Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The perils of personal blogging.

Blogging is mostly fun. Writing down my thoughts and ideas and opinions helps me remember a place or an experience far more than photos - but sharing them, rather than just putting them in a private journal, helps me connect with other travelers and various interesting people. I learn things I never would have otherwise, through their comments. And it seems selfish not to share the great places I see and experience - shouldn't others get to learn about these places as well? Likewise, I like sharing when things don't go so well, because I hope it helps someone avoid something I had the bad luck to have to deal with.  

I like reading other people's experiences, particularly about traveling. I like being enticed to visit somewhere I've never been, or to get ideas for my next time traveling somewhere. But it can be hard when I read a blog by someone about a place I love and find they had just the opposite experience. That said, I don't question that they had that experience, even if I think it was an exception, or was misinterpreted. That's their experience, honestly told. I only get angry only when they make a factual error that could so obviously could have been avoided with just a little more observation or research, or when they have an obvious agenda in their writing - I shall not like Mexico, from the moment I get on the plane to go there, and my blog will reflect that. Those people drive me batty.

I blog both professionally and personally. The blog you're reading now is personal. It's not a very widely-read blog, and that's by design - it's not something I link from professional posts, though it can be found if someone does lots of click-throughs, from social media status updates to photos and then, maybe, to here. I write for a very particular audience - my own friends and family. Some of them all but demanded I blog, and so I do. But it's the Internet, and other folks do find it and comment - just as I do regarding other people's blogs. That's fine.

Do I worry about offending? Sure. But I also know that no matter what I write, at least one person will disagree with it. In fact, I regularly offend people with my professional blog, much more than this one, often when writing about something I think is the most benign thing in the world. For instance, I've deeply offended people for saying that people often volunteer for reasons that have nothing to do with having a good heart - many primarily want skills and networking to get a paid job - and such alternative motivations have nothing to do with whether or not they are a "good" volunteer or not. Oh, the outrage!

I do have people that write me to disagree with what I've written about traveling in various places. I had one person write me about how unfair I'd been regarding this blog about sexual harassment in the field, how it showed that, obviously, I'm a huge racist, and even though I've had more than a dozen women write me to thank me, specifically, for this piece, that ONE guy still hurt very much with his criticism and accusations. I almost took it down because of that outraged guy - and then had to remind myself how helpful it's been to so many people, and how two women from a country I never mention in the article, but is the home country of the guy that made my life hell and inspired that blog, said they really appreciated the piece. But still… the criticism hurt and made me second guess.

It can seem flip to write a travel blog from a country where there is either war or extreme poverty or post-war strife or all of the above. Often, I'm in those countries for work - very serious work. Sometimes, I really am just a tourist in such a country - like Bosnia. What I'm trying to do in my blogging about those travels is to show you the very human side of being there - this is a real place, not just a list of statistics on the nightly news, not just photos of violence or poverty. People in these countries, laugh, sing, cry, eat, hate, enjoy, watch movies, belittle, compliment, offend, have favorite TV shows, inspire and live, just like anywhere, even amid the war or extreme poverty or post-war strife. Because - people. That's what they do. I want you to read these and think, well that particularly thing is just like Kentucky or California or Vermont or wherever. The standard of living may be jaw-dropping, the plight of women may be horrific, but ultimately, the people are people. You could be them, if circumstances and history and luck were a bit different. They could be you.

I'm in Ukraine. It's a country at war. People are being killed. Human rights are being violated. Homes and entire cities are being destroyed. National sovereignty is threatened. There are profound prejudices between different sections of the country that are fuel for people that want violence. While I may write about the fun I'm having, I never, ever forget any of that. My work day is consumed with that. My morning ritual is reading Reliefweb updates about Ukraine and social media by various aid agencies here, and then checking out the news links on Google about the country. Even when I'm not writing about that most of the time here on my personal blog, it's all very much on my mind and a part of my daily life. It's almost absurd to experience the incredibly beautiful, vibrant, now-very-peaceful city of Kyiv, a city that could not be in more contrast to the realities elsewhere in this country. But that's my reality.

I've posted a version of this disclaimer a few times on my blog over the years, but I've posted it twice in the last three weeks (and now three times), because I remember where I am, and just how strong feelings are here in Ukraine:

A reminder: this is a personal blog of personal reflections and opinions. It's not journalism. I'm making no effort whatsoever to be fair or balanced. My observations will not necessarily be someone else's - you may disagree with how I have observed and interpreted something. How I interpret what I see won't be how someone standing right next to me might see it. All I hope is that I am never reckless with comments, and that I come from a place of honesty and sincerity in my observations - but I make no claims here to being impartial or even kind here. It's all perspective. My perspective. Only mine.

Keep that in mind as you read any blog, not just my personal one. By all means, write me if I get a fact wrong - I will get facts wrong, even when I'm trying to be journalistic, which I'm not trying to be here. Because - people. That's what they do. And I'll correct any fact I get wrong. Comment on the blog with your disagreement - I'll approve the comment, so everyone can see it. That's only fair. It's a blog - that means it can become a conversation. And conversations, shared with everyone, can lead to a lot of new understandings. And that's my favorite thing about people - when they engage with each other in order to understand.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Celebrate Ukrainian Independence - because it's awesome!

Two posts in one day! I know... I've been busy...

I think I'm always going to celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day Weekend for the rest of my life. Because the first one I've celebrated has been amazing. One of the best times I've had all year - and I've had a rather amazing year...

On Friday night, we went again to hear "Ivan Blues" - Ivan Denisenko - a Kyiv musical legend, this time at Porter Pub on Lunachars'koho on the Left Bank - my first visit to this part of Kyiv, on the other side of the river. We met up with a group of people young enough to be our GROWN children - we kept joking, "Isn't it nice that they like to hang out with their moms?" These young people are involved in various initiatives to help their country become stable, prosperous and peaceful, and my host bursts with pride in talking about them. One has even started his own NGO. Being around them and their energy… it's so hard to put into words how awesome they are. However, they kept us out until 2:30 in the morning. I was dead - not from drinking too much, but because my body NEEDS SLEEP. I think they went on for another few hours. Damn kids. 

Saturday, we slept late (whew!), then walked through the solemn, homemade remembrances and memorials for those killed in the Maydan uprising of several weeks ago, and my host explained several key moments in the conflict. Because it was THE patriotic holiday, entire families were out, walking up or down the street, to pay their respects. Everyone was wearing lovely embroidered shirts - except me. I look awful in white.

We arrived in Maydan, had a delicious lunch at a Crimean Tatar restaurant, and then headed up another hill to the artisan fair on Andriyivskyy Descent, a historic, cobblestone descent that winds steeply down a HUGE hill. It was much larger than usual, because it was the weekend of the Ukraine Independence celebration. It took us HOURS to walk through entirely. Some of the stuff was nice - some of it was crap. Just like at any artisan fair anywhere in the world. One of the first artists we encountered - the man who created a lovely piece my host brought to me in Oregon back in December. He rarely comes to Kyiv, and yet, here he was. I almost cried. I bought two more paintings for gifts and had to get my photo with him - which completely embarrassed him. He's a very humble man.

After eight hours of walking - EIGHT HOURS - we were back at the apartment for yet another amazing meal prepared by my host's husband. I AM SO SPOILED HERE. 

On Sunday, I went with my host and a work colleague out to a small village about 40 kilometers outside of Ukraine. We got off the main highway, onto tiny single lane roads full of pot holes, first to a new, beautiful monastery chapel out in the middle of no where, and then to a mutual friend's family dacha (summer home) nearby. I met Artem through my host, and he is a force to be reckoned with, although, if you didn't know who he was, you would think he was just a really polite, mild-mannered person - which he is, but he's so much more. He runs an NGO that first helped people that were permanently wounded in the Maydan conflict, and now is also helping Ukrainian soldiers wounded in the war in the East. We have had long talks about volunteer management and nonprofit management, about mission drift, and on and on. He invited us all for coffee, and it turned out to actually be coffee, barbecue, vegetables, champagne, Scotch, singing, a tour of home made wood work sculpture, walking barefoot on the grounds, talking about motorcycle touring (his father is a champion motorcyclist from way back when), and on and on and on and on. Hell, I even made a toast! I walked out of that place floating to the car in the rain and feeling like I never wanted to leave Ukraine. How in the world do I find myself in these beautiful places, surrounded by lovely people I don't know, great food I didn't cook, languages I don't speak, and laughter? I haven't felt so welcomed in a long while - but I cannot say it isn't the first time I've been so lucky. What a tremendous day. 

Then, today, Monday, a holiday off work, my host and I invited another co-worker, from Barcelona, to join us for a tour of the microminiature museum and the folk art museum at the Upper Lavra, and then back to her place for the rest of the day, for when the people from Mimoza Mobile Spa  treated us to a spa day right here in the apartment where I'm staying! One of us would have a mani and pedi from Oksana while another would be in the guest room being treated to a massage to die for by Nikolai (who is also to die for), and the third waited for her turn at either. They brought *everything*, were on time, did a tremendous job, were really nice, and found my host's cat terribly amusing. The prices were fantastic - you won't believe me if I tell you what we paid.

And after a supper of good European bread and cheese (sorry, Stefan!), I published two blogs in one day...

