floating westward

I left Kiev behind yesterday after two jam-packed days and am now in green and lush Holland, where I've enjoyed a stroll on the beach with a caipirinha, and some lovely local sheep with whom I've made friends. More importantly, I've been visiting with my old friend Molly who I haven't seen in several years. It's been a lot of fun catching up. But first, a recap of the last few days:

The most important news is that I struggled past my fears and at the last possible moment jumped into a hot air balloon and floated over Kherson oblast for a total of 45 minutes. Don't believe me?

As you see here, I suddenly found faith just before the balloon took off. Though my legs and hands were shaking almost the entire time, I talked my way through most of the ride and only felt heart palpitations when the pilot fired up the gas and we floated higher into the atmosphere. Despite the horror of floating 75 meters above ground in a basket that is literally held up by a thread of wires and an acrylic balloon full of hot air, it really was an incredible experience. The views were stunning: Kherson oblast is full of wheat and strawberry fields. We floated over villages, where the farmers and other residents are so used to seeing this particular ballooning group fly by that they simply smiled and waved and went about their day.

After our early morning balloon ride (we started the day at 6:30 and were back on the ground and at breakfast by 9:30), we finished our last day of work with VTV Plu, prepared for their journalists and producers' upcoming trip to Louisville, and had our farewell dinner before boarding our second 12-hour overnight train of the week back to Kyiv. Though the trains are old, and the rails a bit rickety, I can say with confidence that the former Soviet railways far surpass their counterparts in Egypt, where a few years ago Courtney and I suffered through a similar overnight trip in the first-class compartment, that was basically a car with wider chairs. At least in Ukraine, you get a bench to sleep on that includes a small mattress, pillow, and sheets.

In any case, we safely got back to Kyiv and spent our last two days in the city, briefing our funders at the U.S. Embassy on the results of our trip, touring the Chornobyl museum (very good and quite frightening), and taking in two performances at the opera house. On Friday it was Carmen, which far surpassed the Kennedy Center's recent production. And on Saturday we saw a ballet: "Vienna Waltz," with music by Strauss. The opera house in Kyiv is just ornate enough to make you think you're actually in Vienna. On Saturday we also visited Lavra, a monasterial complex on a hill above the city, which includes a series of caves built into the hills, where monks once studied and are now buried. (I saw their creepy mummified hands, and that was when I was done with the narrow caves.)

Yesterday morning I arrived in Amsterdam after an essentially sleepless night in Kyiv. Took the train down to the Hague and spent a lovely and relaxing afternoon with Molly. It's been refreshing to not be working, or explaining cultural differences, or waiting for someone to translate my sentences. We took a walk on the beach here, which looks not a little like Newport, had a caipirinha, and relaxed at home. Today we'll do a little more site-seeing, before I head back to Amsterdam and spend a little more than a day in the city, where hopefully I'll be doing more nothing. My plan is to sleep, drink good coffee, read my book in a park, and maybe go to a museum or two.

Back to DC on Wednesday!


zebras, bison, and peacocks, oh my

So, I should be in bed, so that I can wake up at 5 a.m. and potentially go hot air ballooning, but more about that in a moment.

We spent a large part of today at Askania Nova, a large nature preserve about a two hours' drive west of Kherson. The giant biosphere is in Kherson oblast (state) and is situated in the dry Tavriya steppe. The park is beautifully preserved with lush green grasses for the larger animals to graze on, and a beautiful arboretum and largely open zoo for the many species of birds to flock around. There were hundreds of peacocks, a small flock of zebras, a herd of American bison, African antelopes and many other fascinating creatures roaming as though you were on safari. Pictures will come late Friday, as tomorrow is our last day at work in Kherson.

In the morning, the US partners and my Ukrainian colleague are planning on flying in hot air balloons just outside Kherson. I've agreed to join them at least to watch and (if I'm feeling brave enough and don't see the balloon pilots taking side swigs of vodka) go up myself. Mostly, however, I didn't want to sleep in as tomorrow night we'll be taking another overnight train back to Kyiv and I'd really like to be able to sleep most of the way there. Though hopefully Nyquil will also help with that.

Pictures and more to come over the weekend.


strasvutsye (Hi, in Russian)

A few observations about Ukraine:

1. It feels very much like being in Armenia, only with more Russian. In fact, almost as much Russian as Ukrainian. Though the languages are similar, they are still two different tongues. That said, the southern and eastern parts of the country identify more with Russia, whereas the west aligns itself more closely with Europe and is proud of its uniquely Ukrainian heritage. Here in Kherson, far in the south of the country, all you hear and see is Russian. Svita, my IREX partner in crime, says she seems to be the only one speaking Ukrainian around here. Even the TV station with which we're working broadcasts in Russian. Which brings me to my second observation:

2. I may be fluent in Russian by the end of the week. I've started tuning out our excellent translators as I seem to be picking up more and more words. After two months of media research in Armenia, I learned all the Russian words for media there (redaktor=editor, registor=director, operator=cameraman, montage=editing.) As our partners describe their activities or ask questions of their American counterparts, these common words fly out to me and seem to wave a flag in front of my face as though to say: "See! You know us! You understand us!" It's strangely comforting.

