Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thank you, Ukraine. Jayne got her groove back.

What a great time I've had monopolizing the #Ukraine #Kyiv #Kiev #travel searches on Twitter. Right now, as I publish this blog, a search of any of those place names and #travel always brings up my tweets the most. I wonder if I've convinced anyone to come here... so many European friends working here have said they can't get friends to visit, despite there being no travel warnings at all by their governments against travel to Kyiv. They say their friends all say the same thing: "I'm scared to go there." Such a shame - because this place is a gem. An absolute gem.

I've put a link to all of my personal and professional blogs that relate to my time in Ukraine here. It's part of my ongoing quest to answer the question, "But what is it like to work in aid and development overseas?"

The international crewSunday night, there was a party by the second in command at our office, who is on permanent contract here, meaning she'll be here for at least a year, maybe up to three years. It was a party to welcome some new international staff, and to say goodbye to her boss, the boss of all the agencies here, the boss of all of us, and little ole' me. She made a heart-felt speech about the big boss, about what he had walked into in June and how he'd handled all the pressure and the mess and everything else with such decisiveness and direction, how supportive he'd been, and on and on. Then big boss made a beautiful speech about why he liked this assignment, why he liked this team, and his hope for Ukraine. I was thinking the whole time, I wish I had recorded this. It's wonderful. I was fighting back tears.

And then the second-in-command turned to me and told the story of why I was hired. I had never heard it. My friends on my real Facebook account got the whole story. What I'll share here: I wasn't the first choice, I wasn't the second choice, but for various reasons, those choices didn't work out. That's what I got told privately. Here's what happened after that, and got told publicly: the big boss picked up the CVs of everyone that had been recommended by our HQ for the job and said, "I"m going to go back through these. I'm going to pick someone." So he went into his office, was gone a while, and then came back into his second's office holding my profile, and said, "I like her. She's social media savvy, she has a WONDERFUL web site, and look, she rides a motorbike!"

Jens & JayneAs a part of his goodbye-to-me speech, he also said he'd never seen me angry. "Jayne never gets upset. Jayne, can you get angry? Because I've never seen you angry. I come into your office, furious about something, never at you, and you're calm and smiling and just say, 'Okay, let's do this and this, and, please, eat some peanuts." I said, "You don't think I can get angry? I'll give you my husband's number." Everyone laughed. I laughed. And inside, I was about to just crumple on the floor and weep with joy at this experience and sadness that it was ending.

I texted my landlord Monday afternoon and said, "I need to pay you for the rest of the month!" He said he would come by tonight. And he could not have been sweeter - told me he had been sick and meant to come sooner, and that I was the first tenant who wrote to remind him that he was owed money. Then he just went on and on about how sweet I am, that I always smile, and that I must stay here again when I am next in Ukraine. He's gayer than a 3 dollar bill, btw. Anyway… almost burst into tears during his you-are-so-wonderfu speech. I'm so freaking' weepy tonight. I miss my boss already… I miss Ukraine already.

My long-time friends and colleagues know, I do get angry, and I'm so scary when I'm angry, and I do NOT smile all the time - but I do like to smile because, well, why not? I like smiling.

Just three more days here. I just hope getting to and out of the airport is no adventure.

I won't be able to upload photos from these final days until Germany, after Oct. 6. Stay tuned.

Nine weeks in Ukraine. Most work days have been packed with, well, work, and most weekends have packed with doing or seeing *something* more than halfway interesting. And it was all so very, very good.

The things that were absolutely fundamental to making this work and living experience in Ukraine so wonderful:
  • that I had someone housing me and taking care of me from the moment I stepped out of my ride from the airport
  • that the person in charge at my work place knew EXACTLY what he wanted out of everyone, including me
  • that my co-workers let me do my job and used me frequently for what I was here for
  • that there was no one targeting me for failure
  • that I just kept encountering all these really fun, silly people at work and outside of such
  • mind-blowingly delicious Ukrainian food
  • all that makes Kyiv a wonderful city (too much to name)
Change a few things: no friend to guide me - and, therefore, I end up in the creepy Russian hotel my first weeks here, and desperate to find an affordable, nearby apartment entirely on my own, in a language I cannot speak nor read. No one to help me negotiate anything: not finding an apartment, not going to the grocery, let alone organizing a spa day in her apartment. Walking into a dysfunctional office, where no one talks to each other, where staff members hate each other so much they can't get work done, where leadership is confused or angry or just incompetent, where people do not remember WHY we are here in these jobs, where people put more energy into undermining each other than to getting something productive done. Living in a city that's either too dangerous to enjoy or just isn't a place I like for whatever reason. Any one of those things would have changed this experience completely, and might have ruined everything else.

That's why I keep saying I'm so lucky lucky lucky. Because I know each of those awful situations first hand. When you work in international aid, you're usually on your own for most things, from coordinating a pick up at the airport when you land to finding a place to stay to getting your money exchanged to getting office staff to provide you what you need, like a desk and chair. But almost everything was ready for me from day one in the office here in Kyiv - my name was even already on the name plate by the door. And even if you walk into a great office, leadership often changes - and in just a few weeks, boom, your office is transformed from a great place to work to hell.

Would I do anything differently?
  • I would have asked more different people out to lunch - a new person every week. I didn't get to know certain people at all, and I regret that. 
  • I wish I'd taken more photos. 
  • I wish I'd gone to the national art museum. 
  • I wish I'd managed my money a bit more frugally. 
  • I wish I'd had a second massage from Nicholai from Mimosa.
  • I wish I'd met one of the five motorcycle-riding women I saw on the roads of Ukraine.
But that's pretty much it.

I had fun - but not *too* much fun. I put everything into my work - it was always my priority here. And I have never been more proud of my work.

I just so desperately want to be worthy of people's respect here. That was constantly on my mind as well in Afghanistan. And in Egypt. And in anywhere: I want to be worthy of you. I want anyone who comes after me in this job to not have to work even harder to build trust with you because I was crappy. It's your country, not mine. Even if I don't like it, I'm going to respect your country. And you.

So many aid workers are such arrogant shits. And they can be from ANY country and be that way. I've see people from developing countries themselves act like colonialists when they are on assignment elsewhere - like local staff are beneath them. I don't ever what to be that way. Everyone doesn't have to like me - I just want them to think of me as a reliable expert who doesn't BS.

And with all that said: I'm ready to leave Ukraine. Oh, yeah, I'm going to cry cry cry when I leave. And cry after I leave. Probably cry in Forest Grove, Oregon at some point. I'm all but crying now. I have almost cried a few times at work. I cried at a bar last night. But I'm ready to go. I'm done. While I'm ahead. While it's still good. While there's no snow. I miss Stefan. I miss my house. I miss not-my-cat. I want a dog. I want two dogs.

Have I missed this life of aid / humanitarian / development work abroad?


Do I want to return to it permanently, full-time?


I made a choice back in 2007 or so. To have a home. Some people like living out of suitcases. They like the freedom of not being tied down. They love the rush of the adventure, even amid all the crap you have to live through when it's NOT an adventure. I used to. But something changed at some point. I'm not sure what. Also, some people can swing long distance relationships where they see their beloved only every eight weeks for a few days, for years on end. I can't.

I love this work. I LOVE IT. And I wish I could have done it starting when I was 30. But I didn't. I started it when I started it, and from 2001 to 2008, I wrung a lot of delight and wonder and delirious joy from the experiences. But I also didn't get much sleep, I wasn't eating in healthy ways, it was an emotional roller coaster that was great at times and just awful at others, and when things were bad - when work wasn't so great or the place I was working was not a place I'd like to come as a tourist, it was soul-sucking. I wanted to keep my soul.

To have gotten to do this again, one more time, maybe for the last time, and have had it turn out SO well, instead of being a crappy experience - oh, SUCH a gift. Of course, I've got two days to go... maybe it will all go wrong...

I say it again: I love this work. If I get another chance for a short-term gig abroad - up to nine weeks - in 2015, I will take it. If I could get short-term gigs like this once or twice a year for the rest of my life, and they were half this good, I would do this for the rest of my life. I'm lucky because I get health care through my husband (though, with the Affordable Care Act, I could have it anyway - thank you, President Obama!), I don't have any debt, and I make regular contributions into my retirement accounts - all of which would, indeed, allow me to "have it all" and just go out on such a gig once a year.

But that's probably not going to happen. Most of these type of short-term assignments are for nine months, not nine weeks. The choice, really, is between being an international aid worker full-time, year-round, or going back to stringing together consulting jobs or trying to get just any job, even being mostly unemployed, but having a home with my husband. And I freely, happily, chose the home and the Kraut.

After this gig ends, I fly to Germany. Stefan will join me a few days later, and we'll have the vacation we've planned for months. I'll get to see friends I haven't since 2009 - I haven't been to Germany since we moved away! He'll get to see his friends and regale them with his American firefighting exploits. We'll take a side trip to Ireland, a place neither of us have been to since 2001 - when we met there.

And then we'll go back to Forest Grove, Oregon. I'll have a joyous reunion with not-my-cat. I'll decorate the house for Halloween. I'll check in on my mentally-disabled neighbors, Virgil and Virginia. I'll lament the garden produce I missed. I'll talk too much. I'll laugh too loudly. We'll ride our motorcycles. I'll go back to cooking. I'll make a dentist appointment for teeth cleaning (long overdue) and an eye appointment (I need stronger reading glasses). And we'll start the process of looking for and adopting our next doggy. Wish I could bring one back from here (I would, if I were going to the USA from here, but I'm not).

And I'll keep looking for short-term gigs. I'll keep trying to consult enough to be able to cover my part of the mortgage and bills, as well as paying into my retirement. I'll work the Fall elections in Washington County and hope that experience is enough for the US government agency that contributes employees on election-observing missions abroad to PICK ME PICK ME OH GAWD PICK ME in 2015 for a gig.

And I'll look for full-time jobs to apply for and, maybe, just maybe, I'll give up aid and humanitarian work abroad altogether.

But I'll never give up traveling abroad. Never. It may happen only once a year, and it may be just Canada in that year. But I will use my damn passport every year. And if you think traveling is a waste of money, I pity you.

And I will come back to Kyiv. I will.

