Kiev Reflections – A Paradox Exposed

A fly through business trip leaves few memories other than the disruption to your personal life be and the continual desire to be home. A holiday in a far away and sunny climate leaves reminiscence captured and recorded on countless selfies and maybe, for me at least, sunburn on a balding head. But leaving a lover after a week of romance, sharing new friends, and being absorbed, and taken into a family, leaves the heart scarred forever.

Appropriate then that the weather yesterday, as we drove to the airport, was cold, dry, overcast, and heavy with snow-filled clouds not quite able to snow and show all their emotions. They reflected how I felt. It is never easy to say goodbye.

I like Kiev and I like Ukrainians, but I have a bias. No doubt had I fallen in love with a Hungarian I would now be feeling the same about Budapest. It is hard to be dispassionate in love.

Last week I wrote about the Ukrainians strength and stoicism and I think there is something almost unique in that. They are by nature serious and determined and whatever is thrown at them they take in their stride. I have shared that thought many times with those I met. On the plane home, last afternoon I sat next to a Ukrainian vet who has now moved to the UK and married an English man. She too reconfirmed my proposition.

But they are not dour people. Far from it and there is a happy and fun side to any gathering of Ukrainians. It is always a great party and normally well fuelled by alcohol. I remember a Polish girl I knew in my late teens and we went to a Polish wedding together. To this day I don’t think I have drunk so much. Slavic parties are invariably fun.

I didn’t want to leave but similarly, I couldn’t stay. It is not just all my wonderful family that draws me home but the continuing need to earn some money, and that raises the paradox which I am still trying to solve.

Sasha and I would like to be together and she is working hard to fit out a new apartment. I can see a life half and half between the UK and Ukraine, but that is not the problem. The problem is, as ever, financing it.

While the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil having money is a necessity. The issue is what needs to be done to acquire it?

Once that was easy; I would just find a job, get the train every morning, fill the eight or so hours and come home. That is still a solution I can aspire to although it is becoming more and more difficult as I get older.

My bigger problem is the conflict between what we could call a traditional job and pursuing a ‘career’ as a writer.

This all started more than 6 years ago when writing a novel was a unique personal challenge that was never meant to be more than a one-off. After all, everyone has one book inside them and it was going to be more of a sabbatical aimed at trying to dispel demons then inhabiting my mind.

During this first writing, I had become almost nocturnal and worked through every night. On the 24th floor of a Dubai tower block, the television always on in the background, the sound turned down low, empty cans of Pepsi strewn around the floor, an ashtray always full, I was writing.

I started writing like the consultant I had been the day before – yes, it was that sudden – wanting to map out the plot and all the characters before writing a word. That failed in the first two days. I wanted to write and not plan and so I wrote.

There was an exhalation as the story developed and the characters spoke to me. I learned to like George Cove and at times felt very sorry for him and his plight. Then one night there was a breakthrough moment, the sort of moment that makes it all worthwhile. I will try and avoid the plot spoiler, but I was working at my table, it was the middle of the night when one of my favourite characters, someone I always assumed would be with me until the end of the book, died.

I was shocked. It was never meant to be like that and for the last moments of that night, I did no more than properly inform George, her parents, and friends of her death. It was the least I could do in her memory. I stopped work. I cried and that night could write no more.

I am sure that those of you who have read the book would just turn the page and keep reading, passing easily over that moment and move on to the next chapter. I doubt, very much, you would have cried but these were my friends and I was telling their story. It may have started in my head, but it was real, and I was telling it for them.

There are now four books, a fifth half written and these pieces which someday, may also be published as a book. I write every day and feel guilty if I don’t but at what point does it stop being a hobby and start being who I am? When does a hobby become so passionate that it becomes one’s inspiration for living and all that you do?

I am now at that point and it was all brought into sharp relief over this week with Sasha, her family and friends in Kiev. The reality is that for only a very, very few is writing a career that pays its way.

Amazon has made it easier to sell books, but it has also made it easier to publish them. Publishing is a hugely competitive market. There are estimates that in 2014 twenty new titles were published each hour in the UK alone. Nor does it have huge margins. I publish through Amazon companies and the margin on each book is about €1.50. You can work out how many books I need to sell to pay for a night out.

