My first day at my job in finances

On the fifth of sixth of September 2001 I presented myself at my new job at MoneyCare. I was quite apprehensive on my way to my first day at work, because it would be the first time that I would end up working in an office, and in a function that wasn’t just new, but would involve, as I suspected, a considerable degree of study. There was nothing I knew about banks, or finances.

            Still, at the age of twenty-five I could see the benefits of my new position. I was travelling on the underground station in one of the best cities in the whole world, truly beautiful from the architectural point of view, very international, and where it seemed that the possibilities were endless. The fact that I had relocated there from a deeply loved Belgium, and where I had come for the sole reason to study in French, looked irrelevant at that point. I was young, and I was blessed with opportunities, and approaching the corporate Bijlmer underground station seemed like yet another adventure on my life path, rather than a serious commitment to a new, serious routine.

            As I learned rather quickly I wasn’t the only one to get a job in finances without any diploma (or experience) related to the field.

            MoneyCare had a historian (Pierre) who analysed energy companies, a political analyst (his future wife) who was writing texts for luxury companies and a geographer who was in charge of the technology sector.

            This bunch of people were at the service of MoneyCare thanks entirely to Mr. Wulf. As I discovered, while working for the company, Mr. Wulf was more than just an unconventional person. He was in fact really crazy but in a very good way.

            The biggest mistake Mr Wulf could ever do with his life was to choose a career in the banking business.

            First of all, Mr Wulf was extremely kind. His company was renowned for keeping the brightest along with the ‘suckers’. This was the expression going on around the company summarizing his management skills. In fact, Mr Wulf was unable to fire anyone whatsoever. Which led to, on numerous occasions, someone else having to intervene (usually a shareholder) and cut the company in half. During my service it happened three times.

            Second, Mr Wulf was indeed slightly mad. He adored long philosophical discussions, which in the banking business sounded like “Have you read the latest book by… now, I forgot his name… the one who wrote about the latest developments on the Belgian political scene? Might be very useful for the analysis of German banks.”

            Or:

            “Post-modernism leads us to think of new horizons. How can we translate the latest post-modernist thought into portfolio management techniques?”

            And thirdly, Mr Wulf wasn’t in the business for money. He simply possessed what we sometimes call ‘a passionate mind’. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave (until I joined the company). He read all possible newspapers in the five languages he knew for the entire morning, then he would start drawing schemes, then he would talk to his employees (those who could follow his reasoning for two hours in a row and be able to produce some coherent answers in return), then he would try to motivate other workers, then he would start talking again and then he would read again.

            Place Mr Wulf in any academic environment and you will have a Nobel Prize laureate in one year.

However, despite quite a benign atmosphere to start my career in finances (that, with Mr Wulf as my boss), my first day of work at MoneyCare couldn’t have been any worse.

            I received the most uncomfortable desk (as others were already taken), got a pile of annual reports of banks, a computer screen showing some excel sheet calculations and Ruud as my desk neighbour and a fellow analyst of banks.

            Ruud had a background in accounting and therefore we had a clash of personalities right from the start.

            “Hey, Ekaterina, you are too quick,” Ruud pointed out to me when I was on my second annual report for a bank. “You have to read them carefully. Tell me, what do you remember from the balance sheet of that bank?”

            If you have never come across the banking sector prose, let me reassure you, it has nothing in common with the novels of Jane Austen or Kafka for that matter.

            “What is a balance sheet?” I asked Ruud and immediately realised that I shouldn’t ask that kind of question if I wanted to avoid calling emergency services. The face of my colleague looked like he was about to faint.

            “No, it’s unbelievable,” was the only thing Ruud found to answer and went to his cupboard in search of something which, to my guess, could inspire me to learn more about balance sheets.

            Hesitating for a second in front of his magic warehouse Ruud produced a book and put it on my desk.

            Introduction to financial accounting I read on the cover and felt, for the first time, a strong desire to stab my colleague in the face. Without even opening the book I could guess that it was probably even less readable than an annual report of the bank and that, in order to last through the first ten pages, I needed an elephant dose of red bull. I didn’t have time to confirm my guess though, as a colleague from the IT department came to my desk to install Trados on my computer.

            “Hi, Ekaterina, my name is Pit. So, you are the lucky one to try Trados in practice?”

            Pit was a big, Dutch guy in his forties and from the wink he gave me as soon as I turned to face him, it was clear that he was joking while referring to my new mission in life as lucky. And I liked him immediately. In addition to a head of red hair, mother nature had given him a very nice character, and in the half hour of time which I spent with him on learning the functions of Trados, I knew his sign of zodiac, his favourite music and the true meaning of the balance sheet.

            “Well, you know, when the financial institutions do not screw up, their figures are in balance. But if they do screw up, they are in big shit.”

            Which was a perfect enough explanation for me.

            The way Pit was explaining Trados was also crystal clear, except that we quickly found out the bug. I didn’t speak Dutch.

            A totally blank screen was greeting both of us when we opened the new tool on my computer. And I was supposed to translate from Dutch into English.

            For a minute or so I contemplated leaving my new job right then and to never return. Why stay when I didn’t understand finances nor could I speak Dutch?

            And I wasn’t that desperate. True, Russia wasn’t my home anymore, since I had left it at the age of nineteen in order to study, but I could surely adjust myself rather quickly in the country where, after all, I was born.

            But just when I was seriously thinking about buying a plane ticket to try my chances in my native land, Mr. Wulf came to my ‘rescue’.

            He probably sensed that I was in some kind of trouble.

            “I see that you have some problems here?”

            I turned around to see him standing behind my desk. I assumed that he was referring to Trados, but in fact he was talking about the book Ruud had given me.

            “Forget all this accounting stuff,” he declared rather solemnly, “if you want to be a good analyst, it will only sabotage your brain. I have something better for you to read. Here,” and he deposited a thick book on my table.

            The enigma of Japanese power. The first full-scale examination of the inner working of the Japanese political/industrial system – read the cover. I didn’t have time to adjust my face to a more intelligent gaze when I read the title, and Mr Wulf could catch a completely blank expression reflected in my eyes. None of the banks I was supposed to cover were Japanese.

            Taking a piece of paper and a pencil, the boss of MoneyCare started to draw a scheme. We were back in a Kafka analysis. I couldn’t follow a thing he was saying (and later I learned that it wasn’t just my problem) but while pretending that I was tuning in, I made up my mind about MoneyCare.