And I will never give up caring for the world outside the boundaries of the USA. I will never stop caring about people I may never meet.

Thank you, Ukraine. Jayne got her groove back.

And thank you, Neko Case, for tweeting a reply to me when I was listening to your music one night in Kyiv. Sigh…

And I end with this, which I posted a while back to my real Facebook profile - and it's meant with all sincerity:

Soooooo happy to be an atheist. Soooooo happy. Right now, this second, and every moment, every day. 
The universe is so, so, SO much bigger and full of far more possibilities than any religious text has ever said. 
I don't have to believe in any book that tells me I'm less than a man, that I have to defer to a man because he's my husband or father. 
I get to eat shellfish and mix clothing fabrics without guilt. 
I get to evaluate people by their actions, not by whether or not they are on my "team." 
I get to think and reason, instead of just follow and obey without question.
I get to rejoice in being a goat rather than a sheep. 
Oh, I am so happy to be an atheist! Right now, this second, and every moment, every day.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Last weekend in Ukraine

Pedestrian Bridge in Kyiv, over the Dnipro RiverI love that so many people here called me Jay-nee. The Ukrainian Chornobyl guide did it. My Catalan co-worker did it. So many Ukrainians did it. It was sweet. It made me think of my maternal grandmother, who has always called me that.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, following my trip to Chornobyl: no, I still have NOT developed super powers. None. So disappointing.

I do, however, look like a slouch outside of work. As I've telecommuted since 2007, and my jobs since then have required me to work onsite with other people for just a day or two at a time, a proper work wardrobe has disappeared from my closet - I had enough work outfits for a couple of days, but that's it. So I had to get creative and buy a few things before I came so I could have work clothes for nine weeks without wearing the same thing every day, but without bringing any extra bags. What I did not do was to even attempt casual fun clothes for outside of work - I brought my I'm-a-lazy-American-tourist clothes. Which are super comfy. But in this country where most women are gorgeous and take so much care to dress well... I look like a slouch.

Biggest surprise in Ukraine: far, far less mullets, far, far more women wearing flat shoes than I was expecting.

Best meal I've had? There have been so many. SO many. But I'm going with the home-cooked goose in Korosten. My guide in Chornobyl asked me what I thought of the food in Ukraine, and I told her how much I LOVE the fresh vegetables and about the home-cooked goose, and her eyes widened and she said, softly, almost longingly, "With apples?" Oh, yes. With apples. Baked right in. Mmmmmmmmm.....

Also, I must say that I have never felt worse about not knowing the local language in a place I'm working.

In Afghanistan, people were used to most of the consultants not knowing Dari or Pashto - those aren't common languages throughout the world. In Germany, my office was an English-speaking office - it was our official work language, though a lot of people worked in Spanish and French and even Arabic, if everyone in the room spoke those languages. Even when I tried to speak German outside of the office, Germans switched to English very often. In Arabic countries, people also seem to really like speaking English, though they always appreciated my 10 Arabic words.

But here, to not speak Russian, which is as widely spoken as Ukrainian, and which is spoken by many millions world wide? I felt ridiculous at times here because I didn't speak it. An entire meeting of more than 20 people once had to do the meeting in English ONLY because of ME. I felt so bad about that. I still feel bad about that.

BTW: I've put a link to all of my personal and professional blogs that relate to my time in Ukraine here. It's part of my ongoing quest to answer the question, "But what is it like to work in aid and development overseas?"

Jayne and OlenaAs I noted earlier, I bought a Ukrainian-style blouse. It took a long while to find one that wasn't white - I just don't look good in white - and that I liked and really wanted to wear. I finally wore it to work and HOLY COW I WAS THE MOST POPULAR CONSULTANT AT MY WORK PLACE EVER!! I have never been told "you look so beautiful!!!" so many times in one day. I don't think I've been told that so many times, in sum, for the last seven years - not since my wedding. Yes, I loved it, even if it was just to be nice. But it got me thinking: in some cultures, when you, a foreigner, wear local-style clothing, it's considered cultural appropriation. It's considered a big no-no. In other cultures, its considered an endorsement - they celebrate that you recognize the beauty of their culture. I know a lot of Indian women have been delighted that I wore a sari at my wedding, but I'm guessing there might be a few that found it offensive… I actually asked several people if it was appropriate for me to wear a Ukrainian blouse before I dared to buy one.

One day recently, I spent a morning talking to Sergey, the IT guy about his dacha. That is NOT a double entendre. I'm so glad I got to go to a dacha (though not his) - it's such a part of the culture of this part of the world. I'm amazed at how many people have them - a simple summer/weekend home in Eastern Europe is not something just for rich people - it's a priority possession for people in urban areas all over the economic scale. I tried to talk Sergey out of using RoundUp to kill all the weeds on the dacha, but he wasn't buying my environmental pleas. Environmental communication fail. Won't put that on my résumé. I also tried to explain to him about mimeograph machines, and how much we loved when the teacher gave us things that had been mimeographed, because the smell of the ink on the paper gave you a little bit of a high. He just looked at me like, "Wow, you are old and speaking too fast of ancient machines and my English is not so great."

I finally found the English movie night in Kyiv. I would get to see Edge of Tomorrow (don't mock me - reviews were excellent) and Godzilla (Bryan Cranston!). I was so excited - I was going by myself, sit inside a dark theatre, and be oh-so-happy. But then I saw the start time: 11:30 p.m. Sigh… I'm old. I stayed home and watched The Daily Show and Colbert on my computer (thank you, HotSpot Shield VPN). I love John Stewart's imitation of Lindsey Graham more than just about everything in life.

And that said… I'm not sure there could be a John Stewart-type show here in Ukraine. It needs one - every country needs one. If such a show just went after Putin, everyone would love it. But whereas Stewart will go after anything and anyone in the USA -- Obama, left-wing politicians, beloved but racist team mascots, beloved musicians, etc. -- and dare to make absolutely anyone uncomfortable even if he likes them, a show here that would dare to question, say, the most popular politician, or the appropriateness of the actions of some of the independent militia in Eastern Ukraine fighting against the Russians, or the zeal of some of the "patriots," would be yanked off the air immediately and get death threats for the host. It's yet another alternative country development indicator I like to do to measure a country's economic and democratic progress: number of goth girls, number of roller derby events, number of blues music clubs, reaction to a gay pride parade in the center of town, and does the country have a TV show that will cut absolutely anything and anyone down to size?

On a related note: I'm so, so sorry the Daily Show-type show in Egypt ended. I salute everyone who worked on that show. That is yet another step backward for Egypt.

Zip-lining in Kyiv over the Dnipro RiverFor my last Saturday in Kyiv, I went zip lining for the first time in my life, over the Dnipro River. I went with Tom, the maybe-a-Canadian-we-aren't-so-sure, with whom I went to Chornobyl as well. The launch site is near the big rainbow sculpture in Park Askoldova Mohyia, just past this not-so-beloved monument to the "unification" of Russia and Ukraine in 1654. I had no idea the launch and the ride is as high up as it is. If I had had to launch myself - to step off a platform, for instance - I never would have done it. But you put your feet up on those doors, they open at some point, and off you go, no way to stop, dropping down in the abyss and over the river! I screamed most of the way down and part of the way over the river. I hope the people on the pedestrian bridge were amused as I went screaming by. It was terrifying and so fun. I decided that the staff on the other side was either asleep or didn't like us, because instead of slowing us down, as they did with EVERYONE else, we slammed into the crash pads on the back wall -- the ones that are there JUST IN CASE. I had done as instructed earlier, and lifted my feet up as we approached, which meant that the hit made me turn upside down and take most of the impact on my butt. It didn't hurt... at least I don't think so... I was so traumatized by the crossing that I didn't really notice as I was righted and the worker mumbled, "Sorry." But with all that said, I would absolutely do it again. In fact, I almost suggested doing it again right away. You end up on Dniprovsky Park, which is one of Kyiv's many urban recreational beaches. It looked rather closed up when we were there.

We walked back over the pedestrian bridge, taking photos and talking about how spoiled we are to live in downtown Kyiv, when the vast majority of residents live on the other side of the river, and most of our local co-workers have to commute at least 45 minutes to work, one way. I have been on the other side of the river only once. I didn't see much green space then, but maybe things like can't be seen from the main roads. We walked down along the main road and through some construction to the entrance to the funicular, and road it back up to St. Michael's, then walked over to Maidan and said our goodbyes. I did a bit of shopping for some last minute items, then headed home to relax and work on a couple of projects.

I went out that night for my last night on the town with friends (photos uploaded soon). It was fun, and it was a nice goodbye to Saturday nights in Kyiv out on the town. But I was sorry only one Ukrainian friend showed up. I invited a few others, including two from work. The divide between local and international staff or travelers always bothers me, whether I'm working or just a tourist. I know that there are a lot of positives to not socializing together, work wise - we, the international staff, are supposed to maintain neutrality, and the respect of local staff, and I'm not sure we can maintain that, at least in their eyes, when they see us not being very professional. And, yet, it's informal moments that can also really solidify a work relationship. Likewise, when I'm traveling, when I'm just a tourist, there are also a lot of advantages to maintaining distance with local people - it can keep me from making a huge, massive social gaffe that ruins the moment or their view of people from the USA, for instance, and it can make me feel safe and not so vulnerable - as a woman, no matter your age or body type, it's something you have to think about - and keeping your distance can make you feel just a bit more in control, particularly when you are in a place where you don't speak the language. It can give you an easy, polite way to retreat. But, then again, those moments mixing with locals rather than fellow tourists can be the best parts about a trip - and who wants to only hang around with other tourists?

And that's why, through work, I always try to do something with a few local staff, even just shopping, especially close to the end of my contract, to just be a bit social, to show I'm human, and to maybe learn things about the country I never would otherwise. It also makes me see my co-workers more as "on my team" - rather than just the locals. Of course, now one Ukrainian co-worker knows just how much beer I can drink in one sitting and what a potty mouth I have...

I was a part of a very important onsite and online event for my employer, and at the last minute, I got to invite two Ukrainian friends from a local NGO that I met my first week here. I know this is weird, but I almost got weepy when I saw them in the room. Like, oh, hey, those are my FRIENDS here. I was honored that they came - even though the whole reason I wanted them there was because I thought it would be such a fantastic networking opportunity for their organization - they weren't there for me.