3. Finally, I feel I've really put the knowledge and skills I've built since moving to DC to use. A combination of my research project in Armenia, which led to my master's thesis, and the coursework I chose for my degree have really helped me to shape all the discussions we've had so far about telecommunications, spectrum, the impact of the Soviet Union on its former states' media systems, and geopolitical and other pressures journalists face in this part of the world. In addition, my background as a journalist in the US has been a huge boon for working with the two U.S. partners we're hosting this week from a TV station in Kentucky. I can better explain to them why the standards for journalism that they're used to may not be the norm here.

4. While this experience so far has been totally fulfilling and engaging, I'm still not convinced the NGO life is the one for me. It's also yet another reminder of how much I miss journalism and a life of deadlines. Am I ready to go back to the newsroom yet? Not quite. At least, not while I can still take a few more trips like this one on somebody else's dime.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow...


first day in Ukraine

Made it here safely, but have not had a proper night's sleep since leaving DC 48 hours ago, so I won't write much tonight. I'll leave my pictures to explain. Check them out here. One highlight, I may have a new man in my life:


finally, something interesting to report

I've heard the complaints from on high: Druz in Iraq, my Aunt Mary in New Jersey, my own parents in Irvine. Everybody's wondering why I've been so quiet lately. As much as I'd love to give some exciting answer. There really has been nothing new to report. I go to work each week and enjoy my job. On the weekends I often cook, go out with friends, and have been more dilligent about running and recently started taking yoga, as well. I read a lot in the evenings and generally try to go to bed early so as to get to work early, leave early and enjoy the long-lasting afternoon sun that graces DC in the spring. (Though in the last week, we've had more rain and clouds than sun, but the last two days have happily made up for that.)

Two interesting things have happened in the last few months. The first: I turned 29. Not a monumental birthday, to be sure, but it feels auspicious, with 30 just around the corner. It's left me thinking a lot about what I expected of myself at this age and where I think I'll be in the next year. My career is going down a path that seems promising. I enjoy living in my rented apartment but have begun thinking about living in a space that I own and wondering how that can be possibly given my finances. It's certainly not impossible, but I still have some work to do to get there. Mostly, I've enjoyed my life on my own in this still relatively new city of mine. I love exploring the neighborhoods, reading a book on a warm Sunday in the park, learning to enjoy cooking for myself, and of course often doing all these things with Vahan, who's become my best friend and partner in many of these adventures.

As our relationship has matured and strengthened, so have we as individuals. Which brings me to my next interesting bit of news. In two weeks I'll be traveling to Ukraine for work. I'll be accompanying two managers from a TV station in Louisville, KY, to Kherson in Southern Ukraine. I'll work with them to host training sessions and discussions with a TV station in Kherson that my organization is working with this year. I'm looking forward to this new challenge in my career, and am particularly excited to see a new country and work in a totally unfamiliar environment.

After I finish my work in Ukraine, I'll be heading to Netherlands for a few days of rest and to visit a good childhood friend, Molly, who's lived in the Hague for a few years now. I'll be seeing her for a day, then spend two days exploring Amsterdam on my own.

I'm looking forward to an adventure on my own and promise to keep you all updated about it.


chocolate + bacon = happiness

This is an equation I have always firmly believed in, as the two represent some of my favorite food groups. Much has been written on the topic of chocolate-covered bacon. I'd always wanted to try it, but the opportunity to service fried pork products dipped in chocolate never really presented itself until my office announced the theme ingredient for last month's Iron Chef competition: Chocolate. The choice was clear. I went to the star and bought two pounds of bacon -- one each of regular maple smoked and turkey (to offer my non-pork-eating friends a chance to enjoy this singular culinary delight.)

And so, to recreate the two glorious nights it took me to pull this off -- and cause our apartment to smell of bacon for roughly a week -- I hereby present you with a step-by-step guide to chocolate-covered bacon.

Step 1: Fry lotsa bacon.

Step 2: Melt chocolate in which to dip delicious bacon.

Step 3: Dip all the bacon in the chocolate and lay on parchment paper. Refrigerate overnight.

Step 4: Drizzle with white chocolate to emulate the pure white streaks of fat that make bacon so delectable. Et voila!

In case you're wondering, the refined palettes of my fellow nonprofit professionals deemed my dish third out of 16 other chocolate-themed concoctions. I guess chocolate-covered bacon is far more refined than you'd think.


inauguration part 2

Per Heath's request, I am attempting to remedy my lazy blogging habits with a picture of Vahan and I at our future home.

I should make clear that Vahan is only interested in the First Lady's job, while I am more interested in having everybody finally do whatever I tell them to do. "Vahan? First Lady?" you may be wondering. If you've met the man of my dreams, you'll know that there's nothing he loves more than throwing a good party, especially one that involves him cooking multiple ducks for many guests. And the guest of honor at each party must be someone who has never before attended a duck party. I don't think he'd mind hosting a duck party with Alex Ovechkin as the guest of honor. But I'm fairly certain he'd balk at my dream guest: George Clooney. Too bad. As First Lady, he'd just have to respect the President's decisions.