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...

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