Afterwards, I went with my office mate to a restaurant in the park across from Taras Shevchenko National University, where we'd held the event. It was yet another unbelievably crazy good Ukrainian meal. The restaurant is near Tarasa Shevchenko Blvd. If it's lunch time, ask for the lunch menu. I had the tomato salad, the chicken soup, the fish with mashed potatoes, and a glass of juice. 65 hr - 5 bucks at the current exchange rate.

And while the exchange rate here is heavenly if you have dollars, it's horrible for Ukrainians, and iit's Ukraine's economic state that worries me far, far more than the unrest in the East. Far more. I get dread in the pit of my stomach when I read the stats at work. It will feed unrest all over the country if it isn't rapidly, effectively addressed. Based on what I've read through my job, I agree with this article: Ukraine is probably on the brink of total economic collapse.

Exports are severely down, because of the broken ties with Russia. "A great example of Ukraine's export challenges is the Antonov aircraft company known for its Soviet era large transport planes as well as other types of aircraft. As the military cooperation with Russia ended, Antonov was in trouble. It had to take a $150 million hit recently by not delivering the medium-range An-148 planes to the Russian Air Force. The Russians will find a replacement for this aircraft, but in the highly competitive global aircraft market, it's far less likely that Antonov will find another client."

Its GDP is down, Ukraine's retail sales are falling, industrial production is collapsing, and the hryvnia is getting killed on exchange rates. Inflation is running above 14% and will spike sharply from here in the next few months if the currency weakness persists. Real wages are collapsing. "A number of economists now believe that given worsening economic crisis, the country's public debt problem is simply unsustainable and default is becoming increasingly likely."

All that makes my heart hurt. Because this country is so worth investing in. I wouldn't hesitate to open a manufacturing plant here over Romania or Italy. Would. Not. Hesitate. This is a very educated, tech-savvy country. Okay, the infrastructure isn't Germany - but it's as good as I've seen in some other EU member states (I'm looking at you, Romania). Ukraine reminds me of Poland in many ways - and I mean that as a huge compliment. And Spain. Put Spain and Poland together and you get Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine needs customer service training. So does Spain and Italy. And everyone in London. I'm not the only one that sees the potential of this country: the Tech4Ukraine initiative, lead by a group of USA-based tech leaders representing companies with strong economic ties to Ukraine, that do a lot of out-sourcing here, and want to see the country turn itself around economically and flourish. You can follow them on Twitter.

In other news: from afar, I've been watching some schools in the USA make some really horrible decisions regarding NOT allowing their students to stage certain plays. A school in the USA blocked a production of "Spamalot" - which is, of course, based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a movie I had seen MANY times in junior high and high school. Among the many people that have responded is Richard Thomas. Thank you, Howard Sherman, for staying on top of this issue!

Probably just one more blog from Ukraine... four working days to go...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Jayne Visits Chornobyl (Chernobyl)

Thou shalt not freak out over my trip to Chornobyl, nor how I spell it:

First, let's dispel some myths re: Chornobyl (spelling is based on how Ukranians pronounce it). Because some of your comments ("Oh, Jayne, please stay safe!") have me much more worried than my trip to the exclusion zone:

The town of Chornobyl is still inhabited. There are houses there. There are people there. It's quite a nice little village, actually. Approximately 3,000 people work in the area on various projects, such as the construction of the New Safe Confinement, the ongoing decommissioning of the reactors, and assessment and monitoring of the conditions in the zone. Employees can live in the 30 km exclusion zone - in Chornobyl - but not within the 10 km exclusion zone. Some work "4-3" shifts (four days on, three off), whilst others work 15 days on, 15 off. Other workers commute into the Zone daily from outside of it.

What isn't in Chornobyl: children. The people that live in Chornobyl are not allowed to have children there. More on that later.

"Chornobyl" is the same word as a local Ukrainian name for wormwood, though  alternative etymology holds that it is a combination of the words chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), hence it would literally mean black grass or black stalks.

Chornobyl was NOT not the residence of the power plant workers nor the industries that supported those workers - restaurants, dry cleaners, movie theaters, bars, hair salons, etc. That was Pripyat, a city much larger than Chornobyl, and built specifically for the Chornobyl workers and their families. It was ultra-modern, with all the latest everything. It's Pripyat that is the ghost city now, with all the decaying streets and buildings, that you see in photos and videos.

After the explosion at Reactor No. 4, the remaining three reactors at the power plant continued to operate. They are now in the process of decommissioning those reactors, which actually takes several years - there's no "off" switch. The first stage of decommissioning is the removal of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, which is placed in deep water cooling ponds. However, storage facilities for this are not suitable for long term containment, so, officially, the place is NOT fully decommissioned. And all this is said to explain why the place still looks like a working nuclear power plant, with offices and plant workers all around. (and it's the constant lack of places to safely store highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that keeps me from embracing nuclear energy as a viable energy option, along with the human potential for stupidity).

The remains of Reactor No. 4 will remain radioactive for 1000 years.

It was Sweden's search for the source of radioactivity at a Swedish nuclear power plant that led to the first hint of a serious nuclear problem in what was then the Western Soviet Union. They figured it out and, so, the Soviets had to come clean and tell all.

Contamination from the Chornobyl disaster was not evenly spread across the surrounding countryside or the nearby regions, but scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions. Some mushrooms as well as wild animals which eat them, e.g. wild boars hunted in Germany and deer in Austria, may have levels which are not considered safe for human consumption - while the same in Southern Ukraine are fine.

Invertebrate populations (including bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and spiders) has significantly decreased in the area. Currently, most radioactivity around Chornobyl is located in the top layer of soil, where many invertebrates live or lay their eggs. The reduced abundance of invertebrates can have negative implications for the entire ecosystem surrounding Chornobyl. However, the "giant" fish you see near the plant aren't so large because of radiation - they are that large because of their diet.

One of the main mechanisms by which radiation contamination was passed to humans was through the ingestion of milk from contaminated cows.

The issue of long-term effects of the Chornobyl disaster on people is an ongoing debate. There's little pre-disaster data to rely on - how many people had thyroid cancer before the plant was built? How many birth defects were there before the plant was built? Without that kind of data, it's really hard to say what the radiation, for sure, has caused in humans and animals, beyond the immediate injuries and deaths of first responders. Lack of funds, an infrastructure with little or no experience in chronic disease epidemiology, and extremely poor communication (record-keeping, information sharing, etc.) hamper efforts to effectively study this.

In Belarus, Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who questioned the official reporting regarding Chornobyl's consequences, was imprisoned from 2001 to 2005 for "corruption." Bandazhevsky and some human rights groups allege his imprisonment was a reprisal for his publication of reports critical of the official research being conducted into the after effects of the Chornobyl incident.

After Ukrainian Independence in the early 90s, funding for the policing and protection of the Zone was initially limited, resulting in lots of returnees - samosely - and other illegal intrusion. But they have it under better control now.

A Geiger counter measures both radioactive particles and waves in the air around it. Most of the radiation in Chernobyl now is transported via particles that can easily be blocked by clothing. The other types of radiation that exists as waves can move straight through a wall. A Geiger counter is expresses the amount of radiation, from both particles and waves, in a unit called Sieverts, per hour of exposure. I receive about .15 microSieverts (μSv) of radiation during my breakfast time in Kiev. And that's around what YOU had this morning as well. Maybe more.

Here are some basic numbers to use as a guide:

10 μSv – The average total radiation you received by the end of today

40 μSv – The radiation you receive by taking a flight from New York to L.A.

100 μSv – The radiation you receive during a dental x-ray

3,000 μSv – Radiation dose from a mammogram

3,600 μSv – Average radiation a US citizen receives in a year from all sources

50,000 μSv – Maximum allowable yearly occupational dose (USA)

100,000 μSv – Lowest yearly dose likely linked to increased cancer risk

2,000,000 μSv – Severe radiation poisoning (sometimes fatal)

A new steel containment structure named the New Safe Confinement (NSC) is being built to replace the aging and hastily-built sarcophagus that currently protects Reactor No. 4. That's what a lot of the workers at the plant are doing now - working on this giant dome. Behave, or you will be encased in it. Just kidding. Maybe.

The most radiation I was exposed to on this visit, at once, was 9 μSv, for at least some, and maybe most, of the 45 minutes we were standing right outside the plant. In one hour, I supposedly got what I normally get in a day, in terms of radiation - and it's still not as much as I get on a long plane ride - I say supposedly, because my counter was usually at 3.5 while we were at the nuclear disaster site. In Pripyat, I checked my Geiger counter constantly (yes, I rented one) and we were between .5 and 3.5 μSv the whole time. But upon visiting the Duga-3 radar, readings were at 4 and 5 μSv, and stayed there for the next 2 hours, all through lunch. Not sure why they were so much more there. Yet, even so, at the end of the day, I still had less exposure to radiation all day than you received during your last dental x-ray.

To limit exposure to radiation, even though radiation levels are low, workers in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone are limited in the number of days per week or weeks per month they stay in Chernobyl.

So, why not let children back in to people back into Chornobyl? Why not let people back into Pripyat and the many villages that have been evacuated in the exclusion zone? Because of so many, many hotspots (where radiation levels spike), because the items that were left behind - clothes, furniture, books, everything - are still radioactive, because of the lack of information about health risks for people, especially children, regarding elevated, constant, long-term radiation exposure - we just do not know what having the effects of having a dental x-ray EVERY day would be.

Finally, you are not allowed to freak out about my trip to Chornobyl until you've read this web site.

Would I move to Chornobyl? No. There's no movie theater there. Would I suggest you go to Chornobyl, even if you want to get pregnant someday? Absolutely. Would I suggest you go if you ARE pregnant? No - just as doctors don't like doing x-rays on pregnant women.

So, are we good?


Let's talk about my trip to Chornobyl:

On Saturday, September 20, I awoke to a positively GORGEOUS Kyiv day. It was cool, but not at all cold. A visit out on the balcony and I was back in the bedroom changing my clothes from a long warm undershirt to a long sleeve oh-so-light shirt, with a t-shirt over it. The SoloEast web site said that long sleeves, long pants and shoes - not sandals - were mandatory, so I had planned ahead. I brought a sweater just in case, but it stayed in my bag the whole time.

