Over My Head in Kharkiv

Halfway through my most difficult trip I called my boss for guidance, and the moment I heard his voice through the crackling line I burst into tears and couldn’t talk for crying. I was sitting in a hotel room in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in the middle of winter and I was cold, exhausted, and in over my head. I was spending my days going from government office to government office interviewing bureaucrats about iodized salt. In Russian. My Russian, which I had thought was perfectly adequate, was not up to government apparatchiks and manufacturing regulations for salt packaging. When I tried to sleep at night Cyrillic swam passed my closed eyes and a sea of unknown Russian words flooded my brain, all of them just out of my full understanding. I was only on country number one of a three country trip (Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan still to go) and I was already toast.

As an aside: This was also the trip where I had a long layover in Minsk, and was locked, alone, in a dark and deserted airport terminal overnight without my passport or a phone (and worse, without a bathroom). A few days later, in Ukraine, I got a fax from my fiancé with the sketch of a house for sale that we could afford, which was a rarity in the overheated housing market of 2003. We had a few hours to make an offer and sign the papers. So I bought a house sight unseen from a hotel room in Kharkiv with a man who was not quite my husband. And maybe that tells you all you need to know about me.

After the locked-in layover, the cold, and the onslaught of half understood Russian I wanted to give up, go home, and never, ever think about iodized salt again. And so I called my boss to ask for professional advice and instead cried all over the telephone receiver.

I don’t remember exactly what he said (after I was able to explain my trouble through my tears) aside from his gentle suggestion that maybe this was the right time to hire a translator. What I do remember is coming away from the call understanding that he had been where I was, overwhelmed and exhausted and far from home, and that he was glad I had called for help. That sometimes trips went south, the work got weird, and there was no way out but through it.

I kept a package of Ukrainian iodized salt on my desk for many years, in honor of that truth, until the paper packaging began to leak salt and I threw it out. But I remember that salt, and that call, and the trip that went all wrong. I remember how ashamed I was of my failure, but almost as much, how ashamed I was to break down and cry in front of my boss. To have emotions on the job. This gig comes with emotions, though, and maybe we shouldn’t be too tough to show it.

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