            My new job looked like an absolute nightmare, but if I didn’t give it a chance, I would regret such decision for the rest of my life. After all, it was a job, located in one of the most sought-after cities in the whole world. It was also in finances, and if not for MoneyCare, I would never learn this field anywhere else. And if Mr Wulf was my boss, then the whole experience promised to be little bit funny.

            But in reality, of course, it was anything but funny.

            Who on earth can have fun while analyzing banks? Especially if you happen to belong to the category of people who don’t even know where the nearest branch of their own bank is located.

            This was definitely my case, and I also hated excel sheets, numbers, annual reports, and finances in general as I discovered rather quickly.

            But I persevered. For six months or so I would wake up at six, go to work, read all kinds of newspapers for an hour, then sabotage my brain into learning the financial analysis and trying to like it, read the annual reports of banks, study balance sheets and have a weekly Dutch class to improve my Dutch.

            This kind of worked, as somehow, I did manage to create an illusion that I was a good financial analyst of banks. After the initial six months of torture I even managed to settle into some sort of routine and started to address other aspects of my life. I joined the gym, tried all sorts of diets, started dating and decided that I had a cool life.

            I was fed, dressed, had a nice apartment near the city centre, brilliant career prospects, and if I believed my mirror, I was okay. True, I wasn’t blonde, but in the rubric of physical appearance on dating sites, I would assign myself without any hesitation as ‘I am hot’. Ending up with all sorts of weirdoes on dates as a result, but what we project is what we get, as they say.

            Otherwise I was leading perfectly a prefect life.

            My morning would start with a cup of coffee and three cigarettes. Without my smoking breakfast, waking up was not worth it. Actually, three cigarettes were the best-case scenario, if I had little bit more time in the morning, I was having at least five.

            At nine (and often much earlier) I would sit behind my computer, fully involved in finances. I hated finances already then, but what kind of an idiot would turn down the possibility to become a financial analyst without any diploma in finances? I had a relatively good contract after all, and Mr Wulf seemed to like me.

The most irritating factor at my job was my colleague Ruud. He represented for me the thing I hated the most about my profession: the routine. No clock was needed if someone was sitting next to the guy.

            Every single move of Ruud carried an enormous weight, be it a cup of coffee or the annual report of a bank. The major part of the day my colleague spent on placing huge stocks of paper into carefully selected compartments of the cupboard standing behind our desk. Where and why did Ruud produce such an amount of paper was a big question. Sometimes I wondered whether he wasn’t reprinting the annual reports of banks in case of a major terrorist attack. I couldn’t come up with another explanation.

            Ruud didn’t even read all the material he carried from the printing room in his arms right to the desk. He simply glanced from one piece of paper to the next, producing a very disturbing noise on the way, trying to decide to which department he would put it. During this busy procedure I was unable to concentrate on anything else. The only thing I could do was to study two big crows which were making a house from the tree in front of my window, without really noticing their beauty until one rainy morning in November, a couple of years later, when I decided to radically change my life.

            We were occupied in this way every Monday to Friday starting from nine o’clock in the morning until one in the afternoon. At one o’clock precisely Ruud would go to lunch.

            At two he would reappear at his desk with a cup of coffee in one hand and a glass of water in another. Just like in the morning he would put first a spoon of sugar in his coffee, mix it as loudly as possible, take a sip, and then add another spoon of sugar to mix it again. As loudly as possible. Despite the fact that I had bought a palm tree to hide me from Ruud, it wasn’t large enough to spare me from the ritual with coffee. Every time I had to fight the desire to ask him why he wouldn’t put two spoons of sugar in at once. I never asked, because my guess was that Ruud did it on purpose. The truth is, the disliking was mutual. When I had first joined the company, Ruud was looking for a Russian girl on the Internet. However, after only three months of sitting next to me, Ruud switched to Thai girls and was searching for Asian beauties from Monday to Friday from three o’clock until four in the afternoon. 

            In this sense, I am a total disgrace to my nation. I don’t fit the profile of a typical Russian woman. A typical Russian woman, in the eyes of a Western man, is supposed to be complacent, a good cook, very obedient, extremely feminine and blonde. From this description I can only pretend to be a good cook. Apart from that, I am definitely not blonde, most certainly not obedient and have a set of strong white teeth to show that I am not complacent.

            Maybe, this is the reason as to why I wasn’t on anyone’s bride list.

I was born in Moscow in 1976

And so, It was in 1976 that I was born into one of the households living in the 9-y micro-district of Teplii Stan, on the tenth of July to be precise, and of course, I don’t remember anything of that day, but can only rely on what I was told by my family. Apparently I was born right in the centre of Moscow, in the birth-centre on the New Arbat Eve, called ‘Roddom Grauermana’ where several famous Russian people were born. Andrey Mironov, the actor, loved by the whole nation, was born there in 1941, as well as the renown poet, Bulat Okudghava, in 1924. The birth house was popular among the elite. It was right at the central street, situated in a beautiful building, where rooms were spacious and medical care was better than anywhere else.  One needed good connections to end up there, and those, born in Roddom Grauermana’, usually belonged to some sort of upper class, albeit under the socialism, classes didn’t exist. But of course, some lived better than others, and connections, or what is known in the Russian language as ‘blat’ (a word that really has no direct translation in English, but can be understood as nepotism) was extremely prevalent during the whole existence of the Soviet Union, and still is, although judging from the readings of the Russian literature, ‘blat’ is just a part of the Russian psyche. Gogol wrote extensively about it, but so did Tolstoy and other prominent classical Russian writers.

           

It happened that I was born into a more or less elite family, by the standards of that time. The family was very intellectual as a whole. My grand-dad, who during the second world war, was a sapper, attached to special forces,  received several medals, including Order of the Red Star, and upon his return from the war, became a renowned and extremely popular professor of geology at the People’s Friendship University, situated not far from the ‘Jugo-Zapadnaya’ underground station. Due to his position he received a three-room apartment in one of the new buildings at the 9-y micro-district of Teplii Stan, and the whole family, consisting of the grand-dad, grand-mum, their daughter and her husband, moved for a while there, before my mum and my dad received their own apartment, in the same block of flats, but their apartment was only two rooms, and situated right on the sixteenth floor. I remember that once I started to have some conscious memories, every time I would end up on the balcony, the view would take my breath away. It was so high, and so impressive, because one could see for a while almost the whole of 9-y micro-district of Teplii Stan, before other, similar buildings were built all around, but it still gave the illusion of some space, even if it totally lacked in any cosiness. The apartment was awful, and remained so, until it was sold in the middle of the nineties to someone else, with some difficulties. It had always the atmosphere that it was chased by the spirits, or some similar, mystical creatures. Strange insects would appear, or weird noises at night with irregular intervals. Families ending up in this apartment, had arguments, and tough time.