When I booked this trip more than two weeks ago, I was gambling on the weather. But looking at all the forecasts, I had a feeling this might very well be the last dry, clear weekend. I was SO right. I wanted this particular weekend because I knew my former host here would be out of town - and I really like spending free weekends with her.

Why did I choose Solo East? They had great reviews, they were mentioned in Lonely Planet, and they were the company that Top Gear used when the boys went to Chernobyl - and Stefan and I had watched that very episode earlier this year. How could I not? I'll say right up front: they were terrific. I'll also say, right up front: next time, when Stefan is here with me, we're paying big bucks for a private tour. I'm losing my patience with other tourists.

I headed out the door at 8 a.m. and walked the less than 2 km (about a mile) to the McDonald's in Maidan, and found Tom, a co-worker, having breakfast. I had invited him and a few other co-workers to sign up for the tour with me, but only Tom took me up on it. Took us to find the tour organizer - he was quite nondescript. I got called "number 1", because I was the first to sign up on the tour, so I was first on all lists for the rest of the day, actually. A few other people from our company turned up - not sure when they booked, but we don't really hang, so they stuck together, and I got to do my own thing. Which was what I wanted. Other people on the tour: interactive game designers, an MBA student, an Australian on that epic international trip all Australians do, an Irish guy obviously making the trip of a life time, and a really annoying guy I'm going to skip talking about for now.

We headed out on time, though one guy - from the USA, of course - forgot his passport, so he had to be driven back to his apartment to get it and then catch up to us on the road. He, and all of the people from my company, forgot to bring snacks as well - both Lonely Planet and the SoloEast web site say to bring a snack, as lunch is REALLY late. I was getting annoyed now - I started to feel like there was a large group on our trip not taking this trip seriously. It was a school field trip: WOOT!

I took this trip seriously. I take all trips seriously. I'm not an emotionally-distant, snobby aid worker that does touristy things just because I'm bored and hungover. Visiting historical sites is serious business for me. It's not a joke. As for being a "disaster tourist" as someone called it - it's not that l seek out sites of disasters - like Pompeii and Mt. St. Helen's and Chornobyl - it's that I seek out places of SIGNIFICANCE - maybe because of tragedy, maybe because of triumph. Hence why I've also been to the pyramids and Karnak in France AND Egypt and so many USA historical sites.

I am happy in all the photos touring the area. But please understand: the trip was, in many ways, quite sad. There were times I had no words - I just stared. What made me saddest was how people were lied to about the accident. Everyone lied to everybody. And the consequences of those lies are so far-reaching.

We were in a large mini-bus, very comfy, and the drive is surprisingly quick - but, then again, I like road trips. I liked looking out at the Ukrainian country side and the suburbs and villages on the way. I half watched the view and half watched what was on the screen above the center of the front of the van: two horrific cheesy music videos that were shot at Chernobyl, and a documentary called The Battle of Chernobyl. Before it started, our guide, Anastasia, said the video was sensationalist and we shouldn't be alarmed because everything was presented in a very overly dramatic manner. But watching, I didn't think much was overly-dramatic - the video very accurately helps you understand just how close Western Europe came to nuclear annihilation. And it came SO close. And it also helps you understand just what the first responders did - and what they sacrificed - for all of mankind. For you. Those are people that truly deserve to hear, "Thank you for your service. Thank you for my life. Thank you for the future of the planet." I had done a lot of research beforehand - I knew how much things had changed in almost 30 years since the accident, so the video didn't freak me out, in the sense of, "Turn this bus around, I ain't goin'!" But I can totally see someone doing that after watching the video and not understanding what the site is *now*. I asked our guide later if, indeed, people had panicked over the video and, indeed, they had - a couple of people have seen it and changed their minds about going.

And I'd like to say "Soviet problem", regarding the mistakes and the lies, but the owner of Fukushima did the same damn thing - lied about the damage, lied about the risks, lied about the containment. I just don't trust humans. I trust nuclear energy only if aliens manage it.

There is a very strict check point at the entrance to the check point to enter the 30 km exclusion zone. Passports are rechecked against a list that the guard has. Our guide says that there have been cases where the guards have turned a group back - because something didn't quite match up between a passport and the list, because someone wasn't dressed properly, because someone behaved badly (NO PHOTOS). I could hear what she was saying underneath those stories: please follow directions, please don't ruin it for everyone.

If you have decided to dress one way for the drive and another for a tour, this is where you change clothes. Also, USE THE BATHROOM AT THIS CHECKPOINT. It's your last opportunity to use a toilet before lunch. Otherwise, you'll be using a bush. Watch out for the hot spots!

And speaking of Geiger counters - yes, I rented one from the company. Because… GEEK GIRL! Come on, it's a GEIGER COUNTER. It was the best toy EVER. I was the only one that rented such. Anastasia had one as well, of course.

Once you enter the 30 km exclusion zone, most cars on the road disappear. Even though Chornobyl, as noted earlier, is inhabited, it's a village. You are on mostly empty roads, with forests all around. That's your only indication for a while that's something different here - there are few cars, and the roads look fantastic, from lack of use.

Once you enter the 10 km exclusion zone, things get even more deserted. Most houses are gone. Cars are VERY rare. There are two more check points beyond the first one, but because our guide is so trusted, we didn't have to get off the bus and present passports again. But she said that does happen sometimes.

And… well, I'm not going to do a play-by-play of the tour. I have a lot of commentary in my photos about what we did, what we saw, etc. That's your play-by-play.

I will say that myself and other passengers harassed poor Tom for forgetting his camera - in fact, I'm still harassing him about it. He has a decent camera on his smart phone, so he got some good photos. And he took photos of me, whenever I asked, which was sweet of him - and that included the very best photo of my in the last five years.

Also, Anastasia thought Tom and I were brother and sister - literally. So we kept making jokes the whole time about how mom always liked me better, how I always got the best Christmas presents, etc.

I will also say that the dogs and cats in Chornobyl broke my heart. All of the dogs and cats n the area were killed in the 1980s after the accident, for fear that they would take radiation with them outside the area. All animals in the area were killed, actually - cows, chickens, horses. The dogs and cats there now have wandered in from the surrounding villages, or been brought in by thoughtless residents. There were no strays seen around Pripyat, thankfully - that would have made me insane.

And one of the many reasons I want to do a private tour next time is because one of the tourists convinced everyone that it was a better idea to go to the Duga-3 radar than to climb the 16 stories to the top of the Pripyat hotel, to get a rooftop view of the city. I wanted to do the latter. But the lazy, hungover members of our group didn't. I let it go… but I'm still bitter.

Another reason other tourists annoyed me - they didn't realize that they weren't the only ones that wanted a particular photo, or that someone might want a photo where they had decided to stand and hang out. One guy not only asked others to take photos of him - which is FINE - he wanted you to redo the photo SEVERAL times. Dude, if you are that obsessed about how you are supposed to look in your photos, HIRE SOMEONE TO GO WITH YOU AS A PHOTOGRAPHER.

And yet ANOTHER reason tourists annoy me: temperature. There was one woman that complained about being cold every time we were outside. It was a GORGEOUS sunny day, and it was NOT cold. The Australian woman had stripped down to her thin, short-sleeved t-shirt, and most people had no jackets on outside. She stood in the sun, wrapped in her coat, shivering. Which wasn't the problem. It was her insistence that the van have the heat on. On the way back, I had to demand it get turned off. I was ready to say I was going to get car sick if it wasn't turned off, if that's what it took.

And then there was the woman who, I swear, asked the DUMBEST questions and make ridiculous comments. I don't even know where to begin...

Private tour next time. For sure.

Wow. I sound like I didn't enjoy the trip. I did. I did a remarkable job of finding ways to stay away from everyone else when we were off the bus. I really enjoyed the trip, truly.

So, yes, I totally fan-girled over Anastasia being the guide for the Top Gear guys. I wanted to ask her a million questions, but limited myself to just a few:

    Were they all nice?


    But you didn't know they were famous?

    No. I have never seen the show. I understand it is about cars. I don't like car shows.

    Have you seen their show that they did here in Ukraine?


    So you may be on TV and you don't even know it.

    (grins nervously)

    So, I know you say they were all nice. Even the really, really tall, big guy, fat around the middle?


    And the short guy was also nice?


    Who was the nicest?

    The tall guy with the long hair.

    James May?

    Yes. He was very nice, very considerate, and asked a lot of questions
And I left her alone after that, for fear I would sound creepy.

Except for at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and various hot spots, my Geiger counter was always below 2. Until we started towards the Duga-3 radar. After that, it hit 4, then 5, then a little over 5, and stayed there. It was still there when we arrived at one of the exit check points, and I had to give the Geiger Counter back. I never did get a chance to ask why.

Lunch didn't happen until after 4. But that was fine as I, of course, had BROUGHT SNACKS. Also, lunch was worth the wait - as usual, it was a great meal. Because - UKRAINE. All of the food is brought in from outside the zone, FYI. Surprisingly, the only gift shop is a small display case inside the restaurant. I bought two key chains.

You go through two radiation check points on your way out. The first checkpoint has a machine that, supposedly, is very sensitive, and WILL reveal if you were an idiot and picked up something. I asked Anastasia if she'd ever witnessed the machine go off. Indeed, she had - because someone had something they had picked up, which they then have to leave. Or, in one case, because they thought a photo in a scooper of a bulldozer was a great idea - a bulldozer used to help clean up right after the accident. She said he went pack to Kyiv without his pants, as they could not be decontaminated. And he was Russian.

And… everyone slept as we drove back to town, except me. I looked out the window and thought about the day. Midway back, we passed a large group of motorcycles, none Harleys, that were taking a break from a group ride. The riders looked so happy on this beautiful day. Oh, to have joined them…

I cannot believe I forgot to listen to the Great Atomic Power while touring Chernobyl. Alt country FAIL. I have three different versions of it on my iPod! (Uncle Tupelo, Southern Culture on the Skids and, of course, the Louvin Brothers).

