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.

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