I am driven to write because there are stories to be told and thoughts to be shared. I need to write, and it can’t be a sometimes, once in a while activity. It is something that needs all my focus.

Writing is selfish; writers put writing above most of everything else. As I am developing this skill the need to produce words which thousands and maybe even millions of people read, is a selfish and even arrogant drive. There is a strong emotional component about trying to succeed as a writer. I have never been able to draw and never been an artist, but I assume it is the same as they feel.

When asked by a stranger what we are, what do we do, I now answer unerringly, ‘writer’. It has been a transition but first and foremost that is what I am. I am a writer who sometimes is a management consultant.

This trip to Kiev has put all this into sharp focus.

We all know the stories of the artists that lived in frozen garrets with hardly a cent to buy food while all the money goes on paint. Later, and long after their death they are discovered, and their work recognised as masterpieces.

I am not quite in a frozen attic and my work will never move into the masterpiece category, but I am a point where I need to commit or quit.

It is not quite as blunt a choice between Sasha and writing but it is close. Sasha is undoubtedly my muse and without her, in my life, there may have been no books. I have told her I love her and her love for me is fully reciprocated but love alone will never pay for food and a home. Our shared financial needs include more than the basics and we want to share a few of life’s luxuries as necessities.

A rational, head-based decision would be to pack it all in, get a ‘proper’ job. I could stop writing and in my spare time carry on with the marketing, website development, social media etc. and make a few extra pounds from the work already done. Then Sasha and I could marry and live a happy life.

But would it be a happy life because I now see myself as a writer? Not only do I see myself as a writer, I am a writer with all the flaws, ego, selfishness and focus of a writer.

I love Sasha deeply and I will do all that I can for her, but it worries me that the emotional cost will be more than I can give. It worries me that she may not love the man who doesn’t write. Sasha has only known me as a writer and I am scared that if I stopped writing to provide the life we both want so desperately then the very essence of the person she loves will disappear.

So, here is the paradox.

Do I have to give up doing what I love for the woman I love, and maybe in doing that lose precisely what is now the very essence of my personality and basis of our love?

Kiev Day 5: The Supermarket

One of the truest ways to understand a society is to watch them shop. Just as in the UK it is no use going to Regents Street because that is nearly only tourists and so it’s the same in Kiev. There are many Malls and if for example, you go to Ocean Plaza there all the big international brands. That is probably why Sasha always takes both me and my credit card there. One of us all always takes a beating.

No, where you need to go is to the local supermarket where you can watch everyday folk about their business. In the supermarket, there are no pretensions. There is just a job to be done and so it was yesterday when Sasha and I went food shopping.

It wasn’t a mega market nor was it a corner shop, but just an ordinary medium-sized local, busy supermarket with the normal mix of hardened and determined shoppers with both super-sized baskets and the faster racing in after work for evening essentials.  We were somewhere in between who didn’t need much but slowed by my insistence to visit its every corner.

Mother always told to take off my hat indoors and so my sense of etiquette had me remove my insulated woolly hat and pop it into the pockets of my Barbour jacket, but I was the odd one out among fur coats and a wide range of hat styles. The message was clear. When it is cold outside you keep your head warm at all times.

As a passing observation, I noted that while in the UK there is a strong movement against women wearing natural fur there is none of that here. The furs are everywhere. I am not an expert, but sables and minks had better watch out and it leaves me conflicted. I understand the reasons we don’t want clothes made of natural furs but when you see how beautiful and warming they are there is a moment of indecision.

I had a chance to wander around rather than push the trolley. I may be good at many things, or my family might say just a few things, but Sasha quickly decided that pushing the trolley is not my forte. Maybe it was the way I meandered away to look down other aisles and never be next to her when she wanted to place purchased items that ultimately determined my demotion from a simple job.

Anyone who is a regular supermarket shopper would recognise the layout. No sooner in and you are faced with the fruit and vegetables. While Sasha chooses a selection of grapefruit I noticed the quality. There were no pre-packaged selections. Everything was loose just as in an old-style greengrocer but unlike my UK experience, all the produce was handled carefully. My etiquette might have been removing for my hat but for everyone else, the etiquette was to handle the fruit and vegetables carefully to avoid bruising the fruit for later shoppers. There was a love of the food.