And… that's it, really. Far more details in the descriptions that go with my photos. I beg you to please read the descriptions that go with the photos. Please? Start with the first photo. Not all have descriptions yet, but they will. Soon. Otherwise, they're just images, pretty colors, a few seconds of your time... and they're worth more than a few seconds.

And if you ask me a question that is answered in the photo descriptions or in the above narrative, like, "But weren't you worried about all the radiation?! And why are there people living there?!" I'm not answering you.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Coyote NO

Jayne loves Ukraine
So, two weeks to go. And then I'm done. I'm done with this amazing adventure. I will leave Ukraine.

I feel the way I have only on a motorcycle or camping somewhere with my husband these past few years.... yes, Ukraine is as good as motorcycle riding and camping. HIGH PRAISE INDEED.

I am the luckiest girl alive - at least I have been for August and September. I can't believe I got this amazing gift of a job. Out of no where. Just landed right in my lap. As did my first job with this organization - it all started with an email, out of no where, in 2000. I still can't believe it. I feel like I'm going to wake up and it's going to be July and I'm going to be in Forest Grove and wondering what in the hell I'm going to do with my life. Actually, I always wonder what in the hell I'm going to do with my life. But now, with money in the bank and a solid, RECENT work experience, I'm not as worried about not knowing.

Do I worry about afterwards? Yes. But that's for another blog.

Me to a co-worker: "Oh, where are you going so early in the morning?"

Co-worker: "I'm going to some meeting about gender blah blahs blah mainstreaming women ta ta ta dee dee dee."

No, really that was our conversation. The development/humanitarian jargon gets to even us - especially before we've had several cups of coffee.

Two important things I've learned on this job:
"Help me to do this" means "Do this for me, please."
"I'll be brief" means "I"m going to talk for 20 minutes, even though I only have 3 minutes allotted."

Also, I tried to kill my boss with roses on his birthday. Sorry!

An important thing I've learned for after work: Beer from kiosk near apartment: excellent. Cheese from the kiosk near apartment: oy vey. Nothing but cheese from Good Wine for rest of my time in Kyiv!

Food!Saturday, Sept. 13, the couple with whom I stayed my first four weeks threw a party for me with incredible food - overflowing with fresh Ukrainian vegetables and added bonus, American store-bought salsa and homemade corn muffins! - lots of yummy things to drink, and a mix of friends and co-workers. I'm so sorry I didn't run around getting photos - not of the people, not of me debuting my fabulous Ukraine blouse, only of the food before everyone arrived. That's a huge regret. Because the evening was so special. And there were most of the people that have been special to me in Ukraine there, all together, in one room. I can't believe I didn't take photos. But I was just having this amazing time. I was sooooo happy.

I found out that some particularly hard partiers went on afterwards to Coyote Ugly, a new bar in Kyiv next to Good Wine. No. And can I just say how ticked off I am that most Ukrainians are having an introduction to the word coyote through this almost-a-titty bar instead of MY COMPANY?!?

The next night, one of the head honchos at work threw a dinner party at her apartment for just the visiting staff from other countries that work in our immediate office. Except for her, all of us are on short-term contracts of just a few months. Her apartment is near the Presidential office, on the same street as the Lutheran church, and just a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I am right on the edge of the most beautiful neighborhood in Ukraine, truly. It's just too lovely for words. As is her apartment. Wow. And afterwards, we washed dishes - very important people washed dishes.

Food and transportation are so cheap here in Kyiv. Accommodations are not. Hotels are more expensive than probably anywhere I've ever been. Apartment rents are through the roof. A lot of people own apartments here, in the city center, that they rent out to foreigners and other temporary stay folks, while they themselves live over on the other side of the river, where it's FAR cheaper. If I were staying here longer, I would have gotten a cheaper place, but I love being within easy walking distance of work and anything I want to see. There's no reason not to fully enjoy my nine weeks here - this isn't like other posts where I have to be constantly on alert for security reasons, where it's mandatory that I take a company car to get somewhere.

Statues in MaidanKyiv. It's a beautiful city, in landscape and spirit. I love this city. I love this city as much as any European city I've ever been to. It is so easy to feel at home here. It's easy to get around the immediate downtown. It's not a super friendly town, but it's not rude - Kyiv folks do their jobs and save the overt friendliness for the people they love. The food is just... it's all that. The biggest challenge of being here is the language, particularly how it's written. I do a better job of listening and hearing things I understand than I do every trying to read anything. I was so spoiled my first four weeks here, no question, regarding getting around - by living with someone fluent in Russian and who can get by in Ukrainian and who can read everything.

Kyiv is a short flight from so many places - Prague, Istanbul, cities in Poland. Easy to get a flight here from Amsterdam. I really can't recommend this place highly enough as a tourist destination. Best time to come, IMO - late August or early September, when the weather isn't stupid hot but it's still warm enough sit outside (and if it's not, they'll bring you a blanket. I'm not kidding.), and there's fresh fruit and veggies being sold on the streets EVERYWHERE. And buy Lonely Planet Ukraine - it really does have all you need re: getting around and being here, including a list of companies that rent apartments. More on LP later in this blog...

It has cooled off quite a lot - from temps of around 76F / 26C the week before to 66F / 19C on Monday, Sept. 15, and the temps stayed there all week and weekend. And then it gets even colder the next week. That's a problem only when it comes to my clothes - I'll be alternating between the same two sweaters every day my last week here. I have been so lucky with the weather here - I cannot complain. Rained just one day. It was only horrible the first week - so hot I thought I would melt, especially with an office mate that hates air conditioning. I don't want an office that's frigid on a hot day, but I do want an office where I'm not sweating while I'm typing, and my computer isn't about to explode from the heat.

I'm busy at work - busier than I was expecting these most recent two weeks. I thought I had just one more project to do, and then I worried that I wouldn't have anything else to do. But SEVERAL things have just cropped up. I'm slammed. Which is absolutely fine. I LOVE this work. I love it. I could write communications strategies every day for the rest of my life. I could. I love doing it. I'm good at it. No, really, I am.

Not that I don't have bad days. I do, sometimes. Well, just two, so far.

It's so bizarre: I've netted probably 30 more followers on my professional Twitter account. But my personal account, the one associated with this blog, the fun one, about travel and, well, fun? I've netted none. For every one follower I've gained, I've lost one. I just knew I'd have 450 followers on my personal account by the time I left Ukraine. I was WRONG. Meanwhile, I've got more followers on the professional Twitter account than some of the agencies I work with!

One Sunday, my former host and a co-worker and I traveled by bus to the neighborhood near the Central Botanical Gardens (bus 14), to visit an Austrian woman who finds Ukrainian artists with paintings, sculptures or folk art she likes, and then she sells such out of her house. She's an artist herself as well. She is who discovered this guy's work that I love so much - though I just found out she's never met him! She gets his things through someone else. She lives in a gorgeous house, in an area with spectacular views of Kyiv down below, in a quarter with a lot of diplomats who have their own grand homes. Nice places, lemme tell ya… my friend found her via the Kyiv Expats Facebook group, which is a really great group for finding places to live, things to do - even jobs.

I've had three health issues while in Kyiv… so far. I hope it's all I have: first was the ankle swelling following my flights, and then at the end of every work day. That's gone away almost entirely - a few times at the end of the day, I see some slight swelling around the right ankle, though I'm not sure anyone else would notice it, and it's always gone by the time I go to bed. Second was that dang UTI. And third has been heartburn. I have chronic acid reflux. It's one of the legacy's from my Dad's side of the family (the other is a love of musical theatre - go figure). I thought I had brought more than enough Zantac and antacid tablets to get me through not just Ukraine, but Germany as well. But with more than two weeks to go, I see that I have just a week's worth of pills left - I had taken two a day many more times than I had realized. I knew I could keep that horrible pain under control - but didn't realize just how many meds I needed for such. It's very hard to get antacid meds in Germany - even if something is over the counter, they will give you just a few doses and a long lecture about going to see a doctor. I'll be asking a co-worker to go to a pharmacy with me next week, to see what I might be able to get over the counter.

So, long ago, per my blog about my Saturday with the IDPs, I wrote a report about that visit and sent it to a person I work with, a specialist regarding internally-displaced people (refugee is a term reserved for people not in their home countries). He forwarded it to someone, who never responded - never said, "Oh, we'll get right on this" or "We know all about this already - thanks for the update", etc. Silence. Nothing. It really ticked me off. So I sent it to another program that is a part of our overall agency. And the rep got back to me immediately, said they knew about it, wrote some comments that showed she TOTALLY knew which group I was talking about, etc. It just reminded me yet again: some people understand how to work, some people don't. Some people think of themselves as part of an organization, of something bigger, and some people just love their little fiefdom and don't want anyone messing with it. I have encountered both kinds of people in every kind of organization, even for-profits. I work really hard to think of all staff as integrated and worthy of respect and being informed. And when I'm sitting there hearing someone from another department nit pick my work, I look for legitimate, constructive criticism to use - and also think, yeah, sister, but did it ever occur to you that you can comment on what I'm doing because I share it, but you never share a damn thing about what you're doing with anyone outside your department?


So, I mentioned Lonely Planet Ukraine earlier. I bought it just before I left the states, and it has been terrific. It was written before the latest Maidan revolution, before Yanukovych was thrown out of office, but there are hints here and there that such a thing is coming. There's this paragraph from one section of the book I found quite telling:

"The 'ethnic' schism between western and eastern Ukraine has been under the spotlight since the Orange Revolution, when there were brief but serious fears the county might split. With Russian immigration into Ukrainian territory from the last 17th century, some Russian Ukrainians still feel their allegiance lies more with Moscow than with Kyiv... Ukrainian nationalists refuse to see an east-west split as a solution to the country's ethnic strife. Through the cause of countless problems, the divisions are neither as clear-cut nor as intractable as some politicians like to suggest."

Remember - the above paragraph was written BEFORE Maidan, BEFORE Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine (they say they haven't invaded - Russian soldiers there are on vacation, choosing to spend their free time fighting in Ukraine. Um… yeah). It's the first thing I've read about tensions BEFORE those events.

