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 and  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?"

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