My next calling was to the large display of dried fruits and nuts. For me this was special. My current diet is long on the dried fruit and a major source of protein is peanuts. To be able to buy them loose was a treat. There are scoops and plastic bags and I piled in large quantities of high-quality product. For someone who pays £3.50 in Sainsburys for their large bags of peanuts to find that these were both nearly a fifth of the price and healthier with lower salt levels, left me wondering why Sainsburys couldn’t do the same. They were so good I sealed, weighed and priced my first selection and then collected a smaller portion which I ate as we shopped presenting a priced but empty bag at the check-out.

Sasha was still at the fruits while I went to look at the meat both fresh and cooked. Just as it was with the fruit there was an extensive range which was all beautifully butchered and presented. With all the charcuterie on display, it was a great standalone boucherie. So, it was with the bread, rolls, cakes, croissant and cheese. All was individually cut to order and served from an extensive choice.

This wasn’t a scientific piece of research but just a wandering around, but I did find my granola with summer fruits, kiwi yoghurt, cranberry juice, and oats.

I don’t have a deep understanding of UK prices other than everyone telling me that they are always going up. But I can say that the things I did buy were a lot, lot cheaper. I am always wary of these statistics, but one website tells me that Kiev is 326th out of 338 most expensive cities to live in, in the world. That sounds unlikely but those with more information might ogle at:

Milk (regular), (1 litre)

Loaf of Fresh White Bread (500g)

Eggs (regular) (12)

Apples (1kg)

Banana (1kg)

Potato (1kg)

£0.49

£0.24

£0.68

£0.45

£0.75

£0.20

I am not going to draw deep conclusions about Ukrainians from such a trivial survey. This wasn’t a super special supermarket. It was just the local shop, but prices are not the issue, it is the quality that counts.

Kiev is undoubtedly one of the richer areas in Ukraine but even here the average income is still much less than $10,000 each year. Price has to be an issue, but Ukrainian shoppers must demand quality because quality is everywhere.

Conclusion? Let me put it this way. If this supermarket was in the UK it would be my store of choice and the everyday fur just adds a special glamour.

Kiev Day 4: Macho Men

It is so cold! It has been overcast but the forecast says it will be sunny today. I am still wrapped up in my scarf and my woolly hat.

At the market at St Sophia I was tempted to buy one of the second-hand Ushanka or Russian fur hat as worn by Dr Zhivago, but something got the better of me. It was probably the shake of her head and the look on Sasha’s face. I would like to think it was because she was being responsible as it was expensive on a stretched budget. I can’t believe it was because she thought I looked stupid in it. I thought it was quite fetching especially with the red star of the Russian Army on the front and the ear flaps pulled down.

I have not made a point of watching the men as we walk around town, but I can’t remember seeing any of the local men wearing a Ushanka. What I have recognised is that the men in eastern Europe are far more Macho, at least in appearance, than those back home. It is hard to ignore.

Of course, their gang leader is President Putin. Half of every photo we see of him, he is stripped to the waist, riding a horse, cutting wood in a forest, or dipping in cold water as part of the Eucharist celebrations. His macho image is portrayed across all Russia and is the basis of his election success. While the West may not like him, he has the significant support of many Russians.  He has far more support among Russians than Trump has among Americans.

Maybe it is not surprising that football hooliganism is now most prevalent in Eastern Europe, and there are already fan warnings for the World Cup in Russia this summer. It was the Russian gangs that clashed with English fans in Marseilles during the Euros.

Men and machines always drives macho behaviour and so it is in Kiev with the taxis. Drivers in Kiev, and particularly those steering a taxi, add more than just a sprinkling of macho spice as they ignore traffic lights, cut across oncoming traffic and accelerate as if they were in F1.

The one Ukrainian man I have met a few times is Alexander who is Stanislas’ lawyer. He is a mild and thoughtful man as you would expect from a lawyer but when he starts to tell you tales of going into the forest to fish and hunt you know that the Putin’s macho spirit survives beyond Russia’s borders. When the photos he wants to show you on his phone are of guns and not women, grandchildren or cars you know there is a difference.