            My parents, however, ended up relatively well in the beginning, because, most of the time they stayed at my grand-dad place. There, it was always cosy, and always warm. My grand-mum, who worked only part-time as an administrator at one of the theatre companies, retired relatively early, because my grand-dad, as a geologist, would often be sent away on a project to different places, such as Afghanistan or China, where they would sometimes stay up to two years at a time. She loved cooking, and the house always had the delicious smell of some stew or a pie in preparation. Because my grand-dad was very popular among his students, lots of them, mostly the PhD students, would often come to the house, for a dinner or a drink. They all came from different countries, friendly to the Soviet Union’s ideology, and it was always full of laughter, deep philosophical discussions, and delicious food. My mum and my dad, also ended up working at the same university, albeit at different faculties, would mostly live in their own apartment when I was born, but the main life and activity remained in the house of my grand-parents. It was where that everyone stayed, and my memories of the apartment of my parents don’t come to me until I was seven years old. All glimpses of family time together go back to the house of my grand-dad, Sergei, a truly remarkable man, who was adored by everyone who had the chance to meet him. He was extremely kind, and extremely intelligent. His work was his passion and it was something that he would pass to my mum, an adored child, who was born rather late (my grand-mum was thirty-four when she gave birth), and who chose mathematics as her field, and soon was working on her PhD, right when I was born.

            When I was one, my grand-parents had to go to Kabul for a year at least, on one of the geology missions of my grand-dad, my mum was still working on her PhD, my dad was busy building his career as a lecturer in chemistry, and therefore, a nanny had to be hired to look after me. However, my other grand-mum, the mum of my dad, who was at that time in Moscow on a visit, offered to look after me, and after lengthy discussions, and uncertainty in taking such a drastic decision, it was decided at the end that it could be a good idea, and I was taken for two years to the Eastern Ukraine, to a small place near the town called Krasnadon, to be raised and looked after by my other grand-parents. It was where that I would end up spending also all my summers when I returned to Moscow, alternating between Krasnadon and a Cossack farm of my grand-parents, thirty minutes’ drive from Krasnadon, but which was situated in Russia (not that borders counted then), and thus, my upbringing was marked by being a born Moscovite from an elite family, but with love and longing for a quiet countryside at a beautiful farm and Ukraine, where people were friendlier, where life was simpler, and where everything tasted better and fresher.

Moscow: Summer 1976

In the summer of 1976, which proved to be uncharacteristically hot, Moscow stood still in its stability and relative quietness. Later, under the reign of Gorbatchev, this period would become known as the ‘’era of stagnation’’ but if you looked at people living in 1976, you certainly wouldn’t notice that something was terribly amiss. The shops, while with impressive queues outside, had most needed groceries, festive tables were full of food and vodka, and everyone had the right to free education, medical care, and nice pension. People were nicely dressed, modestly but with style, with men wearing suits and women walking about in pretty colourful dresses. Trousers and let alone, jeans, were not yet on the radar of women’s fashion, and so they would differentiate themselves through colours. If one looks at the pictures of Moscow in the summer 1976, one can see lots of pink, green and red variations among female dresses. The winter fashion was, however, awful, due to a lack of choices, but let’s stay for a moment in summer 1976, and stroll to the region of Jugo-Zapadnaya, translated with some difficulty as ‘’South-West’’, even if it didn’t incorporate the geographical area per se (although it was definitely situated at the south-west of Moscow) but was one of the most-sought after region located around an underground station of the same name. It was known as one of the dormitory areas, due to its architecture, with new buildings of sixteen floors that became popular at that time. The apartments were more spacious than tiny, grotesque constructions built under the earlier area of Krutchev, and their raison d’etre was a better thought enterprise than the buildings which had seen the light in the years fifties, resulting in weird spaces and suffocated corridors. The typical buildings of this awful construction had usually three bedrooms, but one of the bedrooms was, as a rule, at the end of the living room, hardly even separated from it, and those who slept there, had to wait for the whole household to be ready to sleep. The rooms were also small, and often didn’t make any sense.

However, in the sixties, there came a new wave of constructions that aimed at some modernization and a more careful consideration for people who would eventually end up living there, and huge buildings spread across sixteen floors started to see the light, mostly at the uptown area of Moscow. The underground station Jugo-Zapandaya was created in 1963, and shortly after, shiny but quite ugly blocks of the apartments followed. If one notices them now, while visiting Moscow, one might become shocked by the absence of any consideration for beauty: the building are truly ugly, but as a result, quite impressive in their simple dare to exist. They stand the matter of time, and are quite still popular among middle class, among all those who can’t afford any new apartments, but still want to live in the proximity of a more or less comfortable life. Not that the newly built buildings are any better. The perimeter of Moscow once outside of the centre, represents an absolutely awful sight nowadays, a true fruit of the new capitalistic ideology, where new constructions of stores much higher than sixteen, are spread all around, without any well-though plan behind.

The Jugo-Zapadnaya region soon became extremely fashionable among the citizens of Moscow, and was renown as one of the best areas to live. It takes forty minutes sharp to arrive to the closest underground station in the centre of Moscow, called ‘Park Kyltyri’, which is relatively nothing for the size of Moscow as a whole. If you live in Moscow, a drive of two hours each day to work and back, is the cumbersome reality that most Moscovites experience. It is huge, it is difficult to understand, and one has to be born there in order to enjoy a relatively nice life.

Jugo-Zapadnaya also had all nice facilities. Several universities were situated in its proximity, it had more green spaces than the rest of the city, shops were built around, and if one had a ‘dacha’, some sort of residential house, when it was also strategically located next to the highway. But the most prominent future of Jugo-Zapadnaya was that it had the illusion of space in the otherwise quite busy and suffocated city, and one could enjoy relative quietness and a feeling of rest if living there.

Several sixteen-floor buildings were built twenty minutes away by bus, and it soon became an area on its own, called 9-y micro district of Teplii Stan, translated as the region number 9 of Warm Camp, attached, however, officially to the bigger area of Jugo-Zapadnaya, because of the nearest underground station. This small area became a little gem of the Jugo-Zapadnaya perimeter, where Moscovites tried to get an apartment. Despite the ugliness of the sixteen-store buildings, the apartments were relatively spacious in comparison to what else was available, and the whole little area contained everything one needed for a good life. Several schools opened their doors, big grocery shop was created, and a park, known as ‘area of rest’ got built around a lake. Those who lived in the district, and it was especially popular among families, would stroll to the ‘area of rest’ at weekends. One could hire a boat to sail on the lake, and children could even swim in designated spots. All in all it was comfy and nice, a sort of a small village (albeit with tall buildings) in the middle of Moscow.

