a Cirque de Soleil performer. The transition into Jackson was hard, especially for her daughter, who was 11 then. At the time, there were maybe one or two other native, Russian speakers in the valley, Needham said.
"Her teachers could speak English and Spanish, but what good did that do her?" Needham said. Now 25, Needam's daughter works for the county planning office.
Now when young students arrive from Ukraine, Russia or elsewhere, word gets out that Needham is their main contact, she said. Many of them arrive with jobs but no housing, a difficult situation in Jackson's expensive rental market. Some employers, such as Albertsons, provide employee rental units, but many others do not. Older generations of Russians jump in to help by bringing bedding, pots and pans and other necessities to the young students, who often cram into converted hotel rooms used as temporary workers' housing.
"My friend Natasha called one day to ask if she could borrow my tent," Needham said. "She had 12 of the students living in her house, but her in-laws were coming and she had to make room for them. But she couldn't just kick them out without a place to live!"
More importantly for Needham, the more Russian-speakers in Jackson means there"s more to gather on traditional holidays, to relieve homesickness and, these days, to talk about news from back home.
Since the war broke out between Georgia and Russia in August, Needham said the valley's Russians are on the phone with each other to find out who knows what about friends and relatives still in the conflict zone.
"We don't know what to believe, because every side has a different story; it's difficult to talk about," she said. Needham gets Russian television stations on satellite TV, and their news reports' take on the situation has a different tone from what she sees in American newspapers.
For Isayeva, who grew up in a southern Russian town just a few hundred miles from where fighting broke out in Georgia, the topic of the new, Cold War-style discourse between Washington and Moscow is especially painful.
"It's hard to know what's going on, but we all know why this war started. It's political, you know?" she said. "When we were the Soviet Union, it didn't matter who you were " Georgian, Russian, Armenian. We were all the same."
Needham agreed. Her mother is Ukrainian, her father's Russian. She grew up in Kyrgyzstan, and as a young woman, she was a member of the Soviet Olympic gymnastics team before joining Cirque de Soleil and traveling all over the world.
When students from Moldova or Ukraine come to Jackson, they speak Russian with her but speak their native languages between themselves, she said. It's the way it's always been, she said.
"They tell me that they are Moldovan, and I say, 'Yeah, so?' I'm a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, but we are all Russians in my mind," Needham said. "But the younger generations are seeing it differently. They have a different attitude."