I wrote yesterday about the modern generation of women and I have asked Sasha her view of the men in her country. She was reluctant to say too much but i will try and press the point and report later.

Of course, another consideration is the attitude towards LGBT. The country is still predominately right wing, by which I mean conservative, in its attitudes. Same sex activity between consenting adults, in private, is legal but same sex couples are ineligible for much of the legal protection offered to heterosexuals. Recent surveys suggest that attitudes are changing but even in 2017 only 56% of Ukrainians think that members of the LGBT community should share equal rights.

While walking around Kiev it is rare to notice explicit LGBT encouragement. It was only last week that I learnt that a restaurant I had used many times was in fact a major meeting place for the lesbian community, something far from obvious while I was sitting there quietly eating a pizza. I don’t know if it was my renowned poor observational skills or just that it was all very low key. Probably both.

There was an example of current attitudes in Lviv last year at an LGBT festival which had to be abandoned when the venue was surrounded by about 200 members of far-right groups shouting “Kill, kill, kill”.

I find that unsurprising from the observed attitude of the men. However, over the last two days I have been writing about war and in particular the ongoing war in the East. As far as I am aware conscription, introduced in 2014, is still active. In those circumstances it is hard to imagine that macho attitudes would reduce or there would be an increased tolerance towards LGBT.

I am sure it will change but it may take a long time. War, a culture of heavy alcohol abuse and history are not the normal diet for change.

Kiev Day 3: The Strength of Ukrainian Woman

There is a story among Slavic men that if you come home to find your wife at the door, hands on hips, then turn around and get out. It is not worth the argument. You have already lost.

Maybe it is an unfair reputation, but their women are strong. From the cosiness of our lives in the West we forget some of the factors that has led to their stoicism. I wrote about the history of the region in The Masterful Manipulation of George Cove.’ Here I was specifically talking about Belarus:

As he drove he remembered the stories he had heard of wartime resistance against the Germans that was fought around these very places. Twenty-two million allied soldiers had died in the war and twenty million of those were Soviets.

He also knew that more than twenty-five per cent of Byelorussians, civilians or soldiers, had been killed in the war. Byelorussia had been hit hardest of all the Soviet states.

The Germans had destroyed over two-thirds of the cities with less than a hundred unaffected. Nearly all the industry had been destroyed, with deaths and casualties of maybe nearly three million. He tried to imagine how that would have been felt in Britain. Only four hundred thousand British soldiers or civilians had died in the war, but more than six times that number of Byelorussians had died. It was this resolve in the Slavic people he admired and respected. These people knew suffering, he thought, and now he had to respect one more Byelorussian.

If anything, the situation in Ukraine, if it is possible, was worse.

Ever since the Middle Ages, the Ukrainians have struggled to free themselves from invading Russians, Poles, Austrians, Ottomans, or Germans all vying for control of the large, fertile region.

World War 2 ravaged the country. I tried to edit down this excerpt, but it was not easy (http://www.infoukes.com/history/ww2/page-18.html )

Academician Yuri Kondufor, Director of the Institute of History , Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, in September 1984 gave for the first time precise statistics of Ukrainian population losses in World War II. He stated that there was a total loss of 7.5 million (7,509,045) including the dead and those taken as slave laborers to Germany. The German occupation and World War II resulted in the extermination and death in Ukraine of 3,898,457 civilians and 1,366,588 military and prisoners-of-war for a total of 5,265,045. (Gregorovich, Forum No. 61).

According to Professor Kondufor there were also 2,244,000 Ukrainian citizens taken to Germany for slave labour in the German war industry.

Toronto historian Orest Subtelny in his Ukraine: A History (University of Toronto Press, 1994) states: “Even a cursory listing of losses reflects the terrible impact that the Second World War had on Ukraine and its inhabitants. About 5.3 million, or one of six inhabitants of Ukraine, perished in the conflict. An additional 2.3 million had been shipped to Germany to perform forced labour.” (p. 479).

Even if we accept the conservative figure offered by Prof. Kondufor (during Soviet rule it should be mentioned), Ukraine’s loss of about 7.5 million people is greater than the total military loss of the USA, Canada, British Commonwealth, France, Germany, and Italy all put together.