A country that does not address unity issues - and I don't mean forcing people to be unified, I mean getting buy-in from all residents about what it means to be a part of the country - is doomed. You see it in Spain, you see it in the UK, you see it in Belgium, you see it in Turkey… how many more times will we see it? I'm shocked re: Scotland, by the way - I think the vote to stay in the UK was economics and the head talking, not identity and the heart. And sometimes, economics is your best argument to get a region to stay.

Speaking of unity problems… "in Lviv, on Ukraine's western edge, near the border with Poland, displaced people from the Donbass region in the east and the southern peninsula of Crimea seem to be around every corner. They are staying in hotels and private apartments and in tourist chalets and sanatoria in the nearby Carpathian Mountains… In Lviv, which has a reputation as a stronghold of Ukrainian national identity, the arrival of Russian-speaking skhidnyaky (from skhid, Ukrainian for "east") is having social repercussions disproportionate to the actual number of people arriving. With men from western Ukraine fighting and dying in the east in the battle against Russian-backed separatist rebels, some locals resent their presence. At the same time, some activists working with refugees in Lviv argue that the recent arrivals are helping to dismantle Ukrainians' stereotypes about each other." Credit.

Mark my words: ethnic and cultural divisions are second only to corruption as being the primary challenge for Ukraine. How will these be addressed by ALL sides? Will these be addressed? Stay tuned...

I've put a link to all of my personal and professional blogs that relate to my time in Ukraine here. It's part of my ongoing quest to answer the question, "But what is it like to work in aid and development overseas?"

And speaking of being an aid and development worker overseas... this was brought to my attention:

“And what will become of Jean-Philippe? Will prolonged separation cause their hearts to grow fonder? Or will she find comfort in the arms of the mysterious, brooding Jonathon Langstrom? Will she take a job at HQ? Or will she continue to answer the humanitarian call from a dusty refugee camp on the border of Somalia?” Who knew there was aid worker fanfic? I wrote a blog back in 2010 about a new ABC show that was going to focus on the lives and loves of aid workers (it was canceled VERY quickly) and someone this week sent me this link, which has that gem of a quote on the page. It's actually a satire. And I totally want to read it...

Off to Chornobyl!

Monday, September 15, 2014

No Rain on Plain Insane Jayne in Ukraine

Ann with the future of UkraineThings overheard in Ukraine:

I would have studied more, 
but I was too busy with the revolution.

It was said without irony, in all seriousness, by a young person involved in Maidan, someone that I went out with during my first two weeks here. And I laughed and laughed. And said I would put it in a blog. And, at last, I have. Which one said it? I'll never tell...

Kyiv doesn't feel like a city that just had a revolution - not until you see the memorials here and there near the center of town - stacked flowers, encircled by bricks, here and there. They mark where someone was killed. There's one just across from our office. There are also many, each with a photo, on the ulitsa Institutskaya, a street that descends sharply down to Maidan. But elsewhere - it's so easy, maybe too easy, to forget.

If I had a factory to build in Eastern Europe, I'd build it here, in Urkaine. Not Turkey, not Romania, not Macedonia, not Albania. Look, Ukraine is not Germany, but it's a country with a tremendous amount of promise - people in Ukraine are well educated, have as much understanding of the service industry as people in Spain or Italy, and are VERY tech savvy. Move your damn manufacturing or tech business here. Open some affordable places to stay across the country. Create a hostel movement here. Write a book called The Ukrainian diet: how to look like a Ukrainian woman in 30 days, and then open some spas and lingerie affiliated with the book.

And, yes, that's with a conflict happening in the East. I still say: open your business here if you're thinking about opening somewhere in Eastern Europe.

I'm so glad I went on a six week motorcycle trip back in 2008 through most of Eastern Europe, because I got to experience this region on a very intimate level then, and it prepared me SO much for this experience. I did not come to Ukraine then. I remember thinking, at the time, well, Ukraine is so OUT THERE. It's SO FAR AWAY. It's going to be SO BACKWARD. And while I haven't seen the whole country, from what I HAVE seen, I am blown away - in a good way. If this country can get its profound, massive, horrific corruption problem under control, and create a place that's welcoming of everyone, no matter their ethnic background (as much as any other European country has...), this will be a country worth investing big bucks in.

My first weekend in September, I went to the Gulliver mall here in Kyiv at long last. I hated it. I hate malls. The stores are all upscale blah blah blah. I hate upscale blah blah blah. But I needed some things, and knew it was the place to look for such. Kudos to the Apple store there, the iStore - the staff tried very hard to help me. They couldn't, but they tried. And I respect that.

I not only dared to go to the mall, by myself - I dared to go out without lipstick. It's only 2nd time I've done that. This is a lipstick city. This is a women-better-look-great-always. Yes, some overdo it - but most women here just always look *nice*. And not everyone wears the crazy shoes - I've seen just as many flats on beautiful, skinny women as 5 inch heels that defy gravity and common sense.

The women's see-through clothes and lack of underwear was really disconcerting the first three weeks here. And sometimes, yeah, I still gasp at the sight of so much underwear - and what not. But you know what? I have never lived in a city where women walk with such confidence EVERYWHERE. I kinda love it. Although most of the time I feel like a big, fat slob here… women under 40 her in Kyiv are, for the most part, fit and gorgeous. Hence why I suggested that book earlier in this blog...

The food in Ukraine has been AMAZING: *fresh* veggies, *fresh* fruits, meat raised right here in the country… and with the great food and all the walking, I've lost a bit of weight. No wonder the women here are so amazing looking. The wine is… awful. If you come here and like wine, you'll be drinking imported wine. But the local beer is wondrous and cheap.

So, confession time: I have developed a huge, massive phobia about escalators - going up, rather than down. It's all I can do not to hyperventilate and start screaming "Get me off this damn thing!" I think it has something to do with my wreck back in June. I actually made a conscious effort to work on it at the mall, and it was terrifying. I would get off the escalator after going to a floor and just start walking around the floor, breathing, hoping the feeling would wash away. Later, I dared to go into the subway here - THE DEEPEST SUBWAY IN THE WORLD - with my former host. She knows about this knew phobia, and knows I want to work on it. For some reason, if someone is behind me as I'm going up in the escalator, I'm fine. The more people behind me, the more I'm fine. I actually walked fast as we got off the train so I could get in front of a bunch of people about to get on the escalator, so they would be behind me. And I was fine. But if I'm alone, it's a nightmare. A NIGHTMARE. I don't even know how to describe it - the fear, the anxiety. I'm fine on a glass elevator. I'm fine in a ski lift. I'll probably be fine on a zip line. But on an escalator going up: all I can think of is how I'm going to fall backwards and die.

Good times!

And the crazy thing is: every street I walk on here in Kyiv, I map in terms of how I would ride it on a motorcycle, and every time I see someone on a motorcycle, I wish I was riding.


Speaking of my motorcycle wreck from back in June in Utah: the wound on my right leg still hasn't completely healed. There's no open scar, but it's all still very pink. I put the special stuff Kaiser Permanente gave me on it, and have been wearing bandaids on it most days, because while I accept I'm going to have a scar, I'd like the scar to be as subtle as possible. The area above my left eyebrow remains a bit more tender than the right side, and I think I can feel the slightest bit of scar tissue there. And I think there is a scar there, but it's only visible in certain light. But otherwise, I've been absolutely fine. Except for escalators.

I've seen four women motorcyclists in Kyiv in my six weeks here. One, a red head, parks her bike on Kutuzova St. some mornings - I passed her when I went by car to work. The other two I noticed as I was walking out and about. I get very excited when I see women motorcyclists in other counties. UNDP has their development indicators (literacy rates, live birth rates, HIV/AIDs rates, etc.) and I have mine (number of women motorcyclists, number of female skateboarders or roller derby players, number of goth girls, number of punk rock or metal girls, etc.).

I know what you all want to ask, but don't dare, because you're too polite: WHAT ARE THE BATHROOMS LIKE?!?

So far, they've been just fine - as in, clean, with plenty of running water. Even the one and only latrine I've used has been fine, as nice as any I've used whilst camping in Oregon. But I know that I've also not stepped too far out of "the bubble." In an effort to be overly careful regarding bathrooms, I "held it" for too long for several days my first three weeks here, and ended up in the early stages of a UTI. Luckily, as I learned in Serbia, what's available only via prescription in the USA is easily available in pharmacies in Eastern Europe. I highly recommend you mix the stuff they give you in fizzy water rather than plain water - makes it much easier to drink. And make sure you put the packages away when you arrange to have a massage in the same room where you keep your medication.

So, what was the first thing I illegally downloaded and watched in Ukraine? Um… Season 2, Episode 1 of "Sherlock." Which I've already seen probably 4 times. DON'T JUDGE ME. I watched the last episode of "Fargo" which I missed back in the USA (underwhelmed - though I thought the cast, including Martin Freeman, were all terrific). I'm now rewatching two episodes of "Broadchurch" so I can finally see the end of it.

I've been grocery shopping by myself three times now. I've infuriated different checkout people with my insistence in getting rid of my coins. I also paid for myself and a colleague on a bus, entirely in coin, and the guy that rides the buses just to take payments said, "No one ever pays in coins!" Damn foreigners! As you may recall from this blog, I found more than 5 hryvnia (pronounced grieve-nyah), the local currency, in coin in my apartment, and while that's just 39 cents in US coinage, it's enough to almost buy a large bottle of beer here. And money exchanges rarely accept coins - a few at airports will. A bank might. But I'm going old school. Sorry, Kyiv. They'll be gone soon, I promise. What isn't I'm going to dump in a busker's bowl my last week here.

Jayne & giant eggSaturday, Sept. 6, I toured the grounds of Saint Sophia Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cathedral's name comes from the 6th-century Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople (Sophia means Holy Wisdom; the church is dedicated to Holy Wisdom rather than a specific saint named Sophia). But its architectural model could have been the 13-domed oaken Holy Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod. On the inside, it has mosaics and frescos from the 11th century - including scenes from the Old Testament (IMO, that's rare). The church has been through rough times, damaged in the pillaging of Kiev in 1169 and again in 1240, in the 16th century when Poland and Ukraine were trying to unite catholic and orthodox churches, and the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1920s and 30s - I don't think any church services were held in Soviet times. All Orthodox and the Greek-Catholic Churches lay claim to it - and fight over it now. Therefore, no religious body has yet been given the rights for regular services. So, for now, it's a museum of Ukraine's Christianity.