I was born there on 10th of July 1976

An unlikely financial analyst of banks

Back in my place I checked the name of the head of the company that Jeroen had written down for me and wrote a quick letter:
“Dear Mr. Wulf,
I am a very dedicated and committed person. To your company I could bring some new, creative ideas, and the knowledge of politics and European relations, which could be very helpful in financial matters. I am especially interested in macroeconomics.
Please, see my enclosed CV for more information about my background and contact information in case MoneyCare will need a person like me.”
I then went with a disk to the Internet shop to print the letter and my CV, then to the post office, and once back home decided to put it out of my mind. I was relatively frank in my letter, in terms of making it clear that I didn’t possess any knowledge in finances, and thus, didn’t expect any reply. My fate was unclear, and I remember that during that evening I went to the bank of the Amstel river to sit on a bench and stare at Amsterdam. There wasn’t much to see, since it is all flat, but I could feel the city responding in a way. The river Amstel with its boats, the beautiful century-old buildings, people on bikes commuting everywhere, the overly dramatic sky because of the flatness, – I could feel that there was more for me in this world to explore, and Amsterdam seemed like a right place to be for someone who was used to travel and wasn’t sure which was a correct path in life.
A week later I was invited to the interview by MoneyCare. I had no idea what the company could possibly offer me as a position, but I certainly became optimistic. Taking with me some diplomas, and a talisman left to me by my grandfather I went, for the first time, to the office of MoneyCare to meet Mr. Wulf, the head of the company.
The office of MoneyCare was situated not far from the business area of Amsterdam city, between a Turkish bank and a recruiting company. On top of the building the letters “MoneyCare” were greeting cars and passers-by on the pavement. During my ride on the underground to reach the Bijlmer station where MoneyCare was located, I was confronted for the first time with the other side of the city. The pretty canals and old buildings gave way to industrial constructions, and big huge buildings, dedicated to banks. It was an area I would certainly avoid under any other circumstances as it looked totally the opposite to why I had come to Amsterdam in the first place. I was attracted to its history and culture, but the numerous banking buildings I could see at the Bijlmer station were an indication of a life in the city where finances and big corporations ruled.
MoneyCare itself was spread across two floors in a five-storey building, and I had to press a button to get in. Inside, it looked like any corporate office, with bare walls, and minimum furniture, and I remember that I hesitated for a few seconds before proceeding to the reception on the first floor. It didn’t really appeal to me, the whole corporate allure around MoneyCare, but I reminded myself that I needed a job, and that an invitation to an interview was a promising gesture, even though I failed to see in which capacity I could ever be employed by a financial company.
At the reception a nice old lady showed me to Mr. Wulf’s office and said that he would arrive in a few minutes.
While waiting for the head of MoneyCare I had a look around the office. It was full of books, not all of them related to finances. Though on the table where I was sitting was a book quite related to finances which gave me a fright.
‘Alpha and Beta in investment decisions’ I read on the cover. I started to feel something resembling fear. I had no idea what alpha and beta could possibly mean in the context of finances.
What the hell was I doing in that room, I asked myself?
At that moment Mr. Wulf stormed into the office, armed with two cups of coffee, several books and a newspaper. Physically he had lots of grey curly hair, had a slightly mad and curious look on his face and at a more careful examination resembled Einstein.
He smiled at me, sat on the opposite chair and said, “I liked your application letter. Very brief and concise.”
I just nodded in return. My sincere hope was that Mr. Wulf wouldn’t ask me anything related to finances and send me home as soon as he realised that I couldn’t really tell the difference between macro and micro economics and that I was simply after a job…to have a job.
“So…” Mr. Wulf winked at me as if reading my mind, “what do you know about finances and why did you apply for a job at MoneyCare?”
Realising that I couldn’t possibly reply that finances were the last thing on my mind until recently, and that I applied for a job due to the lack of any other options, I tried my chance in talking bullshit.
“Well, Mr. Wulf,” I started, in what I judged as a confident voice, “to tell you the truth, my knowledge of finances is rather limited. But I’ve always been fascinated by this world. I mean, when you read some financial magazines, all this discussion about the alpha and beta of finances and macroeconomic developments. I always found it interesting and wanted to see how it is in practice, the world of finances.”
Okay, let’s pray now that he won’t ask me either about alpha, beta or macroeconomics, I told to myself.
“Hmm, interesting. I see that you studied languages and international relations. And you like reading… so what do you enjoy reading?”
This was rather an unexpected question for an interview, for a job in finances, but a good one. Since reading had always been my biggest passion, I surely could talk about it in a more relaxed manner than discussing… what was it again, alpha and beta in investment decisions.
“So, about reading,” I started in a confident voice and even attempted to take a sip from my cup of coffee. Well, not quite. My hand was trembling. Who manages to drink coffee during an interview, may I ask?
“I like all kinds of books, but especially French literature, also some Japanese. I am reading an author named Murakami now,” I said while putting back the cup. No coffee, after all.
As it turned out Mr. Wulf shared my love for books and we spent the next forty minutes discussing different styles of writing, Kafka and Marcel Proust. I was only hoping that Mr. Wulf wouldn’t go back to the topic of finances. However, after a while he came back to the financial issues and in a quite unexpected manner.
“Actually, what we are doing here, is a real Kafka,” Mr. Wulf looked at me trying to see if I got the point. I did not. Although I was familiar with the writings of the Czech author, I missed the connection between MoneyCare and the fiction of Franz Kafka.
Mr. Wulf tried to explain. Taking from the table a piece of paper he started to draw some schemes, explaining on the way the banking business. It was the first time that I got a definite feeling that Mr. Wulf was slightly mad.
“Banking business is quite a metamorphosis,” reiterated Mr. Wulf his fascination with Kafka. “Only a fool looks at figures and annual reports of banks. You have to dig deeper in order to understand the whole banking business. Read carefully newspapers from as many countries as possible and you don’t need to read anything else to make your investment decisions.”
Mr. Wulf then proceeded to draw some graphs and connecting his pictures to some of the banks and countries. On one picture he drew an elephant, while on the other he drew a rose.
I tried to hold on my face an intelligent, concentrated gaze, hoping that Mr. Wulf would have the impression that I was following his thinking process. Apparently, I succeeded, judging from what the boss of MoneyCare said next.
“We have an opening in our banking sector. We need an analyst to analyse banks. Would you be interested?”
Since Mr Wulf was looking at me with a serious expression, I could conclude that it wasn’t a joke. I glanced at my CV, which lay next to the admirer of Kafka wondering if he had read it at all.
“Of course, I understand that you have never studied finances but I think that you have big potential to become a good financial analyst. You are interested in politics, you like reading and I like your way of thinking”.
Okay, it must be the talisman of my grandfather, which is helping. Otherwise, I couldn’t see how else Mr. Wulf could spot my banking potential.
“You could start by analysing one or two banks, gradually building up your capacity, and after some time I expect you to be able to be responsible for one of our portfolios. Meanwhile, you could help us with improving our new internet system from the language point of view. You could begin by translating some texts from Dutch into English.”
I started to see the connection with Kafka. The situation was indeed surreal. And if one of the personages of the writer’s books woke up one day as an insect, I faced a serious possibility to wake up one day as a financial analyst of banks and a translator from a language which I didn’t even know.
“I don’t speak Dutch, Mr. Wulf.”
“I don’t think that it will be a problem. We introduced a new automatic translation system called Trados,” the head of MoneyCare winked at me as if this simple revelation should put me immediately at peace.
I sighed. With a degree in translation I knew what he was talking about (though I had a definite feeling that Mr. Wulf didn’t know what he was talking about).
“Mr. Wulf,” I tried to explain, “Trados is not an automatic translation system – it’s just a tool to assist the translator. One always has to know the language from which to translate.”
But my explanation seemed to be in vain. Mr. Wulf was definitely a person who believed in miracles.
“I am sure you will manage it,” he started his sentence to continue it in Dutch.
For a brief moment I just stared at Mr. Wulf. He was addressing me in Dutch as if simple will power or the power of his gaze was enough to convince me that I did speak Dutch.
But I didn’t.
Finally realising that I wasn’t lying when I said that I didn’t speak Dutch, Mr. Wulf switched back to English.
“Why not just give it a try? I am sure that with the help of Trados you will manage just fine!”
Mr. Wulf was clever. I was so relieved that we were back in the English mode of conversation that the idea of Trados didn’t seem so grotesque anymore.
“Well, I guess that I could indeed try,” I mumbled in a weak voice.
For Mr. Wulf this was a definite yes. He looked at me with a satisfied smile and saying that he would be back in two minutes, went out of the room. I stayed in my chair looking at the seagulls outside the window and wondering whether it all was real. Mr. Wulf seriously thought that I could work as a financial analyst of banks and translate from Dutch into English. I told myself that I had to reread Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka if I got the job.
The head of MoneyCare came back with a file.
“This is the standard contract we can offer you. We have only to put your name on it. Take it home, read it carefully and you can bring it with you on your first day at work. When can you start?”
Mr. Wulf gave me two pieces of paper. On the first one I could only understand the title “Financial analyst”, since it was all written in Dutch. But this was a definite proof that I wasn’t dreaming.
Later at home with the help of one of my Dutch friends I went through the whole contract. It was permanent with a trial period of three months. As my friend explained to me, I was extremely lucky. MoneyCare was providing a pension, a stable salary, forty hours of work per week and twenty-five days of holidays. And, most importantly, the company was willing to prove to the Dutch immigration authorities that I was an Einstein.