Three weeks in Ukraine. Six weeks to go. Oh, how will I make it… 

A global village, my move soon, & the dark side

A sweet moment here in Kyiv recently: hearing a guy from Ukraine greet a guy from Turkey outside the grocery store with, "Bonjour, Como esta Usted?" I giggled. Global village, indeed.

One of the many things I admire about my host here in Kyiv is the relationships she's built with people selling fruits, veggies, nuts, meat, whatever around her house or the nearest super market. She buys regularly from them instead of the big grocery right next to them whenever possible, and as a result, many of the vendors know her. The place she buys her meat from is run by a Turkish man (yes, the aforementioned) and his family, and they are always so kind - once, we were heading to his store and met him, walking away - he'd closed for the day. He turned around and opened back up just for us.

And that brings to mind this: one of the best pieces of advice I ever got before I moved abroad to Germany back in 2001 was from a woman in Austin, Texas, where I was living at the time, who said, "Find a restaurant near your house that you can go to every week, on generally the same day and time, buy a coffee or a meal, and sit there a while. Find a little shop or store or stand that has something you want to buy every day, or every week, at generally the same time. Become a 'regular' at such places, and those people will look out for you." And she was DEAD ON. When language is a barrier, it's a way to breed familiarity, and with familiarity can come friendliness - which is something you really crave when you're in a country where you not only can't understand the spoken language, but you can't read it either.

Not that my host has any problem with language as a barrier - she's lived abroad for most of her adult life, and previously lived in Russia and Moldova. With my live-in fixer, I've become completely spoiled. I haven't been into any store or shop without her. Instead of being lonely and scared my first three weeks here, I've been delighted - and jumped right into work. I really can't thank her enough. Sadly, the gravy train is ending - her husband's nephew will be taking over my room in a week. My free Internet, free laundry service, and free cook are all going away (I've been buying groceries and alcohol whenever they will let me to show my appreciation!). What an amazing gift she's given me!

The generosity of my American friend here has been ENORMOUS. Because of her, I've not only had a wonderfully cheap and beautiful place to live, I've had her by my side for every grocery store visit, to navigate everything once must deal with whilst being abroad (like money exchange), she's fed me I don't know how many times, she and her husband have entertained me, and on and on. I've been SPOILED.

At last, I will move into my own apartment, behind a row of apartments on Mechnikova, a very main street in Kyiv and very near my workplace (no more car to and from work - I'll be walking). It's on the 3rd or 4th floor - can't remember which. It's a small one bedroom, and the furnishings look like any usual Eastern European place - which I'm fine with. As long as a place is clean, comfortable, quiet and safe, I really don't care how it looks. It has bathtub (hurrah!), wi fi, fridge, tiny scary stove, cookware, and a washing machine. My host will tell me how to get free TV on my computer, so I'll be able to watch stuff at night, something I haven't done since I arrived - and would really like to do.

My new place also is very near a shop called Good Wines. It's like Whole Foods except, with the local currency so weak against the dollar, way way cheaper, and without the attitude of Whole Paycheck. They've got good bread, good cheese, and of course, good wine. And lots of bourbon! And there is a money exchange inside. But I'll need to find a cheaper, normal grocery as well - and load up on veggies while the sidewalk stands are still around.

I'll be in my apartment for five weeks. That will make 9 weeks in Ukraine, not 8. Realizing that, at the end of next week, I will NOT be at the halfway point depressed me. Yes, I'm loving it here, but I'm also counting down the days - I miss Stefan, my house, and not-my-cat terribly. And on the start of holiday weekend here in Kyiv, for some reason, I got really, really homesick. I just wish so much Stefan could experience this place with me.

So, here's a down side to Ukraine - because you knew there'd be a downside, right? There's a group of ultra-nationalists in Ukraine, and I'm quite wary of them - as I am of all ultra-nationalists, regardless of if I love the country or not. At an adorable restaurant that was flying the ultra-nationalist flag, there's also a really nice little folk art shop inside. I really liked it - until I saw, on the rack of jewelry, they not only have 2 or 3 swastika pendants for sale, they are also selling the Fascist Black Sun symbol as jewelry and pottery. Yes, they were swastikas - not the Buddhist version of the symbol, not the American Indian version of the symbol, neither of which have anything at all to do with Nazism. They were old fashioned, plain, Nazi swastikas. My eyes almost popped out of my head. I kept staring at them, and then back at all the staff in their little folky faux historical outfits and thinking, are you wearing one of these under your clothes RIGHT NOW?!? Apparently, it's a great vegetarian restaurant. I'm thinking, "Yeah, you know who else was vegetarian…"

As you all know, trucks from a Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine last week, without the consent of the Ukrainian government and unaccompanied by Red Cross escorts, as had been earlier agreed. If Ukraine fired on the convoy - a convoy which, by all accounts, had violated the sovereignty and integrity of the country, would it thereby give Russia a public excuse for a full invasion? On the one hand: what would the US do if Cuba did this in the USA? On the other hand - I don't want war. I'm a peacenik. I am. The convoy has returned to Russia... but I continue to fear provocation.

Also, this story does a good job, IMHO, of explaining why the West has trouble jumping into the Ukraine v. Russia conflict - the misinformation by both sides is really troubling.

Speaking of misinformation, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, says that there are “historic” levels of border crossings from Mexico into the USA, and the people crossing are “from countries with terrorist ties.” Which countries? Perry specifically referenced Ukraine. And I just sat there, staring at the story and the comments and thinking, people voted for this idiot. PEOPLE STILL VOTE FOR THIS IDIOT. My host's husband's comment, in his lovely Ukrainian accent, "Mexican Ukrainian Terrorists. Yeah, right." Sigh...

POSTSCRIPT: I got chastised this morning, by someone I respect very much, for writing the reference about the swatstika in the restaurant - she says it's a symbol from Mezine, that's all.

The so-called Confederate flag that we're all so familiar with is actually the Confederate battle flag. While the Civil War was certainly about slavery - a read of the declaration of South Carolina withdrawing from the union confirms that (for all those many people who like to pretend the Civil War wasn't about slavery) - the Confederate battle flag was much more of a symbol for the soldiers than a symbol for slavery - and was NOT the flag of the Confederacy. I know that, but most people do not. And now, in 2014, the flag is, unquestionably, a symbol of racism. It was added to the flags of various Southern states in the 1950s specifically to affirm white racial control over black Americans. Now, and for many years, it is used, primarily, by people that glorify a horrible time in my country's past and the oppression of an entire race. It's not the symbol it started out as, but I must accept the symbol that it's become. As I'm from a state that was built on slavery, and where slavery was legal until December 18, 1865, and where Black Americans were horrifically oppressed until the 1960s  - and even today, don't have a very good experience - I will not display the Confederate flag under any circumstances, even though its origins aren't specifically tied to slavery. What this symbol has become most definitely is associated with racism, and I wouldn't subject anyone to that kind of discomfort by displaying the flag in my home and hoping they know its history - and mine - and aren't offended. I would never expect a visitor to my home - nor to anywhere in the South in the USA - to know the history of a Confederate flag on display anywhere so casually - not when it's so deeply associated now with my country's very worst racism.

Displaying swastika, the symbol that the world has come to know as the symbol of Nazism - of so-called racial "purity", of ultra-nationalism - comes with even more responsibility. While the symbol was used by ancient Celts, native Americans, and Greeks (I have a photo of it embedded within an ancient Mosaic in Macedonia), and is used in Buddhism and Hinduism, all to mean very different and rather benign, even loving things, things that I love and treasure, the symbol is now, world wide, associated with the darkest chapter in human history. Today, when it shows up in archival photos of the Corn Palace in South Dakota, as part of the area's celebration of native American culture, it comes with a prominent disclaimer, explaining in detail the history of the symbol in that specific area, to the local culture, and assuring viewers it has nothing whatsoever to do with Nazis. Any time the swastika is displayed in a historical context that I've seen, a context unrelated to Nazism, it has a lengthly explanation displayed of its non-Nazi origins, to assure no misunderstanding by any viewer. To display this symbol now - on a pendant, for sale in a gift shop - without such and explanation, evokes justifiable feelings of pain and even outrage by a viewer. In a country like Ukraine that has a destructive history with Jewish people, where the rich Jewish culture of Ukraine was largely wiped out, to display such a symbol comes with an extraordinary amount of responsibility, even if the symbol has an ancient association not at all associated with Nazism. This particular restaurant - and anyone else who displays the symbol - cannot assume that people will look at a swastika - the ultimate, widespread symbol of the worst kind of hate - on a pendant, and assume it means anything other than the worst human beings can be.

Before I wrote that piece, I did a bit of research on the symbol in Ukraine - something 90% of foreigners who walked into that restaurant wouldn't do. I typed in Ukraine swastika into Google. On the second page (which most people wouldn't have gotten to, having scanned just page one of the results), after a long list of articles about the symbol as associated with Nazism in Ukraine, came a Wikipedia page about Mezine. There was a reference to a swastika symbol used in this ancient site, but no photo that indicated it looked anything like what the Nazis used. At last, today, I found this photo from the site. Perhaps this restaurant could post this photo and a lengthly explanation about Mezine, the ancient association of the symbol, and how they, the restaurant, most certainly are not in any way associating the symbol with Nazism - something every other culture, from American Indian to Buddhist, now does, in order to preserve the use of the symbol in their culture.

