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...

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