In conclusion it seems reasonable to estimate that because of the German occupation and the Soviet repression from 1939 to 1945 during World War II, that Ukraine lost about 10,000,000 citizens or one Ukrainian out of four. It is reasonably estimated that about 50 million people perished in the world because of World War II which means 20 per cent of all the victims were Ukrainians. In this figure are about 600,000 Ukrainian Jews.

I won’t go into the ravages of later Russian occupation lasting until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the glory of independence, finally, in 1991.

It is against this horrific background that the Ukrainian women I know, were brought up; remember that when they started their education it was still under a Russian dominated regime.

If there is a reason to be stoical, maybe this it.

Of course, personal strength doesn’t just come from hearing the experiences of ancestors and parents, but from genetic learning. The weather in Ukraine is extreme. There may be an average summer temperature mid-twenties but in January that average drops to minus five degrees.  In 2012 it dropped to minus thirty. That is cold!

Last night Sasha and I went out with Stanislas, her father, who kindly shared a small bottle of fabulous Georgian artisan cognac. I rarely drink but it was well worth making an exception. I mention this only because I was grateful for the fortitude it gave me while we stood waited for our taxi as the temperature dropped to a crisp minus nine.

They may just be numbers but from a soft southern english perspective living with these weather extremes brings strength.

However, there are changes. Over the last dozen years or so the internet has opened the world to everyone and that includes all the post-Russian states. What was hidden is now clear and the effect is pervasive.

I can walk around Kiev and, if I wasn’t a vegetarian, I could eat at one of many McDonalds and it is far harder to find Ukrainian food than a pizza or sushi. Chanel and Prada are in the shops and international TV stations are easily available.

I wonder what impact this will have on the culture and the people?

Sasha and I first knew of each other over 5 years ago and like many couples it was an introduction through internet dating. We met, we wrote daily, and we kept on meeting. What I remember from those dating times, however, were the huge numbers of women on the site all looking for western relationships. I was even more surprised how many wanted to meet with me.

If I was a Minister in the Ukraine government I would be very worried. The women were the cream of a generation. They were academically highly qualified. Sasha, for example, has both a Bachelor and Masters degree. They worked in law and other professional roles. These women are the ones that hold the core values of the society, yet still they want to leave.

Maybe it is not just the lure of the West but the inability of their men to adapt to the change.

Since 1950 the average life expectancy of Ukrainian men has not changed from 66 years (in Russia it is 64.7 years) while over the same period for UK men it has increased from 68 to 79. The Swiss at 81.3 years live the longest. In a morbid league table of life expectancy Ukraine is currently 120th. Alcohol is a significant cause of death among Ukrainian men and over 50% of deaths are from coronary heart disease.

For now, why Ukrainian women want to leave for westerners is someone else’s problem. For me I will be forever grateful, and for whatever reason, Sasha has chosen me, and I am very, very happy that she has.

She has the inner strength, inner beauty, and intelligence of many Ukrainian women. She is also beautiful, again a national trait. Think I am bragging? I don’t always agree with the Daily Mail in its reporting but in 2012 they were spot on with a piece that started: Kiev is ‘without a doubt, home to the world’s most beautiful women’.

(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162181/Ukrainian-Swedish-women-named-worlds-best-looking.html#ixzz55mT4HKKO)

Kiev Day 2: A country at war

I am now in Kiev with Sasha. She met me at the airport and the anticipation and wait was worth every moment. She looked as beautiful and wonderful as ever.

I have been to Kiev many times, but the excitement is still there. Like all cities, it changes with the seasons. Sometimes it is very warm and sunny, but today it is very cold and snowing. Unlike last summer, this week it is very unlikely we will be enjoying a trip on Sasha’s father’s boat on the river Dnieper.

Last night we had dinner with our friend Tatiana at Carpaccio on the left bank. The food was as good as ever but the temperature as we left the restaurant to pick up the taxi was way down low. It was at -9oc.  This week will be much more scarves, gloves, and woolly hats. The temperature today is going to be a little over -3oc, but the sun is out.