If Ukraine truly wants to be a part of Europe, where the genocide took place, including partially in Ukraine, it's going to have to make it clear, every time it displays this symbol, exactly what is meant by such - just like anyone else claiming an alternative meaning to the symbol must do.

Followup from September 11, 2014, from an article in The Guardian:

"'Putin's not even a Russian. Putin's a Jew.'... Dmitry – which he said is not his real name – is a native of east Ukraine and a member of the Azov battalion, a volunteer grouping that has been doing much of the frontline fighting in Ukraine's war with pro-Russia separatists... Dmitry claimed not to be a Nazi, but waxed lyrical about Adolf Hitler as a military leader, and believes the Holocaust never happened. Not everyone in the Azov battalion thinks like Dmitry, but after speaking with dozens of its fighters and embedding on several missions during the past week in and around the strategic port city of Mariupol, the Guardian found many of them to have disturbing political views, and almost all to be intent on "bringing the fight to Kiev" when the war in the east is over. Many of its members have links with neo-Nazi groups, and even those who laughed off the idea that they are neo-Nazis did not give the most convincing denials... As for the swastika tattoos on at least one man seen at the Azov base, the swastika has nothing to do with the Nazis, it was an ancient sun symbol," (claimed on of the fighters).'"

What, me worry?

Friday, August 22, 2014

When work amuses me

STEP 1: run around for two days, trying to get a hard copy or a digital copy of the detailed funding proposal presented to potential high-level donors, with all the lovely detailed narrative I need for a report I'm writing - and get told again and again, "I don't have it." Be unable to find the original author ever in his office - and he ignores emails.

STEP 2: look for something on the Web, and find the digital copy of the detailed funding proposal you have been looking for

AAAAAAARGH!!!

Okay, really, such a small complaint. I love it here.

I got this email on Wednesday for editing something urgently for a funding proposal:

Thank you, Jayne, sssssssssssssssssssssssssssooooo much!!! :)

and an hour later from someone else:

This is absolutely great and wonderful
Many many thanks!

I'm in heaven. You have to understand: I've telecommuted on various jobs since 2007. I've been "just the consultant" for 7 years. People just shrug when I do my work as a consultant. I maybe get a "thanks for the report." But I'm not really included in the organization. Not really. Funny that this is the case when I am a remote, online paid consultant - but NOT when I am a remote, online volunteer. When you are seen as part of the team, onsite, here at the agency - oh, yeah, the positive comments and lunch invitations and fun IM messages just never stop! Of course, the criticism is also right to your face... but, hey, I'll take it!

I got an almost insulting note about something I had written from someone who is very important about the big important document I had to write. The note just went on and on and on - no specific edits, just a "here's what's wrong with this, it should have more in it about human rights", etc. So many of the edits so far from various agencies in our network have been content-rich and spot on - I read the edits and say, "Wow, yes, that's a great correction/addition" or "Yes, that deletion makes perfect sense!" And when I don't understand, I've asked, and gotten excellent background that has helped me so much. This note, by contrast... this was "I would have written it differently." It's the edit I loathe. So I forwarded the note to my boss, to see his reaction. It was HYSTERICAL. He comes out of his office, across the hall, sweeps into mine, and starts ranting. "This is EXACTLY what I don't want, comments that say, 'Here are vague ideas about what's wrong with this document, fix this, but I'm not going to tell you how or give you any specifics." Rant continued on for 2 full minutes, and then he took care of the reply. I was highly amused. And I so enjoyed one of those rare moments when you know your boss has your back. I cherish those. Miss you so much, S.C.A...

A key to this job: knowing who contributed what in whatever I'm writing. I draft and I send out, and then the rewrites come in. And I had better know who changed what, so that when someone takes entire swaths of content out, I can say, "Have you checked with so-and-so about that?" When you have several people editing and contributing to a document, the "winning" edit shouldn't be the one that came in last, if everyone is editing exactly the same draft. I try to stick up for each agency when they've made a deliberate point early on in the editing/rewriting process, and then someone later in the process, from a different agency, tries to negate it. I try very hard to get the two parties to work it out - it should NOT be me that decides - this isn't just a word-smithing exercise, this is an its-in-writing-and-will-be-forever-so-get-it-right exercise. I am a communications person, not a program person, not an agency director - it's not my job to change policy nor to mess with oh-so-carefully chosen words that have particular political context. What I have to do is sense when those words are particularly chosen - sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it's not.

I heard thunder one day this week, and my Afghan sensibilities kicked in IMMEDIATELY and I thought, uh oh, were those explosions? Where's my radio? Of course, I'm a world away from "the front." I stand outside my offices with a big back pack and the one guard here looks up at me and then right back down at his newspaper. Paris should be so safe. But I was intrigued by my gut reaction - 7 years later? Really?

And by the way: how in the world did I get on the press release media list for the Afghanistan Cricket Board?!

Speaking of Afghanistan... the big boss has a son that is a veteran of Afghanistan combat. So many people in the USA don't understand that the military forces in Afghanistan make up a TRUE coalition: people from Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Jordan, the UK, Denmark (where my boss is from), Poland, and on and on. They've lost sons and daughters too. Europe and other countries HAVE sacrificed for this war too. They've put in many millions of dollars to both military and reconstruction and aid too. That the numbers are less than what the USA gives, in money and lives, is not the point. Respect.

What I learned this week: In 1789, Mennonites from Prussia (now Germany) accepted an invitation from Catherine the Great and settled in what became the Chortitza Colony, northwest of Khortytsia island, in Zaporizhia, in the East of Ukraine. They built many mills and factories -  all later expropriated by the Soviets. But before that, and after the Russian Revolution, many Mennonites emigrated to other countries, fled to other countries as refugees, or were deported from the area. Few Mennonites now live in Zaporizhia. Mennonite buildings still exist in the area and in the other main Mennonite colony center, current day Molochansk. Zaporizhia is a VERY important industrial center of Ukraine. And it's under siege right now. I'll never see it.

On a lighter note: how much will ya'll pay me if I can get someone here to say "Me Plotting Big Trouble for Moose and Squirrel" on video?

And do I need to change the name of my personal blog yet again?! Because I am a broad abroad!

The Ukrainian woman with whom I share an office said,

"Why is it that the Secretary-General is always 'deeply concerned'? The Secretary-General is 'deeply concerned' about this, he's 'deeply concerned' about that. And today, he's 'disturbed' about something. I think I preferred 'deeply concerned'."

Ah, language… shared that story with the big boss and he laughed and laughed.

Here's my professional blog about a language issue I'm dealing with. But I'll add here that, in so many public statements by large international organizations - and even small governments - every word is carefully chosen, and has meanings far beyond what you find in the dictionary. Concerned is not making a political statement, for instance, while disturbed is. The word crisis has such seriousness of meaning that it's a no-no word in many reports I'm writing - until something meets the international standards of a crisis, and is voted on by some group somewhere as being the appropriate word to use, I can't use it.

Oh, Thesaurus, I love you so…

My Ukrainian office mate also is lately really into David Bowie, and keeps humming "Major Tom." I'm highly amused by this.

One more work thing: the IT guy here, Sergay, has sold me on Google Chrome. I'm here with my old MacBook, bought in 2007, as opposed to my new, big one that I bought last year. My old MacBook gets really hot (it's going to explode soon - I need to replace the battery again before I kill someone or myself) and it was so PAINFULLY slow when surfing the web, I finally had to upgrade to a new computer. But it's MUCH faster now, using Chrome. It's not lightening fast on Chrome, but it's WAY faster than Safari or Firefox (which I always want to call Foxfire).

So, there I was, in downtown Kiev, outdoors at a restaurant, enjoying the evening, talking to a colleague, about… Twangfest! He's from St. Louis and, of course, when I talk with anyone from St. Louis, I ask, "Have you heard of Twangfest?" And he had. He'd never been and always wanted to go, so I answered all his questions and gave him lots of music recommendations. So fun to be talking about Twangfest in Ukraine!

Just watched videos by university students in Ukraine that address various gender issues - domestic violence, stereotypes, etc. Here is a link to one of my favorites (no need to speak the local language in order to understand most of these). The end result: terrific videos, and university students now aware of issues they might not have been before. This was a programme by the UN here in Ukraine. Apparently, the UN is quite active here...

Speaking of the UN: because of the way the phrase that makes up the acronym "UN" is translated into Ukrainian, and because of how it's written in cyrillic, official UN SUVs don't say "UN" on the side. They say "OOH." I am going to try to remember to get a picture of myself next to an "OOH" SUV before I leave Ukraine.

Marketing for "The Expendables" here in Kyiv is OUT OF CONTROL. There are billboards everywhere, some of them ginormous. I always forget just how huge the foreign markets for films are, until I go abroad - so many films that are flops in the USA, that make you wonder why they were made at all, are massive successes abroad - many films are made specifically for the foreign audiences that love American action stars. It's nice to see giant Harrison Ford in the city center - but it's also surreal.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Saturday IDPs and the Blues in & around Kyiv

Saturday was a PACKED day. And worth sharing with you.

