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.

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