Kiev is an ancient and beautiful city dating back to the 5th century although there were clearly earlier settlements. Despite significant damage in the second world war there are still many historic buildings. I enjoy walking around Kiev.

On a summer’s day, a couple of years ago, I walked around an open-air market in the shadow of the mainly 17th Century, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. It is an architectural wonder. Around the church there are restaurants and shops. I hope this week I will find out if the market also opens in the winter. Like all markets around tourist attractions there is a wide range of tatter, but rarely elsewhere do you find old Russian Army great coats, fur hats and soldier’s jackets.

The plan is that later this week Sasha and I will go there, walk a little and then stop for a coffee or hot wine in the shadow of the St Sophia.

I like to walk around and although now Kiev is a sprawling city, the middle is compact. It is also a green city and there was a saying that in the summer you could almost walk around the centre of Kiev in the shadow of a horse chestnut tree.

Sasha was always concerned when I said I liked to walk around sightseeing, particularly at night. She is concerned for my safety and that is made worse because of the war.

From our cosy sofas in the West of course we know that there are problems in the East of Ukraine and now that the Russian invasion of Crimea is no longer in the headlines you may have even forgotten there are problems. Ukrainians don’t talk about it as a ‘problem’. At least in Kiev they talk about war.

Many have forgotten that there is a continuing war in Ukraine.

This is what the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth says on its web site offering advice to travellers. The security situation in the south eastern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine remains highly unstable with ongoing clashes between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed armed separatists. The UN calculates this has resulted in approximately 10,100 deaths and the internal displacement of between 800,000 and 1 million people residing permanently in government-controlled areas of Ukraine. Civilians continue to get caught up in the fighting.

The Kiev Post in December 2017 reported (https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/top-10-developments-russias-endless-war-2017.html): Russia’s war is still going on, now in its fourth year with no end in sight and casualties — more than 10,000 people killed already — continuing to mount. Ukraine remains no closer at the end of 2017 to regaining control of Crimea or the Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas, an area of 46,000 square kilometres, or 7 percent of the country’s territory. The peace talks didn’t make any progress and 2017 marked the first year of the war without any Ukrainian hostages being released by the enemy. Russian-occupied Donbas moved further away from Kyiv economically, with shortages of food reported on both sides of the war front.

The situation may be even worse. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) newspaper reported: In 2015 “Germany’s special services estimate the probable number of deceased Ukrainian servicemen and civilians at up to 50,000 people. This figure is about 10 times higher than official data. Official figures are clearly too low and not credible,” the newspaper reported on Sunday, citing its source.

This is not just a problem. It is real war and it has led to increasing numbers of injured or homeless returning to Kiev and this is the threat that Sasha worries about for us walking late at night in central Kiev.

When I took that trip back from Malawi and stopped off in Addis Ababa in my naivety I was unaware of their ongoing civil war. Maybe tanks stationed all around the airport should have been a clue, but I wandered around, as I now try to do in Kiev.

With more knowledge and a proper guide I take far more care of our safety, but nothing takes away the enjoyment of being in Kiev.

Kiev day 1: Travelling

My normal routine is to write a piece the night before it is published giving me a sleep to think about it before I hit the go button. This week may get a little chaotic. I am away in Kiev for the week and will try to keep up the work although the attractions of Sasha may prove a sore temptation.

I hope to write a reflection or two about life in Ukraine and avoid having to think about seven mortal sins, the NHS or economics, but if I fall short and fail to report one day I apologise in advance. However, you can take solace in knowing that your disappointment is a consequence of me enjoying myself.

I fly to Kiev on a British Airways. The taxi comes at 5:40 and the flight will be just before 8am this morning and so unless you are awake very early I will already be in the air. All this means a very early start and as you may have already learnt, I am not great in the mornings.

Worse I have had to leave extra time because it is a Monday morning and I remember how busy the airports can be with all the business travel at the start of the week. And then there is the M25, the road to Heathrow. It is busy at all times but again Monday rush hour can be a disaster. Finally, the weather forecast is not good; maybe some ice.

So, it will still be dark and unspeakably early when the taxi arrives and if not in the taxi, then waiting in departures and on the three-hour flight I will take every chance to sleep. I’m lucky like that. I can sleep on a plane. I have been known to be asleep seconds after the front wheels lift but that was in Virgin business class coming back overnight from Boston.