IMGP0290While I was touring St. Sophia's, a couple dressed in historic outfits slowly, slowly, slowly walked out to some recorded music, waved at people in the square for about 2 seconds, then turned around and came right back. No idea what it was about. The mother of the "queen" was there, taking photos. I think they need a lot more reenactors - some ladies in waiting. Some warriors. Some adoring peasants.

The Little Prince in KyivThat same day, we visited Peizazhna alley, a long, green walk made up of a Children's Landscape Park and then the Kiev Fashion Park. All of the statues and playground equipment in the parks were paid for by citizens and private businesses. My favorite statue is, of course, the Little Prince. And there is a giant Alice in Wonderland-themed jungle gym as well - AIW imagery is easily found in this city. Peizazhna alley is probably my very favorite place in Kyiv. Much of the artwork is interactive - like a bench that is also a teeter totter. Much more about the park if you will go to my Flickr account and read the photo descriptions (which is hard, I know - Flickr / Yahoo apparently doesn't want you to read photo descriptions; click on an actual photo, and if you scroll down, you can see what I wrote about the photo).

The sounds of horse chestnuts as they fall all over Kiev, assaulting cars and people.

As of my fifth week here, I've started getting asked for directions by people passing me on the street. I attribute this to being out alone now so much more, as my friend Ann isn't here to chaperone me absolutely everywhere. People start asking and my eyes get wide and I have to stop them and I say, "I'm so sorry. I cannot help." Then their eyes get big and they usually just smile and walk away. As long as they don't scream, "Russian spy!!!", I'm fine with whatever their reaction. Getting asked for directions is something that happens to me anywhere and everywhere. Do I look like someone who knows where she's going? Because, spoiler alert: I'm lost MOST of the time, figuratively and literally.

On Friday of my fifth week here, someone pointed out that a billboard with our organization's name and slang for "so what?" had gone up near our office. So I started asking around, and it turned out that all of the local staff had seen it and basically thought, "So what?" It turns out it's a pro-Russian radio station that is putting up the billboards all over town. So I got the second in command involved - we let our NY office know, and I asked someone to please monitor the radio station's Twitter and Facebook accounts to see if there are discussions regarding our organization on either. And it was like pulling teeth to get that to happen - the staff just looked at me like, "huh? why?" I had to explain that, while we aren't going to try to get the billboards taken down or respond on social media, we need to be aware of what is being said, because we may want to respond in other ways. And they continued to stare at me. Sigh… my work here is not done…

Surreal moment of the trip: proudly being shown a photo on an iPhone of a mature pot plant someone is growing on their terrace in Belgium.

Nothing like a puppyStella and JayneAs you've no doubt seen already, I got to puppy-sit for three nights and four days. Her name is Stella - or, as I kept calling her, Stella Dallas. She's a four-month old Bull Dog - or was at the time I kept her (still a Bull Dog, of course...). Her owner, a co-worker here in Kyiv, had to go out of town. She was a handful! I adored her, and it was the first time I ever kept a puppy. Conclusion: I'm not sure a puppy is for me. Two puppies, maybe, but one? Wow. That's a ton of work. At least two could play with each other! What was hilarious was seeing Ukranians, normally who never even look me in the eye, becoming blubbering piles of flesh as soon as they saw Stella. Adorbs.

Did you catch the Humans of New York guy in Ukraine? Oh, I loved the photos so! And it was the woman I share an office with that was his guide and translator while he was here! She's in one of the photos… I'm not telling you which one… It's not this one, but this was the favorite of my sister and I.

One of you asked: doesn't being in Ukraine make you a broad no longer abroad but still a broad abroad?

Um… yes.

Okay, okay, okay, I'll do it. But I'll do it MY way. I will not rank them and I will not be limited to just 10 and you can do it if you want or not - no challenges to anyone. The books that stayed with me, that had a huge impact on me:
  • Grapes of Wrath
  • Elmer Gantry
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  • The Hobbit
  • All the Harry Potter books
  • The Handmaid's Tale
  • The Bean Trees
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin
  • All Creature's Great and Small
  • Cider House Rules
  • The Stand
  • Wicked
  • 1984
  • All of Toni Morrison's books
  • Books of fairy tales pre-clean up (where the Cinderella sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds at the end and all that)
And now, I'm supposed to dump ice water on my head and tell you what color light saber I am or something?

Yes, I did give everyone who attended my presentation last week pizza. I'm a giver.

It's rained once since I've been here. Once. Good thing I brought this rain jacket!

And I'll end with some various things that caught my attention in the last two weeks:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My new apartment & past the halfway point

More than halfway done with my time in Kyiv... five weeks down, four to go.

I've moved! I now live right off Klovskiy Uzviz - I also work on Klovskiy Uzviz, and it takes less than 10 minutes to walk to work (no more taking a car). I live around the corner from theУкраїна Футбол Інтернешнл (Ukraine Football International). I'm not sure what they do... I'm sure they were quite busy in 2012... My apartment building is up on a hill and is blocked from the busy road by one or two other apartment buildings, and the other side of my building is a big huge hill, so, unless my immediate neighbors are loud or there's someone playing tunes loudly in a car below, it's quiet here.

Officially, I live in the Lypky neighborhood, but the rest of Lypky is quite upscale, and while I'm in a primo location for both work and Good Wine, my apartment complex, made up of four or five buildings, isn't nearly as well-kept as the rest of Lypky. My hosts for my first four weeks here in Kyiv, who helped me find this place, were stunned at the amount of trash here and there in the walk from the street.

I can see Good Wine from my balcony! And I can walk there in less time than to work! As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Good Wine is a bit like Whole Foods except, with the local currency so weak against the dollar, way cheaper, and it's without the attitude of Whole Paycheck. Actually, it's more of an upscale wine and liquor shop that has a gourmet grocery store in the back. My first trip on my own, I bought three bottles of wine, bread, cheese, olives, and sun dried tomatoes for me, and a bottle of Maker's Mark for either a gift to someone or for any get together I might have, and altogether, I'm ashamed to say, I spent more than a month's rent for this apartment. But it's worth it. There is a money exchange inside the store, for me to exchange the last of my dollars that I brought. Except for bread, I'll buy all other grocery items during my stay here in Kyiv from the regular grocery that is without gourmet cheeses and women in full make up and wearing 4 inch heals.

Where I sleepI like the apartment so far, for the week I've been here. It's a one bedroom, with a very large living room - probably has the same square footage as my apartment in Bad Godesberg. The balcony is wonderful - I don't spend much time on it, but I spend a lot of time with the door open to it, letting in the fresh air and sunshine.

I played hard and refused to pay more than two weeks at a time for the next six weeks - actually, my host's husband played hard ball with the landlord for me. I'm glad we were tough, because the second night, the lock to my front door broke. I had come home from shopping, I unlocked the door, went inside, and then tried to lock the door. It just turned and turned, without the bolts moving. The landlord had to schlep here from about 90 minutes away to replace the entire lock. I think my host and her husband were tough with him on the phone, because he was VERY apologetic and kept saying, "Call me ANYTIME you have a problem!" As in, YOU, please, call me, not that tough woman and her husband. He also replaced the mattress this week, so I was able to move from the couch in my living room to the bedroom at last.

I miss being spoiled by my hosts' cooking, and their cat, but I'm also really happy to be in my own space. It's nice not to have to put on pants in order to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom. It's also nice to play my own iTunes, although my hosts had excellent taste in music. It's perfect weather so far - no need for the air conditioner (easy to operate) or the heat (I have no idea…). There's a massive tree outside of my balcony that blocks the view from any nearby apartments into mine. I love the feeling of privacy here.

One, maybe two of the stove burners work. I don't drink the water out of the tap, though it's fine for dish washing and teeth brushing - I have a big bottle of water I use for cooking, and I think I'll need about a bottle a week to get by. There's plenty of dishes, cookware and utensils, and even a wine opener. But no wooden spoons or a spatula (will buy that this weekend - otherwise cooking is very difficult). And no bottle opener. I looked all over the Internet for tricks to open beer, but everything was "show off" videos - no "Here's how you do it" videos. Finally, I found a tool left by my host to try to fix the front door - it works very well. I also tried to open a beer bottle with a spoon, just to see if I could - and I did. And I celebrated all over social media.

Exploring and cleaning my new apartment, I've found more than five hryvnia in coins, and two packages of condoms. Oh, the stories this apartment could tell... it's going to find me so boring...

The money situation is a bit dicey in Ukraine. My credit union won't allow my ATM card to work in Ukraine - they told me it would be cancelled anywhere I tried. They said my credit card would work, but what they didn't remind me of when I called was that my credit card was expiring at the end of August. ARGH. Good thing I brought a lot of cash with me, and have a friend who is happy to convert USA dollars for me that Stefan transfers to her account electronically. The local currency grows weaker and weaker against the dollar, and it's REALLY hurting my Ukrainian co-workers that are paid in such. They have families to support, and this city is growing more and more expensive. Also, Ukrainian banks are now severely limiting the amount of dollars one can withdraw. I'll be fine... but I worry about my friends here.

Saturday, Aug. 30, my former host rented a car for the weekend. I joined her and an American friend of hers that lives here, and we went to a section of town where there are three or four Asian grocery stores, so they could get tofu and various kinds of sauces and noodles. Unfortunately, there was no restaurant in the immediate area, so we schlepped back closer to the center of Kyiv for Korean food. We got lost a lot, and, therefore, I got to see a lot of Kyiv I don't think I ever would have otherwise. We circled the massive "Monument to the courage, faithfulness and heroism of the Mothers," which someone called "statue of mothers of soldiers", though I couldn't find it called that anywhere else. Sorry, I didn't get a photo. I believe it was near Solomens'ka Ploscha. I'm horrible with remembering place names here.

Speaking of statues, just as Lonely Planet Ukraine said, you can see that big Motherland Monument/Rodina-Mat all over Kiev. From what I understand, Ukrainians aren't fond of it.