How I ended up living in Amsterdam (The Russian Patient)

It was in September 2001 that I became an unlikely financial analyst of banks in the beautiful city of Amsterdam. It was right before the September Eleventh took place and as the majority of the world population, I led a naïve, full of optimism life. I thought that everything was possible, that hope always prevailed, and that the world was full of kindness, compassion and love. This approach to life helped me to manage relatively well till then, only reinforced by the fact that a Dutch financial management company saw somehow a potential in me as a financial analyst with expertise in banks.

It was from the master in international relations and a degree in languages (obtained in Brussels) that I marched into my new destination in finances, and if not for the visa problem, I don’t think that I would ever consider this role if I were in the right state of mind. But as it was then, I wasn’t really thinking straight. My visa was due to expire in October, and if not for a job (any job), I would have to fly back to Russia, my native country from which I had exited at the age of nineteen to do my studies in Brussels. I was twenty-five years old in September 2001, living in Europe (albeit in two different countries) for good six years, and I thought I wanted to stay. It’s not like it was a really conscious choice on my part, but more as a badly deliberated spur on the moment decision: I liked Europe, or rather the idea of the Europe, there was nothing for me back in Russia, such as that no one really wanted me back, and I loved Amsterdam at that time. I had experienced it as a student till landing into my new job, and it was rather a pleasant experience. The beautiful canals, the rides on the boats, parties among other international students, picnics in the park, bikes, and lazy coffees, the city spoke to me of the delights found usually during a prolonged holiday. In my naivety I assumed that it would always remain the same, that life was indeed constantly beautiful and relaxed in the Dutch city, and I applied to that job, under the recommendation of the manager of my master degree.

The choice in finances was a hazard thing. Having reached the month of August I was out of options as how to stay in Europe, and contemplating the return flight to Russia, where I was simply scared to go back, I went to the boss of my master degree and asked him whether he could help me somehow. I had applied to some PhD positions during the summer, more related to my domain of knowledge, such as subjects in the field of humanities, but no one had replied back, and I was without a job, and soon without a visa. The problem to get a job was also due to the fact that any Dutch company willing to employ me, had to provide a proof that no one inside the whole European Union was up for the job.

My decision to stay in the Netherlands was also motivated by the desire to stay next to my mother, who happened to live in the country as well, married to a Dutch man, and working at a Dutch university, in the town of Twente, right at the border with Germany. We were an international family, this was an impression one could have of us, while in reality, I was feeling lost as to where I really belonged, and a job seemed like a good solution to my problems.

The manager of my master degree liked me for some reason. It was vague to me as to why. I had received a pass for the degree, which at some point got an accreditation similar to MBA, but I wasn’t the best student, was known to miss classes, and obtaining a pass was more due to luck rather than to hours spent on studies, and a serious motivation on my part. I had gone for the master degree because I had been offered a bursary, but I had already a master in international politics from the university of Brussels, and a year of study in Amsterdam turned out to be more of a chill year than anything else, or it was how I had approached it. I wasn’t really in need of an additional diploma, but it was attached to a nice bursary, in a nice city in Europe, and upon the instance of my mum, I had moved from Brussels and where I had been extremely happy, to another country within the European Union. And here I was: I had finished my studies without a proper idea as what to do next.