For lunch, my hosts made an unbelievably good, simple pasta dish seasoned with parmesan cheese, sun dried tomatoes and some caesar salad dressing. It was just what I needed to get through the day ahead. They are spoiling me. There's a shop here called Good Wines - yes, in English - and they are keeping us well-stocked in the very best cheese, bread and, yes, wine.

My friend and I headed out at 1 p.m. and did a long walk, first through the picturesque, peaceful grounds of the military hospital near her house, then through the old ramparts of the center of the long-gone old city that used to be fully walled. Then we came to the current city center - which I don't really like. I like Maidan square, but the city center is a sea of restaurants (there's even a TGI Fridays), bars, people that want to be seen… it's not the Kyiv I've fallen in love with. We then turned off the main drag and walked up a lovely, picturesque street - Liuteranska. I was utterly charmed.

We were headed to meet up with friends at the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, but just before we got there, we saw police had blocked off the road to cars, though they seemed to be letting pedestrians through. I kept quiet - I didn't want them to be alarmed by my foreign accent. A uniformed man asked my host where we were going and she said to the church. He nodded and we went through the opening. Then she turned and said, "What's going on?" And he said, "We're defending the West!" She laughed - and then translated all this for me when we were near the church.

(The street was blocked off because the Finnish President was visiting - fresh from Moscow. Oh to be a fly on the wall... and to speak Russian.)

At the church, we met up with friends that had organized some clothing donations for a camp outside of Kyiv for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) - that's the official term, rather than refugees, because refugees flee to other countries. And then I joined them for a ride out to Kotsiubinske (or Kotsiubynsky - spelling varies in Latin letters), a suburb of Kyiv, where an Orthodox religious center built to house 40 people for religious retreats now houses about 180 IDPs who have fled from the East.

The town is sad - the kind of place my husband and I call "crapistan": big ugly Soviet style apartment buildings, many of them looking like they are crumbling, trash everywhere, weeds everywhere, and so many stray dogs as to completely break your heart. The religious retreat center is behind one of the big ugly buildings. The entire village is surrounded by a young forest (and trash).

Conditions in the retreat center are good, for the most part, but cramped; there are entire families living together in rooms the size of my dorm room in college, and others are sleeping in large rooms filled with row after row of beds. Women are in both of the kitchens all day, cooking. There are just two or three washing machines. The bathrooms were in surprisingly good shape. People seem to have enough food and clothes, and beds, but it must be SO hard to get any sleep at all.

The heating system is not at all adequate, and this is a concern, as they are anticipating more arrivals as the winter draws near (more people are coming weekly). I have no idea how they are going to handle schooling for the children. They also are having trouble meeting the medical needs of the IDPs - they have a person with diabetes that needs medication, someone with asthma that needs medication, and several women about to give birth.

Many of these people have been able to find some work in the area -  they are just like you, whomever you are, that is reading this blog now, with skills and experience as secretaries or teachers or car mechanics or whatever. Many drove here, and were able to bring clothes and valuables, but some fled with just the clothes on their back. Many don't know if they have houses or jobs to go home to when the fighting ends. In many cases, they've fled as their towns were being bombed, and there's no water, electricity or food there anymore - and won't be for a long while, even after the conflict subsides. Many don't want to go back - ever - to Donetsk or wherever they are from in the East.

Some of the local people of the village of Kotsiubinske are starting to get angry about the IDPs being there - the center staff have hired people to build a wall around the center grounds, which I think was always in the planning, long before the IDPs showed up, but the local people have started to get angry about the wall and, at one point, they showed up and tore some of the wall down. The town of Kotsiubinske has a big group of drug and alcohol abusers, many of whom are homeless, and they are throwing needles and bottles over the wall, which the IDP children sometimes find. Apparently, there is a journalist that lives nearby and she is publishing stories to create local anger against the camp. I have no idea if her concerns are legitimate.

The IDPs are native Russians-speakers, and they had been warned by Russia supporters back East that no one in Kyiv speaks Russian - of course EVERYONE in Kyiv speaks Russian - I've heard far more Russian here than Ukrainian. They have been shocked to find that so much of the many negative things they were told about people in "the west" has turned out not to be true.

On the other side, one of the people I went with, a native of Kyiv, said she expected to find all the men drunk and laying about - that's her stereotype of people from the East. She was shocked to find "they are just like any normal people."

To me, these two opposing view points get at what this article was trying to say, about how programmed people in conflict are to fear each other, and why reconciliation after conflict is so hard - and, yet, it MUST happen if there is to be peace. Truly, you HAVE to read this article. It gets you beyond thinking about whatever side you might take when looking at conflicts anywhere in the world, and helps you realize that you've GOT to be able to move beyond those "sides" at some point if there is ever to be peace in a region.

The people organizing this facility assured us that anyone can come there - they don't have to be religious. But I'm skeptical. I think most of these folks are believers - and that's fine, but I wish the people that were leading our tour said it up front. We heard from some of the residents that the arguments that have occurred among those staying in the retreat have been regarding religion. I asked the woman taking us around what Protestant denomination the priest had said there were so many people from. She kept saying the name in Russian, and it didn't translate. At one point, we'd decided it was Presbyterian, but then on Wikipedia, it said that most Presbyterians were in the West. We finally figured it out: they meant Pentecostals. Here's more about Protestantism in Ukraine.

I really admire this religious organization for taking in these people, and for all those that have helped them in any way. Without this kind of volunteer action, this would be a much bigger disaster. But I still have worries. My biggest, for this place and any IDP camp: it's dozens of strangers together in a tight space, and they aren't screened in any way. What if there is a pedophile (or more) among them? It's such easy access to children and young teens. There are people everywhere, in every room, but it only takes one empty bathroom or corner, one opportunistic evil person… I feel like the people at this center are assuming everyone is good because most are religious - that's never, ever a good assumption.

For the most part, for now, things are decent for these families at this center, probably better than many other camps. But for how long will they stay that way? People can't be patient even in these conditions forever. How long could YOU live like that? People can live only so long in such cramped conditions, with people they don't know, with not knowing what tomorrow will bring, with just donated food and donated clothes and donated toys for their kids.

If you want to know the name of the center, and to donate money, let me know - they have an American woman managing their efforts, and a web site that takes PayPal, and I'd be happy to hook you up. I didn't tell them I work for an aid agency - I didn't want to get their expectations up. But I've submitted a report to my employer, even though, officially, I wasn't there. Let's hope it leads to some much-needed assistance. Even just some guidance for those running this center would be helpful.

And lest you think people in the USA have a monopoly on volunteerism: Little Dzivnka, aged 7, brought all her toys to the local UNHCR office in Lviv to donate to children that have fled with their families from violence in the East. Well done, Ukraine!

We drove back to Kyiv, and my friend and I were dropped off downtown to meet two guys from work for drinks. It was my first expat social activity in Kyiv. We had beer and appetizers in the outdoor part of a cafe right on the main drag, then headed to a club and caught the tail end of a performance by "Ivan Blues" - Ivan Denisenko - a local institution. He plays really excellent covers of blues standards, with some rock thrown in here and there. Ya'll know how I love live music - it's why I moved to Austin and stayed there for four years. And you know I'm often not impressed with live bands. Ivan turned out to be the real deal. I don't believe in the whole negative "cultural appropriation" thing, especially when it comes to music - music is universal, and if something speaks to your heart, embrace it and run with it, whether you are a Ukrainian who likes to sing the blues or a Japanese guy that likes to sing bluegrass or an American that falls in love with Ukrainian folk music - if it's sincere, honest and GOOD, I'm down with it.
Here's Ivan's YouTube channel.
Here's some studio-quality covers (just audio).
And here's his Facebook group (how you know where he'll be playing)

And if you've stuck with me through this blog, here are my first photos. Please don't just look at the photos - click on the first one and then go through them so that you can read the descriptions. I'm not a photographer - I'm a story-teller - so if you just look at the photos, you miss the story I'm telling. And my HILARIOUS JOKES.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Second work week in Ukraine done!

A reminder: this is a personal blog of personal reflections and opinions. It's not journalism. I'm making no effort whatsoever to be fair or balanced. My observations will not necessarily be someone else's - you may disagree with how I have observed and interpreted something. How I interpret what I see won't be how someone standing right next to me might see it. All I hope is that I come from a place of honesty and sincerity in my observations - but I make no claims here to being impartial or even kind here. This isn't about being "right" or "wrong" - it's all opinion and about what I'm experiencing, from my point of view. It's all perspective. My perspective. Only mine.

A tweet I sent this week:

Dear USA: this is what a civilized society looks like: 
"I will be out of the office 27 Jul - 25 Aug for my annual leave." #novacationnation

Every time I email someone in Europe and get this message, I'm reminded of how much my husband gave up to move to the USA with me. Most people in Ukraine - just like all of Europe - take four weeks or so off in July or August - so I have gotten this message a lot for the last two weeks.

It's kept you up at night, and you are dying to ask: how are my ankles? Each morning, they are fine - boney and skinny, as they should be. During the day, I prop them up whenever I remember to on a box under my desk - which is full of lovely commemorative medals that I guess are handed out to really high-profile visitors. Hoping that once my Ukrainian office mate realizes I'm using such as a foot stool, she will not freak out. My desk has the front closed off, so I can't use a chair to rest my feet on, and I've hunted all over for something else to prop my feet up, to no avail. Anyway, box-o-medals helps tremendously: by the end of the day, only my right ankle is a bit swollen, just on the sides. Once it cools off, I'm going to start walking home every day, and that should take care of the swelling once and for all.