City Park in Korosten (Ко́ростень), UkraineAnd still speaking of statues, the following Sunday, I was honored to be invited by my former host to drive North with her and her husband to Korosten (Ко́ростень), her husband's home town - which has a lot of statues in the city park (all relatively new). It's an historic city and a large railway node in the Zhytomyr Oblast (province) northeast of Kyiv. It takes about two hours to get there from Kyiv by car with no traffic. During World War II, Korosten was occupied by the German Army from August 1941 to nearly the end of 1943, and saw some horrific battles. It's less than 100 miles (156.3 KM) from Chernobyl, and after the nuclear disaster there, the area around the city was declared a zone of a voluntary evacuation.

Igor's family in KorostenOn the third Saturday of September, Korosten holds the International potato pancakes festival. I feel that, this year, I should be Queen of the 2014 Korosten Potato Pancake Festival. Because I LOVE me some potato pancakes… obviously…

Parachutes of death?I liked the city a lot. The roads were particularly impressive - is that because I've been to Albania, and everything is impressive after Albania? I think the highlight of Korosten, other than a cooked goose by my former host's mother-in-law, is a visit to "The Rock" Military Museum, a Soviet underground bunker/command post built into medieval Drevlyane caves. One online site said it is within 2 meters of concrete, 18 meters of monolith granite and 20 meters of soil. Construction began in 1928 and ended in 1937. All of the work was held in strict confidence - so much that, at some point after the war, people forgot about it. I'm not sure when the bunker was rediscovered, but it took a while for the village to figure out exactly what it was. The museum has a Gas Masks Museum in one room that includes a gas mask for a horse made during First World War, a gas mask for a cow, and a children's mask. Many artifacts in the room are from the time of Chernobyl Disaster.

According to my former hosts, the museum is rarely open. Online, I found information that says it's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We were there on a Sunday. If you plan on going, I suggest calling to make absolutely sure it's going to be open (if you don't speak the local languages, get your hotel to do it for you).

It was fascinating to visit this bunker and compare it to the Cold War bunker in Germany, the Regierungsbunker, built as the emergency seat of the German federal government in case a nuclear war started. I visited that one in 2006 or 2007. They are both so representative of their eras, both in architecture and purpose. The Regierungsbunker, BTW, had everything inside not only to survive a nuclear war, but also for the parliament and all federal personnel needed to keep the government working in the event of nuclear war. The Korosten is a fascinating piece of history, but I warn you: the Regierungsbunker is almost too much to deal with - it's just too real - you realize just how close we all came to blowing up all of humanity (although, I fear we're getting that close again).

Me with Igor's family in KorostenSo, I've now been outside of the Kyiv city limits, and into the true countryside of Ukraine, two times, as well as through a few Kyiv suburbs. I've been in a tiny village and a small city. Yes, sissy, I have, indeed, pee'd in forest in Ukraine as well. My impression of Ukraine thus far: how in the hell did Romania get into the EU and not Ukraine? Oh, I could just go off so right now… Ukraine feels like so much of the rest of Europe, sometimes even like Spain, but with this slightly Asian flavor… and while, yes, like many countries of Eastern Europe, Ukranians need to seriously rethink their attitudes about trash and stray dogs, this country is way more advanced than Romania. I'm sorry, Romania. I realize this will cancel all future dinner invitations, if my previous blog about your country didn't before.

Okay, back to Chernobyl. You are completely freaked out that I mentioned that. I found this guidance for people living and working for extended periods with their families and children in those areas contaminated by the fallout from the Chernobyl accident:

It should be noted that neither Kiev nor Minsk lie within any of these zones, and living in either of these cities means that doses and risks are considerably less than those stated in the preceding two paragraphs. Indeed the additional radiation doses are much smaller than the differences in the natural background doses between some parts of Europe, e.g. between the U.K. and Finland, and even the northern part of Italy compared with the south… Inhabitants and workers in Kiev and Minsk need take no special precautions about radiation exposure or commercially available foodstuffs, although some ‘wild’ foods found on the ‘black market’ can sometimes exceed the state imposed restrictions.

A note about work: There's a guy here in Ukraine that I worked with back in Afghanistan. (He's not from Ukraine, BTW). He's been working here in Ukraine before: back in the 1980s, he helped with programs to resettle the Tatars in Crimea. And now, here he is, helping with programs to support the Tatars that have fled Crimea.

Some random thoughts - more to get me in trouble:

A lot of the music on the radio here in Kyiv, heard because I used drivers to get to work for four weeks, is re-recordings of American and British pop songs. You don't hear ABBA singing - you hear someone else singing ABBA songs. You don't hear the Cranberries - you hear a really bad cover of the Cranberries. It's all very over-produced, all electronic. It's rare that I hear the original version of any song in English. I thought I heard one recently: "Those Were the Days, My Friend." But it turns out that old pop song in the USA is, in fact, a remake of a Russian romance, song "Dorogoi dlinnoyu" ("Дорогой длинною", lit. "By the long road"), with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii.

One of the many surreal moments I've had here was walking around Kyiv one Saturday and seeing about half a dozen Bandidos having coffee at the outdoor part of a cafe. I almost tripped on the sidewalk right then and there. After we passed them, we started passing their motorcycles parked on the street, and one of my friends said, "Wow, look t the motorcycles, Jayne!" and I'm mumbling "Just keep walking, just keep walking…"

I haven't heard anything from friends against the Russian language being used here in Ukraine. Certainly, everyone wants the spelling on maps and in reports to be the Ukrainian spelling. But people speak Russian freely all around me, they listen to Russian-language songs... most people here don't hate Russia, per se - they hate Putin and all who support or appease him. At least that's my impression.

Hearing a Ukrainian here in my office back from vacation in Barcelona, complain about how people there don't speak English, and how poor the customer service is there… it was THE moment of irony for my time in Kyiv, truly. Especially after, just the week before, I had shared this with some friends:

You know what the local staff at my INGO here in Ukraine, and EVERY HR person worldwide that works for this organization, needs? A week of customer service training at McDonald's. I am not even kidding. I hate McDonald's pay practices, I hate that they tore down a historic house in my home town, I hate that they make girls take the girly Happy Meals instead of the ones with the race cars, but these people NEED that kind of intensive customer service training. Badly. Geesh.

But one of those Ukrainian visitors to Spain brought me Mantecado de Yema (Egg Yolk Crumble Cake). MMMmmmmm. All is forgiven...

I have to admit that I'm not all that fond of the very, very center of Kyiv. It's so chaotic. Step out of the city center and you come to more calm, and much more beautiful streets, cafes that don't feel like they cater mostly to tourists, etc. It's ex-pat central - I've heard a couple of British, Australian, New Zealand or North American accents on the street when I'm walking there. There's even a TGI Fridays in that part of town. Pro tip: don't get a taxi anywhere near TGI Fridays, or anywhere near it. Instead, walk a block or two away, towards your ultimate designation, and then try. It will be half the price.

I've been using Hotspot Shield to both protect myself whilst in Ukraine and to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. So many online channels are blocked outside the US, so the only way to watch them is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to make those sites think you are accessing them from the USA. VPNs also help protect your data - excellent to use when you are using Internet access from, say, a coffee shop. I learned about VPN from the TechSoup forum. I wasn't always using it from my host's apartment, and that meant I got a few emails from various services I use saying, "Someone tried to login to your account from Ukraine. Was it you?" YUP! I also admit to using a combination of utorrent.com and http://eztv.it/  to violate various copyright laws...

Everyone has discount cards here - for restaurants and grocery stores. People pull out their wallets not just to pay, but also to show whatever discount card is required. I thought we had a lot in the USA - I was wrong. If you move here, pro tip: get discount cards for everything.

I always pack earplugs and an eye mask for any trip - I have a good supply of both from when airlines used to care about customers and give them things to make their flight more pleasant. The earplugs have been well-used - I could not sleep without them. And then, one night while I was still at my friend's apartment, I tried to turn off the wall light switch before bed time - and the light would not go out. I stood there, thinking, did I do something wrong? Is there another switch somewhere that I'm supposed to turn off? I finally figured out it was broken. As my host's husband wasn't home or was asleep or something - I don't remember which - and both she and I are scared of electricity, I had to sleep with the light on all night. Thanks goodness I had that eye mask! And several drinks before bedtime.

Found this during a search for something else on the Internet, and laughed and laughed:

Perhaps the most scathing (and ridiculous) attack on this popular Nicktoon came in 2012, when the Ukrainian National Expert Commission for Protecting Public Morality argued that SpongeBob not only “promoted homosexuality” but was part of a “large-scale experiment” designed to transform the nation’s youth into “criminals and perverts.”

A co-worker gets upset when the big boss raises his voice. I just take it as excitement. I have had to comfort her twice. He's a man of action - get it done! I don't think he's not being mean. Either that, or he hates me and I've completely misinterpreted every exchange we've ever had. Which is possible... sometimes my "I don't care just fire me if you don't like me" attitude that I adopted in 1996 is not a good thing. But I'm sad to report that he'll be leaving sooner than me - he was interim, just like me, but I thought he was staying longer. His permanent replacement arrives at the end of the month. I'm super sad. I ADORE him. He came out of retirement for this job, and he's treated it with the utmost urgency - he's never, ever acted like a part-timer.

As I rant and write all this here, I must note that I regularly miss terribly two of my friends that I lost this year - Anne Marino and Michael DeLong. I know how much they would delight in my crazy stories and observations. I know what hilarious commentary they would offer on such. There would be quirky text messages and drunken Skype calls. Even in Ukraine, their loss weighs so heavily on my heart and mind. I imagine myself sitting in a cafe in San Francisco with Anne after this trip is done, or in a cafe with Michael… but neither of those things will happen.

And, of course, I miss my grandmother terribly.

Here are two articles I found fascinating and recommend if you want to understand what's going on:

Russia is already invading ukraine
Very good article from The Atlantic (IMO - all opinions are relative)

With war under way in Ukraine, Russians don’t like what little they learn. "As the Ukraine-Russia conflict enters its sixth month, there are signs from inside Russia that the nation’s nerves are beginning to fray."

I've put a link to all of my personal and professional blogs that relate to my time in Ukraine here. It's part of my ongoing quest to answer the question, "But what is it like to work in aid and development overseas?"