“Where it all began” isn’t exactly accurate. I have always wanted to travel. I used to daydream of wandering through the countryside with my backpack, or sitting by train windows, gazing at a new landscape, visiting romantic inns, and seeing wondrous things. The “no-visible-means-of-support” lifestyle in my daydreams was delayed by, well, no means of support, visible or in. But, this was definitely the trip that created the determination to make overseas travel happen for me.
In 2006, I found an opportunity to be an election observer for the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE conducts election observation missions because the European Union, the EU, has standards required of member governments, and among them are a free press and secure, transparent elections. The U.S. participates in the OSCE through the U.S. State Department.
I had been the Island County Auditor for eight years by 2006, and had learned a lot about election law, process, and management, even though I was not involved in the day-to-day work. Loann (also referred to as “the General,”) was the Elections Supervisor. I applied to participate and accepted. I had no choice of country – I had to go where they sent me – but this was okay by me. I had not been overseas at all, ever, so anyplace would be new to me. It turned out to be Ukraine.
The U.S. taxpayers paid for my round trip airfare and living expenses while I was participating in the OSCE mission (thank you,) as did the other countries who were participating in the mission, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Like the other American observers, I planned to pay the airline’s fee to reschedule my departure date and travel around Ukraine after the mission, seven days long, was complete. (And, of course, my expenses then were paid by me.)
On March 20, 2006, I sat in Sea-Tac, Seattle’s airport, waiting for a flight that would take me to Dulles Airport to meet up with the other American participants. In Sea-Tac, I met a woman from Alaska who was also going to Ukraine. In Dulles, I met another woman going to Ukraine from Nebraska – I remember where she was from because we talked about Nebraska’s unicameral state government. (A bunch of government wonks – what would you expect?)
And then we started the incredibly long flight to Ukraine, with a layover in Munich, Germany. By the time we arrived in Kyiv, we had been traveling over twenty-four hours. I was excited to be there, so I had the benefit of some adrenaline, but as soon as we arrived at our hotel, sleep took over.
The drive to our hotel gave us a view of the city, and it is a mix of styles and history. Apartments were the main kind of housing, ranging from old and run down, to newer, more colorful apartments.
After resting, the daylight was running out. We took a short walk around the downtown area. I didn’t think to take a photo of our hotel, which was very comfortable, older and well-kept. I wasn’t blogging yet, but I guess it was coming, because I took photos, and more frequently as the trip wore on. In 2006, I had a county-owned flip-style cell phone, which wasn’t going to work overseas, so I left it at home. I did bring a tiny Acer notebook and a 7MP Canon Powershot, a “point & shoot” camera with a built-in (and not very powerful) telephoto lens. It ran on four AA batteries, and working that telephoto lens used up a lot of power relative to the resulting magnification. I spent a couple of mornings during the trip looking for new batteries, which was not always easy in Ukraine. But I could upload photos to the Acer, a nice backup, plus stay in touch with my Island County staff and my email.
All of the participants gathered in an orientation meeting in the morning after breakfast. It addressed logistics: a list naming teams of two observers, what places and tasks they were assigned, and where they would be observing. Each team was provided with a translator and a driver, and the driver provided the car, which they assured observers had to meet EU safety standards. No bald tires, seat belts worked, engines were reliable, etc. We would take that for granted in the U.S., but you cannot do that everywhere. We would meet our observation partners, translators, and drivers the next morning and leave for our various destinations.
The observers from the same country sat together during this meeting – all the Germans, Dutch, Americans, Italians, etc. We all sat in the center section of the orchestra floor seating – except for one group, who sat in a side section by themselves. The meeting speakers would give their information, and then one person, standing and facing their group so they could be heard, would repeat, in a different language, what the meeting speaker had said.
Someone in the center section raised their hand. He said his name, and that he was from the Netherlands. “It was our understanding,” he said, “that the official language of the mission is English.” Pointing at the side section, he continued, ”That group has a translator. Why is that?”
The leader of the mission explained that the group he pointed to was from Russia, and their participants didn’t speak fluent English.
“Then why are they allowed to participate?,” asked the Dutch objector, obviously annoyed.
The Americans sat, quietly looking down, studying their lists and assignments, avoiding any eye contact that might lead to having to say something in this discussion. We just did it, no discussion needed, because we all recognized the optics that could result from participating in this particular discussion.
The mission leader replied that it was the steering committee’s decision. They thought it preferable for the Russians to participate and observe a European election. So when the Russians conditioned their participation on having a translator, they agreed.
The man from the Netherlands expressed his disagreement, but, having done so, sat down, and discussion moved on. We had a break during the morning, and then some free time in the afternoon. Karen, the woman from Nebraska, and I used the opportunity to go visit Kyiv’s Maidan.