One of the things I love to do when I'm on a trip with Stefan is to seek out local beer. We've always done that in Europe - and it's surreal that we can do it now in the USA, that so many cities do have a local beer. Seeking out local beer is a way to experience the local scene. So, of course, I've been sampling beers in Kyiv. Soooo good. Soooo cheap. No after taste, like so many USA micro brews. Well done, Ukraine!

I'm so afraid I'm going to jinx it by saying this… and it's only the end of week two… BUT I LOVE MY JOB. Oh my goodness, I love love love it. I love trying to find simple ways to say incredibly complex things about humanitarian response and anti-corruption reform and on and on. Every day has these moments that are incredibly intense, or fun, or scary, or awesome. I go into work every day exhilarated and terrified. I LOVE working with other people again, every day, and what's great is that most of these international folks are just like me: here to do a very specific job in just 2-3 months, and then we're OUT OF HERE. It makes us all hyper focused, and that's an awesome way to work. But, as I said earlier, there are times I feel like I'm playing international aid worker - surely this is just a dream?! I cannot tell you how much I needed this job emotionally, spiritually and, of course, professionally. But… I'm also counting the days until I leave. I know I could never do this full time every day for more than, say, eight weeks... I'd wear out. It's too intense for me in the long term. I'm old. I love roller coasters, but I couldn't ride one every day, or even every week. I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this - and then be oh so happy when it's over. I am so looking forward to just walking around my neighborhood back in Oregon, petting all the neighbor cats and dogs, and playing in my garden. When this job is over, I've got to figure out what I'm going to do with myself, professionally speaking, as I don't want to run off like this all the time (except for FUN rather than work)... But that's something I don't have to think about right now.

On Thursday, the big boss said,'"You'll have to teach me how Twitter works."
Yes, the head of all our organization's operations in Ukraine said that to me.
While eating peanuts off my desk.
Peanuts are powerful.

I joke with him freely. I don't care. They hired me, this is me, love it and embrace it or fire me. I'm 48. I don't play reindeer games anymore. And so far, he digs it. And my peanuts.

This week I was sitting in a meeting room, waiting for a presentation, different people start coming in... and in walks one of my colleagues from my time in Kabul, a guy from Nepal that I liked very much. I almost started crying. He recognized me, and we had a joyous reunion. He's here in Ukraine to help re: the internally-displaced people (IDP) situation (they aren't called "refugees", since they are displaced within their own country). He has so much work to do…

I've blogged elsewhere about what my work days are like, if you're interested.

On Tuesday, I walked around a block next to my office (the block we're actually on is long, goes down a long hill, and isn't interesting). Our building is right on the edge of a gorgeous neighborhood that's quite trendy with government officials. There's a flower shop around the corner that has kind of done this lattice border thingy around the trees out front that I've tried to do in my yard - they've done it with sticks, I've done it with bamboo. I also saw a downstairs pub in the next block, and talked my office mate into taking me. She didn't want to - she wanted to go to the fancy schmancy Italian restaurant down the street, but there was no time, and I said, "Hey, what about that place in the basement over there?" It was, of course, delightful, with a simple, delicious three courses for lunch (some kind of soup, some kind of chicken and potato stew, some kind of something - and Kvass to drink). It looked like any simple local pub restaurant in Germany or Belgium or wherever. It's my favorite meal here so far. And she kept apologizing for it!

As you may have read on this blog elsewhere, I have a driver that takes me to the office every day, something my host so generously arranged. It's a dude with a car, a friend of another dude with another car that my friend usually uses (my friend doesn't have her own car - not really needed here, if you stay in the city). This new driver, very young, speaks a little English, and was in the USA once, in Pennsylvania. I pay him less than $10 a day - that's the going rate. As I'm not paying rent (despite my pleas to do so), and it's so freakin' hot every day, and it's a 40 minute walk to work, $10 is totally worth it. I just wish his English was good enough to answer me all the times I say, "What's that?" I gave him a tip on Friday, telling him I wouldn't need him in the afternoon, as I would walk home - and then had to call him to drive to my friend's before she left for work to get my glasses, which I'd forgotten to bring. ARGH! I'm so not used to working outside of the house daily...

And then I didn't walk home on Friday. By 4 p.m., I realized it was going to have to work at least until 6, maybe later. We were all pushing hard to get a major document out to HQ back in NYC, before a big important visit next week. Finally, it was done. I sent it to everyone it needed to be sent to, and then I ran out of work. Barefoot. I RAN. It was 7 p.m., my car with my friends was waiting, and I didn't want anyone to be able to find me to ask me for one more table, one more graphic, one more paragraph change. So I kicked off my work shoes (I leave them at the office under my desk), I grabbed my Tevas and I RAN RAN RAN down the steps and across the compound and through the gate and into the waiting car. And I came back to the apartment were I'm staying, and we ate fresh bread and gorgeous cheese, and salmon, and drank champagne and Maker's Mark… oh, it's so hard here, how will I get through it….

My friend here with whom I'm living has a cat. The cat is big - even bigger than Gray Max, and all black. And psychotic. In a good way. Other people have reported he's bitten or scratched them. He hasn't done that to me but, then again, I wait for the cat to come to me, even if it takes days, before I pet him. He loves me only in the mornings, when my hosts are asleep. Then he's around my legs and talking to me. And my reply is always the same: "No, I will not feed you. That's someone else's job. It doesn't mean I don't I love you." My nights consist sometimes of just drinking beer and playing with the cat. My friend's husband took a wine box and made a house out of it, and the cat attacks it nightly, from the inside. I joke that I've actually been recruited for a cat cult, as our lives, at night, seem to revolve around watching the cat. I have gone out once after work, but at the end of the day, I'm so wiped out, I just want to go home. I save my socializing and exploring for the weekends.

The food here is just incredible - so many fresh veggies and fruits. I am so missing my gorgeous tomatoes I've been growing for months back in Oregon - but my consolation prize of fresh veggies and fresh fish is quite a reward. And Kvass, of course! Everyone eats fresh fruits and veggies when they bring their lunch. I usually bring my lunch - and I'm astounded that the Ukrainian staff here promptly cleans up after themselves in the communal kitchen.

It looks like the last 90 degree (32 degree Celsius) day was Thursday this week, according to the weather forecasts. I hate a big city when it's 90 degrees or more - especially when I have an office mate that hates air conditioning. I have never sweated through so many clothes, not even in my own unairconditioned house in Oregon in these horribly hot days of summer. Ukranians aversion to air blowing on them here is… weird.

Ukrainian women are the model of Western beauty. Wow. Some overdo it with the hair and makeup, but most are just naturally gorgeous, with smooth, clear skin and lovely hair and features - some with round faces, some with long faces, all with beautiful faces. It's so intimidating. Many do wear the crazy high shoes I've heard so much about - and seen in Portland, Oregon quite a lot - but flats are definitely popular here as well now. See-through skirts and see-through dresses remain the norm here - I was warned about that, and it's definitely true. What I love is that, at least in downtown, men don't give them even a second glance. I look more than they do. I will say… and I'm sorry if I offend… but so far, I haven't found the men here all that attractive. In Afghanistan, there were men who were so beautiful. In Serbia as well. But Ukraine… all the men have buzz cuts and look like they aren't even trying, in terms of dressing to look half way attractive. And those are my sweeping generalizations for today! Hope I've offended lots of folks!

Speaking of offending, I'm keeping notes for a post-deployment blog - things I can't post now, while I'm here, but can later, once I'm out of the country and out of this job. Does that whet your appetite? Are you intrigued?!?

Pictures soon - aiming for Sunday night to post some.

Interesting comparison by @BBCMonitoring of Ukraine & Russia media messaging, how dissent is handled (or ignored).

Russia's incursions since 1990 have never ended well for Russia - even when they "win", they lose.


Monday, August 11, 2014

In mourning

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

So, my worst day in Kyiv so far: waking up to the news that Robin Williams committed suicide.

As many of you know, my Dad killed himself in 1996. In the two years after that, weeks of one-on-one therapy for myself and group therapy with other people who'd lost someone to suicide, I learned a lot of things: that suicide is rarely spontaneous - it's been thought about and planned for often, even if the date keeps changing - and that the overwhelming majority of people who commit it suffer from real, physical pain brought on by a chronic illness: everything from chronic pain from a car wreck years ago to addiction to migraines to chronic indigestion. I just want to throw that out there, for those of you who are struggling with the "why" and wondering why someone with so many friends and resources didn't get "help" - I'm sure he tried.

Depression is cancer. It's just as real. It's not just a feeling. It's not just a phase. It's a tumor in your soul. It needs just as much time and intensive treatment to address. And you may not be able to cure it - you may have to get treated for it for the rest of your life. And even then, you still might not win the battle.

My heart hurts so much right now. I feel like won't ever stop crying.

