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Was It Worthwhile?

June 30, 2002

Dear Friends and Families,

We've just said goodbye to our life in Kiev. A natural question is "Was it worthwhile?" The natural answer to such a question is "Yes". Maybe that's because people remember the good over the not-so-good but it's our short answer too. But for a longer answer, we have to go back to where we were a half-dozen years ago.

We were working in California, and both had good jobs. Marianne was teaching at a school she liked and was piling up credits toward retirement. I was working at a small engineering-consulting firm with a good income and reasonably generous retirement contributions. Professionally, we were probably right where we should be for fifty-somethings.

We had just finished remodeling our dream house. That had been a two-year project but had produced a delightful place to come home to. That home was in Los Gatos California, a town considered ideal by some of Silicon Valley's most successful. We had friends nearby and family within a few hours. What could be better?

For reasons that are unclear to me even today, we decided we wanted to try a more challenging life. So we traded the home with a large mortgage for a condo with a small one. Then we left the condo, our "appropriate" jobs, our friends and family and started a life in Kiev. There is nothing in common between Los Gatos and Kiev so we had succeeded in changing direction, but now, in hindsight, was it worth it?

Financially, the move was good for our current life but probably bad for retirement. Professionally, I was lucky enough to end up with a new range of contacts and that's the lifeline for any consultant. Marianne too met new professionals in her business but, unless she needs a job in some place like Qagadougou or Biskek, those contacts will remain more personal than professional.

Were there health effects? It's hard to say. I haven't visited a doctor for a real exam in four years. It was just too hard to find medical care in Kiev. We had good medical insurance but no reliable medical services! Marianne's health seems pretty good, despite a scare a year ago, a scare that was due in part to improper medical diagnostics in Kiev. We both continue to fight weight problems but, at least for me, that's nothing new so I can't blame our Kiev life.

Emotionally, we've grown, although it's tough being away from friends and families. We face new things with a confidence based on "it could be worse". At times we've been driven to tears by the frustration of being foreign, by the difficulty of being dumb and illiterate in the languages surrounding us and by the isolation of being ten time zones from home.

While we were a half-world away, my mother died, my sister continued her struggles against cancer and Marianne's sister struggled against her own demons. Brian got married and all three kids got older and more grown up. Gabby in particular was dropped into the deep end of the pool and is now swimming just fine without us. It's been hard following all this with only the help of webpages, email, phone calls and visits once or twice a year. I can't imagine how things would or would not have been different if we'd have stayed in Los Gatos. We didn't, and our family world went on.

Our world of friends was altered too. Marianne's long-time buddies are missed but she knows they'll be around when we can be back in touch. I don't have such a close buddies-network but we've worked hard to not lose track of friends. The website helps a lot and it's always gratifying when fiends say they follow our lives. We've worried about forcing our story on everyone but, at the same time, we've reached an age where memories matter more and we record our lives as much for our benefit as for the bridge it builds with friends and family.

The new friends in our world have been a godsend. We would not have continued, or maybe even survived, our life in Kiev without them. Ukrainians we encountered have not initially shared our American's openness, but once the barrier to "friend" is broken, their warmth and generosity has been genuine. It's been particularly hard to say goodbye to these people who provided us with memories and insights to build our picture of Kiev, of Ukraine, and indeed of the earlier life in Soviet times.

For our ex-patriot friends, the story is different but equally gratifying. We've heard their past stories of former assignments and shared their experiences in Ukraine. One lesson that overseas residents learn is that the audiences for expatriot stories have short attention spans, unless they too have similar memories to share. We look forward to seeing these new friends again over the next years, even if it's just a chance encounter in an airport.

So: money, health, family and friends, all these were affected. But, did we learn anything? Absolutely. Despite ourselves, we can survive in a new language. Maybe we aren't literate in Russian but at least we are no longer dumb. We've learned a whole new region, it's geography and it's history. Cossaks are real to us now, as is Chornobyl. We understand some of the old Soviet system, not as Ronald Regan's Evil Empire but as a system that failed to live up to it's promises to it's own people. We've been able to watch history being made as Ukraine lurches toward a future free of Soviet domination. That story is just beginning to be written and we'll read the new chapters with special interest.


So, what's the bottom line? Was going off the beaten bath worthwhile? Yes. Definitely. We escaped the weight of routine. We stretched our heads and our hearts. For our future retirement, we traded money for memories. And, I think we aged less.

Germany will be easier. Or so it seems today.

Stay in touch,

John and Marianne

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