The manager of the master degree was a nice Dutch man, enthusiastic about the program and the students who often made jokes behind his back, simply because he was too present during the whole program, and acted more as a head-master rather than a manager. He wanted to know everything about his students, and pushed us sometimes too hard in terms of attendance and grades. But also in that respect he was more lenient with me than with others and didn’t chase after me when I wasn’t present during the lectures and seminars. In retrospect I wonder whether perhaps he fancied me, but this is a rather pretentious thought on my part and so, let’s just say that Jeroen was simply a very kind man.

‘’Well, I might actually know of a company that is looking for internationally-minded people like you. It is a financial management company…my dad runs it,’’ Jeroen added as an after-thought.

We were sitting in his office, in the beautiful building on Rokin street, right in the centre of Amsterdam. We were lucky to study in such a location, it was five minutes’ walk away from the Dam square, with its Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk, and almost across the Waterlooplein, my favourite place in the whole city, because it had the illusion of giving the whole town some dimension of space. Waterlooplein overlooks the Amstel river, with its beautiful boats, and proving some freshness to the overwise overcrowded city where people march on each other’s heads. But this aspect of living in Amsterdam I would notice much later, when I would try to integrate somehow into the Dutch way of life and realise at some point, that integration was rather difficult in the city ruled by tourists.

I was in oblivion though when I was sitting in the office of Jeroen. At that moment I rather liked Amsterdam and it appealed to me, because the city itself is, of course, very beautiful, everyone speaks English, and it’s one of the most popular tourist destination. Living there as a local and employee of a Dutch company entailed, obviously, a different style of life than what I had encountered till then, but this I would discover only later.

‘’But I don’t really know anything about finances?’’ I replied to Jeroen, while still holding some hope. The company of Jeroen’s dad was rather renowned among master’s students. Some very lucky of us had gotten a job there under the recommendation of Jeroen, including one of my friends, Lena, another Russian girl who had also won a bursary, but they all had at least some background in finances, while I was a total novice in the field. Lena had also finished the master with the greatest distinction and had scored high in economics, I, however, had passed the economics, after spending three hours in total to prepare for the exam, but promptly forgot what it was about right after I had handed in my written assignment. I got six for it out of ten, a bare minimum pass.

‘’Well, you can apply and see what happens,’’ Jeroen continued, taking a sip from his coffee, and glancing at the window overlooking Rokin, and I could catch a feeling of sadness and nostalgia in his eyes. Later Jeroen got a job at the Dutch foreign mission at one of the Caribbean islands, and I think I know now why he looked slightly sad and perhaps even lost in the Dutch city, even if by all means, we were at its central position, and for all those not knowing any better, we could even represent an object of envy. After all we were in the middle of Europe, among the most picturesque canals, surrounded by amazing architecture and where the economy was prosperous and strong. But as we all know, appearances can be deceptive, as we can all witness now when we look at lives of our friends on Facebook. It can appear as pinky and rosy to the outside world, while in reality the person posting glorious pictures on online social networks, can suffer from depression and profound unhappiness. This contrast between what we project from exterior and the life in reality would become apparent to me when I started to work for a Dutch company in the role of a financial analyst of banks.

Jeroen wrote for me the name of his dad’s company, and I left his office and the Rokin to proceed to my place of residence, a rather weird apartment in the south of the city that I was renting at a good price from the commercial representation of Russia in the Netherlands. A friend of mine, another master student had rented the place before me, and I got it from her when she decided to relocate to the centre. The commercial representation had two locations, one in the south and another in the middle of the Museumplein, overlooking the Rijksmuseum, and Natalia was lucky to get one of their appartments in one of the most beautiful and sought after places in Amsterdam. I got her previous place, which was on a small street at the end of President Kennedylaan. It was fifteen minutes by bike from the centre, not far from the river Amstel, and is currently one of the most sought residential areas in Amsterdam. At that time it appeared to me as in the middle of nowhere, but places to rent were hard to find in the city, and I was lucky to get it, even if it came with some ridiculous rules attached. Since it was a residence of the official commercial representation of Russia, I wasn’t allowed to invite any foreigners inside, and had to notify the head of the mission, who was living in the apartment next to mine, if I planned to invite any Russian inside our apartment complex. After one month of living there, I realised, however, that I was too young to follow such strict rules, and promptly disregarded them. If other inhabitants noticed that I started to have friends around, they didn’t say anything, and all in all, it was a relatively quiet place to live, where I had one bedroom, and a big living room with a terrace – an absolute top of luxury for Amsterdam’s standards.

But so, the job. How I became a financial analyst of banks without any knowledge in finances, I will tell you about this narrative in my next post.

(Picture found on Lonely Planet)

Modern Holy Fool (Holy-Foolishness in Russian Culture: Part Three)