Stephen Fry, don't you DARE.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My first week in Kyiv / Kiev, Ukraine

When I started compiling this blog, it was Sunday morning, and I listened to lovely church bells outside as I began writing... now it's 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, my hosts have gone to bed, even the cat, and I'm tipsy from Ukrainian beer.

Before I continue, a reminder: this is a personal blog, full of personal reflections and opinions. It's not a piece of journalism. My observations will not necessarily be someone else's. How I interpret what I see won't be how someone standing right next to me might see it. I make no claims here to being impartial. I hope I come from a place of honesty and sincerity in my observations. This isn't about being "right" or "wrong" - it's opinion. It's my perspective. Only mine.

So... the big news is... I survived my first week of work in Kyiv! More than that: I survived the first time I have had a daily five-day-a-week 9-5 job outside of my home since 2007 (okay, technically, Kabul was a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. six-day-a-week job). I wasn't sure I could adjust after not doing this for so long - but I think I'm okay! One week down, 7 more weeks to go...

One thing I had totally forgotten: the vital importance of having food ready to offer visitors to my office. Peanuts and cookies are now at the ready (the former played a key role in getting the big boss into my office to give me feedback on a report). I've telecommuted for way too long. Why doesn't the Open University MSc have the importance of food on your desk as an aid worker as part of the curriculum?!

I also really miss being barefoot for the majority of the work day. Again: I've telecommuted for way too long. I am barefoot, under my desk, but then I have to put my shoes on whenever I go out of the office. I'm also elevating my feet on a box of office supplies under my desk - my boney ankles returned completely today, and I want to keep it that way.

Thank you, everyone, for reading and responding to my dispatches from Kyiv - you've helped make this first week very easy for me, emotionally. I cried twice a week my first eight weeks in Kabul, feeling so lonely. Between your messages and staying with my friend instead of at a hotel or in an apartment by myself, I've been just dandy. Plus, you know, being able to walk outside - that helps! Please keep commenting - it means so much.

My security briefing for work was two minutes. TWO. It was 90 minutes in Kabul. The Kyiv security briefing was basically what you say to someone that's never been to a big city before: don't flash your money, don't use ATMs except inside banks, don't walk alone at night, etc. It was like he was reading from any Lonely Planet book from the section called "Safety." I'm not complaining. And I don't have to call in to security every night and say, "Hi, I'm alive, I wasn't kidnapped on my way home. Thanks." Don't tell my mother that, because she'd probably prefer I do that.

It may not seem like it from my posts, but I'm taking this job VERY seriously. I have 8 weeks to help. Now 7. I'm not here for just the pay, and I'm not here primarily as a tourist - I'm here because I care and because I've trained for this all my life. Don't blow it, Jayne. Don't blow it. If that means working Sundays, as I did today, so be it. Ukraine, and international development agency I am supporting, I'm here for YOU.

There are times when I feel like I am "playing" international development worker. Like this is just some kind of game or theatre. Similar to when my niece makes us all sit around a table at my sister's house in Henderson, Kentucky so she can play waitress. At some point, someone's going to walk into my office or look across at me in an important meeting and say, "YOU ARE A FRAUD! QUIT WITH THE PLAY ACTING ALREADY! GET OUT!"

FYI, I would never do that to my niece.

Most of my job is writing and researching so far - just like in Kabul. But there are a LOT more word "mine fields." There are things I'm not allowed to say, like "crisis." That word has a connotation that is accurate, but makes large world powers get angry, because of its legal ramifications. I had no idea it had legal ramifications. So I say things like "difficult and urgent situations." That kind of phrasing usually doesn't make politicians take off shoes and beat them on tables. This article came across my desk this week as I was working and I laughed and laughed and laughed - oh, the word games I have to play! And that are played with me!

I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have a co-worker that was in Afghanistan for a year and a half, until just two months ago, and is from Barcelona. We have bonded like nobody's business. She's my touchstone, she's my sound wall… thank you, Aid Work Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha/Athena, for this woman. She came in my office the other day holding a draft of my report in her hand and said, sounding like Charo, "No, no, you cannot do this. This is crazy." Not as in, You cannot write this. But, instead, They cannot possibly expect you to write this. Of course, given my luck, she'll turn on me in two weeks and become my professional enemy. For no particular reason - sometimes, it just happens. Competition when there's no need to be competitive. Anyway, she's giving me an update on life there now for aid workers. And I have to say - I had it WAY better in 2007 than now. I can't believe I'm saying that. But now, it's MUCH more restricted regarding movement. MUCH more. Oy veh - so glad I'm not there now, though I miss my Afghan colleagues and think of them oh-so-often.

My host for where I'm living, who is American and I've known for about a decade, lives downtown, a few metro stops away from Maydan (the big square where all the protests happen), but somehow, her street is oh-so-quiet. If I have trouble sleeping at night - and I did my first week - it's not because of noise - it's because of my ongoing jet lag struggles. This really is a fantastic apartment - two bedrooms, but small, yet it's laid out in such a way, with two small balconies, that the three humans living here can stay out of each other's way for hours. And when the TV is blasting, it's just white noise to me: I don't understand the language, so it's just background noise, like a distant car engine. Doesn't bother me at all.

But, of course, the cat here RULES US ALL.

I've been looking for apartments to rent for September, closer to work, and they are all SO fancy. Now, my host negotiates for me at markets and restaurants and with drivers - must I give that up?! Maybe I'll stay here the whole time. She's offered. We'll see.

Socially - or, at least, non-work-related-activities, in my first week:

Thursday, most of the new staff here at my workplace went out to dinner at La Veranda, within walking distance of our office. Work was NEVER discussed. Not once. It was... well, just about as wonderful as something can be. Everyone I'm working with that's from outside Ukraine, even the big boss, with ONE exception, is here short term, for just 2-4 months. It's a really wonderful way to work - we're SO FOCUSED. Get 'er done! But it also means there's a big emphasis on getting along, on being nice to each other, at least so far. I dig it. I did this so much.

Friday night, I met up with my host and her friends at a Brazilian meat palace near where she lives (had to cut my time at the after-work BBQ short - no one told me there was going to be a BBQ!). It was very good, and it felt so awesome to be SOCIAL… but since someone asked: sorry Ukraine, Kentucky has you SO beat when it comes to BBQ… Still, it was a VERY good meal, with a particularly impressive veggie bar. I must, must visit again.

Saturday, we traveled via the metro, which is the deepest in the world. Strangely, I was okay on the way down the deep, deep, deep, long escalator, though incredibly nervous as I wend down down down down... but on the way up, with my back to the long drop, I was fighting a panic attack. I was trying not to cry or hyperventilate. I couldn't look up, I certainly couldn't look back, I felt like I could fall backwards any moment and tumble all the way down the 47 million stories to the bottom, so I looked down at the stairs and rambled. Oh, how I rambled. Thankfully, my host was patient and understanding and I made it out without dying.

Yes, I'm not worried about the Russians invading - I'm worried about the escalators. And all the people texting whilst driving.

We walked to Maydan, the International Square, where I watched volunteers - young, old, middle aged - clean up trash, tires, bricks, you name it. Here's an even better article about it. I know diehard Ukrainian nationalists, people that make plans on how to get to the front and fight the Russians, and even these passionate nationalists say the people in the square now are NOT Maydan revolutionaries - they're drunks. I felt the same way about the Oregon Occupy movement - it devolved there, and in many cities, into messy, shameful nonsense I wanted nothing to do with. The international press has been LAZY in reporting about these last folks in the square. The true Maydan protesters have moved on: they are doing amazing things to support soldiers wounded on the front, for instance - they are not living in tents in the square anymore.

It was a fascinating site, nonetheless. Other than some burning tires, things were oh-so-quiet, and oh-so-winding down. At one point, it started raining, hard. It put all of the fires out. It drove a lot of folks out of the square. Even nature says: hey, it's time to move on - demonstrating is easy, it's time to get busy making things happen to realize the dreams of your revolution. Welcome to the hard part.

I also saw Zoliti Vorota (look it up). Interesting history, and fun to see all the brides walking around trying to get the perfect photo.

My host said all the drink stands everywhere around us in the heart of the city sold Kvass, a fermented drink made from black or regular rye bread that looked like a dark beer, but that's classified as a non-alcoholic (the alcohol content is typically less than 1.2%.), and that she thinks it vile, and people either love it or hate it. So I bought some, took a sip, and... I liked it. I had been jonesing for a Coke bad - something I haven't had in more than a year and, before that break down, hadn't drank in more than two years. I was just about to weaken and get one when I drank the Kvass. I am all about the Kvass now. I teased her mercilessly afterwords: I'm more Ukrainian than you are, neener, neener, neener.

We ran some errands, hooked up with a friend of hers, and whilst they discussed various things in Russian and Ukrainian, I ate baked trout with oranges and mushrooms baked right in the trout, and finally began to read my Lonely Planet guide to the country. I apologize for not taking a photo of my gorgeous meal. It was AWESOME. When the waitress brought it, my host said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you, here, they keep the fish head on." And I said, "I am from freakin' Kentucky, you think I haven't seen this before?"

Sunday, we went grocery shopping, something that is not possible in Germany (everything except restaurants are closed in Germany on Sunday). Funny: one of the veggie sellers thought I was German. That's fine!