I get excited by flying and all that is ahead of me. Sometimes, at night I will stand outside in the garden watching planes heading in and out of London’s airports and wish I was on them. Airports enliven me.

I have vivid memories of my first journey to Malawi and the excitement of flying over the red soils of Africa. I had no idea what was ahead of me and it was an adventure.

When my three months were up and it was time to leave Africa, I used three weeks of annual holiday to get back to London stopping off at every city I could find on the route. This took me among others I can’t remember from Nairobi, to Addis Ababa, Cairo, and Paris.

Without the advantages of the internet I booked the trip always making sure that there was the statutory minimum transfer time between the flights. This was a ploy I thought about after I learnt that it is the responsibility of the airline to pay for your accommodation if their flights are late and you miss the onwards travel.

The plan had to work as I didn’t have enough money for all the nights I was away. Fortunately, I missed most of the transfers and stayed in good hotels with a big thank you to the airlines.

My first business class flight was to New York. A private client at Coopers wanted an analyst to fly over to the USA and prepare the financial prospectus for funding a new venture. I made two trips. The first was to New York and I stayed in the Gotham Hotel and couldn’t stop humming the Batman theme. I also remember the limo sent to collect me that was so friggin large that I was sure it was wider than my own Mini at home was long.

My second trip for this client was to his office in Newport, Rhode Island. It was the summer and I was given a room in his home which he shared with his mother. Well, it wasn’t just a room but more like the wing of his house.

This was the summer season in Newport and our work was always suspended at lunchtime, so we could go to the famous Yacht Club. There are some priorities not to be ignored. I did a good job on my forecasts even though this project was never going to be successful. Client confidentiality prohibits me from saying how we were going to legally export gold from sanctioned South Africa into the souks of the Middle East.

Apart from the interesting work my most significant achievement was at lunchtime teaching Gloria Vanderbilt to roller skate around the swimming pool. Although thirty years my senior we struck up a good, fun but very temporary relationship.

My English accent became exaggerated as it seemed to make me someone everyone wanted to talk to. Not least among these was Nonie Drexel a beautiful and very eligible, young woman. The impression she made on me can be recognised that of all the people I have met I can still remember her name. I understand she now lives happily in Scotland.

As the flight gets close to Kiev I will switch on my phone. I know I shouldn’t do that, but the anticipation is great and there is an excitement as I plot our route into Borispol Airport with my GPS map. As you may have gathered this Is not the first time I have done this. Normally, I will start when we are about 20 minutes out while we are flying over somewhere near Lutsk.

It is a holiday but there will be some work. I need to do some location hunting for my next book and maybe try and meet some local businessmen.

I am there until next Sunday and already I am not looking forward to leaving, but that is the wrong attitude. We will live this week fully and delay any thoughts of departure day to the last moment.

Rehearsal, the missing step in Planning

Nineteen Behaviours of Effective Leaders! Have you seen this form of click bait on the internet? Self-help and mimicry of successful leaders are the staples of these articles. Honestly, they drive me to distraction but today I throw away all my principles, embrace the need to market a punchy start and drift, warily into the minefield

Planning has been at the core of my professional career, I should be good at it. I certainly have intimate knowledge of most of the things that can go wrong but if any prospective clients are reading, everything was always recovered within contingency.

Planning is on my mind at the moment because next week I will be in Kiev with Sasha. It goes without saying that I am excited and looking forward to the trip, but it also requires planning. Not only do I have to plan the trip but also how to produce these pieces while still enjoying myself.

I know what you are thinking. What’s the problem? I wander down to the computer mid-morning after a long lie in and hearty breakfast. Some tippy-tappy, all is finished, and I am free for a pre-lunch sherry.

It’s nothing like that but oh, how I wish it was.

Never a lie in, hearty breakfasts are long in the past and I don’t drink, but it is the idea of a rapid tippy-tappy that is furthest from reality. Even if I know what to write about it takes forever to edit and re-edit until I am happy and even then, as yesterday, I spot a typo only after I have hit the publish button (empathise came out as emphasise, so much for auto correct).  I may be old, wizened, and experienced in life’s vagaries, but for me writing is a skill in its juvenile years.