The image of a Holy Fool (read about who is Holy Fool here and here) found its new popularity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons is, of course, the recognition of Russian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion, but also the collapse of the beliefs of the socialist regime, when the country as a whole found herself in a momentary chaos, becoming, one can argue, a prototype for holy foolishness as a search for meaning.
The holy fool found a renewed interest in Christian studies, but also in academia. However, it is in the popular forms of media, such as films and even music that the holy-fool found a new ‘fame’, he came back to be yet again a spiritual hero, but he also acquired a new angle, the one of controversy in terms of his ‘madness’. What does lie behind his madness? And can we call someone mad, individually speaking, when the whole society can be considered as mad, especially if we look at what was happening in Russia since the late eighties of the last century? The old regime collapsed, reversing the ideology of communism to the ideology of capitalism in a matter of a couple of years. Old government structures were sold as vouchers to the Russian population, to be immediately bought back by those running these companies for a penny, because the population was suddenly starving, making them oligarchs. Shops got empty, there was shortage of food and clothes, and a total disarray in terms of a spiritual direction of the nation. While Russian Orthodox churches were emerging from their oblivion, Tarot readers and palm readers would sit in their proximity and promise the passers-by some hope for a better life. Hypnotist Kashpirovsky got a prime spot on the TV to hypnotize an entire nation, feeding tales from the national TV in 1989.
It was absolute and total madness, and it found its way into popular art, where painters, artists, and film-makers, would resort to the character of a holy fool to make sense of something which didn’t make any sense.
Russia is often referred to by Russians themselves as a country of fools, and the changes that the country witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, could be delegated firmly in the domain of total madness, where the only way to show the light at the end of the tunnel, was to resort to laughter and the grotesque, as a way to manage the deep spiritual malaise. As Heller and Volkova ask, in relation to the fascination of Russian culture with holy-foolishness: “A question arises: is there something deep inside the Russian mentality that correlates with the state of insanity?” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153) Some changes that Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Russians at a loss, where they were asked to adjust to a new ideology, new beliefs and new rules, and the popular art showed us the difficulty of the transition, by resorting to holy-foolishness and the character of a holy-fool in order to negotiate the incomprehension and deep spiritual uncertainty that the country and her people experienced then.
During the years of Perestroika, the image of holy-fool became the one of a dissident, adopting the weird behaviour of holy-fool to show the plight of many individuals who struggled to adapt to the changes in Russia on an economic and political levels. We can see this theme clearly in Taxi-Blues by Pavel Lungin, a film which was released in 1990, and which portrays us the reality of Russia at that time.
The film focusses on the life of two protagonists, a taxi-driver, Shlykov, and Lyosha (played by Pyotr Mamonov), a saxophonist. They meet on a ride in a taxi, when Shlykov takes Lyosha and his friends as passengers, but Lyosha doesn’t pay for the ride, after which Shlykov manages to track him down. Both characters then develop a truly bizarre friendship, which becomes a main story on the background of the madness of the country then.
The madness of that time starts from the beginning of the movie. The hypnotist Kashpirovsky greets us on the screen, by delivering his slogan promise: ‘Everything will be calm’. It immediately shows us the absurdity of that times, when ordinary people couldn’t find work, when hard-core communists quickly established their new capitalistic businesses, and when, in the ultimate feat of total absurdity, Mikhail Gorbatchev abolished alcohol, driving many Russians to either create a black market, or resort to the home production of alcohol. Kashpirovsky was put on the national TV in order to try to calm the nation down.
The lives of the two main characters show us how ordinary people managed life at that time. Thus, Shlykov, as it appears, adapted better to the new changes, by working hard as a taxi-driver. He has a room in an apartment, a girlfriend, can afford nice food, and from exterior it looks like a good life. Only by watching the narrative do we discover that he is not really happy in himself, that he doesn’t have many friends, that he struggles to find the spiritual meaning in life. And the aim of the film is also to show that all those who just continued hard-work couldn’t dream of acquiring the same richness that nouveu riches managed to accumulate. Hard-work and integrity were all the values that became suddenly obsolete, not cool and not needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lyosha, the saxophonist by profession, refused to adjust. He just goes with the flow. Despite the fact that saxophonists are nor longer needed and struggle to find any employment, Lyosha refuses to change anything, and gets by, by either singing on the streets, or by pure luck, such as meeting Shlykov in a difficult moment in his life and being helped by him. And while Shlykov helps Lyosha on a material level, Lyosha gives Shlykov a new spiritual meaning, found in laughter, unpredictability, and love of grotesque. Lyosha reminds Shlykov to sometimes let go, do something unexpected, believe in the fate.
The character of Lyosha, played by Pyotr Mamonov is often compared to that of a holy fool, but transformed into a modern version of it. We can disagree, however, with that meaning, because while during the whole narrative, Lyosha does exhibit all the characteristics of a holy fool, he fails in the end of the movie to fulfil the ultimate obligation of giving. Lyosha meets a famous American saxophonist at some point, and gets an opportunity to perform in the United States, which re-launches his musical career. Shlykov watches the newly found fame of his friend from a distance, and is desperate to see Lyosha again. He misses the playfulness and cheerfulness of his friend, and he doesn’t understand why Lyosha fails to come and see him when he is back in Moscow. Eventually when Lyosha comes to see him, he brings with him a band of new friends and absurd presents, such as a big doll. We can see that he breaks the heart of Shlykov and lets his old friend down.
But while one can argue whether Lyosha can be compared to the character of a holy-fool, it is the narrative itself that is representative of holy-foolishness positioned at the fall of the Soviet Union. The film shows us how the modern world changed to the worst, where the goodness of character, kindness and empathy are replaced by greediness, strive for material goods, and desire to become famous. It is the story itself that leads us to ask the eternal spiritual questions: but what is the meaning of life if one is lost completely in the material side of it? Should we remain humble even if we get further in life, and still remember those who helped us at the most difficult part of our journey? Shouldn’t we cherish friendship and simple things in life, such as sharing warm soup with friends, laugh even when life is difficult, appreciate people rather than goods?
It is in his next movie, The Island that Lungin returns to the question of deep spiritual meaning. The Island appeared in 2006, quite a few years later after Taxi-Blues. In it we see a story of a modern fictional Russian orthodox monk, played yet again by Pyotr Mamonov.
It starts during the second world war, when sailor Anatoly and his captain, Tikhon are ambushed by the Germans, somewhere at the shore of the white sea. As a grotesque joke, the Germans present Anatoly with a choice: either to shoot Tikhon and live, or die. Anatoly shoots Tikhon after which the Germans blow up the ship.
Anatoly survives and is rescued by the monks from a local monastery, where he stays. It is many years later that the new life of Anatoly is presented to us. He works as a stoker at the monastery and acts as a local ‘wise’ man. It is to him that ordinary people come for advice, prayer and also in order to heal.
The parallels with the holy-fool are much more striking in The Island. Anatoly is a deeply spiritual man, who constantly prays to God. He has a gift of a prophet and of a healer. He sees the future and can predict it. He gives wise advice. At the same time, his behaviour is extremely weird. He rarely washes his face, makes fun of the monks, is always late for the Church services, where he shows up in a truly bizarre attire, one day marching with one foot in a boot, another dressed in a sock.
But while watching the character, we can’t help but fall in love with him and his way of thinking and doing. His faith in God is so beautiful and sincere, that the viewer hopes that he will be forgiven for his ultimate sin. And we are relieved indeed when right before his death (that Anatoly foresees himself several days in advance, by organising his own coffin), we learn that Tikhon had survived. He brings his daughter to see the remote monk due to rumours of his healing gift, and meets Anatoly. Anatoly reassures Tikhon that his daughter is not mad but is possessed by a demon, preforms exorcise, after which she is healed. After that Anatoly tells Tikhon who he is, but Tikhon tells him that he was only wounded in the arm, and that he had forgiven him.
The movie, while basing the character of Anatoly on holy-fool, presents us a different façade of holy-foolishness than the one we have seen in ‘Taxi-Blues’. It reaches a deeper spiritual meaning where we are confronted with the true meaning of holy-foolishness: one has to have faith in God and Jesus, and then and only then, one can become a holy-fool, while renouncing also worldly conventions and material aspects of things. It also shows us Russia as it changed in the years after the turmoil of the uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It became quieter in its own spiritual search, firmly embracing Christianity, and by going back to its roots preceding the revolution. The country might still experience turmoil at a political level, but spiritually, it found a new meaning.