Until Saturday, I had not taken one photo since arriving Sunday. Not one. Of course, it's not like I could share any with you immediately anyway, since I left my camera chord at home... luckily, my host has something that can read the memory card of my camera. I have now taken photos - but I haven't downloaded them yet, so I can post them online. I will my next weekend, I promise.

So, that's my first week in Ukraine. WHEW!

Here's the outside-of-work activities of one of my co-workers: in his SPARE time, he creates documentaries about people and music in which he is interested, primarily regarding Ukraine, and shares his archival footage of Ukrainian folk and jazz performers. I share two very short videos here so that you can get an idea of what he does. I know so many aid workers that do amazing things in their spare time, usually having to do with the arts. These short videos are about Renata Bogdanska / Рената Богданська, an amazing Ukrainian woman that lived during the war and went on to become the first lady of Poland.
The Ukrainian Dimension (21:22)
The Polish Dimension (17:14)

In the course of my first week of work, I've been sad to learn how deep the corruption problems are in Ukraine. I hate corruption. I hate it. I hate greed. It's what's ruining Afghanistan more than ANYTHING - more than the Taliban or similar groups. Transparency International ranks Ukraine at 144 out of 177 countries, on par with Nigeria and the Central African Republic, and 16 rungs lower than Russia. That makes me cray cray.

Some of you are worried about me being here. You worry about a certain country being stupid and wanting to reclaim parts of the country - and maybe all of it - as its own. If you are one of those people, go read this entire article. Or, if you don't have time, then go to the page, and use your find function on your browser and look for "Putin has a theory of American power," and read just the last nine paragraphs of the article. I always try to understand the mentality of the "other" side, and this was REALLY helpful.

Still too much for you to read? Then read this is an article from CNN. It tries to put what could happen re: Russia and Ukraine into very simple terms. Policy wonks will scoff at it, but if you just want to kinda sorta get a grasp of it all, it's a really good read.

One of the things that international agencies are going to have to address here in Ukraine eventually - and I hope it's sooner rather than later - is reconciliation. Say that word now here and local people will just laugh at you, or bite your head off. "Too soon." But eventually, it's what's got to happen, or there's just continued violence and thousands, even millions, of deaths. Reconciliation is an ongoing process. It's the toughest of processes. It's harder than anything else except for getting rid of corruption, in my opinion. I found this article as I was researching for work, and it absolutely blew my mind. I've read it in full twice. It does not offer a road map, or suggested steps, or anything like that - rather, it articulates why reconciliation is so dang hard, and what those in charge of and engaged in reconciliation processes MUST understand or their work is for naught. I think it's brilliant. I think it applies to situations in the USA.

I don't know if, this second week or coming weeks, I will blog quite so much. I suspect that, if you are overwhelmed by my blogs so far, you should fear not - the newness of my situation will wear off soon, and I'll settle down soon and not write so much.

Photos soon, I promise!

Still no word on how Max the Cat is handling my absence...

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Trying to Help Delta Airlines Do the Right Thing

Update: August 18, 2014.

From Delta:

Dear Ms. Cravens,

RE: Case Number 13176765

Thank you for your additional comments concerning our recent exchange of
email.  We try to be responsive when any problem is brought to our 
attention, and we regret you are disappointed with our reply.

To clarify we are not forcing passengers to keep a ticket or force you 
to fly on a ticket if you have a nonrefundable ticket which requires 
that you would have to pay the administrative service charge to make 
changes to your flight.that requires paying the change fee plus the 
difference in fare.

In order to effectively assist you with multi leg flight, please 
contact our International Reservations department and speak with one of 
our specially trained representatives. At this time, we are unable to 
address these types of requests via email.


Our Reservations department is available 24 hours a day at 800-241-4141 

End of original post

So, I called Delta. And went through automated call hell for 10 minutes. And then got a live person at reservations, who said:

"What's a case number? We don't deal with case numbers. We only deal with reservations numbers."

Breathe, Jayne. Breathe. Don't scream. DON'T SCREAM. 

I'm not going to lie: I was uncompromising, I was firm, I was absolute. I have told this story to Delta representatives FOUR TIMES, via phone, via email. Always the same response: it's our policy, you have to fly on Oct. 3, and again on Oct. 6. Nothing can be done. That's the way it is.

I kept asking for a reason beyond policy. I fully expected to hear: it's because, if your butt isn't in the seat, it will alter the space-time continuum. 

So, in the end... I'm paying $300 to not fly on a flight I've paid for on Oct. 3, and three flights I've paid for on Oct. 6. And then I fly home later in October, just like normal. 

Insane, I know. Delta makes $300 more for NO REASON. But I'm so desperate not to be made to fly more than 24 hours in 48 hours, I'll pay this bribe, this extortion, and then pay even more money to take a train on Oct. 3 from Amsterdam to stay with my inlaws. 

I still say: shame on you, Delta. Shame on you. But at least I'm not going to die from Deep Vein Thrombosis on Oct. 6.

Original post:

I'm having an issue with Delta airlines, detailed here. That previous blog also quotes the two responses I've gotten from Delta so far.

The problem in summary:

Months ago, my husband and I booked Delta flights for a vacation to Germany, flying from Portland, Oregon through Amsterdam, on Oct. 6, and flying home on Oct. 20.

Weeks ago, I was offered a two-month post with a very large international humanitarian agency in Kyiv, Ukraine to support its critical humanitarian relief efforts - and I am here now. My flights here to Ukraine, more than 20 hours, were via Delta and its partner carriers. I am booked to fly back to Portland Oregon, through Amsterdam, on Oct. 3.

The logical thing is for me to stop in Amsterdam on Oct. 3, as booked, but then not fly back to the USA, and just over two days later, get back on a plane and fly back to Europe - but to still get to use my already-booked and paid for flight on Oct. 20.

I'm trying again to explain to Delta what decent customer service looks like. Below is my latest email to them, sent just minutes ago to Kitty Whynn of Delta's Online Customer Support Desk:

Not only is flying more than 24 hours in less than 3 days completely unnecessary, not only is this inconvenient to do to a person, it's cruel and, potentially, deadly: long amounts of time sitting can lead to deep vein thrombosis, which can further lead to a pulmonary embolism, a potentially life-threatening complication caused by the detachment of a clot that travels to the lungs. Long flights can lead to this condition and cause death, as noted here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/7906154/DVT-death-highlights-threat-to-travellers.html

Surely Delta cares about its customers, and
  • would never want to endanger their lives
  • realizes that forcing someone to fly more than 24 hours, completely unnecessarily, does not benefit the company and does not benefit the customer
  • understands that policies need to sometimes have exceptions for the health and safety of its customers: if the Captain turns the seatbelt sign on in a flight, but someone on the flight starts having health problems while that sign is on, people are going to violate that policy and help that person by standing up, despite the policy that everyone should remain seated because the seatbelt sign on. No one is going to start yelling, "Stop helping that person, our policy is that you have to stay seated now!"
  • understands that an exception to this policy of forcing people to fly on any ticket booked, in my particular and very exceptional case, is good for the company, good for the customer, and will not cost it any money at all whatsoever for Delta.
I do not want any refunds. All I want is to not be forced to fly more than 24 hours completely unnecessarily in just over two days.

Please respond to this email promptly and let me know ONE of the following; any one of the following answers is what is appropriate in this situation:
  • that Delta has realized there's no logical, sensible reason to force me to fly unnecessarily for more than 24 hours, that sometimes policies do have exceptions, and that Delta will let me stay in Amsterdam on Oct. 3 and make my own arrangements, at my own expense, to get to my destination in Germany on Oct. 3 from Amsterdam, and then will allow me fly on my already booked and paid for ticket on Oct. 20 back to the USA, and that this arrangement will in no way affect the tickets to and from Germany booked by my husband. 
OR
  • that Delta is required by law to have me on the flights from Portland to Amsterdam on Oct. 6 and from Europe to Portland on Oct. 20 (please note the law by name and where I can find reference online), but because you are worried about my health, that you have upgraded me and my husband to first class for the flights on Oct. 6 and Oct. 20, because the health of your passengers is of vital importance to you, and you are mortified that I am being forced to fly more than 24 hours in just three days, completely unnecessarily, and are doing it only because you are legally required to do so. 
OR
  • that forcing me to fly from Amsterdam to Portland on Oct. 3, then to fly from Portland back to Amsterdam on Oct. 6, benefits Delta, and please explicitly detail those benefits to your company in forcing me to fly more than 24 hours unnecessarily. I want a full, detailed explanation of why this will be good for Delta to have me on those flights - not just a "it's our policy" reply. I want to be able to tell the world exactly how forcing me to fly unnecessarily for more than 24 hours in less than 3 days is good for Delta, and I'm sure you will want to help me do that, if that is, indeed the case.

I am so looking forward to hearing from you.

Friday, August 8, 2014

It's not just semantics


You will note that I don't write The Ukraine here in my blog, though I've slipped up a few times in conversations. Why not?

We've all grown up calling the country The Ukraine. But the Associated Press dropped the article 'the' back in 1991, and you know how much I love the AP Style book.

Ukrainians believe that saying The Ukraine denies their sovereignty, their nationhood - that it makes them a thing, a territory owned by someone else - the Russians. They will point out that we don't say the Germany, the France, the Canada, the Mexico, so they believe it should also not be the Ukraine.