Honestly, there is no way that holidays and daily blogging can coexist unless I plan properly.  How good I am at planning will only be seen next week; the proof will be in the pudding as the saying goes.

This is the more formal planning problem of task management and scheduling time which is euphemism for saying that I will be waking very early and taking note books to jot down a passing phrase or thought.

But good planning is not a virtue in itself. Talking a great game plan is of no use unless it gets executed and for my tuppence getting things done is of far more significance.

There is however the intermediate step of rehearsal, which often totally ignored. In formal planning processes we rehearse alternatives by conducting ‘what if’ analysis and there is a whole literature around ‘scenario planning’. This is what we do for the big problems and then ignore it day to day.

What a shame because rehearsing tomorrow is a great way to be successful and so here, finally, is Gerry’s One Activity That All Successful Managers Should Follow.

Think of this.

Imagine an experienced politician being interviewed in a serious programme with a good interviewer. In other words, everything that the Piers Morgan’s interview with President Trump wasn’t. Do you see how easily the politician avoids and evades questions they don’t want to answer? I know it is hugely frustrating, but it ensures they make the point and avoid bear traps.

This isn’t because they are more fluent, better educated, or brighter than most of us (we could debate that on another day). It is because they have rehearsed and practiced. Of course, they have extensive media training to make them feel comfortable in the studio, but it is the team of researchers rehearsing and planning questions and answers that makes the difference.

That wonderful play that you have seen didn’t just happen. The actors didn’t learn their lines and pitch up and meet for the first time as the curtain lifted on the first night. We all know that. They spent many weeks rehearsing what was going to happen.

Most of us are not politicians or actors, but there are positive lessons. Between planning and delivery there is rehearsal and it is a technique I have used for most of my life.

It started with the advice I was given as a wet behind the ears consultant. I was told that on my way home from work I should think back and reflect on what I had achieved during the day. And on the next morning, sitting among other commuters on the train, set my objectives for the day, thinking about what I was going to do and who I was going to meet.

I have one advantage. I can day dream and I have no problem imagining and rehearsing upcoming meetings. If you have read previous pieces you will know that I’m the man that has imaginary conversations with dead physicists.

I think we can use my trip to Kiev as a simple and trivial example.

It is a holiday and I will be spending a lot of time with Sasha and although we will normally be eating out I have promised to cook a meal for her and her parents, Iryna and Stanislas. I have no idea what I will cook and will wait until we go to the supermarket and see what takes my interest.

I do quite fancy a smoked fish in a curried coconut sauce. Sound good? I imagine myself walking round the supermarket and hunting through the shelves of the supermarket. What would be missing? Well turmeric and my favourite curry spices might be hard to find. So, I have made up a small sachet of what I will need. It takes up no room in my case, weighs next to nothing but may solve a later problem. I got there by rehearsing the walk around the supermarket with Sasha.

I am now thinking about arriving at the airport and checking in. Maybe I will meet again that Ukrainian ballerina carrying a small dog in in a bag over her shoulder. I get to the front of the queue. What is my booking reference? It is in an email from British Airways. I can see it and I know I will have to find it quickly. I hold up my phone to the rep on the desk and show it to her. I don’t print or carry extra paper and so I copy it into a folder easily accessible on my phone, so it is immediately available.

When I know I am meeting someone new or even for that matter someone I know well I go through all the questions they could ask me and then think about my answers. I don’t just rehearse the obvious questions I will face but also the most outrageous and outlandish. It doesn’t matter. I have an answer and remain fluent. There is nothing worse than being caught unawares.

As Sasha knows I think planning is important. Maybe I go too far but that is my training and I love it when plans work out well.

In Men in Black III there is a character, Griffin. He is the last member of the Archanan race and therefore the last who has the unique ability to foresee the infinite potential outcomes that are dependent on the actions taken in any given scenario. We don’t possess many or most of the skills of the Archanan’s skills but through rehearsing we can improve the chance of a plan becoming reality.

When you mentally rehearse the scenes, then one day, maybe just one day, your dreams will come true.