Holy Fool in Russian literature and art (Holy-Foolishness in Russian culture: part two)

The Holy Fool, to remind you (please, refer to part one), was a person who became mad for the sake of Christ. It was a well-known, recognized phenomenon in the old Russia. It was a man or a woman who would often wander the streets of old Rus and remind people to live their lives based in Christian values. They would often appear as ‘mad’, as ‘insane’, but several of these Holy Fools were recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as saints, with one of the most famous Holy Fool being Saint Vasilii the Blessed. It was after him that the most famous Russian Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil) was named.

From the beginning the character of the Holy Fool has fascinated Russian writers and we can find this personage in several writing and also paintings. Behind it, is the interest in the unexplainable, in the grotesque, in the spiritual domain, but where things always remain mysterious. It is the fascination with unpredictability, as long as good outweighs the evil, Russian people have been driven to explore the human soul, and the human misery, throughout the history, which can be seen in literature and art.

For example, Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), based his character in ‘Deathless Golovan’ on holy-fool, where the main protagonist is a simple man who takes care of those affected by a plague, despite danger for his own health. He also gives milk to a Jewish man, stupefying his neighbours. In his other writing, ‘Singlethought’ (1879), the main character, a police officer based in a provincial town, becomes slightly ‘mad’ after reading scriptures of the Bible. The reading has such a profound impact on him, that he starts to behave strangely, such as refusing bribes and gifts at his job, as was the custom then. The story highlighted the corruption of the power at that time, but also raised the more important spiritual questions. Who is really a fool here? A simple man who refuses to be corrupted, or the society as such, driven by corruption? And shouldn’t we rather abide by Christian, moral values in our daily life? As in holy-foolishness, the story also contains many grotesque, ‘hilarious’ moments, such as then Ryzhov, the main character, forces the mean Governor of the town to bow in front of the icons in the Church.

Other Russian writers explored the theme of ‘holy-foolishness’ either basing their character directly on holy-fool, or by building a story around the theme of holy-foolishness, where madness always takes on an additional meaning. It is never an ‘illness’, but something deeper, a battle of one’s soul, where the hero, while being ‘mad’, is more connected with God and spiritual aspects of life, than the laypeople, preoccupied with the material sides of things. Gorki explored the theme in ‘A Confession’, Chekov built his short story ‘Ward No. 6’ around holy-foolishness, where both protagonists, a long-time staying psychiatric inmate and his treating psychiatrist share remarkable traits with holy-fools, but also Bulgakov, it can be argued, based his ‘Master and Margarita’ on the motifs of holy-foolishness. The main character, the master, who ends up disillusioned by this world, is a modern ‘holy fool’, but unlike in the Moscovite Rus, he has problems to adjust and adapt to the requirements of the modern world, which in the Soviet Union, was characterised by omnipresent bureaucracy, corruption, ridiculous rules, and greediness, despite the fact that one of the slogans of the socialist regime was an equal society. The story of the Master runs in parallel with the story of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), and some obvious conclusions can be drawn from the novel. There is a deep spiritual need nascent in all humanity, but it is often compromised by scepticism and inability to think outside the box, because of being under too much influence of materialistic world. Many ridiculous, hilarious scenes in the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov draw a direct parallel with the weirdness and ‘laughter’ of holy-fools.

The image of Holy Fool can be also encountered in numerous paintings, where painters depicted the fascination and also certain reverence towards the character. He can be seen on numerous paintings of Nesterov, and also Syrikov, showing his firm place among laypeople, and not just being a character of Christian writings.

For a Russian culture, the holy fool has a deep meaning. It shows the possibilities of a spiritual domain, reinforces one’s faith, and reassures one that good will always outweigh the evil. Thus, the character of Holy Fool is deeply embedded in Russian culture and tradition.

A God’s Fool Sitting on the Snow, by Vasily Surikov, 1885)

J’adore la langue franҫaise

You need to fall in love with a language in order to master it and to have the desire to speak it fluently.
I fell in love with the French language when I was thirteen, and living in Moscow. I was attending a linguistic college, but I was more interested in socializing rather than studying.
But then one day I met a new teacher. My mum sent me to her. It was a private tutor. I liked her as soon as I saw her. She opened the door to a very messy apartment, full of dogs, books, and all kinds of rubbish.
She sat me on the chair, and produced a cake, and then she started to talk to me, in French.
“I lived in Montpellier,” she told me. “I lived there for seven years. It was a town of magic, not far from the sea, with different colours, interesting people, and great food.”
I thought I couldn’t understand French before I met my new teacher, but when she was talking, I could follow her. Maybe it was the way she was describing Montpellier, or maybe it was her cake. It was delicious, and I liked being in her cosy apartment. Everywhere I looked, there was stuff. Pictures, candles, interesting books, some antique, two beautiful dogs.
I fell in love with the French language during my first lesson with her.
And this love stayed. When you fall in love with a language, you enter into a parallel universe. You enter into the field of that language, the magic of its particular music. 
When I speak French, I am a different person. I am more romantic, I am shyer, I discuss random things: books, music, philosophy, Russia. I start thinking in French when I speak it, and I like the sound of it in my own head. The voices I hear are in French. They sing to me a very beautiful music.
French language is a language of music. If I would assign a piano concerto to it in its quiet mood, it would be Chopin Nocturne op.9 No.2, and something like Stromae (incredible Belgian singer) in expressing the language when one wants to dance.
Pourquoi pas?
I see the colour blue in French, just like in that movie (Les trois Couleurs: Bleu) with beautiful Juliette Binoche. I see the beauty of Sophie Marceau, la Tour Eiffel, Le Louvre, and the philosophy of Michel Foucault. I see my favourite writer, Amelie Nothomb, and the town which I love the most, Brussels. I see the marvel of my favourite painters, the impressionists. I hear prefect French when I listen to Zazie.
The French language is like a flower, it is delicate, it is fragile. One needs to approach it with care. When I first came to Brussels to study, at the age of nineteen, I remained silent for the first six months. I started to talk only when I judged that my French was perfect enough to start self-expressing. French is the sound of love, it is the sound of romantic adventures, of people who love discussing serious things, who love great food, good wine, and self-criticism.
La langue franҫaise est une langue d’amour. (French is the language of love)

I love the French language. J’ adore la langue franҫaise.