Although I know that, once my sister reads this, we're going to immediately start saying the Germany, the France, the Canada, the Mexico… we already say the Google and the Twitter and the Facebook...

And, yes, it's THE United States of America and THE Netherlands and THE Philippines - but these are recognized nations and the The was never a put down by rulers from another country. Those are also all plural. And it's THE Islamic Republic of Iran, to distinguish it from all the other Islamic Republics. It's THE United Kingdom because, indeed, there are other kingdoms.

You may still say the Ukrainian nation, just as we all say the State of Kentucky. But I kinda would love calling it The Kentucky…

It may seem silly… but it's a very big deal for Ukrainians (you MAY say the Ukrainians, BTW). But they know that Russians don’t really, in their gut, accept that there's an independent, sovereign Ukraine. And in Russia, they are still using The Ukraine, as a way to assert that belief.

So, there's your cultural lesson for the week. On the anniversary of the death of THE King, Elvis. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

First 3 days in Kiev / Kyiv, Ukraine


Kiev looks like any other big Eastern European city in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, etc. Lots of ugly Soviet architecture, lots of big apartment blocks, lots of winding, confusing streets. But it's different in that, in many parts of the city, there are trees EVERYWHERE. SO MANY TREES. That means that many of the smaller apartment buildings look out or into a tree covered bit of ground, and it keeps certain blocks cool even in this heat.

On the way in from the airport, we passed huge, "exclusive" resorts (they used the word, in English, on signs), on land lushly covered in trees. The closer we got into the city, the more construction I saw. I hope this is a solid boom, and not a bubble.

My hosts met me outside their apartment building - originally built by German prisoners of war during WWII and, therefore, it's incredibly well-built. It looks as run down as an apartment building of the same era you might see in Spain or even Egypt - the inside has broken tiles on the stairs, exposed, very questionable electrical systems in the halls and very high ceilings, but once you open the door to their apartment on the top floor (4th), you walk into another world. They bought the apartment and completely redid it, tearing out and rebuilding all of the floors, walls and ceiling. It's a sweet place, two bedroom, very modern, and with two small terraces. And they are surrounded by huge, old trees.

I have never been so glad to walk into air conditioning in my life! After two hours, I cancelled dinner I was supposed to have with the 2nd in command at my work place - I hated doing it, because it would have been wonderful to get her one on one - I may never get that again. But I wasn't just jet lagged - I was sleep deprived. Badly. I would have not remembered anything she said, and may have embarrassed myself at what I might say. Attention people that want my secrets - just don't let me sleep one night, and I will tell you everything you want to know.

I pushed hard to stay up as late as I could - and was in bed by 9:30. And still woke at 3 a.m. and couldn't sleep again until 5. Then I woke up at 7 because I needed to go to the bathroom - and my body was crying for more sleep, but I didn't dare lay ace down for even 5 minutes.

That morning, I started realizing what I had forgotten to pack:
-- the wire to download photos from my camera to my computer
-- an essential piece on my universal electrical plug (without it, it makes it no longer universal; luckily, Ann had something I could use)
-- my makeup back, which was back at Prague security

Also, my gastrointestinal system had decided to rebel against me two days before I left the USA, so I was dealing with that the whole trip and my first day in Ukraine. It's hard when your stomach is telling you, "Do not eat. I don't want it" and your blood sugar levels are telling you, "eat or I'll make you faint soon, somewhere very publicly, and give you a migraine." I ate some grapes and bread that I found in Ann's kitchen for breakfast. She woke up just in time to shuffle me downstairs into a car she'd booked to drive me to work. She said the walk was "just 40 minutes or so." But based on the drive, I think it's an hour.

On my way to work, I saw a woman motorcyclist getting off her bike, and I took it as a "welcome to your first real day in Ukraine" sign.

My workplace compound is very small and quaint. The front gate security guy was expecting me - I got in no problem. I was a little bit early (work day starts at 9 a.m.). He directed me to the second floor (which here is called the 1st floor, as opposed to the ground floor - such is the case all over Europe). My office already had my name on it, so I went in and put my stuff down, and the deputy big boss I was supposed to have dinner with the night before showed up and my work day began! Lots of meetings, tour of the two buildings, names I shall never remember… I share an office with a Ukrainian woman who is the communications person for all of the main agency. She's VERY traditional - I've got to try to get her to go in some new directions. Will not be easy.

The deputy big boss called me, and others arriving that day/week to work just two or three months, "Surge Birds." The "surge" is the very ambitious humanitarian effort that's about to begin in the country, as well as a transformation of the office on several levels, to get it ready for the great deal of work and attention it's about to experience.

My office mate and another new arrival, who'd just been in Afghanistan, went to lunch at an Uzbek restaurant, which was either amazingly delicious or I had forgotten what food tastes like. I ate heartily - then wondered if I'd pay for it later… but it was the first real meal I'd had in about 24 hours. And it was so needed.

Most of my first day is a blur. I was taken around and introduced to everyone by the deputy big boss - and I don't think I remembered anyone's name later. I also got to meet the big boss, which was very energizing. It was all so different from my experience in Afghanistan, where only my office mate seemed to know I was coming, and my boss there never welcomed me.

At some point, I realized that, once again, my ankles had swollen. They did this when I went to Kentucky in June. I don't know if it's the long flights or the heat - or both. I drank SO Much water both times, and tried to move and stand between flights both times, and done little "exreecizes" on the plane both times, several times during all the flights - none of it worked either time. I know my weight has something to do with it…

After work, Ann met me at the front gate. She'd offered to get a car for us to go to the store and then home, but I said no, I wanted to see if maybe I'd misjudged and it really was just a 40 minute walk. No, I hadn't misjudged - it's an hour, and then some. By the time we got to the grocery, I was dying from heat, exhaustion and jet lag. By the time we got home, I was almost in tears. The heat was horrific. I could feel a migraine coming on. I slowly walked the four stories up, and started taking all the meds I could get my hands on. Then took a very cold shower. Ann has a private water heater, meaning that she won't be affected by the recent Kyiv City State Administration announcement that hot water in Kyiv will be switched off to save gas for winter. But given the weather now, that's just FINE.

Ann had made gazpacho, which was PERFECT on such a hot day, and crock pot lasagna, which I have to have the recipe for. I was afraid, because of the borderline heat exhaustion, that I wouldn't be able to eat, but I could - and again, my body rejoiced at the calories. My body calmed down enough to dare some cold white wine. We watched a John Oliver episode, and halfway through, I hit a wall. Hard. I called it a night - once again, in bed by 9:30, determined to sleep for a full 8 hours at last. And I did. It was 5:30 when I got up. I would have loved to have slept another hour, but knew I'd just sleep right on through until it was time to get dressed and go to work, and that I wouldn't have any time to jump on Facebook and twitter, or read email. And I was feeling very lonely and needing to reconnect.

More impressions of Kyiv / Kiev: there are lots of folks walking, which is surprising, given the heat and height of women's shoes (YIKES). But it's something I really like to see. Most everyone drives very new, nice cars. The bus system looks excellent, but I hear there's no air conditioning. Still, I'd like to give it, and the underground, a try. All the signs are in Cyrillic - that makes knowing or remembering what anything is or is called (a street, a business, a product in a grocery store) a BIG challenge.

I'm hoping to get out of the city at some point and see some countryside - everyone says it's a COMPLETELY different world there.

Tuesday and Wednesday both, I was awake at 4 a.m. At least I was much more coherent at work both days than I had been on that Monday.

And work both days was wonderful - because I WORKED. I haven't worked like that in years. Full day, non stop. Reading, writing, thinking, writing, researching, writing, talking to people, writing. All the work Tuesday paid off big time Wednesday, in our first meeting altogether with the Big Boss - I was able to follow the conversation entirely - I couldn't have without that Tuesday full of reading and writing. I sounded way more up-to-speed than I am - and was promptly granted the honor of drafting a very important document I wondered if I really had any business drafting. But, well, I did - I sailed through doing it, in fact, the rest of the day, and handed it off to the two experts - REAL experts, with international experience that would make your jaw drop. I'm talking humanitarian rock stars!

You have to understand… I want this to go well. Extremely well. I want to be essential in this role. In Afghanistan, there were colleagues that relied on me, and I loved them for it - and there were colleagues that resented me and my expertise, and they made my life hell. I've never resented anyone for their expertise, even if I don't like them personally - if you are an ass, but you have an expertise that I need, I'm going to appreciate that expertise, and I'll let you know I do.

I want to really make a difference here, in my own small way, for the people that will come after me, and the Ukrainians who will continue to be in the office long after I'm gone. I want to make this agency thrilled that they brought me in.

Someone said to me about her experience working with a foreign government, "They hired me to be an expert and treated me like a secretary." I know so many aid workers and development staff and consultants that have had this experience. I don't want it. So far, I don't think I'm going to have it.

In addition to the great day of WORKING on Wednesday, I was invited by some of the assistants here, all Ukrainian nationals, to join them as they stood barefoot on a small piece of grass on our compound - we'd all just finished lunch. And we stood there, in a circle, grooving on the feel of the grass, and talking about pedicures. It's my favorite single moment in Ukraine so far.